Authors: Diane Lee Wilson
Diane Lee Wilson
MARGARET K. McELDERRY BOOKS
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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2010 by Diane Lee Wilson
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wilson, Diane L.
Raven speak / Diane Lee Wilson.
Summary: In 854, the bold fourteen-year-old daughter of a Viking chieftain, aided by her old and thin but equally intrepid horse and an ancient, one-eyed seer, must find a way to keep her clan together and save them from starvation.
ISBN 978-1-4169-8653-9 (hc)
ISBN 978-1-4424-0249-2 (eBook)
1. VikingâJuvenile fiction. [1. VikingsâFiction. 2. SurvivalâFiction. 3. Fortune tellingâFiction.
4. HorsesâFiction.] I. Title.
In the pale light of a wintry morning seven men saddled their ship across bucking white waves. A girl stood alone on the shore. Stiff and silent, with her fingers clenched into fists and her eyes creased into flashing slivers of blue ice, she watched them go. The others of her clan, those that still lived at least, had long since shouted their fare-you-wells. But they'd left their crumbs of hope at the ocean's edge to shuffle back to the village, slump-shouldered and spiritless. The girl remained, staring rigidly at the horizon.
As dawn edged across the ponderous gray sky, the ship grew smaller and smaller. Its struggling flight was measured by the ocean's slow, rhythmic breath, a sucking inhale followed by a rushing exhale that darkened the shore. Spray misted the girl's face and beaded her brow. The anger bubbling inside her vibrated the glistening beads, and some shook loose to trace the bridge of her nose while others skated down her temple and crossed her hollow cheek. The trickling water surprised her and then, just as quickly, shamed her.
Don't you cry,
Don't you dare cry.
And to make certain she obeyed, she dug her nails into the flesh of both palms.
When the fogged horizon finally swallowed the ship, taking her father from her silently and completely, the vast ocean seemed to swell with a vicious pride. She kicked at a speckled stone. It stuck to the wet sand, cold and obstinate. Angrily she snatched it up and hurled it into the surf. Its noiseless scuttling did nothing to assuage her. So she threw another stone, and then another and another, heaving with all her strength and grunting like an animal until the dun horse behind her nickered his worry. That finally spun her round. Gathering up the reins, she threaded her fingers through his thick mane and flung herself across his back. She loosed her fury by drumming on his sides, and like the spark off a strike-a-light, he bolted. A sheet of airborne sand spattered the froth behind them.
Along the entire length of this westward-facing shore, black-green mountains plunged their ridged fingers deep into the sea. The clan's village was nestled beside a fjord that separated one mountainous thumb from a mountainous forefinger, but the girl and her horse galloped hard in the opposite direction. Across the narrow ribbon of sand they flew, soaring over splintered driftwood and dodging ropy mounds of rockweed. Like the dragon-prowed ship they danced through the churning surf, leaping and twisting and flinging themselves at their own horizon. All the way around the long first finger they galloped, past the fishing huts and ribbed boats humped in rows like so many sun-drunk seals, and then the fat middle finger, where a whale had beached itself two summers ago and closed its glassy brown eyes for the last time and now
there wasn't even a bone left in remembrance, and on toward the neighboring finger. There she spied the silhouette of the ancient picture-stone with its weathered, mysterious carvings that she'd once paused to examine. But not today. When they'd rounded that tip of land and reached the shadowed fjord splitting it from the next, the girl realized how very far they'd goneâfarther than they'd ever goneâand she fought the horse to a walk.
In wind-whipped defiance he shook his head. Trumpeting a blast of air that ricocheted noisily up the fjord, he let out a weak buck. Wondrous, really. In the barren days of this unending winter, when he was no more than dandelion fuzz on a skeleton, he bucked. That, at last, brought a smile to the girl's face, and she laid a chapped hand on his thin neck.
Rune. The horse she'd known all her fourteen winters, the one she'd learned to ride even before she'd learned to walk. Aged now, but still her daily companion and most loyal friend. The cold air spun his breath into dragon smoke that swirled around his hairy ears, but Rune didn't seem to mind; his head was up, eager. He'd been born to the cold.
Dropping the reins, the girl pulled first one foot and then the other up to the horse's withers, trying to rub some feeling back into her toes. Would this cruel winter never end? It was nearly Cuckoo Month now, and bitter winds still scoured a beach empty of life. She let her legs go slack, scratched the roots of Rune's mane, and sighed, but she didn't shiver. She'd never shiver. She'd been born to the cold too.
From her very first day, when she'd been ceremonially laid on a nest of fresh reeds at her father's feet, she had not cried; in fact, she'd not even shivered. How many times had he told her the story? All twenty-some members of their clan had gathered around the stone-ringed hearth after the night meal to watch him decide if she was worthy. As chieftain he could grant her life, assign her a name, and offer the clan's protection. Just as easily he could wave her away, and then the skald would have carried her out to the rocks at the ocean's edge and abandoned her to the biting winds and the hungry gulls.
“You never cried,” he always began his retellings. “Both of your brothers mewled like orphaned lambs, but not you. You didn't cry, you didn't shiver, and you didn't even blink,” he said, warming up to his part in the story. “You latched your round blue eyes onto me and stared so seriously, so boldly, that at first I didn't know what to do. Just ask your mother. So I scratched my ear, like this.” And here he paused to dig a finger into his left ear. “And I looked at my ring, like this.” He extended a hand to examine the engraved silver band. “And all the while you just went on staring at me like Jorgen the skald when he hungers for another piece of amber to carve his magic. I knew right then and there that you were no ordinary child, and I lifted you onto my knee. âThis is no ordinary child,' I said, and I cradled you in one arm like this,” and here he always crooked his arm and looked down at his empty elbow, “and I sprinkled water from the fjord onto your round bare belly. âShe is to be called Asa Copperhair,' I pronounced, for from
the beginning you wore a crown of gold-red hair that rivaled the firelight. And I gave you your first gift: a copper spoon.”
That had been somewhere near midwinter in the year 854. And her father had been right: She was not an ordinary childâher name had lasted only three more winters. The girl, whom her mother had to drag by the wrist to help shell peas or knead dough or smooth clothes on the whalebone board, always managed to slip away the minute heads were turned. If someone took the time to chase after her, she could be found in the outfields picking small fistfuls of grass for Rune and the other grazing horses, or leading them to the mountain stream, or generally fussing over them until nightfall when, all by herself, she herded them into the byre with wildly flapping arms and a small shrill voice. If she didn't appear beside the hearth for the night meal, she knew someone would be sent out to the byre to unclench her fist from Rune's mane and lift her sleeping body out of the reed bedding. “So by the time you were four,” her father went on, “I had to admit my mistakeâwhich, as you know, is not an easy thing for me to doâand I had to gather everyone for another naming ceremony. Again I sprinkled the cold water from the fjord onto you, only this time I dribbled it on your head.” He held his hand above her and mimed sprinkling water onto it. “And that time I got it right. âShe is to be called Asa Coppermane,' I said.” And he'd given her a horse-headed comb carved from antler.
The two prizes, the spoon and the comb, still dangled from the chain fastening her brown woolen cloak, and she fingered them,
remembering. As the fog receded she looked out to the ocean horizon again. The ship was indeed gone. Stung with regret, she shouted the blessing she'd withheld all morning: “
Fare you well
!” But the wind whipped the words back to shore and she knew her father would never hear them.
Her call elicited an annoyed
above her head, and she looked up to see a raven lifting off the cliff face. It had been picking through a last year's fulmar's nest and the sight made her stomach growl. How well she remembered snatching up newly laid eggs one after the other and sucking them down so fast that the sun-yellow yolks dribbled down her chin. Her mouth watered. For months now there had been only tasteless onion soup and crumbly flatbread stretched too far with dried peas and pine bark. Needles poked her stomach constantly. Would this winter never end?
While Rune nibbled at the gluey remains of something washed onto the shore, Asa followed the raven's flight. It circled overhead at first, eyeing her warily and
ing intermittently, then tipped its wings and flapped away. The cliffs flanking the fjord were so tall that the inlet's neck was cloaked in darkness. This would be the end of their ride.
She was just turning away when a movement caught her eye. Along the opposite cliff face farther up the fjord stood a figure with an arm outstretched, and the raven, as if summoned, spiraled downward to alight upon it.
In the moments that followed, time seemed to slow, and while Asa's heart thumped steadily, her breath caught in her throat.
They were watching her, the person and the raven both; she felt certain of it. She sat motionless on Rune, apprehension dragging a finger along her spine. But then the bird was drawn close and both figures melted into the dusk.