Four years have passed since the five royal sisters—daughters of the king—worked together to restore their father to health and to the throne while fracturing the bonds among themselves almost irreparably. Only Bluebell remains at home, dutifully serving as heir to her father’s kingdom. Rose has been cast aside by her former husband and hides in exile with her aunt, separated forever from her beloved daughter, Rowan. Ash wanders the distant wastes with her teacher, learning magic and hunting dragons, determined that the dread fate she has foreseen for herself and her loved ones never comes to pass. Ivy rules over a prosperous seaport, married to an aged husband she hates yet finding delight in her two young sons and a handsome captain of the guard. And as for Willow, she hides the most dangerous secret of all—one that could destroy all that the sisters once sought to save.
The saga begins in . . .
DAUGHTERS OF THE STORM
“Five stubborn royal sisters continue to pursue their intersecting and often conflicting destinies in this follow-up to the Viking-inspired epic fantasy Daughters of the Storm. . . . The story gathers more depth and originality in this solidly action-packed middle volume, with the promise of more plot development—and probably a hefty dose of tragedy—to come.”—Kirkus Reviews
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The music and laughter and free-flowing mead made her father’s hall seem so alive that Bluebell could hardly believe this feast was to mark a death: the king’s counselor, Byrta, who had served their family for sixty years. But for Bluebell and her hearthband it was a party, a chance to catch their breath and eat heartily after the privations of life on the road.
“And then I sat on him,” Gytha was screeching, “until he said yes!”
A loud roar of laughter went up, and Bluebell gulped her mead and laughed with them. Gytha, the only other woman in her retinue, was telling the story of how she had convinced her new husband to marry her.
“I suppose you’ll be off having babies now,” Sighere, Bluebell’s second-in-command, said. “Just when your spear arm was becoming legend.”
“Depends on who has the greater claim on my womb: the Great Mother or the Horse God.” She shrugged, took a gulp of her drink. “What will come will come.” But Gytha had already been to see Bluebell to ask how to avoid a pregnancy, something Bluebell herself had avoided since—when had she started f***ing? Sixteen? Seventeen? A long time, in any case. Gytha didn’t want to leave the road any more than Bluebell did. Life after the road was dull and circumscribed, waiting around to die.
Bluebell glanced around the room. Firelight and smoke and movement. Her eyes were drunk and exaggerated everything, and she smiled at nobody and everybody. The wise women of the village crowded around a table near the hearth—their bones so cold from age that even summer couldn’t warm them—telling happy stories of Byrta’s life and laughing in defiance of death. The rest of the crowd was made of old warriors, young stable hands, musicians and tale-tellers, Byrta’s friends from town, and others who had known and loved her—many of whom were unused to being in Athelrick’s hall and were full of marvel and excitement rather than mourning. It was a happy occasion.
“Where’s that little serving wench?” Ricbert slurred.
“Over there,” Lofric said, pointing across the crowd to the other side of the hall.
Bluebell’s men had become infatuated with one of the new hall girls. She was tiny, perhaps a foot shorter than Bluebell, with curling ringlets and a poppet’s face, but enormous breasts.
Ricbert stood, holding up his empty cup. “Hey there! Hey!” And when she didn’t hear over the din, he put down his cup and lurched off after her.
Sighere was straight-backed, alert.
“Relax,” Bluebell said. “Enjoy yourself. No harm will come to us today.”
“Your father,” he said. “The king. He’s nowhere to be seen.”
“He probably went outside to piss.”
Then there was a shriek and Bluebell saw that Ricbert had picked up the little serving girl and was carrying her back to where the hearthband was sitting. Indignant, the girl dumped her jug of mead all down his back. The other men were laughing and whooping, calling to Ricbert to toss the girl to them. They began to pass her around, lifting her over their heads and crowing about how strong they were.
Bluebell finished her drink, stood up, and boomed, “If you are so keen to lift a woman over your head, try it with me!”
Lofric placed the woman on the ground, and she scurried to the fire.
“Come on, then. Lofric? Ricbert? No?” She spread her arms. Bluebell never drew attention to her sex. She was sure, for the most part, her men thought of her as they might think of another man. She was a more powerful soldier than any of them, taller than all but Sighere, and made them call her “my lord” rather than “my lady.” But it was the sign of a craven spirit in a man to exercise his power over somebody weaker outside of battle, and she disdained it furiously. Would they be so cruel to children, or to dogs?
“Ricbert,” she said, with cold threat in her voice. “I want you to try to pick me up.”
Ricbert knew better than to defy a direct command. Sheepishly, drunkenly, he took a step forward and reached for her. Thrymm, Bluebell’s dog, leapt to her feet and growled low.
“Down, girl,” Bluebell said.
Ricbert’s arms went around Bluebell’s waist, and as hard as he pulled her up, she planted herself ever more firmly on the ground. It was no contest. She was bigger than him, and he was drunker than her.
“Anyone else?” she asked.
Gytha laughed and piled on with Ricbert, then it became a joke and they were all crowding around her, falling over one another as they tried to pull her off her feet. Thrymm barked nervously and Blubell laughed and laughed as they failed to move her. She was made of stone. She brought down her arms with one swift movement and swept them all off. Some landed on the floor among the rushes and the dogs. A crowd that had gathered laughed and hooted, and Sighere put a cup of mead in her hands and she called them all f***ers under her breath and sat down again.
“He’s not back,” Sighere said.
For a moment she didn’t understand what he meant, but then she glanced up at the high table and realized he meant her father hadn’t returned.
“I’ll see if I can find him,” she said, and patted Thrymm’s flank so the dog would follow her.
Bluebell slipped out of the hot, noisy hall into the long summer twilight. If her father had sought peace, he wouldn’t have headed to town, but rather around toward the stables. She followed the path and saw him soon enough, standing under an oak tree at the top of the hill, looking out over fields beyond the giants’ ruins. The oak was thick with foliage except for the topmost branches, and a dozen rooks had perched up there: black fruit. The sky was washed yellow-gray as the day finally gave way, late as it always was this time of year.
“Father!” she called, and he turned and waited for her to join him, patient and still. Thrymm ran down to him and licked his outstretched hand.
“Are you unwell?” she asked as she approached over the dewy grass.
“I suffer from what every old man suffers when a good friend dies,” he said.
“And what ailment is that?”
“An unshakable feeling that my death is near.”
The cold touched Bluebell’s heart, but she pretended to laugh his comment off. “Byrta was fourteen years older than you. A crone. You are still—”
“I am not still anything, Bluebell. I have seen sixty-two winters. I have old injuries that ache more with each passing year. Byrta lived to an old age because she had a life indoors, in quiet rooms and soft spaces. I have worn my body out in service of my people. I cannot be too far behind her.”
Bluebell realized that her father’s morbid ramblings were his way of grieving. Four years ago, he had fallen into a deathly sleep for many long weeks; he already knew the darkness that was coming. He had never been the same since. He had lost some of his steel.
“You are still hale,” she said gently. “You are still our king. My king.”
“But if there was a war, Bluebell, could I lead the army? Or would you do it? I’m good for visiting shearings and settling land disputes and placating people who think they’ve paid too much tax, but not much else.” His eyes went back to the fields laid out all around the town of Blickstow, crops of different shades of green ripening in profusion. “It’s already over,” he muttered.
“Nothing is over,” she said.
“I had hoped to die by steel, not by winter.”
He turned back to her and she saw the deep lines on his face, the sag of his eyelids and the silver of his beard, and felt a pang.
“Death will come to you, too, one day,” he said.
Bluebell’s spine stiffened. As it did, she could feel the strength and suppleness in her muscles and joints, and she dismissed her father’s words without letting them settle inside her. “If death comes for me, Father, I’ll cut its f***ing head off.”