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Read the First 2 Chapters of Beyond a Darkened Shore

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Read the First 2 Chapters of Beyond a Darkened Shore

Read the First 2 Chapters of Beyond a Darkened Shore
Are you ready, fantasy lovers?! We’ve got your first look at a book we literally stayed up all night reading in one sitting. It was so action packed, swoony, intense—and now we’re so excited to share your first look at Jessica Leake’s stunning debut, BEYOND A DARKENED SHORE!!
It’s a Celtic-influenced historical fantasy (yay more viking stories 😍) and it’s got everything you could ever want. There’s a land scarred by war, dangerous abilities, and an ominous prophecy. And in case that doesn’t do it for you, we’ve been thinking as it of very Thor meets Game of Thrones—but with a fierce female lead. It doesn’t hit shelves until April 10th, but we wanted to let you enter this world and read the first three chapters now!
Scroll down to start reading BEYOND A DARKENED SHORE!
 

Chapter One

KINGDOM OF MIDE, IRELAND, 1035 A.D.

I learned to hate the sea. Not because it was unbearably cold, and not because I didn’t relish swimming in its salty depths. I hated it because, in spite of its raw beauty, it brought death to our doorstep.
Today, though, I was on the shore below my father’s castle because of my two little sisters. After being practically locked inside the keep for days, they’d begged me for the chance to breathe fresh air. I couldn’t blame my mother for hiding them away in the keep—the place where my family and our most trusted servants lived, as it was the most fortified structure within the castle walls. Indeed, she was so obsessed with their safety that she and my sisters attended Mass at a different time than everyone else. Though I couldn’t blame her for that—not after what happened the last time we were all in church together.
But unlike our mother, I had trouble telling my sisters no. Nothing made them happier—the sounds of the sea crashing against the rock that made me clench my teeth, the salty breeze that tangled my hair, the gritty sand that swallowed my boots—they loved it all. With so much darkness plaguing our family, the girls needed these moments of happiness.
So when they awoke just after dawn, I hadn’t hesitated to follow them down to the stables to retrieve their fat ponies. I knew as well as they that early morning when our mother was occupied was also the only chance for a proper riding lesson. Our mother had ordered that my sisters’ ponies be kept on leads while they rode, but I was determined to make them independent riders—an essential skill to have should we ever have to flee the castle. And the best way to become more comfortable was to ride without saddles—something I would only do with the sand and water to cushion their falls, and with my mother not around to hassle us.
“Keep your heels down, Bran,” I reminded my younger sister as she trotted her pony toward me. Her blonde braid bounced on her back in time to the pony’s hoof beats, and her eyes narrowed in concentration. For a moment, she looked so much like her older sister Alana that my breath hitched in my throat. I pushed the memories away. Alana was never far from my thoughts, but thinking of her was like the dull throb of pain of a wound not yet healed.
“I thought I was,” Branna said, her tone a little impatient, but I didn’t take offense—it was how my sister always sounded—at least since the moment she reached her thirteenth birthday. She was only four years younger than I was, though in some ways, it may as well have been ten.
But then, she hadn’t seen the things I had. Nor been the cause of them.
Branna decided to listen to me in spite of herself, and pushed her heels down, which straightened her spine and strengthened her balance.
“That’s much better,” I said, and she smiled. My attention shifted to my youngest sister, trailing not far behind Branna. “You’re doing well, Deirdre.” She glanced down at her pony’s mane—shy as always in the face of a compliment.
The breeze brought the noxious smell of salt and fish to my nose, distracting me from my sisters. Out of habit, I checked the horizon for any sign of square sails. My father and many of my clansmen had answered the call of the nearby monastery two days ago after the barbaric Northmen were spotted off their coast, too close to the monastery under my father’s protection to ignore. As my father’s heir and the most skilled warrior left behind, I was left in charge of protecting his kingdom in his absence. And that meant protecting my sisters as well. The worry weighed heavily on me as I scanned the horizon again. It’d been seven years since the Northmen had landed on our shores, but there were frequent raids along the coast. The Northmen never stopped trying to invade the shores of our land.
Thankfully the only movement on the water today were the sea gulls—crying stridently to one another and darting just below the water’s crest.  In the distance, bells from our small church rang out, signaling the end of lauds. Our mother would be among the faithful, and there were many prayers being offered today for the deliverance of both the monastery and our men who’d gone to defend it. Had I been welcome in the small chapel, I would have no doubt offended God by my fervent prayers that each and every Northman be shown no mercy and preferably be killed in as painful a way as possible. Devils.
“Do we have to return already?” Bran asked, her eyes on the looming castle, she knew as well as I that the end of lauds meant the return of our mother.
I considered the weak morning sun. Our mother usually remained in the church for at least another half hour after lauds to help Father Briain.
“We have a few more minutes. Deirdre, give a little tug on the reins—don’t let him get his head down,” I said as her pony’s nose kept inching closer to the sand. He was a placid beast, but he loved to roll, and I’d rather he didn’t do it with my sister on his back.
A flutter of feathers drew my attention to a rocky outcropping not far from where my sisters rode. Expecting to see the white and gray of a gull, a little jolt of surprise ran through me when I saw the fathomless black of a crow. I tried to relax my tense shoulders. It could be just a normal crow, after all—just an everyday crow out searching for food like any other bird. It could be, but the hair raised on the back of my neck told me it wasn’t.
It cocked its head at me once before letting loose a harsh caw-caw-caw. The sound sprang memories free in my mind: a murder of crows so large it was like a blot against the gray of the sky. My clansmen dying, and my own sister…no, I wouldn’t allow my mind to stray to such a place.  Again, I looked toward the sea, but the line of water stretching toward the horizon was unbroken.
“Ciara!” Deirdre called, her tone sharp. I jerked my head up in time to see her pony sink to its front knees in preparation for a roll.
I rushed to her side and grabbed the pony’s reins. Ignoring me, the pony grunted as he continued to lower his considerable bulk to the sand. I held my hand out to Deirdre, an exasperated smile playing at my lips. “You’ll have to jump down. He won’t be dissuaded.”
She slid the short distance to the ground, and I pulled her out of the way. Free of his rider, the pony rolled nearly all the way onto his back, kicking his hooves into the air and snorting.
“Stubborn thing.” I shook my head. Beside me, Deirdre giggled.
“Oh no,” Branna groaned from somewhere nearby.
I turned to see our mother hurrying down the winding path to the shore, the velvet of her skirts swishing angrily in her wake.
“Ciara!” Máthair called as soon she was within hearing range, her voice as sharp as a blade. Her entire focus was on me.
Her sleeves trailed nearly to the sands of the beach as she stopped before me, her long, blond hair in waves down her back. She reached out and pulled Deirdre to her. “Did you fall, child?” she asked, her hands cupping Deirdre’s cheeks.
“No, Máthair,” Deirdre said.
“Ciara was only giving us a riding lesson,” Branna said from the back of her pony.
“Come down from there, Branna,” our mother said, letting go of Deirdre. She gestured vehemently toward Bran as though she was astride a great menacing wolf rather than a docile pony.
Frustration evident in the set of her shoulders, Branna slid down.
Máthair’s attention shifted to me, her mouth tight. “How could you have endangered them like this, Ciara?” She swept her arm out to indicate the shore. “Here of all places?”
Her words triggered a heavy guilt, but I forced my back to straighten. She wasn’t truly upset over the fact that my sisters were riding. Ever since Alana, she feared anything that could potentially endanger them—even if it was a necessary skill like riding.  “I wanted them to learn to ride without having someone lead them. The soft sands of the beach are safer than the rocky meadow. They wouldn’t have been harmed if they fell.”
“But the Northmen have been spotted not far from here. Why did you not at least bring a guard?”
Because none would want to accompany me willingly. I met her narrowed gaze. “Because I can keep my sisters safe.”
The bluster seemed to leave her all at once, and she let out her breath. She couldn’t argue with the truth. “Ask for my permission next time,” she said. “Come, girls. We missed you at lauds, but it’s not too late to go before the altar and pray for your father’s safe return.” With her arms around my sisters, she started back toward the keep, toward the chapel where my presence was so unwelcome that the faithful members of our clan believed I tainted its sacred ground. I schooled my features to hide the twinge of sadness I always felt at being so painfully excluded—it would only upset my sisters.
“I should help Ciara with the ponies,” Branna said, but I waved her off.
“I can get them,” I said, taking hold of the ponies’ reins.
As I followed behind, winding slowly upward on the rocky path that led to our father’s castle above, a flickering shadow drew my gaze to the cloudless sky. The same crow circled high above, its inky feathers slicing through the weak morning sun.
It watched me with an interest no ordinary crow would have. And then I knew for sure.
They’re coming, a voice whispered in my mind, and a cold shiver snaked down my spine. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the crow’s voice, and I knew it only warned of one thing: death. There could be no doubt: the Northmen were coming to our shores.
Then the crow let out a caw-caw-caw so startling even my mother and sisters paused.
Branna’s eyes were on the crow. “What does it mean?” she asked, her voice hushed. She had learned long ago that no omen should be ignored.
I met Máthair’s worried glance—a shared fear we couldn’t voice. Northmen.
“We should get back to the castle.” I gave the ponies another gentle tug to keep pace with me.
As we entered the castle bailey, where the stables, the kitchens, and the armory were located, I scanned the wide expanse, wondering if anyone else had noticed anything amiss. The morning buzzed with activity; two men guiding pigs and sheep through the bailey bowed their heads briefly when they noticed me watching. Kitchen servants beat the dust and ash from two matching red and gold rugs, chatting, oblivious to the tension that thrummed through the air and made the hair on the back of my neck rise.
Then a sound came that made my heart pound: a horn’s bellow echoed across the crowded courtyard, grinding everything to a stop. The color in our mother’s face drained away, and she tightened her grip on my sisters.
A shout from one of my clansmen rang out. Everything that was frozen leaped into frantic motion. Children were herded alongside livestock as too few of the men hurried to gather weapons.
I took a steadying breath, forcing down the panic that threatened to engulf me. Memories overtook my mind—
The horn’s bellow calling our clansmen to war.
The clang of axes meeting swords.
The smell of coppery blood in the air.
The pale form of my sister broken and bleeding on the hard ground, her hair spread out behind her.
And me, powerless to help.
But I wasn’t powerless now. I’d spent years training and honing my skills through battle; ensuring I’d never be powerless again.
Máthair pulled my sisters toward the safety of the keep, practically dragging them in her wake. Before they could reach the steps, Branna freed herself from her grasp and ran to me.
“Branna!” our mother cried.
“Come with us,” Branna said, her eyes pleading with me.
“Go to Máthair. Stay hidden.” I pressed a hurried kiss to the top of her head.
She grabbed my arm before I could run for my own horse, her grip almost painful. “Please don’t go. The Northmen—”
“I must,” I said, my tone firm. “Now hurry.” I gave her a little push toward the keep, and hopefully, to safety.
Before I turned away, I met Máthair’s gaze. “God keep you safe,” she said and fled into the castle.
 

Chapter Two

As I ran to the stables—ponies in tow—my mind already shifted to the battle ahead. Without my father here, I would lead my clansmen, and I clenched my teeth at the thought of giving them orders. I may have been heir to the throne, but my strange abilities ensured that I didn’t have the trust of my clansmen. They would listen to me, but they wouldn’t like it.
Killing Northmen was far easier.
All around me, women and children ran to take cover. They relied on the steep, rocky cliff to protect them from the Northmen raiders. But I knew better. It hadn’t kept them out seven years ago.
More worrisome was the fact that the Northmen were here instead of the monastery with its rich treasures. Had they defeated my father? Or had my father defended the monks only to have the raiders turn their eyes toward our home as vengeance?
The stables greeted me with a torrent of sounds: Men shouted to one another, war horses trumpeted, and swords clanged as they were pulled from the rack. My sisters’ ponies eagerly returned to their own stalls as soon as I pulled their bridles free. When the men caught sight of me, a whisper of unease ran through them.
I straightened my spine and pulled my own broadsword free before I turned to address the men in the now uncomfortable silence. “With the king and half our army gone, we are few in number, but we are the only thing standing between the Northmen and our families.” Most of them just stared at me, but a few nodded tersely. They couldn’t argue with the need to protect our own. We knew how much was at stake. “They will hope to ambush us, to catch us unawares, but we will meet them at the top of the cliff.” My grip tightened on my sword. “We will slaughter them one by one.”
The men shouted their approval, brandishing their own weapons high in the air as horses neighed and stamped their feet.
Fergus, one of the few clansmen who I considered a friend, grinned. His teeth looked whiter than usual against the dark blue paint slathered on his face.  “We have nothing to fear, lads. Not with Princess Ciara leading us.”
He meant it ironically, of course—I was the one they feared. It was one of the reasons my father had banned me from the church—my people welcomed my power on the battlefield, but they believed it tainted any sacred space.
I smiled in return, but didn’t stop on my way to my horse’s stall. Riordan, a man whose arms and chest bulged with muscle, shied away from me like a horse from a snake. Demon, he had said about me once, and I could practically hear him thinking it now. I forced myself to stand unflinchingly in the face of such rejection even as pain and loneliness clawed at me.
There was little I wouldn’t do, and little I wouldn’t endure, to keep my sisters safe.
I continued towards my horse and another of my clansmen caught my eye—Séamus. For one painful moment, I thought he might grin at me like he used to while we worked with the young warhorses together, the smile softening his sharp features.  But instead he turned away, his face paling beneath his war paint. My mouth drew into a grim line, and pinpricks of shame snuck across my skin. It had been two winters since he’d been forced to train with me, but it may as well have been yesterday.
I remembered how he looked standing before me: wary but strong.
Even he hadn’t been able to withstand my power.
My hand reached for the carved wooden horse hidden on its fraying piece of leather beneath my armor. It’s the only thing I know how to carve, he had said with a nervous smile, but I wanted to give you something to show you how much you mean to me. That was years ago, before he knew who I really was. I could still see him in the stable where we’d first met, surrounded by the soft sounds of horses.
He’d sworn he didn’t fear my abilities, but that was before he was subjected to them. My mind assaulted me with another memory: Séamus on his knees.
Stay away from me, he’d shouted, his hands curled protectively around his head.
I blinked rapidly and let the necklace fall back in place against my chest.
I didn’t want to speak to him, but I knew I must. With so many of the other clansmen gone, his skill with a sword and as a horseman would be more useful than ever. Squaring my shoulders, I walked over to where he was saddling his horse.
“Séamus,” I said, and his whole body tensed. “I will need your skills at the top of the cliff—you’ll be able to cut the Northmen down faster than anyone.”
“Yes, my lady,” he said, keeping is eyes on his saddle—on anything but me.
A flash of pain cut through me at his formal address. There was a time when I was only Ciara, his friend, not “my lady”…not the heir to the throne…or worse, someone to be feared. Just me.
I watched him for a moment more, his long fingers making quick work of the saddle’s cinch, but he never looked up.
“May God keep you safe,” I whispered and hurried toward my own horse.
I threw open the stall door to my horse, Sleipnir, a stallion as black as pitch. I named him after the Norse god’s eight-legged horse, mostly as an insult to Northmen I defeated; but also because if any horse had the personality of a god’s horse, it was him. He charged out of his stall, impatient as always for war. Despite his massive size, he pulled himself to a dead halt in front of me. With a fistful of his long black mane in one hand, I leaped astride.
After my short, painful conversation with Séamus, I wanted nothing more than to touch my heels to Sleipnir’s sides and gallop until every thought in my mind disappeared. Instead, I held Sleipnir in check until the men rode out ahead of me, their chests bare and their faces painted. The smell of sweat, metal and paint from the battle-hungry men, and the sweeter smell of horses filled my nostrils. It was better than the coppery tang of blood which would be all I could smell soon.
I took up my position in the rear after everyone had passed by, and Sleipnir tossed his head in annoyance at being behind the other horses. It couldn’t be helped, though —my power was more useful after the enemy had already been engaged.
I kept my eyes on the sea as Sleipnir descended the steep, rocky slope. Small stones dislodged beneath his heavy hooves as we wound our way down. Our horses were used to the cliff that was our home and protection, but any other army would find it difficult not to break a leg.
When we reached the outcropping which allowed us to view the length of the shore, I pulled Sleipnir to a stop and surveyed the twenty men before me. Compared to the Northmen, our armor was practically non-existent: light leather leggings, soft leather boots, and no helmets. Unwilling to join my fellow clansmen in simply covering my chest with paint, I wore a leather chestpiece over my linen tunic. Most of the men had broadswords, though a few fought with axes. The Northmen would come with their chain mail and their shields, but we would be faster, and more agile.
The waves viciously beat against the worn rock, sending sprays of white water into the air. It should have been deterrent enough, but the Northmen were relentless. Their longship had already landed. Men poured from its side like a wave of death. As I took in the square sail—white with a crimson skeletal dragon—my heart beat a furious rhythm in my chest. I’d fought countless Northmen in battles throughout our kingdom, but the sight of that sail still made every muscle in my body clench in warring fear and anger—and memory.
My clansmen’s blood staining the earth red—
—my sister’s hand in mine as we tried to escape—
—her eyes wide as the blood trailed down her throat, and me, screaming, screaming—
I shook my head, banishing the memories before they could weaken my mind further. Sleipnir snorted and pawed the ground in response. Like other horses, he could sense my emotions. But unlike other horses, my apprehension only made him bolder.
Fergus wheeled his horse over to me and spat on the ground. “Let us pray the blood of the raiders will flow this day.”
I glanced at the men assembled beside me and frowned. A Northman longship of the size of the one on our shore could hold at least sixty men, a number that outnumbered our own crew.  “The battle can go no farther than this cliff—not this time.”
“I will cover you as best I can,” Fergus said. “You search for their leader.”
I tightened my grip on the hilt of my sword. My arm muscles tensed, and my heart pounded. Anticipation of the battle was always the hardest: the prickling adrenaline, the torrent of memories, the cold dread. I endured it all because my sisters and mother were huddled in fear in their room. We were the only things preventing them from being killed.
I snapped my attention back to the battle. The Northmen had begun the treacherous climb to our stronghold. With any luck, we would pick them off as they emerged at the top of the cliff. The Northmen raiding strategy was always to ambush. Instead of recognizing such actions as dishonorable, they seemed happy to live to fight again. They wouldn’t expect us to be waiting for them, and if we could defeat their leader quickly enough, they might retreat. There was no dishonor in retreat in their eyes either, not when their strategy to ambush meant they were usually slinking into a castle and catching its warriors unawares.
Holding the high ground was our advantage. We had to make it count.
With a shout, the first man made it to the top. Battle axe raised and shield in front of his chest, he charged. More of the enemy followed, their armor and long beards making them indistinguishable from each other. My clansmen made rivers of their blood.
Still, more made it over the rise, until there were two of them to every one of us. I swept my gaze over the battling men for their leader—usually the one with a shield guard. It was my job to kill him, but that would come later. After he had outlived his usefulness to me.
The chaos of the battle overwhelmed my senses as men swarmed us. Sleipnir reared when one of the Northmen came dangerously close. His flinty hooves smashed the pitiful shield the light-haired man used to protect his face. I met his axe with my sword. The clash sent painful echoes all the way to my bones, and my muscles strained.
Our eyes met—my dark with his muddy green. And in that moment, he was caught, as helpless as a fly in a spider’s web.
Pain flared behind my eyes, intense but brief—nothing like the first time. I reached out—an invisible extension of my mind, but as natural to me now as extending my arm. His axe fell away as I took possession of his mind. A torrent of emotions washed over me like a sudden driving rain: bright surprise, hot anger, but most of all, sickening fear.
He was mine to control.
It was a monstrous ability to take possession of someone else—to control them as though they were merely an extension of my own body. I knew this and was disgusted by it, but at the same time, I reveled in the ability to use one man against the others. I wasn’t the strongest fighter, nor the fastest, but what power I did have made the difference between life and death for my clansmen. For my family.
I forced my new bodyguard forward. His will rebelled against mine, straining for independence. My will was stronger.
You aren’t the leader, but you’ll do for now, I told him in his mind and felt a surge of answering fear and impotent rage. I ignored it. Protect me from your comrades until you fall.
Two enemies charged me, their faces grimly determined. My Northman bodyguard met them with his axe. As their weapons clashed, confusion slowed their movements. They halted in their attack; their disbelief paralyzing them.  Despite the angry hum of protest within my bodyguard’s mind, he raised his axe again and brought it down upon his comrade’s head. The other I killed with my own sword.
It’d taken years, many battles, and many training sessions to be able to divide my attention so totally as to be able to control someone while still maintaining my sense of self. It wasn’t unlike being able to sword fight while still holding a fully engaged conversation. Difficult, but not impossible.
As I fought, I searched for the leader, but there were so many men locked in combat I couldn’t pick him out.
Another Northman attacked from behind. Sleipnir aided me once again, biting and kicking. I swung his big body around so Sleipnir’s haunches slammed into him. My guard was engaged in a battle of his own. This was one of the weaknesses of my ability: I could only take possession of one man at a time.
I was vulnerable to attack.
The man’s hand grabbed my thigh, and I kicked in reflex. He must have been as tall as Sleipnir and almost as broad. He tugged again. I tried to bring my blade down on his head, but he met it with his axe. He smiled, his teeth the color of old leather.
Instead of fighting the Northman, I leaned into his hand. Surprised by the sudden loss of tension, he loosened his grip. I kicked again, and he lost his hold entirely.
All the while I could feel my guard at the other end of my mental tether—he had taken one of his own men by surprise and was currently fending off a second.
When the leather-toothed man came at me again, I smashed the hilt of my sword into his nose. He bellowed and swung his axe wildly. I deflected as it came dangerously close to cutting into Sleipnir’s side. Anger blazed within me at the thought of my horse being injured, and my control slipped. Sensing my distraction, my guard struggled against my mental hold. His desperate fear and frustration  hit me with such force that my eyes closed against my will. I had to focus. I brought to mind the lessons my father had drilled into me: when in a desperate situation, take the enemy by surprise.
I wrenched my eyes open again just in time to see the leather-toothed Northman striding toward me, his nose spurting blood.
This time, his eyes were on my horse. I surged into a standing position on Sleipnir’s broad back. The man’s eyes widened. I launched myself at him, bringing my sword down at the same time. He brought his shield up, but the blade smashed through it, into the soft flesh of his neck.
The big man fell to his knees before falling face-first into the rocks. Blood haloed around him, but I wouldn’t stop to think. I wouldn’t let myself absorb the carnage around me—both of my fallen clansmen and of Northmen. I needed to find their leader.
My gaze landed on the corpse of a man cleaved in two. It was Cormac, one of the few who would greet me with a kind word. He had a new babe at home, a bright-eyed boy who would now be raised with no father. The pain of his loss stole my breath away.
And then I felt it: the severing of a connection, like the tautness of string suddenly gone slack. My guard was dead.
Arms grabbed me from behind. I forced my elbow into my assailant’s gut. The grunt I heard in response sounded too youthful to come from one of the burly Northmen. I spun around, and came face to face with a boy who couldn’t have been older than thirteen years.
For a moment, all I saw was my sister Alana. Why had these monsters brought a child to battle?  I was many things, but I wasn’t a murderer of children—even a Northman child. The rage within died down to a pulse.
He raised his sword, and I couldn’t help but laugh. “Run along, boy,” I said, sure that if he couldn’t understand my words, he would understand my meaning. “The battlefield is no place for a child.”
His eyes narrowed. “No place for a lady either,” he said in heavily accented Gaelic.
I laughed again because he had a point. My smile faded when he charged.
He was quick, I had to give him that. He met every blow of my admittedly half-hearted attacks. But when he knocked my legs out from under me, my amusement disappeared entirely.
He leaped on top of me, kept me pinned to the ground. He slashed my face with his sword, and I tasted blood. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to kill him.
I scanned the bloodied cliff. Where was their leader? I shouldn’t be wasting my time with a boy. If I could take possession of the leader, force him to turn on his own, I’d learned from experience that his men would be so taken by surprise that they were easier to kill. Sometimes it so disturbed them that they turned on the leader himself.
An approaching Northman distracted me from my search. I was running out of time. The man shouted and the boy stiffened, but he didn’t stop trying to cut my throat.
With my left hand, I felt around for one of the stones that littered the cliff. I wouldn’t kill the boy, but I had to stop him. As my arm swung the stone into his skull, my eyes met the Northman who had appeared behind us.
His expression almost stopped me. His features were twisted with panic.
The boy slumped, knocked unconscious. Lucky for him, to my clansmen, he’d appear dead. I might be willing to spare his life, but the others wouldn’t.
I pushed him off me and scrambled to my feet to greet the Northman who now towered over me, his shield bearing the insignia of the red skeletal dragon—the same as the one on the sail. Instead of an axe, he carried a massive claymore. He wasn’t surrounded by his own personal shield guard like most I’d battled, but still, I was sure. The leader had found me.
I held my sword at the ready and as I tried to reach his mind, I studied him. This Northman was different from the others. Surprise trickled through me as I realized how young he was—perhaps only a year older than I was. He was tall, but it was his lightly muscled form that suggested youth. Beneath the splatters of blood, his face was a handsome one with a straight nose, unmarred by multiple breakings like the other men. A strong jaw, full lips.
His ice-blue eyes cut to the boy at my feet. When we both watched the boy’s chest rise, the leader’s attention returned to me. Our eyes locked, and once again, I bore the intense pain as I tried to take his mind.
But my power slammed into a wall, as real as the stones surrounding my father’s castle. I took a step back in surprise. Gritting my teeth, I pushed with my mind. Nothing. He didn’t even blink.
But he did swing his sword.
I brought my own blade up at the last moment. The impact was so jarring I felt it in my bones, the metals of the swords coming together in an ear-splitting clatter.
Before I could formulate a plan of attack, he was on me again. His blows were powerful, and yet there was something about the way he wielded his sword—almost a hesitation every time he brought it down upon mine. It was as though he was holding himself back. But why would he do such a thing? Because I was a girl? Or because he’d seen me refuse to kill the boy?
When next he attacked, I dodged and swung my sword, hoping to catch him off-balance. He deflected it easily with his own blade. I was by no means a novice swordsman, but it was clear his skill far outshone mine.
I circled him, all the while seeking some way of gaining control of his mind. My every effort was met with an impenetrable wall.  His repeated attacks made it impossible to concentrate. Was he toying with me?
Who will stand between these barbarians and my sisters if I fall? I thought. All around me, my clansmen continued to fight. But our limited numbers meant if I didn’t end this soon, we would all die. They’d take the castle and then my sisters. And I’d have let them down—again.
The sudden sharp caw of a crow rang out above us, and the Northman paused, his brows drawing low over his eyes. I took his distraction to my advantage. He was powerful, but was he fast? I feinted left and swung around behind him. My blade slammed down on the chain mail covering his broad back.
It didn’t bring him to his knees, but it did stun him.
I swung my sword, taking advantage of his slow reaction. He parried at the last second. My blade slipped off his sword and nicked his neck. Blood snaked down his throat, and I quickly scanned the ground beneath him. Stones even larger than the ones I’d used to knock out the boy were scattered all around us. I threw my sword down and dove for one.
As he bent down to grab me, I snatched a rock and smashed it against his head. He fell heavily with a dull thud upon stone. I retrieved my sword and held it high over my head, poised to keep the Northman down permanently.
But before I could deliver the final blow, something stayed my hand. A silvery voice filled my mind, whispering not him. It was the crow’s voice again. It had never been wrong, but still I resisted. Why would it want me to spare my enemy? Did this Northman know what happened to my father? Was he the reason my clansmen and father had gone to the monastery’s defense? I watched the man’s chest rise and fall, golden lashes fanning across his smooth cheeks. The possibility that my father had been defeated, possibly even killed, made me want to shake the Northman until he woke.
My lip curled. Never mind the crow. I hated this man who’d brought these demons to my doorstep. The world would be better off with one less Northman. My arms trembled, suddenly weak under the weight of my sword as I warred with myself. In sleep, he was no threat, and I was no murderer.
I sheathed my sword as I panted for breath.
Another Northman warrior stumbled close to me, he saw his leader at my feet. I latched hold of him with my mind as fast as a hawk snatches an unsuspecting mouse from a field. This one was tired and bloody, he barely had the strength to resist. I made him open his mouth and shout in his own language, “Hrokkva!” Fall back. The fighting continued for several heartbeats, and I forced the Northman warrior to repeat his call. One by one, the Northmen caught sight of their fallen leader and obeyed the order to retreat.
The surviving Northmen—twenty or so by my count—turned and ran as my remaining clansmen chased them to the edge of the cliff.
The man I controlled remained behind, still swaying under my influence. I moved him toward the younger unconscious boy. I could sense the pain of his injuries as I forced him to scoop up the boy: the cut on his thigh bleeding freely that burned as he bent down, the searing pain of bruised or broken ribs with his every breath, the sting of the blood and sweat in his eyes. Still, he was strong enough to retreat with the boy, and that’s all I cared about.
Take the boy and never return, but your leader is mine, I told him. Let him remember me for the monster I am.
I glanced back down at the fallen Northman leader as my twelve remaining clansmen gathered around me.
“Cut his head from his shoulders and end this,” Conall, one of my cousins, said.
“No,” I said, my eyes holding his. He immediately dropped his gaze. “I want him kept alive.”
“Your father—”
“My father isn’t here,” I snapped, “and this Northman may know about—may even be responsible for—the attack on the monastery. I need to know if my father survived.” I moved to stand over the Northman’s fallen body like a wolf guarding her pup. The crow’s voice had told me to spare him, so I would…for now. But more than anything, I wanted to know how this Northman was able to resist me. I let out a sharp whistle for Sleipnir. He trotted over, gracefully avoiding trampling the fallen. All of my clansmen save Fergus and Conall backed away, eyeing me warily. I stared at the two of them for several heartbeats–just long enough to remind them I could force them if I wanted to–before they finally hefted the Northman onto my horse.
I leapt onto Sleipnir’s back behind my prisoner.
Apprehension at what I’d done filled me. If my father returned—no, when, I corrected myself angrily—I’d have to explain why I hadn’t immediately killed the Northman when I had the chance.
But first, I’d have to explain my logic to myself.

 
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