Gardar walked into the Great Hall and spotted Svein first. He was talking with Dag Osulf and Ivan Ngall about something loud and jovial, but all Gardar could see was a hilmir schmoozing with the leaders of his noble clans. After all, Ivan was the head of trade and Dag was the ströndforingi. A headache felt like it was brewing between his eyebrows, and he almost hoped that Bregðask wouldn’t show up.
The young man had enough to deal with without being forced to listen to Svein cajoling the most prominent heads of families on Calder into supporting his position as hilmir and his campaign to represent the Rekkr Vinfengi. He doubted that it would go anywhere with Dag, but Ivan was another story.
Asgard help us.
Their eyes met briefly, and Gardar stifled a groan when Svein broke away from the conversation with a laugh a walked towards Gardar. It had been years since Hrungnir’s death, and in that time, he should have been able to find a way to forgive Svein for being who he was, yet he hadn’t found the strength to do so.
Every time he saw the man, there was a little twinge of anger and bloodlust that had only seemed to grow little by little over the years. Svein was a Harvard like his father had been, and that knowledge was too close to all the wounds that man had left behind.
Slapping him on the shoulder heartily, Svein’s voice boomed in Gardar’s ear, “Gardar, good to see you! How is work at the forge? That son of mine causing you trouble?”
“He’s the best apprentice any man could ask for.”
Svein flinched and dropped his hand from Gardar’s shoulder.
“Speaking of,” Gardar looked around, “Where is Bregðask?”
“I’m sure he’ll be along with Hilda shortly,” he shrugged as Hilda entered the hall.
Gardar swallowed as something in his gut told him that something was wrong, but Svein was hilmir, despite all his shortcomings. He smiled tightly and excused himself to speak with Hilda. Svein didn’t seem to mind, seemed almost grateful not to have to interact with what was probably the greatest reminder of Hrungnir’s death, and went back to greeting people as they came into the great hall the way he did every year.
“Bregðask isn’t with you?” Gardar asked as he reached Hilda’s side.
“Oh, he’ll be along soon,” she said with a smile, “He was getting cleaned up when I left.”
“You’re looking more put together than usual,” Gardar smirked at her new gown, “Someone catching your eye these days?”
“My nephew asked the same thing, and not even close,” she returned his smirk in the way that she always had. It was that same smirk she’d had when she introduced him to Hrungnir when they were just young men fumbling around in the dark for answers, “And you?”
He flushed, “No.”
She laughed and twined an arm around his before sighing, “How are you, Gardar?”
“I’d be better if my apprentice didn’t attract trouble the way he did.”
Hilda shook her head, “It’s not his fault.”
“I know,” he said and looked at her, “Did he seem… normal when you left?”
“He seemed as fine as he could I suppose,” Hilda said, “We ate cake, and he gushed over his new books. He came home looking as though he’d been trampled, but other than that it all seemed normal.”
She worried her lip.
“What is it?” Gardar asked.
“Something Valka said to me the last time we spoke. She said that I should keep an eye on him.”
Gardar snorted, “Everyone should keep an eye on him. The lad is a trouble magnet… How often do you speak to her directly?”
“Probably as often as you hear Hrungnir at night.”
Before Gardar could ask her how she knew about that, Svein called the attention of the Hall and began the speech, yet Bregðask still hadn’t arrived. It made Gardar’s stomach turn with nerves again. Svein’s speech began on a humorous note and slowly turned hopeful and grand.
It was very different than the speeches for the summer feast before. Better, grander, and more captivating– if Gardar didn’t know better, he’d think that Svein had really had a breakthrough of some sort.
“He’s gotten better,” Hilda commented, listening to the speech.
“He’s had a lot of practice,” Gardar said, “It’s like he’s planning something big.”
“Something big?” Hilda asked.
“I can’t really put my finger on it, but it reminds me a little of that speech your eldest brother gave before the raid.”
Something big, Hilda thought.
The sentiment didn’t seem wrong, but it made Hilda nervous all the same. She knew her brother’s ambitions extended over the entire archipelago, but there was some undercurrent of the speech that was making her blood run cold. Their eldest brother, Vali, had given a speech mere hours before he died in battle that had inspired the men of Calder to fight through the night.
She got some of that feeling, but there was the undercurrent of something else that bothered her. It was something she should know, something that was turning her blood to ice, but every time she tried to put a name to it, it slipped through her fingers.
“And as our days grow brighter, let us turn our eyes from the shadows of winter and find new life and meaning in the future days. And we should rejoice for the prosperity of Calder and it’s long future as a seat of power in the Rekkr Vinfengi. Uncompromised by the outside or a sense of weakness, may the strength of Vikings lead us forward into a glorious future.”
Her fist tightened against her chest in the fabric of her wrap. She had to be wrong. This feeling in her chest was wrong, it had to be. Her kostr wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t leave them with just the veiled farewell in the style of Asger Harvard the first, the settler of Calder.
He too had died of mysterious circumstances that their family records had simply glossed over soon after giving that speech. She’d had her suspicions of what those mysterious circumstances entailed, but there was no way to confirm it.
“A little too poetic for Svein don’t you think?” Gardar asked, but she couldn’t breathe. “Almost… classic? Like an epic poem.”
He wouldn’t do that.
Gardar turned to her, “Hilda?”
“…A future so bright that our ancestors will shake Odin’s hall with their cheers and the halls of Helheim will tremble with it. Let our mistakes be forgotten in light of our victories…”
Hilda turned before the cheering started and couldn’t hear Gardar calling after her.
With Asger, she couldn’t be sure, but the echo of their grandfather’s words was more than enough. His final speech had been a summer feast address just like this. It had been recorded in the family records along with all the great speeches before it. It had been the greatest and the last speech he’d ever given before they’d found his body bloated with sea water and half eaten by eels in the Ormr Basin. No one had spoken about it, it wasn’t even recorded as a suicide in the family history, but her nephew was smart, smarter than most, if not all, of the Harvard men before him. He knew.
“Forever Calder. Forever Viking,” Svein’s voice rang through as she dropped her wrap and pushed open the front door of the Great Hall.
She ran as fast as her legs would carry her down the path and across town to where the Harvard clan house stood. Surely, she hadn’t been that blind, nor he so good of an actor. Surely, she hadn’t missed something like this. She’d watched over him his entire life. Surely, she would know if he thought that was the only way out?
Please, let me be wrong.
Asgard, let me be wrong.
“Kostr!” she screamed rushing inside and up the stairs, “Kostr!”
She burst through his bedroom door and gasped. The clothes she’d set out for him had remained untouched. There was no sign that he’d washed or changed, or done anything.
“Soren,” she breathed and looked around.
She ran down the hall to her bedroom and tore through her closet to find the emergency beacon that Valka had left for her and activated it. Valka’s masked face appeared in the jewel.
“Hilda, what’s wrong?”
Valka’s eyes narrowed, but her voice was as calm as a sea breeze, “What happened?”