Two days into the voyage, the girl fell ill from her wounds. By late afternoon, she had fallen into a delirious stupor, and by nightfall, she was completely unconscious. Asmund’s men said nothing, but he caught them exchanging glances. He knew they hadn’t forgotten Stian’s warning that Maeve was a witch. If she had been any ordinary captive, he would have tossed her overboard before her death attracted evil spirits. But she had saved him. Even if he hadn’t developed a fondness for her, he couldn’t let her die.
Most of the women and children they had taken from the village were on a separate cargo ship, but a few had asked to stay close to Maeve, and he had allowed it. “You,” he said, pointing to the one who had told him where to find the hidden village children. “What is your name?”
“I am Luna.” She had two small sons, strong boys who met his eyes without fear.
“Come here.” He motioned her over to where Maeve lay glassy-eyed and still under a heavy fur. “Do you know how to help her?”
“Lady Maeve is the healer,” Luna said. “Better than her stupid mother ever was.” She looked at him shrewdly. “Didn’t she heal you?”
“Do something,” he said. “Why won’t she wake?”
“She burns.” She pulled back the fur and pulled up Maeve’s tunic to expose the shallow slash on her belly. He expected to find it red and festering with pus, but it was clean and looked nearly healed.
“Where else is she hurt?” he asked.
“Nowhere else, great prince,” the woman said. “I dressed her wounds myself.”
“Then why has she fallen into such a fever?” he demanded. “Why is she dying?”
“Because she has chosen to die.” Luna pulled the fur back over Maeve and made a sign of blessing or worship over her heart, folding her hands as if in prayer. “She is a child of the goddess.”
“She is a woman, just like you,” Asmund said. “Her mother was nothing more than a savage slut who doomed her own people for a trickster’s kisses.”
“Aye, she was that,” Luna said with a wry smile. “She was also the most powerful sorceress in seven generations.” She bathed Maeve’s face with cold water from the sea, and the girl stirred, but she didn’t wake. “She made this one in the spring ritual in consort with the dragon god.” She laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “I should know. My husband was her dragon.”
“Your rituals mean nothing,” Asmund said. He refused to believe that Maeve would simply decide to die and do it or that she even could. “Superstition.”
“Is it?” Luna said. “Then how is it you live?” He had no answer, and she smiled. “My husband loved Lady Maeve like a daughter, though he could never say it, not even to her.” She folded one of Maeve’s hands between her own. “He was one of you, you know—a Viking. He fell ill on his first raid when he was still just a boy. His people—your people—left him behind, and the dead queen’s mother took him in.”
“So Maeve is of Viking blood?” Asmund said.
“Yes, if that means anything to you,” Luna said. “Maybe that’s why she saved you.”
“So wake her,” Asmund said.
“I cannot,” Luna said. “If she has chosen to join the goddess, no soul on earth can compel her to return.” He saw pity in the woman’s eyes. “Let her go, great prince. She has saved you. What else can you want with her now?”
He yanked her to her feet. “Take her to the cargo ship; take all of them,” he said, shoving her at his brother. “She knows nothing.”
“Asmund, let them take the girl with them,” Hagen said, dropping his voice so the others might not hear. “Let her die with her own people.”
“She isn’t going to die,” Asmund said. “Just take the others away.”
The sea was calm, an endless plain of green glass all around them. He carried Maeve to the dragon’s head prow of the longship and settled himself there with the girl in his arms. For the rest of the day and into the night, his men avoided him, and he understood why. They thought he was reliving the terrible days after his wife had died. He had locked himself away in an empty house with her corpse until the king himself had come and ordered him to come out. But this was different. When Astrid had died, he had blamed the gods for taking her from him before her time. He had stood over her body and demanded that her soul be allowed to return, not so much for his sake but for the infant son who needed her. But of course the gods had said no, and in time, he had come to accept their wisdom.
But this was his fault. Maeve had saved him not just from death but from an eternity of wandering in a frozen hell. Tiny and fragile as she was, she had fought a fire demon for his life and won. And he had repaid her kindness by abandoning her and her people to a pig like Stian.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. She was tucked against him like a child with her face cradled against his throat. Her skin was burning hot, and her breathing was shallow and slow. He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’m so sorry, little Maeve,” he repeated in her own language. “Please come back.”
In her fever dream, Maeve wandered in a forest. The trees were taller than any she had ever seen with thick, black trunks and deep green needles. It was spring, and the air smelled clean and sweet. Fallen needles made a soft carpet under her bare feet, and a warm breeze ruffled her hair. Tiny blue and white flowers peeped out from the bracken like the memory of snow. She felt peaceful but not contented. She was sad because she was alone.
The white vixen she had seen in her vision before slipped out of a thicket and crossed her path. “Wait,” she said, hurrying to follow. The fox was running through the underbrush, and Maeve stumbled and almost fell as she tried to keep up. “Wait for me.” In her heart she knew the vixen was the Goddess and that she would lead her to her mother, lead her home.
Suddenly the trees opened up on a vast green plain. She recognized this place. In her first vision, she had stood on the cliffs above it and seen it white with snow. She had seen the little village in the distance and a woman and child being chased by a pack of wolves. But now the scene was warm and peaceful, a lush green field covered with wildflowers that nodded in the wind. The vixen had stopped in the shadows of the forest and sat back on her haunches, waiting.
“What is this place?” Maeve asked her. “Why have you brought me here?”
Suddenly she heard a man’s voice calling her name like an echo on the wind. Turning, she could just make out a figure on the far side of the field. It was the Viking, Asmund, and he was looking for her. Tears stung her eyes, and her fists clenched with rage. But something in his voice touched her, angry as she was. “I’m sorry,” she heard him calling. “Please come back.”
The vixen stood up and turned back toward the forest. “Wait,” Maeve said. The Goddess paused and looked back at her, one foot poised. The choice being offered was clear. She could go back into the forest and follow the vixen to her realm. She would see her mother again and Vivian; she would grow in power and prepare for rebirth. Or she could go to Asmund.
“Why do I have to decide? You’re the Goddess; show me what I must do.” One the wind she heard Asmund calling again and a sigh like a woman’s laughter. But the vixen didn’t move.
She turned away from the forest shadows and ran out into the light.
Asmund had dozed off, and he woke when he felt Maeve stir in his arms. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. Her cheeks and lips were pink again, and her eyes were clear. “Maeve?” He cradled her cheek in his hand and bent as if to kiss her.
“No.” She pushed his hand away.
“All right.” If she would live, he could wait. He settled her back to the pallet beside him. “Just rest then.” She closed her eyes and slept.
Days later, Maeve stood at the bow of the cargo ship as it navigated between sharp, icy cliffs. In front of them, the dragon’s head carved into the prow of Asmund’s longship sliced through the swells, a sleek, black wyrm darting over the cold, green sea. Even at this distance, she could hear the Vikings singing and laughing as they rowed, and the sailors on the cargo ship were the same. They were almost home.
Luna’s two sons raced around her, chasing one another around the deck, and one of the Vikings laughed as he called to them to be careful. These men had treated their captives well, she had to admit, much better than she had expected. Some of the women of her village were already forming attachments, young ones and widows who hadn’t had any lovers to lose in the raid. In time she had no doubt that the people of the Goddess would be absorbed into this new tribe, and that was as it should be. If the Goddess had not willed it so, Asmund would not have saved them. But cold the Goddess even see them in this freezing, far-off place?
Luna brought a cloak and wrapped it around Maeve’s shoulders. “The men say we are almost there,” she said. “They already sing praises to their gods for delivering them safely.”
“They are brave men,” Maeve said. “Can you imagine having the courage to set sail across all that empty water with nothing but the stars and a needle in a bucket to guide you?”
Luna laughed. “I can’t imagine doing anything men do, my queen.”
“Don’t call me that,” Maeve said.
“If not you, then who?” Luna said.
“No one. You have a king now. We all do—Asmund’s father.” She could see the Viking’s silhouette in the blinding white sunlight. He was standing at the rudder of the longship, steering their course, fearless and certain. “He will do what he likes with us.”
“You saved your people, Lady Maeve,” Luna said. “If Prince Asmund didn’t care for you, he would have let the other dog have us, and we would all be dead. That was the old queen’s legacy.”
“Mind your tongue,” Maeve said. “She was my mother.”
“Aye, and she was a fool.” She put a hand to Maeve’s cheek, making tears come to her eyes. “Sing for us, my lady,” she said. “Remember us to the Goddess.”
Maeve had abandoned her prayers back in Britain, her prayers and her life and her hope. But she had changed her mind about living. And if she lived, she belonged to the Goddess.
“Sing with me.” She reached toward all the women on the deck, gathering them into a circle. They were so few compared to the tribe they had been, her heart ached to see it, but they would be enough. “We will sing a requiem for our dead,” she said. “And a prayer of thanks for this new homecoming.”
On the longship, Asmund heard Maeve’s voice singing just as he had so many times back on the beach in Britain. He had grown to love the sound of it. But this song was so sad, he felt a lump rise in his throat. The other women raised their own voices to join hers, and even on the longship, all his men went quiet.
“Odin save us, brother,” Hagen said, smiling but turning pale. “What magic have we brought home?”