By the time Jormund’s longship finally pulled onto Skalmarnes’ rocky beach, Erik and I had returned. The general frenetic crowd of villagers milling about to get a view of these newcomers allowed the two of us to slip in unnoticed. I followed Erik, hidden in my role as his thrall and servant, and tried desperately to forget the feel of his body against mine.
Tried, but failed.
As I watched the foreign longship pull itself onto the beach, my breath caught for a moment. I remembered Strongricsstead burning, remembered the crackling flame and the screams of those I knew and loved, and waited for a reprise.
The warriors from the longship did not immediately attack, though. And Harald’s men faced them, ready to form a shield-wall if needed.
As I watched, a massive young man leapt from their longship. He wore rich furs and purple-dyed wool, more fine that any of the others, and he waved a hand at his warriors. “Peace, now,” he said, then looked at the crowd, chin lifted high in a haughty pose. “Jarl Magnus! I have come to speak with Jarl Magnus!”
“Speak, then,” came the Jarl’s voice. “Speak, Thyge Jormundsson. Why do you come to Skalmarnes in a raiding ship, and why is your dragon affixed?”
The giant—Thyge, Magnus had called him—smiled. “Because we have cause for dispute,” he said. “Skalmarnes has been grazing its herds on the high meadow past the ridgeline. That territory is claimed by Fagradalr. It is wrong that Skalmarnes grazes its herds there. I have come to ask for the respect of Jarl Magnus in restricting this theft.”
A hush fell on the crowd, and with good reason. That meadow had the best grazing in the fjord. I’d moved our livestock up to the meadow several times, over the years. I’d never seen anyone there from Fagradalr—what was this man on about?
Jarl Magnus did not fall silent. He burst into laughter. “Thyge Jormundsson. You sail into my village to make a jest? That meadow belongs to Skalmarnes since before my grandfather’s time. You know this. I know this.”
“Ah,” said Thyge, shaking his head. “Perhaps that was true. But Skalmarnes is nowhere near the size of Fagradalr, is it? Not nearly as many men, and only a single longship with which to raid. It is only right that the meadow belong to those who can use it best.”
Magnus’ voice went as cold as the glacier’s ice. “I do not agree. If your Jarl wishes to discuss this, then we should do so at the Thing.”
“No need of that,” said Thyge, that arrogant smile on his face. “There’s ways other than a Thing to solve a dispute.”
“You’d attack us?” asked Magnus. “Tell me, what of Horik the Younger, then? Do you think our King would look so favorably on you and your father if you begin a war in his lands?”
Thyge shook his head, his smile that of a predator. “Of course not,” he said. “Fagradalr and Skalmarnes are at peace. A matter this simple need not lead to battle between us. We should save our strength for the Franks and the Saxons. No—let us settle this matter in the Holmgang. Fagradalr sends me to challenge whichever warrior you would choose. The gods will show us the right of it.”
Magnus’ face froze. Thyge loomed, hulking over all the other warriors—both from Fagradalr and our own. The man was massively built, and the axe at his hip had been forged to take advantage of his strength. Magnus hesitated—and then another voice spoke up.
“Father!” said Erik from next to me, and my heart skipped a beat. “Fagradalr sends its Jarlsson to issue this challenge. I ask respectfully that Skalmarnes respond from the lips of its own Jarlsson. The gods will see balance in this.” He thumped his own chest as he spoke, directing all the attention onto himself.
Magnus looked to his son with a perplexed expression. What passed between the two of them I cannot say. They locked eyes for a long while before Magnus said. “Very well, Erik. Give the answer to Thyge you think best.”
Erik smiled, then winked at me. “A better chance than this you’ll never get,” he whispered before raising his voice.
“Thyge!” Erik cried. “It strikes me as great foolishness that Fagradalr would challenge Skalmarnes to the Holmgang. In battle, perhaps your numbers would prevail. But have you not heard of the valor of the warriors of Skalamanes? Do you not know the people whom you have challenged?”
Thyge returned this boast with an even colder smile. The massive man knew his strength, and felt no fear. That didn’t stop Erik from continuing.
“You’ve asked for us to pick someone to stand against you. Against you.” Erik scoffed, then speaking as though explaining something to a young child. “As though this presents a true challenge. I could draw lots of all the warriors here. Against none of them would you leave the hazel-sticks alive. It hardly seems fair to accept and send one of our warriors in to butcher you like a piece of livestock.”
“Your hollow boasts cannot cover your cowardice,” said Thyge in an icy voice. “You seek to avoid the Holmgang by mocking me.”
“Not at all!” said Erik with a little grin of his own. “Not at all. Actually, on behalf of Skalamarnes, I have no problem sending one of ours to contest with you. I just think it should be a fair contest.”
Thyge looked confused by this. Even I had a hard time predicting what course Erik would take. That said, Erik spoke with such a jaunty, boasting tone that I couldn’t help but smile at him. How he’d back up that level of confidence, I’d no idea…but he kept setting the barb into the big man.
“Fine,” said Thyge. “Name your warrior, then.”
Erik made a show of this. He walked up to Harald, looked him over, and shook his head. “You’d have his head off on the first blow,” he said to his instructor. Harald looked at his student with an expression caught halfway between amusement and anger, like a parent watching their child wreak adorable havoc.
Erik continued down the line of his warriors, dramatically rejecting each one as far too strong to fight Thyge. Once he’d reached the end, he turned back to the now-fuming human wall of muscle. “I have a thought,” Erik said.
“What now?” Thyge snapped, any veneer of patience visibly gone. Erik’s little performance had turned his cheeks red, and his fists at his sides began to clench and unclench.
“Well, since all of my warriors would so quickly overpower you, I can’t name one of them, can I? I need someone more your speed, lest the Gods punish me for taking advantage of your stupidity, issuing this challenge.”
And then, Erik turned to me. And I knew. I figured it out only a moment before he said it, but it was enough time for an icy chill to shoot straight through my spine, freezing me and opening my eyes wide.
“You can fight my serving-thrall, Aelfwyn,” Erik said in an offhand manner, then waved a dismissive hand. “We’ll set the hazels in the three days. Our hospitality is yours until then,” he said with that’s-that finality. Then he turned his back on the flabbergasted Thyge and sent me a grin.
I responded with a blank, shocked stare.
In three days, I’d have to duel a giant.