Valska swaggered so hard that Sudrstjarna thought he might burn divots into the hide rugs. Without asking (nor waiting for Sudrstjarna to sit), his hands swinging at his side, Valska pulled out the chair at the opposite head of the table, sloppily landed his immense frame into its high-backed seat. He took a chicken wing from the table, bit it, belched as if this were his own home, and not the tribes Great Hall. Sudrstjarna’s Great Hall.
“So,” Valska said, flecks of chicken flying from his mouth. “Decided the chair wasn’t too your liking? Perhaps not comfortable enough?”
Valska’s jarls guffawed, then finding chairs next to their boss, sat and began picking at the feast Sudrstjarna’s house had laid out.
Sudrstjarna smiled, ran her fingers over the iron and bone of the Cathedra throne. “It is a damn uncomfortable chair.”
The jarls laughed even harder, smiling at one and other. One patted Valska on his back, as if it were he sitting in the Cathedra, as if he were already the headman and Sudrstjarna his vassal.
“But, I think I’ll warm it a while longer,” Sudrstjarna said. With that she, ladylike as she could manage, sat in the Cathedra. The steel seat was damn cold. Perhaps she would get a cushion for the thing, but not until she dealt with Valska. Sudrstjarna kept her face composed, leaned forward, elbows on the table, fingers steepled.
“Come, Sudrstjarna. You think you are what? A queen? I’ll be the first to tell you, you are not. And the tribe sees it that way too. Skrallin is gone, dead most likely. You cannot rule in his absence indefinitely.”
A few weeks ago, Sudrstjarna would have agreed with the hulking warrior. May have even shed a tear at such words. But, Skrallin was not dead. Cursed, perhaps, but not dead.
“That is where you are wrong Valska. Wrong on both accounts. I am a queen…”
The jarls snarled at this, hands going to weapons. The tribe did not have queens. Nor kings. Headsmen, first among equals but no monarchs.
Sudrstjarna ignored them: “… and Skrallin is not dead.”
Valska settled his men. “Saying a thing doesn’t make a thing Queen Sudrstjarna.” He bellowed a laugh.
“Of that I agree. But Skrallin has returned. And brought with him great magic from over the Ash Sea.”
Valska’s eyes narrowed. “You speak of witchcraft? Of Skrallin’s return? You may as well speak of fairy floating down from the sky and kissing my arse.”
“I present you an offer Valska: pledge to me as your queen and Skrallin as your king, or die.”
The jarls were on their feet in an instant. Swords spring from scabbards, axes from belts.
“I will swear allegiance to no woman. This farce has continued long enough. I came here thinking you would do the sensible thing and give up the Cathedra. Now you threaten me? Well, I’ve a new plan. If you aren’t willing to give it, I will take it.” Valska nodded at his men.
Sudrstjarna remained seated. “Oh husband,” she called.
The rear doors of the Great Hall swung open. A figure stepped into the doorway.
The jarls, skidded to a halt, muttering to themselves.
“Is that you Skrallin?” Valska asked.
Skrallin stepped into the light of the Great Hall’s fire.
This would be the tricky part, Sudrstjarna knew.
Skrallin carried an axe and his sword. He wore his mail-shirt, steel vambraces. His face was in that of a wicked snarl. He would have looked vicious but…
“What the fuck happened to your face?” Valska asked.
What indeed? Skrallin was cursed. His face was once strong, handsome in that violence-is-just-around-the-corner kind of way. Now it was a mix between that of a giant rat’s, and a donkey’s face.
But they had rehearsed this. Play it ferocious, not sad and comical. Valska would not stand for Sudrstjarna’s rule. He had to be eliminated. Skrallin forced his face into a hideous snarl. He walked beside Sudrstjarna, handed her the axe.
“You speak of witchcraft? Look what I have done to my husband. And all because he left his undergarments on the floor! What do you think I will do to you, who opposes my family?”
One jarl staggered backwards. Valska grabbed him by the collar, faced him forward again.
“If you want to bed a donkey, that’s your business.” Valska said. A jarl laughed nervously. “You could have done that in peace. But the tribe will not take orders from a witch or her ass lover. I’ve come for the Cathedra. For my right as headmen. And I’m going to have it.”
Sudrstjarna looked into his eyes, for any sign of the shakiness she’d hoped to find. She needed more time.
They say poison is a woman’s weapon, which Sudrstjarna thought unfair. Lacing the food with the cowpie mushroom dust had been Skrallin’s idea. But, if the effects didn’t start taking hold soon, her and her husband would face 5 very sober, very well armed, and very large men.
She still had one trick up her sleeve. She raised her goblet to Valska and his men. “To your health!”
She turned the goblet upside down, when the wine hit the table, it transformed into a river of fire. The fire spread instantly, lighting the entire feasting table in lurid blue flames. The jarls jumped back. Even Valska staggered away from the inferno.
If Sudrstjarna actually knew any magic, she would have used that instead. The flaming table was a simple parlor trick. An alchemy she’d learned from the traveling carnival. Still, Valska and his men didn’t know that. The drugs were taking hold. The room was a broken mirror of flaming color. To them, the rumors all seemed true: Sudrstjarna was a witch.
“Kill her!” Valska shouted, his voice shaky.
The jarls stood, petrified in fear. It was Skrallin who initiated the killing. His sword was in and out of the first jarl before the man raised his axe. The man screamed. In fear, in pain.
Two of the other jarls ran for the door. But that would do them no good. Sudrstjarna instructed the doors to remain barred, no matter what, until midnight.
Skrallin went after the next jarl. Despite clattering knees, the man was cogent enough to raise his sword. Their blades clashed. Skrallin’s donkey face, a bestial mask.
Sudrstjarna faced Valska. The fire making her eyes glow red. She held her axe before her face, licking the edge of the blade, a single drop of blood appearing on her tongue. “Have you ever drank the blood of your enemies Valska?”
Valska staggered back as if struck. Panic filled his enlarge pupils. His sword fell from his hand. He turned to run, but Sudrstjarna was faster.
She buried her axe where it belonged: In the traitorous bastard’s back.
An hour later, the remaining jarls dispatched, Skrallin and his hideous deformity hidden away, the doors to the Great Hall were opened. Before the eyes of the gathered tribes folk, bathed in ash and blood, strode queen Sudrstjarna.