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Home > Maidensong (Songs of the North #1)

Maidensong (Songs of the North #1)
Author: Mia Marlowe

Prologue

The babe wailed again.

“There, lamb,” Helge whispered as she sponged the last of the slick fluids off the enraged little body. Flickering light from the central fire kissed the newborn and danced across the smoke-blackened beams of the longhouse.

The old midwife sighed. However difficult the babe’s entry into the world had been, she was at least a healthy child, perfectly formed with all her fingers and toes. A crest of coppery hair was plastered to her damp head.

“Hush you, now,” Helge coaxed.

The wrinkled little face puckered and the newborn shrieked as if Loki, the trickster godling, had just pinched her bottom. Helge wrapped the child snugly in a cat-skin blanket, crooning urgent endearments.

“Shut the brat up,” Torvald said, his voice a broken shadow of its usual booming timbre. All the souls sheltered in the longhouse went expectantly silent. As if she sensed menace in the air, the child subsided into moist hiccups.

“Will you not hold your daughter?” Helge offered the small bundle to Torvald. “She’s a fine child, fair and lusty.”

“No, I’ll not.” Torvald knuckled his eyes. “She’s killed my Gudrid. I’ll have naught to do with her.” When he looked at the mewling babe, his face was a mask of loathing. “Put her out.”

Helge flinched. “But, my lord—”

“Don’t argue with me, woman. Am I not chief over my own house?” Torvald’s gray eyes blazed with a potent mix of fury and grief. “I said, put her out.”

Helge’s shoulders sagged. She couldn’t remember the last time a healthy child had been exposed. But Torvald was master here, so there was nothing for it but to do his bidding.

Still, it didn’t seem right to consign the babe to Hel empty-handed. It was bad enough that she’d go unloved and unmourned to that shadowy, icy place. Even worse, she’d arrive there as a pauper.

Helge laid her little charge on the bedding, and untied the thin strip of leather from the dead woman’s slim neck.

The pendant was a simple little amber hammer, its only distinctive mark a tiny purple orchid trapped forever in the glowing stone. Perhaps Thor would mark the child for his protection if she met her death wearing his talisman. It wasn’t much, but it was all Helge could do for the mite.

She bundled herself against the cold and left the longhouse bearing her whimpering burden. The stiff hairs in her nostrils froze with each breath.

The thought of leaving the child for the wolves made Helge’s chest constrict smartly. She decided to let the sea take her. It would be clean and quick. There’d be less chance of hearing the child’s keening death wail on the wind. And the unhappy little soul would find it harder to trouble those who’d disowned her with malicious tricks later, as some malevolent ghosts were known to do.

Snow crunched underfoot as Helge trudged down to the shore where the fjord was choked with ice. Armed with an ax she picked up as she passed the woodpile, Helge carried the babe as close to the edge of the floe as she dared.

“Good-bye, little elf,” Helge said as she placed the newborn on the smooth, cold surface. “Thor keep you, for I cannot.”

She brought the sharp ax down with a thwack. The brittle ice shattered in a jagged line and separated from the main body of the floe. Helge gave it a nudge with the ax handle.

She watched with a gathering heaviness in her chest as, bobbing and dipping, the tiny bundle on the ice sheet floated out with the tide.

* * *

Magnus Silver-Throat, lately court poet to the King of the Danes, pushed back the wiry strand of white hair that drifted across his weathered face. He didn’t really believe in Ketil’s dreams, he told himself. And yet last month when the boy had vehemently insisted they not put to sea on a cloudless day, he’d indulged his son’s fancy. A violent squall had come up that afternoon that surely would’ve swamped their small craft had Magnus kept to his original plan. Ketil’s current dreyma wasn’t nearly so specific. Only that they had to be in this precise spot.

Magnus squinted against the glare of the cold northern sun on the water, not quite believing what he thought he saw. “Ketil, look you starboard and tell me what’s there.”

The nine-year-old twisted on his sea trunk and gazed in the direction his foster-father pointed. His simple face screwed into a frown. “Something on the ice.”

A thin wail floated over the water to his ear.

“It cries,” Ketil said.

Magnus’ mouth tightened as he adjusted the steering oar to swing toward the bobbing mound of fur. “See if you can fetch it out, son. Be careful.”

The boy moved clumsily to the prow of the small boat and leaned over the edge. As they neared the bundle, Ketil grabbed it and hauled it aboard. He weaved back to Magnus.

The man peeled away the soggy wrappings, his mouth fixed in a grim line. The babe was blue with cold, but she stopped whimpering long enough to fasten her pale green eyes on him. His old heart was forever lost in that instant.

“It looks like we’ve fished up a Pictish princess,” he said to the boy. “I don’t think she could be any bluer if we dipped her headfirst in woad.”

“Can we keep it?” Ketil asked, his mouth hanging open. His soft heart always wanted to keep and care for little lost creatures.

“It’s difficult to return a gift from the gods,” Magnus said. “They tend to resent it when you try. Especially since they apparently went to a lot of trouble to send us to find this one.”

As he said it, he eyed the coastline, wondering what calamity could lead someone to abandon such a goodly child. Magnus removed the cat-skin blanket and tucked the babe into the folds of his own warm cloak. Then he reefed the coracle around smartly.

“Winter is harder here than I expected, son.” He searched the shoreline for a clue as to which settlement in the deep fjord had expelled this tiniest of its members. “Hard winters can lead to hard hearts. I believe we’ll fare better going south.”

“But we had to come here, Father,” Ketil said insistently. “I dreamed it.”

“So you did, son,” Magnus said, pondering the gods’ wisdom in giving the boy this unusual gift when they had denied him normal intelligence. He glanced down at the tiny girl, whose skin was already regaining a healthy pink color, sheltering peacefully in the capacious folds of his multi-hued cloak. “And it appears we’ve already found the reason why.”

Chapter 1

Every dog in the settlement howled as if the world were ending. Rika peeked out a crack in the privy door. Rough men, armored in hardened leather, herded people and livestock to their dragonships moored at the quay. So far, none of the raiders had thought to check the cesspit. She and her foster brother, Ketil, were safe enough for the moment.

“Father’s out there.” Ketil's round face was streaked with dirty runnels where tears left their tracks.

“I know, I know.” Rika bit her lip, trying to think what to do next. She hoped to catch a glimpse of the old skald’s flowing white hair and multihued cape. “Where can Magnus be?”

And why, oh, why did he ever drag us from the Danish court?

Smoke wafted toward them. The flames were closer now.

“Come.” Rika grabbed Ketil’s big hand and pulled him behind her. She darted across the muddy lane, slipping and going down, then scrambled back to her feet and skidded into a stable. Rika stopped, frozen in mid-step. A small gasp escaped her lips.

Her mind refused to make sense of what she saw. Magnus lay face down on the ground, his skull cleaved open. The soggy gray porridge of his brain oozed out, a thousand nights’ stories spilling into the straw-covered dirt.

“Oh, Father.” Rika dropped to her knees beside him, clutching at her chest. A sob constricted her throat and stung her eyes. She had to remind herself to breathe.

She’d only been a small girl the first time she’d heard Magnus Silver-Throat tell the tale of Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods. The death of Odin and his cohorts of Asgard had always seemed the most horrific, the most obscene thing she could imagine.

Until now.

Ketil turned Magnus over gently. “All will be well,” he kept repeating, trying to ease Magnus’s brains back into his skull. “I didn’t dream it, so all will be well.”

“No, Ketil.” Rika roused herself and pulled him away from Magnus’s body. “All will never be well again.”

Ketil’s simple face crumpled. He howled his grief like one of the damned in Niflheim. In a harsh world, only Magnus had seen a reason for Ketil’s gentle soul to live. And now Magnus was gone.

Rika wrapped her arms around her brother and rocked him, letting him cry. It didn’t matter who heard him. Nothing mattered anymore.

A shadow fell across the stable doorway, sending a chill rippling over her. She looked up, the heaviness in her limbs making even that simple movement difficult.

A tall man blocked the way, his drawn blade still dripping red. His sword arm was bared and leather leggings were cinched to his muscular thighs. The mail hanging over his short tunic proclaimed him a raider of substance. Rika felt sure the dark stains on the man’s clothing were not his own blood.

His gaze raked over her slowly, and he flashed his teeth at her. A predator’s smile.

“What have we here?” His strong-boned face was clean-shaven, as much a rarity among Northmen as his dark eyes. “A little mud-hen with an overgrown chick.”

Ketil roared, got to his feet and plowed toward the man, arms flailing. The raider stepped aside and tripped Ketil, sending him sprawling into the mud outside the stable. Then he whacked Ketil’s bottom with the flat of his long broadsword as a light reprimand.

Rika scrambled to cover her brother with her own body. With every bit of the skaldic art Magnus had taught her, she willed the man to obey her.

“No! You will not hurt this boy.” Even though Ketil was nine years her senior, to Rika he would always seem the younger and in need of her protection.

“Looks like I'm wrong.” The man drove the point of his sword into the ground and leaned on the pommel. “Not a mud-hen. You're more like a she-wolf, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m a skald.” Rika straightened to her full height. She considered herself tall for a woman. She’d been able to look Magnus eye to eye for some time, but she still had to look up to meet this man’s mocking gaze.

“And you are a murderer,” she said with a boldness that surprised even herself. “You’ve killed the finest skald ever to grace a hall. Behind you lies Magnus Silver-Throat, the bravest and best—” Her voice crackled with grief.

An emotion that might have been regret flickered across the man’s angular face and he glanced over his shoulder at Magnus’s corpse. “That’s the Silver-Throat?” His lips tightened into a hard line. “I’ve heard of him.”

“And thanks to you, no one will ever hear him again.” Rika spat the words, swiping at her eyes. Only the need to keep Ketil safe stopped her from flying at this dark barbarian in a shrieking rage.

“I didn’t kill him.” The raider eyed the old skald lying on the stable floor. “But one of my men surely did.”

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