Free short story The Shapes of Fire

A Viking Romance

This time when I passed his little house at the edge of town, he tilted his head in a way he had never done before. Was it a nod, or an invitation? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, because secretly I had been waiting for something like this. A small change in his usual routine of shy greeting, eyes lingering then cast down, his hands always stilling and slowly lowering away from his work whenever he saw me.

He was a blacksmith and his work shed placed away from the other houses in Hedeby. He never wore a shirt when he handled the hot iron. I didn’t know that I was such for him, too. Until that small inclination of his head.

I slowed my steps, looked around, saw everyone occupied and gazed back at him. He stood in the light of the doorway, his hands holding a hammer and a fuming spearhead. As usual, he had lowered his work and was now slowly putting it away on some bench. I adored the play of his muscles and then reminded myself that we shouldn’t be seen together. So I acted quickly. He stepped away from the door into the house to let me in, and I slipped under the overhanging roof.

The fire inside was low, it was only a smouldering of the charcoal, but hot enough to bend iron. Just like our hearts. When I met his eyes, he captured me with them. They glinted bright and icy in the semi-dark and I could feel them scrutinising me. I just stared into his face, at his bare shoulders, and then back into his eyes. We stood there in his small work shed, frozen as if something extraordinary had happened. So far, it had only been a gesture and a step across his threshold. There was nothing offensive in a nod, in my intrusion or his smeared body. But we both knew it. This was something changing beyond recall.

I was a woman then. His scrutinising eyes didn’t find a shy girl or timid virgin squirming under his gaze. I stood calm on the outside, but burning on the inside, just like the charcoal he had worked with a minute ago. And we were equally set alight. I felt it in me as I stood there, and saw it in him as he watched me. I didn’t flee back out again. I could have. But instead, I walked across the room to inspect his work first, and then him.

My eyes took it all in, the tools hanging on the wall, the wrought-iron work: swords and axes, knives and saxes he got ready for our warriors. I saw the ashen floor and blackened roof — and the unusual shadows on the wall. He had a small lightwell above his work place, a rare wattle window, as he needed the light to forge. Through the slender wickerwork fell enough light to illuminate half the room. He closed the door on the sunbeams from outside then, or was it the looks of others, and it was only the window left, producing criss-crossing shadows on his sweat-covered skin.

He pushed the door shut, bolted it, then leaned against it. Again, his eyes took me in. And he said, “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” in a voice that has stayed with me since. It churned up my insides like a wave rattling the stones of a beach.

I shook my head and lowered my gaze to find some calm. “No,” I said. “But the way you now stand there does.”

He shifted and wiped his dirty hands on his black trousers. He ran one equally black hand through his tied-back raven hair. He had no answer for me.

Instead, I pushed my hair back over my shoulders and tilted my head in the way he had done before, a small smile forming on my face. I’ll never forget how he pushed away from the latch of the door and moved towards me, hesitant, but drawn forward as if compelled to close the gap between us. The chequered shadows moved rapidly across his body as he walked. It was only four steps, I counted them, and then he was there, in front of me, closer than ever, so close we could finally touch. I was aching with the need to feel him under my fingertips.

He was beautiful, and never before had I felt a physical urge to be touched. His bright eyes gazed into mine, and my heart leapt. His breathing was still heavy, or was that from my presence instead of his work? I like to think the former. He whispered, “I want to touch you,” as if he’d read my mind.

I said, “I want you to,” and held my breath.

He lifted a hand, blackened with soot, and his thumb grazed my cheekbone, then slid to my neck. So delicate was his touch, he set me on fire like a flame would dry wood. I sighed and closed my eyes, thinking I must slip to the floor and into its ashen dirt. I didn’t of course, but held onto his arms that were ready to hold me as if he knew. The hard muscles of them moved to steady me and I nestled against him, too weak to do anything else. I breathed in his scent and tasted his sweat, as my lips met the skin of his chest. He shifted slightly, lifting first his head, then me.

We ended up against the wall opposing his wicker window. His lips had not found mine yet, we stared into each other’s souls as I wrapped myself around him and he just held me in those arms. I don’t know if he hesitated because he waited for some answer to an unasked question. So I circled my arms around his strong neck and under his hair, feeling the muscles of his shoulders under my fingertips. The chequered shadows were on me now, and I made sure he read my eyes before I buried my hands in his hair.

He shivered despite the heat in the room, his eyes crinkled and lips twitched before he lowered his head. The softness of his lips contradicted his calloused hands. His kiss set my skin on fire as if he ignited every inch of me with tender sparks. I fell into the flames and we burned together, while our mouths equalled licking flames that were fanned by our passion.

I felt his hands on me and his fingertips playing with the fire that was my skin. The blaze ate its way from our lips to our chests and down in an instant, until the flames knew no extinction, soaring high.

Later, when all of our flammable selves were burned down, his kiss became hesitant and the glint in his eyes wary. I pulled him to me and whispered, “Don’t regret.”

He chuckled warmly and said, “Never,” then released me.

The last of the flames still played in our eyes and those wouldn’t be put out so easily. The shadows now criss-crossed over two sweaty bodies, and we stood panting from the effort to get our fires back under control. I couldn’t help but relish the sight of this different sweat on him. Our sweat.

We laughed. Both of us leaning against a wall, we looked at each other and bubbled over with laughter as we rearranged clothes and wiped our eyes in disbelief. The laughs soon died away and became smiles.

He didn’t move but just watched me. I slowly walked to the door and its bolt. My hand on the latch, I waited for him to say something.

He did, just when my fingers touched the wood. “This room will feel so very cold when you’re gone.”

I turned to look at his heaving chest and fiery eyes. Were they pleading? My heart squirmed and I shook my head, pointing at the coal pit. “That’s impossible.”

He smiled and pushed away from the wall, towards me, but I backed off to the unbolted door. He halted and raised a hand as if to stop me. “I’d like you to cross this threshold more often,” he whispered. “A dozen times a day. At least.” And he leaned in to rearrange my strands of stray hair, his hands lingering as if he didn’t want to let me go.

I stood staring into the depth of his bright eyes and found myself asking, “Are you courting me?”

“Would you like that?”

I took a moment to think, and it felt as if I had to re-learn the process first. I let our fingers entwine, those strong hands swallowed mine, and my mind slowed immediately. I whispered, “Yes, very much.”

He lifted his head, we locked eyes, and he let my hand go, pulling the door open for me with one swift jerk. Before I walked through, he touched my cheek with a last, dirty caress of his thumb. His voice was low and trickled from my ears along my neck and spine like prickling cool water, making me shiver from the sensation, when he said, “Then I shall see your father tonight.”

And he gently pushed me back into the sunlight.

By Sarah Dahl, April 2015, 1600 words

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