Having sent Edith to fetch Father Eldric in the village, Aelswyn gave her orders to the servants and went to visit her father. She hoped he wouldn’t be drunk; she had forbidden the servants to bring him more than a small jug of ale or mead per day, replacing the alcohol by plenty of herbal teas: the water was no good to drink alone, it made people sick. He didn’t like it but that was all she could do to ensure he would be at his best for the duel.
She was pleasantly surprised when she entered his chambers and found him sober and properly dressed. Although he had been earlier, she was concerned that he would have reversed back to his bad habits, now that his official role towards her was over. But here he was, in good humor and clothed in his best gambeson. She felt relieved: he was going to wear his chainmail. That would certainly improve his chances of survival. He was tall for a Saxon, and fit for his age, an experienced warrior, that could make a difference.
“How are you this morn Daughter? Did the Viking treat you well?”
Aelswyn blushed, again. She was annoyed at herself: she was an adult woman and a healer, so why did she keep feeling so embarrassed at the mere mention of these matters.
“He did Father; as for now I couldn’t fault him as a husband. He has been very kind and generous to me.”
“I can see that,” he said, pointing to her new brooch.
She lowered her head.
“He gave me this to compensate for my dowry. They were more presents in the pouch. It was unexpected.”
The Duke laughed.
“Those Vikings! I see that their reputation isn’t overstated: they are masters in the art of seduction. But be careful Daughter; don’t let yourself become overly infatuated with this husband of yours. Cherish him as you should, your duty commands it, but keep in mind that the King might not see this marriage favorably, when the time comes. One could easily argue that your consent was given under duress…”
“I am aware of that Father. Father Eldric should arrive soon. Is there anything more I could do for you?”
“I doubt so. I wanted to apologize to you for not being a good father, and for failing to protect you from this. If I were given a chance to redeem myself, I would act differently, but unfortunately this will not happen. I hope you will keep my memory in your heart and find it in you to forgive me. Pray for my soul Daughter, I will need it.”
Aelswyn was close to tears when she answered:
“I have already forgiven everything, Father, you did what you thought was right. I will pray for you and cherish your memory as long as I’ll live. I am so sorry, I tried to offer the wergeld, he wouldn’t take it, I couldn’t stop this…”
Ethelred stepped forward and took her face in his hands:
“Do not blame yourself Aelswyn, this is all my doing, and you will be the one bearing the consequences. I have one last wish: do not watch the fight. This is an artwig, there are no rules and the fight is to the death, it will not be a pretty sight. I don’t want you to be haunted by it. And do not try to avenge my death, I brought it upon myself, I refuse to make this your burden. Don’t let it come between your husband and yourself either, it would only bring you sorrow. Promise me you will Aelswyn?”
Sobbing now, she nodded:
“I promise Father.”
Smiling, he kissed her forehead:
“I wish you a good life Daughter, farewell. Go now.”
“Farewell Father,” said Aelswyn, leaving the room.
Olaf muttered a prayer to Odin before dropping the pinch of dried mushrooms into the steaming water. He had borrowed a ceremonial cup for this and was standing outside the Fort, beside his brother’s burial mound. Four warriors encircled him, ready to restrain him once the ritual would be completed: a berserker in his magical trance would attack anybody on sight. This was why he was not armed, he would only be given his weapons at the start of the duel.
He stirred the brownish liquid thoroughly with a wooden spoon and placed it on the ground beside him. Adjusting his sleeveless jacket of wolf fur, he rose his hands to the sky and began the secret dance for the God, that would bring him into a trance.
It wasn’t long before he reached the desired state, he had done this many times afore.