I spent that night in a barn, amongst a herd of sheep. I didn’t know where Gilda and Ecgmund were. Not with me. My only company was the wooly, bleating livestock.
I know, now, that I should probably have taken it as an insult. Thralls are put with the animals for a reason—in the world of the Norsemen, they are considered animals, after all. Just a beast of burden to keep about. But at the time, the sheep were fluffy. Dirty, yes. Smelly, absolutely. But I’d already soiled my dress several times over, and stink really didn’t matter to me. Fluffy did. Fluffy I could cuddle up with. Fluffy meant a warm, welcoming place for me to sleep. I liked fluffy.
So, my child’s mind let the hard truth of my situation pass by, seizing instead upon the simple joy of snuggling up to warm animals. I often look back at that night, at the pure contentment I felt during my first night as a slave, and envy my former innocence.
The next day, the monk came to rouse me. He wore the same soiled robes, but came alone. He shook me by the shoulder, gently. I began to rouse from my fluff-induced sleep.
“Aelfwyn?” he said gently. “Little one? It is time to wake.”
I opened my eyes, blinked them a couple of times, and looked up at him.
“Oh,” I said. Then I paused for a bit, trying to find the right words, and added, “Good morning, Brother.” I said them by rote, words from another life. I raised myself up to a half-sitting position.
“Good morning,” he said. “We were not introduced yesterday. I am Brother Leodbright. I used to serve the Lord on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne before…” He shook his head. “Our Father has seen fit to send me into the service of these heathens, that I may minister to them and bring to them the Holy Word of Jesus Christ.”
I’d never really cared for the clergy. Oh, I liked going to Mass, on a Sunday. No chores, and we got to sing. I liked singing. But the priest had been sort of stodgy, and he’d chastised me for constantly running about and dirtying my dresses. So, I scrunched up my face at all this talk of the Bible, then dramatically flopped my head backward.
My pillow bleeted in protest and stood up, then walked away, entirely ruining the dramatic gesture.
“I am to teach you the heathen tongue, as I have learned it. This the Jarl orders me to do. You belong to his son, now. He’d have you be useful.”
I nodded. Belong. If the Jarl’s son was to have a gift, it should be as fancy as possible. I bridled at the word, though. “It’s not really fair,” I said huffily.
Brother Leodbright barked a laugh, startling the sheep and causing them to shy away from us. “No,” he said. “It’s not fair. God’s will isn’t fair. But, like Job, we will persevere and do His work, yes?”
I stuck my tongue out at him. After all, we were both thralls now. Property. What did it matter if I disrespected his him or his God?
“Child,” he said softly. “You will need to learn to control that. These heathens will put you down if they think you disobedient. You live so only long as you are useful. You’re a sacrifice to their pagan gods if not.”
I blinked at that. The idea that I might be killed hadn’t occurred to me at all. It probably should have, of course, but…well, it hadn’t. I was eight years old, and invincible. Sullenly, I nodded.
“Good,” he said. “And now, we learn. Yes?”
And so began my life as thrall to Erik Magnusson. A typical day began with building a fire in the hearth. I’d heard stories of chamber-pots, but found that these Danes—as Brother Leodbright called them—simply used latrines instead. I’d bring Erik his breakfast, and he’d shyly take it, not trying to say anything to me.
Then I’d spend an hour or two with Leodbright, learning Dane-speak. I took to it with the enthusiasm of a child, and the fact very few others in the village spoke English helped. I didn’t simply learn the language, I stewed in it. My mind reached for the words and fit them into their spots as though they’d always been there.
The rest of my tasks didn’t change from those I’d done for my family in Strongricstead. I plucked wool from the sheep and carded it, then spun it to yarn. I fed the hogs and the cattle, and hauled water from the stream to Erik’s basin and pitcher, and to the animals as well. I dried and smoked fish the fjord provided. In some ways, it felt as though nothing had changed.
I’ve heard stories of other thralls, since. I know that, for a thrall, I’d been fortunate—my master and his father treated me as one would treat a prize heifer. I wasn’t given the respect you’d give a fellow person, really—but neither was I beaten. Or…or other things. Every once in a while I’d see Ecgmund come to town with his master on an errand of some sort. He didn’t look hurt, but his eyes kept to the ground, and the haughtiness that had once filled the boy had fled him.
I saw Gilda once. She…she was skinny, and bruised. She didn’t really look at anything at all—just stared out at nothing as she followed her master.
And at night…at night, I still snuck out and ventured down to the sea. Down to stare across the flat water of the fjord. On a still night, the moon shone off the water in an almost perfect reflection, but the smell of salt-water still rose, beckoning me, calling me back. I’d walk the pier, out to the longship that had brought me here, and place my hand on it, remembering the thrill I’d felt as it and the waves danced below me.
A full turning of the seasons passed, then two. During winter, I spun and wove. During summer, I herded. Always, I fed the animals, then myself. I grew up, grew stronger, and let my memories of Strongricstead fade. The beauty of the fjord, the mountains, the sea, became my new home, and despite my bondage, despite my home burned behind me, I adjusted. There wasn’t much else to do.
Until one night, when I stood on the pier, my hand caressing the longship, that I heard his voice behind me. The voice of the shy boy who barely talked to me. I didn’t know I’d been followed, didn’t know he stood on the pier behind me, until I heard his voice. Erik Magnusson. My master. My owner.
“Aelfwyn?” he asked in that curious, shy tone.
And I turned to look the next phase of my life in the eye at last.