Thirteen Years Later
"Pay attention, Karn. Today's a big day."
Karn blinked his eyes and mumbled, hoping he'd be left alone. He was focused on the game board balanced on his lap. It was hard enough to keep it level because of all the rocks in the road. Plus, he was concentrating. Karn was playing himself, playing both attackers and defenders. So far, this had led to a succession of stalemates. He was hoping one side or the other would win.
He looked up from the board. The scenery hadn't changed any since the morning. Or any morning of the last week. Unending forest on the right. The cold waters of Serpent's Gulf on the left. Carts, one of which he rode in. Barrels of cheese and milk and grain. The smelly back ends of the oxen before him. Pofnir glaring at him expectantly from the bench opposite. Nothing worth looking up for.
Pofnir cleared his throat. Out of all the employees and family members who worked the Korlundr farm, right now the former slave turned freeman was Karn's least favorite.
"What?" said Karn.
"Your father expects you to know this, so you will know it," Pofnir replied. "Now pay attention. Six arctic fox pelts equals how many ounces of silver?"
"I don't know," Karn said. "Three?"
"Three?" Pofnir glared. "That's a bit generous. You could get eighteen fox pelts for three ounces!"
Karn shrugged and risked another glance at the board. He moved one of his shield maidens into position beside an attacker, then switched his thinking and immediately started looking for a countermove.
"Karn!" chided Pofnir.
"Two, then," Karn replied without looking up.
"Two? If three get you eighteen, then how do two get you six? Who taught you math?"
"I don't know. You. Um, four?" said Karn. He brought another one of his attackers into position, capturing the shield maiden between the two undead pieces. He took it from the board, pleased with at least one half of his gameplay.
"You'd better listen to him, nephew," said Karn's uncle Ori, looking up from the book he'd been reading. "Your father expects you to know this. We'll be in Bense tomorrow, and he wants your help with the trading."
At the mention of his father, Karn looked toward the head of their procession. Korlundr rode on his horse at the front, his broad back ramrod straight in the saddle, just as he'd been all week. His blond hair was braided into a long ponytail. His great sword, Whitestorm, hung at his side. He looked like he should be out slaying dragons and fighting trolls, not worrying about fox pelts and cheese.
"My father has a hundred people to do this stuff for him," Karn said. "Can't one of them handle it?"
"It isn't proper," said Ori. "Bartering needs to be conducted by a family member. You'll be expected to do it for yourself when you're the hauld of the farm."
Karn didn't like to think about that. His father was hauld and always would be. The title referred to a farmer whose family owned a farm for six generations or more. Apart from being a Jarl, or High King, it was just about the only rank one could claim in Norrongard. But there was more to life than farming. There was a whole world out there he longed to see. As it was, Thrones and Bones was his only escape from the sameness of farming life. He looked down longingly at his game board. Then an idea occurred to him.
"Uncle Ori, you can do it!"
Ori smiled. It wasn't a warm smile.
"That's not my lot in life, I'm afraid." He glanced toward where his brother rode up front.
"Ori will have to start his own farm soon, I expect," said Pofnir.
"What do you mean?" Karn asked.
"This is something you would know if you ever looked up from that board game," sighed Pofnir. "Korlundr's Farm has grown as big as it can get. Ori will be given a handful of servants, a portion of the sheep and cattle, and some silver, and be sent off to build his own farm. Probably sometime in the spring."
Ori could be surly, but he had a dry sense of humor that often made Karn laugh.
"So, Uncle Ori, you'll really be leaving?"
"It does sound like a dreadful amount of work, doesn't it? All because my twin brother appeared a few measly minutes before I did."
"When you put it that way," said Karn, "it doesn't seem fair."
"My thoughts exactly. Of course, I could have inherited the farm from my brother. But now there's you. You have four older sisters, but even so, you'll have to be the one to bear the burden of leadership. Norrongard is such an enlightened place."
"Exactly," said Pofnir, oblivious to the sarcasm. "Father to eldest son down through the generations, as pleases the gods. So, pay attention. If you do well tomorrow, I'm sure Korlundr will take you with us to trade with the giants later this season."
Karn sat up at the mention of giants. Meeting actual frost giants would be something different, even if it was intimidating. But Pofnir was still droning on about more mundane matters.
"Now, six ewes, two being two years old and four older, all thick-haired and without any visible bald spots, with their lambs, equals how many cows?"
Karn sighed. He shuffled on the hard wooden bench of the cart.
"I don't know. Three?"
"Three!" screeched Pofnir. "No! Not three. One." Pofnir saw that Karn had turned his attention back to his game. "Oh, for Neth's sake," he swore. Neth was the goddess of the underworld, but her name was often invoked in frustration. "Look, you know I think you spend too much time bent over that unhealthy obsession, but if I agree to play you one game of Thrones and Bones, will you give me thirty minutes of concentration?"
Karn thought about it.
"That's no good," he said. "I beat you too easily."
Pofnir turned expectantly to Ori, who had returned to his book.
"You play him, then," Pofnir told Karn's uncle. Ori shook his head but Pofnir's gaze was insistent.
"Must I?" said Ori. Pofnir nodded.
"Please, uncle," said Karn. "There's only so much I can learn playing myself."
"Oh, very well," said Ori, putting aside his book and leaning forward. "But I have to warn you, Karn, I play to win."
"Isn't that the only way?" said Karn.
"Yes," replied his uncle. "But you'll find that I'm a very poor loser."
A few hundred miles nearer to the frozen crown of the world, another game was playing out.
"You are going to lose, and lose hard, little half-breed," growled one of the nastier players.Thianna glared up at the giant, trying to outstare him. The giant glowered down at her over a large bulbous nose and bushy blond beard. Her eyes were darker than his, just as her hair and skin were darker. It was just one way among many that she stood out from the crowd of giants on the field.
Her fierce determination also set her apart. In principle, Thianna had always hated losing. But even more, she hated the thought of losing to Thrudgelmir. The big oaf was her constant nemesis. He went out of his way to make life in the village miserable for her, every chance he got.
Today the best payback would be beating him fair and square on the playing field. She crunched her feet in the hard snow and waited for the starting signal. She clenched the wooden bat in her hand and steadied her breath.
"Lace my shoes while you're down there." Thrudgelmir snickered. He never tired of making jokes about her height. True, Thianna was only seven feet tall. It was the fault of her mixed blood. Thrudgelmir, however, was a healthy, full-blooded young frost giant. He was easily fifteen feet tall. This meant that her head was level with his belt buckle. Odds were high that she was going to be squished when the game started. None of the giants, least of all Thrudgelmir, could be expected to go easy on her because of her smaller size. If she had half a brain, she wouldn't be playing at all. Frost giants were a tough breed, and so they played tough games. But that was just it. Frost giants played tough. If Thianna really was one of them, then she would play tough too. And while the game of Knattleikr might be dangerous, it was also a lot of fun.
"Go!" cried the giantess Gunnlod as she tossed the heavy stone ball high into the air over the field. Thianna didn't wait to see where it landed. She ducked her head and threw herself forward, tucking into a roll. While Thrudgelmir cursed loudly above her, she somersaulted between his legs.
Coming out of her roll, Thianna flipped onto her back. Kicking with her two feet, she struck Thrudgelmir behind both of his knees. The oaf was bent down with his head between his legs looking for her. When his knees buckled, he tumbled right over in a heap.
"Why, Thrudgelmir," she laughed, "I didn't know you could somersault too."
Before the giant could untangle his limbs, she sprang up and leapt back over him, landing just as the ball came down. She whacked it hard with the bat, sending it down the field toward her teammate Bork. He knocked it the rest of the way over the line. First point to her side.
Thianna broke into a quick victory dance.
Thrudgelmir's bat whacked her hard in her calves. Her feet shot out from under her, and she went down in the snow. On instinct, she rolled quickly aside. The bat pounded the snow where she had been. She scrambled to her feet.
"What was that for?" she demanded. Thrudgelmir shook his bat at her as he rose up onto his knees.
"For your cheating!" he roared.
"Cheating?" Thianna was dumbfounded. Knattleikr wasn't a sport with a lot of rules to break. It was pretty much an "anything goes" sort of game. "How was that cheating?"
"No frost giant could have tumbled like that. And this is a frost giant game. So it must be cheating."
Thianna was incensed.
"Just because you're too clumsy to do something doesn't make it illegal!"
"Clumsy?" roared Thrudgelmir, getting to his feet. "I'll show you clumsy." He swung his bat at her again, but Thianna leapt right over it. Then, as Thrudgelmir's swing was carrying him around, she kicked him hard in the back of the leg and he went down again.
"You're right, Thrudgey," she laughed. "You did show me clumsy."
"Squash you flat," Thrudgelmir spat through a mouthful of snow. Before he could make good on his threat, Gunnlod again yelled, "Go!" The village chieftain tossed the ball onto the field, and Thrudgelmir and Thianna joined the crowd chasing after it.
The Knattleikr match went on in this manner for much of the day. In the end, Thianna's team won with a score of forty-five to thirty-three. She had been involved in at least twenty of the goals. Furthermore, when the injuries were tallied, it was found that there were four broken arms, three busted noses (one of them Thrudgey's), a dozen black eyes, and several missing teeth. This was judged by all to have been a good game.
Karn was nervous. The enormous man staring sternly at him from across the marketstall table wasn't helping. The man stank of the sea. Even though they stood amid a bustling fish market, with dozens of tables piled with the carcasses of sea creatures of every kind, and the salt air from the harbor at their backs, most of the smell seemed to be coming off of him. Not that the smell was the most intimidating thing about him. The man had dirty, wild hair escaping from an imposing helmet of hide and steel. With his bushy black beard, his enormous spear strapped to his back, the ax strapped to his belt, he looked like one of the Norronir raiders that used to sail across the seas to burn villages in Araland and Ungland. In reality, however, Bandulfr was a longship captain. This meant he was a fisherman, working the waters of Serpent's Gulf. But the notches in the head of his spear, the dents in his helmet, and the chips in the blade of his ax were suspicious.
"Well?" said the big man in a gruff voice.
"I don't know, three?" said Karn.
"Three?" repeated Bandulfr. Karn wondered how he could talk so loudly through clenched teeth. Maybe the words escaped through the black gaps where teeth had been knocked out. "Are you sure?"
Karn looked around at the other stalls on the busy docks of the seaside town of Bense, hoping to find inspiration. He found none. He absolutely was not sure. "Uh, yes," said Karn hesitantly.
"Three oxen it is," he said, pounding down a meaty fist on his table.
Beside him, Karn heard the sound of his father slapping a palm to his forehead. His heart sank. He realized he'd gotten it wrong. Korlundr sighed and shook his head, his long blond ponytail swinging like a skittish horse's mane.
"You are right, my friend," he said. "Letting your son conduct the bartering was a great idea. A single barrel of fish for three oxen is the best price I've ever had." Bandulfr slapped Korlundr on the shoulder. Korlundr nodded grimly, then gave his son a crestfallen look.
"Three, son?" Korlundr said softly. "Really?"
Three oxen was obviously a very bad trade. It had been hard enough keeping straight just how many fox pelts equaled what amount of silver. It wasn't fair that he was expected to remember oxen, and fish, and cheese, and barrels of milk. He'd no idea haggling in the markets of Bense could be so complicated.
"Oh well," said Bandulfr, trying to stifle a chuckle. "You can't learn to climb a mountain without falling down a few hills, right?" He reached out to punch Karn playfully in the sternum. Karn winced at the force of the blow, but he gritted his teeth and tried to smile.
"I suppose so," Karn's father said. "We'll get the better of you next season, perhaps."
"Perhaps," said Bandulfr, who had lifted a barrel of assorted fish-mostly haddock, salmon, and coalfish-up onto the table and was now hammering the lid shut to seal it for shipping. "I do hope your brilliant boy will do the negotiating then too."
Karn winced at this. So did Korlundr. Karn realized how much his failure must sting his father's pride.
"If only Karn thought as much about bartering as he does about his board games," Korlundr said.
Bandulfr stopped hammering on the barrel and looked up.
"Board games, you say?"
"Yes," said Korlundr. "Karn is obsessed with them. He's always playing."
Copyright © 2014 by Lou Anders. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.