To Sin With a Viking

By: Michelle Willingham
Chapter One

Ireland—ad 875.

The tribe was slowly starving to death.

Caragh Ó Brannon stared at the grain sack, which was nearly empty. One handful of oats remained, hardly enough for anyone. She closed her eyes, wondering what to do. Her older brothers, Terence and Ronan, had left a fortnight ago to trade for more food. She’d given them a golden brooch that had belonged to their mother, hoping someone would trade sheep or cows for it. But this famine was widespread, making anyone reluctant to give up their animals.

‘Is there anything to eat, Caragh?’ her younger brother Brendan asked. At seventeen, his appetite was three times her own, and she’d done her best to keep him from growing hungry. But it was now evident that they would run out of food sooner than she’d thought.

Instead of answering, she showed him what was left. He sobered, his thin face hollow from lack of food. ‘We haven’t caught any fish, either. I’ll try again this morning.’

‘I can make a pottage,’ she offered. ‘I’ll go and look for wild onions or carrots.’ Though she tried to interject a note of hope, both of them knew that the forests and fields had been stripped long ago. There was nothing left, except the dry summer grasses.

Brendan reached out and touched her shoulder. ‘Our brothers will come back. And when they do, we’ll have plenty to eat.’

In his face, she saw the need to believe it, and she braved a smile she didn’t feel. ‘I hope so.’

After he went outside with his fishing net, Caragh stared back at the empty hut. Both of their parents had died last winter. Her father had gone out to try to catch fish, and he’d drowned. Her mother had grieved deeply for him and had never recovered from the loss. She’d given her own portion of food to Brendan numerous times, lying that she’d already eaten. When they’d discovered the truth, it had been too late to prevent her death.

So many had succumbed to starvation, and it bled Caragh’s conscience to know that both of her parents had died, trying to feed their children.

Hot tears rose up as she stared at her father’s forge. He’d been a blacksmith, and she was accustomed to hearing the ring of his hammer, watching the bright glow of hot metal as he shaped it into tools. Her heart was as heavy as the anvil, knowing she would never hear his broad laugh again.

Though his boat remained, she didn’t have the courage to face the larger waves. Her brothers knew how to sail, but none of them had ventured out again after his death. It was as if evil spirits lingered, cursing the broken vessel that had returned without their father.

She wished they could leave Gall Tír. This desolate land had nothing left. But they lacked the supplies to travel very far on foot. They should have gone last summer, after the crops had failed to flourish. At least then, they would have had enough to survive the journey. Even if they now travelled by sea, they had not enough food to sustain them beyond a day.

The hand of Death was stretched out over everyone, and Caragh had felt her own weakness changing her. She could hardly walk for long distances without growing faint, and the smallest tasks were overwhelming. Her body had grown so thin, her léine hung upon her, and she could see the thin bones of her knees and wrists.

But she wasn’t ready to give up. Like all of them, she was fighting to live.

She picked up her gathering basket and stepped outside in the sunlight. The ringfort was quiet, few people exerting the energy to talk, when there was the greater task of finding food. Her older brothers weren’t the only ones who had left to seek supplies. Most of the able-bodied men had gone, especially those with children. None were expected to return.

A few of the elderly women nodded to her in greeting, with baskets of their own. Caragh thought of her earlier promise, to find vegetables, but she knew there was nothing out there. Even if there was, the others would likely find it first. Instead, she made her way towards the coast, hoping to find shellfish or seaweed.

She stopped to rest several times when her vision clouded and dizziness came over her. The water was nearly black this morn, the waves still and silent. Her brother was standing along the shoreline with his net, casting it out into the waves. He waved his hand in greeting.

But it was the sight of the longship on the horizon that evoked fear within both of them. The vessel was large, a curved boat that could hold over a dozen men. A massive striped sail billowed from the mast, and a single row of white and red shields hung over the side. In the morning sun, a bronze weathervane gleamed upon the masthead and a carved dragon head rested at the prow. As soon as she spied it, her heartbeat quickened.