Earl Eskil looked at King Goetrik, who was staring straight ahead. The board game pieces were piled up in front of the earl and the red-haired man opposite him had just two warriors left in defence of his king.
“It’s your move, Goetrik” said Eskil again, but it didn’t seem as if his words were getting through.
A heart-rending scream that came from the chamber behind the long hall had the big man jumping to his feet. He furiously swept the pieces off the table and reached out for his goblet. On discovering it was empty, he threw it to the floor.
“When is it going to stop?” he said grimly, walking towards the door of the chamber. The earl stepped in front of him.
“Go outside, Goetrik! Men have no place near a woman giving birth. You know that.”
“But I can’t just leave her.” Goetrik’s voice was riddled with grief. “If she dies and leaves me alone, I’ll be lost in the darkness.”
“I’m sure you’ll find another woman.” Eskil could hear for himself how hollow it sounded, but what else was he to say?
“Never. No-one could ever take Svanhild’s place. You don’t understand. She knows me better than I do myself. She reads my thoughts.”
“Pull yourself together, Goetrik. You’re the king and the ruler of Danermark. You owe it to your kinsmen to do them honour.”
Goetrik didn’t answer; he just sank to his knees and hid his face in his hands. Eskil looked at his old friend and blood brother. It was true that Svanhild had turned on a light in the king’s mind, which had previously been dark and heavy, but even Goetrik must have been well aware that it couldn’t last, surely? The earl’s thoughts drifted back to last summer, when he and Goetrik had been together when they had seen the three swans transform themselves into beautiful maidens. He had also warned his king about riding into the elf mist but Goetrik hadn’t been listening. Despite the earl’s opposition, he had hidden Svanhild’s suit of feathers so she couldn’t return to her life among the underearthen, but had instead had no choice but to join him in the human world. Jofrid, Goetrik’s mother, had been furious, but Goetrik had been completely blinded by his love for the young swan-maiden.
The pregnant woman’s wailing moans were shortly replaced by a frail cry. Eskil forced a smile and said, “The child is born.”
Before Eskil had time to prevent it, Goetrik had his hand on the door, which at that moment was opened from the other side. Jofrid stood in the opening.
“You can’t come in.” She nailed her son to the spot with a look. Eskil had seen it happen so many times before that it no longer surprised him. No matter how great a warrior Goetrik was, he was afraid to look his mother in the eye.
“The Norn goddesses have spoken. No-one can set themselves up against them. Not even you!” She spoke in a low voice, yet her words filled the room. Jofrid was Danermark’s gydhja, the priestess who heard the voices of the Norns better than anyone. She was known and feared for her pact with the goddesses and for her sorcery.
“The witch is dead. A life for a life! That’s how it is among the underearthen. Everybody knows that. You should be happy now. Your mind is freed from her magic web. But the troll child is alive. It should be put out. The sooner the better. If we don’t, the child will continue with its mother’s witchcraft and you’re far too weak.” She spat to the left to fend off evil. At that moment, a crow cried three times outside. “Did you hear that? The omens are clear.” She closed the door from the inside.
The big man stared uncomprehendingly at Eskil. “Svanhild has left me. I can’t live without her.” He sank to his knees.
Earl Eskil put a hand on his shoulder. Jofrid’s words about the new-born had frightened him, but he knew her well enough to know that she both understated and embellished when she interpreted the will of the goddesses.
“No matter what your mother says, you should go in and say farewell to your wife and see the child with your own eyes.”
Goetrik’s eyes were black with pain. “No, it’s the troll child’s fault that I’ll never see Svanhild again. Put it out.”
The women who had been helping with the birth came out. Tired and slumped, they left the hall. The birth had taken a long time. Eskil bent down and picked up the rough-carved game pieces. They were similar, except that some of them were painted dark with soot. Only the king piece, with its narrow gold band around the top, differed from the others.
Eskil didn’t feel like obeying Jofrid, but he still walked towards the tall gydhja with the grizzled hair who was again standing in the doorway. A faint whimper was heard from the child.
“Put the child out for the wolves.” She wiped her bloody hands on her skirt and walked past him. The earl watched her go as she limped out across the courtyard. Goetrik and he had mixed their blood as boys, and when Goetrik became king of Danermark, Eskil had sworn to serve him and his kin. He would gladly give his life fighting for his ruler and blood brother, but killing a new-born demanded more than thrusting a spear into an enemy warrior.
He went into the chamber. The stench of birth, sweat and strong smelling herbs met him, even though the small skylight was open. Svanhild was lying on the couch. A feeble whale-oil lamp was burning at the head of the bed. Her long, blond hair lay matted and unkempt across the pillow, but her face looked peaceful. The infant’s cries could be heard from the carved-out chair with the bearskin.
Eskil stopped in the darkness by the door. A strange light was gathering around the couch. He shivered as a cold wind swirled through the room. At that moment, Svanhild rose from her resting place like a luminous mist. The body still lay there like a garment someone had taken off and it faded away and vanished while he watched. A cloak of swan-down billowed from the shoulders of the elf woman as she bent over the baby and pressed a kiss on its forehead.
“My son, you will be a great warrior and a guardian of the light. Songs will be composed in your honour and you will experience great love.”
The child went silent while she spoke. Then she turned towards Eskil. He grabbed hold of the leather bag with amulets around his neck. The underearthen should not be trifled with.
“Don’t be afraid, Earl. I know what Jofrid has asked you to do. Don’t listen to her. Take my son with you as a foster child. Let him grow up under your guidance.”
Immediately, the sound of migrating swans could be heard and Svanhild disappeared out through the skylight like a puff of air. With two long strides, Eskil reached the opening and saw the white bird soar up towards the glow of the evening sky, where two other swans could be seen as silhouettes against the sunset. The singing sound from the great wings filled the air but was soon drowned out by the child, who was crying again.
Eskil bent over the new-born. Jofrid hadn’t even washed him. The yellowish layer of foetal fat was like a cracked mask over the boy’s face, now red from crying. He was probably hungry. A moment later, as the infant lay in the earl’s arms, its mouth was seeking a place to hang on to, so Eskil gave him the knuckle of one finger. The feeling of the child’s lips sucking tightly onto him reminded him of Erik, his own little son. He pushed the flax garment the baby was wrapped in to one side. The boy was perfectly formed and the earl was surprised to make eye contact. It was so strong that he almost had to look away. Eskil recalled Svanhild’s words: her son would become a great warrior and a guardian of the light.
The gydhja blesses the arena with blood
Hail, Hail, the Gods’ power and glory
Young Helgi enhances the family name
Courage and cunning bring him victory
Now the Norns spin their thread
The round training ground in the tidal meadow in front of the hall of chieftains was marked off with red wool yarn, and in the middle stood an old, naked woman. The numerous bones tied in her hair rattled when she moved. Raven’s wings were fastened on her forehead and looked like overgrown eyebrows that almost covered her eyes. The wrinkled old woman’s body was painted with soot and blood, so each of the flaccid breasts looked like faces, twisting and turning as she flung out her arms. In one hand, she held a black rooster, flapping its wings in terror.
“Who’s that?” whispered Helgi to Erik as they reached the group of warriors, who were all keeping well away from the painted woman on the other side of the red thread.
“That’s Jofrid, the gydhja of the Norn goddesses. She’s Goetrik’s mother.”
Helgi nodded. He had heard about her. She was feared as the most powerful sorceress in Danermark.
The magic words that she used to invoke the Norns filled the circle with strange sounds. With a swift movement, she twisted the rooster’s neck and pulled its head off. Blood sprayed out from it over both her and the training ground, as she turned nine times against the sun and then nine times the other way. Her voice grew louder and louder until her spell-casting sounded more like it came from a roaring animal than from a human being. This was obviously the sign for Goetrik to enter beyond the yarn. He was pale and had beads of sweat on his forehead as he knelt in front of the lean, sinewy woman. She tore the rooster open with her fingers and pulled the heart out so everyone could see it. Then she put it in the mouth of the king who swallowed it with every sign of revulsion. Helgi felt for him. When he and Erik were younger, they had challenged each other to see who could eat the most live earthworms. Erik had won, and just the thought of a worm in the mouth made Helgi’s stomach turn.
“Send victory to the strong. May disgrace and anguish strike the frightened ones. May good fortune follow he who fights hardest for his king,” screeched the sorceress finally.
She ran her blood-smeared fingers along the full length of the red wool yarn to ensure that the training ground had been dedicated to the powerful Norns who measured out each man’s destiny. Then all the men who wanted to participate in the Yule contest came forward to be marked on the forehead with the rooster’s blood. Eskil pushed Helgi and Erik back. They were too young.
The high-seat was carried out together with several benches and Goetrik made himself comfortable so he could watch the contests between the warriors. Barrels of beer and mead were rolled out and those who weren’t participating in the first matches helped themselves in order to keep warm.
Those who wanted to participate in the armed combat signed up with Roar Halfnose, the king’s quartermaster. He made sure that everyone got to fight against their equals and the contests were fair. Ulf White took the prize. Equipped with sword and axe, he was almost unbeatable as far as Helgi could see. It was quite acceptable for blood to flow in the armed combat but it was against the rules to hack against the head, chest and legs. However, it could be difficult to control the situation when rage got the better of someone and several of Ulf’s opponents had to be carried out. They weren’t dead but it would be some time before they would be able-bodied warriors again.
Roar raised the horn when the fighting was over and Goetrik declared Ulf White the winner. As a reward, he was given a broad silver bracelet. Erik nudged Helgi in the side and whispered that the king would certainly be very pleased. No ruler liked having a captain who wasn’t among the best warriors. Helgi nodded absent-mindedly as he tried once more to squeeze further forward through the crowd. For now came the wrestling matches!
Eric and Helgi wriggled all the way to the front row and, under the cover of their winter cloaks, squeezed each other’s hands as they cheered on their father, who was the first to step forward. Earl Eskil had not accepted Ulf White’s open challenge. There were too many unnecessary injuries in the armed combat, he argued. Wrestling was a better way to compete. Here you could clearly see if a man had an overview of the fight and it was not always raw power that won. It was also a matter of being able to read one’s opponent and exploit his weaknesses. The earl had trained his two boys since they were small and they watched breathlessly as their father threw one opponent to the ground after another and held them down while the crowd loudly counted to nine.
“Earl Eskil, you have once again won against even the best of my men.” King Goetrik stood up and raised his horn to salute the winner, but he was so drunk that Eskil had to step in and support him.
“Thank you, my lord. Shouldn’t the boys now be allowed to test their strength?”
Goetrik nodded, gathered his heavy leather cloak around him and sat down again.
“Everyone against everyone,” shouted Eskil, opening the training ground up so there was room for more. He nodded encouragingly to Erik and Helgi, who both pulled off their leather coats and shirts so they could fight with their chests bared.
The contact with the icy air made Helgi’s skin tighten, but he hardly noticed it. His whole attention was directed at the other boys that he had to fight. In the blink of an eye, he was surrounded by the sons of thegns who had not yet received their weapons at the Thing. As his father had taught him, he stood up straight so he looked a little bigger. He was small for his age but he was also quick and lithe.
Bjarke Langaa challenged him. They circled each other for a while, with Helgi keeping close eye contact as he concentrated on weighing up his opponent. Immediately before the lanky young man leapt towards him, Helgi knew what he was going to do. He bent his knees and came in under his adversary, so he could get a firm hold on him. Helgi’s lower centre of gravity gave him an advantage, and a moment later his opponent hit the frozen earth. Helgi quickly locked Bjarke’s shoulder to the ground so he couldn’t move without great pain. The bystanders counted out loud and Helgi let go when they reached nine. Bjarke stood up and shook his hand, as was the custom when one had lost.
“I have to give it to you, Helgi Earlsson. You’re a good wrestler.”
Helgi smiled back and accepted the next challenger. Again he collected himself to get a sense of how his opponent fought, and he won this time too. One match followed another and Helgi rarely noticed whom he had defeated. He just continued with the next one who challenged him.
But he couldn’t ignore the contempt in Gisle White’s eyes as the two stood facing each other. The broad-shouldered young man with the bull’s neck weighed about twice as much as him, but that didn’t scare him. He took a deep breath and released it slowly while holding firm eye contact with Gisle. They circled each other and Helgi directed all his attention at this son of the White clan. Eskil had always said that the one who attacks first is most vulnerable and Helgi had no intention of giving that advantage to Gisle. He made a couple of feints to tease his opponent, because he had a distinct feeling that Gisle, like his brother Ulf, had a short fuse in a fight. As expected, the muscular young man soon threw himself over him with a furious roar. Helgi stepped quickly to one side and, in this way, brought his attacker so much out of balance that it didn’t demand any special strength to throw his opponent to the ground. Helgi locked Gisle’s neck and arm with his knees, so he had to lie still while the spectators counted to nine.
Helgi got to his feet, but Gisle didn’t offer to shake hands with him as a signal that he had been defeated. Instead, he spun on his heel and disappeared out of the circle. Only then did it dawn on Helgi that the only other person left in the circle was Erik. Helgi breathed a sigh of relief. He was tired after so many matches where he had had to adjust to an unfamiliar mind every time, but he knew Erik so well that he didn’t have to use a lot of energy to lock in on his thoughts. They proceeded to go around each other and, as always when they competed, his brother wrinkled his brow and bared his teeth. Shortly, when they took hold of each other, Erik would snarl and roar like a young bear.
Suddenly, his brother leapt on him. His arms, which were longer than Helgi’s, locked around his back and lifted him up, but instead of resisting, Helgi relaxed. He took hold of Erik’s thick hair, so he was dragged down by his own force as soon as he threw his opponent. He roared angrily and tried to get quickly to his feet but, with a feint to the right, Helgi reached under him and simultaneously pushed a leg behind his knee. With a sharp twist of the hip, he toppled his brother over onto the ground and, before Erik quite managed to grasp what had happened, Helgi had locked his right arm so he had no choice but to remain there. The anger rose like a cloud around him, but Helgi was used to Erik’s rage and held on tight. It was obvious that the humiliation of being defeated by his younger brother in front of the king’s men was almost unbearable for Erik.
“Well, that clinches it, Eskil. I’m no longer in any doubt. He’s a true son of yours.” Goetrik looked at Helgi glassy eyed. “All the more reason to let him serve with me.”
“We’ll see. I’ll have to think about it.”
Eskil put a hand on his youngest son’s shoulder, and Helgi again noticed the same coldness from his father as he had experienced the previous evening. But Eskil’s face looked as calm as usual when he took him over to Erik.
“You both fought bravely. This time it was Helgi who won. Next time it will probably be your turn, Erik. I’m proud of both of you. You were the best and have brought honour to our kinsfolk. Now shake hands.”
Helgi put out his hand and after a moment’s hesitation, Erik took it. They looked each other in the eyes and Helgi could see that it wouldn’t be long before Erik would demand the opportunity to restore his honour. Helgi sent his brother a cautious smile that was not reciprocated. When Eskil went back to the benches by the high-seat a moment later, Erik hissed, “In the big barn?”
Helgi nodded and they both sprinted away to see who could be first to the large open building that kept the hay dry at the hall of chieftains. Erik’s legs were the longest and Helgi hadn’t managed to catch his breath before Erik fell on him.
“You little rascal, you only won because you cheated!” groaned Erik and used all his weight in an attempt to throw his brother to the floor. Helgi clenched his teeth and stood firm while pondering what he should do. If he yielded a bit to Erik’s grip and then straightened up quickly, it would probably bring his brother so much out of balance that he could wriggle free. But if he also won this battle, it would be a long time before Erik let go of his resentment. So instead, he set all his strength against his opponent’s. This gave Erik a clear advantage, and a moment later Helgi lay with his shoulders pressed down against the prickly straw, while his brother sneered at him, “Give in, or I’ll have Jofrid Gydhja cast a spell on you.”
Helgi nodded, and Erik let him go, tumbling around in the hay beside him.
“You look like a troll child when you’re fighting,” said Helgi with a laugh, trying to copy his brother’s fighting face. “Are you sure you’re not a changeling?”
Erik lifted himself up on his elbows. “You mustn’t say that sort of thing out loud.” He looked reproachfully at his brother and lowered his voice. “If the underearthen hear you say such things, they may think that I’m one of theirs, and then pull me down under the ground.”
“But you said the gydhja would cast a spell on me.” Helgi got up, rolled his eyes and stretched his arms out, while moaning, “The nasty witch has made me into a ghost. I will never give you peace, I will torment you until you go to the grave and I can ride on your chest into the kingdom of the dead.”
“Stop that, Helgi. You shouldn’t joke about such things.” Erik spat quickly over his left shoulder to keep the evil creatures at a distance. Seeing the serious expression on his brother’s face, Helgi did the same.
Helgi’s bloodline is hidden in the dark
Hail, Hail, the Gods’ power and glory
Earl Eskil will reveal the truth
And King Goetrik greet his son
Now the Norns spin their thread
The sound of the trumpet was calling everyone to the banquet in the hall. Helgi brushed the straw off himself, gave Erik a hefty shove so he fell back into the hay, and ran off up towards the open gate. He wove in and out between the burly warriors who were on their way back to the full beer kegs and the tasty roasting pigs in the hall of chieftains.
A hard grip on his arm stopped him and Helgi looked up into the face of a tall man with a scar over one eye. It was Ulf White.
“You’re a worthy son of your father,” said the captain and let go of his arm. “It’s about time you entered the king’s service.”
Helgi didn’t have time to answer before the captain continued, “I’ll talk to your father about it.”
“But what about Erik? He’s older than me.”
Ulf raised his hand. “Let’s see.”
Erik appeared beside him immediately after Ulf had continued with long strides up towards the bridge. “Why were you talking to him? He’s a White like Gisle.” Erik spat to show his contempt. “Nothing good comes from them.”
“He said we’re going be trained for the guard.”
“That’s none of his business. Father will tell us when we’re ready.”
“But it’s what we both want.”
Erik crossed his arms and continued. “Ulf just wants us among his men so our kinsfolk can’t challenge him. As long as he has us as hostages, father will have to do as the king says.”
“But why should father oppose his chieftain?” Helgi stopped. “Even if he isn’t Goetrik’s captain, they’re blood brothers, and he is the king’s earl.”
“You’re so stupid, Helgi. As soon as someone says something nice to you, you believe it. I’m certainly not going to be pushed around by Ulf White.” Erik turned away and walked in through the doorway.
Helgi followed him into the courtyard, where a young woman came and took his hand. “Come with me. Goetrik has decided that you’re going to sit at his table for the banquet. You won the boys’ contest.”
Helgi’s heart was beating hard. It was just the thegns and the king’s own kinsmen who sat at the high table and he was just a boy.
The young woman was tall and slim. Her hazel hair hung loose, only held in place by a garland of silver flowers.
“Thank you, Inga,” said Goetrik.
She put her hand on his arm. “If there’s anything else I can do for you, just let me know.”
The big man moved to one side with a smile. “Sit here and keep me company.”
Inga exchanged a glance with her brother, Ulf White. The captain gave her a fleeting nod and she sat down.
Goetrik motioned to Helgi to sit down across from the high-seat next to Earl Eskil.
“Well, my boy, will you be staying to serve your lord after the Yule celebrations?”
“Who’s he?” Jofrid Gydhja, who sat at the king’s other hand, kept her voice low, but Helgi heard every word. Even though she no longer had the bones in her hair or was painted with blood, her closeness made him feel uncomfortable.
“This is Eskil’s youngest, mother. He beat all the boys in the wrestling. Well done for such a scrawny lad.” Goetrik handed him a goblet. “Drink with me, boy. A king can never have too many men of your sort.”
Helgi hesitantly lifted the mug to his lips. His mother didn’t allow her boys to drink anything except light beer, but he surely couldn’t refuse to drink with the chieftain of Danermark. He put his head back and let the sweet mead slide down his throat. It warmed him well. When he put the drinking cup down, he looked at his father. He had expected that Eskil would be proud of him, but he just looked sad.
“He will bring you honour, Earl Eskil,” said the gydhja. Although the words were friendly, the voice was cold.
The earl got up slowly and pulled Helgi to his feet. Everyone at the high table looked at them. Helgi fought to keep the oppressive feeling emanating from Eskil out of his mind as he saw the concern in his father’s eyes. The Earl of Long Fjord turned towards Goetrik with his silver goblet raised.
“High Lord, I’m glad that you approve of Helgi. I agree with you. He’s still a boy, but one day he will become a good warrior. He is quick, lithe and adept at assessing his opponent’s weaknesses. And he has a clear sense of justice and honour. He isn’t afraid to defend his rights or assume responsibility for those who are weaker than himself. He will make a good ruler. Danermark will be well served by him.”
Helgi was happy for Eskil’s recognition, but he didn’t understand the last sentences. He wasn’t going to be earl after Eskil. Erik was. He was the oldest. It was he who would one day rule over Long Fjord Hall.
“What do you mean?” Goetrik stared at his earl in amazement. A hush had spread around the table.
“Helgi is your son. He is Svanhild’s child.” Eskil turned to Jofrid and bowed his head slightly. “Fate would have it otherwise, Jofrid Gydhja.”
What was the earl saying? What did he mean? Helgi felt dazed and looked from Eskil to Jofrid and Goetrik. The king’s eyes were filled with disbelief and Helgi quickly looked away. Wasn’t the earl his father? What did the gydhja have to do with it? At that moment, he felt Jofrid’s rage wash over him like a foaming wave. He reached out for the rough table edge and was glad that Eskil chose that moment to put a hand on his shoulder.
“Anyone who knew Svanhild can see how much Helgi resembles her.” Despite the despair that hung like a misty cloud around him, his voice was quite calm as he turned toward the hall and continued speaking. “And if you’re in any doubt as to who the boy’s father is, you can look at his thumb.”
He took hold of Helgi’s hand and showed it to those assembled. His thumb was longer than usual, as though it had an extra joint. It was an advantage, Eskil had always told him, because then he would have a better grip on his weapons. Helgi glanced down at the king’s fingers clutching the broad silver horn. The large man and he had the same kind of thumbs. But it couldn’t be true! Everything in him resisted. Eskil and Bjoerg were his parents! He belonged to the bloodline of Long Fjord. His eyes quickly flickered over the red-haired man. There was nothing he recognised, except for the long thumb. The earl must be wrong.
“My son?” muttered Goetrik, leaning back. He rubbed his forehead uneasily, as if he didn’t like the thoughts that were popping up.
Eskil pushed Helgi right up next to the high-seat and said softly, “Your mother thought it would be best if the boy disappeared after birth, so you wouldn’t be reminded about Svanhild.”
Who was that woman? Helgi had never heard the name mentioned before now. He wanted to say that his mother was Bjoerg, not Svanhild, but his tongue was so dry that it stuck to his palate.
The earl’s voice was trembling almost inaudibly as he continued. “I’ve raised him as my own. If you don’t want to acknowledge that he’s your son, I’ll take him back again. Both Bjoerg and I are fond of him, but we thought it was best to present him to you now that he’s on the threshold of becoming a man. Anyone would be proud to call this boy his son.”
Goetrik replied, and Jofrid’s voice was mingled in too, but Helgi only heard them like a strange roar that swept over him. His eyes were riveted to the straw-strewn floor, while images from his childhood streamed through him. He had never, ever, imagined that he was not the son of Eskil and Bjoerg. How could he have other parents? And what about Erik? Was he no longer his brother?
A deafening noise brought his attention back to the long hall. Goetrik had risen to his feet and was now pounding on his shield with the hilt of his sword. Helgi didn’t look up but pressed his nails hard into the palm of his hand, in the hope that the pain would crowd out the strange atmosphere that surrounded the king.
“Danermark has an heir.”
Goetrik’s voice rolled over Helgi, who finally looked up as the red-bearded man simply lifted him up to stand on the table like he was a little boy.
“This is my son, Helgi of the bloodline of the Daner kings. At the spring Thing, I will acknowledge him as my kith and kin. Hail him and drink to his strength.”
He raised his drinking horn and everyone in the hall stomped on the ground, pounding the tables and roaring, “Hail Helgi! Hail King Goetrik!”
“Then he should sit beside his father,” said Inga.
She got up and led Helgi to the hide-covered bench. She went and sat next to Ulf. The king pulled Helgi down on the bench and squeezed him hard against him. The drunken stench was bad, but the worst thing was all the anger and grief that gushed down on him from the big, red-haired man. He gasped for breath and reminded himself that it was just a lie and a delusion if he claimed he could feel how others felt.
“He’s a troll child. He’s going to eat you from the inside,” hissed Jofrid but Goetrik brushed her aside.
“Be silent, woman! Even though you’re my mother and know the ways of the Norns, I am the king of Danermark. It’s about time you learnt your place.”
His voice was as subdued as hers, and even Helgi had difficulty hearing everything they said. But he didn’t need to either to understand that the gydhja hated him. When Goetrik let go of him again, he fearfully watched the old woman leave as she immediately departed from the high table.
“Drink, my boy, and let me see if Eskil has taught you how to empty a horn.”
The king pressed his own drinking horn into Helgi’s hands and pushed it up to his mouth. Helgi couldn’t do anything else but put his head back and try to swallow the river of beer being poured down his throat. Although some of it was spilt, Goetrik still thumped him on the back with satisfaction when the horn was finally empty.
“You’ve brought him up well, Eskil,” bawled the king across the table. “Let’s drink to your foster son and my heir. To Helgi!”
The king stood up and proclaimed yet another “Hail” for his son. Helgi closed one eye in order to focus on the man who, apparently, was his father, but everything was swimming in front of his eyes. A metallic taste in his throat and a strange rumbling in his stomach caused him to slide down from the high-seat and rush outside with his hand over his mouth. He just managed to get away from the doorway before he had to give in to the strong contractions. He hadn’t eaten since early morning so it wasn’t much more than beer that came up.
Exhausted, he leaned up against the mud wall when the last bitter bile had been spat out. It couldn’t be true that Goetrik was his father. But why should Eskil lie about it? He didn’t know anyone who was as truthful as the earl. Helgi remembered how many times he and Erik had lain dreaming about their future. They both believed that they would be victorious warriors who fought for gold and glory. Even though Erik as the oldest would take over the estate and the title of earl, he would rather fight as a warrior in foreign countries, and sometimes they had had a quick wrestling match about which of them should look after the land and the market place. Sometimes Helgi had won, sometimes Erik, but usually they agreed that they could share the tasks. One of them could be off fighting as a warrior, while the other took care of Long Fjord, and after a few years they could swap roles.
None of that mattered any more. Helgi closed his eyes and said to himself that others would have been happy and proud to be the son of King Goetrik, the powerful chieftain of a bloodline of berserkers. But the only thing in his mind was that he wished Eskil had never said anything, and that he could ride home to Long Fjord again when the Yule celebrations were over.
“Come on. You can’t hang around out here.”
Eskil was now standing beside him, but Helgi didn’t look up.
“I’m tired.” He could hear how childish he sounded, but he was having difficulty controlling his trembling voice.
The earl put a hand on his shoulder, but Helgi shook it off angrily.
“You never told me ...” he began, but Eskil interrupted him.
“Right now, it’s important that you go back in, even if you don’t want to. As the heir of Danermark, much will be required of you that you might not like, but if you just remember to let yourself be guided by goodness and uprightness, nothing can go wrong.”
Helgi shuddered and muttered, “I couldn’t care less about Danermark. I don’t want to be king. Erik and I have decided ... “
The blow hit him so hard that he toppled over against the wall. Startled, he put his hand to his cheek where a burning, stinging sensation was spreading. Eskil had only hit him once before. That was the time he and Erik had set sail in a storm in a small boat and were nearly driven out to sea because the current was so strong that they couldn’t row against it.
“Now you’ll behave as I’ve taught you. You surely don’t want to cast shame on me and my kinsmen? I’ve been responsible for you until now. Everything you do will fall back on me. No-one chooses his destiny. You are Goetrik’s blood. That’s how the Norns have spun your thread.”
Helgi tried to get to his feet as he struggled not to slip away into the darkness that Eskil’s words had brought forth.
“You’re just going to have to manage this, my boy. There’s no other way,” muttered the earl and helped him to his feet.
“But how ...”
Eskil shushed him. “I promise to tell you the whole story one day. Right now you just have to pull yourself together and go in there and sit next to Goetrik again, so no-one will start talking. A man’s reputation can be tarnished quickly, and you wouldn’t want that.”
He brushed a few invisible straws off Helgi’s shoulder and gently pushed him towards the doorway. Helgi took a deep breath and went inside.
The sense of Eskil walking right behind him brought to mind the many times when the earl had demanded that he and Erik held their heads high and looked straight ahead, so no-one would see they were scared. He caught Erik’s eye when he came past the table where the boys were sitting. His foster brother’s face split into a huge smile and Helgi forced himself to smile back. Erik said something but the noise in the hall was deafening, so Helgi just nodded and continued up through the benches towards the high table. Many of the men raised their mugs and greeted him, and he nodded with dignity to them, as if he had never been anything other than the heir to Danermark.
“Ah, you’ve come back. Yes, then you really must be my son. Not many people can empty the horn and remain standing afterwards.” Goetrik laughed noisily.
Helgi gave his shoulders a slight shrug. He didn’t know what to say, but Inga replied for him.
“He’s just a boy.”
Goetrik lifted her chin so she was forced to look at him. “Yes - and maybe I should have more of that kind. Your brother has been talking for a long time about how I should get myself a new wife. Even though I now have Helgi, a great man can never have too many sons.”
“Exactly,” shouted Ulf, who was sitting on the other side of the table. “There’s an old agreement about marriage between our families, you know, Goetrik.”
Helgi couldn’t fail to see how Inga blushed but, behaving as if nothing had happened, she just asked Goetrik if he wanted some more beer.
The king reached out with his horn and pointed to the place on his left side which Jofrid had left.
“Sit over here, Inga. I need someone to fill my horn for the rest of the evening.”
The men at the table roared with laughter at the way he said it and Inga blushed again, but this time she kept her head proudly raised and was rewarded with an approving nod from her brother.