Disclaimer: I, unfortunately, am only an aspiring writer nowhere near the level of talent as the person who owns this epic trilogy- I own nothing but this plot, dreams, and a now cold cup of coffee.
The dark waves splashed against the worn wood of the ship, sending a mist onto the figure leaning against the side. Jessa shifted her head off of her arms and leaned into the salty spray, relishing the feel of the cold water. It was a refreshing jolt out of troubled thoughts and brought her back to reality. To yells of the crew as they ran about, tending to the multitude of chores to be done, all under the watchful eye of the surveying captain. The familiarity of the scene brought back memories of earlier travels, and she sighed. During those moments of going up against Gudrun and fighting for her life, all she could think of was returning the Jarlshold to peace, under a rightful ruler, and the safety of her friends. Now that their goals had all been accomplished, and they've had years of peace and prosperity, she found herself longing for some kind of adventure.
It wasn't that she was ill content with her life, far from it. Horolfstead had flourished under her watchful eye, turning into a highly profitable property. That was two years ago, since then Jessa had moved to Jarlshold by Wulfgar's request and became a useful member of his court. She had given the land to Thorkil under the condition that she would still have co-ownership, receiving half of the profit and a place to stay when needed. Living in the Jarlshold had been a welcome change at first. She loved being surrounded by Wulfgar, Skapti, and Hakon on a daily basis, plus it meant she never missed a day of Brocheal and Kari's visits whenever they came. What had gradually worn her down were the other members of the court who, although had heard of her part in the war against Gudrun and showed appreciation for her efforts, seemed to think that her only purpose was as a proper lady and advisor. And if there was one thing Jessa did not obey, it was the expectations from the other ladies of how such a woman lives.
At first it was the rejection of her officially becoming a member of the Jarl's warband. Even though she had joined them on numerous missions, showing her value on each and every one, the idea that a lady of her social standing be a warrior was instantly refused. It was a matter she had brought up many times, but her fervent arguments remained unheard and in time even Wulfgar and Skapti were won over by the reasoning of the court. Eventually she let it rest. She knew she was a skilled warrior, easily ranking with the best in the warband, and felt no need to prove herself to any naysayers. After giving it much thought (during a forced period of cooling down after scathingly giving those before mentioned naysayers a piece of her mind in front of a packed hall) she remembered realized she could use the situation to her advantage. Without being held to all the rules that a member of the Jarl's warband would have to abide, she would be allowed much more freedom, especially when it came to certain missions.
Unfortunately, those missions gradually decreased both in number and in adversity until she was reduced to nothing more than her original position of Lady and advisor. In other words, she sat in the Jarlshold listening in at meetings and glaring at Hakon with jealousy whenever she spotted him sparring in the courtyard, or dashing through the gates off on some quest. Never one to have her life dictated for her, especially by genteel nobles who put too much weight on a person's title, Jessa found her own ways to rebel. Her friends caught on quickly to her acts, but for the most part let her be. Even Signi had distracted the other ladies, allowing her to sneak off on some ragtag adventure, on multiple occasions.
However, even this hard-earned freedom was too good to last and it wasn't long before Skapti cornered her with a summons from Wulfgar.
Jessa scowled, accidentally frightening a crew member who had been trying to swab the area around her. At his shriek, she immediately drew out of her thoughts again, apologizing as she walked to the bow of the ship. The man gave her a strange look, before getting back to work. For the most part the crew ignored her, whether to avoid the infamous sharp tongue or because they sensed her dark mood she didn't know. Frankly, she barely noticed them as well, the past couple of days being spent in a trance-like state as she continuously lost herself in her thoughts.
If only I had known how my whole life would be changed for me, I never would have worked so hard to put Wulfgar on the throne, she thought bitterly as she sat down on an upturned barrel. Jessa shook her head, immediately scolding herself for such a thought. It was no use being upset at Wulfgar, even she had to admit he had tried his best, and although she was still angry at the situation, she regretted how harsh she had behaved towards her friend.
"We have discussed this before Wulfgar, my answer has not changed!"
Skapti righted her chair that had been knocked over by her hasty exit and motioned for her to sit back down. Jessa refused, instead placing her hands on her hips as she glared at the men in front of her. The Jarl was slouching in his throne as usual but she saw how his whole body was tense, customary smirk gone, a rather grim frown in its stead. Wulfgar sighed, trying to process his next words.
"Jessa, you have to understand that this situation is very delicate."
"Oh, I understand perfectly, and as stated before, this 'situation', delicate or not deals with my life, and as such I-
and only I- will decide the outcome. What I do not understand is why you are going against me!"
"You know, if there were any way for it, I would stand with you Jessa. However, with circumstances as they are…" He trailed off, and looked to Skapti for help. Jessa wheeled around, shocked.
"Skapti… don't tell me you're in on this as well!" Betrayal leaked through her words and the man lowered his head at the sound.
"No, I'm not." It was the first time she had heard the poet directly go against Wulfgar, and she was shocked at the glare he gave his friend as he continued. "I found the continuation of this subject ridiculous and unnecessary, and refused to partake in it. Perhaps that was a mistake…"
This last part was a mutter to himself, but Jessa felt relief flood through her at his words as she allowed herself to hope. Skapti seemed to notice, for he gave her an apologetic look before starting to sort through the papers lying in front of them.
"However, I am afraid that although we disagree with him now, Wulfgar remains our Jarl and we must trust in him and his decisions." He softened his tone as he handed her the papers, "Come now, little Valkyrie, just take a look through them. There may be an option you like."
She took the documents from him, more from shock than compliance. Vaguely, she noticed her hands were shaking.
Wulfgar guided her back into her chair slowly, before leaning in towards her, eyes pleading. "Jessa, I know you do not abide by the social stipulations expected by one of your position-"
"Because they are archaic and nonsense! You don't even follow them, Wulfgar!"
He gave the first smile of the night, "That's because they are archaic and nonsense. But you have to admit that even I, even Skapti here the vagrant," he waved away the poet's protest, and Jessa found herself grinning. "We both have had to allow certain changes in our life because of our duty to the people. And you also know that everyone in the Jarlshold loves you, everything about you- including your independence. But a time has come that calls for you to put some of that aside and fulfill your duty to the people as well."
"I am neither a broodmare, nor an olive branch," she said, but it was obvious her fight was starting to wan.
Skapti guffawed, "Trust me, my dear, no one will mistake you for a symbol of peace."
Jessa smirked as she smacked him upside the head and sensing the lighter mood Wulfgar jumped on it. "There are many ways you can be of a help to your people, as well as to our allies. We will not force which offer you accept, but unless you have another in mind, you will have to pick one."
She rifled through them, her frown deepening with each one. "Isn't there an option that doesn't end with me being married?"
"You're twenty years of age Jessa, you should have been married years ago. I never pushed it because I knew how you felt but I'm afraid we can avoid it no longer. The rest of the court has voted, and many of the people have expressed their concerns. It is unseemly for a respectable woman of your age and accomplishments to be unmarried."
"I could give a rat's ass what people think of me," she growled. "And whoever dares to speak against me can come and tell me to my face, I'll make quick work of them."
Skapti had a great smile on his face as he threw an arm over her shoulder, "That's our Jessa! Go on, feed her to those wolves in silk dressings! She shall come out victorious, nary a scratch on her!"
The Jarl leaned back in his seat, laughing and for a moment Jessa could almost believe it was just another night, spent like hundreds before, with laughter and jests. However, the documents felt heavy in her hands, as if they were an anchor to her dim reality and all too soon Wulfgar and Skapti joined her.
"I'm afraid that the opinion of my people is very important to me, especially when concerning one of my dearest friends. I can't have them lose credit with you Jessa, if that were to happen not only would your reputation and relations with the people of the Jarlshold suffer, but mine as well. It is harsh, and I am sorry, but that is how it is. Please make your decision soon so preparations can be made."
Her reply had been many choice, heated words, and several attempts to rip the papers holding the marriage offers to shreds, but in the end she gave Wulfgar a terse nod, storming out before any threatening tears could fall.
The heavy clomp of boots against the deck alerted her to another's presence and she nodded to the captain as he passed by her before turning her eye to watch the birds wheeling around the masts. So they were drawing close to land, most likely Trond. Dimly she wondered if Greycloak would be there to receive them again, and thought back to her first visit to the small village. Both Thorkil and she had been a bundle of nerves, anxious what awaited them in the cursed Thrasirshall. She let out a small laugh at the parallel, a couple of years had passed and she was no longer that little girl being banished, but here she was sitting on the same ship, on the same path towards an unknown future.
And although she hated herself for it, Hakon's words would not stop haunting her and she couldn't help but be scared of walking into Thrasirshall again. Of seeing him again.
Her door slammed open and Jessa was surprised to see a bloody mass of armor hurtle towards her. She was tackled into a hug, and found herself staring into sweaty, dirty, blond hair.
"Hakon, you're covered in blood!"
"It's not mine," he grumbled into her neck. He tightened his grip on her, "I'm sorry I wasn't there Jessa, but I am now and you don't have to worry. I won't allow them to force you into anything."
Jessa sighed and pushed him off of her, "I take it you heard the news about my upcoming nuptials then."
"Skapti caught me as I rode in and told me all about it."
She sat down on her bed, fiddling with the ends of her blanket. "So you know there isn't anything to be done about it, Hakon."
The boy started to pace back and forth, scowling. "There has to be something! I refuse to just stand by and let them ship you off to some strange man—That's it!"
He suddenly fell to his knees before her, a bright smile on his face. "Marry me, Jessa!"
It took her a moment to regain the breath that instantly flew out at his request, and yet one more to formulate a reply. "Have you gone mad?!"
Hakon laughed, grabbing her hands. "Not at all! Listen, this whole mess is because you're unmarried right? And Wulfgar said you only had to pick one of the allied suitors if you had no one else. If you marry me, then you'll appease them and get to stay here at the Jarlshold! It's perfect!"
Her heart swelled at his consideration, and she leaned down to hug her friend. "Thank you, Hakon, but I happen to know you are madly in love with a woman who is already your fiancée."
"Oh, right…" He blushed a deep red, "We don't have to tell her about this do we?"
They shared a look, then both fell to the floor laughing. Minutes passed and they were still trying to calm themselves, only to burst out in fits of giggles once more. Jessa beamed as she felt her side begin to ache from her heavy laughter. Leave it to Hakon to find a way to make her smile when her future wavered grimly in front of her. Finally, he rolled over to face her, his grin taking up half his face.
"Besides, you wouldn't want to become engaged to me anyways. I hear your leaving for Thrasirshall tomorrow."
Jessa froze. "I don't see how that has anything to do with it. Wulfgar just suggested that being away from the pressures of the Jarlshold would help me make a decision. Besides, it's been awhile since I've seen Kari—And Brocheal," she hastily added, hoping he wouldn't notice. By the way his grin continued to grow, she doubted it.
"Please, Jessa, we all know what we hope to be the conclusion of that visit."
She growled, well that explained why Signi had insisted on helping her pack. The woman had spent the whole time sighing wistfully and replacing her traveling clothes for fine gowns that would be nothing but a hindrance, claiming 'One should always try to look their best, you never know what may happen.' The woman was a hopeless romantic who had annoyingly joined forces with Skapti on many occasions. Mainly when a certain rune master made an appearance. Jessa cringed as she remembered one such attempt that had resulted in her having a week long blush and Skapti's kantele mysteriously vanishing, only to turn up tucked underneath the woodpile. Aside from a raised eyebrow, Kari gave no reaction and had remained blissfully oblivious. Still, the possibilities of what could have occurred unnerved her.
"Kari's a good friend, I'm sure he will be able to find a solution to this as well. And he doesn't already have a fiancée," he whispered cheekily.
"Hakon!" She covered her face with her hands, trying to hide her blush. Jessa had long realized her feelings for the snow-walker were past that of friendship, she just hadn't realized they were that obvious. She decided to blame the poet; he never was able to keep his mouth closed.
"Come on, Jessa, you have a chance to be really happy here-"
"At what cost? I refuse to have a friend forced into something just for my sake."
Hakon nudged her shoulder, "What's all this moping about? You don't sound like the Jessa I know. Where's the fireball that took down that oaf Uric with her bare hands just because he was a poor dancer?"
"You're about to find out if you don't stop poking me," she grumbled into her hands. Peeking through her fingers she amended, "All I did was slap him, and you know it. It's not my fault he was so drunk he couldn't stand a single hit. Besides, the man deserved it, he was getting a tad too friendly for my liking…"
This brought about another bout of laughter between the two friends, along with other recollections of the midsummer's night festival. Jessa had to grab her side, struggling for breath at Hakon's impersonation of Wulfgar when he had woken up to find himself a victim of Skapti's pranks. Dressed in one of his wife's dresses, with a crown of flowers on his head he had proceeded to chase the poet through the hall screaming for his head, all the while Signi chased him, pleading for him not to ruin her best silk smock.
"…and then…and then…you remember what happened next," he was laughing so hard tears were brimming in his eyes, and his words were coming out in huffs. "Wulfgar finally pinned Skapti against the door and was going in for the kill, only for it to open, and both fell through to land at Kari's feet! Oh, his face! I never thought I would see such shock on his face…and then, he replied in the most serious voice-"
"That is a very pretty crown, my Lord, daisies suit you," Jessa finished. Her smile faded as she was brought back to their earlier discussion and she buried her face into her hands again.
"Is it you're nervous to tell him?"
"No, it's not that. Besides, I wouldn't be all too shocked if he already knew how I feel. I-It's more that I'm nervous of what will happen when it is out in the open. It could ruin our friendship, and that's something I don't want to risk."
Hakon grabbed her hands away from her face and peered into her eyes gently, "Even if he doesn't feel the same Jessa, you won't lose him. You're too good of friends for that. Besides, you're Jessa Horolfsdaughter! Not even a snow-walker can reject you!"
He rubbed his thumbs across the back of her hands in a soothing manner, "And like you said, knowing Kari, he already knows…if he doesn't, he will within minutes of your arrival."
Jessa felt her chest tighten at the thought, and absentmindedly rubbed at it. She couldn't trace down the exact moment it had happened, but somewhere along the way she had fallen in love with Kari Ragnarsson. He was her best friend, but so much more than that. He was brave, intelligent, and never failed to take her breath away, whether by some new magical feat he accomplished or just by being Kari. However, he was also emotionally distant, and didn't perceive things in the way most humans did. Which she was able to understand, but it still made her terrified to acknowledge how she felt about him, because she had no idea how he would react.
The fact that Kari was incredibly perceptive and never missed anything only fueled her desire to keep things as they were. For it was entirely possible he had figured out her emotions before she did, and if that were true, his acting as nothing had changed reaffirmed her belief he didn't feel the same. Actually, there were many instances she could bring to mind where he had proven he did not feel the same. Being Kari, most had been in the form of cryptic remarks and subtle hints, but they tore at her heart all the same.
The tightening in her chest turned into a painful tumult, her throat growing cold and tingly and she had to grip the railings tight to try and force away the hurt. Trying to distract herself from such thoughts she surveyed her surroundings once more, surprised to see that the ship had already approached land. All around her men were rushing to and fro, preparing for docking. Jumping off of the barrel, Jessa made her way below deck to grab her belongings.
It was a couple years late, but perhaps she could take up the offer of being hidden in Trond if it came to it.