There was so much to speak of that I genuinely didn't know where to start. Some things were far more pressing than others, but starting there would mean skipping out on context. Which left me starting at the beginning. The very start of the war. Way back when I was fresh off of the farm and following Horrik like a lost puppy, completely unprepared for everything that would come. Completely ignorant of how the world worked or the fate that awaited me.
My sisters didn't seem to know how to react when I spoke of the battles that I fought in. I'm sure that they had heard the stories about me - they were what led Halfdan to me in the first place. However, it was very different hearing it from the source of the tales. Mother was silent as I progressed through the start of the war, pausing on the murder of Kirk.
Haldur wore a heavy scowl that was matched by Halfdan's. They stood across from me, their arms crossed as they listened. I could see them preparing themselves for what they were going to hear.
I hadn't been there for the deaths of Father and Tormund, but I heard enough of what transpired after I was poisoned. The family was silent when they heard of their deaths, and how I learned of the deaths of my brothers on the farm. Then the death of Brandr on the family farm. I hadn't realized how much the anger poisoned my soul until I was speaking of their deaths and the betrayal we suffered. A year ago, I couldn't even think about what happened without frothing into a rage and having hate dyeing every thought I had red.
Time had soothed the ache of their loss.
There were a handful of questions during my tale - clarifications and doubt. Especially when I spoke of Roland. Everyone was surprised by my success and the wealth that I had earned. By the time I reached the end of the war and my arrival, I found myself strangely exhausted. It truly had been a long road.
Then I heard their part of the tale and I found myself even more exhausted. How they hid from the bands that Horrik sent after them, their desperate arrival to this land, searching for Ida's kin. The loss of Revna when they were followed. Their narrow escape, and laying low until they were discovered and summoned to Jarl Hoffer. Then the slow building of alliances as tales of my exploits reached them, securing their position and how the building of a powerbase in Norway began.
Mother squeezed my hand, "When I received that dream, I knew it was a sign. It has been hard, Siegfried, but the work is worth doing. And there is still more to do." She told me, leveling a heavy gaze at me.
I nodded. "My marriage," I said the words, not entirely certain what I felt about them. I hoped that me and Astrid would get along, but regardless, I would do my duty for the sake of my family.
"She's a fair girl. Stubborn. Very stubborn, but that's good in a woman. She's training to be a shieldmaiden and has been for some years. You'll be seated together at the feast," Mother told me, and I had never seen her like this before, I realized. Her gaze was sharp and how she spoke… she was focused. Determined. It was a far cry from the woman I grew up knowing - she could be stern at times, but she was usually soft smiles and gentle words.
The death of our family affected us all in different ways.
"Jarl Hoffer will publically offer the marriage. When you accept, you will be wed at the end of spring during the Ostara festival," she informed me, and I offered a slow nod, showing that I understood. The Ostara festival wasn't that far off. Little more than two months away. It didn't feel like much time. "In the time between, any time you are together, you will be chaperoned. To prevent her from being dishonored."
"I would never-" I started to speak reflexively, but Mother silenced me with a look.
Solveig's eyes danced with amusement, "Don't worry Seig. Sneaking around the chaperone is the best part of courting." My cheeks flushed and I heard Haldur groan in pain.
"I… didn't need to know that," I said, truly wishing that the Allfather would pluck the knowledge from my head, sparing me from my suffering.
"Haha! The fierce warrior, the god walking amongst us, still blushes like a girl," Helga teased, poking at me and I swatted her hand away. Why did I miss them so much? What I had been thinking?
Mother, however, found it less amusing. "If this was a simple marriage, then sneaking around the chaperone would be acceptable. Everyone does it - it's part of courting. But this is a marriage of an alliance. You cannot give Jarl Hoffer any reason to think you have dishonored him, and that includes deflowering his daughter before the wedding."
How did I make it stop? "I won't! I won't. So, please-"
There was a sharp knock at the door, and I had never been so relieved to see Thorkell when I quickly welcomed them in. "Sorry to interrupt, but figured you should know that the ships are beached and the men are setting up camp outside the town. Ain't enough room for us all to stay comfortably, and I figured Jarl Hoffer would feel more comfortable that way." He told me, earning a curt nod before his gaze swept over my family. One end of his lips quirked up into a smile, "I'm glad to see you reunited."
Mother stood up, "You must be Thorkell. My son has nothing but kind things to say about you. You have our thanks for fighting with him."
"Eh, no need to thank me. I thought Seigfried was worth fighting for and so far, he's never proven me wrong." Thorkell praised, and I stood a bit taller at that. He inclined his head to me and Halfdan, then his gaze lingered on Haldur, who seemed to be sizing Thorkell up.
"All the same, you risked your life saving him from Alabu. He- we wouldn't be here without you," Mother stated, making Thorkell scratch at his cheek, faintly embarrassed at the gratitude.
"Well… in that case, it's been an honor to fight with your son," he replied. "And I hope we see many battles ahead. And, speaking of battles… Morrigan and Jill are down the hall. So, Seig - have fun dealing with that," he told me, catching me flatfooted by how shamelessly he deflected the attention back to me and I realized that I wasn't at all prepared for that interaction. Morrigan and Jill were both important to me.
However, I did not see good things happening during this meeting.
"Bastard!" I called out after Thorkell as he left the doorway, his laughter echoing. I looked at my family, who looked at the door, their expressions curious, save for Halfdan, who looked like he was excited to see the incoming disaster.
Morrigan arrived first, her golden eyes narrowed into slits, seemingly vaguely offended by Thorkell's parting words. She strode into the room, meeting everyone's looks unflinchingly. The same could not be said of Jill, who trailed behind her, her expression one of trepidation. "T'is a family reunion. Most joyous, indeed."
Solveig and Helga shared a look. Then they looked at me with expressions I couldn't decipher. It was Mother that spoke, "You must be the Witch of the Wilds that my son spoke of. The one that saved my family from a raid," Mother remarked, stepping forward and approaching Morrigan, who tensed like a cat ready to flee or pounce.
"... For all the good it did," Morrigan replied. She seemed a bit uncomfortable when Mother reached out and took her hands in hers and gave them a small squeeze.
"Thank you, Morrigan," Mother ignored the remark, and now Morrigan seemed really uncomfortable.
"T'is merely my own self interest. Nothing worthy of thanks," Morrigan muttered, taking her hands out of Mother's grip. "I desired your son to be in my debt, and so he has been. Don't try to find what isn't there." Hm. She was really bad at taking compliments of gratitude.
Mother gave her an indulgent look and decided upon mercy. For Morrigan, at least. Then she turned her attention to Jill, who stood up straight, but it was obvious that she was struggling to meet my Mother's gaze. I could guess what was running through her head, but I had no clue what Mother might be thinking. "You must be Gunjill, then. We've met, once before. You were just a baby then. I've see you've blossomed into a beautiful young woman."
"She should be dead," Haldur spoke up, an angry edge in his words that Jill struggled to not flinch at. "She's the spawn of Horrik-"
"She has proven her loyalty," I interjected, glaring at my brother, who snarled back.
"Meekly following you and doing nothing while you kill her brother isn't the same as proving her loyalty," he turned his anger to me, taking a threatening step forward. Halfdan moved to step between us, his expression was far less amused.
"I say that it is," I retorted.
"You aren't the head of this family, Seigfried. I am," he responded, and my eyes narrowed into slits.
"Halfdan is the oldest," I argued, my own anger coloring my tone. The eldest son was the head of the household when the father died. Brandr would have been the next man of the family, followed by Tormond. But with their deaths, Halfdan was the oldest now.
"Halfdan is the son of a concubine," Haldur snapped at me, his jaw clenching. And I…
I remembered something.
I had been so excited for the reunion, and it had been so long since I spoke with Haldur, I had completely forgotten something.
We couldn't stand each other.
It was when I started winning our fights that he started to become bitter. Any kindness to be found in him seemed to just dry up and vanish like smoke in the wind. It was why even when we lived in the same home, we rarely spoke. And why after I left to work my own farm, he set out to earn his own renown. I thought after everything that happened, something would have changed.
He was still my older brother that kept throwing his weight around to get me to do whatever he wanted.
I could tell that the remark wounded Halfdan, but he forged on, "Enough. Both of you. Jill might be Horrik's daughter, but Sieg trusts her. And that's enough for me. Pick your fights, brother. You couldn't beat Sieg when he was a child, and I promise you, you won't be beating him now." To that, Haldur bristled dangerously, his pale skin becoming an angry red.
"I don't trust her. She betrayed her kin, and her kin betrayed us. It runs in her blood," he snapped at me, shooting a glare over at Jill.
I tried to be a calmer person. A wiser person.
I wasn't that calm or that wise.
Clenching my teeth, I placed my hand on Haldur's chest and shoved him. He fell flat on his ass about a foot away, his eyes wide at the display of strength. "Stop. Talking," I growled at him. This wasn't the family reunion that I had hoped for, but wishes and dreams had little in common with reality. "I trust Jill. She has earned it in my eyes. We were betrothed before her father's betrayal, and I say that we still are. She will be my second wife, and you will hold your tongue, brother."
I could see him seethe. The rest of the family seemed conflicted. Solveig and Helga seemed thoughtful, Halfdan and Morrigan faintly amused with my proclamation. Mother… mother was completely unreadable.
"Then she is no longer the kin of Horrik. She is our family," She decided, looking to Jill. She spoke as if the matter was settled…
But based on Haldur's expression, it was anything but.
Jarl Hoffer had a large family, I soon learned when it was time for the celebration to begin. The longhouse was filled with important thegns - all of them either coming from the island we were on, or one of the smaller ones nearby. He had four wives, and six concubines, each wife blessing him with at least three children and each concubine blessing him with one. I'm not entirely sure how many children he had, but it did seem to be a lot.
The Hofferson that I met was the eldest and the heir in his mid twenties. All of his brothers… were also named Hoffer, and were only differentiated by their nicknames. Jarl Hoffer was known as the Vast. The heir Hofferson was known as the Heir or the Tall. I heard mentions of the Oar-Hand, the Strong, the Sun-Kissed, and the Cripple. The Cripple was the only one I could spot on account of the fact he was carried by a housecarl, and he was ten at the oldest. He was an oddly shaped child with well developed arms, but his legs dangled uselessly.
While the reunion with my family did end on something of a sour note, I did meet the rest of my family. Ida and her parents attended the feast - Halfdan was right, Ida did seem happier than I had ever seen her before. While her parents didn't seem to know what to make of me and seemed more than a little nervous. I also ended up meeting my sisters' husbands. Helga was clearly smitten with her's - he was handsome, and he seemed strong. Solveig was more reserved with her husband, though she carried his child.
I couldn't get a read on either man. Both of them were obviously trying to impress me, and in doing so, they failed.
The one highlight of the night was seeing little Arne again, who seemed so much bigger than when I last saw him. When I saw him last, he was just a baby that had to be swaddled in a cloth, but now he was walking.
When everyone was brought to attendance, we found our seats within the long house. I was seated at the high table, directly next to Jarl Hoffer. Next to me was Haldur, much to my annoyance. He was considered the head of the family. We were full brothers by blood, but it felt at times that Halfdan was more kin to me than he was. Next to Jarl Hoffer was his first wife - a woman named Revna, who was a beautiful woman with blonde hair that was almost white in color, and dark blue eyes.
Jarl Hoffer stood up, raising a hand to calm the tables. "Welcome! Welcome! I know you did not expect a feast so soon after the Sigrblót, but there are many reasons to celebrate! Early this morning, as I'm sure many of you noticed, we had guests! An army fresh from the field, from a far off land where they waged war against the worshippers of a dead god. An army of warriors rich with plunder and glory, helmed by a warrior that we have all heard of. Whose family I have safely harbored for a turn of a year - Seigfried the Wolf-Kissed."
The longhouse became thunderous with applause and cheering. There were many of my men sitting amongst the tables - Thorkell, the rest of my family, and the leaders of the various mercenaries and bands that made up my army. Halstien's absence was keenly felt.
"This is a celebration of an alliance. Of two men coming together to impose their will upon the world. To the Wolf-Kissed! To victory! Skol!" Jarl Hoffer shouted, thrusting a curved horn filled with mead into the air with enough force it sloshed over the rim. There was an echo of Skol in return and the feast commenced.
He was a different leader than Horrik, I noticed. And approved of. Horrik was more… wordy - he built up the room, stoking their excitement before he delivered a proclamation. Jarl Hoffer went straight to the point, short and simple. The people sitting across from me seemed to love it. Appearances could be deceiving, but Jarl Hoffer seemed popular with his people.
"Before we get drunk, let us discuss the terms of our alliance," Jarl Hoffer began, looking to me. I found it interesting that he was calling it an alliance. He hadn't used that word before I gave him that gift. "I'm sure your Mother has informed you by now - my youngest daughter, born to my first wife, Revna. With your agreement, you shall be married and our houses linked. We shall become kin. My enemies shall become your enemies… and your enemies shall become mine."
I nodded, "I have accepted the betrothal. You have my word that I will treat her well."
Jarl Hoffer nodded seriously, "I would expect nothing less from a man of honor. She will be seated with you when the engagement is announced when everyone is properly drunk. As a number of my thegns had hoped for her hand," he admitted to me.
Blunt, but clever.
"I understand," I replied, curious as to what my wife would be like. I did hope that she would get along with Jill. I wouldn't dare to hope that she got along with Morrigan. "You spoke of enemies, Jarl Hoffer. Have you heard anything about Horrik? The only news I heard in Francia was of the war with the Saxons."
To that, Jarl Hoffer gave me a hesitant look. He knew the answer but he wasn't pleased to say it. "Aye, word reached me not a few days before you did. Jarl Horrik is now King Horrik, of most of Denmark. The war turned against Godfrey. After a poor battle in the initial months, a number of Jarls and Thegns struck out for independence. One by one, they moved to King Horrik's banner when he proved to be the stronger of the two. Some weeks ago, there was a pitched battle that decided the war in his favor. Word is that he brought Swedes into the mix in a surprise alliance. I don't know if King Godfrey is dead, but he is a king without a kingdom now."
Jarl Hoffer was visibly surprised by the smile that tugged at my lips. "Good," I decided. A sign that I walked the correct path. Horrik had become king of Denmark, just as I hoped. He would enjoy his crown for but a few years.
Then I would take it from him.
"... Is he not your enemy?" Jarl Hoffer questioned, sounding put off by my reaction.
"He is. I desire him to be at the height of his power when I destroy him," I replied, and Jarl Hoffer seemed more than a little unnerved by that. So, I changed the subject, "As you said, your enemies are my enemies. Who might be your enemies?" I asked him, making his brow furrow.
"I did not intend-" he began, cutting himself off.
"You did. Otherwise, you wouldn't have mentioned it," I replied, and I saw that he was considering me with greater thought. I understood how Jarls spoke and acted when they wanted something. I was more aware of myself and the power that I wielded. "I do not mind. I intend to begin training my army, and the Jarls of this land shall be my whetstone." Drill Instructor. There was a reason the gods wished me to have that gift, and in my time in Francia, I learned that I needed it.
A mob of warriors couldn't take down Roland. They would be slaughtered and the rest would be discouraged and fearful. I saw it with the Dutch and I saw it with the Norse.
What I needed was…
A hand went up to my throat, touching my scar that Fenrir had given me. A wolf pack. They moved as one, and even if I could kill them individually with ease, a half dozen of them nearly killed me when they attacked at the same time. I didn't know if it was possible to make warriors fight like wolves, but I had six months to figure it out.
"... To unify under your banner?" Jarl Hoffer questioned, sounding disquieted.
"No. I will set sail to Miklagard at the end of summer," I told him. I had little interest in being the King of Norway. I only wanted to be king of Denmark because Horrik was. "Consider it part of the bride price for your daughter," I added, thinking it would be a fine display, considering that I was already planning to fight the local Jarls.
I saw the hunger in Jarl Hoffer's eyes at that. I could see him planning to use me for his own ends. He was much less guarded with it than King Widukind.
"I see the stories did not do you justice, Wolf-Kissed," Jarl Hoffer acknowledged me with a nod. "A warrior of your renown and an army of your skill would be welcomed to raid with us for the season. We planned to venture to the mainland. Jarl Hadwin is an old enemy of mine, lord of the Jotunheimen mountains." He remarked, his lips curling into a smile. I didn't truly care much for his grievance with the Jarl, though he would soon be kin. Instead, I felt my heart leapt into my throat.
In the shadow of the throat of the world.
"We can set sail in the morning," I decided, feeling a thrum of excitement race through me. The clue I had received eluded me for some time, but what could be better considered the throat of the world other than a mountain named for the giants? Its shadow would be large, but I was determined to find what this clue pointed to.
Jarl Hoffer was more than pleased, "I look forward to seeing you fight, Wolf-Kissed. Skol!" He said, clanking his mead against mine and I drank deeply. There were thoughts of poison that crossed my mind, but the mead tasted as it should and Iron Stomach would stop me from dying to it. "Excellent! And I believe we have waited long enough!"
With that decision made, Jarl Hoffer stood up, "Quiet down! Quiet down, you bastards! You thought the good news was done, did you?!" He began with a laugh when the longhouse quieted down. "I have an announcement to make. It was a decision that deserved much consideration, and I was uncertain until this day - upon meeting the Wolf-Kissed! I am overjoyed to announce a betrothal between my daughter, Astrid Hoffersdotter, and Seigfried Erikson! Together, our clans shall rule the seas!"
Waiting until everyone has a few drinks had other benefits, I quickly noticed. There were many cheers, but I saw many expressions twist as if they had bitten into something sour. Astrid, it would seem, was a popular woman. The mead loosened their thoughts before they could think better of it, but I did feel myself become an unwelcome enemy for a number of Thegns.
However, they were unimportant. Simply because, on cue, Astrid was ushered into the longhouse and I saw my to-be wife for the first time. She inherited her mother's blond hair, which was left flowing down her shoulders, a thin woven band resting around the crown of her head - a kransen. Marking her as unwed.
Something not commonly worn during an announcement for an engagement. Or ever. Actually, I'm pretty sure this was the very first time I had ever seen it.
There was a slight smile tugging at her lips as she strode towards the high table, people gaping at her as she passed. She was beautiful, I noticed. It was little wonder why her hand was so sought after. She was around my age, perhaps a year older than me, but no more than that. The handmaiden next to her was burning red with shame and embarrassment as Astrid came to a stop before the high table, her gaze never wavering from mine.
"You aren't ugly, I'll give you that - but it'll take more than a fine face before I'll ever consider you my husband," she declared openly and brazenly. I genuinely don't think I had ever received such an insult before. Not from King Charlemagne, not from Horrik. Not from Grimar, or the Paladins.
I think before the war, I would have been furious. My honor was being besmirched and challenged. As a man, I should bluster and rage. And perhaps it showed how much further I had to go, because all I could do was laugh in response. It came from the gut, and when that promptly wiped the challenging smirk off of her face, I laughed that much harder.
Astrid was going to get along with Morrigan just fine.
This next arc is bit of a wind down one to let some characters breathe. A little bit of raiding, some training for the troops, and some non-war-related skill grinding. Should be about six or seven chapters before we're off to Byzantium.
The next chapter is currently available on my Pat re on and Subscribe Star, so if you want to read it a week early, all it takes is a single dollar in the tip jar. Or, for five dollars, you can read the chapter after that two weeks before its public release! I hope you enjoyed!