The Viking and the Witch – A Serial Romance

Chapter One

 

The late summer raids had gone well. Asmund and his brother, Hagen, had seized much spoil and lost only one man in a month of sailing up and down the British coasts. But now a sudden squall with high waves and deadly lightning seemed determined to kill them all. Asmund leaned all his weight against the tiller, willing the longboat to come about to face the waves head on.

“We must turn back!” Hagen shouted over the roar of the wind. “We must try to find the shore!”

“Help the others bail!” Asmund shouted back. If his little brother wouldn’t keep his peace, he’d kick him overboard, prince or not. The shoreline was the last thing he wanted to see now. The storm would break them like twigs against the rocks and suck them down to oblivion under the cliffs. All that could save them now was the open sea where the water was deep enough to absorb the force of this storm. Hagen was young; this was his first long voyage. He didn’t understand. But Asmund had no time now to educate him.

“Row, you dogs!” he shouted as another great swell rose before them. “Faster! Faster!” The rowers obeyed, leaning into their oars, some of them with eyes closed in prayer or concentration as they trusted him and the gods to steer them through the tempest. Even Hagen had fallen to his task, scooping water in a leather bucket with his back to the storm. Only Asmund saw the dragon’s head prow silhouetted by a flash of lightning against the solid black wall of the sea. “Row!” he roared, holding the tiller with all his strength, muscles screaming with pain. Only when he felt the wood begin to bend under his hands did he let the tiller go. The ship lurched forward, and the dragon’s head broke through a crown of foam, cresting the wave and gliding down the other side.

In the sky ahead, he could see light through the clouds, the soft white glow of the moon. The worst was behind them. They were almost free. The storm would have blown them off course. They would have to wait for the clouds to clear in the open sea and use the stars to guide them. But they would be safe. He put his hands back on the tiller and turned his back on his men for just a moment to look back the way they’d come.

Suddenly the ship lurched forward again as he felt something strike him hard from behind. Sharp, burning pain stabbed through him as he was struck again. Before he could turn, he was swept over the side. The sea rose up to swallow him, sucking him down into the dark. He fought his way to the surface, then dove deep again to dodge the great black shape of the ship. He heard Hagen screaming his name as he went under. Then one of the oars struck the back of his head, and he sank and knew no more.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Last night’s storm had washed all kinds of debris into the narrow inlet that ran beside Maeve’s hut. Two of her traps had been completely destroyed. But the third was still intact and held a fat, silver salmon. She slapped the fish against a rock, killing it quickly. She scooped out the smaller fish and tiny crabs that had gotten caught in the trap and set them free, then wrapped the salmon in wet ferns and tucked it into the pouch at her waist. Then she waded back into the water. She had three more traps to empty, and the tide was rising fast.  After three months alone on this beach, she had learned its rhythms well.

Half-buried in the sand near the next trap, she found an oiled leather sack. Inside were some eggs, a skin of fresh goat’s milk, and a haunch of salted meat—supplies left for her by someone from her village. Maeve had been exiled by her own mother, the queen of their tribe. But not everyone had agreed with Queen Asha’s decision. Maeve was magic born; the Lady was not likely to smile on a people who left her to starve. A tiny scrap of sheepskin inside the pouch was marked with the symbol of a half-moon—Luna, the blacksmith’s wife. She closed the bundle and tucked the scrap into her pocket, making a note to say a special blessing for the kindly woman and her house.

The tide in the inlet had risen to her thighs and begun to show tiny breakers of foam by the time she emptied her last trap. She was just about to head back to her hut when she noticed the ravens. Half a dozen of the black birds were circling over the beach in the distance, and as she watched, two more joined the circle. Either some dark magic was afoot, or something on the beach was dying. Shouldering the bundle of her broken traps, she headed for the water’s edge.

When she saw the man lying facedown in the sand, she broke into a run. But when she saw him more closely, she almost wished she’d never noticed him at all. From his weapons and the thick bronze bracelet on his wrist, she knew he was a Viking. His kind came every summer to raid up and down this coast, burning villages, slaughtering men and boys, carrying off women and girls and whatever treasure they could find. Only her mother’s magic had kept their own village safe so long by hiding them behind a glamour that made it look deserted and burned out already.

This one’s ship must have gone down in the storm. His skin was deathly white, and he had a nasty wound in his back. His blood had soaked the sand underneath him and stained the ripples of the incoming tide. Surely he was almost dead already. She put down her traps and picked up a rock, whispering a prayer to the Lady for his spirit. One hard, swift blow to the back of his head, and his travels in this realm would end.

Then he moved. He let out an angry-sounding groan, and his hands clutched at the sand, digging deep as if he were trying to push himself up or crawl forward. Without thinking, Maeve dropped the rock and helped him, rolling him over on his back so he could breathe.

He moaned again in pain. He looked younger than she would have expected, smooth-skinned under his beard, and his brow was high and fine, the brow of a sorcerer or poet, not a brute. But he was huge and obviously strong. On his feet, he would have towered head and shoulders over any man she had ever known. Broken or not, he was dangerous. If he recovered, she had no doubt he would bring destruction. It was the Viking way.

But he is only one man, a voice seemed to whisper in her head. What can one man do? Viking warriors had come to her people before, the wounded or deserters or outcasts left behind when the longboats sailed away. Grateful for sanctuary, they had married into the tribe and had fathered children and taught the people enough of their customs and language to help them defend themselves. But this man was no deserter. If he survived, she didn’t think he would be content to be some village woman’s husband.

“Lady, you must decide,” she prayed aloud. She walked back to her hut at a pace neither hurried nor slow to fetch her little raft. If the Lady wished the Viking to survive, he would. If not, it was not for her to question. She floated the raft back down the inlet to the beach, half-expecting to find he had died. But he was still alive.

She rolled him onto the raft, ignoring his groans, and dragged it back to the inlet. Treading water, she floated it back toward her hut. His weight made the raft bob and list in the breakers, and she told herself that if he rolled off into the water, she would let him drown. But he didn’t.

She dragged the raft into her hut and rolled him off it beside her fire. “As you will, Lady,” she sighed, setting about the magic that could make him well.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Asmund wandered barefoot through a snowy forest. The ice burned his feet, and the wind cut through him like a thousand knives. Tall, black trees rose all around him, and the mist was thick as blood. The long winter’s night had fallen, but he saw no stars to guide him and no shimmering rainbow from the northern lights. He was abandoned and alone.

After what felt like hours, he emerged from the trees onto a broad, flat plain of pure ice—a frozen lake. But in the distance, he could see the glow of fires. Steeling himself against the pain, he started across the ice, leaving bloody footprints with every step. He walked on and on for what felt like miles, but the far shore seemed no closer. When he looked back, he saw no sign of the forest he had left, only a long trail of his own gleaming, black blood.

He fell to his knees. “All-Father!” he shouted in fury and pain. “Why have you forsaken me?”

“He cannot hear you.” A woman stood before him. She was as tall as any man with smooth, brown skin and long, straight, honey-colored hair. Her brow was crowned with silver, and she wore a long, white robe. “You did not fall in combat, warrior,” she said. “Your god of battle knows you not.”

“Who are you?” he demanded. “What is this place?”

“You were betrayed, Asmund,” she said. “One who held your trust struck you down as you saved him and the others from the storm.” A warm breeze swirled around the strange goddess, and he smelled summer flowers. “By the laws of your gods, he has stolen not only your life but your honor.”

“Who?” he said. “Who has done this?”

She smiled and touched his cheek with a hand that was soft and blissfully warm. “That is not the comfort I have brought you,” she said. “Your only hope is to survive. You must return to the living and take vengeance on the traitor. That is the way of your gods.” She stepped back from him, and the cold winds captured him again, crueler than before. “If you do not, you will wander this wasteland forever.”

“Help me, lady!” he beseeched her as she backed away from him. “Let me live!”

“I have sent you help, Asmund.” Even her voice was fading. “But there will be a price.”

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