A few days later, Jinny woke early. Not because she was hungry—she was always hungry. Not because she was cold—she was always cold these winter nights, even though she wore her daytime clothing and huddled tightly under her thin blanket. She woke because the dog was whining and pulling at her. The cows, brought into the cellar to share their warmth with Jinny and her father sleeping above, bellowed loudly enough to wake the whole village and strained against their fetters, their eyes wide with alarm. Her father, drowsy, asked, “What’s wrong with the cows?”
“Don’t know . . . somethin’ outside.”
“Listen,” said her father, fully awake now, off his bed and heaving at his boots. “It’s them. They’re coming.”
She heard, above the sounds of the sea breaking across the shore, a faint thrumming of large wings. Leaving her father to pull on his boots, she grabbed her antler and stumbled out of the hut. Her father, still tugging and cursing at the boots, hopped after her.
Gripping her blanket tightly around her, Jinny stood barefoot on the crisp snow-covered ground. The cold clawed at her like the pitiless Teutates, making her long for her slipper, which she had not stopped to fumble for in the dark cottage. Her father offered his hand, but she moved away, avoiding his touch.
It was dawn, a frosty one. A line of light showed atop the eastern cliffs, but above the village, the dark sky was as clear as water drawn fresh from the well.
Their black bodies invisible against the night, the creatures flew quietly, stealthily. Only the blinking lights in the sky, the eyes of the dead, showed their passing.
The whole village, almost a hundred people shaking in the numbing air, clustered among the huts and peered into the sky. They had known these creatures would come, and had lain for long nights, open-eyed on their beds, dreading their return and those they carried on their backs.
No longer stealthy, the creatures blew two streams of orange flame, so hot that Jinny shielded her eyes from the brightness and imagined she could feel the heat. Lower, barely missing the villagers’ huts, the creatures passed again. The torrid blast from their flames was real now, yet the people still shivered.
The old stockade encircled the village, with only one narrow gate to the sea, another to the fields, but these raiders came from the air, reaching ground just within the fence, mocking its security.
In the beat of a wing, the landing dragons transformed from graceful denizens of the air to blundering waddlers, twitching their heads absurdly this way and that, as if beasts such as these might have enemies.
Jinny swung her way through the crowds to see the dragons better. Couples who craved a child watched her pass with poorly hidden impatience.
Noticing them reminded her to avoid the druids. One day, she would have to run from them.
Run. The one thing she could not do.
The light was dim and the dragons dark, but smaller than she had expected. She remembered a few days earlier, when the faerie Grizel had told her she might dance again if she became the Queen of the Dragons, but how could she ever be queen of these ferocious beasts? It had been a dream, hadn’t it?
Two dark figures jumped from the dragons while the villagers waited, quietly apprehensive. She found Birk the blacksmith and was grateful she could not see his ruffian son, Parlan.
“Jinny,” Birk growled. “Stay back. These two are dangerous.”
She wormed her hand into his warm, calloused blacksmith’s fist. “Can I stand on your foot?” she asked, quietly.
The blacksmith grinned down at his sad young friend. “Where’s your father?”
She gripped his hand and manoeuvred her foot onto his, using the antler to balance. His foot, in an open sandal, felt deliciously warm. “Back there.”
“Anu’s paps, Jinny, that foot is cold!” The blacksmith pretended to shiver. Grateful for his friendship, she pretended to smile.
Close by them stood the old man, a crofter by his clothes and weathered face. He nodded towards the dragon riders.
“The Raven and her lackey.” The hate in his voice thick enough to burn for warmth. “Now I wonder what they be wantin’.” He didn’t need to ask. All the villagers knew who the dragon riders were and why they had come.
The Raven took long, lithe strides towards them, her lackey close behind, almost running to keep up. The riders, both slightly built, wore thick black cloaks and horsehide boots, finer and warmer than anything the villagers owned. The Raven’s hood hid her face, but a black winged bird hovered by her. Not knowing who she was, the villagers called her “the Raven” after the birds that were always with her.
As the Raven held back from the crowd, Hamish, her lackey, spoke. With his hood lying on his shoulders and his eyes bleary, as with wine, he addressed them loudly and roughly, his voice sounding too thin in the wintry morning air for words of such consequence.
“You are late.”
The people said nothing and avoided the menace of his stare; no one wished to speak first.
The lackey continued. “Dragons cannot eat rocks. We must give them gold. You know this. I have told you this.” His gold bracelets jingled as his hands moved to the gold belt at his waist, and he pranced like a god in front of the shuffling, poorly dressed, poorly fed people. He stopped near the blacksmith and Jinny, before the old man, who, eyes smouldering, met the lackey’s glare with his own.
“You—farmer; why do you not pay your share?”
“What can we give?” said the old man, making no effort to hide his contempt for the warmly cloaked person before him. “We have nothing.”
The lackey struck the old man with his leather-gloved hand; he fell to the icy ground.
“That is for your insolence,” the lackey said, and walked on, careless of the hate-filled eyes around him.
For a moment, it seemed the blacksmith would intervene, and Jinny lost her hold on his foot, but instead, he waited, his body rigid, his eyes on fire.
The old man, mouthing curses after Hamish, struggled where he had fallen; the blacksmith helped him to his feet, brushed snow off his clothes.
“Be careful, old man,” he said. “The lackey might be birdshit stuck to the bum of his crow, but he can cause you real harm.”
The Raven vaulted up a rocky shelf, the same one that, two seasons earlier, the Arch-Druid had mounted, with more dignity, to burn the bull. Though the villagers had a clear view of her cloaked body, the brightening sky behind cast her hood in deep shadow, and it appeared empty. When she spoke, she held her arms unnaturally tight against her sides, and her voice, though confident and firm, was unusually deep for a woman.
“Every season, one half of your crops and newborn animals must come to the Island of the Dragons.” She paused, the hood scouring the villagers like a single black eye. “Yet Imbolc was five days ago, and we have received nothing.”
The old man pushed his way to the front of the crowd and responded angrily, desperate enough to shake his fist at her. “You cannot make bread from sand! You and your damned dragons have taken everything.” There were murmurs of agreement from the villagers.
The hood looked down at the man, as if taking note of his face. “If you have nothing, you’re no use,” she said, explaining the obvious to recalcitrant peasants. “We must burn your cottages, your fields, and if you remain, we must burn you too.” Her voice became granite hard. “Understand this: Meet your tithe or lose this village.”
Jinny could see the tears of frustration on the old man’s face as he raised his head to shout. “We are starving; don’t you have eyes? Can’t you see?” The villagers shifted, murmuring again in agreement.
The blacksmith, Jinny with him, moved to the man’s side. “Be careful, old friend.”
“I care not,” said the old man loudly. “She cannot take what we do not have. Our bellies are empty.”
The Raven threw back the cloak’s hood, and showed them her face for the first time. She took a small pace back, blinking as if the old man could somehow threaten her. “Do not talk to me of empty bellies, old man,” she hissed. “Not while my dead lie in their graves, howling for revenge.”
The first rays of the dawn sun blazed from her red hair like a nighttime fire. She wore it short, to the shoulder, as a man would. Her face, though young, was hard, lined. A face that had experienced the best and worst of life. Not a pretty face.
“You have nothing, you say. Yet . . .” Her arms moved out from her body, her fingers splayed, palms flat towards the crowd; her voice grew soft. “You have children.”
The puzzled villagers turned to each other. “What did she say? What did she mean?” As the Raven’s words filtered through their confusion, a woman screamed and sobbed into her man’s chest. The man, ashen-faced, shook his head.
“No. Surely not. She wouldn’t . . .”
“We will not take all your children,” said the Raven, as if she cared about their fears. “Not yet. But your firstborns, in the season they reach their fourteenth year, must come to us.”
As the shocked villagers struggled with the Raven’s words, her dragon, a huge coal-black thing with eyes the colour of iron tongs held too long in the fire, shifted from its place by the fence and lumbered towards her, its thin tail whipping from side to side and over its head.
Jinny explored for the dragon’s mind but felt only an ancient, closed thing, like an old leather bag. The bag cracked open, and her mind lurched; the dragon was angry at the Raven’s threat to the young. Jinny felt pain there also. The Raven had taken something from him!
“Hold there,” said the dark visitor. It was little more than a whisper, as if she spoke with her mind, though all the villagers heard it. The dragon slowed, reared onto its hind legs, flapped its enormous black wings, and spewed flame towards the Raven. The flame stopped short of her, but she must have felt its heat.
The Raven appeared unperturbed, though Jinny could see her hands clenched tight at her sides. “Hold, I say.”
She climbed from the rocks, closer to the dragon, where the next flame would certainly blast her into a cinder. For a long moment, the black dragon and the black figure faced each other, the dragon’s eyes, orange-red and malicious, fixed on the Raven’s calm face. Neither the dragon nor the Raven moved as much as a finger or a claw.
“Back . . .” said the Raven, even softer than before. The dragon, its eyes furious, shuffled back to its place and breathed a roar of hot flame over the heads of the Raven and the villagers. It took small, restless steps forwards and backwards.
Jinny thought again of her dream. What madness it was for her to seek control of these beasts.
The Raven turned briskly back to the villagers. “Is there more to say?”
The blacksmith had more to say. Considered, in the absence of their chief, a leader by the villagers, he had heard enough.
“We will never do this.” His voice was sure, steady, and invited no discussion. He stood proud and, except for Jinny, holding his hand, alone, as the villagers slipped from his side.
Bowing his magnificent beard to her and untangling his hand, he said, “Jinny, you must stand away.” She shook her head and gripped his hand even tighter. He looked down at her with a taut smile.
“We have given enough,” he roared, although the Raven was only paces from him. His free hand tightened into a fist, his knees straightened, and at his full height he towered like a black bear over the slight figure of the Raven. A strong, virile man, sure of himself and his rightness.
“The blacksmith, am I right?” said the Raven, speaking only a little louder than with the dragon. “You too dare to challenge me?” Her throat moved as she swallowed. She shook her radiant hair from her eyes, and her birds, several now, circled them both, cawing loudly, flying close to Birk and brushing his face with their wings. He did not flinch.
Her voice hardened again. “Lie before me, blacksmith.”
The blacksmith, astonished at her demand, squared his shoulders and firmed his jaw. A villager called out incoherently and watched with the rest, wide-eyed and hushed.
“Let him be!” shouted Jinny, but her small voice evaporated in the silence like a water drop on a fire stone.
Unwilling—unable—to unlock his stare from the Raven’s, the blacksmith twisted his lips, lowered his eyebrows, and firmed his jaw, set fast in his cause. “We have given enough.” It was a plea for reason.
Moments passed, their bodies rigid, the blacksmith’s head thrust forward, his bushy, black eyebrows framing glowering eyes.
Something above caught Jinny’s eye. It was the rising sun, catching the wing edges of ravens, gathered in the sky. She stared at them, alarmed. There must be hundreds. Why are they here; what do they mean?
The blacksmith’s eyes fluttered, fluttered again, and closed. His stiffness eased, and his body wavered as if he was losing his balance. The strength in his face became confusion, dismay, and then wonder. He released Jinny’s hand, bent his legs, and eyes still closed, head high, he kneeled before the Raven, then lay before her, his face deep in the cold snow.
A shudder ran through the watching crowd.
A raven appeared and perched on his back, not moving, not pecking, unnaturally still. Another followed, and then another, more ravens every moment crouched on the blacksmith’s back, burying him in a mound of still, black feathers.
As the last piece of Birk, his hand, disappeared beneath the layers of feathers, Jinny fought back the urge to shout or stamp to frighten the ravens away. She dared not stand against this woman.
The Raven said nothing, gave no sign, but the birds lifted together, scattering into the sky like autumn leaves on the wind, leaving behind imprints in the snow of arms, legs, body, and head, in the shape of the blacksmith.
Transfixed by the impression in the snow, Jinny could neither think nor move. The black-bearded giant of a man who had been her lifelong friend, who had protected her when others thought her damaged and fodder for the fire, was gone. A wail came from deep within her; it began as a groan, became a shout, an angry howl. The villagers joined her; a hundred people shouted at the Raven, who, unperturbed, waited for them to quieten.
Jinny allowed her father to carry her away, her tears damp on his back, her head twisting to keep that empty patch of snow in sight.
Hamish the lackey approached the Raven, heedlessly scuffing snow across the imprint.
“In the season your firstborns reach the age of fourteen,” he called to the villagers, “they will be sold as slaves. Bring them to the Island of the Dragons.”
With a final look of scorn, he followed the Raven to their dragons, leaving the villagers cursing soundly, but softly, behind them.
As they wheeled their dragons into the air, the Raven shouted, “All is past due. Tomorrow, then more each season.”
The men of the village gathered together and asked what they could do. The old man looked around at his friends, saw the dread on their faces, the shame of men who had been afraid and stood to the side while another had fought their battle.
“What she did to Birk . . .” the old man said. “I saw his eyes. She made him love her! How can we fight these flaming dragons and this woman who makes you love her and covers you with ravens? Will we ever see poor Birk again?”
No one could answer him.
“The Raven is well-named. She be the hag of winter, for sure,” he continued. “Mark me well . . .” His head shifted and his voice lowered. “She is the Morrigu.” The men nodded in sombre agreement. She was the Morrigu all right—the goddess of war. One man, known as a sage, recited a rhyme as the villagers listened solemnly:
Over his head is shrieking
A lean hag, quickly hopping
Over the points of the weapons and shields
She is the red-haired Morrigu
They stood in thoughtful silence, until the old man spoke again.
“If she is a she,” he said gravely. “She looks like a man, walks like a man, but her voice, though low, is a woman’s.” He warmed to his theme: “She’s ill-looking for a woman, for sure, but the face is smooth and there’s no bristles on the chin. She’s scrawny enough for either, and has no dugs on her—least as I can see.” He stood back, well satisfied with his speech.
Another man spoke up. “Did you notice she would not come close to us? As if we frightened her? And that temptation about her; I swear, I despise her but wanted to hold her, protect her.”
Other men nodded, said they too had noticed that the woman, though strong and firm, had been wary of the crowd of villagers. Several too had felt an attraction to her.
“And that dragon,” breathed Jinny’s father. “It hates her more than we do. We need Cynbel.” Looking around at the people he had known his whole life, he emphasised, “We need our chief and the warriors he took with him.”
“Bah,” said the old man, spitting on the ground. “Cynbel is away fighting the king’s battles. Who knows where he puts his feet these days.”
“We must send messengers to find him. He must return,” said another villager. “Our need is greater than the chieftain’s.”
“That we must, and that he must,” said the old man, rubbing his chin. Then, with dawning dismay, he asked, “Who do we have now that is just fourteen years?”
The old man’s eyes followed those of Jinny’s father as he turned to Jinny, who had crouched in the snow, her arms around the small, dark dog, her head resting on its shoulder as it squirmed around to nip at her.
Her father’s only child, she had just turned fourteen years old.