Frieda reached down and grasped another stalk of white yarrow. She broke the stem and, with a sidelong glance at Erik, placed it with the others in the wicker basket. “You don’t have to pretend,” she said. “I know why they made you come with me.”
The man straightened, staring at the sprig of wild rose in his hand, sunlight glinting off his dark curls and pale skin.
She reached for another stalk of yarrow. “You should let your hair grow long. You still look like a thrall.”
Erik glanced at her, his eyes red. “There was no dishonor in being a slave to Vallec.” Three blossoms clung to the thorny stem in his hand.
“You’ll hurt yourself picking those.” She nodded at the roses and then tossed a yellow braid behind her shoulders.
Turning, he walked toward her, leggings brushing the grass. Stopping at the edge of the basket, he extended his hand but did not drop the roses.
From the forest below, the sound of axes drifted up the hillside.
Frieda smoothed the front of her apron dress. “I don’t think Mama Rakalle cares for flowers in her son’s boat. She wants spears and shields.”
Erik drew back his hand. “There’ll be plenty of those.” His voice was rough, his face red.
“Flowers were a tradition in my family.” She nodded toward the hills on the horizon. “A symbol of the resurrection, a promise of life to come.”
“The Jesus God is weak. Odin would never beg for resurrection.”
She glanced at him sidelong again, and continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “In the winter we used sprigs of fir and pine. Of course, we bury our boats; we don’t burn them like you do.”
Erik wiped his nose on his quilted sleeve and sniffed. “Wild roses were his favorite. I could only find one.”
She lowered her head to look into Erik’s face. “I’m glad you came with me. I’ve so few friends here.”
He gave her a thin-lipped smile.
“There’ll be more roses later—but of course, I won’t see them.” She shaded her eyes and looked down into the valley. Smoke rose from village chimneys. The sound of chopping had stopped.
Erik too, looked in the direction of the village. “I wonder if they’ll finish by nightfall.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Erik, why weren’t you jealous of me?”
“Why would I be jealous?” He spoke in an even voice, but a vein pulsed in his neck.
She cocked her head to one side and measured her words carefully. “If I ran, I almost think you’d let me get away.”
“Don’t you want to go to Valhalla… or to your heaven?”
“I want to see the summer roses. And I’m afraid.”
“Yes, they did send me to watch you. Vallec shouldn’t…” he swallowed, “…sail without his wife.”
She stooped to pick up the basket. “He was a good chief, a good son, and a good lover — wasn’t he?”
Erik glanced guardedly at her.
“Oh, I know.”
“You know nothing.”
“I know more than you think. He said your name — one night.”
Erik raised his hand and Frieda flinched, thinking he would strike her, but he grabbed the thorny stem instead, clinching it in his fist until blood seeped between his fingers.
Frieda furrowed her brow and turned her head away, but she heard the thud as his knees hit the grass and the choked cry that escaped his lips.
“Our wedding was the greatest day of my family’s lives.” She looked out at the forest’s edge. “To think — a mere herder’s daughter from the Gray Hills marrying a coastal chieftain.”
He said nothing.
“I didn’t understand why he gave you your freedom that day, or later, why you weren’t jealous.”
“I didn’t lose anything.”
“I did not. Why are you shaming me?”
She turned back to him. “Did you kiss him?”
Erik, still on his knees, opened his mouth, but no sound came. Blood dripped from his fist where he clutched the stem of roses. Eyes wild, he said in a broken voice. “I want to die.”
Frieda threw the basket in front of him, whirled and ran. She parted the high grass like the wind and heard him trip on the basket, but still he was too fast for her. She felt the tug when his hand snagged her skirt. Flailing, she sprawled in the high grass.
He tumbled on top of her, their faces nearly colliding. Amazingly, he still held in his fist, the stem of roses.
She gasped, breathing his air. “Did you mean what you said, about dying? Would you take my place?”
They stared at one another, Erik’s bloodied fist above her breasts.
“You could lie within his boat,” she said, “upon his shield.”
“They wouldn’t let me.”
“You could sail together on the great sea, forever and ever.”
“They would not take a man in place of his wife.”
“But they would take the sacrifice of a thrall. Mama Rakalle loves the tales of old when thralls were sacrificed with their chief. Tell them you let me go, and offer yourself. They will place the funeral pyre of Vallec in their heroic songs.”
He looked down at her, his face inches from hers. “In my heart I’m still in thrall to him.”
“Then give me my freedom.”
His gaze fell to the rose, and then, with his free hand, he broke the third blossom from the stem and held it out to her.
She closed her hand on it. “And take this to him,” she raised her head and kissed his lips.
As fast as she dared, she slipped from beneath him. Standing, she strode toward the edge of the meadow in the direction of the Gray Hills, forcing herself to walk slowly. She heard the sound of her dress skimming the grass, a meadowlark trilling in the distance. When she reached the edge of the clearing she dropped the rose, and fled into the woods.
Gerald Warfield’s short story “The Poly Islands” won second prize in the first quarter of the 2011 Writers of the Future contest. The same year, his humorous story “The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry” took first place in the nationally syndicated Grammar Girl short story contest. “Spores of the Volcano” appeared in NewMyths and the Campbellian 2014 Anthology. “Return of the Mayflower” is scheduled to appear in Perihelion. Several of his flash pieces have previously appeared in Every Day Fiction. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.