The girl straightened, rubbed her aching back with her grimy palm. She flung the shovel aside, then fell to her knees, weeping. The mound of soft earth mocked her, a permanent memorial to all she had lost. All that had been savagely ripped from her by the bastard Norsemen as they rampaged through her land, taking what they wanted and trampling the rest.
Her father, murdered. Her two older brothers, taken as slaves. Her mother, raped and left for dead.
Merewyn herself had only escaped their vile attentions because her mother, Ronat, had chosen that day to replenish her supplies of herbal remedies. Skilled in the art of healing and herbal potions, Ronat had declared herself in need of the horehound required to prepare a linctus to relieve the coughing that often beset Merewyn’s father during the winter months. Perhaps a little marjoram might also be found, and if she was lucky a few sprigs of rosemary and sage too. Ronat had clambered up to the top of the cliffs in search of the elusive plants and had spotted the dreaded dragon ships as they swept in from the sea. She had run back to their cottage and had bid her daughter to flee, to hide in the forest and not return until all was quiet.
Merewyn did as she was told. Terror lent her the speed she needed to escape. She ran as hard and as far as she could through the thickly wooded terrain. She ran until her sides burned and her legs collapsed under her and she could run no further. Then, she climbed.
For two days Merewyn had crouched in the fork of an ancient oak, her ears attuned to the slightest sound that might indicate she had been discovered. The occasional scream reached her, sometimes a guttural cry of pain or terror, or the triumphant roars of their attackers as the Viking warriors pillaged and robbed and burnt the Celtic homesteads scattered along the Northumbrian coastline. Throughout it all Merewyn cowered in the tree, dreading the heavy tread of leather boots, the clash of those great iron swords against the trunk of her refuge.
The Vikings didn’t find her. Eventually the forest fell silent, yet still Merewyn waited. Another full night and half the next day she huddled in her hiding place, too terrified to return to her home. Only the dread prospect of a third night without food or shelter forced her from the tree. Slowly, cautiously, her heart leaping at every whisper in the branches above her, every rustle in the undergrowth beneath her feet, she made her way home.
She emerged from the woodland into the clearing that had been her family’s small farm to find nothing but smoking ruins. Their cottage was destroyed, the thatch roof gone, the walls charred and crumbling. Her father and brothers had harvested their crops not more than a sennight before, their precious food safely stored to see them through the winter. The barn, what remained of it, now stood empty and ruined. The Nordic invaders had not even taken their grain and hay, they had simply scattered it and trampled the supplies into the dirt.
Merewyn had combed the smouldering wreckage in search of her family. She quickly found her father’s body, his throat cut, but there was no sign of her mother or brothers. At seventeen summers Merewyn was the youngest. Her twin brothers, Nyle and Bowdyn, were twenty. Tall, strapping young men both, Nyle was soon to be wed to Deva, a lass from a neighbouring farmstead. Merewyn had looked forward to having a sister at last.
Now, they were gone. She did not know if they lived still or had died in the attack. Lost, bewildered, Merewyn had wandered aimlessly through the debris searching for any remnant of her former life, anything left undamaged by the Vikings. She found nothing.
It was only when she ventured behind the barn in search of stray livestock that might have miraculously eluded the Norsemen’s vicious axes that she discovered her mother lying battered among the rubble.
But, Ronat lived. Merewyn knelt beside the prone form, dribbled water from the stream onto her mother’s parched lips and cleansed the wounds on her face and body as best she could. At last, driven by a purpose, Merewyn fashioned a crude shelter from what remained of their cottage and dragged Ronat into the protection it offered. She tended her, and over the coming days and weeks her mother regained some of her strength. When Ronat regained consciousness she was able to tell the story, or those bits of it that she could recall. Merewyn learned that Nyle and Bowdyn had been led in chains, along with other healthy young men and women, to the dragon ships. They would be made slaves, forced to toil for the Viking conquerors. The old, the sick, the very young—they were slaughtered and left behind.
Ronat refused to say what had happened to her, just that the Vikings had caught her as she attempted to flee. Merewyn did not press the matter. She was thankful that anyone was left alive.
Soon, Ronat was able to sit up, and under her direction Merewyn managed to salvage enough food to sustain them in the immediate aftermath of the raid. As Ronat regained her strength, the pair of them worked to restore what they could. Their first, and grimmest, task was to bury Merewyn’s father. Next, they repaired the cottage as best they could, gathered straw and twigs to re-thatch the roof, and Merewyn scoured the forest for any of their livestock that might remain. She found two goats and half a dozen chickens. It was a start.
They fashioned pens from the debris, and Merewyn could have whooped for joy when she collected her first two eggs. The goats were less productive since neither had any milk, but they might yield meat should times become seriously hard over the winter.
As Ronat and Merewyn ventured further afield in search of what aid might be found, they learned that no one in the vicinity had fared any better than they. Neighbouring farms were laid waste like theirs, crops stolen or destroyed. All who had survived were hungry and wretched. Two women living alone would be easy prey for the greedy or the plain desperate. Ronat insisted they be ready to defend what was theirs, meagre though it was. During those first dire weeks they took it in turn to sleep, and kept a shovel or scythe to hand in case of unwelcome intruders.
Four months passed, the most miserable, fearful winter Merewyn had ever known. She and Ronat mourned those they had lost as they battled to survive. As the snow started they huddled shivering around the flickering flames of their paltry fire, fuelled by the few lumps of wood or sticks they could collect. They lived off eggs until the hens ceased to lay, then they made do with nuts and what berries remained on the trees and bushes. They foraged the woods for anything edible, and made soup from nettles. Eventually they slaughtered their goats. Mostly, they went hungry.
It was not until the spring, when the snow melted and the first shoots of new growth started to prick the frigid earth, that Merewyn realised that her mother was pregnant. Ronat still refused to speak of the Vikings, would not discuss her condition or how it came about. Merewyn had been brought up on a farm, had lived among livestock her entire life so she understood the basic facts of life. She also understood that in a few more months they would have another mouth to feed, somehow.
It was midsummer when Ronat went into labour. They had been tending their crop of turnips, daring to hope that, along with the carrots and beans they had managed to plant and the wheat that now swayed in the gentle breeze, they might have sufficient food to take them through the next winter. Ronat suddenly dropped her rake and clutched at her distended belly. Liquid dribbled from between her legs onto the earth at her feet. Merewyn helped her mother back to the cottage and eased her onto the pallet they shared. There was no aid to be had, no wise women on the neighbouring farms experienced in birthing who would come to assist. It was just Merewyn, and she did her best.
Her best turned out to be good enough, though only just. After two days of labour, Merewyn’s tiny brother slithered into the world. Ronat insisted that he be named Connell, after her dead husband. For herself, she had survived the birth, but the experience had drained what remained of her strength. Broken, haggard, Ronat was barely able to crawl from the pallet, unable to do anything apart from feed the squalling infant.
Merewyn returned to the fields. She worked alone, dragging what sustenance she could from the unrelenting earth to provide food for what remained of her family. She toiled from sunrise until darkness fell. Then she slept, exhausted from her labours.
Ronat did what she could to help her daughter, but her health was broken. Reduced to just pottering about the cottage, she never recovered her former vitality and almost four months after the birth of her baby son, she succumbed to a fever. She died in Merewyn’s arms.
Once again, Merewyn dug a grave, but this time she did it alone. Now, her mother lay in the cold earth beside her father. Merewyn wept at the graveside, tears of bitter frustration and abject fear for what the future might hold. She knew herself to be truly alone in the world, apart from the tiny scrap of humanity who even now whimpered on the ground at her side, demanding to be fed.
Merewyn gathered Connell to her and staggered to her feet. She eased back the threadbare shawl that enveloped him and mustered a tearful smile. The baby gazed back at her, his blue eyes a permanent reminder of his Nordic heritage. It was a detail Merewyn chose to ignore. Whatever his origins this tiny child was her blood, the last link to her mother. There was no one else.
“Do not be afraid, little man. I shall take care of you. Of us. We will survive.”
Merewyn turned, left the graves behind. She made her weary way back to the cottage. She had work to do.
One year later…
Her eyes hurt. Her ears ached. Even the ends of her hair pained her. Every movement was agony, her joints stiff and sore. Merewyn forced her eyelids apart.
Rain battered the thatch above her, the steady drip somewhere to her left a sure sign that the roof was leaking again. It would require fixing, but not now. Not today, when it took all the strength she had just to lift her shoulders from the mattress.
Merewyn rolled onto her side and reached for the cot that stood beside her pallet. Connell was awake, his miserable, hungry cries stirring her to action.
She was ill, the malady creeping up on her over recent days. First her throat became sore, and her head ached. She was hot, then so cold her teeth chattered, then she was drenched with sweat again. She could not eat, and she could barely get to her feet. She had managed to prepare some warm milk and a little honey for Connell the previous evening, before collapsing onto her bed. She had slept fitfully, tossing and turning, her throat afire with every swallow. Now in the cold light of a stormy autumn morn, she could no longer stand unaided.
But she must, for Connell could not tend himself. If she did not feed him the baby would starve. It was that simple. Merewyn struggled to sit up, then shoved her feet out from under the rough wool blanket. There was a little bread still, she thought, if she could just reach the jar in which it was stored. That and some of the broth she made a few days ago would have to suffice to pacify Connell’s hunger. Perhaps by tomorrow she would feel well enough to venture outside, maybe forage for mushrooms or blackberries.
Clutching the blanket around herself, she made her unsteady way across the one-roomed cottage, hanging on to what sticks of furniture graced their sparse home. She reached the cold slab by the door where an earthenware pot stood. With dismay, she peered into the depths of the jar and found it empty.
No bread. And she knew she’d used the last of the honey yesterday. Connell whined, his plaintive cries causing her head to throb. In desperation Merewyn lifted the lids on each of the storage barrels lining the walls. All stood empty, waiting for her to regain sufficient strength to go out to the barn to bring in more grain to be ground into flour. A hessian sack yielded one solitary carrot, but that was it.
Connell hated carrots.
Merewyn groaned. There was nothing else for it. She had to go out. Wild brambles sprouted from the crevices on the cliffs, and she knew them to be laden with ripe fruit. She could take the empty jar and collect enough to satisfy Connell for a day or two. The walk there, usually just a few minutes, would probably take an hour in this foul weather and feeling as ill as she did, especially as she would have to carry Connell on her back. The child was just starting to walk but was not yet able to manage the rough terrain beyond their cottage. Merewyn looked longingly back to her rumpled bed. She swayed on her feet, but couldn’t weaken.
“Please, do not cry so. I shall find something for you to eat. We must go up the meadow and…” She could not complete her attempt to comfort the child as she collapsed in a fit of hacking coughs. Bent double, Merewyn fought for breath, for the strength to carry on.
She found both, somewhere. Slowly, painfully, she pulled on her leather boots. They had been her brother’s, and were too large for her. The soles leaked too, but they were the best she had. She dragged a shawl around her shoulders, then hoisted the sling she used to carry Connell. She picked up the wriggling child and managed to install him in the harness on her back, then clutched the empty jar before pulling a blanket over the pair of them.
She cracked open the door and was at once whipped by the angry, gusting wind. Sharp, stinging rain spattered against her face. It was a day for slamming the door shut, bolting it and huddling inside before a roaring hearth. She needed firewood too. Perhaps, on the way back…
Bending into the wind, Merewyn concentrated on placing one foot before the other. Her progress was slow, painfully, agonisingly slow as she climbed the gentle incline toward the cliffs. She sheltered under the trees where she could, but such respite was sparse. Mostly she was exposed to the inhospitable elements, fighting her way through the teeth of the gale. On several occasions she stumbled to her knees, but each time she managed to get to her feet. Vile though this journey was, it was preferable to collapsing out here and freezing to death.
At last she reached the sandy cliff path. To her right brambles covered the rocks, tumbling over the large boulders. The ripe fruit glittered, dark and juicy and plentiful. She would soon fill her jar.
Merewyn offered up thanks as she plucked at the plump berries, passing several to Connell to satisfy his immediate needs. The rest she dropped into her pot until the vessel was filled to the rim. Soaked to the skin now, but satisfied with a job well done, she tucked the jar under her blanket and straightened her aching back. Unless she was mistaken, the wind was dropping. Perhaps the worst of the weather was past. Merewyn gazed out across the choppy North Sea, and her breath caught in her throat.
A dragon ship lay on its side, perhaps half a mile out to sea. The mast was broken, the crimson sail tattered and flapping in the waves. The proud serpent that graced the prow was almost fully submerged. Despite the sorry state of the Viking longship, and the absence of any sign of life aboard, Merewyn still retreated in horror.
Vikings! Here, again! The Nordic savages had returned.
She must get back to her cottage, barricade herself and Connell inside. She had weapons, tools with which she might protect herself and her baby brother. The shovel was heavy and sturdy, her scythe was freshly sharpened.
Still clutching her precious jar, and conscious that these berries might be all the sustenance they had for the foreseeable future, Merewyn hurried downhill. The going was rough, treacherous and slippery from the recent rain. She constantly lost her footing. It was after slithering into the ditch for the third time that she opted to take a less arduous route, skirting the woods to approach her cottage from the rear. It would take longer but she lacked the strength to make the more direct journey.
“Hush, please, be silent…” she admonished Connell when he started to grizzle again. “They must not take us. We shall soon be home…”
She lurched from one tree to the next, hanging on to the wet trunks to steady herself as she staggered toward her home. She paused to wipe her hand across her brow, pushing the sodden blanket from her face. Had she not done so, she might have missed him.
The Viking lay face down, motionless, not twenty feet from her. His light blond hair was matted with blood, his woollen tunic ripped at the shoulder. He wore wool breeches, and was missing a boot.
For several moments Merewyn stood, rooted to the spot. She stared at the apparition before her, barely daring to breathe. What to do? How should she deal with this man, this threat to her meagre existence?
He did not move. Was he dead? Oh, sweet Jesu, she hoped so for that would spare her the task of killing him. She might loathe and fear the Vikings, but even so Merewyn baulked at cold-blooded murder. Still, she would do what she must. It was him or them.
She retreated behind a tree where she set her blanket on the ground, along with the jar of blackberries. Then she hauled Connell from the sling and placed him next to her things. “Be quiet and stay here. I will not be long.” It was best he not witness what would happen next.
Merewyn coughed painfully as she approached the prone Norseman. Her lungs hurt, a stabbing ache under her ribs. Her head pounded, and she could barely see straight. Desperation kept her moving though, and she circled the large body, peering at the Viking for any sign of life. She could now see that the blood on his head came from a wound on his temple. A vicious-looking bruise bloomed there, and he had an ugly gash on his arm also. The man must have come from the wrecked dragon ship, and had not fared well in his encounter with the sea.
Merewyn crouched beside him, taking care to maintain a safe distance. The man lay face down so she could not see if his chest moved or not. There was nothing else for it. She managed to screw up enough courage to reach out and place the backs of her fingers close to his mouth and nose.
Breath tickled her skin. The sensation was soft, barely there, but offered the proof she needed. Dreaded. The Viking lived still, and therefore he was dangerous. Deadly.
She would have to kill him.
Merewyn had no weapon with her. She cursed herself for leaving behind the sharp knife she used for preparing vegetables. She considered smothering him with the blanket she had left behind the trees, but dismissed that notion. What if he recovered consciousness? Injured arm or not, he would easily overpower her. She might fashion some sort of noose with her shawl and attempt to strangle him, but the same objections applied. No, she needed to do something that did not rely upon her strength to succeed.
Her gaze fell on the rocks that lay strewn about them on the forest floor. If she could just manage to lift one of those, a heavy one, she could clout him on the head with it. Surely, he would not survive such an assault, not on top of his existing injuries. But she must hurry. He might regain consciousness at any moment.
She scrambled across the muddy ground to the closest rocks. She tried one, then another, but they were too large. In her weakened state she couldn’t lift them. Merewyn sobbed in desperation as she moved to the next pile. Kneeling beside these, she found one that she was able to grapple into her arms. She tested the weight. It would have to do.
Merewyn got to her feet, the boulder cradled in her embrace. She turned back to the unconscious Viking and cried out in terror. His eyes were open. They were blue, she noted, irrelevantly, and they followed her as she approached him. He opened his mouth as though to speak, but no words emerged.
“I am sorry…” mouthed Merewyn as she lifted the heavy rock.
“Stop!” The shout echoed through the air, loud, urgent.
Merewyn spun, off balance. The boulder fell useless from her grasp to roll away across the ground. Another Viking emerged from the woodland, his harsh features angry. He was handsome, she thought, for a Norse savage. And very, very big. His dark blond hair hung dripping wet around his broad shoulders and his eyes were the deep cerulean blue she recognised as typically Viking. His clothing, similar to that worn by the man on the ground, was also wet. Two more equally damp Norsemen followed him from the trees.
Merewyn barely had time to take in these few details before the leader, the one who had shouted at her, charged forward to seize her around the middle. The pair of them hurtled into the undergrowth. Merewyn knew one final, jolting wave of pain and swore that every bone in her body had shattered. Then she sank into dark, blessed oblivion.