My body tensed when I saw Erik. Standing on the pier, I couldn’t run. I could dive for the icy waters and swim, but for what purpose? I’d been caught, a slave roaming free.
And I had no idea what to say.
Neither, it seemed did he. We stood there for a moment suspended in time, staring at each other. My heart raced, my breathing quickened. Would he beat me? Kill me? Sell me to some other, less kind master? But it was Erik who finally broke the silence.
“Aelfwyn? What are you doing here?”
“I—” what was I doing here? “I like the water. And the boats,” I said weakly.
He looked at me for a bit, then smiled that warm, boyish smile of his. “I do, too,” he said. “You’ve actually sailed on the longship—father won’t let me go out on the raids. He says I’m too young.”
I giggled a little at that. His smile had taken some of the edge off my nerves, and he and I were so alike in so many ways. “I used to go down to the beach next to my home, too,” I said. “I wasn’t supposed to there, either. Papa would get very angry.”
He giggled back. For a moment, we weren’t slave and owner—we were two children, conspiring against our fathers by telling stories behind their backs.
“So, what’s it like?” he said, looking past me to the longship. “Sailing, I mean. I’ve been on the fjord, but…”
“It’s amazing!” I blurted out without thinking about it, then flushed. I remembered Brother Leodbright’s instructions. Never get past your place. Head down. Do your work. Don’t attract their attention if you can avoid it. “I mean,” I said, hanging my head to stare at my feet and slouching my shoulders in subservience. “It is not my place to sail. I am your thrall, and content in my service.”
Erik sighed at that, shaking his head. “Thor’s beard,” he said. “My father’s not here, Aelfwyn. And yes, you’re my thrall. But nobody else is here, and I command you to be honest with me. What was it like to sail?” He’d gained height in the years since my capture, but that boyish face still spoke of mischief and wonder. His bright-blonde hair still sat atop his head in a messy ruffle. The soft tone of his voice and his gentle smile calmed me as I looked into his eyes.
“It was…” I thought for a moment. “Back in my village, in the spring, we’d build a big bonfire. And Old Throm would pull out his pipes, and some of the men would have drums, and we’d all dance around the fire. Winter ended, spring began, and we celebrated the coming summer. It was like that. The sea…she dances. All the time. She really likes it when Thor beats his anvil to make thunder. She rises to the beat and swells and rolls, and the ship moves with her, like a partner.”
“Gods,” he said, looking at the longship. “I’ve never heard it told such. We’re told to fear the waves when they get high.”
I shrugged. “It is probably safer. I—” I blushed, just slightly, not sure how to say what came next without being rude.
“You…what?” asked Erik.
“I don’t think I really cared whether I lived, when they brought me here.”
Erik sucked his breath between his teeth, then nodded. “Because you knew you’d be a thrall?” he asked.
I shook my head, and laughed a little. “I had no idea what was going to happen to me. But I knew Stongricstead had been burnt. I don’t know what happened to Mama and Papa, but…”
“But they might be dead,” Erik finished. “Harald’s party might have…”
I nodded. “Probably. Brother too. Everyone I used to love, gone. What use for Aelfwyn?”
“I heard from Harald how you kicked him in the shin when they first landed,” he said with a smile. “An entire raiding party, pulling up to the shore, and they’re met with a small girl who kicks the leader in the shin. It’s been told and retold in the mead hall.”
I nodded, thinking back. “It’s been two years,” I said. “But I did do that. Of course, I’d no idea who he was or why he was there. I’d snuck down to the beach.”
“You’d been called to the beach,” he said. “Frigg, in her mysteries, showed you the way. She kept you alive.”
I laughed, at that. “Oh, did she?” I asked. “Odin’s wife decided that I should be a slave? Thank you, Oh Frigg, for carrying me safe to these lands that I may tend to sheep and launder the clothes of some spoiled—” I cut off, realizing what I’d said. I’d gotten carried away.
Erik stared at me, jaw half-open. “Is that really how you see me?” he asked. “Spoiled?”
I looked at him for a moment, then schooled my voice back into the proper Leodbright-trained manner. “I apologize, Jarlsson. I spoke out of turn.”
He shook his head, frowning. “I commanded honesty,” he said. “And I command it still. Speak. Is that how you see me?”
I looked him in the eye, then, and saw fear. He feared how I saw him. “Aren’t you?” I said. “I wash your clothes, and your underthings. I bring you food, should you desire it. I tend your livestock. I fetch your water. Tell me, Erik Magnusson…what do you do all day?”
In response, Erik peeled his woolen tunic off. Underneath, his lean body was covered in bruises. “I am trained by Harald and the others to be a warrior,” he said. “And you can judge for yourself whether they spoil me,” he said, gesturing pointedly to his bruises.
My turn to let my mouth gape a bit, then I smiled. “I didn’t know,” I said in a voice so soft it verged on a whisper. “It sounds like fun, though. More fun than washing your breeches, at any rate.”
He smiled at that. “It is. I could teach you, something. Thrall’s aren’t supposed to carry arms, but we could practice with wood.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why teach your thrall something like that?”
“Because when we first met,” he said, “you kicked my father in the shin, too. I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“Why wait this long?” I asked. “To train me, I mean. Not kick your father.”
He laughed, at that. A bright, boy’s laugh that brought a smile from me.
“You didn’t speak my tongue, at first,” he said. “And…truth be told, I didn’t really think about it much, until I saw you, staring at the ship. You wish to sail again, don’t you?”
Oh, how I wanted it. I wanted it so badly I couldn’t put words to it. I simply nodded, hoping he’d understand.
“You are blessed by Frigg. You’ve fought against Harald and Magnus. You’re fierce, and you want back on the sea. How could I not want you with me on my first raid?” he asked. “Tonight, you are a Thrall. But tonight, we were both called to the sea once more. What is that, but the guidance of Frigg and Odin, telling us what our course should be?”
“Coincidence?” I asked mildly.
Hush, child, and listen, came the response. But not from Erik. Nor from any other person I could see.
The quiet voice swept across the water with the wind, spoken by nobody at all.