With the arrival of nearly all the jarls of the greater islands, about forty in all, it was time to celebrate the solstice. In Thusund, they paid greater heed to this the longest night than anywhere else in the realms. The dark winters on windswept isles, where little grew and life was harsh, bred the hardiest people in Adalmearc, it was said. Solstice gave cause for revelry and caution both. Revelry in the knowledge that days grew longer; caution that the coldest days yet lay ahead before spring arrived. Food stores would dwindle, and should fish not appear in abundance to supplement meagre harvest, there would be starvation. Such was life on the thousand islands, where food ever remained in scant supply. In the next months, winter would claim its victims among the old, the poor, and the frail, as it had claimed the king’s own wife last winter.
With jarls and their families in addition to the regular courtiers, the great hall was full. All tables had been pushed to the sides along with chairs and benches for the old and weary, including the king. The rest remained standing, circling to the tables and back to collect food and drink. Animals had been slaughtered to provide a meal worthy of the occasion, and each jarl had brought a tribute of meat or mead as well.
Apart from nobility and courtiers, skalds and musicians could be found. For now, they simply provided music while people ate, drank, and talked; later in the evening, the great songs would be performed, and there would be dancing.
Lastly, numerous servants flitted about, attending to the needs of the guests while remaining beneath the notice of those they served.
“We should make conversation with the jarls,” Jana suggested quietly to Brand. “Split up and see what we may learn.”
“Aye, captain,” Brand replied, earning him a slap on the arm in reproach.
“Talk. Learn. Make the most of this opportunity,” Jana impressed upon him before leaving him to approach a group of noblewomen already deep in eager conversation.
For his part, Brand glanced around the room and finally chose someone to engage in discussion. “Watch duty on solstice night. You drew the short straw?”
Haki shrugged. “I spent last solstice with family.”
Brand threw his head towards the crowd. “Are these jarls known to you?”
“Of course,” the housecarl said. “They come each year, after all.”
“What is your opinion of them?”
“Some care about silver, others about power.”
“You might argue the two are the same,” Brand suggested.
“In Herbergja, no doubt. But not in Dvaros, oldest of cities. To many, even among the jarls, tradition weighs more heavily than coin or crown,” the housecarl considered. “Take Jarl Roar, for instance.” He nodded in the direction of a heavyset man, built like a brick. His face seemed humourless even as those around him laughed, and the skin of a bear kept him warm inside the cold hall.
“What of him?”
“His people care little for barter except for necessities. No silver threads will line his clothing, but he knows every word of ‘Eirik Wyrmbane’, I am sure,” Haki related with a wry expression.
“Do you think he favours Lord Sven or Lady Svana?”
“Who can say?” Haki shrugged. “I think he cares little one way or the other.”
“They are hardly alike,” Brand pointed out. “Strange he should not think one of them more fit to rule than the other.”
“I’m a housecarl. Such matters are not for me to consider.” Haki gave another shrug.
“And strange that two children can be born at the same time, to the same father and mother, and yet be so different,” Brand considered.
“A pity they cannot both rule, but there’s only one crown.”
“Indeed,” Brand muttered with contemplation in his eyes. “A pity.”
Several women stood in a semicircle, eagerly talking. The wealth on display in their clothes differed. Some wore ordinary dresses with little ostentation, looking even simpler than Jana in her gifted garments. Others, in particular the woman around whom the half-circle had gathered, wore golden jewellery. Regardless of wealth, all wore brightly dyed clothes; on the grey isles, the islanders held all colours in great esteem.
As Jana took the empty place in their small group, she drew their attention at once. “You must be the lady of Alcázar,” spoke the woman with golden earrings. “Already we have heard so much of you.”
“I am flattered, especially as there is so little to tell of me,” Jana replied politely, evoking laughter.
“You must tell us of your father’s court in Alcázar!”
“Is it true that lions and leopards dine with the jarl?”
The questions continued a long while before Jana had satisfies their curiosity. Once all the women had been enthralled by tales of the South Cities, she ventured a question of her own. “As I am new, I must ask your indulgence and that you tell me of your families.”
Happily, the women pointed out their husbands, children, and any siblings, in-laws or otherwise, also present. As the lady in golden earrings spoke, Jana paid particular attention. She indicated a tall man, bald but with a great, black beard neatly trimmed. “My husband, Jarl Harald of Svartheim,” the lady said with satisfaction in her voice. Like his wife, the jarl had a circle of attendants, listening to his boisterous laughter.
“He seems most convivial,” Jana remarked, “and admired among his peers.”
“If they can be called that,” the jarlinna said pointedly, but her voice quickly became pleasant again. “Here, let me introduce you.” She grabbed Jana by the arm and pulled her away, even as some of the other women protested at being left behind. “I need a change of conversation anyway,” the lady whispered in Jana’s ear, and the latter gave an understanding smile. “Harald, my dear,” the jarlinna called out to no effect. “Harald! Harald Jarl!” she almost shouted over the din of music, conversation, and laughter.
“My sweet’s wife delicate voice reaches my ear!” The facetious remark was accompanied by a wide smile as the jarl turned towards the ladies. “And your honeyed words have caught a rare bird!”
“Do not be crass, dear,” continued the jarlinna. “This is Lady Jana from Alcázar.”
“I think my eyes could have told me as much, but you are good to introduce us, dear wife,” laughed Harald before he gave a bow to Jana. “One of two names on every tongue tonight! And yet for two opposite reasons.”
“Pray tell, Your Highness,” Jana asked.
“Ah, the courteous manners and titles of eastern lands,” the jarl remarked. “Well, your companion is known to all and thus terribly exciting to talk about. Whereas you, my dear lady, was unknown to all, which is also terribly exciting to talk about.”
“I see that both fame and lack of same leads the same way,” Jana said.
“Harald, dear, we must invite the lady to Svartheim. Her illustrious companion too,” the jarlinna inserted. “Why not bring them with us on the ship home after solstice?”
“We certainly have room,” the jarl laughed.
“That is most kind of you to offer,” Jana replied courteously. “I would have to speak with Adalbrand first.”
“Some polite company would be preferred, rather than all the brutes you brought along,” complained the jarlinna. “Nothing but housecarls all over the ship!”
“Katla, my dear, do not bore our company,” Harald warned with an edge to his voice that quickly disappeared into his smile. “I assure you, Lady Jana, you and Lord Adalbrand would be honoured guests. Svartheim may not have the size of Dvaros, but the island is prosperous, and my home has many rooms. You will not be deprived of any comfort.”
“You are kind, Your Highness,” Jana replied, glancing at the rings on his fingers. “Indeed, in this company of jarls, you seem preeminent.”
“Ah, more courtesy! It must be the sun that gives southerners such pleasant demeanours. Nothing like our dark winters,” Harald laughed.
Commotion spread through the hall; it quickly became apparent that more skalds had appeared, and a performance was underway.
“The song of Eirik Wyrmbane. We better be quiet, or Jarl Roar will have our hide,” Harald grinned.
“In that case, if you will excuse me,” Jana said, bowing her head.
As music began to play, Jana made her way to the edge of the hall where Brand stood. Catching her eye, he left the housecarls hitherto keeping him company, and the two spoke quietly in the back.
“How is your evening?” he asked.
“I have sailed some distance,” she replied. “Jarl Harald is as expected. I think he hides a cunning mind under his merry countenance. He is certainly richer than the other jarls I have seen tonight.”
“How can you tell?”
“Both he and his wife wear jewellery made from gold. Other than the lady Svana, I have only seen silver being worn by any tonight.”
“Curious,” Brand considered. “Gold implies trade with Alcázar. Perhaps usual for Herbergja, but not for Svartheim.” In the middle of the hall, most of the guests had arranged themselves for the traditional dance accompanying each verse of ‘Eirik Wyrmbane’. As the skalds sang, the guests moved in intricate patterns, both men and women. Those not participating stood by the edges; the king sat down as an exception, drinking heated and spiced wine.
“He is rumoured to favour the prince,” Jana pointed out, speaking of Harald. “He may have been paid for his allegiance.” Her eyes fell on a woman wearing a deep blue robe with an intricate horse head sewn in silver on the chest. “Who is she? I have not seen her at court, but nor does she seem to belong in the company of these jarls.”
“She is a silrobe,” Brand explained. “A priestess. I do not know her name. She must have arrived today.”
“She does not seem to enjoy herself despite the festivities.”
“I suspect her purpose is not tonight, but tomorrow at the king’s council. Silrobes serve Disfara, and oaths are sworn in her name.”
“I see.” The singing rose in intensity, as many of the guests joined in, and the pair abandoned quiet conversation for the moment.
Throughout the evening, as breaks in the music allowed it, the jarls appeared before the king to present themselves and their families, showing their respect towards not only their host, but also their liege. As Jarlinna Herdis appeared alone, it drew curious stares and raised eyebrows.
“Welcome, Herdis Jarl,” the king greeted her with a thin voice. “I see you stand alone.”
“I thank you, Leiknarr Kongungr,” replied the jarlinna, both using the old greetings. Her tone was cold. “My husband remains at Silfey, overseeing my affairs in my absence. The Raven Days approach, and ill tidings soar on the winds that fill the sails.”
“We appreciate that you would make the voyage,” the king remarked dryly. “Tomorrow you may sail home and remain at Silfey.”
“For how long?” asked the jarlinna with sudden sharpness. “Faint rumour only reached us at Silfey, yet all the whispers in Dvaros speak of ill omens. How long, Leiknarr Kongungr, will you keep us in ignorance? We deserve the chance to defend ourselves!”
“This is a celebration!” Leiknarr replied equally sharp. “I have called a council tomorrow. Rest your questions and accusations until then, and do not forget you stand before your king.” His warning was undercut by a coughing fit.
“I hope it is not too late.” Herdis’ piercing blue eyes swept over the gathering until they found Jana. “I heard that even today, your own son showed our warships to spies from Alcázar.”
The king rose as fast as old knees allowed, immediately reaching out to support himself against the nearest housecarl. “That is enough, Herdis Jarl. My hospitality is not without bounds. Another word, and it will be withdrawn.”
For a tense moment, jarl and king stared at each other until the lady inclined her head slightly and moved away. The skalds began playing another song and music filled the room, but the words spoken by Herdis of Silfey quickly spread through the hall.