“If your heart does not remain with the Weaver and the Wolf, swear again before me as you once did before my father Raen.”
A number of grim faces around the hall met Stigander’s request, but no-one protested. Stigander would have been well within his rights to have them put to death, or trial by sword. Within his rights, but foolish: such a blood-letting would have taken generations to return from.
Stigander stood on the dias, flanked by Einarr and Bardr, with Gorgny standing watch just below. Man after man stepped forward and knelt before him, forswearing any allegiance to Ulfr and pledging allegiance to Stigander or his line. No few Singers also presented themselves. Before accepting and offering his counter-pledge, Stigander would look to Gorgny for his affirmation of their sincerity.
Meanwhile, the Vidofnings stood guard around the edges of the hall, looking as uncomfortable and impatient as Stigander felt. That this was necessary at all was a travesty, caused by a single ill-advised dalliance in his father’s youth: never in his life had Stigander been more glad of his policy to never bed a woman not his wife.
At least I won’t have to worry about Einarr. He found his mind wandering as the line moved on – never far, of course, in the seemingly endless stream of pledges and counter-pledges.
After what felt like an eternity of this those gathered in the hall once again stood assembled to either side. Stigander’s gaze slid across the entirety off the hall, and as his eyes lit on each familiar face he smiled a little more openly. “It’s good to be home,” he said, his voice unexpectedly hoarse.
“Tomorrow, there will be work to be done. Tonight, though, let us feast!”
A cheer rose up across the hall, and Stigander stepped down to stand in front of his father’s right-hand man. “Where is Father?”
The scene shifted. Last night’s feast had been one of the wildest Stigander could remember, before or after the Vidofnir had become a vagabond. He thought he had drank too much, although what he felt was more akin to the idea of a hangover than the actual thing. And the next task of the day was to be an unpleasant one, one he’d hoped to avoid.
“When the Weaving unravelled, it came undone all at once,” Gorgny explained. “The Weaver realized what had happened at the same time as all the rest of us, and we caught them before they could escape. They await your judgement.”
Stigander gave a heavy sigh. “Best be on with it.”
Gorgny bowed, and then an unfamiliar-looking woman and appeared before him with a startlingly familiar-looking man, shackled and weighed down with chains, the sole purpose of which seemed to be the weight. The woman, a withered old crone whose long white hair had gone thin and who had lost more than a few of her teeth, stood defiant, but her son was on his knees and would not look up at him. We could almost be twins… The newly resworn jarls formed a circle around them in the center of the room: the Thing would judge.
I suppose she must have been pretty enough in her youth, or she’d never have caught Father’s eye. Stigander met her eyes with a cold stare. To punish her was easy: it would take years for father’s mind to recover, even if his body seemed hale. Gorgny, at least, thought Raen’s mind was still whole enough to mend. Ulfr, though…
Stigander rose, and went to join the circle of leaders surrounding the usurpers. “Weavess Urdr. You stand accused before the Thing of high treason, treason against your husband, practicing the black arts, murder by means of magic and poison, and of practicing the torturer’s arts. Among your accusers, your victims, are members of this Thing. Have you any defense?”
“You dare to try me here, with my accusers among the judges?” The woman may have been a crone, but her voice was as strong as a woman thirty years her junior, and she stood straight and proud.
“You would rather rot in the dungeon until I can call on the thanes and jarls of other lands? Winter approaches: I should think in your shoes I should prefer swift judgement to spending the winter in the dungeon, wondering every day if you might simply have been forgotten. Cold, damp, dark, drafty, and worse than it was before the Weaving forced me into exile.”
Her only response was to meet his hard stare with one of her own.
Stigander gave her a moment. He did not think her neck would bend, and it soon became plain it would not. “Are there any present who will stand in her defense?”
Ulfr moved as though to stand. He planted one foot on the floor, but then placed it back again.
“Even your own son will not stand to defend your actions. Can there be any more damning statement?”
Still Urdr stared at him, but Stigander would not be cowed. “If you will not defend yourself, so be it. The penalty for any one of these crimes is death, and so I put the question before this Thing. Did this woman conspire to overthrow the rightful Thane of Breidelsteinn?”
Not a single Jarl said nay.
“In the overthrow of the thane Raen, by whom she bore a son, did she practice the black art of curse-weaving?”
Once again each man in the circle answered aye.
“Was the rightful Thane, a man she has called her husband, tortured by her hand?”
Some few did not verbally agree to this one, but still there were no nays.
“So be it. Based on the determination of this Thing, who have witnessed the actions of the accused, the weavess Urdr is guilty. You shall be stripped of all you possess and hung in a cage over the sea. You shall be afforded neither food nor fresh water, and even the salt spray shall not reach you. If in four days you yet live, your cage shall be recovered and you shall be burned at the stake.”
He worried for a moment that the punishment would be too harsh, but then the child-like babbling of his father returned to him. This was just.
“Ulfr, son of Urdr. It can be denied by no-one here that you were a willing co-conspirator in your mother’s plan. By strict justice, you should meet her same fate.”
“I cannot deny this.” Even the man’s voice sounded like Stigander’s.
Ulfr gave no answer, merely continued to stare at the rug beneath his knees.
“If you had come on your own, we could have been brothers.”
“But I could not have come on my own. From the time I was a babe, Mother has spoken of our father as her husband, and alternately doted on his memory and railed against his cruel absence. She promised me the thanedom was rightfully mine… and with the credulity of a child I believed her. The wrong we have done here only became clear to me after we had seized this land and it began to fall apart, and I believed there was naught I could do but try to hold everything together. I will submit to exposure in the cage.”
Justice must be served, but to execute Ulfr would make him a kinslayer. There had to be a better way. “But will you submit to exile, if the Thing agrees?”
Only now did Ulfr look up at Stigander. It was like looking into a mirror. The sound of silver bells drowned out the mirror’s response.