A small tear trickled down Alyss’s cheek as she stared at the small rowboat that they had placed her mother upon. Its rough-hewn edges and lack of carvings were a disgrace. Her mother would have been ashamed to find out that this was what they were burning her on.
Not that it really mattered anyways. She was gone. Dead.
One of the villagers motioned to her. The funeral boat had been prepared with straw and soaked with oil to make sure that it would burn easily. Alyss stepped forwards and took the torch that was offered.
“Goodbye.” she whispered and threw the burning torch into the middle of the boat.
The oil caught almost immediately, and flames burst up inside the boat. The heat scorched Alyss’s face, but she made no move to step back. Her mother lay in the middle of it all, with a serene smile on her face, surrounded by her favorite shield and sword, the only things that they had put in with her.
As the boat slowly drifted away into the ocean, Alyss followed it with her eyes, watching the flames engulf the only parent she’d ever known. A heavy hand on her shoulder caused her to spin, glaring at the person who’d interrupted her.
“Girl, you have to come with me.” a man said, undaunted by the fact that she was scowling at him as hard as she could. Alyss wrenched away from the heavy pressure he was putting on her shoulder but followed him sullenly, her eyes so blurred with tears she could hardly tell where they were going.
He led her into a house, and motioned her to sit down on a wooden chair facing a table.
“Stay here.” he muttered, seeming a bit perturbed by her tears.
Alyss leaned forward and let her face fall to the table. The cool, smooth wood felt soothing against her blotchy, red cheek. She closed her eyes, trying to remember her mother’s face. The soft brown hair, almost identical to her own. Her eyes the color of the sky, which would flash with venom anytime someone annoyed her. Alyss choked back a sob. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Wasn’t ready to let go of her mother’s memory as their culture required.
But after today, if she was caught crying, she would be punished for not letting her mother’s soul pass into the Afterlife undisturbed. If her mother heard her mourning, her spirit would be drawn back, not only preventing her from ever entering the Afterlife, but also calling down bad luck upon the village.
Alyss sat up swiftly and rubbed the tears away with her hand. Her mother would be disgusted with her right now. She should know better. She turned her gaze towards the door, wondering when the man would come back.
Now that she thought about it, why had she gone with this man? She scoured her memory for what exactly had happened after she found out her mother had died. It was all a blur of pain, and grief, and loneliness, but she faintly remembered being assigned to the care of this man. She had stayed in her old house with his wife, a motherly, prying old lady, who seemed to have nothing better to do than to go through her mother’s papers and ask Alyss questions about her family. Alyss couldn’t answer any of them and after a sleepless night the old lady announced that it was time for her mother’s funeral.
Thinking about it, Alyss wondered what she would do now. She was only twelve summers, not yet old enough to work properly. Maybe some kindly townsperson would take her in, if not because of their heart, but because of her house. It had to be worth something, right?
The front door creaked open with an agonizing squeal and Alyss’s attention snapped back to the men who were walking in. The first one was a tall man with a dark blue uniform. He carried a shield slung across his back, and and golden sword at his waist. Alyss recognized him as one of Einherjar, the main warrior class of Asgard. He was followed by the elderly baker who had taken Alyss here. As Alyss half rose out of her chair, the baker waved her down and they disappeared into the old man’s bedroom.
Wrinkling her brow, Alyss tried to reason out why he would be here in O’dair. O’dair was one of the smaller towns, a fishing village near the sea. It was nowhere close to the capitol, and so there was no real reason for one of the Einherjar to be here. The taxes for the year had already been collected and delivered to the capitol so it couldn’t be that, right?
The sound of raised voices interrupted her train of thought. Seeing that the bedroom door was closed, she silently slipped out of her chair and tiptoed to the edge of the room, inwardly wincing at every creak of the old floorboards. As she reached the door to the bedroom, it swung open and hit Alyss on the head.
“Ow!” she cried out.
The Einherjar warrior stared with disinterest at the girl on the ground, while the baker hurriedly pulled Alyss to her feet and slapped her across the face.
“How dare you listen in on a Warrior of the Realm’s conversation!” he hissed. “If you were my girl I’d give you a thrashing you wouldn’t forget for a while. As it is, you’re lucky that he didn’t smite you dead, if you were any other girl I’m sure he would have!”
He dragged her over to a corner of the room and pushed her into it.
“I expect you to stay there until you’re ready to leave. Don’t move a muscle or you’ll get what’s coming to you!”
Alyss stared straight ahead at the wall, her cheek already turning red with the force of the blow. Her mother had almost never hit her,and although the pain wasn't great the shock of the slap hurt the most. Her head started to ache terribly, and a single tear trickled down her hot cheek. Why had her mother died and left her at the mercy of these dreadful people?
From behind her she heard the opening and closing of the front door and then Alyss was left alone in the small house.
Alyss slowly lifted her hand to her face and felt her cheek gently. The sting of the slap had almost faded, and she scrubbed her eyes vigorously with her fists. Turning around, she surveyed the empty room and slid down the dingy white wall until she was sitting with her knees clasped up against her chest. How long was she supposed to stay in here? Had the baker said something about it? Something about staying here until she was ready to leave? Alyss’s eyes grew wide as she realized what this must mean.
They were going to take her to the poorhouse!