The sun touched the horizon and cast the sky into hues of fire and blood. Night would descend soon, and if I didn’t hurry to finish my tasks, I would be unable to sneak away to see the girl.
Hefting up the bundle of firewood in my arms, I made my way back to our dwelling to give the wood to my mother. It was my job to help her while my father was off seeking riches and glory. Emerging from the edge of the woods, I started my trek in haste to the longhouse we shared with several other families. Drawing closer, the smell of cooked fish filled my nose, making my mouth water. It didn’t matter how hungry I was; there was no time to eat. Not if I was going to catch a glimpse of her.
Running down the jagged and rocky incline, I carefully traversed the terrain so I wouldn’t fall. There was no time to waste, and even something as minor as a trip of my feet could cost me my prize for the day.
Closing in on the place I called home, I took in its familiar features. The roof was curved and shaped like one of the ships my father always sailed away on, only flipped upside down. Small wooden tiles covered the would-be boat’s frame, protecting us in most part from the weather outside. Strong hewn logs made up the outside. Some straight, others slanted, each with its base buried deep in the ground with their tops supporting our roof. Inside, the walls were caked with clay, helping to keep us warm in the winter.
Unfortunately, the clay didn’t let in enough air. Which meant the smell of unwashed bodies often assaulted my senses, driving me back outside into the fresh air. It didn’t matter what the weather was outside, I was there as often as possible. Not only for the fresh air, but because I felt the most comfortable in nature.
Running toward the main entrance of the Jarl’s Hall, a flash of movement from the corner of my eye caught my attention. Running up from the side, just behind me, was a lanky form covered in a light brown tunic and leather leggings. I had but a moment to brace myself, tightening my hold on my cargo before the impact hit me hard in my right side.
“Argh!” A frustrated scream slipped out of me as I was tackled to the ground.
Once we landed, my body was crushed under the heavier weight.
Refusing to let my cargo go, I tightened my left arm around the wood, and then used my free right hand to push at the person who was now sitting on top of my chest.
“Get off me, Ødger!”
The Jarl’s son sneered down at me. “Or you’ll do what, little bug? Make me?”
Oh, how I truly did want to make him do something.
Forcing him off the top of the closest mountain to an agonizing death below was what I wished for the most. Not that I could make that come to happen right now— but that didn’t mean I didn’t hope for it.
Ødger was our Jarl’s oldest son, and therefore the next in line to become Jarl.
The only person more powerful than a Jarl was the King.
Needless to say, King Harald had more important things to do than come down to our village to deal with one entitled, annoying Jarl’s son.
The only person more powerful than a King was a God.
I had prayed to almost all of them many times for the strength or opportunity to put Ødger in his place once and for all.
Despite my many prayers to Odin, I doubted the Allfather of the Gods was going to come riding down from Valhalla on his magical eight-legged horse Sleipnir and drop Ødger off the side of the mountain for me.
Which meant I was stuck with the insufferable older boy until I was mature enough to either move away to a different settling, or strong enough to get rid of him myself. I wouldn’t dare bring shame to my mother and father, but neither would I put up with this horse’s ass any more than I was obligated. Thinking of where I wanted to be most right now, which was not under Ødger, I lost what little patience I had and decided it was time to extract myself from this mess.
Lifting my left leg, I bent at my waist and brought my leg over his head until it was wrapped around the front of his chest, then pulled both it and him, backward. The move took the Jarl’s son’s weight off me as he fell to the side after being unbalanced and pushed off. Not wasting any time for him to recover, I rolled away and got to my feet with my firewood still tucked safely in my arm.
Ødger lay sprawled on his back in the dirt, gawking at me in surprise. His face started to mottle red in anger, and I knew if I didn’t get away now this whole situation was only going to get worse. So, I used the only leverage I had at the moment to finish this fight and hopefully make it so Ødger would leave me alone.
Pitching my voice low, so that only the Jarl’s son would hear what I was about to say, I delivered my verbal blow. “You will leave me alone, Ødger. If you do not, I will tell your father when he comes back from a-Viking that it has been you who has been setting the outlying farmers’ buildings on fire. Think of how he would have to discipline his own son for tormenting his people so?”
Ødger’s face quickly blanched of all color, but it didn’t take long for his eyes to grow steely in determination. “You think to threaten me, Arne Eriksson?” Sitting up, he glared at me, doing his best to intimidate me as he slowly rose off the ground. Taking a measured step toward me, he hissed, “My father would never believe you.”
Without taking my eyes off his face, I saw Ødger’s fists ball up by his sides. His body was tensing, preparing for a fight. The Jarl’s son was four summer’s older than my own ten years, and a head taller. What he had yet to gain in strength compared to the other boys his age, he had made up for in speed, stealth, and deviousness.
That didn’t mean I was going to let him win this fight.
Or any fight, for that matter, if I could help it.
Gathering my courage, I closed the distance between us until I was looking up at Ødger’s face with my own conviction burning in my eyes. “Perhaps the Jarl wouldn’t believe me alone, but he would believe what I have to say if there were others who told him what I spoke was true. Others, such as Ulf and Knut Thorvaldsson. The sons of your father’s second in command. They care for you even less than I do. The three of us saw what you did, as well, and if I ask it of them, they will tell Jarl Birger that we watched you from the woods as you set fire to the thrall’s quarters on old Gorm Leifsson’s farm. That fire cost farmer Gorm all but two of his slaves. How happy do you think your father would be to learn it was his own son who did that?”
Ødger’s facial features turned downright stony as his eyes squinted back at me in hatred. A smarter boy would have been afraid of that look.
I was not always a smart boy, but I had outwitted the Jarl’s son, for now.
Taking a step back, I kept eye contact with the seething Ødger as I laid down my final verbal taunt. “Leave me alone, and your father never has to find out about what you did. Bother me again, and I will make sure it is the first thing he hears once he steps off the boat when he comes home.”
With my message sent, I turned on my heel and started to make my way back toward my original destination, the Jarl’s Hall. I could now see my mother was standing in the doorway, warily watching what had been going on between me and the Jarl’s son. Breaking into a jog, I took my bundle of firewood to her. Pasting a reassuring smile on my face, I greeted her as I handed her the logs. “The firewood, Mother. If you don’t need anything else from me right now, I’m headed off into the woods to hunt.”
Briskly taking the heavy load from me, she cocked her eyebrow and gave me a look. “What have I told you about fighting with Ødger?”
Doing my best to give her an innocent expression, I shrugged. “We were not fighting.”
That statement caused both of her eyebrows to shoot clear up to her hairline in surprise. “Oh?” Nodding her head in the direction I had just come, she tossed back, “Right. Because he usually looks so red and angry after you two have finished playing some sort of game.”
Sometimes it did not do to have a mother who was almost as smart as the Gods themselves. It often meant I had to explain myself more than I liked to, or my backside would get beat in retaliation.
Refusing to look back in the other boy’s direction, I decided to tell the woman who gave me life what my father often said to her when he was forced to answer a question he did not want to answer. “Sometimes a man has to do what he has to do, and I will not take any further lip from you on the matter, woman.”
I had heard my father say this to my mother often. Sometimes it got him an angry glare, and sometimes she would swat at his shoulder playfully while shaking her head in good-natured disbelief.
I, myself, had never uttered these words to my mother before. Only ever watched as my father braved her temper to say them himself. I was not lucky enough to receive the latter sort of reaction that my father sometimes received.
In fact, the look of fury that overcame my mother’s face was so fierce I immediately turned on my heel, running off just in time to miss the swat of her hand she had aimed at my head. Her missed slap wasn’t enough to deter her from yelling at me as I ran away though. “You’re lucky I missed you, you irritating little shit! And don’t you dare come back without something for dinner.”
As I made my way back into the woods I’d been in earlier, only this time going deeper than before, I thought of my rabbit traps I had set in the beginning of this day. Hopefully one of them would have caught something, because when I had told my mother I was going hunting, I had not meant for animals.
No, I was on the hunt for her.
The girl who had one day out of the blue shown up to live with the old woman, about a month or so ago. No one ever stayed with the old woman who lived deep in the woods. Some said the Gods themselves were afraid of the old woman in the woods.
Of course, I was not afraid.
That didn’t mean I did not heed what others in our village had said about the old woman.
From many mouths I had heard she was a Völva, or witch, that few were brave enough to approach.
A caster of dark magics, one man had said.
Cursed by Odin himself, a woman had said.
When I had asked Father about her years ago, he had solemnly told me that she was one of the most powerful women in the kingdom… and I should stay away from her if I valued my life.
So, that was what I had done, for the most part. Stayed away from the old woman everyone in the village seemed to both fear and respect.
The only time I ever came close to her dwelling was when I was out hunting deep in those woods. That was how I came to discover the girl.
Ever since I had laid eyes on her, I could not keep myself from going back and watching for her yet again. If she were older, I would wonder if the old woman had taught her how to cast a spell on me. Since she was younger than me, by at least a couple of years as far as I could tell, and still yet a child, I knew that was not possible.
I no longer cared for the reasons why I felt the need to see her, I just went.
Simply as I was now, traveling through the forest that would take me to the large ancient tree that allowed me to climb its branches and hide within its leaves so I could watch her without being seen.
Looking up to the sky, I watched as the fiery orange and reds from the sun, that reminded me of my quarry, started to disappear, making way for the darker blues and purples that would make the night sky. My time was running out.
Hastening my steps, I did my best to rush as quickly and quietly as I could toward my destination. Upon reaching my tree, I climbed up its body, settling myself on the sturdiest branch just in time for the door to the small home across the stream to open.
There were always two things I looked for once I sat in my hiding spot.
One was her.
The other was a sign from Odin.
I’d noticed one of his ravens in a neighboring tree the first time I had spied on the girl. Everyone knew ravens were Odin’s messengers, and that had been my sign that fate had found me. Now every time I came to see her, I looked for a raven. One was always nearby, either in a tree or circling in the sky somewhere above where she lived.
Scanning the tree line, I didn’t stop until I finally spotted the rustle of black wings in a tree across the way behind the old woman’s home. Letting out a sigh of relief, I knew that once again I was following Odin’s signs toward my fate.
Moving my gaze from the bird to the home’s door, I waited impatiently.
Holding my breath, I watched as, finally, the familiar, shining, crimson locks that flowed in a mass of curls around her face appeared in the doorway. She did what she always did— she looked around, checking to make sure she was alone. The moment she decided it was safe, she burst through the doorway in glee, rushing straight for the stream. It was always the first place she headed once she gained her freedom from the old woman’s home. Her blue dress flared out behind her, accenting her pale skin that never seemed to see the midday sun, and her hair looked like ribbons dancing on the breeze.
She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Once at the edge of the small river that flowed over rocks, making its way down to the Nordic Sea, she stopped and dropped to her knees as she always did when I got the chance to watch her. There she would sit or kneel, staring into the babbling water, sometimes allowing her fingers to touch the surface.
I wondered what she was looking at. Her reflection? Fish? There was no way to tell from the distance I had to keep from her in this tree. Perhaps one day I would figure it out. Today was not that day, though, since all I had a mind to do was sit here and watch my prey.
And as I sat there, eyeing every little detail I could make out about the girl who had completely captured my attention, I couldn’t help but wonder one thing.
What color were her eyes?
Were they the blue of her dress?
Perhaps a warm brown like my father’s horse?
No. Her eyes could never be as simple a color as a horse’s brown.
I didn’t know what color they were, but one day I would find out. A patient hunter always got his prey.
My father once told me he had known the moment he laid eyes on my mother that she would be his.
I longed for the day the girl would know she was mine.
Because Odin knew, I was already irrevocably hers.
Copyright © 2019 Jessie Lane.
All rights reserved.
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