Once again, Asmund woke up alone. He had dreamed he was with his father, walking through a lush, green wood in spring. He couldn’t remember what they had talked about, but he woke with a deep sense of relief, as if some great conflict between them had been settled at last.
But he was alone. This wasn’t unusual; the girl rose to greet the dawning sun every morning then went straight to her traps. But after the night before, he had thought she might wake him or wait for him or at least come back to him after her morning prayers. If he had been the kind of man to fret over a woman and her ways, he might have been disappointed.
He went outside and replenished the fire, expecting her to come back soon with breakfast. But she didn’t come. He made his own meal of cold bread from the night before, facing the inlet as he swallowed every bite, leaving none for Maeve and assuring himself that he wasn’t punishing her for staying gone so long, that he couldn’t have cared less. But still she didn’t come.
Finally he gave up his pose and went to look for her. But she wasn’t anywhere along the inlet. The traps were empty, bobbing on the high tide, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. “Maeve!” he shouted. Could she have lost her balance as she walked in the rising waters, hit her head on a rock below the surface? “Maeve!” he bellowed louder, a most unmanly knot of panic forming in his chest. If she had drowned in the inlet, she would have floated to the surface by now or washed back out to the beach. “Answer me!” he yelled, running toward the surf. “Right now!”
But she didn’t answer, and there was no sign of her on the beach.
He ran to the cove where the boat was tied, promising himself all the way that he would find her there. But the boat was empty just as he had left it the night before, its sail neatly furled, ready for him. It bobbed like a dancer in the breakers, beckoning him aboard. If he didn’t sail soon, all hope he had of rejoining his companions would be lost.
He leaned back and shouted into the wind at the top of his lungs. “Maeve!”
From her hiding place inside a tiny cave in the cliffs, Maeve could hear the Viking shouting. She put her hands over her ears and closed her eyes tight. If she went to him, he would take her away with him; he had said as much. All the rest of that day and night, she stayed hidden, waiting. She knew he was making ready, packing supplies, preparing his boat, but she didn’t dare peek out. If she saw him, she wasn’t sure she could stop herself from running to join him.
“Your will, Lady,” she prayed as the sun was setting and she heard his voice again. He was moving up and down the beach, calling and calling until he was hoarse. She put her fingers in her ears. “Your will, not mine.”
At some point she must have slept because suddenly sunlight streamed through the cracks the rock. She didn’t hear Asmund calling any more.
She climbed out of the cave into a thicket of vines that would hide her if he happened to be looking that way. But he wasn’t looking. From where she stood at the top of the cliffs, she could see the whole rocky beach from her inlet to the cove. The sky was pink with dawning light, and the Viking’s boat was gone.
She tore through the vines to reach the cliff’s edge and looked out to sea. His sail was bobbing on the horizon, sailing west. “Protect him, sweet Lady,” she prayed aloud as tears streamed down her cheeks. “See him safely home.”
Asmund sailed around the coastline by day and followed the stars by night, following the charts he had carried in his head since he was a boy. But he was still grateful and a little shocked when he rounded a point on his second day at sea and saw his own long ship anchored in the cove.
His brother, Hagen, was the first to spot his sail and the first to recognize him. “Thank the gods,” he said as Asmund climbed aboard. “Thanks be to Allfather and his lady, Frigg.” He embraced his brother without hesitation, and after a moment, Asmund hugged him back. “We thought you were dead,” his younger brother said in a voice thick with tears.
“I was,” Asmund said. “But we’ll talk later.” The others were crowding around him, smiling, slapping him on the back, and he was glad to greet them. But one of these men he had always trusted was a traitor. One of them had stabbed him in the back and thrown him in the sea.
“Are we early?” he asked when they had all assured themselves that he was really alive. “Where is Stian’s ship?”
“They were here,” one of his men, Torvald, said. “But we would not sail without you yet, so he and his men went after more treasure.”
“He said he knew of a village no man has ever raided, a place protected by magic,” Hagen said. “He said he had a plan to get inside.”
“Where is this magic village?” Asmund said, remembering the crone’s prophecy and feeling sick to his stomach.
“On the coast to the south of here,” Torvald said. “But he meant to anchor his ship a ways away and attack them from the land.”
“Raise the anchor,” Asmund said, and they rushed to obey him—at least that hadn’t changed. “We have to catch them.”
“But my prince, we don’t know where they meant to land,” Torvald said.
“Maybe not,” he said. “But I know where they’re going.”
Maeve was repairing a tear in one of her tunics when she felt a wave of darkness wash over her so powerful it made her feel faint. She dropped her sewing and stood up, and she felt it again—terrible fear that drove her to her knees then terrible pain that made her scream. “Mama!” she cried out, reaching blindly into darkness the color of blood. Then suddenly the pain was gone, and the light came back in a dazzling rush, and in her mind was only silence. “Mama,” she repeated, scrambling to her feet.
She ran all the way to the village and found it under attack, just as Vivian had foreseen. Viking raiders under a wolfshead banner were swarming up and down the crooked street, setting fire to huts, dragging women by the hair, hacking men in half like saplings with their swords. If Asha were alive, this wouldn’t be happening. For all her faults and weakness, her mother’s magic was strong; she would have hidden the village or driven the raiders mad with visions of the Dragon. Maeve reached out for her own power, crying out to the Goddess for her help, but all she felt was fear and pain and the blood red cloud of death that seemed to smother her. Dodging the bloody grasp of a bearded behemoth as he grabbed for her, she stumbled then sprinted up the hill.
Asha’s women were fleeing the queen’s house in wailing terror. “Dead!” one of them sobbed as she grabbed hold of Maeve. “The queen is dead! He killed her!”
“Let me go!” She shoved the woman away and ran inside.
Baird the harper was standing over Asha’s body, holding a bloody knife. “They were going to find you anyway,” he said, his eyes wild. “I couldn’t have stopped it.”
“You did this.” She pulled her own knife from her belt.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, stepping over her mother’s body. “You don’t have to be hurt, little Maeve.” He was trying to circle her, his knife held much too loosely in his hand. “I am their ally. If you are my woman, you will be safe.”
She launched herself at him, stabbing him first in the eye. He screamed, and she barely felt the slash of his blade across her stomach as she stabbed him again, over and over as he fell, following him to the floor. When he stopped moving, she collapsed on top of him, sobbing and exhausted. Once again, she reached out for her witch’s power, but no power came, only the darkness.
She heard the door crash open behind her and the voices of Viking men. At first she couldn’t understand them; her mind was too addled. Then one of them laughed and said, “Well done, little one. The traitor got what he deserved.”
She tried to find the strength to fight, but two of them grabbed her, and one of them snatched the knife from her hand. The one who had laughed was standing over her as they pulled her to her feet. He was almost as tall as Asmund, but not nearly as handsome. He had close-cropped blond hair and a long, dirty beard down to his belt. “Bring her,” he said. “She might be worth keeping under all that blood.” He caught her chin with a bloody hand. “If she can behave herself.”
She wanted to fight back, but she was so tired and sick, she could barely stand. He was right; she was covered in Baird’s blood, an abomination before the Goddess. One of the Vikings picked her up, and she let herself go limp over his shoulder.
Asmund was too late. The village was already burned. “This?” Hagen said as they surveyed the carnage with the rest of their crew. “This was Stian’s great prize?”
“Apparently,” Asmund said. His brother was right; there was no treasure here. Only people dead and dying and the burning ruins of their homes. The old woman who had come to find Maeve on the beach was lying dead in the muddy street, her ancient head caved in, the broom she’d been holding still clutched in her fist. Asmund had raided these lands every summer since he was old enough to sail, and he’d never felt a moment’s remorse. But this had been no raid; there was no prize here. This was slaughter. “Where is he now, do you think?”
“Up there, if I were to guess,” Hagen said, pointing. At the top of the hill stood a round house that was bigger and a little more grand than the others. “Shall we go congratulate him on his victory?”
Asmund laughed. Hagen had loathed Stian since he was a small boy. “Absolutely.” Maeve will have been on the beach, he promised himself as they climbed the hill. She won’t even know this has happened.
But he was wrong. A small group of young women and girls were huddled weeping in the yard in front of the round house. Maeve was among them, sitting on the ground, staring at nothing. She was so covered in blood, he barely recognized her, and he had to stop himself from running to her.
Stian was looming over one of the other women, making an impressively terrible figure as he roared at her in a language she wouldn’t understand. “Where are the rest of them?” he shouted. “The children! The boys!” He raised the cudgel he carried as if to bash in her skull.
Asmund grabbed his arm. “Well met, Captain,” he said.
Stian turned as if to cudgel him instead, then froze. “My prince!” He couldn’t have looked more shocked or less pleased if he had practiced first. “You are alive.” If this dog had been on his own crew, he would have known exactly who the traitor was. But he had been on his own ship miles away when Asmund was attacked.
“So it seems.” He tightened his grip on the captain’s arm until he dropped his cudgel. “What is all this?”
“Slaves, my prince,” Stian said. “There may be more. We have found no more than half a dozen children.”
“I’m surprised they can feed so many as that,” Asmund said. He touched the cheek of the woman Stian had been threatening, looking her over. “And why should we want them if they could?”
His voice brought Maeve out of her stupor. He was with them. He was their leader—the ugly blond one had called him his prince. Had he brought them here? Had he ordered the raid? I did this, she thought, sick with horror. I should have let him die. Suddenly her strength came back in a rush, and she launched herself at Asmund, her hands like claws.
“Devil!” she screamed at him in his own language. “Blasphemer! She saved you—the goddess! I saved you!” When she had attacked him before on the beach, he had been weak and willing to surrender. Now he grabbed her and crushed her back against him, holding both her wrists in one hand.
“I like this one,” he said, making the others laugh. “My father will enjoy her very much.”
“These slaves are mine!” the blond one said.
“No,” Asmund said. He was holding her still, but he wasn’t hurting her. “We will take these slaves as your tribute from the voyage.” He looked around at their village with contempt. “If this is what your raids have been this season, you can’t have taken much else.”
“My hold is full of treasure!” the blond one said.
“Then keep it,” Asmund said. “Sail home and be content.”
Even the men who had arrived with Asmund looked surprised at this and not entirely pleased. A young one who looked like a smaller, less confident copy of Asmund looked as if he were bursting to speak.
“The king will hear of this,” the blond one said.
“Aye, Stian, he will,” Asmund said. From where he held her, Maeve couldn’t see his face, but she could imagine it from the fury in his tone. “He will hear how you left his son and heir to die while you burned pig farms to build yourself a harem.”
“You were dead already, drowned!” Stian protested, his face turning from red to sickly white. “Your own brother thought as much.”
“And yet here I stand.” He shoved Maeve at the younger one, who caught her, startled but quick. “Be careful,” Asmund warned. “She bites.” She made a token effort to struggle, but this young one was strong, too. “Will you challenge me, Stian?” Asmund asked the captain. “Will you fight me for these peasant women? Will you break faith with my father?”
For a moment, Maeve thought he would, and from the tension she felt in his grip, she thought Asmund’s brother thought it, too. Then Stian laughed.
“Take them, then,” he said. “That one is a murderer.” He turned and motioned to his men. “To the ship!” The raiders didn’t look any happier than their captain, but they obeyed.
When they had gone, Asmund turned back to Maeve. “That is my brother, Hagen,” he said. “Will you kill him if he lets you go?” She tried to look away, but he caught her chin gently and made her look at him. “I know now you can understand me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, I do.”
“Are there more children?” he asked. “Where are they?”
“As if I would tell you!”
“If we leave them behind, they will die,” he said. “Your men are dead; your crops and livestock are destroyed.” From behind him, she heard the women of the village crying. “I will take you all with me.”
“As people with food to eat and a roof over their heads come winter,” he said. “As people who will live.”
One of the other village women stepped forward—Luna, the blacksmith’s wife. “I will show you where they are,” she said. She had two sons, neither of whom had seen five summers yet. “We will go with you.”
“Go then,” Maeve said. She had been alone on the beach; she could manage alone now. “I will stay.”
Asmund laughed. “Hush, little flame,” he said. “You will stay with me.”
End of Chapter Six