by Gareth Spark

They come from the north, hands frozen to oars, beards rimy with frost as cold as stars. Black bladed axes hang from sea-wet belts and the chieftains have thirsty swords in scabbards lined with lamb’s wool; their eyes are red with lack of sleep as they question the stars they sail by, the gods and the woman who guides them. She sits in the prow of the first ship, her arms tight around the dragon’s neck. She carries a staff carved from the world tree and her long black hair is tangled. She wears rags and is beautiful beyond hope but the men, brave men who have crossed lethal oceans and fought battles, do not look at her; any man who lies with her, they know, is as lost as a blade dropped into the sea’s heart.

They reach land on the third day and there, as the woman promised, is the bay. A small settlement of the Northumbrians stands in their path; a handful of muddy huts, fishing boats, fires smoking in the dawn. The woman unfurls the Hrafn banner and the brothers Ingvar and Ubbar are first in the cold surf. Ingvar draws his sword. A fisherman dressed in muddy rags runs from his hut. Ingvar slices the man’s legs, cutting him down. He begs in the guttural English tongue and Ingvar splits his skull in half. He turns. His beard is thick with blood and he nods at the woman. She comes ashore as the band kill everything else in the village. They have a bargain, she will give he and his brother the kingdom in return for a small portion of isolated earth. They lose nothing. The woman steps through blood and flesh and walks to the top of the nearest bank as the men kill. Ubbar orders some to burn the ships. There will be no going home to the north this time; they are here to conquer.

She leaves the turmoil and climbs. Something is waiting in the darkness beyond. She scans the horizon with hard blue eyes: wolf-eyes, they’re called in the north. She feels the power of the land run through her like the first kicks of an unborn child.

A song has drawn her to this place, a song of men’s bones and steel and wave and blood, of moonlight and silver water and of eyes she dare not meet, she who fears no man alive. She hears the song carry on a breeze that reeks of burned ships and smiles for the first time in many years. Ingvar is by her side, spattered with gore. His breathing is hard and his eyes are filled with hunger and the iron-spark of slaughter. Is that it? He asks. Is that your prize? He cannot disguise the scorn in his rough, sea-hardened voice. She nods. Her hair is black as crow’s feathers against white skin and the blue rags of her robes flutter in the English wind.

Yes, she answers.

Gareth Spark’s prize-winning short fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, The Big Adios, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, Line Zero, and Deepwater Literary Review, among others. Gareth has contributed stories to collections such as The Shamus Sampler 2, Near to the Knuckle Presents: Gloves OffTwelve Mad Men (edited by Ryan Bracha), and Exiles: An Outsider Anthology (edited by Paul D. Brazill), as well as the recently released Trouble in the Heartland. He lives in Whitby, Yorkshire, and works a day job as a forklift driver. He is 36 years old.