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.”