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Catla and the Vikings

To the generations of spirited
women in my family who inspired Catla:

Rhoda, Dorothy, Laura and Clara.


Chapter One

Chapter Two
The Decision

Chapter Three
In the Hills at Night

Chapter Four
Headlong into Trouble

Chapter Five
The Village in the Setting Sun

Chapter Six
Setting the Trap

Chapter Seven
A Swift Turn of Events

Chapter Eight
The Eyes of the Dragon

Chapter Nine
Turning Toward Home

Chapter Ten
Recrossing the Heath

Chapter Eleven
A Startling Discovery

Chapter Twelve
A Rest at the Standing Stones

Chapter Thirteen
In the Dark

Chapter Fourteen
The Wolf’s Howl

Chapter Fifteen

Author’s Note




Butterflies hovered around Catla as she sat in the shade of a late-flowering gorse bush. Tendrils of her long red hair clung to her skin. She lifted them off her neck, hoping for a cooling breeze. All morning she’d wandered on the headland above her village, scarcely glancing at the sea, where sunlight glinted on the waves. The fields were ripe for harvest, and she’d stroked the barley heads with their shiny beards. She’d watched a brood of young blackbirds, their black beaks open, demanding food. Autumn had arrived with the appearance of blue-faced asters and birds flocking for their departure south. She’d carefully tugged out some viola roots and added them to the late-blooming wormwood, yarrow and bits of lichen in the pouch that hung from her belt. Rebecca, the village healer, would be glad of the supplies. On most days these pastimes pleased Catla, but this morning her thoughts were far from her tasks. She struggled with the question her father, Athelstan, had asked again that morning as she cast her sleeping robes aside.

“Have you decided?”

His words played over and over in her mind. Olav, the peddler from York, had asked Arknell, steward to their lord, the Earl of Northumbria, if he could marry her. Arknell had agreed to the betrothal and had granted her two moon cycles to think on it. This privilege was not given to everyone, but her parents had forged friendships with both Arknell and the Earl during battles fought together over the years. Now, her time was up. This morning her father had said to her, “I’ll decide for you and make the announcement at this night’s council fire unless you give me good reason against it.” Then he added, “Some girls younger than you are already wed. He wants to marry you, Catla.” He looked at her mother and said, “Sarah, you’ll stand with me.”

Father’s face had been stern, and Mother, who always held that a bride should be willing, had turned aside when Catla sought her eyes. Yet last year when Lioba had married, Mother had said that thirteen was too young. That was before Olav. Father’s words chilled her even with the sun warm on her back. Olav had been welcomed as a friend. Already, some of the people in the village regarded her as betrothed. She knew the rest of the village counted her lucky to have a successful peddler seeking her hand. But her heart was not convinced. And she was just thirteen.

“You’ve a dowry, unlike other girls,” her father had said, “but I think Olav desires you beyond that. He’s a good man. His business is growing because he trades well and fairly. He has taken time from his business in York to stay a few days so you can know him better. You should feel grateful. He likes our village of Covehithe, and he likes you. It might be a long time before someone so suitable comes this way again. Think carefully, my girl.”

Why wouldn’t he like Covehithe? Catla wondered. It was beautiful and enjoyed a flourishing trade with the countries across the water. It would suit Olav well. Athelstan was a good headman, and people prospered here. She loved her village and the headland beyond it. She did not want to marry, not yet, and especially not Olav. He’d make her leave home and move to York. Last spring it had taken her family a day and a half to travel to York’s fair to sell her mother’s weaving. It was a rough, dirty place where slops were flung into the street. She’d returned home with the stench on her clothes and in her hair.

Norsemen who wanted land and a peaceful life as farmers, merchants and craftsmen had been settled close to and within York’s old Roman walls for generations. But there were also runaway slaves and other rough men seeking their fortunes in Northumbria, the farthest northern realm of England. King Harold’s own brother, Tostig, had welcomed many such men into his army. Father called all these marauders and looters Vikings, whether they were Norse, Danes or Swedes.

A few days ago Tostig had been killed in a battle at Stamford Bridge, just outside York. The few invaders that had been left alive had taken their injured and sailed home. Who’d want to move to York now?

“What will I say to Father?” She shouted her frustration and startled the butterflies. They flitted away, then rested on some yarrow going to seed. If only she liked Olav better. He said he longed for her and that she was beautiful, especially her blue-green eyes. No one had ever said that before, and she liked the way it made her feel. But he was old, his hair already gray. And he was bossy. He’d told her he would hold the family purse because she was not used to coins, that he’d make all those decisions. He’d hardly listened when she told him she’d helped Mother with her coins at the fair. That did not bode well in her mind. And another thing: he stank.

“You’ll be able to persuade him to wash once you are married,” her mother had said. “You’ll be taking care of his clothes.”

Catla was not convinced.

“I’ll not be doing that,” Olav had informed her bluntly when she suggested he use a frayed end of a willow twig to clean his teeth and sweeten his breath. Would he take notice of any of her ideas?

Other people in her village listened to her, even though she was young. In the spring, Rebecca had taken Catla on as an apprentice. Already Catla was making suggestions for healing. She had added horseradish to the poultice for Martha’s twisted knee, and it had helped. Being discounted by Olav seemed a poor beginning to a life together, but Father John advised her to obey her parents’ wishes, and she did yearn to please them.

With a start, Catla noticed that the shadow of the gorse bush she sat beside had shrunk to almost nothing and was edging its way toward the other side of the clump. She was late! There were fewer demands on her time just before harvest; it was too early to start preserving vegetables and meats for the winter. She had the usual chores of stirring the dye pot, carding wool and spinning. But Mother insisted Catla help prepare food for the short-shadow meal, the main meal of the day. Her mother was right—Catla’s head often was in the clouds. She had better hurry, but she still hadn’t decided what to say to Father. Catla scrambled to her feet. Her shadow slanted away from the village. She was usually home by now.

Then she saw the smoke.

It billowed into a high gray pillar from behind the hill where the cottages sat on the benchland above the sea cliffs. Fires under cooking pots made much less smoke.

What was burning? There had been no talk of replacing the roof thatch or the floor-covering rushes. The grain was not yet harvested, so it wouldn’t be the stalks. Smoke eddied and swirled. Her heart pounding, Catla ran along the sheep and goat trails. Father John had taught her to make the sign of the cross when afraid, and she wondered which gods were listening as her fingers flew across her body.

She picked up the skirts of her shift to run faster, her feet scuffling over loose stones, the drinking horn and pouch bouncing against her side. The smoke soared, thicker now. Nearly at the crest, she stopped, afraid to look. Then she heard a woman scream. Catla’s legs buckled and she sat with a thump. Who had screamed? What was happening? There were more voices and shouting. Some words sounded like Norse, but she couldn’t understand them.

Even at this distance, the smoke made her cough and sputter as some of it curled over the hilltop. Care. Take care, she cautioned herself. She flopped onto her belly and squirmed uphill on elbows and knees, following an instinct to remain hidden. Small stones and sticks dug into the tender skin on her forearms, but she hardly noticed. She kept low to the ground because the sun behind her would put her in plain view if she stood. At the brink of the hill, she shifted forward and peered down into the village.

Smoke eddied and surged around the cottages. Then she saw flames and more smoke. Fire licked the walls and ate its way into the thatched roofs. Smoke poured from cooking holes, curled around the edges of the roof thatch and swirled into spaces between cottages. There were cries of terror and pain and harsh words shouted in Norse. Terror tore through Catla’s limbs, making them quiver. The smoke twisted, and she saw men in black tunics. Vikings. This was a Viking raid. Nord-devils. She pressed her fists against her mouth to stop the scream.

The smoke cleared briefly, and she saw the invaders prodding the huddled villagers with swords and axes, moving them toward the other end of the village. Her end. Where her cottage stood. Nord-devils burning my village! The smoke eddied. Someone wore a green shawl. Was it their neighbor, Martha? There was a tall man with red hair. Her father? A small child clung to a woman’s leg. Was that her mother and little sister, Bega?

Her eyes strained past the village to the cove below the sea cliffs. A red-and-white-striped sail fluttered in the breeze over a long ship—a Viking warship. It was much longer than the merchant ships she was used to seeing in her cove. Oars poked from holes along its sides. The prow was hidden from sight below the cliffs. A figure of a sea monster ended the long curve at its stern, reaching half as high as the mast. Were its eyes searching for her? She ducked her head even though she was sure the smoke hid her.

But she had to watch. Dogs circled, snarling and barking. Glints of metal flashed. One sharp yelp cut off. A dead weight hurtled from a sword tip. Stoutheart? Her chest tightened.

More sounds carried but no clear words. The breeze shifted and though her eyes streamed from smoke and shock, she kept watching. Where was her family? She tried counting people, moving her fingers one by one as her eyes darted from group to group. It was hopeless. Whirls of smoke obscured the village.

“Oh ye gods, help them,” she whispered. Was anyone inside the cottages? Maybe these Nord-devils did not kill as quickly as she had heard.

Two small figures about the size of her young brothers, Cuthbert and Dunstan, darted after a few pigs. Guarding next winter’s food in the midst of all this? Her brothers might do that. A dog snapped at the invaders. Was that Bentleg, their brown one with the curly tail?

“Don’t kill them, leave them alone, don’t kill them!” Catla found herself standing and shrieking. Horrified at herself, she clapped her hands over her mouth and dropped below the brim of the hill, her body quaking. Had she been heard? Foolish girl. Are you to be killed too?

She eased back for another view.

She would sneak down to help.

No, that was a poor idea. She’d be caught too.

What could she do? She must do something. What could she do alone?


Maybe that was good. Alone.

The thought cut through her shock.

She could get help. The invaders might not know she was missing, even if someone had called her name. No one in the village knew where she was.

Aigber. Go to Aigber, beyond the standing stones, by the river. The village in the setting sun. Aigber.

Her father was a longtime fighting companion of Hugh, Aigber’s headman. For years Aigber and Covehithe had celebrated the Longest Day at the standing stones. They’d all been together there three moon cycles ago. Her village had taken half a day to get there, and Aigber the same. She could be in Aigber in less than a day, without babies, children, dogs and carts of food and bedding to slow her down.

The thought of leaving her family now in such danger made her stomach twist. She hadn’t paid attention on the way to the standing stones; she had never been all the way to Aigber. What if she couldn’t find it? What if she got there and the Nord-devils had arrived first? She wrapped her arms around her middle and hugged her sides.

Squirming her way a little farther down the hill, she sat with her head in her hands, elbows propped on her knees, her body shaking. It was getting late. The sun was dropping lower in the sky. She had to make up her mind.

One thought skittered after the other. She had to get help. She was the only hope for her family, her village. A voice inside her head said, You’ll get lost. The Nord-devils will find you and take you away. Wolves will eat you as you cross the heath. The barrow ghosts will steal your mind. It will be dark. In the midst of her anguish, she sensed her father’s presence and the words he’d once said came back to her: “There will be times in your life when you are afraid, but a brave person does what has to be done in spite of fear. You, my daughter, have the makings of a brave person.” She hadn’t believed him, but maybe he’d seen something she didn’t know was there. The words gave her courage. She would go.

She turned her back on the cries and the smoke. With the warm afternoon sun on her face, she turned, put one foot in front of her and felt the breeze cool her cheeks where the tears had run.


The Decision

As she moved farther from her village, Catla’s resolve faltered. Should she check to make sure everyone was alive? Were the Nord-devils herding them into the goat pen? It had looked like that to her. Maybe the Nord-devils were slavers. Oh, let that be true. Then she recoiled. Slaves! But it was the better fate. They would be alive. Or would they? Would the Nord-devils take everyone, even little Bega and her brothers? What would they do to her mother and the other women and girls in the village? Resolutely, she stopped imagining more, but tears started to form again and she almost turned back. Her mind argued as her feet continued down the hill.

Alone, she could do nothing against the Nord-devils with their axes and swords. But if she stayed, she’d know what was happening. What if the villagers were killed or loaded onto ships before she returned? She’d never see them again. She gasped. Her little sister’s face swam in front of her eyes. Catla’s words, last evening, had not been kind. “Stay away from my things, Bega.” Why hadn’t she been even-tempered like her mother?

She’d turned her back on Bega’s apology. Even the tears trickling down Bega’s plump little cheeks hadn’t softened Catla’s heart. Bega hadn’t meant to put another crack in the pot that held Catla’s stone collection.

If she were home now…She shook her head at her foolishness and clenched her teeth in determination. Her steps lengthened as she continued down the slope she’d so recently run up.

She didn’t see the mole’s mound. Her foot caught the loose dirt and she slid, then stumbled forward and skidded downhill. Twigs and rocks scratched her arms and legs, and a boulder gouged her thigh just above her knee. She thumped to a stop on her side. This time she didn’t try to stop the sobs. Tears trickled into her ears and ran down her neck as she wailed. Finally she lay still. She opened her eyes but didn’t focus on anything. Could she find a place she’d never seen? She was an herb and flower gatherer, a baby-bird counter. Mother called her a dreamer. And if she did find Aigber, what if they didn’t believe her? What if—?

She sat up and swore an oath, using words only the men in her village uttered. She caught her breath in uneven gulps.

“I have to do this. I am the only one who can. I have to.” She chanted, “Have to, have to…” and wiggled her ankle to see if it hurt.

She stood to test it. A twinge of pain ran up the outside of her leg, but it held her weight.

She squared her shoulders. I’m lucky. It could have been worse. What was it her mother always said? Knock on wood. Catla bent down and rapped her knuckles against a stout branch blown from an ash tree—Odin’s tree—for protection. She picked up the branch to help her walk, feeling a pang of guilt as she remembered Father John’s teachings. She made the sign of the cross, just to be safe.

The sun was in her face as she started across the heath. As she walked, her mind filled with the scene she’d witnessed. The Nord-devils all wore the same black tunics. Likely, they all served the same lord. Father told her once that different armies wore different colors so they could find their friends on the battlefield.

But her thoughts were mostly with her family. They would be helping everyone, the way they always did. “You’re part of this family, and this family cares for everyone in the village.” Her father repeated these words too often for Catla’s liking. “My father did this, and so will we.”

She’d tried to close her ears when her father told her to do something tedious or unpleasant, like picking bugs from the bedding robes. Or awful, like emptying Old Ingrid’s slops from her cottage every morning into the communal pit. She still felt guilt at her relief when Old Ingrid had died.

“The lord granted my family this land many generations ago for our use, so long as we serve his needs,” her father had said. “It was given for valor in battle. The villagers honor him as a just and godly man.”

“But, Father, it’s you who are the headman, not me.” Catla had tried to argue when the sickness sped through their village last winter. “It’s not fair. Ruth’s my age. She gets to play while I wash cloths to mop up vomit.” Now her heart ached as she thought of Ruth, her best friend. She had succumbed to the illness, not Catla.

The villagers paid their geld price to their lord, but they gave their trust and love to her mother and father for the fair leadership that allowed them to live as freemen. Catla thought about the helmets, swords and shields in the village, carefully wrapped in skins to keep the damp off the shiny metal. She wondered if the Nord-devils would find the hiding places.

She hoped God’s ears were open when she promised that if she returned and found her family safe, she would never complain again about anything her parents asked her to do. Yes, she’d even marry Olav. She crossed herself again and closed her eyes to seal the bargain.

A sudden gust of love for her small village with its gardens, grain crops and small cottages stirred her. She loved the sea and the food it provided. Smoked fish and village-made wares were bartered at fairs in Scarborough and York for things they couldn’t make themselves, like metal tools, salt and some of the colors for their famous dyes. If the people were taken, Covehithe would disappear. Her heart dropped.

She’d been so deep in thought, her fear had been pushed aside. It came back when she turned and saw the smoke, lifting high and dark in the afternoon sun. She’d traveled a good distance and felt a sudden hope and pride. Her family was brave. I’m my father’s daughter, and my mother’s too, she thought. Her mother was a warrior who’d fought alongside Catla’s father and was famous for using the short stabbing sword and catapult. All the village women owned knives, but her mother’s was beautifully crafted, a gift from the king.

It was hard to imagine her mother in the midst of a battle with a short sword in her hand. Her mother would never talk about it. “When you’re older, Catla. You’re too young to understand.” But she’d promised to teach Catla to use one this autumn, after the harvest. Catla had used a catapult for a few years, and even Father had said she had a good eye. She put her hand into her pouch to make sure the coiled strings, leather rock-pocket and the few smooth rocks had not tumbled out when she’d fallen. Her fingers found the catapult alongside the plants she’d gathered. With a long deep sigh her mood shifted back to grim, and she ran again to flee her shadow.

A few villagers had asked her, “How do you dare to go up onto the heath with just your catapult and stave to keep you safe from wolves and wild things? You’re brave, like your mother.”

She felt safe on the heath. Besides, she wasn’t like her mother, even though she yearned to be. Her mother was helpful, kind and even-tempered, most of the time. Catla longed to have hair like her mother’s: brown and wavy, rather than red and tangled.

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