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.
End of Chapter 4