“Father, father,” called Arne. The boy sprinted over dirt and pebbles toward the lapping water. To the east, an orange shade of dawn edged jagged peaks, merciless as shark’s teeth. Some of the men loading the longboats held torches. Their bearded faces wavered in the flickering light, floating in the night like spirits. Arne felt a chill mist on his cheeks.
Bjarn dropped his haversack and picked up the boy in a hug with a single sweep of his muscled arms. A round shield hung from the man’s back, a battle ax from his belt. Arne smelt milk and rye bread and ale on his father’s breath, sweet and comforting. Bjarn put the boy down then ruffled his son’s hair and caressed his smooth cheek.
“In three seasons, Arne, you can come with us. Now back to your mother. You’ve fields and stock to tend.”
“Three seasons? Do you promise?”
“If there’s hair on your face.”
“I brought you something, for luck.” Arne held out a copper coin, hardly as big as the end of his thumb, with a leather cord threaded through a hole in its center.
Bjarn put the cord over his head then patted his chest. “Next to my heart.” He turned to retrieve the haversack.
“Father, will you bring me something back? Something from across the sea.”
When the sun peeked over the mountains, Arne stood with the other villagers and watched the warriors plying the oars. His mother’s hand gripped his shoulder. What would his father bring him? He did not know how he would wait the summer’s end. The two single-masted longboats sliced the calm waters of the fjord then set sail and dipped beneath the rim of the open sea.
The days of summer lengthened then faded. The red wheat grew. Arne tended the farm under his mother’s direction. He wielded a wooden sword and shield in mock battles with the other boys and inflicted more bruises than he received.
As Arne knelt in the black dirt pulling weeds from among the beans, the long blast of a battle horn shook the morning. He jumped the fence surrounding the garden and joined the throng hurrying toward the shore. Two long boats crossed the fjord, riding lower than when they had left months before. Women and children stood in the boats, many thralls. Excitement carried Arne to the water’s edge. He had much to tell his father: the fox he had killed while defending their chickens and the blows he had dealt older boys with his sword. His father would tell stories of the dangerous sea and the raids to last a winter.
And the promised gift drew nearer with each pull of the oars.
The warriors splashed ashore, hauling sacks of riches, herding thralls bound one to another. The men laughed and rejoiced in reunions. Arne searched for his father.
A warrior stopped and clapped Arne’s shoulder, staring grimly at him. He mumbled something then moved on but the din drowned his words. Did he say Valhalla? An empty feeling sickened Arne and swelled in his gut. He jerked his head from side to side, now frantic. Not his father, he told himself, not him, not one so strong.
“Arne, over here.” Olav, his father’s friend, beckoned at the water’s edge. Olav gripped a young girl’s arm. Her hands were bound behind her back, and mud splatters soiled her ripped, tawny tunic. Arne walked toward them. Sights and sounds faded to dim echos, the ravings of ghosts. Arne’s breaths came in shuddering gasps. The girl held her head bowed, her face hidden behind tangled hair.
Behind him, a wailing scream, alien yet familiar, pierced the air, his mother’s lament.
“Your father fell killing this slag’s father.” Olav jerked her arm, putting her off balance and then shoved her toward Arne.
The girl fell forward on her chest. Her cheek smacked the pebbles.
“Your father told me he was bringing you a gift. He never told me what it was going to be. It would have been something glorious. She’s not much, but she’s yours to do with as you will.” Olav stomped away, his deed done.
Arne stared past the girl at the sea. “Father is dead,” he repeated, “a warrior’s death.” The girl sobbed at his feet, her cries chasing away his thoughts. “And what bitter gift are you?” he shouted. He cursed her father and the sea and the wind. He thought to smite her, to beat her to death.
He raised his foot to kick her. She looked up. Her cheek was muddy and bruised. Red, swollen eyelids rimmed her watery, blue eyes. Arne recognized his own blue eyes, his own salty tears, his own pain. He saw their fathers grappling in combat, swinging axes, shattering shields, gouging eyes, and in death binding their children. His sorrow welled up in choking sobs. He fell to his knees beside her, his gift from over the sea.
Jeff Chapman writes fairy tales, fantasy, and ghost stories and hearing the expression “just a fairy tale” rankles him. His works have appeared in various print anthologies and online publications. He lives with his wife and children in a house with more books than bookshelf space. To learn more, stop by his blog at http://jeffchapmanwriter.blogspot.com.
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