Songs of the North, Book 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 froze 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 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.
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 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.”
When he tugged off his leather helm, a shock of raven hair fell to the man’s shoulders, a sharp contrast to his pale Nordic skin. He pulled a horn-handled knife from the sheath at his waist and placed it in Magnus’s hand, wrapping the cooling fingers around the hilt.
“Here, friend, a gift to help you after,” he said softly. “Drain a horn for me in the Hall of the Slain.” Then he strode to the neighboring house, already ablaze, and plucked out a firebrand. The raider tossed it into the open stable door and waited for a few moments to be sure the flames caught.
Ketil dissolved into sobs again and Rika stooped to comfort him. She felt numb and heavy, as though the air she moved through was thick as water.
“It can’t be real,” Ketil insisted. “I would’ve dreamed it if it were real. I’d tell Father and we’d go away.”
A furrow appeared between the man’s dark brows. “What’s the matter with him?” He narrowed his eyes at Ketil. “Is he soft-headed?”
“It’s better than being hard-hearted.” Heat rose in Rika’s cheeks. Anger, ja. That was something she could let herself feel.
“Can he work?”
“He’s strong, if that’s what you mean.” She fisted her hands at her waist. “If someone shows him what to do, he’ll work the likes of you down to the ground.”
“Good,” the raider said. “We’ve no room for useless eaters. Come then, both of you.”
“We’re not going anywhere with you.” She crossed her arms over her chest, determined to stand her ground, however shaky she felt inside. “We are a troupe of skalds, lately come from the King of the Danes and are not subject to capture. We’ve only been here in Hordaland for a week.”
“Then it’s too bad you left the Danes. Maybe you are what you say, but I only have your word for that, don’t I?” The man’s face hardened like an oak in winter. “Whatever you were before, you are now thralls. You belong to the Jarl of Sogna.”
“And I suppose you are the jarl,” she sneered.
“No, that would be my brother, Gunnar Haraldsson.” One corner of his mouth jinked up in a grim half-smile. “I’m Bjorn the Black. The second son.”
He raised the tip of his sword toward Rika and Ketil, motioning for them to march to the quay. Bjorn’s eyes glinted at her, unfathomable as obsidian and just as hard.
“We’re done talking, little she-wolf. You’ll walk willingly or I’ll drag you, but either way, you’re coming with me.”
Blood pounded behind her eyes. Rika grabbed Ketil’s hand and led him toward the waiting longships. She nearly retched at the scent of searing flesh in the smoke-filled air, but she strode with her head high. The daughter of Magnus Silver-Throat would not show weakness before this blood-soaked raider.
For the first time in her life, Rika wished that she’d been born a man. So she could kill Bjorn the Black.