Ghosts Through the Mist
Fate is cruel to those without a voice.
I was born Solveig, but my family called me Dark Raven because I was different and they considered me cursed, treating me as a servant. When the new Jarl found out they’d kept raiding spoils, he banished them from our settlement. They had planned on sneaking off in the spring, but everything changed and Jarl Calder brought me into his house. I gave him my heart and thought he returned my feelings, but he had other ideas. Again I found I was a servant and Calder was to marry a Jarl’s daughter to unite the two powerful families. Galdi, another servant, said his new bride would make my life torture and I would have to find a way to leave.
The opportunity came when the Jarl was negotiating with the Picts for new lands. Galdi said the king would like me because I was dark and different and she suggested he give me as the extra piece of silver to sweeten the deal. And so I was to sail off, my heart broken, to a new land with people I knew nothing of. But fate can turn the sea into a road and once you take a step, you won’t know where it ends unless you keep going.
The ghosts roam,
their swords stained with blood-lust.
Without hearts, they are fearless.
the head of the serpent appears, as if from the depths,
drifting and silent as the mists of these lands.
I didn’t have the fair hair of my kind. They called me Dark Raven, the outsider, the cursed one. Hair as black as midnight, smaller than the women, my bones lighter, my build slender. My eyes weren’t the shades that ranged from icy and pale to the deep blues of the waters off our coast. They were strange, unnatural in their color. Galdi said the Pictish king would like me because I was dark and different, but her eyes told me another truth. A truth about my fate, about being cast aside like babies left to die because they’d been born wrong and didn’t fit into our ways. My family considered me a curse from the Gods, hence why they’d not shed one tear over the Jarl taking me. They’d left laughing, their load lighter from my absence, walking off to a new life. A new life, like the one I was sailing to. Although it hadn’t been their choice to leave, they decided where to go. It wasn’t my choice to leave, and I didn’t have a choice in where I was being sent. Fate is cruel to those without a voice.
Chapter One (partial)
Galdi said they were the blue people. Not seawater blue, but striking and frightening, their bodies painted with a dye they made from a plant. Galdi described it as a blue more rich than the wild flowers growing in the meadow, sharp and brilliant and unforgettable. They were the Picts, a people that painted elaborate designs onto their bodies and had been known to fight their enemies naked.
All I could think was that if they did fight naked, they wouldn’t stand a chance against my people. We were Norse and our warriors wore leather and thick wool and carried heavy shields and axes. Vikings didn’t leave their bodies open and waiting to feed the tip of a sword. If these blue people did fight naked, why? Were they that good at battle that using clothing as protection didn’t matter to them? Were they so cunning their enemies stood little if any chance of victory?
But my fate had been decided, with or without me, it didn’t matter to our Jarl, my keeper. I was the extra coin tossed into the chest to pay a Pictish king far across the waters. Payment for land that I would never walk on, never see. Jarl Calder didn’t see me as a person, but as a possession and his to give away.
Our settlement was sizable and the Jarl had risen quickly in our hierarchy of power. His family were ambitious, not stupid like mine. They’d groomed their only son to lead, waiting for a weak opportunity to present so they could make their move. Calder had been only twenty when he’d fought the former Jarl, defeating him. He’d challenged the older warrior the morning of the thing at the longhouse. The violence of that morning was permanently etched into my mind. It was my eighteenth year and I hadn’t wanted to attend the festivities that evening, but there’d been no choice. The new Jarl had insisted. When the shouting and accusations started, I tried to hide behind my parents. They would have none of it, pushing me to the front to face the scene unfolding around the fire. My brothers stood tall next to my parents, their blond hair and blue eyes in stark contrast to my darkness. I wished then that I’d been like them and not so different. Not the outcast I’d become, even in the inner circle of my family. Rumors of unfaithfulness swirled about our settlement, but my parents had denied it as fast as my father’s boot could crush a shell. If not unfaithfulness, then what was the explanation?
What was she? Their whispers became the sharp tiny daggers slicing into my being. My mother, tired of the persistent questioning, had made up the answer herself.
She’s a dark raven. An ill omen. We’ve been cursed by the Gods.
You get to the end of a road by walking on it. I thought back to my first step onto that road, the step that started my journey.
I was born Solveig, which meant from the house of strength, but I hadn’t been given any to fight with. Not from my family. My dark coloring had no explanation, but I came to understand my parents thought I was sent to punish them for their deceit. My parents began calling me Dark Raven and it stuck. The people of our settlement would stare with pity at my parents and brothers, as though they’d made some sacrifice by allowing me to live. My life went from being difficult to impossible. I was not welcomed into the homes of our neighbors. I was not allowed to attend when our longships sailed off; for fear that I jinx their journey with my gaze. My life at home was no better than a slave’s. I worked harder and harder, hoping I would not be put out of our home. Far into the night my parents would speak to my brothers in low voices, but I heard. The hunted do not sleep. They spoke of keeping their plunder and laying the blame at my feet. It would be merciful for her. No longer did they speak my name, but referred to me as Dark Raven or her. No longer did my brothers call me sister or care about my welfare. I was to be the sacrifice for their dishonesty. My father and brothers had held back their take from the raids. They’d hidden silver and jewelry in a small cache they’d dug behind our home, believing the Jarl would never find out. We live by few rules, but the one that can never be broken is to withhold the spoils of raiding from the Jarl. But fate has her own ideas about how our roads turn and fork. The night of the thing became the edge of the land underneath the sea that drops off and the water gets deep.
It was winter and I’d started to think about dying more than the living should. I was eighteen and tired and unwanted. At my age, most were married with a family, but thanks to my parents, no one would have me. Who would want to marry a bad omen?
The darkness came early with the season and the cruel whip of the wind along the shoreline left me tasting salt and reminded me that harsher weather would soon be here. My arms were weighted down with driftwood for the hearth when I saw Calder watching. He didn’t try to hide it from me, but stared, openly, as someone who is secure in their position does.
He strode with purpose, taking the wood from my arms. I didn’t breathe, simply stared, waiting to see what he would do next. I’d become used to people throwing rocks and insults. It was part of my day and there was nothing I could do about it.
“Well Dark Raven, your fire will be strong and burn bright this night.” He made a surprised face and I didn’t know if I should dare to laugh. “If I recall, your name is Solveig. I’m Calder. May I carry this home for you?”
As if I didn’t know his name. Calder had already proved himself as one of the most feared and talented warriors in our settlement. His family were respected and noble. They were everything my family wasn’t.
I couldn’t find my voice, but nodded. Although his gesture was kind, I couldn’t have said no if I’d wanted to. Calder was above me and any disagreement would reflect onto my family. In the end, I’d be the one punished. It never ended any other way.
We walked through the falling snow, the night closing in. My clothing was light and I was shivering, but something about being near Calder brought a strange peace to me.
“Here, you’re frozen, take my cape.” He dumped the firewood, shrugging off his fur cape. Without waiting for my acknowledgment, Calder draped it around my shoulders. It was warm from the heat of his body and mine drank it in. I pulled it close around, wishing I could curl up inside its protection and wake from the dream of my life. The idea of being so warm and then to have it taken away again…
His second gesture of kindness left me shaking. He interpreted my reaction as having been out for too long. Suddenly he reached, bringing me into his embrace, rubbing his hands all along my back to warm me.
“What have they done to you?” He choked the words out. This was not the Calder they wrote into their songs. His hold tightened on my shoulders, and for a second I thought he was going to say something, but he didn’t. Instead he kissed me, but I didn’t kiss him back. I didn’t know anything about kissing or holding.
“Open your mouth.” He smelled of leather and smoke and the sea. I opened my mouth, feeling his hand leave my shoulder to hold my hair.
He broke the kiss to speak. “Raven. I want to call you Raven. Your hair is so dark and has sheen, like a raven’s feathers bathed in the sun.” He covered my mouth with his and I couldn’t breathe, but I didn’t want to. If anyone saw us, I’d be the one thrown to the wolves. For these fleeting moments under his touch, a flame lit deep inside my heart and the crisp edge of the wind teasing the strands of my hair made me feel alive.
“Raven?” He brought me up slow, holding me firmly in his arms until I stood. “You’ve never been kissed?”
“No, I have not. I am sorry if I didn’t do what was expected.” I stepped back, bowing low to him.
“It’s gone too far. I’m going to put a stop to it all.” Without another word, he bent, collecting the pieces of driftwood from the snow. I went to take them, but he shook his head. “Come. It’s late and there isn’t much holding me back from what I want to do.”
We hadn’t got halfway up the walk when I took the cape off. If my parents saw me wearing Calder’s fur, they would assume I’d tricked or lied to him to get it. I jumped several times, trying to get it on his shoulders. He only wrinkled his nose, shaking his head at me.
“If you’re that afraid, I’ll have to move a bit faster. Just keep quiet and let me talk. You won’t suffer any consequences, I promise.”
Before the light of the torch hit our faces, Calder gave me one last kiss. It was different from earlier, this one tender and gentle. If my lips had arms of their own, they’d have reached for Calder’s mouth. He’d left me starving for him and I didn’t understand how. How could a man kiss me twice and leave my heart lost and afraid I’d never feel anything so beautiful again?
He kicked at the door, keeping the wood firmly in his grasp.
My father answered, bellowing out at me for not being able to carry the wood and open the door on my own.
“Good evening, Felman. I’ve helped your daughter to carry the firewood back home.” Calder didn’t wait for an invite, but pushed through the door. He moved with confidence, dumping the wood by the hearth. I stood back, waiting for the wrath of the Gods to come down—on me.
Calder didn’t stop there, but cut my father off from speaking. “You have such a beautiful daughter; I can’t understand why you’d send her to collect driftwood along the shore in the dark when you have two strong sons.” Again, Calder gave no time for recourse, but continued. “Felman, your name means living in the mountains, doesn’t it? Perhaps that will come true soon.”
I skulked into the room, wishing I could lean back into a wall and become a part of it. Why was Calder baiting my father and leaving me in a position where only the worst could happen? He would have to leave and once he did, I had no doubts I’d be put out into that snowy night to freeze.
“I—” My father’s face bright red.
“Are you coming to the thing tomorrow? I hope to see you there.” Calder nodded at my mother who looked as though she were about to give birth to a hot coal. Calder wasn’t someone they could afford to step wrong with. His family owned land and built longships. Calder was a skilled fighter and his family name, Leifsson, was linked to nobility and legend. If my parents crossed that line, they would find themselves at the end of a blade.
“Thank you, Calder, for bringing…” My father paused, struggling to bring my name to mind. “For bringing Solveig home to us. I must heed your words and be more careful about her, but you really should have let her carry the wood. Your kindness is admirable, but I’m afraid our daughter isn’t normal. She was a curse from the Gods and we’ve been more than charitable by keeping her here with us. You can see from her coloring that she isn’t of our family. Many would have left her for the wolves.”
“I don’t think she need go outside to find them.” Calder stared, his expression sour.
“Outside?” My father missed the insult.
“Come to the thing tomorrow. There is news and you won’t want to miss it.” Calder winked, and then strode off. The door closed and my heart sank. I stood against the wall, silent, waiting.
“So, Solveig, what has your curse brought to us now?” My mother handed me a thinly woven shawl. It was old and coming apart, but I took it. She pointed. “Go to the barn and sleep there. Consider yourself lucky we allow this. If it wasn’t for Calder, you would be put out on this night.” She stared at me and the ice in her eyes cut through what was left of my heart. “You aren’t wanted. I wish you would never come back.”
I kept my head down and didn’t speak. The door shut behind me and I ran for the barn. The building was in disrepair and the wind howled through the slats in the boards, but at least it was a place to be and not out in the wild. The irony was that there were no animals in our barn. My father had sold them off at the end of the summer. I suspected they’d been planning on making a move in the spring and had only kept stores to last the winter. It wasn’t something a Viking would do.
Inside the empty stall, the strong smell of decay only added to my misery. I hadn’t cried for months, but the tears came easy. The shawl did little to ease the touch of the winter on my skin, but I was grateful for it. Part of me wanted to run to Calder, but that was unthinkable. What if he turned me away? I didn’t know what would be more painful, freezing to death in the cruel winter or being rejected by Calder Leifsson?
I shrunk down into a ball in the corner, knowing this might be my last night. I didn’t understand what I’d done to anger the Gods to give me such a life, but it must have been something terrible. I swallowed the tears and focused on what his lips felt like against mine. It was like floating in the ocean, the water holding me up and embracing me. Every summer, when my family went off to see the relatives for a couple of days, I’d sneak down to a small, hidden cove and walk in the ocean. Those times were filled with magic and wonder. Fish would swim by my legs as I waded along the shallows. I would find the most beautiful shells and hold them, taking in each detail as the sun warmed my tired body. Keeping those treasures was not possible as my family couldn’t find out that I’d spent time away from my chores. If this was to be my last night, then I would float in the sea and feel Calder’s lips on mine. If I were going to die, I would dream of being in his arms again while the frost devoured my flesh.
The door flew open, slamming against the side of the building, making me jump. I plastered my body against the back of the stall, trying to see who stood there. A light was held high and then I saw him. Calder stood, peering into the darkness of the barn.
“Raven? Are you here?” His rough whisper carried over the wind.
“Here, in the stall. What are you doing back?” My heart thundered in my ears. I was frightened and relieved and confused. I was so happy to see someone other than a member of my family. I’d expected it to be my father, come to slit my throat.
“I figured they’d do this to you. I brought a long fur cape, leggings, a wool tunic and boots. There’s bread and ale and some cheese. I can’t take you home with me, but I can keep you from freezing alone in the dark.” He set the light onto the edge of the stall rail. Its glow lit the space around, but didn’t cast too much light that might be seen from the house.
“Your dress is wet. You need to take it off. I have a blanket roll for the ground.” He glanced about. “The smell in here isn’t good, but at least the floor is clean. Someone did a fine job sweeping it.”
I was that someone.
I’d had to clean the barn after my father had sold the animals. He wanted it ready for the spring and a possible sale of the house and land.
Calder spread the roll out. “Stand on it and strip.” He didn’t move, or turn away, but caught my gaze with his own, holding me captive.
“I’m…under this I don’t have…” I stammered. My dress was old and worn, but it was all I had. My mother refused to give me leggings, even in the winter.
“Take it off,” he commanded softly.
The shawl came first and I draped it over the rail. I had only two items to come off, the dress and the leather pieces tied around my feet for shoes. Feeling shy, I took off the shoes first, leaving them just off the roll. It was so thick and plush and soft that I didn’t want the leather pieces to soil it in any way.
Next, my dress. The wool was tight from being wet and I had to work it up, to get it over my head. Suddenly, it lifted higher and I saw that he’d taken it from me. Calder draped it over the rail, spreading the material out.
“This should help it dry some by morning.”
My first reaction to his stare was to cover my breasts and mound with my hands. The cold closed in and I began to shake. He dropped the clothing he’d brought, stepping onto the roll.
“Please take your hands away. I want to see you. I want you.” His touch was gentle as he moved my hand from my breasts. When Calder cupped my breast, I nearly stumbled back, but he caught me, bringing me to him. “I want you, Raven. I know it’s not what you deserve and it’s cold, but when I’m inside you that will fall away.” He stripped, tossing each article of clothing aside. Need burned in his eyes as he reached, bringing me to him. His skin felt hot against mine and I didn’t want our contact to end.
“I’ve wanted you for so long, Raven. I’ve burned for you so many nights. Tonight, I make you mine. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to take my place as the Jarl. In the evening, at the thing, I will change your fate. Don’t ask me how, just trust me. Will you do that?”
Would you move the oceans and sky for love? Would you lay down your life to protect the one you love? Vikings in the settlement are fair haired, and light of eyes. Solveig – born with hair as black as night and eyes the color of amber, was considered cursed by her family and the people, calling her Dark Raven. Thrust into the role as a slave in her family, the young Jarl Calder saves her from her own family and brings her to live with him in his home under his protection. But even as she loses her heart to Calder, she finds herself in the position of a servant, and when her heart is broken by the arranged marriage of the Jarl and a woman that can unite a powerful family with their own, Raven only wants her freedom. A servant in the Jarl’s home, Galdi, who has taken Raven under her wing, has a plan.
Was the book perfect? No. But this book was hard for me to put down. Even though it’s set in Medieval times, it’s very relevant today. Within the Viking settlement, Raven didn’t have her own voice and couldn’t make her own choices. As she grows throughout the book, she becomes stronger and begins to believe she’s worthy of being loved. Even now at the end of the book, I’m still on the fence with Calder. But the Picts; Gest, Galdi and Domech did a good job making up for Calder’s shortcomings. A book recommended for those that like the Viking era, or want to get their feet wet with the Medieval world. Reviewed by Cyrene
4 1/2 Stars