The battle was a tempest of iron and blood. Gríma’s people had not been surprised as Ragnar had hoped, and were ready to meet his men with sharp swords and sharper bloodlust. Ragnar’s horse had already been slaughtered from underneath him, and he stood now with an axe in one fist and a shield in the other, hacking at any body within reach. He could not tell, in the crush, which side had the advantage. But the words of the mysterious warrior rang in his mind: Ragnar would win this battle. It had been foretold, and few things that were foretold could be undone.

He had hardly thought of the warrior when the man materialized before him, this time armed with a sword. The warrior said:

We meet on the field, great king, as I promised.

Ragnar hoisted his axe in answer. He would end this man’s life—he knew it with a certainty that filled his arm with fresh strength. They clashed together in a shock of steel. Ragnar swung for his opponent’s legs; the man leapt out of the way and landed a blow against the king’s shield. This warrior was light on his feet, and even lighter with his sword, moving with a dexterity that forced Ragnar onto the defensive. After several minutes, the great king felt his arm begin to tire; if he did not attack now, his children might be fatherless come morning. So he stepped and swung again, this time at a vulnerable ankle. The golden-haired man cried out as the axe sank into his flesh. Though his sword arched down, nicking the king’s ear, the pain had slowed him, and he did not move quickly enough to avoid the next blow plunging into his stomach. He collapsed with a gurgling howl. Ragnar stood over him, rearing his axe back to finish the deed.

But he could not finish it. Not because he lacked the will or courage, but because the man below him was not a man at all. She was a woman, the beard falling from her face like grains of sand to reveal a soft, round mouth and golden hair that glinted in the torchlight. Talons of cold shredded Ragnar’s stomach. It could not be. His eyes were betraying him again.

But the crow queen did not have time enough left to assuage his doubts.

I do not fear death, Ragnar the king, she said. It is one of my many houses.

She waited, watching him with her clouded eyes. There was no fear in them. He could not dishonor her courage with cowardice. So Ragnar raised his axe—he let it fall—and no one who was there could tell if the cry that sounded came from him or the queen or some godly host.

When the great king opened his eyes again, his wife’s body was gone. In its place stood a large, black crow; it eyed him with a strange kind of knowing, flapped its wings, and soared up into the night. He watched it go, and realized there would be nothing to bury.

The crow girl had denied him even this.

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