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Yule In a Different Place

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Prologue:
Starsky, a Jewish merchant and goldsmith from Constantinople, traveling by ship to Norway in September, ran aground by the west coast of Jylland. He and the surviving crew were saved by local people, and since Starsky, being adventurous and besides having nowhere else to go, stayed the winter by invitation of the local chieftain, Jarl, and his nephew Hutch.

 
 

Tranes, Jylland, Midwinter, 954.

 

The sword came crashing down in front of him and Starsky jumped and twisted backwards.

Step back, lift up the shield, deflect the blow.

He was breathing heavily, no time to think, the blows coming hard and fast. They both retreated, ready to start a new round. What was it Hutch said? Don't give your opponent time to rest. Attack first, get the upper hand, and you can direct him where you want him.

Starsky took a firmer hold on his axe, stepped forward, and started to bring it up, as if going for Hutch's neck and shoulder. Suddenly, he turned to the right, bringing up his shield with the other arm, deflecting the blow of the sword from the left.

The feint brought up both of Hutch's arms, opening him up for lower blows, and Starsky twisted back towards the left, aiming for the body. But at the last moment, Hutch's shield crashed down on Starsky's right arm and almost broke it.

Regrouping, they prepared to attack again. Starsky was panting. He was so tired he could barely hold it together, but Hutch persisted, and Starsky kept avoiding the blows and sometimes even got in his own. Hutch had much more experience, but somehow Starsky could read Hutch's intentions, anticipate his moves, and was still standing. He knew they wouldn't stop until there was a winner.

Again Hutch attacked, and again Starsky deflected the blow and got away. He noted how low his opponent raised his sword; Hutch was getting tired. Then Starsky got his chance, saw the opening, and ran headfirst into Hutch's belly. With a big "Oof," Hutch went down, Starsky sprawling on top. The surprise gave him the upper hand, and using the last of his energy, Starsky twisted around and grabbed Hutch's arms, his knife at Hutch's throat, securing Hutch's body with his legs. Hutch writhed, trying to loosen Starsky's grip and get away from the knife. It was small, but sharp.

Starsky hung on. Finally, he had Hutch down, and he'd be damned if he'd give in now. It wouldn't be much longer anyway, he felt, until Hutch would give up. He must be tired, too. Starsky winced. His arm was definitely hurt, but Hutch being Hutch, he knew it wasn't broken. He'd just have big bruise for a couple of weeks, and next time, Hutch would be more careful. What had gotten into him today, Starsky couldn't guess, but their sparring had been fiercer than usual.

He leaned his face close to Hutch's and gasped between breaths, "So… Give up?"

"Never," Hutch said, writhing to free himself. Starsky scrambled to hold on, but Hutch's struggle quickly got weaker, and Starsky knew it would only be a few moments. He waited until Hutch relaxed, and with a wide grin he sat back and let go.

It wasn't until then that he noticed the small crowd they had attracted. Most often people would not take much notice of a pair of men sparring, but today's fight had been longer and more dramatic than usual, and Starsky's being a stranger — and no warrior — had made several detour past them or find some reason to stay and watch. He hoped he'd impressed them. Often it was hard to guess what people thought of him, a stranger from a big city far away. Starsky noticed Hutch's friend, Thorkil, standing aside and leaning on his own battle-axe. Taller than Hutch, who was one of the tallest men around, twice as wide, and with a mop of reddish hair and a redder beard, he was impossible to miss. He had a speculative look on his face, as if he wondered how quickly he could take down Starsky. He stepped forward with a wide grin, holding out a hand.

"Good leg-work, Starsky. You're getting better and better. Want to give it a try and spar with me next time?"

Starsky laughed, "I'd better not. I'm a little too fond of my life. That axe of yours looks even more dangerous than Hutch's sword."

Hutch, standing now, patted Starsky on the back. "Good choice. I want you alive. At least until I get revenge for this," he said, and winked.

Starsky just smiled, tired. "I'm half-dead. You really made me work." He ran his fingers through his sweat-drenched hair and shivered in the cold.

Hutch threw his arm over Starsky's shoulders and pushed them toward the houses. "Let's go wash and change clothes."

Starsky leaned a little closer, thankful for the support. His ankle, supposedly healed, had started throbbing again.

The house that Hutch led them to was the biggest in the village, almost twice as big as the others, and situated on the highest spot. Not that highest meant much, in a landscape as flat as this, less than a day's walk inland from the sea. On clear days, the sky seemed endless, only wind-worn, lopsided trees in the horizon to break the monotony, with more forest visible in the distance to the east. Crops were hard to raise in the biting, salty wind, and most of the land was used for cattle and sheep. Around the big long-house lay more than a dozen other houses, from impressive long-houses to tiny half-buried cabins. Hutch's uncle, Jarl, was chieftain of the small society, consisting of the village, a number of outlying farms, and a couple of fishers' families by the sea. Hutch and his family lived with Jarl and his wife, Astrid, in the big long-house, the hall, and now Starsky was their guest. A smaller, older long-house beside it was the old hall, which Jarl's grandfather had built, but now was turned into storage rooms and stables for the horses, as well as housing some of the family's servants.

Holding back Starsky, who was about to enter the door, Hutch stopped a woman coming out. This time in a winter afternoon, the women would have congregated for working and socializing, and Hutch knew better than to just barge in, disturbing them. Better have someone bring out a bucket and some towels.

Thorkil had followed them over, and he and Starsky had started discussing the finer points of the use of the axe as a close combat weapon. It was Thorkil's own weapon of choice, though his was considerably bigger than Starsky's, made for a big man to use with might and strength. When Hutch had suggested that Starsky should learn to use a bigger weapon than the knife he already was skilled with, Starsky had at first not wanted an axe. It looked clumsy and undignified compared with a sword. Now he was getting comfortable with the weapon and had started to appreciate the speed and agility he could use it with. Starsky had worried that it would be no match for Hutch's larger sword, but being light, with a good range, he could move quickly, and he'd noticed today that while he was in no way as good shape as Hutch, he could keep up. He began to see why Hutch had sparred so fiercely today.

Hutch came over with water and towels, as Thorkil was showing Starsky how he'd taken out three warriors in one go, when he was with King Harald in Normandy as a young man.

"…and then you got number four and five right after." Hutch said with a smile. "Thorkil, I think even Starsky has heard that story before."

"Well, it's a good story. Doesn't hurt to tell it again," Thorkil huffed.

"That's right. He was even getting to one of the good places," said Starsky, winking at Hutch, and reaching for one of the towels. "Give me that. I want to get dry. The water's not warm, is it?"

"What do you think? Of course not. Would be too much work to heat it, just to waste it on you." Hutch smiled.

Starsky scowled at Hutch. He hadn't expected warm water, but the last month had been so dark and cold, any kind of warmth was welcome. That was what he missed most — the warmth and sunlight of his home.

Thorkil fished out a candied Angelica stem and offered some for the other two men.

Hutch took a bite and asked, "What's with all the candy? You've been chewing these a lot lately."

Thorkil sighed and his shoulders slumped. "It's Siv. She says my breath stinks, and she won't let me lie with her. This is supposed to help with my breath."

"She's pregnant, Thorkil, and due in a few months. Are you sure it's even a good idea?" Starsky looked worried at the big man, who looked forlorn. He was an old friend of Hutch's and had been the only person beside Hutch who knew a little Latin, and so someone Starsky could talk with when he first arrived and hadn't learned the language yet.

"The midwife says it it'll help Siv relax, and she told me to drink some caraway tea to help with the smell, but I like these better. Can you smell anything?" Thorkil leaned over and exhaled into Starsky's face.

"Phew! I think Siv is right! Maybe you should try that caraway tea, too." Starsky made a show of fanning the odors away from his face and glowered at Hutch, who was snickering. "Thorkil, perhaps she just doesn't want too much attention right now."

"Maybe, but she's so beautiful when she's like this," Thorkil sighed, smiling as he noticed his wife coming to look for him.

Hutch patted his shoulder, "Well, here she is. Ask her and you'll figure it out between you."

"Ask me what?" said Siv, her hands on her hips, fixing Thorkil with a look. Tall as Starsky and as blonde as Hutch, she matched her husband well.

Thorkil got up, blushing. "Well. You see…" he stammered, as the couple walked off.

Hutch raised an eyebrow and looked at Starsky, who just smiled and shook his head. "Well, I guess we won't see much of him in the hall tonight." Starsky finished washing and dried off vigorously to warm his skin, then picked up their towels and motioned for them go back to the house. His feet were still wet from the grass, and he shuddered from the cold as they walked towards the house.

Midwinter was only a few days away, and he looked forward to the Yule feast and celebrations that Hutch had told him about. He felt cold all the time and missed the sun. Right now it was as if it got dark when the day was only half gone, and the feeble sun, when it did break through the clouds, couldn't warm a mouse. Some weeks ago it had even snowed a little, and he'd hoped it would stay. Even if it meant that the frost stayed, too, the snow brightened everything, but it had evaporated the next day. Right now, he cared most about getting inside, to sit for a while by the warmth of the center hearth of the house.

#

The house had a firepit running length-wise in the middle, usually with several fires lit. Along the long walls ran a low platform where people sat or slept. Benches and tables would be put up for eating.

Supper-time here always reminded him a little of home. Everyone showed up, from the head of the house to the lowest servant. Jarl and Astrid would sit at the high seat at one end with their family around them, then the free-man family that Jarl and Astrid employed to help with the farming, and then the servants and slaves. At this time of year, people huddled together, as much to share company in a dark time as to share warmth — with a great fire at the hearth and more than two dozen people in the house, it quickly got warm enough.

Starsky sighed and stretched out his legs as he sat down beside Hutch. Starsky'd spent the last hour with Svein, the village's main smith and metal-worker, working on a small project of his own.

Hutch had been talking with his six year old twin boys, who'd spent most of their day helping out their minder, Osric, with chores. Hutch had not yet re-married, since his wife, Nanna, died four years ago, and only owned a few people to take care of the needs of a small household. The one he relied most on were Osric, whom his father had given him when he married, and Osric's wife Aelfgifu, who, over the last three years, had become almost a mother to his children; the two young boys and a girl of twelve.

Supper started, as usual, with barley porridge, a dish that Starsky was beginning to feel he'd had too many times. As he ate, he closed his eyes and tried to remember the taste of fresh bread, straight from the oven. Bread was what he missed most. Sweet, fresh wheat bread.

Next was a mutton stew with vegetables. This time of year, he'd been told, there was plenty of fresh food, and everyone enjoyed not having to eat the dried meats and herring that usually would be the only things left at the end of winter. As with the porridge, bowls were handed around for several people to share. The young girl, who handed Starsky his and Hutch's, had been eyeing him for some time and often made sure that Starsky was aware of it. Despite enjoying the attention of the women, openly fascinated by his exotic dark looks, he'd kept to himself. He felt awkward at he thought of lying with a woman in the same room everyone else slept in. Hutch had hinted it wouldn't be a problem if he wasn't too noisy. Everyone would just pretend not to hear. But Starsky still felt put off by the thought.

After supper, someone told a story, and later Hutch and few others tried to engage him in a game of poetry — reciting verses made up on the spot. The one who could create the best boasts about himself, in addition to the best put-downs of his opponent, won. Starsky begged off — last time he tried, he'd lost miserably, making up verses in a strange language.

As the fires started to burn down, people found places to sleep. The children ran around until they were tired and easy to put to sleep. Starsky felt sleepy, too, tired from the long day, and relaxed by the warmth and familiar noises and smells. Shedding the outer layer of clothes and his indoor shoes, he crawled back on the platform and found the blankets and furs he shared with Hutch. Jarl and Astrid would sleep in their bed behind the high seat, but everyone else slept on the platforms by the walls.

He was almost asleep when he felt Hutch settle down beside him.

"You sleeping?" Hutch asked in a low voice.

"Um-mh, it's been a long day," Starsky yawned.

"I'm sorry if I was too hard on you today," Hutch said.

"I'll be fine. I feel better knowing I can handle it."

"That's what I wanted. Tomorrow I think we should go riding — you need more practice. Maybe take the boys with us down the coast. Jarl needs me to speak with the fishermen out there, and we might as well go that way. What do you think?"

"If I said no thanks, would you leave me at home?"

"No," said Hutch in a contented voice. "I'd just put you on the horse anyway. You need to learn to ride properly." Then he settled down in his customary position with his back along Starsky's.

Starsky smiled to himself and fell asleep quickly.

#

The next days were spent with preparations for Yule. According to Hutch, it was a ceremonious and solemn day that would end with a great feast. People from the outlying homesteads would come the day before, and everyone would be busy with preparations. Then, the next day at midday, Jarl, would conduct the sacrifice to Frey, god of fertility and prosperity, and at night they would have a meal of the meat of the sacrificed animals. Starsky couldn't participate, of course, but Jarl had said he was very welcome.

As people started arriving, they were given space to sleep in the houses in the village, the most important in Jarl's hall. Many were interested in meeting Starsky, whom they'd heard about, and it was very late before he got to go to sleep. People brought their own food, but still needed cooking space, and the air was intense with many people crammed in together, and the expectations for tomorrow's blót, the ceremonial sacrifice and service.

In the morning, the grass was crisp with frost but the sky was clear when Starsky went looking for Svein, who'd helped him with a special project. It was customary for a lord or chieftain to give presents at Yule to his men both as wage for their loyalty and to show off his wealth. Hutch had received many fine gifts from King Harald when he was in his service. Sometimes people gave gifts for other reasons, too, and Starsky had decided to use some precious stones and gold he'd saved from the shipwreck for a gift for Jarl for taking him in. Having almost lost his life, he thought his precious stones should make a fitting present for the man who'd saved him and given him a home. He'd chosen the large garnet, sided by two small sapphires. He hadn't enough metals for a proper neck-piece or armband, but Starsky had created a simple clasp for a cape, with a setting of mixed gold and silver he'd bought from Svein. The garnet was cut with a flat back, and few, broad facets on the front, and he'd fashioned an interwoven pattern of gold and silver as backing for the stone. The mix of gold and silver made the stone sparkle much more than garnets usually did. For Hutch, who'd become a great friend and who'd taken good care of him, he'd fashioned beads in gold and silver and mixed them with glass beads he'd bought from Svein, on a leather string plaited with a few fine strands of silver.

He found Svein sitting in his workshop by the horse stables. He wasn't much for mixing with a lot of new people, and usually didn't talk much. He looked up suspiciously as Starsky entered the shed, but smiled when he saw who it was and fished out the jewelry he'd polished for Starsky, "Here. I don't think I can get the shine better."

Starsky raised the clasp with the garnet; it glittered in the low sun. Perfect. He didn't need to be ashamed of his work. He found a couple of pieces of cloth and carefully wrapped the clasp and the necklace for Hutch.

Leaving the shed, he was nearly run over by Hutch's daughter. "Starsky! There you are." She was panting. "Dad is looking for you. He has something to show you."

"There's nothing wrong?

"No! Of course not." She was grinning as if bursting with a secret. "Come on," she dragged him off by his hand. "I'm sure you're going to like it!"

Back in the house, he found Hutch standing by Aelfgifu, who held a pile of clothing in her arms.

"There you are. We couldn't find you!" Hutch looked pleased, despite the worried tone in his voice.

As Starsky's eyes adjusted to the indoor darkness, he saw that Hutch had changed out of his usual daily wear into a light, soft green tunic with trousers in a darker shade. The tunic was fitted to show off his shoulders and upper arms, and on the neck and sleeves were sewn broad woven bands in bright colors and small silver beads, and small polished mirror discs were embroidered in a pattern by the neckline. At the waist was a narrow belt and the thigh-length tunic flared out and fell in rich folds above the tightly fitted trousers. Over this, Hutch wore a short cape, red with a thin green checked pattern. It was thin cloth, only reached the hem of the tunic, and was edged with fur. Clearly, it was more for show than warmth. On both wrists he wore gold and silver bands, and the clasp on his cape was silver interwoven with gold.

"Damn, Hutch! That looks amazing." Starsky took a step back to get a better look. "It's great on you. Are you sure you want to be seen in my company?" He raised an eyebrow.

Hutch lit up. "That's exactly why I wanted to find you. You've been borrowing clothes since you came, and I thought you'd like some of your own. Aelfgifu suggested it, when that group of merchants came by last month. They sold me the cape, but Aelfgifu found time to make the rest." Hutch pointed to the tunic and trousers Aelfgifu held out. They were cut much like Hutch's, though a bit more conservatively, intended for daily use, which Hutch's set was not, but the tunic was edged with the same kind of brightly colored bands as Hutch's, and Starsky spotted a fur-edged cap lying on the bench along with a heavy cape in a mixed pattern of blue shades. The tunic and trousers were a soft blue, and the tunic had thin red stripes.

Starsky couldn't wait to change into his new clothes. The borrowed clothes he'd worn were nice enough, but couldn't compete with having his own again. He ran his fingers over the fur at the edge of the cape. A shame it would be too warm to wear indoors tonight.

When he'd changed, he looked at himself and turned to show off to the others. "I must thank you for this," he said to Aelfgifu, thanking her formally for her work. "It's wonderful to wear something of my own again, and something so beautiful and well made. And thank you, too, Hutch," he added, and looked down at himself, touching and feeling the garments.

Starsky let Aelgifu help him arrange the cape, and fastened his purse to his belt. Perhaps now would be a good time to give Hutch his present. Hutch was second-in-command to his uncle and would surely be needed much of the day.

"You mentioned that sometimes people give gifts at Yule. And now you've given me all this," Starsky indicated his clothes. "Well, I've thought of something, too. You and your family have taken me in, and I've found a great friend. You know I managed to save a few precious stones from the shipwreck, and Svein has helped me make settings." Starsky pulled out the necklace he'd made for Hutch and presented it to him.

Hutch took it carefully and put in on, and Aelfgifu found a small copper mirror so Hutch could see how it looked.

"It's beautiful." Hutch smiled. "Thank you. Now you've given me something, too, I can wear everyday."

"I have a gift for your uncle, too. I'd like to thank him formally for giving me a place here." Starsky pulled out the clasp. "It's the most beautiful stone I had. I wish I could have given it to you, but…"

"You're right. It's only proper that Uncle should have it. It's beautiful. The garnet will sparkle in the firelight. I think he'll appreciate it very much. A fitting gift, Starsky. Makes me proud to be your friend. And I love my necklace, I couldn't have worn a clasp like that every day." Hutch smiled and put an arm around Starsky's shoulders. "Come, let's get outside. There's more than enough to do. You can help me."

#

"Stop him!" Someone called out. "Aside!" called another. Hutch stopped abruptly and looked around, only to feel a heavy thump and suddenly found himself sprawled in the grass, three men running past him.

Starsky pulled him up.

"What was that?" asked Hutch. He looked dazed and shook his head as if to clear it.

"I think it's that pig over there," Starsky pointed at a large pig running with three men after it. "It must have gotten loose."

Hutch looked up. It was the hog meant for today's sacrifice. It was supposed to be cleaned up for the afternoon and had worked itself loose. As they looked on, one of the men got hold of it, only to lose his hold as another man tried to help. Finally someone found a long enough rope, and two men caught it and got the rope on it before it could move.

Hutch smiled at its antics, but shook his head. "Poor animal. He's always been wild, even after they gelded him. But he'll make a fine sacrifice."

"You said there would be a horse, too?" Starsky asked.

"Yes, a fine stallion of Jarl's. It's been a very good year, it would only be proper to give the best we have." Hutch tried to brush off dirt from his fall. "I'd better go back and have Aelfgifu brush off the stains."

"But why a hog and a stallion?" Asked Starsky as they walked back.

"I guess you could say we're celebrating life in the middle of winter, and it's Frey who gives us life and makes things grow. In a way you could say we give thanks and ask for a good next year. And the hog and the horse are Frey's animals. We give him back what he gave us."

Starsky sometimes found it difficult understand about their gods, but giving thanks for life he understood.

#

Close to noon, there was little for Starsky to do, and he wandered around the village, watching what was going on. The visitors had brought their own beer and there was already a sense of festivity and cheer.

At mid day people started to congregate in the great hall. It had been cleaned up and things put away, but even then, there was just room enough for everyone. He edged in and found a place on the platform by the wall near the door, where he had a good view of the room. He didn't want to get too close, felt it wasn't quite right to go too near, but he was too curious not be there at all. Hutch had things to do before the ceremony, and had left Starsky on his own, and other people he tried to talk to were preoccupied. He could already feel the expectations and energy in the room of rituals and gods not his own.

At one end, in front of the high seat, stood three simply carved images of the gods Odin, Frey and Thor. Between the images and the firepit was space for the sacrifice, and nearest the firepit stood the low stone table with the oath-ring and the broad knife, and a highly decorated copper and silver basin.

Jarl was already there and stood talking with a couple of older men, all of them finely dressed, though a bit more conservatively than Hutch, who stood by Jarl's side. A harried-looking Astrid hurried in, quickly smoothing her hair, to stand beside them. A group of young women stood by her, all carrying large jugs of the sweet-ale Astrid brewed for festivals, and Astrid herself holding a large drinking horn, heavily decorated with silver and gold, and a jug of mead.

Jarl stepped forward and gestured for silence, while Astrid gave him the mead-filled drinking horn. Jarl lifted it and bid Frey welcome, then Thor and Odin, and everyone cheered. He blessed the mead and ale, and poured mead on the floor for the gods, and then Astrid started serving the finest guests, and the women started to go around and pour the ale according to rank and class.

Starsky felt someone tugging his sleeve, and turned. "What?" he whispered to the boy who was standing there.

"Hutch wants you down there," said the boy and tugged at his sleeve again.

Starsky felt unsure, but he saw Hutch waving at him, and more people turned to look and drag him up the hall.

"I didn't—" Starsky whispered, and glowered at Hutch for putting him on the spot.

"I know. It's all right, it hasn't really started yet," Hutch said quietly, out of the corner of his mouth. "But you should be here when we bid people welcome. Jarl asked for you. I think he wants to show you off," he whispered and winked.

Starsky relaxed and was ready when Astrid approached him with the drinking horn. He took it and raised it and… what was that blessing Hutch had mentioned? Oh, yes, To a good year and peace. He saluted Jarl and Astrid and the guests around them. Jarl looked pleased. Apparently it had gone down well. Then Astrid moved on to the next. Hutch pushed gently at Starsky.

"It's all right to go back again, but I have to leave for a moment," he said and pushed his way to the door. Starsky followed and elbowed his way to his earlier spot.

A moment later, he heard shouting and swearing from outside, a hush fell over the gathering, and everyone looked expectantly at the door. In came Hutch and three other men dragging the hog, which had been hobbled on its front and rear feet, and a cheer erupted, which made the animal struggle even more.

The women withdrew to make room for the animal, and Jarl picked up the knife. Standing before the image of Frey, the four men struggled to hold the hog. Jarl, in a formal voice, asked Frey to receive their gift as a symbol of their covenant. Everyone was very quiet now, and Starsky felt the strong emotional currents in the air. It was important everything went well. The animal had already run away once today, and perhaps Frey wasn't even interested. Jarl moved forward and swiftly cut the animal's throat. Starsky didn't know which was loudest, the hog's screech or the eruption of yells and cheers from the crowd.

While the men held the dying animal down, Astrid held the basin to collect the blood. She gave Jarl a bowl of it, and with a small bundle of switches, he sprinkled blood first on the statues, then on the participants. Starsky noticed he went round the crowd, to everyone, though the people standing at the back only got symbolic drops of blood. He ducked into the door opening when Jarl came over to his corner. He didn't fancy blood on his new clothes. Then Jarl smeared blood around the door and sprinkled some on the fires.

Like the other three men, Hutch had stripped off his cape and tunic before retrieving the hog, and only wore his undershirt. Starsky felt a little shocked at seeing him standing there, excited and disheveled, in a blood-stained shirt. Until now, Hutch had seemed an easy-going, relaxed man, if a little authoritative — only natural in his position. Starsky hadn't expected to see him like this, in the center of a strange ceremony, wild-looking and covered in blood.

As the crowd started to relax a little, someone started up a drum solo. The slow beating built up the excitement, and when the crowd started to cheer, Hutch and the men ran out of the room. The crowd cheered on, and the drum erupted again when they returned, this time with the stallion. It was a small, but fine, dark brown horse, and Starsky recognized it as one of Jarl's finest animals. He was struggling against the ropes, but unlike the hog, the stallion seemed eager, and moved closer to the statues and Jarl's knife. A good omen.

Just as he was positioned, he stalled and reared. Hutch hung on to the halter, and Starsky's heart stuck in his throat as Hutch was dragged to the side, almost under his stomping hooves. Finally one of the other men got him down again. Jarl was quick to step in and cut his throat. The blood spurted and Astrid had trouble catching it in the basin. The animal struggled to the last, and Starsky thought that if the excitement over the hog had made the air thick, it had nothing on this.

The ceremonial sprinkling of blood was repeated, and then Jarl finished the sacrifice with yet another salutation to the gods. Then all were excused until late afternoon, when everyone would participate in the meal of the sacrificial animals.

As people started to break up to fetch the beer they'd brought, and a group of women started to butcher the animals, Starsky hung back to see where Hutch was. He found him in a corner, trying to brush off some of the dried blood in his hair. He grinned when Starsky came over. "This was the best in years!" He said, and hugged Starsky tightly. "Gods, I need some beer." Hutch put his arm around Starsky's shoulders and together they walked to where Thorkil and some other friends sat.

Starsky took a deep draught of beer. Even if he really hadn't wanted to participate, he felt drained from the excitement, and now he understood why everyone had brought so much beer. "So," he asked, "is it always like that?"

"Oh, yes," said a woman, "but this year was better than most. Perhaps you've brought us luck." She smiled at Starsky. "Tell me, Thorkil said… Is it true you can't share the meal of the sacrifice with us?"

"Yes, that's right." Starsky went for the simplest explanation. "My god doesn't want me to eat certain foods, or in certain combinations. It's usually not a problem, but I'm afraid I won't be able to share with you tonight."

"That's all right," Thorkil slapped him on his shoulder. "Then there'll be more for me. I suppose you can share the beer?"

"That's right, Thorkil," said Starsky and drained his mug. "Beer won't be a problem."

#

An hour later, when the sun started to set, more and more people came back in, out of the cold or from the other houses. It was turning dark, and the cold, humid air was biting. Already people had made good inroads into the beer supply and were in high spirits. The meat was cooking in the firepits, and Astrid was busy overseeing everything, while Jarl entertained a couple of the more prominent guests. Starsky stayed with Thorkil and the group of friends, while Hutch had to go to and fro, and at one point had to quiet a developing dispute.

People started to find their places in the hall. As before, the finest were near the high seat. As a personal guest of the family, Starsky was also seated there.

When most people had found seats, Jarl stood and gestured for silence. As he had earlier, he bid Frey and Thor and Odin welcome, then his guests, and blessed the mead and beer that Astrid and other women were pouring, though Starsky noted, the lower the rank of the guest, the more quickly they went around.

It was time for the gift giving and swearing of oaths. Jarl looked around, and the men he employed gathered by him. Each got silver and gold rings and in return made a promise to serve him in the next year. Hutch had stood by Jarl during the ceremonies, but now cast a look at Starsky to catch his attention. Starsky got the point and got up from the bench, the bejeweled clasp securely in his hand.

Jarl looked up, strangely not appearing very surprised, Starsky thought. More pleased. Starsky stepped forward.

"Jarl," Starsky started, and gave the little speech he'd prepared, thanking Jarl and his household for taking him in and giving him a place to live. In return he'd like to present Jarl this gift. He unwrapped the clasp and made sure that the light of the fires reflected in the stones as he presented it to Jarl. It sparkled beautifully, and he heard a few small gasps from people sitting close.

Jarl's thank-you was elaborate, and he made a show of replacing his cape needle with the new clasp. By his smile, Starsky felt sure Jarl was pleased with his gift. Like the simple glass and bead necklace fitted Hutch's easygoing and contemplative nature, this piece fitted the boisterous and extroverted Jarl.

After Starsky's present, Jarl concluded the ceremonies with a short speech and blessed the meat, and everyone joined in a song.

The stewed meat was served with flat, unleavened bread and several vegetable stews. One of Astrid's maids came with a small bowl of meat-stew for Starsky. "Astrid asked me to see to that you got this. It's beef — she knows you can't share the sacrifice with us."

Starsky nodded, thanked her, and looked around for Astrid. When he caught her attention, he raised his spoon and smiled. "Thanks! It smells wonderful." He took a bite and savored the rich taste of herbs and spices that was Astrid's trademark, and gave a silent note of thanks that while he might have been shipwrecked in a cold and inhospitable land, at least the mistress of the house was a master with herbs and spices.

Around him the level of noise rose when Jarl gave the sign to start. The beer people had drunk during the day was beginning to show its effects, and several times a group would break out in song, which soon had the whole hall joining in.

Starsky felt a sense of ceremony in the air. People didn't hurry to eat their food, and everyone was, by some unwritten rule, given an equal share. Starsky understood this was the second part of the sacrifice today. By eating the sacred animals, people shared the meal with their gods and were blessed by it.

The dessert for the high table was another of Astrid's specialties. Starsky hadn't been excited when he heard it was cold porridge, but it turned out it was sweetened with honey, spiced and filled with fruits and nuts, heated and topped with melted butter, and served with yoghurt. Actually, he thought it tasted a lot more like cake and had two helpings.

After the meal the beer flowed, and around the high seat, the mead as well. The mead was sweet and light, and it was easy to forget it was strong as wine, and Starsky started to feel very mellow, his surroundings a bit fuzzy. Someone had started reciting a story, accompanied by a lyre. The noise in the hall had quieted down and most people sat, listening. Starsky didn't know the language well enough to follow the story, but the steady rhythm enthralled him.

Later, other musicians took over from the lyre-player, and after having taken down some tables, a group of people started a chain dance. The tune was obviously popular as almost everyone joined in song. The musicians were working hard to keep up, often drowned out by the singing.

Hutch was in high spirits, clapping and singing. When one of the young women came over to drag Hutch out to dance, he was not very steady on his feet and his dancing not very well coordinated, but he looked like he had fun. It was a long time since Starsky had seen anything as comical, and obviously many other people thought so, too. Hutch didn't seem to mind, though.

Hutch ran over and held out a hand. "Come!"

Drunk and feeling nothing could be better than to join the dance, Starsky followed Hutch, dragging along two girls who'd decided to keep him company on the bench. He certainly was better than Hutch, judging by the looks he got from the women, and he danced until Hutch's legs somehow got in the way of his own and they tumbled to the floor together. A couple of friendly souls helped them to the platform, where they sat for a moment, leaning on each other.

Starsky dropped backwards. It felt like the platform was rotating and he was a little queasy. "Hutch. I think I'd better sleep now."

"Shure." Hutch slurred a little and swayed.

Hutch, two Hutches, turned and looked at him, and they looked sleepy, too…

Right before Starsky passed out, he remembered he'd said yes to the sports games next day.

 
 

Til árs ok friðar

Merry Yule!