Excerpt: Under the Midnight Sun
The great hall of Thunderhill was boisterous and brimming at full capacity, with hundreds of burg residents and nomads alike gathered for the first night of Midsummer’s celebrations. Otto Johanson, eldest prince of the burg, sat at the high table with his brothers and fathers, and the other noble warriors: their uncles, male cousins, and the handful of warrior dames. The high table itself was nearest the great hearth, and they sweated in the summer heat even though the fire was kept low.
The closest tables were occupied by the wealthiest burghers. They sat on individual stools or chairs like those at the high table, marked not only by their seats but by the intricate embroidery on their clothes and their plentiful gold and silver jewelry. Most were craftsmen as well as warriors, but they also included the burg’s trio of magical healers, green sorcerers in their soft robes, and its solitary, grudgingly trusted and battle-worn red sorcerer.
Filling nearly half the hall were the rovers, packed together on benches, here to celebrate with their non-nomadic brethren. Dogs and children ran around the perimeter of tables, occasionally joined by men and women stretching their legs or finding friends at other tables. Most of the rover bands had arrived only a few days before, and now was a time to renew bonds with others not seen since the end of winter. Beginning tomorrow, burghers and nomads alike would crowd the green to watch and fight in the tournaments, but tonight was for feasting.
The kings’ wives sat at the table to the left, along with the other noble wives and their tots. While husbands forged their bonds with each other in toil and battle, most kept to custom and also took one or more wives to bear them children and look after the household.
This midsummer, Otto’s younger brothers Werner and Hald were joined by Werner’s new husband, Sverre. As muscular and broad as any of the Johansons, Sverre had a majestic beard, braids of blond intertwined with rich berry-dyed maroon. Otto was pleased for Werner, but it stung his pride a bit that the middle brother had wed before him, the oldest. Werner and Sverre had not yet taken a wife, but would surely do so before next summer.
Three years ago, Otto had been ready to ask Rasmus, his lover of the few years prior, for betrothal. Rasmus—wiry, witty Rasmus—had been a fine warrior who was eager to leave his family’s ironworking trade to his older brothers. But a vicious attack from Yewcastle on a band of Thunderhill warriors out hunting left them with many casualties. Rasmus and Otto had survived the initial onslaught together, only to be interrupted by the fresh terror of Rasmus clutching his throat soon after the lull.
The primal fear on Rasmus’s face was etched into Otto’s mind even now. Otto had wasted no time tearing through the nearby trees in search of the red sorcerer, finding her quickly and pulling her down from her cowardly perch hidden in the trees. He hacked off the hand clutching the freshly carved rune, spilling even fresher blood down its surface. But it had been too late; though he had slayed her moments later, Rasmus was still dead.
An uneasy truce had been settled between Thunderhill and Yewcastle more recently, after a nasty spate of dire fox attacks, but Otto had found neither comfort nor love since. Now, surrounded by all of Thunderhill in the festivities of the solstice, Otto was expected to be looking for a new partner. Relationships that ended with the death of one of the men in battle were painful but common. One of Otto’s fathers, Alvar, had died from a wound of war many years back; his other father, Johan, had remarried not two years later. But despite the unspoken expectation that Otto would be ready to move on by now, he had no burning desire to light a new flame.
Occasionally, he still feared the embers of his heart were truly extinguished, to be forever cold, when he saw warriors around him finding love—a particular worry he’d faced when Werner and Sverre had wed. Not prone to dramatics, however, Otto assured himself the embers were simply burning slowly, waiting for the right kindling to be stoked to new passion. Or so he hoped.
Otto reached down to scratch the head of Bitty, his sleek-furred kell hound, who was snoozing beside his chair. She yawned and stretched, accepting the attention for a moment before trotting over to tussle with other dogs for meat scraps near the hearth.
“Don’t look so glum,” Hald said, elbowing Otto out of his musings. “The biggest feast of the season’s no time for your severity.” He grabbed the lacquered pitcher nearest him with ring-studded hands as big as paws and refilled Otto’s half-empty goblet nearly to its brim with dark wine.
“You’re right,” Otto agreed, picking up the goblet. He took a deep swig of the sweet wine, the tartness of last summer’s blackberries tickling the back of his tongue, and then lifted the vessel to clink against Hald’s. “To family, to the gods, and to the endless day.”
“And to the joy all three may bring us!” Hald added, grinning before gulping down more of his own wine. Like all Teglanders, he was celebrating his next year of age this solstice. Newly seventeen, he was already the tallest and broadest of the three brothers, sure to be a giant of a man when he finished growing. Otto sometimes joked that Hald must have troll blood. Hald had had nothing but good fortune through his years, and while sometimes Otto resented him for it, more often he was grateful for the light of optimism Hald provided in an often dark world.