Reign of Harald I, Jarl of Vestlandet
… On that barren field in Karelia, everything changed because a rider brought along a few words from Vestfold. None of the men present could have predicted then, just how profound the effect on all our lives would be.
– Excerpt from Are Haraldsson's Ærede Forfredre (eng. 'Honoured Ancestors', c. 1138)
– Somewhere in Karelia
The thick silence was interrupted by the harrumphing of the rider. “There's more.”
“A few days before he departed this world, your father was recognised as Jarl of Vestlandet by Queen Gyda.”
Harald blanched. “What?”
Tor simply stood at his side, mouth agape.
Looking at Harald, the rider said. “With his passing, you are now Jarl … It's all in the letter.” The rider stretched his arms. “Would it be permissible for me to dismount and rest a spell? It's been a hard ride, and –“
“Of course. Do as you please.”
The courier dismounted and was about to lead his horse away, before he suddenly halted and addressed Harald once more: “Jarl, I nearly forgot, forgive me – The Queen requests your presence at court in Vestfold as soon as possible. Your brother, too.”
The occasion called for a celebration, but there would be no time for a proper blot at Bergenhus before they had to present themselves in Vestfold. And there, the new god was King. Here, however, where the ground was always frozen several feet down, and the sky lit up as if the old gods themselves demanded tribute. And tribute they would have, Harald and Tor had jointly decided. The foremost sign of a good Jarl was his ability to orchestrate a proper offering, and the passing of their father, too, called for a sacrifice.
Harald, Tor, and some of their hirdmenn who followed the old ways, cut the throats of a large part of the cattle they had brought along for the war. They would have enough for the way back. The blood – now called laut by virtue of its sacrificial status, was drained into vats. From there, they would sprinkle it onto the tents – for lack of permanent homes and stables – and the horses, the remaining cattle, and the men.
Some of their men had turned to the new gods. Harald considered himself a man of tolerance, and they were allowed to shy back. However little they wanted to “sully themselves” with the laut, they were men – hungry men who had been at war for months – and they would eat and drink with the others when the feast began.
And the Allfather would know.
– Skiningsal, Vestfold
Queen Gyda wasn't entirely pleased. She had planned on making that nettlesome Are av Åsane Jarl, and then placate him further by giving his two sons high positions within the realm. Now it would like she was favouring the youngest one, who had inherited the Jarldom, if she gave him a high position as well – but, however reluctant she was to admit it – she needed them. They were both far too talented to have roaming around unleashed. Their recent forays into Karelia had proven that. Maybe she could play them against one another somehow. The elder was the one who hadn't inherited – that was bound to cause some friction, wasn't it? Either way, she consoled herself, she couldn't dwell too much on the Åsanemenn, not without exposing her flank to another threat.
Her cousin Tryggve, the Jarl of Østlandet, was also looking to assert himself. The Jarl of Iceland would check her every move out of spite, as per the proud Icelandic tradition. Håkon of Orkney was the one Jarl she could rely on – but the odds decidedly did not favour her, not if she couldn't win the Åsanemenn to her cause.
They arrived in the usual fashion, dressed for war and with little time to spare for formalities. A rumour had spread that the new Duke and his brother had celebrated the occasion with a pagan feast, out on the Karelian tundra. She would have to let that slide, for now.
“Queen Gyda. We honour you.”
“Jarl Harald! Lendmann Tor!” She tried to sound gregarious and pleased to see them, if not overjoyed. When the words left her lips, however, they sounded more like a squeak. The elder brother, Tor, had been made the Lendmann of Rogaland as soon as Harald had reaffirmed his Jarldom.
“I know you are not men of idle talk, so I will be brief."
The brothers nodded in silence. The Queen continued. “In recognition of both your power and your service to your Queen by subjugating the Finnish pagans … I would like to assign command of the Kongshird to you, Tor – and make you, Harald, steward of the realm and custodian of the treasury.”
The silence that followed dragged on. Gyda wrung her hands in her lap, and asked tentatively: “Do you accept?”
Harald looked amused. “What about our abilities, Queen?”
“You are granting us positions in recognition of our power and service – but not our abilities. Do you doubt our abilities?”
Harald's wolflike smile was piercing. The Queen tried to keep her face from flushing red, but to no avail. She had forgotten to mention their abilities. She felt nauseous. Phrased as she had, her offer could easily be construed as a thinly veiled insult.
“No! I –“
She cut herself off, realizing she sounded like a blushing chambermaid. She felt like a blushing chambermaid.
“Of course not. Forgive me. Your abilities and expertise in various fields are widely known, and highly valued – and will be instrumental to the well-being of Norway as a unified Kingdom.”
“Then I gracefully accept your offer”, growled the larger man, shortly followed by his brother: “As do I.”
Gyda smiled pleasantly. “Good! Now – the next order of business.”
“I would like your support for my heir – Sanna – when the ting assembles to elect the next King... Or Queen.”
Tor looked puzzled, while Harald merely cocked an eyebrow, asking; “A bargain, then, is what you propose?”
“A … No, not at all, I – I, simply want to ask what you think about –“
She was stammering, and Harald capitalized on it, raising a hand as if to calm her.
“I'm not one to take issue with bargains, Queen. As far as I understand, the King – or Queen – must be prepared to bargain with the Jarls at every turn.”
Gyda remained silent, her hopes rising.
“But this is one bargain not even a silver-tongued Gardarmann could hope to secure for you.”
Gyda blinked in surprise.
“A Dane will never be king or queen of all Norway. That is a foolish dream you should let go, my Queen.”
Gyda stood up, fixing her furious gaze on the insolent Åsanemann. He continued, unaffected.
“I propose a counter-offer – denounce your Husband, leave your girl out of the succession, marry someone of the right blood, and produce an heir. I will support that child in a bid for the throne.”
Gyda bristled with rage. “You may leave. Now.”
The Åsanemenn stood up, bowed, and left.
In the courtyard, Tor nudged Harald on the shoulder, prompting him to turn around. “Will you really support her child if she does all that you asked?” the large man inquired.
Harald laughed. “Maybe I would – but I am absolutely certain that it will never become a reality.”
“Our dear Queen is not fond of men. She barely tolerates her husband, and his leash is shorter than that of the hounds in our courtyard. She'll never find another husband. Everyone knows.”
“She prefers the company of her chambermaids to that of her husband.”
“Oh. Oh. So that's why –“
“That's why she only has the one child. And probably why her husband looks so downtrodden, too. Hence why I doubt there will be more. Either way...”
They crossed the courtyard, and made sure they were well out of earshot of any curious listeners-in.
“I won't suffer a Dane on the throne," Harald declared. "None of the Jarls will, save for that Orknian toad.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Nothing, brother. While we play our parts, I have a feeling this Queen is going to unseat herself.”
Tor fell silent. Harald joined his brother in silence. The Queen was rash, eager to please, stumbled over her own words, and had tried to bribe them with position only moments into their talk. She seemed to have little regard for the old ways, and that was the safest route to riling up the Jarls – the Jarls who were her base of power. Yet she was still headstrong, convinced of both the legitimacy of her daughter's claim and of her own cleverness.
The next few years could easily become very interesting.