Maeve had walked the path from her home village to the place on the beach where she had built her hut at least a hundred times. She couldn’t possibly get lost. But this time, she seemed to be walking for hours, and she was still in the woods. She couldn’t even hear the ocean in the distance. The sky was getting dark, and a full moon was rising even though the night before it had been barely a sliver.
She stopped when the air turned cold and fat, white snowflakes started to fall. Somehow she had passed out of the mortal plane and into the realm of the Lady. This could be the past or the future; these woods could be anywhere on earth or no place on earth at all. All that was certain was that the Lady had brought her here for a purpose. She wouldn’t be able to go back to her own world until she learned what it was.
“Lady, I am here,” she called. “Show me what I must see.” She turned in a circle as the snow fell faster. It was almost up to the tops of her boots. Just as she was about to turn around again, she saw a silver vixen sitting in the path ahead of her as if she were waiting to be noticed. “Go then,” Maeve said. “I will follow.”
She followed the fox through the wintry wood of bare black trees and massive evergreens until they came to a clearing. In the distance, she could see a village built high on a hill. She could hear bells ringing in alarm. She watched as two dark figures swathed in so many clothes they looked like bears came running down the hill from the town—a woman and a child. Behind them she saw half a dozen lower, darker shapes—a pack of wolves.
The woman and child started running across the snow-covered plain toward Maeve, but they were still too far away for her to see their faces. And the wolves were gaining. The child stumbled, and the woman picked it up and tried to keep running, struggling in the deep snow. The wolves were almost on top of them now, and other wolves were flanking them, coming out of the woods from either side. They would be ripped to pieces, and all Maeve could do was watch.
Suddenly the woman stopped. She set the child on the ground and turned to face the wolves. She raised her arms up to the sky, and snatches of her words came over the plain on the wind. Maeve could almost but not quite understand them. The dark gray sky cracked open with lightning, so bright it burned her eyes.
Then the vision faded away. She was standing in her own woods in late summer. She could hear the ravens and the seagulls and the whisper of the tide. Her hut was only a few steps away.
“As you will, Lady,” she said. Without being told, she knew this vision was connected to the Viking she had found, and she knew what she was meant to do. “I am yours to command.”
Asmund had been drifting in and out of consciousness for hours. One moment he was in a small, dark space sweltering under a blanket, the next he was barefoot and freezing in the enchanted wood. In the warm dark, he felt the pain of his wounds; that was his living world. Someone had pulled him from the sea, and he was dying. But the frozen woods were worse. The pain faded there, but if he stayed, the cold, empty night would last forever. He saw no further sign of the strange goddess who had come to him before, but he didn’t doubt her word. If he died now, Valhalla would never receive him. So he fought for the pain, closing his eyes and focusing all of his will on it, willing himself to live.
With his eyes closed, he felt the cold wind curling around him again and the kiss of snowflakes on his cheek. But in the distance, he could hear music.
On the beach, Maeve was singing as she gathered dry brush and arranged it in a circle on the hard, flat plain of sand created by the tide. She lay driftwood over the brush in a crisscross pattern like a crown of thorns, leaving a gap facing her hut. She took a stick and drew out the shape of the Endless Serpent inside the circle, all but the head where it would swallow the tail, leaving a gap there as well.
As the sun turned bloody red and touched the treetops in the west, she dragged the Viking on his pallet out of the hut and to the center of the circle. She stripped the blanket off of him, and he shuddered as if he were cold in spite of the soft summer heat. His body was so pale she could hardly believe he lived; he was like a beautiful thing carved from some white stone. But when she touched him, his skin was burning hot.
She finished the wooden circle and lit it, the fire racing around the brush and catching the driftwood. Then she finished the drawing, sealing the two of them inside. Green fire shimmered over the red, the breath of the Lady’s dragon, her eternal lover.
She stripped out of her boots and shift and knelt between the Viking’s powerful thighs, now as naked as he was. With her little silver knife, she cut open her own wrist. With her blood, she painted the shapes of the spell on his burning skin, down each arm and across his chest, down each leg and across his belly, a final scarlet spiral down his sex. He was rising, responding to her touch, but the rest of his body was still as death. Arching over him, she drew the last circles around his eyes and down across his mouth.
“Be as my flesh, beloved,” she sang, the Lady’s own song to the dragon. “I claim you with my blood.” If he should die now, some small part of her would die as well.
She licked the last drops of her own blood from the blade to clean it. They couldn’t be mingled too soon. Then she cut his wrist as well. With his blood, she painted the sacred patterns on her own skin, down each leg and over her belly, down each arm to the tattoos on the back of her hands that marked her as the Lady’s own child. Desire like a burning echo of the Viking’s fever raced through her as she traced the patterns down her breasts and over her heart, then up her throat to her mouth. She painted her lips with his blood.
“I take your soul inside me,” she sang, tasting the blood on her tongue. “I take your heart.” She clasped his strong hand between her own, pressing her cut wrist to his, and she felt the mingling of their blood as a shudder all through her. “I take your strength.” She straddled his hips, and she felt her heartbeat slowing to match his, felt his fever burning her up. “I take your pain.”
Asmund felt a strange new power rushing through him, a heartbeat like a bird’s delicately throbbing in his chest. He opened his eyes on a face from a dream, eyes that reflected green fire. The little spirit clasped one of his hands between her own. With the other, he reached up for her, drawing her down to kiss her mouth. His fist closed in hair like silk, black as a raven’s wing, and he tasted blood on her lips. But when she sighed, the sound was tender and sweet.
Maeve felt the demon fever taking hold of her, a burning on her skin, but she barely noticed, she was so lost in the Viking’s kiss. She let herself fall slowly to lie full-length on top of him, their wrists still pressed together, her legs sliding over his. He was so much bigger than she was, her feet barely reached his calves, and the hand that held her in the kiss cradled her skull like an egg. He truly is the dragon, she thought.
Asmund felt the little spirit writhing over him, all soft, hot skin and sweet breath, and he tried to sit up and capture her in his arms. But the pain at his center twisted deeper, making him cry out, and a wave of dizziness swept over him, threatening to suck him back down into the cold dark. The spirit reared up, her little hands braced on his shoulders as she spoke words his fever-addled brain couldn’t understand.
“Give it to me, beloved,” Maeve said, steeling her courage as she felt the dull ache of the Viking’s wound in her own belly. She had never taken a lover before and had certainly never thought the Lady would send her such a one as this. Even with him wounded and dying of fever, she could feel such power in him, she trembled. “Let me help you fight.” She rubbed her sex delicately over his, urging him inside. Bending down, she nuzzled his cheek and brought her wounded wrist back into contact with his, scrubbing the wounds together to break them open again and freshen the mingling of their blood. The Viking lurched beneath her with a roar, and she felt him inside her, filling her up.
Suddenly she wasn’t just feverish; she was burning up. The fever demon had her in its teeth. But even as she weakened, the Viking grew stronger. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her to him as their bodies moved as one. When she moaned and drooped against him, he cradled her close and rolled them over, bracing himself above her, murmuring comfort.
“Peace, little one,” Asmund soothed, kissing the beautiful spirit’s sweet face. “Don’t be afraid.” She was a life spirit, a healer of some kind. He could feel the pain draining from him as he made love to her, feel his strength returning. Some friendly god had sent her to save him. She arched her hips upward, gasping in pleasure, and he thought perhaps nothing had sent her at all, that the power was all her own. Her eyes locked to his, and he felt a great heat pass between them like flames consuming them both.
“Fight,” Maeve commanded him, her legs wrapped around his hips, clenching tight. “Break the demon.” He smiled, a wicked gleam coming into his eyes that made her heart skip a beat. Nothing else mattered but this moment, this joining, this fight.
Suddenly she felt a shudder begin at their joining, a climax that threatened to tear her soul apart. She clutched his hair and screamed, and the fever rose up from them, a burning, scarlet ghost that only a witch could see. She heard the demon scream in agony as she screamed out in pleasure, and the Viking roared. As she felt his life force spill inside her, the demon dissolved into smoke.
Alive, Asmund thought as the last tremors of his climax left him. I am alive. I will live. He rolled onto his back, still cradling his mystical lover to his chest, and sank into a deep, healing sleep.
Live, Maeve thought, curling up with her ear pressed to his heart. He will live. He was a Viking, a raider, an enemy of her people. His life could mean their destruction. But she had done the Lady’s bidding. She could do no more.
End of Chapter 3