When an earl is disgraced upon the stage of the northern kings, the threat of open war begins to linger along the horizon. In the depths of the icy wilds, barbarian clans see the diversion and are assembling under the banner of an unknown warlord. Itha, the daughter of an earl, is wedged into the middle of the fray - her choices will determine the fate of the north.
Itha looked out the window of her bedchamber to survey the morning conditions. Today would be her last within these halls. Her father, the Earl Olafson, had arranged for her to be married to Earl Svenjor upon her sixteenth name-day. Her soon-to-be husband was a rugged, dry sort and twenty years her senior, but it was said that he had been born under the blessing of Bathni, goddess of compassion. Itha managed to swallow past the lump in her throat, silently praying to the elder gods in hope that they still held influence over the hearts of men.
The blizzard from the previous night had laid a fresh blanket of snow across the dry steppes surrounding the city of Rogafjord. Itha could make out the figures of a few shepherds walking along the western hills. They began pulling a series of sheep carcasses from the snow; an ominous testament to the strength of last night's storm. A slight breeze pushed through the threshold and streaked across her face, bringing tears to her eyes.
"Oh, Itha," A familiar voice crept up from behind, warmly laced with hoarse and scratchy undertones. "My lady weeps?"
"It's the wind, Gerta." Itha explained, reaching out to touch the servant's shoulder. Gerta was Itha's most senior handmaiden and had even served as her wet nurse during her infancy. Gerta was the closest thing to a mother that Itha had ever known.
"You will need to dress warmly, today." Gerta smiled, shuffling over towards the massive, oak-carved wardrobe.
Her father the Earl had commissioned the famous carpenter Nilos of Thalm for the wardrobe when Itha was eight years old. It truly was a masterful piece, tiered into a dozen compartments and large enough for three grown men to walk abreast within its interior. Gerta moved with a grace unbecoming of her normal, shuffling gait, seasoned hands maneuvering through the thicket of hanging articles. She withdrew a large and luxurious coat, laden with the preened, vibrant fur of a redburne hound - the massive and beautiful, yet feral canines of the greater northern plains.
"Is my lady nervous to meet with Earl Svenjor?" Gerta asked, a smile wrinkling the edges of her eyes.
"I am," Itha wouldn't lie to Gerta. She would often say things opposite to how she felt in order to appeal to her father's standards, but Gerta had always been faithfully her own. "He has the look of a warlord. If it weren't for the silver on his breastplate, I would mistake him for a savage of the Hofenwood."
Gerta brought a weathered hand to her mouth and squealed with delight. She always loved it when Itha would blatantly parody over the figures of the upper echelon. None of the other servants ever dared.
"My lady should find accounts of his strength becoming, in itself!" Gerta said in a hushed whisper of excitement.
Itha smiled and shook her head. Gerta belonged not only to a different social class, but to an entirely different generation. One of the many traditions of the Old North had always compelled one to place strength of arm above and beyond other notable qualities, especially when determining a subject's character. Gerta hailed from a time when war was rampant amongst the Thayns - a time when the strength and valor of your husband was the pivotal difference between a life of safety, warmth and comfort, and one of fear and loss.
"He will love Itha," Gerta went on, bringing the massive coat up and over her mistress's shoulders. "You are as beautiful as the grass of a new season, sweet girl.”
“Yet, I feel as cold and as fragile as the frost before the dawn.” Itha sighed, hugging the coat up and against her somewhat stocky frame. Itha never considered herself to be exquisitely beautiful, like the other ladies she had seen in her father’s Great Hall. Gerta had always told her that she was the most beautiful girl in the world, but that was just Gerta being – well, Gerta. Itha had grown to be a very tall girl and her limbs were thick and well-built. Her father assured her that she was descended from warrior-kings, and that the gods had intended for her to be a strong, high-born woman rather than like the Southern princesses, whom were dainty and fragile. They reminded Itha of the pixies from the stories that Gerta used to tell her. She did have a very pretty face, with stark gray eyes, full lips and flushed cheeks, but she had always wanted more.
The warmth from Gerta’s hands were beginning to seep down along her shoulders when a knock came at the heavy, iron-bound door to the bedchamber.
“Lady Itha,” The guard’s voice was young and green. Perhaps he was Itha’s own age, and would now be experiencing his first year of duty as a soldier in her father’s army. “My Lady, the Earl Olafson requests your presence within the Great Hall.”
“In a moment…” Itha replied, moving over to the cupboard to retrieve the mark of her station: an ornate circlet, carved from the base tusk of a panterwhale and inlaid with five emeralds purchased from the Il’jarii Jewelmasters, across the sea. She placed the circlet upon the crown of her head and it settled down with a weight that only a noblewoman of the North could recognize and appreciate. She could hear the guard’s boot scuff against the cobbled hall floor, outside of her room. Slowly, she afforded Gerta a silent motion in the wrist.
The handmaiden shuffled over to the door and threw it open. There stood the guard, young and bold. He was clearly no older than Itha – the armor weighed him down into a slightly awkward pose, his bulky sword clung lazily to a hastily assembled belt and the bottom rungs of his helmet were hair-free. The older, more seasoned guards were often known to tie the bottoms of their beards to the two rings at the helmet base. This was done partly as a way of keeping up with the valuable piece of armor, and partly it was done as a traditional assertion of one’s status and manliness. This particular guard had never even grown a beard, but he did have a sporty mustache and a poorly-kept frizz along the bottom of his jaw. Itha smiled at him and waved a hand.
“You do not have to stand beyond the threshold of my chambers, guard.” She said in jest command.
“Oh,” He replied, straightening up to his fullest height. “I was actually just waiting to speak with you, Itha.”
She furrowed a brow, at this. No guard ever spoke to the nobility on a first-name basis, unless they were part of the Lord’s inner council – but that was generally reserved for a commander within the army.
“Who are you to –?” She paused, catching a better glimpse of his face through the mask of the helmet. “Byron? Is that really you?”
“Aye, it’s me.”
“I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Well, I had to leave for a while after your accident.”
Itha felt a twinge of pain in her knee. She remembered playing with Byron when they were very small children. He was the son of her father’s most-adored blacksmith, but the two had a falling out when Itha fell from the top of a wall during a game they were playing. The scar burned beneath the folds of her coat and gown. She hadn’t seen her friend since that time, and she never really understood where he had gone. He looked so different now, it was no wonder that her father failed to recognize him.
“I don’t know what to say.” Itha replied as honestly as she could.
“You’re as beautiful as I had imagined you would be.” He answered back abruptly, a smile captivating the better part of his fair features.
“That’s,” Itha began in a poor attempt to make her face stop blushing. “You don’t get to talk to me in that way, Byron.”
His smile faded away and he bit his bottom lip. Gerta stepped back out from the wardrobe and gave Itha a hasty look. She was obviously worried about where this was going. Byron had been Itha’s first kiss, and they swore then they were children that they would marry one day. Byron was a handsome boy then, and he was still even handsomer now. In those days, Itha was unaware of her importance to Rogafjord. She had no idea of the weight upon her shoulders, and what her impending marriage would mean to the people of both Rogafjord and the surrounding territories. It was a boon to be the daughter of an Earl, but there were also moments of hardship and despair.
“Right,” Itha continued, shaking off the air of awkwardness. “I will be down shortly, good sir. Thank you for delivering my father’s wishes.”
Byron straightened back up and gave her a salute. She noticed that his eyes seemed a bit empty, but there was little she could do for it. He walked back down the corridor and the sounds of his footsteps slowly faded from earshot.
"What was that about?" Gerta whispered, moving over to close the door.
"Just one more troublesome thing to sort out." Itha said, failing to veil the pity in her tone. "Make sure father does not find out about who he is."
"Of course, my Lady," Gerta said with a nod. "Of course."