As promised, the next installment of a good, old-fashioned magical historical romance:
Maeve spent the whole long night conjuring cures for the fallen Viking. She built up the fire then stripped off all his blood-stained and seawater-soaked clothes. She washed him all over, first with clean water from the ocean, then fresh water drawn from the well. As the moon rose, she opened the trap in the roof of the hut so the light shone down on him, then put a milky white crystal in the bottom of a copper bowl. She poured more fresh well water over this, singing a chant to the Lady as she did it. With this she cleaned the deep wound in his back and the bloody gash in the back of his head. She coated the head gash with a paste of healing herbs and clay and stitched the back wound with her last clean length of woolen thread. The Viking cried out fearsome oaths in his own language as she did this, but she sat on him to hold him still, and he was too weak to fight back.
When she was done, he was shivering. She bound his wound and rolled him over on his back then covered him with all her blankets and furs. Then she went outside.
The moon was now a silver crescent among the stars. She lay down on the sandy ground and watched it sail across the sky, first a sickle, then a boat. Perhaps the Lady meant to harvest the soul of this Viking after all. If Maeve should save him, would another be taken in his place? The Lady dealt in balance, her mother always said. If this man was marked for death, only the death of another would save him. That was the old way, the way of her mother, Asha, and her mother’s mother before her—blood for blood. But Maeve believed the world was full of souls, too many for one witch to keep a true accounting of them all. If the Lady chose to spare this man and take another in his place, Maeve could not dispute her. But she couldn’t choose her victim either. She fell asleep gazing up at the moon and thinking these strange thoughts as the Viking groaned and fought for breath inside the hut behind her.
She awoke at dawn to ravens calling overhead. Inside the hut, the Viking was so still and quiet, she thought he must have died. But when she touched him, he was burning hot, not cold. His skin was dry, and his parted lips were cracked.
“Here,” she said, filling a cup with clean water. “You must drink.” She lifted his head and held the cup to his lips, but he was like a statue or a corpse. He didn’t respond even when she poured the water into his open mouth.
She lay him back down and pressed an ear to his chest, listening to his heart, and his flesh was like a sun-baked stone. His heartbeat was steady but slow and weak for an animal his size.
“The fever has taken you, love,” she said, wetting his parched lips. “There’s nothing I can do.” There was a remedy she knew that sometimes worked, a tree bark that could be brewed in a tea and drunk to bring down the fever. But she had none in the hut, and the nearest such tree was miles and miles away, too far to walk in a week, much less the day and night this Viking might have left to live. She soaked a rag in water and bathed his burning brow.
Suddenly his eyes snapped open, so blue they glowed in the dim light of the hut. He grabbed her wrist in a grip of burning iron. “Asynja,” he said, a word she didn’t know. Then, “Help me.”
“I will,” she answered in his own language. “I will try.” Her mother had the fever cure in her stores in the village. Surely she would not deny such magic to her only daughter. “Sleep now.” She wriggled her wrist free from his grip but pressed a light kiss to his forehead then pulled the covers back up to his chin. “I’ll be back soon.”
Her village was just as she remembered it with neat, thatched cottages and open sheds along a narrow, winding street. Most of the villagers stared at her or looked quickly away as she passed. But many like Luna, the blacksmith’s wife, smiled and waved, and she waved back. Her grandmother’s sister, Vivian, had brought her loom out into the late summer sun and was working a red and black cloth. “Well met, niece,” she called out. “It’s time you came home.”
“Well met, auntie,” Maeve said, kissing her wrinkled cheek. “Where is the queen?”
“Where do you think?” the old woman said, looking up the hill.
“Of course.” Queen Asha had once been in the thick of all work and life in the village, thinking it no shame to milk a goat or bake a loaf or lead a hunting party. But since she had taken the harper, Baird, as her consort, she thought it better to sit idle and let others work for her.
Maeve heard Baird singing as she approached her mother’s house. He had a fine voice and a great talent for the harp, but she took no pleasure in his music. She slipped into the hall that had been her childhood home and found the women Asha now called her ladies gathered there, sewing or spinning as the harper played. Asha was sitting on her high, carved throne doing nothing at all but listen to her lover. She had a doting, stupefied smile on her face that made Maeve want to slap her.
Baird finished his song, and the women all applauded, none more vigorously than the queen. “But look, my goddess,” Baird said, pointing to Maeve. “A little lost sparrow has flown into the house.”
“More like a raven, harper,” Maeve said. “Best beware.” Maeve had been born of the Lady’s rites just like her mother had, and she had shown signs of magic just as strong. By their law, she could challenge Asha for her fine throne, and there were some who whispered that she should. But Maeve had no wish to vanquish her own mother even if she had thought she could. “Mother, I would speak with you alone,” she said. “I need to ask a favor.”
“Address me as your queen. You are not my daughter any more,” Asha said. “Your words must be heard by all. And why should I grant you any favors?”
Maeve swallowed back the angry words that tried to come out of her mouth. “I need a cure for fever, lady queen,” she said. “If you are not my mother, are you still the Lady’s healer?”
“For the village,” Baird said. “Not for you.”
“You dare to speak in my mother’s place?” Maeve said, too furious to hold her tongue.
“Baird, be quiet,” Asha said. “Maeve, are you ill?”
“I need the bark to cure a fever,” Maeve said, telling the careful truth. “Will you deny me?”
“If she has fallen sick, perhaps your Lady means to punish her,” Baird said. He was not of their village or their faith. He had come as a stranger, a traveler; by all rights, he could have been killed on sight or made a sacrifice. But Asha had taken him to bed instead. “Perhaps a fever will soften her heart to her queen and bring her to her senses.”
Maeve expected her mother to rebuke him again for speaking out of turn, but as always, she was disappointed. “Perhaps,” Asha said. “Maeve, are you ready to do as I commanded you? Will you beg Baird’s pardon for the lies you told?”
Maeve fixed the harper with a witch’s stare to chill his blood. “I will not,” she said. “I have told no lies.”
Her mother’s pale face flushed pink. “Then go,” she said. “Leave this village and do not return until you are ready to beg pardon.” Some of the women murmured amongst themselves at this, obviously shocked, and Asha rose to her feet. “Go before I have you killed myself.”
Maeve bent her head, blinking back tears. “Farewell, lady.” Without looking back or making eye contact with any of the others, she turned and left the hall.
Vivian was waiting for her outside. “Where are you going?” she demanded, clumping along with her stick, trying to keep up.
“Back to the beach,” Maeve said, refusing to slow down. “I’m not wanted here.”
“Not true, and you know it,” the old woman said. “Now stop before you kill me.”
Maeve considered just running away. But that seemed cowardly. “I can’t stay here,” she said, stopping. “I’ve been exiled, remember?”
Vivian snorted. “If you meant to give up this easily, why did you come back at all?”
“I needed something my mother has,” Maeve said. Villagers were gathering in clumps up and down the street to stare at her. “I should have known better than to think she’d give it to me.”
“What is it you need?” Vivian said.
“It doesn’t matter.” One group of men was deep in conversation, taking turns looking back at her. “I have to go.”
“None here will do you harm,” Vivian said. “One word from you, and there are many who would see that outsider trussed up and dropped from the cliffs.”
“And what of the queen?” Maeve demanded. “How would we truss up her magic? Would we drop her off the cliffs as well?” The old woman had no answer. “I needed the cure for a fever,” Maeve explained. “Not for myself, for a man I pulled from the sea.”
“A man?” Vivian said, her silver eyebrows shooting up. “Have you taken a consort?”
“I have not,” Maeve said. “I just wanted to save his life if it could be saved, just for mercy.”
“The Lady smiles,” Vivian said.
“Aye, perhaps, but he’s dying,” Maeve said. “I stitched his wounds and stopped the bleeding, but he is burning up.”
“Then ‘tis no great sorrow your mother refused you,” Vivian said. “Tree bark simples have no power over such a fever. Your man is being devoured by a demon from the inside out.”
“I told you, he isn’t my man,” Maeve said.
“And ‘tis pity he is not,” Vivian said. “If he were your man, you could join with him and drive the demon out.”
“What nonsense is this?” Maeve said.
“The oldest magic,” Vivian said. “As old as the Lady herself. Man and woman joined as one to make a single spirit. No fever can stand against that.”
“You speak of lovers’ madness,” Maeve said. “Has our queen not brought us enough of that already?”
“Asha is a fool,” Vivian said. “She lets an unworthy weakling suck away her power like a leech and calls it love. But if a witch can find a true man, a worthy man, he will give as much as he gets. The old magic will bind them forever and make them both strong.”
“The man is dying, Vivian,” Maeve said. “I can’t tell if he’s worthy or not.”
“A gift from the Lady,” Vivian said. “A gift from the sea.”
Maeve had heard Viking raiders called many things but never a gift. “He isn’t conscious,” she said. “He can’t be joined to anyone. His spirit is leaving him.”
“A witch could call it back,” Vivian said. “If she were strong enough.”
So that was what the old crone wanted, a proof of her power she could hold up to the others. “Leave me out of your schemes, old auntie,” Maeve said, kissing her cheek. “I will not make war on my own mother.”
“As you will,” Vivian said, but her eyes looked troubled. “Who is this dying man?” she called as Maeve walked away.
“I told you,” Maeve said. “He is no one.”
End of chapter 2.