By Tessa Just   

Swish, crackle, swish. The sound of straw being moved filled the longhouse. Fifteen-year-old Katrina blinked as a burst of sun lit the gloomy interior. A tall boy grinned down at her through the hole in the roof and teasingly dropped a few strands of straw onto her golden hair.

She glared up at him. “You’d have been sorry if I’d been cooking your meal,” she scolded. “Can’t you give me some warning next time?”

Lang laughed good-naturedly. “I told you that Miksa and I were replacing the thatch today. You should have chosen to do something outside.” He turned to the boy behind him. “Can you bring up the fresh straw, Miksa?”

“Yes, master.”

Katrina and Lang winced. How they hated that title. The two siblings had offered friendship to Miksa on more than one occasion, but he refused it. Katrina gazed up into Lang’s troubled brown eyes. He leaned down toward her.

“Meet me in our secret place tonight,” he whispered. He glanced over his shoulder. “I need to talk.”

Katrina nodded and returned to her spinning.

***

Meanwhile, Miksa struggled to scale the ladder with the new straw. He attempted to climb one-handed while balancing the bundled straw under his right arm. His right hand was useless because it had been severely burned three months ago, and though he tried to shrug the hardship off, he felt acutely how it handicapped him. Even holding a spoon was difficult, for his hand had healed with the skin pulling all his fingers toward his palm. And it hadn’t been his fault…

“Hang on,” called Lang. He reached down and removed the straw from Miksa’s arm.

Miksa lowered his head to hide the tears of envy and fury that boiled inside of him. He watched as Lang laid the straw and expertly tied it in place. He would never be able to do that—or many other things—again. Worst of all, no one would ever trust him, because his hand bore the mark of a thief.

Lord Jesus, why did you let this happen to me? What did I do? Still fighting tears, Miksa gritted his teeth and continued his work the best he could.

***

That evening, Miksa sat in the shadow of the longhouse carving a flute out of a sheep’s leg bone. The murmur of voices filtered through the turf wall at his back.

“We’re almost out of meat,” said Lottie, her voice soft and motherly.

“We’ll butcher the cow tomorrow.” Erik, Lang’s father, had a deep, soothing voice that Miksa loved to listen to. Erik treated him well, and Miksa had learned a lot from him. Butchering would be fun. But he would have to conceal his joy. Never would he display any positive emotions in front of Lang. Although Lang had offered friendship more than once, Lang was his master and he was only a thrall.

With one final scrape, Miksa finished shaping his flute. He stood and headed for the forest.

As he walked along the path, he grinned to himself and let all thoughts of thralls and masters slip from his mind. He crested a hill and gazed down at the valley below. The village, Birka, emanated a warm glow. Lanterns shone from the tavern and smoke rose lazily from holes in the roofs.

Miksa shivered slightly. The air had a sharp bite to it, and already a sheet of ice covered the river’s surface.

He wound his way through the trees that rustled in the night breeze and set the shadows dancing. He settled down at the base of a giant pine tree and was about to start playing his flute when a noise made him stop. He strained his ears and heard it again. Voices!

He crept toward the sound, and soon he could distinguish the words and recognized Lang and Katrina’s voices. He peered around a tree and saw them sitting in a small clearing.

“Miksa still doesn’t like us and I don’t like that.” Katrina frowned at her brother.

“That’s not our fault,” protested Lang. “We’ve tried to befriend him. He refused us.”

“He’s a thrall, Lang. Of course he’s not going to accept our friendship. Could you be friends with your master?”

Lang straightened. “I don’t have a master,” he retorted.

“Neither did Miksa, until you captured him on your last raid with Father. Remember, brother, Miksa was not a thrall before that. He remembers how freedom feels.”

“But we need slaves.” Lang took a deep breath. “It’s what we’ve always done. Why should I change with Miksa?”

“Because you want him as a friend. Masters are not friends with their thralls. You need to make a choice.” She studied Lang, her blue eyes sad. “And could you be friends with the boy who caused you to become a cripple?”

Miksa touched his scarred hand. What was Katrina talking about? How was Lang involved in that?

Lang’s head jerked up. “Miksa doesn’t know I lied. He still thinks it was a mistake.”

Miksa swallowed hard. Thoughts swirled in his head. What had Lang lied about?

“But we do,” argued Katrina. “I just don’t feel right. Miksa’s hurting and we’re not helping. We can make excuses, but you and I both know we could free him if we wanted to. We keep slaves, but Miksa’s different.”

Miksa’s mouth dropped open. They could free him? Why hadn’t they? It wasn’t fair! Silently he left his tree and the siblings behind.

He trudged on and on for ages. Katrina, at least, was willing to free him. But Lang…the beast! Hot tears sprang to his eyes. Lang won’t free me. I’ll be a thrall for the rest of my life because of him.

Miksa looked down at his flute and raised it to his lips. A mournful but strangely comforting sound floated on the air. His heart ached and he played for all he was worth. Gradually the notes died down and he slowly lowered the flute.

“That was quite a tune, Miksa.” Erik approached him from behind.

Miksa dropped his head. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

“Where did you learn to play?” asked Erik.

“Papa taught me. He could play any tune he ever wanted. Mam loved it when we played together. Sometimes the whole family would join in singing.”

Miksa’s eyes shone. He gazed up at the night sky, visualizing his family. Papa, tall and strong, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he laughed. Mam, carrying food to the table. His brother dancing with his little sister.

“Papa said I had an angel’s voice when I sang. Often he would play the pipes so I could sing for him. We used to…” Miksa’s voice died as he realized he’d said more than he intended.

Erik laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I understand,” was all he said, but it helped ease Miksa’s grief over his family.

“Come,” said Erik. “We must get an early start tomorrow. Lang is heading off with some of his friends, so I’ll need your help with the butchering.”

Miksa nodded and fell into step beside Erik.

Later as he lay in bed, Katrina’s words echoed in his memory. You and I both know we could free him if we wanted to. Miksa vowed never to forgive Lang, ever. But as he stared into the darkness, an idea started to form in his head, and then he drifted into a deep sleep.

***

Lang, however, was unable to sleep. He tossed one way and then the other. Could you be friends with the boy who caused you to become a cripple? He ground his teeth as he recalled that dreadful day.

Three months ago, a silver brooch inlaid with gold had been stolen from a neighboring smith. At first people assumed a runaway thrall had swiped it and fled on a ship, bribing his way on board. But then a whisper from one thrall to another started a rumor, and soon every thrall in town believed that Miksa had been spotted sneaking away from the smith’s shop the afternoon of the robbery. Other evidence was swiftly fabricated, and the rumor spread among the Vikings and became fact. Miksa attended the Thing—an open-air Viking court—and was tried by ordeal. The hot coals seared his hand and rendered it useless.

Lang buried his face in his pillow. If he could reverse that judgement, that punishment, he would. But it was too late now. Miksa was branded for life and it was his fault. Yet for some strange reason he yearned for Miksa’s friendship. Maybe that was merely a cover for his guilty conscience.

***

The next day, time flew as Miksa and Erik got down to butchering. Miksa enjoyed himself and hid a few bones behind a bush when he thought Erik wasn’t looking. When all the work and chores were done, he grabbed his carving knife and the bones and sprinted once more for the forest. The wind was frigid, but Miksa didn’t mind. The river’s ice had thickened more overnight and this pleased him. By evening, his skates were finished.

***

Lang huddled under a rock shelf as he waited for the storm to subside. He had lost track of time and only when he heard the roll of thunder did he realize how late it was. He’d left his friends and tried to beat the rain home, but had lost.

Lang continued to think about Miksa. He finally admitted that Katrina was right. He could either have Miksa as a thrall or a friend. Noticing that the sky was becoming lighter, he crawled out of his shelter. He followed the frozen river toward home.

Suddenly the silence was interrupted by creaking and breaking ice. Lang bolted forward and rounded a bend to see someone thrashing in the icy water.

“Stop!” he yelled. “Don’t tread water! Don’t tread water!”

The person turned toward him. Miksa!

Lang was speechless for a moment. Then he leapt into action.

“Miksa! Miksa! Place your arm on the ice. It’ll freeze you to it. It takes longer for you to freeze than drown.” As he spoke, he ran to the nearest tree and hacked a large branch off. Miksa watched him, his breath coming in ragged gasps and his eyes wide with fear.

“Take deep breaths,” urged Lang as he cautiously approached the edge. He stretched out the branch. “Grab hold,” he commanded. He felt the ice begin to sag under the weight of his body. “Hurry!”

Miksa reached out with his right hand—his disfigured hand. “I can’t!” he screamed.

Crack lines appeared on the ice and Lang struggled to suppress panic. He bitterly regretted the day of the trial even more. Now Miksa’s death would be on his head forever.

The ice groaned and disintegrated beneath him. He sank, floundering in the freezing water. Bursting through the surface, he searched for Miksa. Something brushed his leg and he grabbed at it. His heart pounded as he pulled Miksa above the water.

Already his strength was waning. Slowly he dragged Miksa through the water. Lang felt like his legs were no longer a part of his body. His limbs screamed for a rest, but he knew if he stopped he’d never get moving again.

His back bumped into solid ground and he groaned with relief. But climbing out was no easy feat. Come on, Lang, he chided himself. Do it for Miksa. With one final effort, he heaved himself and Miksa out of the water.

Lang sprawled on the riverbank, panting heavily. Miksa lay still beside him. He rolled Miksa over onto his stomach, and Miksa coughed and spat out water. He sucked in some deep breaths, then he hauled himself to his feet and staggered toward the path.

Lang followed him. “What were you doing on the river?” he asked. “You would have died if I hadn’t been nearby.”

“As if that would bother you,” Miksa muttered.

Lang stared at Miksa, startled by his answer.

“You don’t care what happens to me,” Miksa continued. “You’ll keep me a thrall for the rest of my life. Never to see my family again. If they’re even still alive…”

Lang hurried to match Miksa’s pace. “I’m sorry. I’ve…well…I was just worried that if you left, I’d never get the chance to say I’m sorry that…” He swallowed. He hadn’t meant to bring this up.

“That you lied and let me take the blame for a crime I didn’t commit.” Miksa stopped and glared at Lang.

Lang shifted uncomfortably. “How did you know?” he asked finally.

“I overheard you and Katrina talking yesterday. Tell me exactly what happened.” For the first time, Miksa found himself ordering Lang about.

“I…I was the one who stole the brooch. I’m not sure why I even did it now. I thought the smithy wouldn’t find out. But somehow he did. I was terrified lest I be branded like you are.” He motioned to Miksa’s hand. “I lied to everyone and they believed me. You suffered my punishment, yet you have never complained. I would have grumbled, but the consequences would have been my own fault. I truly am sorry, Miksa. Can you forgive me?”

Miksa’s heart tightened. Forgive him? How was he supposed to respond to that? He sensed it was the right thing to do, but Lang? Never. It wasn’t possible.

Shivering, Miksa started to walk again, rubbing his arms to get the blood flowing. Lang followed a short distance behind.

Miksa tried to ignore the small voice inside his brain, but it refused to be quiet. Forgive him.

But I can’t, Miksa protested.

Not by yourself. But I am with you. I will be your strength when you are weak.

But I don’t feel You here with me, argued Miksa. Lang took so much from me. I’ll never use this hand again. I can’t do things like a normal boy. It hurts to watch Lang do things that I can’t. He deserves to be punished. He doesn’t need me.

You’ve sinned too. Jealousy is ruling your heart. But I still love you. I forgive you when you fail. Can you love Lang as I do?

Miksa halted. Love Lang as Christ does? He spun on his heel and faced Lang.

“I forgive you,” he said and realized that he meant it.

Lang’s lips trembled and tears welled up in his eyes. He fumbled for something to say. His eyes fell on Miksa’s scarred hand.

“How I wish I could give you my right hand,” he said. Then he stood straighter. “Miksa, from this day on, you are a free man.”

Miksa stared at him open-mouthed. “I’m free?”

Lang nodded.

“I can leave and search for my family?”

“If that’s what you wish, then yes.”

“On your honor?” Miksa asked.

Lang nodded again. Miksa grinned and extended his right hand. Lang smiled and took it. The two boys shook hands. One was scarred and the other was unblemished. But none of that mattered anymore because they considered each other an equal, instead of master and slave.

“Friends?” Lang asked.

A new light sparked in Miksa’s eyes. “Friends,” he replied.


tessa-justTessa Just is an eighteen year old who loves acting. (Maybe too much. You will always find her performing something. And repeating from movies too.) She lives in Australia in the state of Victoria. She lives on a small farm with her parents and three of her six siblings.
Tessa loves dressing up, knitting, reading (lots of reading), dreaming, acting, singing, sewing, baking, and photography. She also adores writing (naturally).

She began writing when she was twelve. Her first short story was a miserable flop. She has written numerous short stories since then, and is beginning to look at poetry too. She is proud to announce that she has handmade her first children’s book. Tessa is also super excited because she has just finished writing her first novelette. It still has major work before it is any good, but hey, that’s what writing is all about.

Tessa finds that war is a common topic for her to write about. She also likes writing funny stories that make people laugh.

Her favorite authors include Gail Carson Levine, Martha Finley, and DJ Stutley.