The crow girl knew that the warriors would return when her mother dropped a pot of porridge to the hut floor. She walked outside to meet them before they had even come up the hill; her expression did not change as they relayed their strange message.

Tell your king that I will come tomorrow, she said, and returned to the house, leaving the men dumbstruck outside and the dog still barking.

She will never come, the men whispered amongst themselves that night. For his part, Ragnar the great king slept a sleep without dreams, at peace in the knowledge that his impossible terms would never be met.

But when dawn washed the sea in lavender light, a cry came from the man keeping watch, shaking Ragnar from his sleep. He scrambled up with his sword at the ready, searching for the cause of the alarm. A girl stood on the beach in the midst of his ships: a girl with hair like gold, who wore nothing but a fish net draped over her freckled shoulders. At her heels was a dog, and in her fist she clutched a half-chewed onion, as if she had been eating it on the way.

That is the girl we spoke of, whispered young Sigurd.

Ragnar hardly heard him. He could not see or hear anything but the girl—he stepped out of his ship to meet her with legs that were not his own, the sea washing against his boots.

You came, he said, his voice too high and tight.

As requested, she replied.

How? The question left him before he could stop it, as if he was a child demanding answers of a parent.

She explained with unperturbed patience: I am not wearing clothing, yet I am not naked. I have eaten nothing but an onion, so I am neither fed nor starving. My dog is with me, but last I checked, he is not a person. In this way I have aimed to meet your demands, my king.

Ragnar could not name the thing he felt then. It was not the usual fear, though his skin was slick with sweat and his fingers trembled. He only wanted the girl to stay, and sensed that if she left, she would take some piece of him with her. So when she turned on her heel, he commanded her to stop.

What demand would you make of me, my king? the girl said. It was then that he noticed the raven on her shoulder; its black eyes promised nothing but judgement.

Of course, he did not know what demand he wished to make of her. He simply knew that she should not leave him—no more, no less. He asked her if she would come to his ship. She refused. He asked her why. She told him that she would not go anywhere with a man who was not her husband. At this he balked. He had asked a woman to be his wife before, and had regretted it every day after. He had no intention of marrying again so long as he could prevent it. But there was something in girl’s eyes, sharp as the blade of his sword, and the merciless glare of her raven. She was there and yet she was not; her soul belonged to another world, a world Ragnar could reach for all his life and never touch. At once, a new brand of fear crashed in on him: the sudden and all consuming terror that this girl would vanish like mist at sunrise, never to be seen again. It was a fate which could not be borne.

Sigurd, he called. Bring the shirt my late queen owned, the one which is made with gold. Give it to this lady as a prize for her cleverness.

But before Sigurd could begin his search, the girl shook her head.

I will not dress like a queen while I live among peasants, my king. Maybe you would like me better if I dressed in finer clothes, but I wish to go home.

Ragnar the great king, who had rallied men to battle and pronounced judgments of the law, was speechless. The girl would not be compelled by gold; she would not be swayed by his title as king. What, then, had he to offer her? There was the prickling on his neck again, the disconcerting knowledge that his men were watching him, waiting to see what he would do next.

May I return home, my king? asked the crow girl. There was nothing of the storm he felt in her stare. She watched him with a vague curiosity, as if he were just another sea-dwelling creature and not the great king who had the power to complete or end her life. He craved that fearlessness. He wanted it for himself. This was the only thought in his mind when he seized the girl by the wrist and held her fast—at least, until her dog sank its teeth into his hand.

Ragnar swore and jumped back; his men surged forward, felling the dog in two silver slashes of their swords. The poor beast collapsed in a pool of purple blood. Ragnar cursed again, sure that any chance he had had of making the girl his own had died with the dog. Meanwhile, the girl simply stood with her brow furrowed. She had known the dog would be killed, but was disappointed all the same.

I have honored our pact, my king, she said as she turned to leave. Now I will return to my mother. I have no doubt you will forget about me soon enough.

And if I don’t?

Her eyes found his over her shoulder.

Return in three days with an offer of marriage, she said. I think I am worth that much. The raven on her shoulder screeched, and the sea hissed at Ragnar’s feet. The challenge was set; all the gods and earth had just borne witness to it. If he sailed home now and never looked back, he would be forever known as the trembling king who had been bested by a strange girl in a fish net. He could see in the crow girl’s face that that was exactly what she expected him to do, just as he had expected her to deny his ridiculous request to visit him. So Ragnar took his own sword from his belt and slid the edge of the blade across his open palm.

By this hand, he said. I will return.

She nodded to the dead dog on the beach. In peace?

Neither I nor my men will ever raise a sword against you again. I swear it.

At that, the girl smiled. Her teeth were slightly crooked, he noticed, and that small detail brought an answering grin to his lips.

You do not know what you swear, my king, said the crow girl. But your courage is duly noted.

She did not say by whom. But with another rare smile, and without asking to be dismissed, she left him. Ragnar didn’t dare breathe until her golden hair disappeared in a flash over the horizon. For a crazed moment, he thought about following her—then Sigurd’s voice dragged him back to the beach.

Your boots, my king, the boy said.

Ragnar looked down. His boots were stained with the dead dog’s blood.

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