The Viking's Sacrifice
Northeast England, in the year of Our Lord 836.
Wilda ran, not to anywhere or from anywhere, but for the sheer joy of running. Along the beach or through the orchard, scattering sheep in the fold and startling men from their reaping, always she ran.
Today she ran along the beach through the edge of the waves, salt spray wetting her dress, damp sand sticking between her toes and the hot, heavy air of late summer whisked to lightness by the sea breeze. She ran for the wind whipping her hair in her face, the screech of the gulls as she swooped among them, and the guilty knowledge that she should be at home, spinning and sewing, but had escaped for an afternoon.
Movement caught her eye and she hunkered down behind a sand dune to peek through the rough grass. What one of the kitchen maids was getting up to with the new stable boy was far more interesting than rock pools or looking for seashells.
The stable boy shifted and slid a hand inside the bodice of the maid's dress. Wilda blushed and thought to turn away, but she was eleven now. It wouldn't be long till she was a lady, till she was married to Lord Bayen as a peace-weaver between him and her own lord father. Mother had steadfastly refused to elaborate on what would be expected of her when she married, except for the cryptic comment that "it wasn't something to look forward to" but was "something to be borne." She could gather some of itshe'd seen plenty of sheep tupping and once her father's prize stallion sent to cover a marebut people were different from animals, surely? The stable boy leaned over the maid again and Wilda pulled back. She shouldn't be watching, no matter how much she wanted to know.
A glance behind her at the last half of the sun as it dipped over windswept hills made her decision for her. She had to be back by dark, always. She couldn't wait till she was old enough to stay out as late as she wanted. The sand was soft under her bare feet, with little bits of shell and grass prickling her skin as she snuck away from the maid and stable boy and made her way along the high tide line back toward her home, Dunburh, the fortified town perched on the highest hill. She dawdled along, trying to put off the inevitable chores and bedtime, but not so much that she'd incur her mother's wrath.
She reached the path that led away from the beach, up to the town. A raven sat in the oak tree where the path forked. She stopped, alarmed, then berated herself. Superstitions were for the ungodly, for heathens and sinners to cling to, so the priests said. Those who looked to God had nothing to fear. She took a step and the raven flapped on its branch and cawed at her, its beady eye boring straight into hers. Superstition, that was all. Still, there was another path, one where she needn't pass the raven, down around the base of the cliffs and up the other side. That path was longer but came out closer to home. If she ran, she wouldn't be late. The raven flapped its wings at her again, and she turned.
Red sunset bounced off waves and all but blinded her, but for a moment she thought she saw something, some movement down on the beach beneath the headland where the hills blocked the town's view of the sea. She glanced over the hill at the setting sun. Enough time to look, if she was quick. Mother would never know. She ran as she always did, everywhere, her feet making little spurts of cloudy sand.
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Title: The Viking's Sacrifice
Author: Julia Knight