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.”
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.”
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.
Asmund woke up naked and alone. He opened his eyes to a patch of blue sky through a hole in the roof of a tiny hut. He could hear the roar of the sea and the screams of gulls and ravens. He felt hot but not feverish; someone had covered him with blankets he didn’t need. But he felt fine, whole, healed. He shoved off the blankets and sat up. He was stiff and sore like he’d slept too long and deeply after a hard battle. But the burning pain in his back was gone.
He found his clothes outside hanging over a rack near a banked fire built on the sand. They were still bloodstained and a little stiff with salt, but they smelled clean enough. As he dressed, he smelled something else—food. He was starving. He tore open a packet of leaves and seaweed smoking by the fire and found a long, fat salmon, cleaned and almost cooked. He devoured it down to white bone and silver skin, washing it down with fresh water from a leather bucket hanging nearby. While he ate, he looked around, assessing his surroundings.
The hut was built a stone’s throw back from a deep inlet, a gash in the sand that was slowly filling with the tide, and there was a sort of raft bobbing on the shallow water. Other than the hut and the raft, he saw no other sign of men, no dock, no village. But he had heard tell of men and women living in caves and sheltering in the trees along this wild coastline. He thought of the woman who had come to him in his dreams, but he didn’t expect to see her. He was still certain she hadn’t really been a woman at all but a fire spirit sent by the gods to save him.
When he finished the fish, he gave thanks to Odin and Freya for his deliverance and added another brief prayer to the wild goddess of this place, thanking her for taking pity on a stranger. “I am in your debt, lady,” he finished. “I will leave these lands and trouble your people no more.”
Of course, how he would leave was the next challenge. Even if his brother and the rest of his crew had survived the storm and the traitor among them, they would be miles from here—and he didn’t even know where here was. They had been raiding up and down the coastline for more than a month and were meant to meet up with a party from one of his father’s retainer’s lands to trade and make repairs before sailing back north. He wasn’t sure how long he had been unconscious, but the appointed day for meeting was soon, no more than a few days away. Somehow he had to learn where he was then take possession of a vessel he could sail to meet up with the others. Then he’d find the man who had betrayed him and see his head mounted on a pike.
But first he had to find a boat.
He started walking inland along the bank of the inlet, headed toward the forest. The hut was too well equipped to be completely isolated. If there was no village on the beach itself, they must surely be somewhere in the woods. The inlet turned slightly as it widened, and suddenly he saw the woman wading in the water.
Maeve had thought the Viking would sleep for days, that she would have time to decide what to do with him when he woke up, whether she would try to talk to him or just hide until he went away. So when she saw him on his feet running toward her, she was so shocked, her first instinct was to run. Stop being stupid, she scolded herself. You saved his life. And besides, you’d never be able to outrun him anyway. Gathering her courage and as much dignity as she could manage when soaked to the thighs and dragging a chain of fish traps, she climbed up the bank of the inlet to meet him.
Shocking her again, he fell to his knees at her feet. “Asynia,” he said, the same strange word he had called out in his delirium. “I am your slave.” He was speaking his own language, and she understood most of it very well. But it didn’t seem prudent to let him know that. “I pay you homage, giver of life,” he said. But this was blasphemy; this wouldn’t do at all.
“Stop,” she said, putting her hands on his shoulders. “Stop it. I am no queen.” She spoke the pidgin of the traders who came in the summer, a simple, childish sort of code made from bits of Latin and Greek and Gaelic. She raised his chin to make him look into her eyes, though he was so tall, with him on his knees their eyes were nearly level already. “Maeve.” She touched her own chest. “I am Maeve.” She saw comprehension in his eyes, definite intelligence. He was fully awake now, and he understood her. “And you are a big, scary Viking I should have just brained with a rock when I had the chance,” she added in her own tongue.
Asmund bit his cheek to keep from laughing. His father had taken enough slaves from these islands for him to be well-schooled in their language; he understood every word. But it seemed wisest to keep that to himself while she was still considering braining him with a rock. “Maeve,” he repeated. He took her little hand and kissed it. “Maeve.”
“Yes.” She was standing straight as a mast, and her eyes were clear, gazing directly into his own. But she was trembling.
“Asmund.” He put her hand on his chest. “I am Asmund.” He used the same pidgin she had; his people knew the southern traders, too.
“Asmund,” she repeated. She was beautiful, a perfect prize. Even in his present predicament, he couldn’t fail to notice. She tried to pull her hand away, but he held it trapped in his as he stood back up. She was a tiny thing, really, barely as tall as his chest. He barely remembered the night before, but what he did remember of her was sweet. She took a step back from him, and he hooked his other arm around her waist. He pulled her close, his eyes locked to hers, and bent to kiss her.
She twined a leg around his then jerked, knocking him off balance on the shifting sand. Jumping and pushing against his chest with her full weight, she threw him on his back and landed on top of him, and he lost his wind in a rush. Before he could recover, she had drawn her knife from her belt and held it to his throat.
“Listen,” Maeve said, panting slightly and trying to stop shaking so much with fear. “You sick. Just last night, you ready to die. Remember?” She let her head loll back and her tongue fall out, pantomiming death, and to her relief, he laughed. “You want me kill you now?” She suddenly noticed she was straddling his hips now very much the same way she had the night before, and she felt her cheeks go red and a pleasant little shiver run up her thighs. She pressed her knife tighter to his throat. “You want death?”
“No.” Now Asmund wanted her more than ever, and he had no doubt he could disarm her and take control if he wanted. But she had treated him honorably; he wouldn’t repay her or her goddess with such an insult. He smiled at her again in what he hoped was a friendly, harmless-looking way. “No death, thanks.”
“Then be good.” The grimace on his face could have frightened a bear up a tree, but she thought he was trying to make friends. She climbed off of him slowly, still holding the knife out in front of her. He climbed to his feet, holding his hands up. “Good,” she repeated. She sheathed her knife and smiled.
“Good,” he repeated. He let his hands drop but made no more move to touch her.
“You can pillage me later when you’re feeling more yourself,” she added in her own tongue, turning away so she didn’t see him smile.
The girl went about the rest of her day seemingly the way she always would have, and Asmund followed, feeling like a very large and very restless puppy. He tried repeatedly to ask her about nearby settlements or other people she knew, but she just shook her head as if she didn’t understand.
Finally he gave up asking and plopped down in a sulk. “You sleep,” she suggested, pointing toward the hut. “Still sick. Rest good.” He glowered at her and turned away. There was a whetstone on a rock near the hut, and he picked it up and started sharpening his own knife. “Suit yourself,” she said in her own tongue, going back to fixing one of her traps.
By mid-afternoon as she was pounding some sort of grain into a paste, the tide was coming in, a storm tide that began to spill over the banks of the inlet. It snatched her little raft from its moorings and sucked it toward the sea. The girl jumped up to retrieve it, but Asmund was faster. He ran past her and dove into the inlet that was now a few feet deeper than he was tall, then surfaced under the raft. He steered it back to the bank then climbed out, carrying it over his head. “Thanks,” she said as he dropped it out of harm’s way.
“You’re welcome,” he answered, plopping back down by the fire.
Maeve thought he looked so much like a naughty little boy denied a treat, she could almost forget he was dangerous. “Come,” she said, holding out her hand. “Come with me.” He got up and took it, covering her hand completely with his. She shivered but smiled. “Help,” she promised. “I can help.”
She led him down the beach and around the rocky point that sheltered it. “There,” she said, pointing down a gentle cliff to another tiny cove. A sailboat was lying on its side at the edge of the water, rising and falling with the surf. Even from this distance, it was easy to see the hole the rocks had torn in its side, but otherwise it was intact, even the sail. “Fix that,” she said.
Asmund could hardly believe his eyes. He lifted her straight up in the air and kissed her squarely on the lips, but before she could react, he had set her back on her feet and sprinted and slid down the cliffside.
The boat was crude by Viking standards, a flat-bottomed fisherman’s skiff. But that would make it easier to repair with the materials at hand. He would never take it on the open sea, but if he could pinpoint his position he might be able to sail it around the coastline to the beach where he was meant to meet the others. He looked up at the woman still watching from the clifftop, and his heart swelled with affection. First she had somehow given him back his life. Now she had given him hope.
Maeve picked her way down the cliff. Asmund was already dragging the boat further up the beach out of the ocean’s reach. She was amazed again by how strong he was. A month before when the wreck had first washed up, she had watched three men from her own village try to move it and give it up as a loss. But this Viking barely seemed to be straining. He unfastened the sail from the mast then spread it to dry with the corners weighted down with rocks. She had no doubt he would fix it, and something like relief came over her for the first time since she’d found him. He would sail this boat away from her to a fate she would never see. As she watched him work, tears welled in her eyes. But she and her village would be safe.
Over the next few days, Asmund put all of his returning strength to repairing the broken boat. At first the barbarian girl, Maeve, just watched him from the cliff when she wasn’t busy with her own work. But at midday on the second day, she brought him food and stayed, still watching at first, then helping. She obviously knew nothing about boats, but she was strong for her size and very clever, he soon discovered. Even with him speaking in broken pidgin and gestures, she was able to understand and follow his instructions better than most of his own men.
He also couldn’t help noticing how beautiful she was. His late wife had been his ideal of feminine beauty, tall and fair, an icy Valkyrie. Maeve was just the opposite, small and dark, his little fire goddess with flashing green eyes. Watching her sleep in the tiny hut at night, he ached for her, memories of his fever dream driving him mad. But he was a man, not an animal, and wiser than his desire. He would not risk offending her goddess.
On the morning of the fourth day, the boat was almost done. Maeve was repairing rips in the sail, and Asmund was making pitch and coating the fresh wood he’d put over the hole to seal it. He was just starting a fresh batch when he saw an old woman coming toward them from the woods.
Maeve saw Asmund stand up. She looked back and saw Vivian bearing down on them like an angry crow. “This brute?” she said, waving her stick at Asmund. “This is what you dragged out of the sea?”
“Quiet yourself, auntie,” Maeve said, going to meet her. “What are you doing here?”
“You used your sacred art to heal a Viking?” the old woman said. “You are mad, as mad as your mother!”
“I said hush!” Asmund was watching them with a curious look on his face, almost as if he understood what the bothersome crone was screeching. But when he saw Maeve watching him, he went back to his work. “It doesn’t matter,” she went on to Vivian. “He knows how to fix this boat, and when he’s done, he’ll go.” She went back to her seat and picked up her needle. “What business is it of yours, anyway?”
“Listen to me, girl,” Vivian said. “For three nights running, I have had a vision.”
“You always have visions,” Maeve said, sewing the sail. “You eat too much cheese at night.”
“A terrible vision, always the same,” the crone went on undaunted. “Raiders like this one under the banner of a wolf. They have broken Asha’s magic; they’re destroying our village, slaughtering our men. It is a warning from the goddess!”
“If the goddess is speaking to you in your dreams, tell your queen,” Maeve said. “Asha is your priestess, not me.”
“You think I have not told her?” Vivian said. “She calls me a crazy, deceitful old woman and tells me to keep my peace. But she is afraid.” She grabbed Maeve’s arm in a grip like talons. “I can see it in her eyes. She has seen these visions, too.”
“You see what you want to see,” Maeve said, pulling free, but she was troubled. Vivian was a scold and a troublemaker, but she did not lie.
“So you have seen nothing?” she said.
“Nothing,” Maeve said. “But I have no gift for prophecy.”
“You are stronger than you know,” Vivian said. “Did you not bring this Viking back from death?”
Asmund kept his expression blank as he listened. Some of the old woman’s words were new to him, but he caught the gist, and it worried him. The leader of the other party, his father’s retainer, Stian, sailed beneath a wolf’s head banner. If the old witch was truly a seer, she might have seen him.
“That was the goddess,” Maeve said. “I only did what she told me to do.” So she did remember the fever dream, Asmund thought. He had to fight to hide a smile, but he was troubled, too. His little one was truly a witch.
“Come home,” Vivian said to her now. “Your people need you.”
“They are Asha’s people,” Maeve said. “And she has turned me out.” She stood up, dragging the sail behind her as she went to Asmund. “It is finished,” she said to him in pidgin.
“It’s good,” he answered. “Can you put it on the mast?”
“I can do it,” she said.
“So you will not heed my warning either?” Vivian said. “You will send me back alone and unheard?”
“I have heard you!” She took a deep breath, pulling in her fury like holding back a vicious dog. “Go or stay as it pleases you, auntie,” she said more calmly. “It is nothing to me.”
She went back to work, and eventually the old woman went back into the woods the way she’d come. Painting on pitch and watching her attaching the sail to the newly-fitted mast, Asmund could tell Maeve was on the verge of tears, but she was holding them back—his brave little flame. The boat was almost finished. If the weather stayed dry, the pitch would cure enough in a day or so to risk sailing away. In the back of his mind, a plan began to form.
That night as every night, she performed prayers to her goddess under the rising moon. Asmund watched from the door of the hut, and he could hear the unshed tears in her voice. The old woman had spoken of a village and a queen. What evil harpy would exile a beauty like Maeve? But that would be the reason; this old queen must have been jealous. Maybe she and her people deserved to be raided.
When she was done, she came in and lay down on her pallet like always. But this time instead of making his own bed on the far side of the hut, he lay down close behind her. When she didn’t move or protest, he put his arm around her and pulled her close.
“You’re sweet, Viking,” she said in her own language, obviously not meaning for him to understand. “Don’t worry; I won’t tell anybody.” He kissed the top of her head, and she pulled his arm tighter around her, nestling back into his embrace. “That was Vivian, my grandmother’s sister,” she explained, still speaking Gaelic. “She lives in my village—my mother’s village. I don’t live there any more.” She was crying now; he could hear it. He turned her over to face him and framed her face in his hands, searching her eyes with his in the moonlight.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I know you don’t understand.” He brushed a tear from her cheek with the pad of this thumb, and she curled against his chest. “My mother sent me away,” she explained. “She’s the queen of our tribe, the high priestess. She was always very wise and good, but…she took this harper to her bed. Baird is his name, and he’s no one, much less than you. He was a lost traveler, he said. But he has bewitched her somehow.”
He rested his chin on the top of her head, glad that she couldn’t see his face. He doubted he could have kept his feelings hidden. “He tried to seduce me,” she went on. “And when I said no, he tried to force himself on me. I told Asha, my mother, but…she didn’t believe me.” He could hear her choking on the injustice of it even now, and he struggled not to let his own arms go tense with anger around her. “Baird denied it, of course, and she believed him instead. I am her daughter, another daughter of the goddess, hers in blood and spirit. But she believed him.” She sounded calmer now, as if telling her tale was a comfort of its own, even if he couldn’t understand her. But he did understand, probably better than she did herself. There was a reason Odin turned his face against any woman ruling in the North. “She commanded me to admit that I was lying and beg the dog’s pardon. And when I said I wouldn’t, she exiled me from our home.” Her tears were hot on his bare chest, and he cradled her close, kissing her hair. “So I came here.”
“My little logi,” he said in his own language “Little flame.” He turned her face up to his and looked into her eyes, sparkles of life in the moonlight. Moving very slowly, giving her time to pull back, he kissed her.
Maeve had already decided she’d have no more such games with this Viking, that she would help him mend his boat and send him on his way. But she was so lonely and still so angry and hurt, and he was so warm and strong. She couldn’t resist the comfort he offered even if he was just a brute who didn’t understand a word she said. The look in his eyes was so tender, it melted her heart, and she felt so safe crushed in his arms, she wanted to stay there forever. When he kissed her, she opened her mouth to his, surrendering completely, and when his tongue touched hers, she shivered all over.
He rolled on top of her, still kissing her, and she lifted her skirt over her thighs, ready for him. But he propped up on his arm and looked down at her, his body a pale shadow in the moonlight. He untied the bindings on her short tunic and opened it, exposing her breasts to the cool night air. She raked her fingertips along the hard, curved muscles of his arm as he cupped her breast in his warm hand, teasing the nipple with a slow, gentle thumb until it hardened to a nub. She arched her back and sighed with pleasure as he put his mouth over the nipple and gently sucked, still moving so slowly. His hand moved to the other breast as he suckled her, warming it, teasing it, and she moaned, her hips twisting on the pallet of their own accord. When his mouth moved to the other breast, she whimpered, clutching a handful of his hair. But he didn’t stop; his tongue drew her tortured little nipple to a peak so hard it hurt, an exquisite little pain. He took her hand and guided it to her own sex, schooling her to touch for a relief that was no relief at all.
At last he raised his head, and she ran her hands up his arms to his shoulders. “Do it,” she urged in her own tongue, the movements of her body making her meaning clear. “Put it inside me.” He kissed her mouth as if he were as desperate and hungry as she felt, and she wrapped her arms and legs around him. But after a kiss that made her shudder to the marrow of her bones, he pulled back again, ignoring her protests and holding off her efforts to hold him fast.
He kissed her throat then pinned her down as he kissed his way down her stomach, pushing and ripping her clothes aside until she was naked. She clutched at his hair and writhed as his mouth moved to her inner thigh, then screamed as his tongue slipped inside her. The goddess herself must have surely felt her climax as it rocked her to her soul, but the Viking wouldn’t stop, teasing and tormenting her sex with his tongue, making the waves come over and over. Only when she screamed his name and begged him did he flip her over on her stomach and take her from behind, filling her up, driving her on until she felt him shoot so hot inside her that she screamed again, trusting him to hold her as the whole world went away.
She came back to herself curled up on his chest with her cheek pressed to his heart. He was caressing her back and speaking to her softly in his own language as if he thought she was asleep. “You’re mine now, little flame,” he said. “I will take you with me when I go.” She closed her eyes on burning tears and fell asleep to the beating of his heart.
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.”