Buskeland, Norway, July 874 AD
The mead hall rang with cheers and laughter. As Kolbjorn walked towards his father’s high seat, he felt lightheaded, as if he had just drunk a whole cup of ale.
But it was not alcohol that made his stomach knot with thrill.
It was hope.
The raiding season had gone well, and the mead hall swarmed with warriors eating and drinking, the buzz of stories and lousy drunken songs. The air was thick with the scent of cooked vegetables, grilled meat, and fermented honey. The day was bright outside, but semi-darkness reigned here. The light came from the fires of the oil lamps hanging on pillars carved with interwoven wolves—Jarl Bjorn’s clan animal.
Kolbjorn passed by the mead tables and benches where feasting men greeted him. He nodded back as he passed. Many of them had saved his life several times during raids in the last few years. Modolfr, his best friend and sword-brother, caught Kolbjorn’s arm and pulled him to the bench next to him.
“Brother,” he said and gestured for a thrall to fill a drinking horn. His breath stank with mead and his cup swayed. “I want to drink to you. You won every single battle in Pictland. You saved my ass at least three times. Odin could not stop watching you, brother.”
The other men nodded as they heard Modolfr. Warmth spread in Kolbjorn’s stomach at the affection and approval of his closest friend. Kolbjorn chuckled and glanced in the direction of his father, Jarl Bjorn. The warmth disappeared as if blown away by a winter draft. Everyone, it seemed, approved of Kolbjorn but the only person who mattered.
Kolbjorn shook his head. “I am not a drinker. And I will eat with you after I find out what my father wanted me for.”
Modolfr lowered his head. “Do you think he will finally make you his true son? If not after this raiding season, then I don’t know when. Thanks to you, he has more silver than Njord has water.”
Kolbjorn swallowed a knot so hard it felt like a stone. “Not quite.”
Modolfr scowled at the two blond half-gods sitting by Jarl Bjorn—his sons born in wedlock with his now-deceased wife—their rich brynjas gleaming in the dim light of the fires. “Surely better than those two pig turds. All they did was show off before Jarl Bjorn.”
Anger rose in Kolbjorn’s blood like storm surge at the thought of Alfarr and Ebbe. How many times had he thrown Alfarr off kicking, screaming women while Ebbe did nothing? And his father? He just watched the three of them as if they were little boys who played with wooden swords. Alfarr and Ebbe threw insults at Kolbjorn when no one saw them, and he had to press down his anger, even though what he wanted most was to teach them a lesson. Jarl Bjorn never defended Kolbjorn, never took his side. He allowed Alfarr and Ebbe everything, yet Kolbjorn had to follow the code of honor to the letter: courage, magnanimity, strength, loyalty, generosity, integrity, and respect.
And he still was not good enough.
One bad word about Kolbjorn and he would lose his chance at the only thing he wanted more than his next breath.
To become his father’s legitimate son. To become a Bjornsson.
Then he would be the next jarl. He suspected his half-brothers had a very different take on the matter.
The serving girl—Una—brushed his arm with her breast as she poured mead into the cup. “Finally taking up drinking, Kolbjorn? Let me know if you want me to make sure you don’t fly away tonight like a raven on the stormy wind.”
She was pretty, with her strawberry-blonde braids around her head, her green eyes and full lips. She smelled like hay and flowers, and something sweet and feminine that made desire stir in him.
And with it, sadness. He’d had women, all right. They came to him willingly, to share his sleeping bench and give him pleasure.
But even though he had his own house, he would not marry until he could give his children an honorable name. And he still did not know what it was like to feel the real affection and care of a woman.
He smiled at Una and slid the cup to Modolfr. “Still no drinking, Una.” He glanced at his father who had caught his glance and gestured for him to come closer. Needles prickled Kolbjorn’s skin. Maybe this would be it.
“Save me a good piece of that boar, Una.” He rose from the bench and nodded towards the spit where barbecue steamed. “Whether I come back with good or bad news, I’ll want that meat.”
Kolbjorn stepped over the mead bench and walked towards his father. Jarl Bjorn was a big man, still young enough to rob many warriors of their lives in battle. He was the ideal image of a jarl: mighty and tall, a proud golden beard, combed and braided. Kolbjorn had his father’s height and build, but his cur’s chestnut hair and green-brown eyes must have come from his mother. He wondered if Freyr himself, the god of sunshine, blessed his father’s legitimate line, although Alfarr and Ebbe’s mother had assured everyone it was Odin.
The day Alfarr was born, a raven had flown into the mead hall and walked to her. And when he did, her labor started. The morning of the day when Ebbe was born, the sunrise glared as if blood was spilled across the skies.
Kolbjorn wondered what the day he was born had been like. He would never know.
He stood before his father, under his heavy gaze. And Kolbjorn was not a small man, nor was he a cowardly man. But a shiver went through him like a breeze across still waters.
“Kolbjorn, Son,” his father said. “Sit.”
He gestured at the chair next to him, and Kolbjorn took it. Alfarr and Ebbe whispered something to each other, throwing murderous glances at Kolbjorn. This was the first time he had sat by the honorable high seat from which his father ruled, accepted guests, negotiated, and punished. Where family sat.
Was Kolbjorn now a part of that family? The thought made him breathe faster.
“I called the three of you to discuss an important matter.”
Kolbjorn leaned closer.
“You remember we visited the Danish king, Eirik, this summer? Well, there’s been a development. I need his army, and I need it fast. I want the Swedes to know they can’t just come knocking.”
Kolbjorn frowned. This was not what he had hoped his father would say, but the fact that Father wanted to discuss political matters with him made his chest fill with hope even more.
“Did you hear rumors, Father?” Kolbjorn asked. “Do the Swedes plan an attack?”
“Shut up, bastard, this is not your business,” Alfarr said into the mead horn.
Father raised his hand. “Shush, Alfarr, I need Kolbjorn’s assistance.”
Alfarr shook his head and gulped down the rest of his mead. Kolbjorn’s heart beat in his ears. This was the first time his father had defended Kolbjorn. It sounded too good to be true.
“Now, Kolbjorn, the alliance with King Eirik also means great trading routes, and more riches than I could ever imagine. I might become a king one day. How would you like your father to be a king?”
Kolbjorn swallowed. He did not care whether his father would be a jarl or a king.
“I would like you to be a king if this is something you desire.”
“I desire it. I desire it more than anything in this world. And to achieve it, I must impress Eirik. I want to create jewelry that we can sell for more silver and gold than we could ever make raiding. Southern lands will offer great prizes for it, and it’s much more profitable to trade with them than to raid them. I invited the best jeweler in the North to work here, and there was never such a master as he. They say he must have apprenticed with dwarves themselves. I want you two, Alfarr and Ebbe, to deal with the Danish king alongside myself. To assure his friendship and alliance, I need to give the king the finest gift he’s ever received. Eirik will come at Jul, together with many other jarls. The gift must be ready before he arrives.”
Jul was the winter festival, which was in six moons. Kolbjorn clenched his jaw so hard he thought he’d break the bones. “You want Alfarr and Ebbe to assist you to woo the king. What is it that you need from me, Jarl?”
Bjorn’s heavy gaze rested on Kolbjorn for a while, and if Kolbjorn was right, he saw pity flicker in his father’s eyes just for a moment. Anger roared in his gut.
“I need you to lead raids during the remaining time this season and next, to bring the jeweler a hill of silver, gold, and gemstones higher than himself. I need you to do what you do best, Kolbjorn. Raid and fight.”
Kolbjorn’s nostrils flared. He knew where this led. If he would not be dealing with the king, that meant nothing would change for him. He had to know if he was right.
“Will you ever make me legitimate?”
The words were spilled out before the three of them like bones from a witcher’s sachet, and just like the bones, destiny clung to them. Kolbjorn couldn’t breathe.
“Father, you can’t make him legitimate,” Alfarr squealed. “This mongrel, this slave’s son can’t be our brother.”
“‘Tis not your decision.” Jarl Bjorn’s hand clenched in a fist. “I can do as I please.”
“Father, you have more sense than that. Promising him, it’s a nice little bone for a dog, but you can’t be seriously thinking about making him a Bjornsson!”
The jarl pressed his lips tight and his eyebrows knit together.
“Alfarr, shut your mouth.” He met Kolbjorn’s eyes. “I can’t have a bastard deal with the king,” he said in a low voice.
The blood left Kolbjorn’s face. He was such a fool. Alfarr and Ebbe poked each other with their elbows and laughed, but Kolbjorn could not care less about their insults. Alfarr was right. Kolbjorn was just a dog whom his father lured with a bone.
“I want you to raid better,” Father said. “I can’t accept you in the family just yet, but if you continue to work hard and show dedication to the wolf clan, I will reconsider, Kolbjorn. I promise.”
Kolbjorn gave a curt nod, and without another word he left the chair by his father and then the mead hall, walking into the freshness of the day, ignoring his friends’ and sword-brothers’ calls to join them.
He must have been a fool, indeed, and was an even bigger fool for realizing it and still hoping.
But in all twenty-five years of his life there had never been anything he wanted to live for besides becoming a true Bjornsson.
Even if there was the smallest chance, he’d do it. He’d turn the world upside down to get his father’s approval and affection, and finally, acceptance into the family. He’d make Bjorn proud.