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Raiders from the Sea
By Lois Walfrid Johnson
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2003 Lois Walfrid Johnson
All right reserved.
Without making a sound, Briana O'Toole slipped out the door to walk the mountain behind her home. In the half-light before dawn her reddish blonde hair swirled around her face. Her brown eyes peered into the mist that hid the valley below.
From the time she was born, Bree had lived in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. As if they were close friends, she knew every bush, tree, and stone along the path. What she didn't know was that this September day in the late tenth century marked the end of her old life and a new beginning.
After a steep climb, Bree reached her favorite spot on the side of Brockagh Mountain. When the breeze came, she felt it first upon her face. Moments later, the rising sun broke through the mist. The distant waters of the Irish Sea drew Bree in a way she couldn't explain even to herself. If only I could know what's out there.
For Bree the thought was not new. Years ago it started as a hunger-a curiosity that built with each story she heard about life in distant places. By now her wish to know the world beyond Ireland was a longing that wouldn't go away. What would it be like to see faraway lands?
Still watching the sea, Bree felt the dream of adventure. Then a whisper of fear crept into her thoughts. Would I have the courage I'd need?
Her brother, Devin, seemed brave enough for most anything. But Bree knew an unknown world might be frightening too. Whenever friends gathered in the cottages of Ireland, she heard stories about Vikings and their fast ships with the dragon heads. Fierce raiders from the North countries, they fell like lightning upon a peaceful countryside.
Bree shivered. Please, God, not here. Not ever again.
As the red ball of light grew large, the sun glittered and danced on the sea. Tossing her long hair over her shoulders, Bree shrugged off her worry. She'd let nothing spoil the wonder of this, her thirteenth birthday. In a loose-fitting blue dress that gave her the freedom to climb steep hills, Bree felt ready to celebrate.
When she started down the mountain, the mist still hung in the valleys, but she took the long way home. Even without seeing them, Bree knew every turn of the rivers that passed near her family's farm on their way to the Irish Sea.
Below her lay the place where she took her younger brother and sisters swimming. Beyond that sheltered spot, two rivers flowed together. Close by, her father had nearly drowned as a child. Often he warned them about the stepping-stones just upstream.
"People think it's an easy spot to cross," Daddy said. "But if something goes wrong-"
More than once, he had told Bree what to do if the younger children ever needed help. Always Bree felt glad for the way her dad praised her ability to swim. But now she felt the sun on her face and welcomed its warmth in her thoughts.
Someday I'll travel beyond these mountains, she promised herself. Someday I'll see the world beyond the Irish Sea.
In that moment the mist parted, showing Bree the place where the current ran swift and deep. There on the stepping-stones just above the joining of rivers was a lad with blond hair. Tully!
The boy stood on a rock with his back turned, but Bree felt sure she would recognize him anywhere. Wearing long narrow trousers and a sleeveless tunic, Tully was the son of her daddy's best friend. But what was he doing here, so far from home?
Bree's heart leaped just thinking about it. Has Tully come to give me a birthday surprise?
It would be just like her mother to plan something special with the Byrne family. But Bree couldn't wait. Moving on silent cat feet, she hurried down the hill, planning a surprise of her own.
On that September day the river ran full from autumn rains. Swirling water covered the stepping-stones on the far side of the river. As Tully moved from one stone to the next, Bree's excitement about a birthday surprise changed to uneasiness. Can't he see how swift the current is?
When he reached the last big stone, ready to slip into the water and swim the rest of the way, Bree called a warning. "Tully!"
At the sound of her voice he started to turn. Suddenly his foot slipped, and he lost his balance. Arms waving, he tumbled into the water.
On bare feet Bree raced to the edge of the river and followed the stones into the stream. There she found her worst fears true. Tully had hit his head when he fell. He lay facedown just beneath the surface of the water.
Dropping onto the closest stone, Bree stretched out. In that instant the current caught the still body and washed it beyond reach.
Filled with terror, Bree stood up and leaped into the river. With quick, powerful strokes she swam through the water. The moment she saw Tully's head, she reached down, caught his hair, and pulled him up. One hand under his arm and the other treading water, she kicked. When they broke the surface, she held up his head and kept kicking.
With one arm across his chest and swimming with the other, Bree started for shore. She had only one thought-getting Tully to breathe. But in that moment the full force of the current caught her. The powerful rush of water took them downstream.
Go with the current, Daddy had taught her. Don't fight it. Let it carry you toward shore. But time for Tully was running out. Her panic growing, Bree looked around for help.
The surrounding countryside lay empty, even of sheep. And now Bree faced another fear. How long could she hold him up?
Then, just as she started slipping under the water, she felt the river bottom. Setting down her feet, she found firm ground and headed for shore. With her last ounce of strength she dragged Tully onto a broad, flat rock.
As he lay on his stomach, Bree turned his face to one side and pounded his back. When Tully gagged, water poured from his mouth. Coughing, he started to breathe.
Relief stronger than any current poured through Bree. He'll live!
Then the boy raised his head. For the first time Bree caught a good look at his face. It isn't Tully!
A ripple of shock washed through her. If it's not Tully, who is it?
A red bruise on the boy's forehead marked the spot where he hit his head. Now his gasps for air became long gulps. Turning his head toward Bree, he muttered two words she didn't understand.
Puzzled, Bree watched the boy. Still catching her breath, she dropped down on the grassy bank next to him. Even her knees felt weak. Never had she felt so glad to touch the green sod of Ireland. Who could the boy possibly be?
On this side of the river, grass and stones gave way to steep hills. In the brief time they had been in the water, the sun had disappeared. A cloud of mist drifted between the mountains.
As though feeling the change in air, the boy rolled over and sat up. He seemed close to Bree's age, but the sun had given him a deep tan. His blond hair hung in a loose cut just below his ears. Most of all, Bree noticed his strong square jaw. Whoever this stranger was, she felt sure he wouldn't be afraid to express his opinions. But now his blue eyes looked confused.
"What happened?" he asked.
"You fell and hit your head."
"Where am I?"
"On a river that flows to the Irish Sea."
"Who are you?" the boy asked.
He spoke in Norse, a language used by traders, and Bree answered the same way. Her father, a great Irish chieftain, was also a merchant who traded with people from other lands. From the time Bree and her older brother were little, their daddy had taught them to speak Norse.
Instead of giving her name, Bree jumped up. "There's a spring nearby. I'll get you water." Moving quickly up the hill, Bree reached the spring and found the clay cup left for any passerby. Filling it with water, she returned to the boy.
"Thank you," he said when he had drunk deeply.
Bree only nodded. She was angry now-angry at the danger this boy had caused. "What were you doing, crossing there when the river runs so high?"
"I could have made it"
Bree couldn't believe her ears. "Don't you understand what happened?"
"I'm a strong swimmer."
"You hit your head." Bree's voice curled around her words. "You weren't breathing."
When his angry gaze met hers, Bree's temper flared. "You would have drowned without me!"
"I swim every day."
The blue eyes had changed. Not so confused, Bree told herself, glad that he seemed to be returning to normal. But his voice held a swagger that upset Bree even more.
Watching him closely, Bree understood why she had thought the boy was Tully. The same blond hair and blue eyes. The same look of knowing what they want and going straight toward it. But there the similarity ended.
What is it? Bree asked herself. Then she knew. While Tully was always kind to her family, the look of this stranger was sharp, almost cold. Even now, after nearly drowning, he wore a prideful air.
"So where do you do all this swimming you're so proud of?" Bree asked.
For an instant the stranger didn't speak, as though thinking about his answer. Then his words came in a rush. "Around my home."
"And where is your home?" Bree had lived near the river all her life. She had never seen the stranger.
Like a shifting shadow, something flitted through the boy's eyes. Turning toward the river, he tipped his head downstream. "That way."
Watching him, Bree felt uneasy. "What do you mean, that way? Down by the sea?"
"And beyond," he said.
Bree knew a stone wall had gone up between them. He was avoiding her questions. Upset now, she pounced. "What are you trying to hide?"
"Hide?" He looked innocent, but he reminded Bree of a boy she knew who didn't tell the truth.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Michael," he told her.
Michael. Instantly Bree remembered a story in the Bible. When a courageous man named Daniel fasted and prayed, a high-ranking angel named Michael came to help him. But there was something about the way this Michael said his name. It bothered Bree. What was it?
I'm just jumpy, Bree told herself. As she started to ask more questions, the boy shivered. In the changing air Bree felt the cold. Though Michael also had good reason to be cold, she watched him closely.
His next shiver looked real. Grasping his upper arms, he hugged himself against the wind. "Do you have a blanket?" he asked. "Any food?"
Bree jumped to her feet. When she was only a young child her mother had taught her the Irish way. Countless times, Bree had seen her mother offer food, water, and shelter. "Sure, and it's the Lord Himself that we serve," she'd always say. But now a thought flashed through Bree's mind. Whoever this lad is, I don't want to invite him home.
"My mother will loan you some dry clothes," she told Michael.
Even as she spoke, Bree kept watching him. The boy couldn't be much older than she, but he seemed more grown-up. More sure of himself. Bree wondered about it.
Then her family's habit of hospitality won out. "I'll get you something to eat"
Michael nodded. He trembled now, and his teeth chattered.
Walking quickly, Bree crossed a nearby pasture and climbed over a stone wall. Beyond were a grass-covered hill and then the oak forest. Partway up the hill, Bree suddenly changed direction. Not even to herself could she explain why.
Instead of taking the shortest route home, Bree headed for a rise where trees grew close together. When she reached a place where she could slip out of sight, she looked back.
Michael still sat at the edge of the river, huddled against the cold. Even from where she stood, Bree saw the trembling in his shoulders. He had turned to watch which way she went.
Raising an arm, he waved. In that moment Michael seemed just another boy about her age. For the first time Bree felt sorry for him. He would have been better off walking fast with her. At least he would have stayed warm. But Bree still felt uneasy and wasn't willing to ignore that warning.
The moment the trees hid her, she changed direction again. As she climbed the steep hill at the bottom of Brockagh Mountain, she felt grateful for her strong body. Just last week her brother Devin had told her, "Bree, you've kept up to me all your life. You don't have to do everything I do."
"Yes, I do" Bree had answered. But even to this brother she loved, Bree couldn't explain why. Always she had known that she needed to be physically strong, able to climb mountains without panting for breath. Able to walk long distances and swim in cold water. This morning had proved it.
Moving quickly between the oaks, Bree doubled back onto the shortest route home. Soon she dropped down to a meadow. Sheep grazed there, looking so peaceful that for the first time ever, they seemed out of place.
By the time Bree reached her family's farm, she decided she had imagined all her reasons for questions. Inside the house, she snatched up dry clothes and a blanket. In the kitchen she gathered a loaf of bread and a small pail of milk. As she headed back out the door, she nearly crashed into her older brother.
Slender and tall for his age, Devin stood straight as an arrow and had their father's black hair and deep blue eyes. A year older than Bree, Devin was the one who shortened her name. Using the Irish word for a high, rocky hill, he often told her, "When you're stubborn, you're like a mountain that can't be moved."
Her brother meant to tease, but Bree liked having a name that reminded her of the lofty headland up the coast from where they lived. For as long as she could remember, Devin had watched out for her. Usually Bree didn't appreciate his help. Now he wanted to know what she was doing.
"I saved a lad from drowning," Bree said.
"Drowning?" Devin's blue eyes widened. "Where?"
"You know the stepping-stones where the rivers come together? Where we never swim because of the current?"
"So you swam there? Dad won't like that!"
"If I hadn't, the boy would have drowned. He hit his head when he fell."
As Bree started back across the meadow, Devin took the bread and pail of milk and followed. "So now you're bringing him this?"
"He's tired. Too tired and cold to come here."
Still wondering if she were imagining things, Bree didn't explain her mixed-up feelings. She and Devin walked quickly without taking time to talk. When they reached the high place overlooking the river, Bree glanced ahead and stopped short.
"Where is he?" Devin asked.
Bree shrugged. "Maybe he's behind a bush or tree. Staying out of the wind"
Worried now, she broke into a run. But when she reached the rock where Michael had been, there was no one in sight.
Excerpted from Raiders from the Sea by Lois Walfrid Johnson Copyright © 2003 by Lois Walfrid Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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