The crow queen, as usual, was right. Messengers soon brought news of the rise of Gríma’s army, a force larger than any they had seen before, with several thousand men and a fleet of ships ready to launch. So Ragnar ordered his blacksmiths to prepare weapons for his men, swords and axes and shields, and the smoke from their workshops could be seen for leagues, staining the sky black. Sacrifices were made to the gods; the air seethed with the stench of fresh blood. All the while, Ragnar’s men whispered amongst themselves about the rift between their king and queen. The queen, it seemed, was everywhere Ragnar was not, and would vanish from a room the moment he appeared. When the slave girls searched for her in the hall at night, they could not find her—farmers nearby reported seeing a woman with golden hair and a raven on her shoulder walking the hills under the stars. But when Ragnar’s men brought these reports to the king, he waved them off.

Rumors, the great king said, his words slurred. Since that night by the cooking fires, he had begun to drink far more mead than usual. My queen was in my chambers last night, as always. You should spend your time preparing for war instead of listening to farm girls and their wagging tongues.

It was not the lie that disconcerted Ragnar’s men, but the fact that the king truly appeared to believe it. This did not bode well, the men said to each other. Not well at all.

So time slipped by like wool through a loom. In the darkest days of autumn, Gríma’s people landed their ships in the harbor and sacked the settlement closest to it. A hundred men were killed, a hundred women and children captured. Ragnar’s patience burned out; he would stay his hand no longer, no matter what damage it might do to his wife. Tomorrow night, he told his men, he would lead them into battle on the field that stretched between the longhouse and the harbor. They would take Gríma’s army by surprise and finish them before they had a chance to raise an alarm. His men caught the familiar glint of bloodlust in their king’s eyes, and their confidence was restored. The great king Ragnar had returned to them at last. They had never lost a battle under his command—they would not lose tomorrow.

Women, they muttered to one another. If we let them, they would lead us straight into the sea and drown us in our own folly.

Of course, when they were done saying this, they glanced over their shoulders three times in both directions, just to be sure that the crow queen was not listening, or some other woman with vast and indefinable powers.

That night, they held the greatest feast which had ever been held at Ragnar’s hall. The finest mead was served, along with a freshly butchered cow, and every warrior toasted to the king’s strength and their inevitable victory. No one noticed the crow queen dressed all in black, her lips pulled tight as she fed her bird scraps of bread. No one noticed when she stood, grave and silent, and left through the hall door. No one, that is, except Ragnar himself, who watched her over the rim of his mug, and excused himself with a nod to Sigurd to follow her outside. He only needed a moment, he promised. Then his men would have another round of mead and cast lots to see who would claim any slaves captured in tomorrow’s battle.

The darkness swallowed Ragnar like a beast, dulling the edge of his good humor. The waning moon was a god’s frown over his head; his breath rose in wafting clouds; the autumn chill wove its way around his bones. Where was his wife? He saw no sign of her. Just as well, then. If she did not wish to be found, he would waste no time searching for her.

A sudden crackle of frost. In spite of his drunkenness, Ragnar spun with a warrior’s reflexes, unsheathing his sword and pointing it into the dark.

Declare yourself, he demanded.

Hail, Ragnar the king, said a voice he did not know. I come in peace from Gríma’s people. I bring a warning you would do well to hear.

Step into the light and speak it, Ragnar said. Then I will decide whether you shall live to see the morning.

The warrior came forward. He was plain-faced and slight, utterly forgettable, with a golden beard and hair he had slicked back with grease. He wore no weapons, so Ragnar lowered his own, gesturing impatiently for the man to speak.

It has been foretold, the man said, that you will win this battle, Ragnar the king. But only at a terrible price.

Foretold by whom?

The warrior did not answer that question.

Surrender now, great king, and you will be spared the misfortune doomed to fall on your house.

Surrender before a sure victory? I would be a fool to do such a thing. Is that your final answer?

It is.

The warrior bowed his head.

Then I have no further business here. When we meet again, it will be on the field.

One moment, the warrior was there; the next he was gone, vanished in a blink, darkness filling the place where he had stood. Ragnar shook his head to clear it. He had drunk too much mead tonight, and his eyes were playing tricks on him. Perhaps the warrior had been no more than a figment of his imagination, or a messenger sent by the gods to test the mettle of his courage. What had he come outside for in the first place? His wife. Always his wife. Well, let the crow queen wander the hills alone if she wished. He wanted only another drink and a warm bed before the battle to come.

The king did not sense the eyes that watched him in the night. If he had, he might not have slept so soundly, or held the shadows so close.

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