I keep working on the opening of The Flame of Battle because I want this puppy to be a stunner — and I keep coming up with new ideas that are so cool. Just little things right now — a detail here, a surprise there, and I keep working on the worldbuilding and the characterizations. More and more I realize that this series is going to take a little while to write, to really dig into. You know what? That’s okay. I really miss taking time on my novels and building these worlds. I know everybody’s all about “rapid release” to make money, but now I want to take my time. And it feels good.
This morning I realized that I need to put in a prologue because I’ve been trying to figure out how to sneak the villain into the opening chapters — and I got an idea that can be expressed in the space of a page or two. I’ll take a little time to get that going.
But IN THE MEANTIME here’s a new chapter 1, and if you’ve already read the previous chapter 1, you’ll see how I’m zeroing in more on the conflict and the characters.
Here are the first three chapters. I’ll keep posting these as I improve them so you can sort of get to know how I build onto these chapters to make them work better.
1 – A FINAL GOODBYE
Dyrfinna shielded her eyes from the burning afternoon sun as she and her friends each carried a heavy-laden chest to her friend’s funeral ship. They walked closely together, and the scent of Thora’s room floated off the chest, soon to be devoured by fire. Dyrfinna’s heart was too full of pain for her to speak.
The pyre for the Queen’s daughter had been raised on the shoreline for her burning journey to Helgafjell, the holy mountain, to join the kinfolk who had gone before her. The great funerary boat had been dragged ashore stood on the pebbly shore, surrounded by silent crowds of Vikings.
The sturdy karvi ship had been her favorite ship when she was alive, and she used to take her friends on excursions along the coast. Skeggi would recite poetry, Thora would try to ignore the book in her hand but end up reading it anyway, and Dyrfinna would stand balanced on the prow doing sword exercises while everybody was leaning over the sides and likely annoying the fishes. Now dry peat and tarred wood for burning filled the upper deck up to the gunnels. While they made a bed on for Thora, the dragons stood over them, their gemlike scales glittering from their internal fires like garnets and gold, waiting to accompany Thora on her final voyage.
Dyrfinna took a deep breath of the fresh sea air before she climbed into the ship.
Thora’s body was laid upon the kindling in her green dress of thick wool, lavishly embroidered with gold, and a belt of exquisite workmanship around her waist. Dyrfinna, along with her friends Rjupa and Gefjun, adjusted her dress so it lay beautifully around Thora’s body, set her long, golden braids over her shoulders, and lay gold coins to cover her half-open eyes. They set a delicate gold band on her forehead and adorned her neck with a necklace of delicate gold beads.
Dyrfinna set the handle of Thora’s axe into her stiff, unbending hand as best she could, lay her swords at her right side, and propped her golden shield at her left side. In the meanwhile, Gefjun set her armor out within easy reach and nestled roses and other flowers in her hair. Rjupa, her tears falling thick, set down Thora’s well-worn books that only a few in the land could read – some written in Latin, some in runes. The calfskin covers had been worn soft by Thora’s hands reading them over and over.
Finally, Dyrfinna knelt at Thora’s side and laid her hnefatafl game, king’s table, next to her body, with the amber game pieces in a small drawskin bag. Yielding to an impulse, she opened the bag and poured the pieces into her hand to look at them one last time. The amber markers clicked in her hand – half of them a rich, dark orange, the rest a lighter orange. The king’s piece, with its small crown, stood above the other pieces, translucent, with its soft edges, almost glowing in the afternoon sun. How many times had she and Thora bent their heads over these pieces, mulling through different strategies to capture the king? How many long afternoons like this one had they played through, until the sun hung low in the window of the keep, and Thora’s servant would appear in the doorway and say, “The Queen would like you to come to dinner one of these days, as she has called to you two at least fifty times.” The servant had a knack for overstatement. But Thora would frown a little, her eyes never leaving the board, and say, “Just a moment, I’m just about to capture Finna’s king,” and the poor servant would have to wait, hoping that the Queen wouldn’t have to call her fifty more times.
Now Dyrfinna looked for a long moment at her friend’s bluish face, the smell of decay filling her nostrils.
“This isn’t right,” she said, grieved anew, and gently poured the pieces back in their bag.
“I know,” Gefjun said from behind Dyrfinna, gazing fiercely down at their friend’s corpse. “It’s not right. She was too young to die.” She reached out and gave Dyrfinna a hand up. Gefjun always became sharp when she was deeply upset, and often when she wasn’t.
“Sometimes it happens,” Rjupa said quietly, joining them, unshed tears shimmering in her eyes. She was a small woman with delicate features, but today she wore the war-prize she had earned: The gigantic helmet of Iron Skull, pitted with the marks of many swords and axes. It dwarfed her face, but she wore it with deserved pride. “Many people die young.”
“But why did she die?” Gefjun asked Rjupa. “She fell sick while visiting King Varinn, but everybody said it wasn’t bad. She seemed fine when she came home, only tired and sneezy. Then the next day she collapsed in the garden and died.”
“I don’t know,” Rjupa said softly. “It seems wrong. Nobody knows why the Norns choose to cut the thread of somebody’s life.”
“Oh, I’ll tell the Norns what I think of that,” Gefjun snapped.
“Be careful,” Dyrfinna warned. “Watch your language.”
“Oh, stop, Finna. Even if they did come for me, you’d fight the Fates themselves just to be belligerent.”
Dyrfinna wasn’t sure if this was a complaint or a compliment, so she let it go. “Rjupa’s right. But …” She blew out a hard gust of air, gazing again at Thora. “If there had been any way that I could have died in her place, I would have. I would have.”
Those words had surprised Dyrfinna as soon as they came out, and she felt the full weight of them. So did her friends. Now they were both quiet, gazing at her, worried.
She instantly looked down and her heart convulsed. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she added, low.
Gefjun and Rjupa exchanged a look. Then Rjupa laid a hand on Dyrfinna’s back. “There’s no use in second-guessing yourself,” she said gently. “This can’t be easy, coming so soon after your brother’s … death.”
If that what you choose to call it. “I know,” Dyrfinna said, low. A huge, nameless anguish fell over her, and she turned away.
“Yeah, everybody’s talking about it. I mean, how Thora died,” Gefjun said quickly as Dyrfinna turned back. “Because you don’t die of a cold. You just don’t. She didn’t even have a fever.”
Other men of the village were bringing on board ship the other provisions that Thora would need in the next world – wine, bread, and her horse, who was killed and dragged onto the ship, beautifully harnessed and equipped. Her house goods were brought onto the ship and carefully arranged around her body. All of the jewelry and gold she owned glittered around her in the streaming light of the afternoon sun. Roman coins were thrown around her, all the riches of the queen’s only child.
“The dwellers at Helgafjell will see how much we loved her,” Rjupa said in a broken voice, “when she comes sailing up to their holy mountain with all these riches.”
“I only wish we had more books to send with her,” Dyrfinna said. The other girls laughed, despite their tears.
Now Dyrfinna smiled a little. She imagined what it would like when Thora sailed to the holy mountain. Thora would sail out of the mist of life into the next world on her ship, her riches ranged about her, her horse whickering at her back. The residents of the holy mountain, the dead of the ages before, would gather on the shore to receive the young queen and greet her – and she’d take no notice of them because she would be sitting on a bench on the boat with her feet up, reading a book.
So where did your brother end up when you killed him? Dyrfinna asked herself. Which shore did his ship carry him to? Did he go to Valhalla? But he was not killed in battle, or in defending himself. Would he have gone to Hel instead?
“The tide is coming in,” somebody called from the shore.
Taking a deep breath, Dyrfinna looked around Thora’s ship. Most everything was in good order and ready for Thora’s final voyage. She exhaled gustily, rubbed her eyes, and turned away.
The young women climbed back down from the funeral pile and hopped off the side of the ship. The tide was well in by now, and they splashed into ankle-deep water to walk to dry sand, the waves swooshing around their legs. It touched the bottom of Thora’s boat, but not enough yet to lift it. But this would quickly change, as her shallow-drafted boat could sail in shallow water that would ground most any other boat.
The sun was setting in glory, reds and oranges suffusing the sky across the great expanse of salt water, and the great mountains of the fjords stood in silent grandeur under the sunset.
Dyrfinna glanced over her shoulder. There, faces ruddy in the light of the sunset and the faint glow of the garnet dragons, came the rest of her sword-friends – Ostryg and Skeggi. Ostryg put his big arm around Gefjun’s shoulders, while Rjupa leaned against Skeggi for support.
Dyrfinna nodded, her jaw tightening. She was to lead them in the sky dance of the dragons. “Are you ready?”
Gefjun leaned on Dyrfinna. Her hair was twisted up in a loose bun, though many red tendrils had escaped. She wore her old burgundy tunic, as usual – nothing fancy because she spent a lot of time gathering herbs with her mother, or digging in the garden, or practicing swords. She was a beautiful young woman, but careless of her beauty.
“No,” she said. “I am not ready for this. I hate the world and everything in it, that Thora had to die.”
Ostryg clapped a hand on Gefjun’s shoulder. “Death comes for us all,” he said.
Dyrfinna growled, “What a thing to say at a funeral.”
His eyes snapped to hers. “That’s because it’s the truth,” he said. “You smelled her up there. There’s no way to pretty that up. Besides,” he said, his voice softening as he turned a tender look down on Gefjun, “We have work to do. We can give in to our grief later.”
Rjupa’s face was a mask of tears under Iron Skull’s helmet. Thora had been kindest to her when she was a thrall who had escaped from and killed the cruel commander, so Thora’s death had hit her especially hard.
Dyrfinna’s heart was low. “Thora’s last moments with us are drawing to a close,” she said.
The hiss of the waves on the shore blended with the soft sniffles from the watchers. Men great in battle stood in their armor and furs with tear-stained faces, while stoic women embraced each other and quietly shared memories about Thora.
The völva came through the crowd with her great staff and flock of girls in ceremonial dress, preparing the next part of the ritual as the incoming tide swirled around their ankles. The rising waves hissed against the sides of the funerary ship as she moved people to where they needed to go.
She gazed at the funerary ship and the stone that filled her chest grew heavier. Breathing deeply of the ocean air, she also smelled the scorch of her dragon at her side. The jeweled scales of the garnet dragon gleamed like embers in the flames.
She came forward now, her friends following behind.
As they walked past the great chieftains, jarls, and petty kings and queens that ruled the small kingdoms, she could feel the heavy eyes of her father upon her. Dyrfinna looked straight ahead, but in her peripheral vision she could see the anger that drew a line down his brow. Her father doted on her little sister, but now, today, his anger against Dyrfinna was palpable. He was thinking of another death, that of her brother – yes, yes, this had been entirely her fault – and he wanted her to remember. He wanted that misery burned into her for the rest of her life.
Her jaw tightened even more. He had been loudly against her flying in the ceremony; as second-in-command to the queen, he had vociferously opposed it. The Queen had the final say, of course, being the bereaved.
The booming of a drum came from the shoreline. Lifting her eyes, she could see hundreds of Vikings standing along the shore, gathered on the green meadows that led to the ocean, the gleam of torches from hundreds more in their ships on the ocean.
All of them, Dyrfinna thought, all of them here to watch the funeral of one who would have been the best of all queens, if she had only just lived …
Dyrfinna walked past her father, her head high, feeling that itchy certainty in her spine that he might lash out and strike her. She knew he hated to see her walking here to do this ceremony. She wanted to gloat before him, but wouldn’t. This is not the place, she thought.
An angry snort from her father as she passed him. She felt his breath on her arm.
Her papa loved her, once. When she was little, he called her his little warrior. They’d play-fight with toy swords, and he’d let Dyrfinna trounce him. She remembered him bouncing every time she swatted him with her little sword, shouting “Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!” as she chased him in circles.
She nearly laughed, but then her eyes prickled. Raising her head more, she cleared her throat and made herself look angry.
All the dreams of her childhood, the dreams of being a swordswoman in the Queen’s army – or, more important, her dreams of being the Queen’s dragonrider – were gone. She’d earned her papa’s enmity for good.
In the old days, he’d trained her with the best the Queen had to offer to learn how to wield a sword and ride a dragon. That was long gone, now. Her sword-friends, she was sure, would all be given places of honor, even though she was better at all those things than any of them, even burly Ostryg, who was a berserker in battle and could hew down his enemies when the spirit took him.
Dyrfinna straightened and rolled her neck, looking across the small Viking city of Skala toward the great mountains of the fjords and the endless ocean. The smell of wood smoke from many chimneys came to her. Even this far down on the shore, she could hear the quiet conversations of many people in the streets, the complaints of the sheep on the hills, a dog barking at the village’s edge, the rush of waves on the rocks, the mewling of a seagull – all the sounds of home.
Skala, her home city, was built on the side of a mountain and had over 700 people living within its walls. At the top of the mountain was the Queen’s keep, a majestic fortress overlooking the ocean. From those heights, one had a fine view of the great mountains of the fjords and the endless sea.
Surrounded as she was by this beautiful land, Dyrfinna gazed across it and felt – unfulfilled.
“Now the tide is high,” said the old commander, Hakr, for now the tide had come in, and Thora’s ship was afloat. He hoisted her sail. “We go now to sea,” he proclaimed, and nodded to Dyrfinna and the sword friends as he steered the funeral ship away from shore. The wind blew sweetly from the shore, and the ship slid through the waves out onto the dark sea.
From where he stood next to the tiller, Hakr nodded once to Dyrfinna, then faced out to sea, steering Thora true on her last voyage.
While Dyrfinna was standing there, watching the black ship sail away from her, she remembered a dream she had earlier that morning. An imposing woman in a long, dark-blue cloak, holding a brilliant silver spear, stood with her back to Dyrfinna. Before her lay a road lined with torchlights, and it lead high up into the mountains. A road that led to a high holy place, under a night sky spangled by stars that she’d never seen before. Everything felt cold and thrilling.
Even now, thinking of the dream by day, she longed for the mystery and wonder of it. More than anything, she wanted to stand in that place of mysteries again.
Who are you, Dyrfinna? A voice asked. What do you want?
“I don’t know,” she murmured aloud as the wind blew strands of hair into her face. “I don’t know.”
Then she saw Skeggi tightening his bow as he leaned on his dragon, how the firelight glowed in the curls of his long ginger hair. She raised her eyes, and Hakr was farther out on the water, following the track of the sunset. Thora’s dragon stirred, turning its head to stare beseechingly at Dyrfinna. She was more than ready to go.
“Come,” Dyrfinna said, her throat tightening as she mounted up on the golden dragon. “We must fly now.”
We must fly and set my friend aflame, she thought as she urged Thora’s dragon into the air. We must set her spirit free.
2 – THE BLAZING SHIP
One of the old Viking commanders, Hakr, guided the funerary boat out to sea, its sail billowing over the tarred wood and dry peat that filled the upper deck.
Now, as the dragons drew closer, the high wailing of the völva priestess reached her ears from the shore.
“Here we go,” Dyrfinna called across to Skeggi.
Dyrfinna guided her dragon in the sacred ceremony, the flights of the four dragons braiding around each other in the air, looping and curving around each other with grace. Her heart swelled as her dragon easily followed her guides. As they swung back toward shore, still in their braided flight, she could see the gleam of lanterns from around the barrow, the crowd of Vikings standing solemn and still, a small spectator climbing a hillside to get a better view.
Dyrfinna took in the beauty of the land from the dragon’s back. Far away on the edge of the horizon, three other dragons flew, glittering like emeralds though the sun was dimmed by clouds. She took a long moment to watch them, trying to identify them, until she recognized the dragons as a few that often traveled the fjords with messages from the high-born and the queens. Not Danes. Even they had the grace not to sneak in for an invasion during this sacred ritual.
She led her friends in, Thora’s queen dragon, who she was riding, answering the völva with a wail of her own as she backwinged down, the other three dragons following.
Dyrfinna’s throat tightened as she saw Thora’s body lying, in her dark ceremonial robes, upon the pyre.
“You should have had a chance to grow old, my friend,” Dyrfinna said, her voice catching. “You would have grown into the best Queen we’d ever known.”
Rjupa’s voice called down from her dragon’s back. “You took me in when I was a stranger on these shores, afraid for my life. You lifted me out of my life of thralldom; you showed me kindness and gave me a new life in a harsh land. For that I will always love you.”
Gefjun’s clear voice rang out. “You were always so generous and kind to me when I needed a friend, royalty though you were. You taught me the arts of healing. I never could have done so well without your help.”
Skeggi cleared his throat. “I wish you could have been Queen. Many stories and songs would have been sung about your quiet wisdom. You taught me the making of songs and poems, and you gifted me gold to help raise my brothers after our parents died at sea. We owe our lives to you.”
At last, Ostryg spoke. “I don’t have a lot to say that I haven’t said in private. But I am the son of criminals and assassins, but you gave me the means and ability to make my own life … a better one.” He waggled his eyebrows at Gefjun. “You are more generous than I deserved. Thank you.” He cleared his throat, embarrassed, but Gefjun winked at him.
The old commander reminded them, “Keep your dragons on this side of the sail, or the wing-gusts will blow this vessel back to shore.”
Dyrfinna redirected her dragon, throwing a glance back to shore. “Hakr, I think we’re far enough out to sea now. Are you sure you don’t want my dragon to carry you back?”
He glanced up with an exaggerated shudder, frowning magnificently under his great white beard. “You’ll never get me up on the back of one of those things, young mite,” he grumbled. “I have my faering here. I am a man of the seas, not of the air.”
Dyrfinna couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, sir.”
With an easy expertise brought by years of practice, he lashed the tiller in place to hold it steady. Then he unlashed his small faering from the side of Thora’s ship, climbed into it, and rowed it a short distance away, out of fireshot, the small boat cutting cleanly through the ocean’s waves.
Dyrfinna circled the Queen’s dragon and carefully brought her around.
“There now, young one, I’m well away,” Hakr called up, leaving the oars slack in the oarlocks
“Young one? I’m 20 years old,” she said.
“You’re still a wee lass to me,” he said fondly. Many years ago, when her father worked with Hakr, she was a tiny child, just learning to walk. Her papa brought her aboard Hakr’s boat and he would give her his finger and help her toddle from one end of the boat to the other.
Even this far out, threads of the völva’s song from the water’s edge traveled to them, her voice ringing from the rocks of the mountains, the young girls around her were singing a faint chorus that made Dyrfinna think of the sweeping flakes of snow in the wind.
As the dragons rose, Dyrfinna drank in the face of her friend, the last glimpse of Thora she’d ever get to see on this world. She lay on the tarred ship with her earthly goods piled around her.
“Fire,” she commanded in a voice with no air behind it, and she patted the command against the dragon’s neck.
Fire blazed down from the dragon’s mouth, wild billows of flame rising from the fire the dragon directed down at the pyre. Thora vanished among the flames inside a great crackling, and black smoke billowed up. The other three dragons came drifting down, one at each corner of the pyre, and added their flames.
“Hold steady,” Dyrfinna called in a clear voice, even while tears fell unchecked from her eyes. “Hold your fires steady.”
The flames licked and caught the tarred wood, and blazes roiled up, greedily devouring everything on the ship. Still the dragons blazed.
“Stop,” Dyrfinna called, and each dragon followed suit. The fires that the dragons had kindled in the wooden ship now blazed upward, and they backwinged to get out of the worst of the blaze.
The leaping flames lit up the sky, rivaling the dying sunset in the west, and cast a long track of light on the rippling sea. The sky swallowed the smoke.
As much as Dyrfinna wanted to break down and weep, she restrained herself as she flew the dragon away from Thora’s ship.
They flew back in silence, Hakr keeping pace far below on the ocean’s face as he raised a small sail on the faering, tacking the fleet boat into the wind.
A movement on the hill above the shore caught her eye. The small spectator was still wandering around, now even farther up the hill. Odd, as there were no settlements or houses that way. That person couldn’t have been walking home.
Now her friends landed nearby on the beach. As Dyrfinna dismounted, Gefjun, her tears running freely, came over and embraced her.
“I know. I know,” Dyrfinna said to her friend, who was openly weeping, unashamed of her sobs.
Ostryg put his hands on Gefjun’s shoulders. Skeggi and Rjupa joined them. Thora’s queen dragon began to trumpet, and the others joined in.
“Look at the ship,” Skeggi said, low, as if he could not trust his voice.
The ship blazed upon the sea, spurts of flame rising up. By now the sail had completely burned into tatters. Presently both sail and mast fell over with a crash that could be clearly heard on shore, and a whirlwind of fiery sparks rose high into the black night. Some of the Vikings cheered at the spectacle; some wept. Still Dyrfinna and her friends stood watching.
“Goodbye, Thora,” Dyrfinna said in a small voice.
Twilight had come. A feeble light came from the horizon, a pale orange streak above the ocean to the south as the glow of the ship’s flames died away into the distance.
Together, the small group of friends left the dragons, walking away.
“Did you see that little kid up on the hill over there?” Ostryg said, pointing at the hills behind them. “Somebody needs to fetch him down.”
“That was a little kid?” For once she wasn’t arguing with Ostryg. “I thought it was an adult.”
“No, it’s a little kid.”
A shock rang through Dyrfinna, and she turned around to look up the hill. As much as she wanted to stay on the beach, as much as she wanted to stay by the sides of all her friends, she could not.
“I saw them too,” said Skeggi. “I was keeping an eye on them. For a short while I thought it was one of my brothers.”
“If that’s a little kid, somebody needs to catch him,” Dyrfinna said, jumping back up on Thora’s dragon. “That child is walking toward the forest where the wolves have been living. If they catch wind of the child, he’s dead.”
“Dyrfinna, no,” came a man’s voice.
Egill, her papa, came striding up and seized the bridle of Thora’s dragon. “Leaving already? Even while the pyre of your queen’s daughter is burning, you’re leaving? You ungrateful …”
“Sire, I beg your pardon,” Skeggi broke in, looking uncomfortable. “There’s a child up on that mountain who has wandered away. We want to bring it back to safety.”
Egill shook the dragon’s bridle, ignoring Skeggi. “If you want to take a dragon away during the ceremony from where they’re to guard the sacred fire, what calamity will you bring down on Thora’s spirit? All four dragons must stay to guard the flame. You can’t take any of them away. The very thought,” he said, turning his eyes on Dyrfinna, “shows me that you have no esteem for the queen’s daughter who has died – who you call your friend.”
Dyrfinna’s face burned bright with anger. “Don’t disgrace yourself with your words. As for me, I’m going to walk all the way out there to help that child, and pray that wolves don’t come to kill it.” She began walking very quickly toward the hills, for night was falling. Though it was summer, and the sky would stay bright enough to allow her to see, wolves didn’t care what time of day it was, only that they could eat.
Behind, she heard her sword-friends arguing with her father, but he cut them all down. “If she wants to go alone on a fool’s mission, then let her,” he said. “Now come back to the pyre. We need you for the rest of the ceremony. Perhaps we will manage to keep from angering Thora’s ghost.”
3 – THE SMELL OF LIGHTNING
Dyrfinna, though battle-hardened and athletic, was puffing by the time she reached the first flat meadow on the high hill. She looked over her shoulder, but could see the shore below, all the Vikings milling around like bugs, and the dragons gleaming in their spots as they were supposed to – much to her so-called papa’s satisfaction, she was sure.
“Piss,” she muttered as she walked a little farther until a little rise in the land hid the beach from view. Only then did she put her hands on her knees and stop for a moment, trying to catch her breath. It had been a long walk uphill, and she did have her pride.
While she caught her breath, she fumed. This would have been a thousand times easier if she’d taken Thora’s dragon. Egill was just being a jackass, as usual. If Skeggi had wanted to go, or Ostryg, her father would have allowed them to fly off, no questions asked. If she’d known her father was listening in, she would have kept her mouth shut and let them volunteer to go.
With a growl, she gripped her sword and continued through the meadow where the idiot sheep galumphed away as if she were a wolf. She looked around as she walked, searching for any sign of the child. “Hey!” she called. “I know you’re up here. Come out!” No reply.
“The last I saw of the child was up there,” Dyrfinna said to herself – for she often talked to herself when she was alone, there was no shame in it – and made for the next rise, a stony way going up the side of a hill. She struggled up through the rocks and up to the next flat area, where a pine forest loomed. This was where she’d seen the small spectator from dragonback.
From here she had a spectacular view of the beach. The torches on the shoreline looked like sparks, and the waves looked like fine white lines moving toward the shore. And now, at this height, she could see, far out between the fjords and the outer islands, the tiny spark of what remained of Thora’s ship still drifting out to the deep waters of the eternal sea. Another ship sailed further out in the ocean, and Dyrfinna imagined the crew of that ship saluting Thora’s final voyage as her ship blazed.
From here, she could see further up the coast, the land-locked bay where the great longships stood in the harbor. The masts of their home fleet rocked side-by-side with a trader galley from the Balkans, several Moorish ships from Iberia, and a number of Viking ships from places like Oslo, Hedeby, and Birka. Sometimes a couple of Roman ships would come by; sometimes a group of monks would come up, trying to persuade the queen to build a church or a monastery. On the shore were sheds which housed other ships that were protected from the weather, as well as building yards where carpenters were busy building and repairing.
She gazed upon the ships that had touched foreign shores, wishing that she could travel on one of those ships far across the world, constantly exploring.
The view was stunning – but this place was dangerous, especially with night coming on. Dyrfinna could see, a little further up the hill, the thick trees of the forest of thorns, a haunted place where only the foolhardy went. Under the trees, it was already night. Wolves lurked there, and monsters.
Dyrfinna turned. “Hello! Child! Where are … oh.” Because as soon as she turned, there was the child, sitting on a large boulder well off the ground, gazing out to sea.
And in the next instant, her eyes nearly popped out when she realized who the child was. “Aesa! What are you doing up here?”
It was her own little sister who had climbed this high. Aesa sat on the great stone with her legs crossed, her dirty bare toes peeking out from under her green frock. She’d unbraided some of the braids that Dyrfinna had carefully put in her hair this morning, but now she was rebraiding one of them, or trying to.
“You’re only six years old!” Dyrfinna cried. “Get down from there, now.”
Aesa crossed her arms. “Why? You can’t tell me what to do.”
Dyrfinna frowned. “Why did you come up here, anyway?”
“I wanted to see everything at the funeral, but everybody was taller than me and they all got in my way. So I found a better place.”
“Kind of far to go for a better place,” Dyrfinna said.
“The sheep kept pestering me. Stupid sheep.” Aesa hopped down from the rock. “I liked how you were flying Papa’s dragon. I waved at you.”
“I saw you,” Dyrfinna said, which at least was true. “You mean Thora’s dragon.”
“I was surprised he didn’t yell at you about it.”
Dyrfinna grimaced. At least Aesa had missed that scene.
Aesa was about to say something else, but she stopped and kind of froze with her mouth partly open.
“What is it?” Dyrfinna asked.
She turned to see what her sister was looking at – and froze.
From out of the tall winter grasses at field’s edge stepped a wolf. Its fur was ragged and mangy, and it was panting. When its yellow eyes locked on Aesa, it closed its mouth and stopped dead, staring.
If this wolf stood on its hind legs, it would be just as tall as Dyrfinna, and it looked like it weighed nearly as much as she did.
Aesa started to whimper, slowly drawing back toward her sister.
“Stay close to me,” Dyrfinna said in a normal voice, but her heart was beating hard.
When Dyrfinna was Aesa’s age, she’d witnessed a pack of wolves spring upon her favorite horse, pulling her down to the ground. Mama had snatched Dyrfinna up and fled for the house, while Papa ran at her side—backwards—while slamming home arrow after arrow from his bow at the wolves. Afterward, the wolves’ bodies littered the field, riddled with arrows. But her poor horse had died. Dyrfinna had nightmares about her horse’s death for moons.
She bit back a curse. She wouldn’t have been alone here in the first place, if her papa had let her fly up here with a dragon. But this was no time to think about that.
She loosened the sword in its scabbard, so when the time came, she could pull it in one smooth motion. Her mind was a blur of strategies, as she considered the best way to stop this wolf and keep Aesa from being killed.
“Grab hold of my leg,” Dyrfinna commanded, her eyes never leaving the wolf. “Do it.”
Aesa’s shaking arms went around Dyrfinna’s left leg.
The wolf’s intense stare never wavered. It took one slow step toward them. Then two.
“Sissy…” Aesa said again, and her little face crumpled. Her shaking arms loosened. She started to sob.
At least he was alone, for a wolf with a pack would be calling them to join him, Dyrfinna realized. But a lone wolf was more desperate – hungrier.
“Now, this is what we’re going to do,” she told her sister in a more cheerful voice. “Look behind us. You see that hemlock tree?”
She felt Aesa’s head move – felt her nod.
“I’m going to move backward toward that tree, and I’m going to try to scare the wolf away, okay? I’m going to yell and swing my sword– but we are going to keep facing the wolf. I want you to get behind my leg and move backwards, too, until we’re both right underneath the tree. Then I want you to climb it, as fast as you can. Do you understand?”
“I don’t know if I can,” Aesa whimpered.
“You can,” Dyfinna said firmly. “You’ve climbed that tree a hundred times. And you’re going to climb up it now, to get out of the wolf’s reach.” She pulled her sword, slowly, her eyes never leaving the animal.
The wolf registered the motion, weighing it. Now it stepped forward, mouth open, and lunged slightly, watching her reaction.
Dyrfinna did not jump. “You’re not going to scare me, you bitch dog mother,” she muttered, gently moving Aesa behind her and backing up. With a shout, she lifted the sword and swung it at the wolf, trying to scare it away.
Her adversary stalked toward them, its ruff up, tail high, not flinching. It was as if it were toying with Dyrfinna, testing her strength, eager to get at Aesa, a tender morsel that it could easily drag away and devour.
Dyrfinna’s heart pounded against her ribs.
Her mind was full of all the things that could go wrong – that had gone wrong for her before. She could not allow herself to speak a magical spell – no. She would not make that mistake a second time.
Unbidden, the memory of her brother came to her, that helpless feeling when he’d fallen among the lightning, the smell of scorch, and the utter disbelief that struck her, the feeling of disaster that she, Dyrfinna, had caused.
Dyrfinna shook her head, shook it hard, tried to shake the memory free.
“In a moment, I’m going to scream like nothing you’ve ever heard,” she told Aesa. “When I start screaming, you need to climb the tree. Okay?”
Aesa’s small voice from behind her. “Okay.”
The wolf moved in a step. That bastard.
“Count to three with me,” Dyrfinna told her. “Then I’ll scream, and you run up that tree. Are you ready?”
Dyrfinna made her heart iron as she backed up under the hemlock tree.
That wolf was not going to get her little sister.
That wolf was going to die.
“One.” She placed her feet into a solid stance for fighting.
“Two.” Aesa’s little trembling voice echoed hers.
Dyrfinna breathed in deeply and let it out, let power uncoil through her, just as her fighting master had taught her for so many years, gripping the sword.
Now the wolf loped toward them across the field, its powerful jaws open, yellow eyes fixed on her sister.
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