On the south shore of Vathran stood the shield-hall of the king, named Irongaard by some. It was a great hall built with oak from the deck planks of warships, dark with age and hard as iron. Around the hall stood sixteen longhouses, their walls built of stone and their roofs green with the spring grass. A wall of earth surrounded the halls, and then a long white stone path led down to the blue waters of the fjord. To the south the gray mists of the sea coiled in the dusk, and in the north the mountains rose up and up into pillars of stone and ice. King Oeric did not care for any of it, not any longer.
Even as the days grew warmer, and the ice retreated from the waters, he remained within his hall, closed in his own chambers with the doors shut and the fires stoked high. He wandered from room to room, forgetting to dress himself, and he clutched his bared sword as though he saw enemies hiding around every corner.
Queen Ruana did what she could to attend him. She was his second wife, and he was much older than she. His first bride had given him two sons, both now dead, but Ruana herself had never been able to give him a child. She slept each night in the bed her predecessor had bled to death in, and sometimes she still thought she could catch the slaughterhouse smell.
Oeric was not yet old, but it was as though his mind was failing him. He did not speak often, and when he did he seemed to mumble to people who were not there. He carried his sword everywhere, even to sleep, and he touched the spears that lined the walls as though they might rouse and follow him like hounds. He did not dress himself, and she had to struggle to make certain he was attired. The servants were afraid to touch him, and so she had to command them and hope he did not decide to kill any of them.
Sometimes, usually at night, he became violently angry and stalked through the chambers, striking at the beams with the old ring-hilted blade of his father, leaving cuts in the hard wood. Ruana had to stop him then, lest he strike something important, or hurt himself. She would throw her braids back over her shoulder and wrestle him, holding down his sword arm until he quieted.
His thanes came with the warming of the year, and she knew the news from the north was bad. Thane Crune of Hadrad led an army of ninety ships in the hinterlands, and though he claimed he was hunting Hror the Outlaw, there was nothing to prevent him from coming south into the kingdom, and testing his strength against their own. There was already blood on the high heaths, and it seemed nothing but war could grow from the red soil.