The Gift

Astrid leaned behind a makeshift counter and heaved a cauldron to the table’s surface as Rholf entered. The contents didn’t budge. A thick film of fat had solidified over the top of the previous evening’s meal of stewed lamb bones and vegetables. She added a platter of stale flat bread and expertly sliced the loaves into handheld servings.

“Is that it,” Rholf asked. Astrid smiled.

She turned this time, turning back with a soggy bundle of linen. The bundle made a dull splash on the surface of the table. Inside was a heaping portion of cottage cheese. It crumbled apart when she unwrapped it.

Rholf was unimpressed.

Astrid bent once more and lifted a small, lidless container. She tipped it over the cottage cheese, and viscous, golden honey came rolling out.

“You’ll thank me when the feast day comes,” Astrid answered her brother’s dissatisfaction.

Rholf effortlessly carried the iron cauldron into his great hall where his house men awaited. A warming fire was burning in a long central hearth, the charcoals crackling under the heat. He placed the cauldron on a table set by his servants, joined by the bread and honeyed cottage cheese. “Let no man gossip that Rholf, son of Harald, allows his men to go hungry. Accept this lean day-meal in anticipation of Frey’s feast day. Can it be said that I have ever disappointed you before?”

“Can this time be counted or first must we gossip about it?” Rholf’s brother-in-law, Thorgil, japed while Rholf dipped a wooden bowl into the cauldron of stew for each man in turn. The crowd bellowed laughter.

Conversation centered on the hunt to come while the men helped themselves to the bread and honeyed cottage cheese.

“Snorri you lazy soothsayer, you expect us to believe that!” Arngrim growled, his voice even more grizzled than usual by the heap of soggy bread and cottage cheese sliding down his throat.

“That stallion had eight legs sure as the world serpent is the cause of the waves,” Snorri fought. “Anyway it’s Rholf’s decision isn’t it. Should he direct us to hunt the eight-legged stallion, in that case, we’ll hunt the eight-legged stallion.”

“In that case, we’ll submit to your expertise,” Thorgil added. “After all, few among us has caught his own shadow.” The men laughed again.

“I think I’ll set you hunting more mundane game,” Rholf interjected, smiling, “if only for the sake of the feast day.”

“That’s right, better to have a short deer than a tall tale,” Astrid joined. This time, the men’s laughter was interrupted by a messenger being announced.

“A man of Knut Erlendsson delivers a gift,” the servant said. The hall fell silent but for the fire’s persistent crackle and shuffling feet as everyone filed out.

A heavy-laden cart had been pulled to a stop just outside. The wheels left deep trenches in the sodden dirt lane trailing behind. The messenger was busy unharnessing the horse from the large cart. It’s contents were secreted by a woolen blanket.

Rholf approached the cart and threw the blanket to the side while the messenger vaulted to the horses back and swung it’s head toward him. “Rholf Haraldsson?”

Rholf nodded.

“My lord Knut Erlendsson hopes you will host a feast day equal to your capability.” With that the messenger clenched the horses mane, heeled it’s flanks and was off.

The men were curious and gathered around the cart. It was filled with dried fish. At least a season’s worth.

Rholf turned to Snorri. “After all, do you remember where last you saw that eight-legged stallion of yours?”

The End

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