I have to admit, a feast looks very different as the honoree.
Before, feast days meant panic. The Jarl declared a feast, then we servants worked double-time to put it together. We served the food, poured the mead, and cleaned up afterwards—to a thrall, a feast day is simply a time when we work even harder.
The feast after my defeat of Thyge Jormundson felt very different. Jarl Magnus seated me at his left hand, on the small dais. I ate roast hog hot off the fire instead of scavenging for cold, greasy scraps afterward. Fresh bread smeared in butter, potatoes roasted with a bit of actual salt, and hard, white cheese overflowed my trencher.
A part of me felt guilty. I knew thralls were working double-time for this. I knew how hot it got in the kitchen, how exhausting moving food to the table and keeping the horns full of mead became. I knew, firsthand, this celebration created more toil for those I’d served side-by-side with.
On the other hand, the food hit my palate like the sparks from Thor’s anvil. Rich, fresh food after a slave’s diet. I couldn’t help enjoying it, reveling in the sensation of bite after bite.
I’d poured mead often. I’d even helped craft it a time or two, though the apiaries were never in my keeping. I’d slipped a taste, here and there, but being given an entire horn of the sweet, thick liquid came as a sublime luxury I’d never had.
Before I could drink any of it, though, Harald rose and lifted his own.
“To Aelfwyn Anklesbane!” he said. “She who defeated the giant Thyge with nothing but a seax! A serving-girl of Skalmarnes is greater than the greatest warrior elsewhere! Skol!”
“Skol!” came the responding shout, and the Danes in the room all raised their horns, then looked at me.
I blinked, looking at them. I didn’t understand, for a moment, then flushed. Of course. I stood from my own seat, raised my horn, and shouted back, “Skol!”
And then I drank. The sweetness hit my tongue and filled my mouth. I lifted my horn and drank deeply, letting the honeywine blaze its sugary trail down my throat. Then, as I lowered the horn from my lips, I looked out at the room.
Some still drank, but those that weren’t looked to me. As the others finished, the thralls made their way through the room, refilling horns. The room grew quiet, waiting on me. Gods, they wanted me to make a toast.
I hadn’t felt fear when a Viking longship slid up on the shore of my home village. I hadn’t felt fear when, on the voyage into captivity, Thor had beaten hard on his anvil, driving the sea to high waves in a lightning storm. I didn’t feel fear when stepping into the hazel-staves to face the giant Thyge.
But I felt fear with a room full of Norsemen staring at me, waiting for me to toast. All of them expectant. My eyes scanned the room…and then I saw Erik.
He was smirking at me. I bit my lower lip. He knew how terrified I was, and the little bastard was enjoying it.
I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out at my Jarl’s son in front of the Jarl and the assembled village of Skalmarnes.
But another idea struck me, and I looked back out to the crowd. I lifted my mead-horn high, and said in a loud, clear voice. “To Erik Magnusson! Erik the Clever! Erik Sharptongue I name him, he who cut Thyge Jorumdsson low with his words before ever I had need of steel! It was Erik who knew, when all doubted, that my blade would find its home in Jormundsson’s heart. To Erik Sharptongue! Skol!”
The “Skol!” that responded to my toast reverberated through the mead hall, accompanied by cheers and smiles. Erik’s smirk turned into a genuine laugh as I turned the tables on him. Then I looked to Jarl Magnus, who nodded at me appreciatively for sharing the credit with his son.
The toasts continued. We toasted Harald, who all agreed would undoubtedly have defeated Thyge in a fair contest—regardless of the truth of the matter. We toasted the Gods, that they’d seen fit to decide the matter in our favor. We toasted for fair weather on next spring’s raids. We toasted Jarl Magnus, for wisely leading us to prosperity.
As the last of the guests stumbled out to the street for the night, I rose from my chair rather shakily. My head felt warm and fuzzy from all the mead, and I bowed—barely keeping myself upright—to the Jarl.
“I believe it’s time for me to bid my own goodnight. Thank you, my Jarl, for this feast, and for believing in me.”
Jarl Magnus and Erik had been through just as many horns of mead as me, at this point. The Jarl looked at me and said, “I didn’t. I thought the matter lost. But I’d agreed to let ‘Sharptongue’ here handle the matter. And handle it he did.” The Jarl chuckled, shaking his head with a wry grin. “Now instead of losing a thrall, I’ve gained a karl.”
I smiled at the Jarl, bowed again, then stumbled, regained my footing, and turned towards the exit.
“Where are you going?” asked Erik in an amused voice.
“To bed,” I said.
“Would you refuse the Jarl’s hospitality?” asked Erik, a hint of mockery in his voice.
“What?” I asked. “I—I sleep in the—” Then it hit me. The thralls slept in the barn with the animals. A karl who’d accepted the Jarl’s hospitality slept in the Hall. “…oh,” I said weakly.
Both Erik and his father erupted in laughter, and I blushed more furiously. They were enjoying this, the both of them.
Erik stood—a bit shakily himself—and offered me his hand. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll show you to your room.”
I took his hand and got a silly little smile as I felt the warmth of his hand enveloping mine. I caught the Jarl looking at the two of us, and his face had sobered somewhat. His eyes went cold and calculating, but he said nothing.
Erik led me to a small chamber. It wasn’t much, just a little room with a small straw-stuffed mattress, some woolen blankets, and a night-table with a candle atop it. More comfort than I’d seen in years.
We stood in the doorway, and I grinned stupidly, my drunken brain exuberant with all that had happened.
“I’m so glad you’re still alive,” said Erik next to me, and I turned to him. “Gods, I hoped, I knew it was your best chance, but I still feared I’d see you killed before me. And here you are, alive. Victorious. I just…I want you to know how…”
I couldn’t help it. Blame the fact that he looked so relieved to have me alive. That he cared. Blame so much mead. Blame the memory of that night he lay atop me, our bodies pressed together. But in that moment, I didn’t stop myself from doing what I longed to do.
And so I leaned into him, and brought my lips to his.