The Viking and the Witch – Chapter Seven

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.

 

 

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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?”

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 4

 

viking and the witch serial coverAsmund 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.

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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

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 1

viking and the witch serial coverSo here lately, most of what I’ve been writing and publishing has not been historical romance. But y’all know me; I can’t just give it up. So I’ve been working sporadically on an old school paranormal just for my own amusement, and it occurs to me that y’all might want to see it, too. All the cool kids I know have started serializing stuff on their blogs and elsewhere to bring in more traffic, and that seemed like a good idea, and a good fit for this story. I’m not promising anything, but I’m going to try to put up a new chapter at least every couple of weeks. It’s a work-in-progress; the finished, published product might turn out very different. So by all means, let me know what you think.

xoxo Lucy

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Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.”