I had to stand on the tips of my toes to kiss him.
I almost fell over doing it. My mead-soaked mind swam, my heart raced, and I had to catch myself before I simply collapsed into Erik. He reached out and caught me, his hands clutching me tight.
I pressed my lips to his with hunger. I hadn’t thought about his body pressed against mine since the Fagradalr longship had interrupted us with its oar-drums. But now—now that I’d survived my duel with Thyge, now that I wasn’t his thrall, now that we’d won and were drunk and happy to be alive—now those feeling rushed back through me.
He recoiled, at first—just a little flinch before he held still. Then his arms wrapped about my waist, pulling me closer as he kissed me back. His lips still carried the sweetness of that night’s mead, and they fervently sought mine. I pressed into him, thin layers of wool and linen the only thing separating our bodies.
Gods, but I wanted him then. My hands traced his sides, his back, feeling his body. His own hands pressed into the small of my back, drawing me so close I could feel the heat from his body on my skin.
And that’s when we heard the cough. A loud cough—the sort of cough one coughs when one does not have to cough. The sort of cough that’s designed to catch attention, to force awareness of one’s presence.
I stepped away from Erik, smoothing my shirt. He did the same. Both our faces were red and flushed from more than the mead, but we turned to look.
Harald—the old warrior—stood in the hall, looking at the two of us with an amused eye. “Finally got around to making use of your thrall, lad?” he said in jest. “But she’s not a thrall, anymore. She’s a karl, now.”
Erik looked at him and his eyes widened slightly, then he nodded to the old warrior. “Of course. Good night, Aelfwyn. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I didn’t want to let him go. I wanted to cling to him, to grab for his hand, to keep him with me and kiss him again. But he stepped back, and I let him walk down the hall, towards his own room.
I wheeled on Harald. “Why?” I demanded.
I shouldn’t have. Even as a karl, Harald outranked me. He stood thane to Jarl Magnus himself, acknowledged as the best warrior in Skalmarnes. But I’d drunk too much, and he’d sent Erik away, so—I didn’t contain myself well. I glared at the big warrior.
He stared at me, then. We locked eyes, my anger against his calm resolve…and anger almost always loses that fight. I looked away, and he smiled. “We should talk,” he said. “May I come in?”
I nodded, inviting him into my room. We sat on the side of my bed—not the Norseman I wanted sharing my bed at the moment. I tried not to look surly about the whole thing, but I’m pretty sure I failed.
“There’s things you should know, now you’re a karl,” said Harald. “As a thrall, you had tasks—things to do. As a karl, you’re responsible for yourself. A free woman.”
I nodded. “I know that,” I said.
“But you don’t know what that means,” said Harald. “As a thrall, if Erik were to get you with child, Jarl Magnus could have simply sold the child off. As a karl, though, your child would be a karl—and the child of our future Jarl.”
“And?” I asked.
“And that hurts Erik’s prospects. We’re relatively small—Fagradalr’s not the only village that’ll be looking to take what’s ours, just the nearest. The skalds are writing stories of your victory to gain the respect of the other villages. They’ll sing of the serving-girl who slew the giant, of how strong the rest of us must be if a mere serving girl could do that?”
“So?” I asked. “What does—”
“Because here, in this room? You and I know you were lucky. Thyge got stupid in the ring. He saw a serving-girl, not someone trained. You played on that. Let him see weakness. He let his guard down, and you took advantage.”
“You did,” Harald said firmly. “And you were right to. It’s the only move that could have saved you. It was well done—in fact, all this talk of the Gods takes credit from you. I’m guessing you’ve been the reason for Erik’s improvement, these last few years?”
I flushed. “I—”
“Don’t answer that,” he said, cutting me off. “Officially, I don’t want to know. But the fact is—we both know that just because a serving girl of Skalmarnes defeated Thyge Jormundsson doesn’t mean I would have. There’s not a warrior in the village that would have fared well against Thyge, and we all know it. What the skalds will sing is little more than hollow boasts.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, not really sure what I was meant to say. “You’re right, I just—”
“You still don’t understand,” said Harald, continuing to cut me off. “What I mean is, we’ve got a brief window here where we look stronger than we are. And that’s a really, really good time to make alliances. Jarl Magnus knows that—so does Erik. On one side, we’ve Fagradalr—but on the other, there’s Kuoafljot. Kuoafljot has one of the best fishing fleets around. They raid long and far. There’s much wealth there, and they’re just slightly larger than us.”
I nodded. “I’ve heard the name before,” I said. “So, Jarl Magnus wants to seek an alliance with Kuoafljot?”
“He does,” said Harald. “They’ve been hesitant, though. But these stories—this reputation we’re going to gain—it might be enough to push them over the edge. And the Jarl of Kuoafljot has two sons—but also one daughter. Roughly your age,” he added.
Roughly Erik’s age, I thought. “Oh,” I said.
He smiled to me, the sad little smile he’d given me as he tossed me into the longship as a child.
“Yes,” he said. “Erik puts a child in you, and marrying him off for alliance with Kuoafljot becomes difficult. His heir would seal the ties between both villages, done right—but if you’re carrying his heir first, well…that alliance gets a lot less attractive.”
“But—” I said, although I didn’t have much to follow it up with. “But I’m free, now.”
He nodded. “You are. Karls are free to do as they choose.” Then he took a deep breath and looked out the hallway, towards where Erik had fled to his own room. “Jarls, though—the good ones, anyways—they are not.”