Today, I’m revealing the cover and synopsis for Soul’s Fire, the third installment of The Northwomen Sagas, and sharing the prologue as a teaser.
Soul’s Fire is Astrid’s story. It opens about five years after the epilogue of Heart’s Ease. I did my best to make Heart’s Ease stand alone from God’s Eye, but that was tricky, considering their overlapping timelines. Soul’s Fire, on the other hand, should stand alone quite easily, though of course there are nuances that can only be appreciated if you’ve read the whole series.
Soul’s Fire will be released on Saturday, 4 February 2017. As usual, the preorder will be live a couple of weeks before then.
Meanwhile, here’s the Goodreads page.
Before I share the synopsis and teaser, and I want to wish you all a safe and happy New Year’s Eve!
Here’s the synopsis:
Astrid has been a warrior since the day she was old enough to make the choice to live and die with an axe in her hand. She is strong and stoic, powerful and brave, and she has the life she desires, free of complications and distractions.
She is a shieldmaiden, and that is all she wishes to be.
She has been the strong right hand of her jarl since the day they and their allies overthrew the cruel Jarl Åke. Jarl Leif is mighty and honorable, and with Astrid’s help, he has brought great prosperity to their people. Every summer, the raiders sail into new lands, traveling farther and farther, claiming treasure to enrich their people. They meet little resistance from the rulers or the people of these strange worlds.
Until they land in a country whose king has learned the lessons of his neighbors and meets the raiders with a cunning and brutality that matches their own. In that clash, and after it, Astrid’s shieldmaiden’s strength and will is put to the harshest tests.
Leofric is the second son of a king. Without the expectations or attention imposed on his older brother, he is free to live more or less as he chooses. But he is a seasoned warrior and not half so dissolute as his reputation suggests. When his father and brother seek to salve their rage by torturing a captive barbarian woman, Leofric sees their action for the evil it is and does all he can to save her, and then to heal her.
To love her had not been part of his plan.
The captive is strong and stoic, powerful and brave. She is a marvel unlike any woman he’s ever known. But if she is to live, she must learn the ways of his world. If she is to thrive, she must cast aside what she was and become something new. Leofric would give her all that he has and more, but there is one thing he cannot offer.
His world has no word for shieldmaiden.
Note: Explicit sex and violence. Dark themes.
And here’s the teaser:
Astrid kicked on her mother’s door. The move jostled the girl in her arms, and she moaned.
“Mother! Are you there!”
From behind the slatted wood, she heard, “Usch! I’m here! Why all the yelling and pounding, just open the—”
The door swung open, and Geitland’s healer—her mother, called Birte—stood there, her face flushed and her hair stuck in wet sweeps over her forehead. She had been at the fire, probably boiling some new potion.
“Öhm!” she exclaimed upon seeing the girl Astrid held. She moved her substantial body out of the way, and Astrid pushed through, carrying the girl to the cot in the main room of her mother’s house. When she laid her down, the girl moaned and clutched her side, where blood soaked her tunic.
Birte dried her hands and pushed Astrid out of the way. “Another? You push these girls too hard, daughter. If you are not careful, one will die from your training soon.”
“If they would die in training, then they are not fit for battle.”
After she turned eyes full of weary displeasure on her daughter, Birte bent to the girl and plucked at her tunic. “Let me see, child.” She lifted the coarsely woven fabric and showed a wide, deep wound. She had been slashed with a true sword, sharpened for battle.
Astrid had been training shieldmaidens for years, and she knew her work. There was little to be learned batting sticks at one another. She taught her charges the way she had been taught: with sharpened weapons. They learned because their lives depended on it.
Her mother knew that, and also knew that Astrid’s shieldmaidens had brought great honor on themselves and on her. But it was true that this year, there had been more injuries. Astrid blamed the crop of new fighters, who were softer than any she’d known before. In the past, young women had come to her with some fighting skill already. All boys, and many girls, in their world were taught to defend themselves as soon as they could wield a weapon.
But in the past few years, with Geitland basking in great prosperity, people had grown soft. They had only raided once each of the past three summers. Each raid had brought so much treasure that everyone had more than they needed, and the appetite for the fight had dwindled as warriors grew rich and drunk and made their women fat with their children.
If not for the sneak attack during the winter from an inland clan, which had shaken all of Geitland up and awakened their bloodlust as well as depleted some stores, Astrid doubted the people of Geitland would have had the interest to raid at all this summer.
But they did. In fact, Leif, Geitland’s great jarl, and Vali, the jarl of Karlsa, Leif’s good friend, and his northernmost ally, planned to raid again together this summer, in a daring journey to the other side of the fertile land they had plundered so fruitfully for the past four summers.
For this new, bold raid, a long voyage in new water, to new land, her shieldmaidens could not have any softness in them. They would need all their wits, all their strength. They would need to turn their hearts and bodies to stone and iron.
As Astrid had, long ago.
She watched as her mother pressed her fingers along the girl’s wound. When the girl whimpered, Birte shushed her, her voice and breath both crooning softly. These soft touches and sounds were not the kind of mothering Astrid had grown up with, and she felt a pluck of irritation at the bleeding girl.
Then her mother pushed a finger into the wound, and the girl screamed.
Astrid scowled at the sound.
Her mother sucked the blood from her finger. “You are fortunate, child. There is no greater damage than this slice. I will close it, and you will heal.” She turned back to Astrid and waved her hand toward the door. “Schas, daughter! I have no need of you. You have done enough, I think.”
Dismissed, Astrid left without another word and headed for the great hall. She had no more need to be there than her mother had need of her. The girl was of no more interest to her. She would make no shieldmaiden.
A true shieldmaiden closed her mouth against her pain.
Winter had crept away, and the afternoon bore the warm promise of dawning summer. The door and windows of the great hall had been thrown open. The night would likely freeze again, the sun was still young and its warmth did not last long, but for now they could enjoy the air and light.
As Astrid came to the main doors, a trio of young goatlings trotted out on their stiff legs, bleating. Right behind them, laughing as he tried to catch one, was Magni, Leif’s son, born of his second wife, Olga. He had five years, and he had grown wilder with each of them. He was a goodhearted boy, and robust, but he was undisciplined.
Astrid had never borne a child, and she cared not to do so. She had never had a husband or a man promised to her, and she cared not about that, either. When she wanted a man, she had one. When she was done with him, she went away from him.
She wanted no man to seed her. A shieldmaiden who mated and bore children was a shieldmaiden no longer. A mother was bound to the hearth, to tend to the needs of others during her years of greatest strength. Such was not the life for Astrid.
Her lack of experience about children or parenting did not stop her from judging the parents she knew, however. She kept her mouth closed, but she judged nonetheless.
Leif and Olga, in her estimation, were soft. Olga’s mothering was sweet songs and gentle kisses. Leif’s fathering was play and laughter. Having five years, Magni was old enough to begin to be taught the ways of their world, which was a harsh place of long winter and cold iron and steel.
Instead, he was being shown a world of love and warmth and joy. Without hard training to forge his will, he would make no good jarl to sit in his father’s place one day.
Astrid doubted that Leif would ever be challenged for his seat; he was revered as jarl, he had earned the seat in battle, and he would hold it until his death. But he was not immortal, and his son—if Magni were not challenged even before he could claim his father’s seat, Astrid believed he would be challenged shortly thereafter. And he would be killed.
Unless he found his stone and iron before that day.
She watched the boy dive for a goatling, his blonde hair flying. He missed, landing in the dusty dirt with a gleeful shout, then jumped up and ran again. All around him, people at work made way for the jarl’s son, his only living child.
Leif had put in the ground six children, his first wife, and the unborn son she’d carried. Olga had thought herself unable to bear Leif a child, until she’d borne their son. Perhaps there was good cause in that for the way Magni was indulged. Good cause, perhaps, but not good sense.
Astrid shook her head and went into the hall to discuss with Leif their upcoming travel to Karlsa, where they would make their plans for this great raid.
Vali, Jarl of Karlsa, strode down the pier to Leif, and the two men clasped arms and then embraced warmly. Though Leif was a large man among their people, Vali stood taller and wider. He was the largest man Astrid had ever known. His size and power, his ferocity and skill in battle, and his endurance had made him a renowned warrior. His steady hand, keen mind, and warm heart had made him, like Leif, an esteemed leader.
Vali’s wife, Brenna, known as the God’s-Eye, who had once been a legendary shieldmaiden, stood behind her husband, their three children around her. When Vali and Leif had made their greeting, Leif moved on to Brenna, wrapping his arms around her. She released the hand of Ylva, her youngest, so that she could hold him. At the same time, Vali embraced Olga, who, with Magni, had joined them on this brief journey north.
Then the women embraced and cooed over their children. Brenna and Vali’s oldest, a girl, Solveig, had more than six years. Håkon, their son, was only half a year younger than Magni, so had near five years. The three of them greeted each other like old friends and ran off toward town, their parents calling after them warnings to be careful, as if every eye in the town would not be mindful of the jarls’ children.
Brenna and Vali’s youngest, Ylva, still bore the round cheeks and wispy locks of infancy and could not have had more than three years. With wide, still eyes, she studied the adults as they spoke together. Vali swept his youngest girl into his arms, and she tucked her fair head under his dark beard.
Still in the ship, Astrid watched all that friendship and family with an evaluative eye. There was no denying the greatness of either man, or of Brenna. But the men were building on their legend, adding tales to their story. Brenna had given over to breeding and had not raided for many years, since they had traveled for the last time to Estland. There, they had met Olga, Leif’s wife. And there, Vali had wed the great God’s-Eye and turned a shieldmaiden into a broodmare.
She did not understand the impulse. The children were well-made and good-featured, yes, and she supposed there was the drive to leave one’s blood behind after death. But she had admired the God’s-Eye as a great warrior, and here she stood, in a hangerock fastened with bejeweled brooches, smiling up at the man who had sheathed her sword when he’d sheathed himself in her.
At the intimate image that accompanied that impatient thought, Astrid scanned the people of Karlsa who stood along the shore, watching the welcoming of the Jarl of Geitland. She did not see the face she wanted. When she joined Leif in Karlsa, she coupled with Jaan, with whom she’d often coupled in Estland as well. He was good company, well built, and a fine rut. Usually, he was at the shore for the welcome, but on this day he was not.
She found herself disappointed. No matter; she was sure he would show himself.
Vali handed his daughter to Leif, then turned and smiled at Astrid. “Will you stand there glowering, my friend, or will you join us?”
He held his large hand out as if he meant to help her onto the pier. She gave him the smile he sought, and she joined her friends, but she did not take his hand.
“Again, you would have us be farmers? Was not our failure in Estland lesson enough?” Astrid slapped her hand on the hide before them, covered with thin lines and small pictures. A ‘map,’ it was. She was still skeptical of them. It seemed to her that to use such a thing for navigation was to trust someone they did not know to create an image of a place they had not seen.
The sun and the stars. The wind. Her own eyes. Her own feet. These were things she could trust to show her the way.
Vali leveled sharp blue eyes at Astrid. “Estland did not fail because we could not farm. Estland failed because we were betrayed. By the jarl you’d sworn fealty to.”
“Leif and your wife had sworn to him as well.” She should not have brought up Estland. Vali always harkened back to Åke when that time was raised in disagreement. But he wanted to carve a settlement from this new raid, and that was folly. Astrid tried another tack. “To the point: none among us is a farmer. We were not farmers in Estland. Why would we settle land we do not know?”
“We do know it. We have explored well inland and taken great mountains of treasure from these kingdoms of Anglia. We know it is lush and green.” Vali leaned back. “You are right. I have no wish to be a farmer. My duty is here, in Karlsa. My home.” He reached over and took his wife’s hand. “Our home. But there are those among us who would seek to make a life in that greener, warmer place. Raiders who are farmers, and would rather sow the earth with seed than with blood.”
Then they were not raiders, not truly. No matter their skill with a blade.
Astrid turned to Leif. “And you? You think this is wise?”
“I think that we should see what we see in this new place. With each raid, resistance has grown, and the battles have been harder won. So we move to the west, where they might not expect us. If we can take the land we need, we should take it. We take all that we can claim. Why would we not take the land as well?”
“Because we are not people of that place. It is not our home.” The words churned from Astrid’s mouth, through teeth clenched in frustration. Their last attempt at settling had been a terrible disaster, one she meant never to see repeated.
“It shall be, when we make it so.”
Brenna had spoken those words, and Astrid turned her frustration on the God’s-Eye, “We?”
The woman who had been a great shieldmaiden turned a look on Astrid that would have made a softer soul quake, full of fire and fury. The God’s-Eye stare. Brenna’s strange right eye might well have held the power of the Allfather, and Astrid gave it the respect it was due. She could not hold Brenna’s gaze.
“Yes, we. I shall raid with my husband, my friends, and my people.”
The God’s-Eye would be a shieldmaiden once more? Was she fit, after so many years with a child at her teat?
It wasn’t a question Astrid would ask. If she was not fit, then she would die in battle, and that was none of Astrid’s concern.
As long as Vali wasn’t weakened by his concern for his woman.
Astrid could meet Vali’s eyes, so she did, though she was faced with a furrowed brow as he agreed with his wife. “Brenna’s mother will tend to the children, and Bjarke”—he nodded at the man beside Leif—“will hold Karlsa in our absence. His woman is bringing forth their child soon, so he will not be with us.”
“Ah!” Leif exclaimed and slapped Bjarke on the back, changing the mood of the room at once. “That is good news, friend.”
Bjarke grinned. “I am sorry to miss this raid, but I am honored to have your trust to lead in your stead, Vali.”
And again, Astrid was surrounded by people celebrating the thought of a coming child, with no concern that they had lost a strong warrior to that endeavor.
That night, in Karlsa’s great hall, which was far less great than Geitland’s, the people of Karlsa feted Leif and Olga and the rest of their guests. After a few horns of mead, Astrid began looking in earnest for Jaan. She was restless and irritated, and she wanted to expend some of that energy.
Wandering through the hall, pushing away drunken hands that sought the same thing she did, Astrid pulled up short as Solveig, Magni, and Håkon ran across her path, holding hands like a chain and giggling.
She tried to remember if she had ever played as these children always seemed to. If she had, her mind could not recall it. She had been raised in a house that had been always full of the ill. She had been raised to be quiet, to be helpful, or to be sent away. And when she was sent away, it had been to her father, a cart maker. With him, she’d learned hard, physical work, and to be stoic in any discomfort.
Her parents had tended her well, kept her fed, clothed, shod, and warm. Though they had been disappointed to have had only one child and a girl at that, she supposed her father had loved her in his way, and she knew her mother did in her way.
But no, she did not think she had ever run giggling through the hall.
The mead had made her thoughts maudlin. She needed a good rut. But Jaan was not in the hall, and there were no other men of as much interest as he would be.
She went outside, into the bright light of a nearly full moon. The night was warm enough that her breath didn’t plume from her mouth. This summer might be long. That was good; this year, she hoped for more than one raid. Her joints felt stiff with idleness.
She took a long, deep breath and let it out, blowing it toward the heavens.
She wheeled and saw Jaan in the shadows along the side of the building. With a smile of pleasure anticipated, she went toward him. “Jaan. It has been a long while.”
“A long while, yes. You look well.”
He’d taken a step back as she’d neared. Surprised, her battle senses tingling lightly at the suggestion that all was not right, she stopped. “As do you. You have been keeping yourself from me today. With purpose, I think.” Understanding had dawned as she’d spoken, while he lingered in the shadows, holding himself off.
“I am wed.”
She laughed. Of course. Why not he, as with all others in her life. “Then glad tidings. I wish you and your beloved many fat babies. Good night, Jaan.”
Feeling a sour turmoil in her belly that she didn’t understand, Astrid turned and took a step toward the hall. She would find one of the men with the grasping hands and mount him. One ride was as good as another.
That wasn’t true, of course. But it would be true tonight. With enough mead, it would be true.
She stopped but didn’t turn back.
“I’m sorry to tell you in this way.”
“It matters not, Jaan. I hope you are happy.”
There was nothing more to be said, so Astrid left him in his shadow and went back to find a horn of mead and a man to mount.
© 2016 Susan Fanetti