Being a slave is, at its essence, a terrible existence.
I knew I’d received a gift from the Gods when Jarl Magnus gave me to Erik. He didn’t beat me. Didn’t abuse me. I was cared for the way one might care for a prized heifer.
And I was still a slave. I slept with the sheep. During the day, I did whatever was asked of me. I had only the one set of clothes, and they stank. They stank to the point where I could not smell it on myself, but I knew nonetheless. And all the while, the whole village dismissed me as less than a person.
I bridled inside at the indignity. Every day that passed, I grew a little more upset. I could not roam where I wanted, could not speak to who I chose to. I barely knew the names of most of the villagers, and even my contact with fellow slaves came in passing. It was a lonely, isolated, unappreciated existence.
That was the worst part. Because being thrall to Erik Magnusson may not have meant abuse, but it meant an insular world, cut off from everyone around me.
Which is why I valued my nights with Erik so much.
Erik worked me hard, the way Harald worked him. We fought with one-handed staves and wooden shields. I gathered my own set of bruises to match his. Then, every morning, I’d begin my day of labor anew, ignoring the rising soreness of my muscles and my bruises as I did.
But as the years passed, what had begun as me awkwardly taking the beatings from Erik turned into a contest, and I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Dancing with a partner around a fire, dancing with the sea atop the ship, and this new dance of sword and shield with Erik all seemed to be one and the same. He led me through the fight, each slash of his provoking a natural counter of mine, back and forth, each seeking to slip past the other’s guard.
He had the strength of his big, Norse body. The child who’d been about the same size as me that night on the docks grew much faster than me. At sixteen summers to each of us, he stood a good three hands taller than me, and his once-lanky muscles had filled out the rippling form of the warrior he’d trained to be.
I’d grown as well. My muscles had grown too, though more whipcord than massive. My breasts had filled in, to the point where I had to restrain them with a linen cloth when we trained to avoid both awkwardness and pain. Where he’d grown stronger, I’d grown quicker.
One spring evening, after a particularly vigorous bout with, I collapsed backward into the sweet-smelling grass. I’d bested Erik thrice out of five, and felt sort of pleased with myself.
“Look,” Erik said, standing above me, that smile on his face. Despite all his growth, that boyish smile remained, and I found it as charming now as I had back on the docks. “Look at my lazy thrall, laying down in the grass while her master stands.”
I snorted at this, then spun from where I lay on the ground, kicking the back of his knee and sending him toppling backwards. Then I pushed myself up to a knee and looked down on him instead. “My apologies, Jarlsson,” I said in a mockery of my formerly subservient tone. “I shall make sure you recline on the ground before laying down myself, next time.”
He laughed—though I thought I heard him wheezing his wind back at the same time.
“Such insolence!” he cried in protest. Then he reached up and took me into a bear hug, bringing me down from my knee and pressing me up against him. And with a push from a single leg, he rolled, reversing our positions. He rested atop me, my body pressed between him and the ground.
Which is when something changed.
We’d been secret friends since that night on the docks. Two children in lonely roles, who wanted merely to have someone to play with. But now…things shifted. I caught his eye, and the laughter faded as we looked at each other, each daring the other to push for more.
He leaned down, just a bit, his face so close to mine that I could feel his breath. I smelled the sweat on the both of us, slick and heavy from our workout. I felt the coarse dirt under my back as his weight pressed me into it. I felt everything, my body alight to sensation.
I didn’t have the courage to close the distance and kiss him. To feel those lips on mine, to let my body give in to his. To unleash the passion I saw as he looked at me.
And neither did he.
And so we sat, breathing, in silence, both of us aching for the other, neither of us moving a muscle. To retreat seemed unthinkable, to progress seemed terrifying. We were frozen there, unsure of what to do next.
I’ll always wonder. Would we have found our nerve? Would that night have seen more for us? How would our lives had progressed if one of us had the courage, the foolishness to allow ourselves that night?
The far-off booming of drums interrupted our crystallized, frozen passion. Both of us stood, and looked down the valley, to the fjord. And there, in the night, just as though I stood once again on the shores of Strongricstead, a longship sailed up the fjord. Not the longship of Jarl Magnus, with the colors of Skalmarnes on its sail. A different ship.
“Thor’s balls in a twist,” said Erik under his breath. “It’s Jarl Jormund. Gods, I didn’t know he was coming.”
“Jormund?” I asked.
“He—” Erik began, then shook his head, stopping himself. “No time to explain. We have to get back to the village. Once we get there, get ready.”
“Ready?” I asked, thinking over my list of chores.
“Yeah,” he said, still staring down at the incoming longship. “We may end up in battle sooner than I thought.”