For three more long winter months, Einarr attempted to court the Princess Runa, and for three more long winter months Stigander attempted to nudge the Jarl toward acceptance. Fortune was not in their favor, however, and the Jarl would not budge. The sons of Raen understood the reason all too well, but that made it no easier for Einarr to bear. Not when Trabbi the fisherman – Trabbi, who had not once sailed out of Hroaldr’s territory; Trabbi who had no ambition outside his fleet of fishermen; Trabbi, who was nearly as old as Stigander, whose chief virtues were loyalty to his Jarl and an established homestead, whose affection for the girl more resembled a fond uncle’s than a lover’s – was the favored suitor.
Einarr seethed each and every time that Trabbi stepped in before him to speak with Runa, and seethed more to remind himself of the cause. The Jarl did what he believed best for his daughter and his own holdings, and attaching either of them to the cursed line of Raen was not likely to be either. He stopped short of cursing his grandfather. Tempting as it was, he had no hand in the Weaving that drew calamity on his descendant’s line.
For her part, Runa accepted his attentions with a smile that was merely polite, and gave Trabbi as little encouragement as she could manage. Einarr almost pitied the man, in truth, because he suspected in the end none of the three parties involved had much say in the matter.
Eventually, though, the soothsayers and the wind proclaimed that spring was on its way. Soon the Vidofnings would be able to refit and prepare for the first expedition of the new year. On the first clear day of the thaw, Einarr volunteered to give their ship its initial inspection. He wanted – needed – to get away from the Hall and the stifling awkwardness that had settled in the air as the months passed. The cold stares Einarr got from the Jarl only made things worse, of course: that their presence this winter was suffered for the sake of his friendship with Stigander was plain. The more Einarr had pushed himself forward, tried to show himself a good match despite his handicaps, the less welcome he felt.
Snowdrops were beginning to show their heads, he noticed as he skied over the still-snowy field surrounding the hall. The idea flitted through his head to collect some on his way back, but before he could settle on the idea a voice reached his ears.
“Wait.” The sweet note that carried halfway across the field to him was Runa’s voice. “Wait, please.”
Einarr stopped and twisted to look behind him. The fur of her cloak was dyed crimson, and drew his eye to the long blond braid that caressed her figure. He sighed, obliging, as she closed the distance. She would make an excellent wife. But not for me, at this rate.
“Thank you,” she said. Her face was already red from the cold.
“You shouldn’t come out this way alone. There are wolves about, even in your father’s holdings.” He affected formality; since the Jarl did not intend her for him, it would be best to put some distance between them.
“I’m not alone, now am I, so long as you allow me to walk with you.”
“Such a thing would hardly be proper, under the circumstances.”
“Oh, come now. I only wish to talk with you, and you are far too much the gentleman to try anything.”
“Aren’t you?” She raised an eyebrow at him.
He laughed in spite of himself, lowering his head to hide the smile he could not quash. “As you wish, my lady.”
“Excellent.” Runa closed the distance between them and threaded a hand about his arm, under the cloak to leave his sword-hand free.
“My lady. . .”
“There is no impropriety in a young man escorting a woman this way, especially at her request.” She played at haughtiness, teasing him for his formal mask.
He looked over at her, about to protest, but sighed instead. The look of her sea-blue eyes brooked no opposition and the feel of her bosom pressed against his arm sapped his will. “Well then, since you insist, let us continue.”
It was not until they were starting down the switchbacks leading to the beach that she spoke again. “You know that my father has formally proposed my betrothal to Trabbi?”
“I wish I was surprised.”
“They haven’t been exactly subtle, have they.” She sighed. “Why must I marry a graybeard?” She wailed, and the change in tone was enough to make Einarr jump, even with her arm wrapped around his own.
“So Father has failed, then. …That may be partially my fault. If I had backed off after that Hall dance…”
“I would still be engaged, but I would be even more trapped.” Runa looked at him, her eyes as earnest as he had ever seen them. “You do love me, don’t you?”
Einarr looked at her sidelong, trying to ignore the unseasonably low cut of her dress, trying equally to find the strength to lie. “Yes,” he breathed, his heart winning over his head.
“Then if I tell you I have a plan…?”
“That may depend on the plan.”
She nodded once and fell silent again. Einarr offered her a hand for balance going down the steep path crossing from the forest to the beach. He could see the ship, now, and from here it looked as though nothing untoward had happened, but a thorough inspection was what he had come out to do.
“You know when I decided I would marry you?”
“When you teamed up with me to bring in the goats all those years ago.” She couldn’t quite stifle a giggle, and it lightened Einarr’s mood enough that he smiled.
“Has your father told you why he is against it?”
“Yes. I’m afraid I can’t quite bring myself to worry about it, though, and the Weaving must be nearly unraveled by now.”
He pursed his lips. He wasn’t at all sure of that, not after the encounter with the Grendel last fall.
“Will you take me away?”
“To what? A life on the run, with neither hearth nor hall nor port of call?” He recoiled at the idea, ashamed that some small part of him was still tempted.
“Am I not worth fighting for?”
“What do you think I’ve been doing?”
“Playing a courtly game you can’t win. My father won’t change his mind for that. I see three choices, only one of which is likely to be acceptable to both of us.”
“Oh? And what would those be?” Einarr started up the ladder leading to the Vidofnir‘s deck, only half listening as he tried to find the argument that would convince him not to go along with it.
“First: we accept my father’s judgement and I marry Trabbi.”
Einarr twitched. It was the safest option, but the thought of losing her to a man his father’s age was physically painful.
“Not acceptable to me, and I don’t think to you either. Two: you take me like a common serving girl. We aim to get caught, preferably after I’m with child. Surely then Father will yield.”
He turned his head to stare down at her, wide-eyed, hardly able to believe what she was suggesting.
She cut him off before he could object. “Somehow, I think you too much Stigander’s son to go along with that.”
“I am appalled you even thought it worth mentioning.” That traitorous corner of his mind noted that she mentioned no personal objection to the plan. He was doubly betrayed when the thought kindled desire. He stamped it down.
“Indeed. Three: we get a boat and sail away. On the first island we come to, we wed.”
He sighed and did not answer immediately. The idea was tempting, but it would be a betrayal of everything his Father had taught him. He was standing on the deck by the time he trusted himself to answer, and at that point she was halfway up the ladder. He needed to look her in the eye for this.
No sooner had her second slipper met the deck boards than he took her by the shoulder and spun her to face him, affecting more anger than he felt. “What sort of man do you take me for? The Sons of Raen do not steal wives. You really think I could let some pretty face – even one like yours – convince me to betray my own father? To end their friendship like that?”
“Not a face, perhaps, but what about a voice?”
His mouth hardened. “You wouldn’t.”
“I could.” Despite the difference in their heights, she managed to peer down her nose at him. Then her face fell. “But you’re right. I wouldn’t, even though I do not love him. You would abandon me?”
He stared at her for a long moment, weighing how serious she appeared and how much he wanted her against the combined wrath of Hroaldr and Stigander. He would be surprised if anyone at Kjell Hall did not realize how he felt. It would make him a renegade, the very scion of cursed Raenshold cast out as a traitor to their Thane, but as he gazed on her the last of his resolve melted away. He knew his answer to her question. “No…. No, I cannot abandon you. You put me in a difficult position, my lady.”
“Just as my father has placed me in one.”
He clasped both her tiny hands in his own, nodding and hoping she understood his agreement. “Runa.” The name tasted sweet on his tongue, and at that moment it was the only word he could say. A long moment passed before he remembered his task. “I have work that must be done before I can return to the hall. Will you aid me in my task?”
“I will, my lord.” A playful smile curled the corners of her mouth.
|1.8 – Dance Fight!||1.10 – Runaway Bride|
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