The Norsemen bound Ecgmund, Gilda and I by the hands using a single line. They then lifted us up onto the rough wooden pier. Old scar-face took the line and began leading us into the village, the crowds parting for him. The wealth of Strongricstead followed behind us, slung over the shoulders of the burly men who’d stolen it.
I didn’t like the rope binding my wrists, and the feeling of the land under my legs caused me to stumble after so long dancing with the sea. I fell, hitting the muddy street with my face, the struggled to stand before the big men simply pulled me through the mud by my hands.
This, the onlookers found particularly funny. As I tried to stand without the use of my hands, the laughter rose uproariously around me. I slipped, fell again, then stood, mud caking my hair and the side of my face. My brow creased in anger, looking around me, but that only doubled the villager’s laughter.
Our captors led us into a long hall. A long brazier burned within. On it, a haunch of meat, not yet well-cooked, dripped its fat to sizzle into the flame below. Behind us, the others from the ship hauled the bags of loot in, clanking them on the floor.
Before the brazier, in a great wooden chair and seated on a small dais, sat a man clothed in fur and jewels. I didn’t know what names these Norsemen used for their nobility, but he certainly fit the bill. To his left, to my surprise, stood a man wearing the robes of a Christian monk. Those robes had not been well-laundered—Mama would have had a fit, looking at them. He stood no taller than the shoulder of the shortest Norseman in the room, and his ruddy hair, so much like mine, showed his Saxon blood. He smiled at the three of us, though that smile carried sadness with it.
To the noble’s right sat a young boy, just a little older than me, his legs dangling off the seat of his chair, kicking back and forth. His hair grew from his head in an unkempt ruffle, his light cheeks flushed slightly, and his bright blue eyes kept glancing between me and the nobleman.
Looking back on that moment, it’s strange.
I didn’t see everything that was to come. I didn’t see what Erik Magnusson would come to mean to me, or I to him. I didn’t see all the pain, or joy, or heartbreak, or comfort.
All I saw, when I saw Erik, was a boy who didn’t want to be in this room any more than I did.
So, I smiled at him.
And he smiled at me.
And that was that. I had only eight summers, after all; I knew nothing of love or passion, and even my ability to feel pain had been dulled and pushed away to that deep corner of my mind that held all the painful things.
I knew only that a fellow child and I shared, in that moment, a desire to be outside playing at some game, and not in this room. I was bound at the wrist, physically prevented from leaving. His bonds were less visible…but the way he sat his chair told me clearly they existed.
The nobleman stood and spread his arms, and the chatter in the room began to die down. Then he said…something in a loud tone.
Beside him, the monk looked to the three of us. “Magnus, Jarl of Skalmarnes,” he said in a monotone voice just loud enough to be heard, “praises his warriors for their safe and profitable raid.”
The big noble’s eyes lingered on each of us, and on the bags of treasure—the same look the Reeve had when he made his count in Strongricstead. Tallying value. For a moment, he caught me looking at the boy…and then caught the boy looking at me. A sly grin began to cross his face, but he continued to look over his villages newly acquired wealth. After several minutes of this appraisal, he spoke again, at some length, gesturing in general to us.
“He says that all the treasure shall be divided amongst the families of the village, save for one item. He says he would make a gift to his son.”
At this, the room erupted in chuckles from the Norse villagers about. The boy on the seat flushed red, and the other men shot looks his way. I didn’t know what was happening, but then the nobleman stood and walked his way down the dais. He gripped me under the chin, hard, and forced me to look up in his eyes.
It hurt. So, I did the only sensible thing. I kicked him in the shin.
The noble exclaimed something at this, and a general cheer went up from the men. I looked to the monk.
“Jarl Magnus notes the ferocity of even the girl-children of this Northumbria, and decrees that conquering such a fiery foe as this shall be all the proof of manhood that his son should need, when the time comes.” The monk paused, then continued in his monotone as though still translating. “I am sorry, my sisters and brother. The youngest of you is to be the personal house-thrall of Erik Magnusson. The others shall be part of the treasure parceled out.”
At this, a line of villagers formed behind the pile of treasure. One took the cross from our church. One took a candlestick. One walked up behind Gilda and untied her from the rest of us, then led her out of the tent—another did the same with Ecgmund, a little later. The pile of treasure slowly melted away, the Norsemen taking as they would, until I remained, alone but for the monk, Jarl Magnus, and Erik Magnusson.
The young boy hopped out of his chair and took my lead in his hands. His father shouted something. He blushed, and spoke to me in a much kinder tone. I looked up at the monk, questioning.
“He asks you your name,” the monk said. “And tells you that he is Erik Magnusson.”
“Aelfwyn,” I said, smiling to the boy. He’d done me no harm so far, despite his father’s rough nature. And us kids had to stick together, after all. It seemed to me much better to have this Erik as a friend than enemy, despite everything.
“Ale-f-wine,” Erik said slowly. I nodded, still smiling. “Erik,” I said back pointing at him, and he smiled to me back, clearly pleased to have this slight level of communication. Then his father, Magnus, shouted something else. Erik led me back up to the dais, then ran outside, following the villagers.
I looked to the monk, confused as to what I should do. “Just sit by his chair, for now,” he said. “I will tell you if you need to do anything else.”
The crowds began to re-enter the tent, their treasures secured, and a then a celebration began, as though it were Yuletide. And so I sat, the property of the Jarl’s young son, and watched as the men who’d put the torch to my home drank, and sang, and toasted, and wrestled with one another in celebration of the death of my former life.
And I looked up at Erik, with his boyish face, and saw the beginning of my next one.