SPRING CHAPTER ONE
The shock of the cold makes me go instantly rigid. I lift my arms and break the water’s surface and claw at my cheeks till I manage to pull the gag down, and I’m gasping. White glitters the water, the air.
Splashes come from somewhere. My arms flail. Shivers seize me. I clamp my jaw shut to hold down the chattering.
Monsters loom in the starlight. Snow accumulating on trees. I swim for it. It isn’t far. It can’t be far.
Crack! My hand protrudes through the ice it just broke. A thin layer lines the riverbank. A stabbing sensation shoots across my hand, and somehow I know my palm is sliced open. I make fists and beat my way through the chunky stuff, grabbing at stiff stalks, so many of them, all poky and horrible, my feet are digging into bottom now, and there’s frozen mud at last. I pull myself up onto land.
“Mel?” I croak.
A groan comes from so close I can feel her breath. I reach out and grab. An explosion of strange words from a crazy language. It’s one of the boys from the boat! I can’t
tell which one in the dark. I don’t know what he’s saying.
I look back at the river. The boat is far away now. I scream, “Mel!”
The dark bulk that is the boy gets up and runs toward the trees. But I won’t follow; he can’t know any more about where we are than I know. He was stolen too. All of us on that boat, we were stolen from our homes.
Home. Downpatrick, Eire. My Eire land. Where my mother and father and brother live. Where Melkorka and I should be. Across all that water. I’m so far from home now. It’s been days. Days and days.
I crawl along the bank, touching everything I can reach. “Melkorka? Mel, Mel, Mel.” My fingers can hardly feel anymore. I shake so hard, I think I may fall to pieces. Where is she? Where is my big sister? She always boasted that she and our brother Nuada could communicate with eyes alone, but she and I were learning to do that too. We were learning how on the boat. We did it even when our gags were off for eating; we kept silent. That was Mel’s idea—to pretend we were mutes. I don’t know why she did it, but I did whatever she did. I didn’t need Mel’s words to know I should copy her; I obeyed her eyes. And I’m sure an eye message passed between us the instant before I jumped. “Mel!” I’m screaming. She’s a better swimmer than me. She has to be here! “Mel!”
I press on a stick and it slaps me in the face. I fall onto my back and hug myself.
I think back. There were only the boy’s splashes. No one else. Two women, nine children, all captives on that boat, and only that one boy and I jumped. Mel didn’t jump. Dear Lord, Mel, my Mel. Mother told us to stay together. “Immalle,” she said. Together, together.
Mother put us on the nag, dressed like peasant boys. In disguise like that, no one would bother us. We were to stay at Brenda and Michael’s ringfort until it was safe to return home to Downpatrick. But we rode along the shore, and that awful ship saw us and snatched us, as easily as gathering eggs. Still, we were together. Like mother said. Immalle. Until now. “Mel!” I shout.
But Mel didn’t jump when I did. I already figured that out. She can’t hear me, so it’s stupid to shout. And maybe dangerous. Who knows what wicked creatures might hear? I broke so many of those stalks climbing out of the water. What if they were bulrushes? I could have crushed fairy houses. Fairies might be coming for me, screaming, shrieking. Like the damned. My ears are too cold to hear them, but my head knows.
That’s why the boy ran off now. Not because he knows where to go—but because this is a bad place to stay. I have to get someplace safe. I have to get warm, dry.
I manage to stand and take a few steps. One shoe was lost in the silt under the river rushes. The other flops loose. I go to tie it, but it’s already tied. Water sloshes inside it; that’s what stretched it. I try to squeeze out the water so I can tie it tighter, but the water has made the leather strings almost fuse together. And my fingers are so cold they can’t curl the right way to work the strings anyway. I tug hard and rip the shoe off and throw it in the river and stumble as fast as I can.
Nothing’s visible now. The dark is solid. I head directly away from the river, smashing through the trees.
I was right—the line of trees is only three or four deep. Almost instantly I come out onto a meadow in hazy, snow-dampened moonlight. The thinnest dusting of fresh snow covers the ground; it’s not thick and hard like I expected. Spring has started here, too, just a little later than in Eire, but winter frightened it today. Maybe a week ago that river ice would have been too thick to break through and I’d have been swept underwater forever. My whole body spasms.
The wind blasts me, and I drop to my knees to keep from being knocked over. Still, I saw what I needed to see—mounds beyond this meadow—houses, they’ve got to be houses. The people there will help me. Anyone will help a princess, especially a little one—I’m only eight, and
I’m small for my age. They’ll want to bring me back to Eire and collect a reward.
I try to stand but the wind stops me, so I scrabble in a half walk, half crawl through the grasses. The ground is bumpy. Why? I let my knees gather the information: long furrows, long mounds. This is no meadow—it’s a farmer’s field. Sharp stubble a hand-width apart. Parsnips, I bet—and I’m hungry. They fed us almost nothing on that boat—a single boiled parsnip for dinner. So I should try to dig, but with what? It’s so cold, the ground is too hard.
Everything is too hard.
My chest is ice. Just breathing hurts so bad I could scream. I want to be home, asleep on my bedmat in Mother and Father’s room, with Mel asleep on one side of me and Nuada asleep on the other, our five warm breaths mingling, binding us together like the good family we are. I should have a tummy full of milk and leek soup and lots of meat, and be dressed in a smooth linen nightdress instead of this rough peasant tunic. My hair should be brushed to a gloss by a servant. My feet should be warmed by the hearth. Tears well in my eyes.
Stop that! Stop being a baby. That’s what Mel would say. With her eyes if not with her words. I have to listen to her voice inside my head; I have to act smart. My wet clothes
are freezing into hard clumps that will rub me raw. I need to get to those houses fast!
But nothing is fast. Every little bit of distance takes so long to cover, hobbling like this. A wandering spirit will find me before I ever get there. If not the vengeful fairies, maybe the vampire Dearg-due herself. Do I hear them? Or is that the wind?
Finally two mounds take on clear form out of the gloom ahead. But they aren’t recognizable. My nose is no better than my ears in the cold air; still, one is a low building, oddly stubby—I don’t think an animal of any decent size could go into it. I don’t see how people could either. It might be for geese. Or maybe storage. But I don’t think so. Something about it spooks me.
The other building is ordinary height—and not as big, not as threatening. Plus, it’s closer. From what I can make out, there are no windows. That’s all right, though—no windows means no wind. I pass through the opening in the wood fence, pitiful in comparison to the sturdy stone walls that separate fields back in Downpatrick, and I crawl around the outside of the more ordinary building.
No noise, no noise, no clues at all.
I stop still. What if the people inside are not good like folk from Eire, but all wicked, as wicked as the men on the boat?
But it’s so cold. My teeth ache. Shivers rack me. It can’t matter who they are. I can’t think of anything else to do, anyway. I can hardly think at all. Mel should be here—she should be telling me what to do. She should be doing it all!
I press on the door. Nothing. I push hard. I ram with all my might, smashing my right shoulder and hip. The door scrapes open enough for me to squeeze through. Totally dark inside. But the air is hot breath, and my nose comes alive again. I stifle a cry of relief—hay eaters! I mustn’t frighten them—these wonderful hay eaters. I can do this—I’m good with animals. I shove the door closed and feel through the dark to the closest one.
A cow. Best of all creatures at this very moment.
But beware: The animal closest to the doorway is the one easiest to see if someone comes.
I lift my head and breathe deep. The scent of pigs worms through the other sweeter smells—it sullies the air. They seem to be huddled together near the middle of the room, though their waste stink comes from the farthest corner. All the animals keep their distance from that reeking muck, of course.
I tuck my hands in my armpits and blunder along to the other rear corner, using elbows and shoulders to make a path past horses, sheep, goats.
I concentrate. I mustn’t fall. I mustn’t release my hands.
A taste of my blood could excite hungry pigs into a frenzy.
How hungry are these pigs?
At last, another cow. Thank the Lord, there are two. The most docile creature on a cold night is a cow.
I run my hands along her until feeling returns to my fingers. They ache now something awful. The cow’s thin but not skinny. I rub and rub her. She rocks from hoof to hoof, coming awake at last. “Good. Good girl.”
I move to stand at her head, and I shove my hand under her muzzle—the split palm. The smell of my own blood makes me woozy. The cow licks it. That’s what I was asking for. This cow’s a good girl. I press my forehead against hers in gratitude.
Then I crouch under her and feel. It’s been long enough from her evening milking—her bag has rounded again. I yank on a teat, shooting the milk toward the center of the room. That should stop the fairies.
Pigs snort, and I sense them shuffling around one another, confused.
I should yank again and drink. But the pain in my palm is fierce now that the numbing cold has passed. I cradle my hand against my chest. My shoulder and hip hurt too, from slamming into the door to get inside this barn.
I sweep straw against the wall with the side of my foot, because the bottoms of my feet sting bad. I burrow inside
the straw and roll side to side till my heart stops racing.
Everything is wrong. Only weeks ago my life was perfect. Then Mel insisted we go to Dublin for her birthday; she was turning fifteen and wanted to shop for fancy jewelry. And for no reason, no reason at all, a Viking boy cut off Nuada’s hand. My poor brother. Father wouldn’t trust a physician in that heathen town, so we rushed home and our royal physician saved his life. That would have been the end of it all. But the Viking chieftain who was in charge of that wicked boy sent a messenger with jewels and gifts, and the news that he would come in his ship to take Mel away as his wife. He was so rich he thought our family would forgive the loss of Nuada’s hand if Mel became a rich queen. What an idiot! Vikings know nothing—as though Mel would marry a heathen, and after his boy had done such a horrendous deed! But Father was going to trick that Viking chieftain and slay him and all his men. So, before the battle, Mother sent us off on the horse. She gave Mel a pouch with her old teething ring in it; it was gold, so we could trade it for shelter. That would keep us safe. That, and the fact that we were dressed as boys.
But we weren’t safe. Not at all. We got stolen—not by a Viking ship, no, but by another kind of boat entirely. A boat with two sails, instead of one. And fat men with scars, whose hands smelled of clay and whose breath smelled of
goat and who shouted that ugly language, men who stole children and women who were unlucky enough to be near the shore when their boat passed. Like Mel and me. We captives huddled on the deck, hands bound, mouths gagged. They freed our hands only to eat.
Except tonight. After dinner they hadn’t yet tied us up again. And for once we weren’t out on the open sea; we were going through a river with land close on both sides, which was why they put our gags on, I’m sure. But free hands were enough. It was our chance—I took it; Mel didn’t.
All of it is wrong. No fair, no fair, no fair. I’m supposed to be in Downpatrick with my mother and father and sister and brother. I’m supposed to own pigs instead of sleep with them. I’m not supposed to be alone. Ar scáþ a céile marait in doíni—“people live in each other’s shadows.” That’s how we survive. That’s what the priests always say. But right now I’m in no one’s shadow, no one’s shelter.
Neither is Mel.
A little cry escapes me. Tears burn the cracks in my lips. I lick them away.
Mel’s on that boat with those men.
And where am I?