June 12th, 1896 A.D., 4.10 PM
The Irish Sea
Miss Minerva Minett was rapidly losing faith that her hired sailors were of the highest caliber. Or sober. Or able to obey the simplest commands without discussion, pontification, and an inordinate amount of cheek. She huffed as the unfittingly-named Captain Smart kicked tentatively at her vessel, a twenty-foot-long copper-and-glass goldfish. The submersible swung mere inches above the steamship’s deck, caught fast in a net of chains by the Saucy Sal’s cargo crane.
From his deepening frown, it appeared Smart had not expected to awake from a drunken stupor to find a giant goldfish on his ship. Nor had he anticipated that his first mate would charter the Sal to a forty-three-year-old Englishwoman with a fascination for temporal experimentation. He kicked the bug-eyed goldfish once more, then turned to study Minerva’s unconventional attire: tweed trousers, a white blouse, a leather over-corset, and a pith helmet strapped with brass goggles. If he had comments to make upon her bizarre dress, he wisely chose to keep them to himself. Perhaps because of the blunderbuss shotgun Minerva held with an unusual familiarity for a lady scientist. “So, what you’re saying, Miss Minett, is that you’re going to climb into that metal fish alone—”
“And we’re going to toss you over the side of the ship—”
“Launch my vessel, yes.”
“And on the way down to the waves, you’re going to fiddle with them controls—”
“Set the exact time and destination of my journey through the vortex of time and space.”
“And you’re going to end up—”
“In this area, but a thousand years ago. I will then propel the Tempus Pisces toward land, where I shall seek an audience with the monks at the Cell-Ruaid Monastery.”
Smart scratched his beak-like nose. “That monastery’s been abandoned for eons.”
“Hence my need for time travel. The Royal Society for Paranormal Peculiarities has offered membership to any layman who can persuade the monks to create a scroll with specific words, and to bury said scroll in their graveyard. Tomorrow, in a grand ceremony, the Society elders will dig up graves undisturbed for centuries to find the scrolls.”
The Captain’s jaw dropped faster than any anchor. “Are you telling me there’s a club for time traveling grave-robbers?”
“No. There’s a club for gentlemen who spend their afternoons drinking brandy and discussing time travel, parallel universes, and the occult. I intend to be the first member to actually achieve temporal fluidity. And the first female member to boot.”
“Why would you want to—?”
“To demonstrate to the members, to my condescending older brother, Mortimer, to all who insist that women have no place in the scientific ranks, that the female mind is just as capable of ingenious invention as the male mind. Probably more so, given that we consume less brandy per capita and have to work five times as hard to gain access to the same education and opportunities that men take for granted. Why, I had to—”
The Captain groaned. “Oh, my God, a suffragette.” He glared at his first mate. “You let a bloody suffragette on board. Didn’t I tell you not to go trawling for charters down by the library?”
The brawny first mate shrugged. “She seemed normal enough at the time. I thought she wanted to go fishin’. By the time I realized she wanted us to put her fish in . . .”
Smart held up his hand. “Spare me. Well, Miss Minett, pardon my manners, but male or female or something else entirely, you’re as nutty as a fruit cake to believe you can swim through time in a metal fish. You can’t seriously believe—”
“It will work. In theory.”
“Aye. A lot works in theory. But flinging a madwoman into the ocean sounds like a good way for me to end up in jail. You’ll drown.”
“My life, my choice. However, there is a 14.8% probability that I will revolutionize our scientific understanding of the universe. The proof will be in the pudding. Well, in the grave, at least.”
He shook his head. “I don’t like it.”
“I’m not paying for you to like it. Shall we begin? Or shall I show you how much damage this blunderbuss can do to the things you love?”
The Captain glanced furtively at his first mate, who blushed beetroot red.
Minerva swung her blunderbuss to point at the barrel of rum that stood beside an oak table littered with tankards. The crew had taken advantage of the Captain’s incapacitation the night before to borrow his personal keg.
Smart blinked at the keg. “That’s not supposed to be up here.”
“Do we launch, or do I shoot?”
The Captain tut-tutted. “No need for violence. I barely know you, Miss Minett, but I’ve identified why you’re a spinster miss, not a married missus.”
She snorted. “I highly doubt it. Launch, or shoot?”
He sighed. “Go on then, you daft mare. We’ll try and haul you up before you drown.”
“Excellent.” She strode across the deck toward the Tempus as the ship’s crane operator climbed into his cab. The crane’s steam engine rumbled into life. Minerva ascended a staircase of packing crates next to her vessel. She stood on the top step, preparing to leap across to the Tempus’s open hatch. Nothing traveled through time as reliably as a giant copper goldfish.
Minerva eyed the hatch, calculating the kinetic energy required to leap aboard in a single bound. She had no desire to land face-first on the deck before an ever-growing band of onlookers. A dozen sailors now stood around the goldfish, showing various stages of amusement and concern.
Smart said, “You know, miss, you’d be a lot safer throwing your vessel around on dry land—”
“Hardly. Dry land means earth, stone, animals. If I stand on the ground as I dematerialize through time, I could rematerialize inside a rock, a tree, or even a surprised cow.” She nodded at the Tempus. “As you drop my goldfish into the sea, I’ll activate my chronetic engine, transporting my vessel back in time and space so I’ll fall safely onto the waves, no matter their height. A short paddle east, and I shall encounter the good monks of Cell-Ruaid. Then back to my goldfish, a temporal leap to ten minutes from now, and you should find me bobbing in the sea approximately five hundred feet starboard. Naturally, I will avoid re-materializing directly in the hull of this vessel.”
“Well, that’s considerate of you, miss.”
“Indeed. Are you ready, Captain Smart?”
“No, not really—”
She leapt across to the Tempus, squirmed inside to the oohs and ahs of the crew, and slammed the hatch closed.
The Captain shrugged and gestured to his crane operator to proceed. Through the bulging eyes of the of the goldfish, Minerva watched the sailors back away to safe distance. The fish slowly rose and swung out over gray waves that melted into an overcast sky. Not ideal weather for time travel, but anything short of a squall should not impede her journey.
Her fingers danced across the controls, checking and double-checking her instruments. She set the chronometer to June 12th, 996 A.D., 4.10 PM as her vessel swayed on its chains. A flick of switch, and the chronetic engine beneath the floor hummed. Anticipating the coming drop, Minerva placed her left hand on the steering wheel, her right on the time lever, bracing herself on the pilot’s chair.
Perhaps some sort of safety strap might have been a good idea? One that attached to the chair and fastened over the lap, similar in style to a gentleman’s trouser belt. Maybe she could call her new invention the seatbelt. . .
The sailors leaned over the side of the ship, keen not to miss a moment of her possible demise. Smart shouted, and the fish dropped.
Her stomach lurched, then . . . BANG!
A nightmare swirl of spectral light. The universe set upon her, tore her apart, built her anew, slurped down her atoms, and spat her out like a bad oyster into the year 996.
The electric light within the Tempus flickered between life and death as monstrous, black waves seized the vessel, shaking it as a terrier shakes a mouse. Darkness clawed at the windows, winds howled, and pain shot through Minerva’s fingers as the steering wheel wrenched from her grasp. She flung herself at the wheel, wrestling for control as her goldfish writhed and tossed in the tidal maelstrom. She locked her body against the wheel’s force, leaning back, praying to a god she didn’t believe in as the fish almost bellied up, almost sank like a stone, almost . . .
The cabin shuddered and groaned, torn between the outside forces and Minerva’s will. She swore as her favorite teapot smashed onto the riveted floor behind her, and dozens of leather-bound history tomes tumbled off the bookshelves. Her library- inspired décor had been designed to provide a pleasant research setting should she find herself adrift in time. But perhaps interior padding would have been a more suitable complement to the seatbelt she didn’t have?
A dive to the depths was an option, but her experiments in the River Thames had been fraught with fear that the fish would fail to rise on command. For now, staying atop the waves seemed her best chance of survival. If her dashboard compass was correct, the shore lay a mere two miles ahead.
The fish groaned, and a couple of rivets popped like champagne corks from the interior seams. Sea water sprayed across Minerva’s cheek as she engaged the main propulsive drive. The floor rumbled beneath her boots as gas turbines ignited. Had she finally run out of the luck that had kept her alive through laboratory fires, exploding submersibles, and one very public crash in Hyde Park on her prototype flying bicycle? Decades of solitary study, public mockery, and the occasional flash of genius cut short by a watery grave. Would she never walk into the Royal Society with her head held high, accepted as an equal at last?
The Tempus lurched from wave to wave like a drunken sailor. She kept her course as best she could, glancing between the compass and the fish’s bug-eyed portholes. A black wall of water swelled before her. And then . . .
A golden dragon’s head crested the giant wave, eyes staring, jaws gaping, teeth glinting.
Minerva blinked. Her chest clenched, squeezing her heart into a thudding tattoo.
The dragon’s long, slender neck broadened into a wide chest . . . no, a hull? Good heavens, was that a . . . ?
The longship’s bow swept toward her, sail down and oars drawn in. Minerva yanked her wheel hard left, the engine screaming as nature’s might tossed her fish at the oncoming beast. Two toy boats, powerless to resist the wrath of the sea.
Mouth dry, Minerva braced for impact. Her teeth shook as the longship’s wooden planks smashed against the Tempus’ reinforced glass portholes. The longship’s boards splintered, revealing a single-masted boat with its sail furled, shattered rowing benches, and sailors clad in furs and leather scrambling to escape her goldfish’s attack.
Minerva slammed her engine into reverse. The Tempus wrenched itself away from the dragon, allowing the sea to rush in through the broken boards to claim its prize. As waves battered her vessel, Minerva watched, horrified, as the longship began to sink.
Alfhild held tight her sister’s son as titanic waves smashed over the edge of the foundering longship. Dreng’s skin was almost blue from the cold, his left arm bloodied and limp against her leather breastplate. The thirteen-year-old’s blond hair hung in rattails as Alfhild barked orders at the warriors struggling to plug the gaping hole in the ship’s hull with sacks of plundered grain. A far cry from the riches she’d promised them.
She bit her tongue to stop herself from cursing the gods. What had she done to anger them? Did she not follow the sacrificial rites correctly? Were her gifts not pleasing? Had she not lived her life, putting her clan first, her honor next, and her happiness last of all? Two dead husbands, one dead wife, and a string of stillborn babes had left her dried and ready to die.
But not like this.
Lightning flashed, once more revealing the giant copper beast that circled their ship, impervious to the axes and spears thrown at its metal skin. Alfhild narrowed her eyes at the shining horror. Was it sent by the sea goddess Rán to drag them to her sunken lair? For Alfhild’s warriors—twelve men, three women, one boy—there could be no worse fate. Their deaths should come on a battlefield, stained with their enemy’s blood, the sound of axes clashing upon shields in their ears, the smell of victory close at hand. The Valkyries would lead them to Odin’s hall, Valhalla, or Freya’s great warship, the Fólkvangr. In hall and ship, the warriors would feast until Ragnarök, when the gods died and man would be reborn.
But not if Rán the sea-witch claimed them first.
Dreng strained to turn and watch the copper fish. Alfhild clutched him tighter with her left arm, releasing her right to draw her throwing axe from her belt. Maybe her axe would be the one that took down the creature. Maybe if she hit one of its glowing eyes . . .
Dreng gazed up at her, his blue eyes shadowed with pain. “That’s a good way to lose your best axe, Auntie.”
She snorted. “I’ve taken the head off a snake at fifty paces with this axe.”
“That’s no snake.”
He wasn’t wrong. Too clever for his own good, Dreng had been nicknamed Loki’s son by the clan elders. Nicknames meant glory or an early death. Usually both.
Alfhild sighed. She tucked the axe back into her belt a split second before a colossal wave smashed against the starboard hull. Water exploded through the hull breach, sending her men and the sacks of grain flying. The deck lurched, swamped beneath the influx of seawater. Rowing benches disappeared beneath the waves, and the deck tilted toward its doom.
Dreng half-laughed, half-sobbed. “We’re dead, aren’t we?”
She nodded. “Aye, so it seems. But be cheered. I’ve heard Rán provides the finest feast for those who drown bravely.”
He scrunched his nose. “Seafood?”
“The finest haddock you’ll ever taste.”
The boy groaned. Alfhild buried her face in his matted hair and prayed to Freya.
Lightning flashed, and a boom of thunder shook the world. Rán’s waves reached for the Norsemen, hungry to devour their souls. Beyond the broken hull, the copper sea-beast approached, light glowing from its orb eyes. The warriors cried out prayers and curses in equal measure as the creature shot out a missile. A metal claw attached to a chain soared across the space between them. The claw grasped the dragon’s head that decorated the ship’s stern. The copper fish turned into the waves, tightening the chain and dragging the wreck in its wake.
Alfhild squinted. Beyond the beast, a distant light flickered in the darkness. Could it be a shore beacon, lit to guide home fishermen caught in the storm?
The copper beast swam on through the crashing waves, drawing the ship toward the light.
Was the monster foe or friend?
Minerva steered the Tempus for the shore, choosing a landing point a half-mile west of the coastal beacon. There was no need to frighten the local Irishmen with her anachronistic vessel. She suspected that many tales of sea monsters could be traced to incursions by delinquent temporal tourists. She shuddered to think that the Nordic sailors she towed might, at this very moment, be composing a tawdry sea shanty starring her giant copper goldfish.
Minerva hummed tunelessly as she engaged the secondary thrusters. What would they rhyme with goldfish? Swish? Dish? Ugh. So much for remaining inconspicuous as she travelled into the past. Hopefully, her collision with the longship would have no impact upon her own timeline. In theory, if she so much as stepped on a butterfly, its death might alter her future reality in a million different ways.
She made a mental note to avoid all butterflies.
The waves lessened in ferocity as she drew closer to the shore. The rain ceased, and the barest sliver of sunlight pierced the dark clouds above. According to her chronometer, it was now six PM on a dark-age Sunday. A rocky beach, shadowed by steep granite cliffs, reared ahead. The depth counter ticked down . . . ninety feet, fifty, thirty, twenty. Minerva released the grappling hook from the ship behind her. Hopefully, the Nordic sailors could swim the final few feet to shore without her assistance.
She had her own landing to deal with.
She stood, knowing full well that the top of her pith helmet would stop short of the curved copper roof by exactly six inches. A squirt of liquid rubber from her trusty Mosborough Multipurpose Gum Gun sealed the leaking rivets. She tucked the gum gun into the custom holster on her utility belt, swung on her expedition backpack, and poured additional buckshot into the flared barrel of her blunderbuss shotgun.
Now, she was ready for anything the century outside could throw at her.
Minerva clasped the submersible’s recall transmitter bracelet around her wrist and opened the ceiling hatch.
A bedraggled, flaxen-haired woman with piercing blue eyes glowered down at her. She raised her axe in what could surely not be a polite greeting.
Minerva smiled sweetly and said in her best Icelandic, “Góður dagur!”
The blonde frowned and lowered her axe. “Wes hāl,” she replied in Anglo-Saxon.
Aha! That was hello, spoken in the common trading tongue of the Western Isles.
Excellent. Minerva’s long winter nights spent listening to the British Museum’s wax cylinder recordings of ancient languages was about to pay off. How lucky this disheveled woman was a seafarer. Those who traveled the world, whether by sea or time, knew the benefits of being able to converse with fellow travelers.
Minerva switched to Anglo-Saxon. “I apologize for the damage to your vessel. It was an accident. May I introduce myself?”
Curiosity seemed to overcome the woman’s desire for violence. She sat back on her haunches, laid the axe across her knees, and nodded.
“I’m Miss Minerva Minett, of the Hyde Park Minetts. And you are?”
Head tilted, the sailor studied Minerva from head to toe, as scholars’ study exotic beasts at the London Zoo. Yet it was she who would surely prove to be a greater draw than any lion or tiger. Her tooled leather breastplate, cinched over a sea green tunic and deerskin trousers, would thrill Victorian spectators. As would her dragon-engraved axe, and the wolfskin cloak that draped from her broad shoulders. A silver torc encircled her neck, perhaps an indicator of high rank?
If so, the rank may have been hard won. Blue knotwork tattoos adorned the woman’s calloused hands and sinewy forearms. Faded silver scars traced across her tanned cheeks. Her left earlobe appeared to have been gnawed off in some long-ago brawl, and thick blonde braids framed her chiseled cheekbones and a strong jaw. Not a conventional beauty perhaps, but striking.
The woman scratched her chin. “Minerva the wise, from the sagas of the Romans? Your magic fish has taken you a long way from home, goddess.” She thumped her leather breastplate. “Know that I am bound to Freya. I owe you no sacrifice.”
Minerva’s eyebrows raised. “Umm, I . . . that is, well, good. I’m not really in the mood for sacrifices at the moment. One gets so tired of them, Miss . . .?”
“Alfhild Hrafnkelsdóttir,” the sailor said, “Commander of the Gulldreki.”
“Gold dragon? What a fitting name for what was surely a fine ship. Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain Hrafnkelsdóttir.” Minerva dropped into a curtsey, made somewhat awkward by the tweed trousers and the loaded blunderbuss.
A ghost of a smile played across the sailor’s full lips. “Alfhild.”
Minerva smiled. “Thank you, that’s a little easier to pronounce. I’m so sorry that we didn’t meet in more pleasant circumstances. Our unfortunate collision has surely rendered your vessel—”
Alfhild poked her head down into the Tempus and surveyed the book-strewn interior. She appeared spectacularly unimpressed by the cutting-edge technology within.
Minerva continued, “—far beyond all hope of repair. May I offer my deepest—”
The woman snorted, pulled back from view, and disappeared overboard with a loud splash.
Well! What appalling manners! Clearly Alfhild had never attended finishing school.
There again, neither had she.
Minerva pushed aside the books littering the floor to reveal a three-foot wide levitation disk. She twiddled the controls on her recall bracelet and stepped to the center of the copper circle. Bolts released, and the disc ascended. Minerva soared up through the hatch, swooped along the goldfish’s spine, and dropped to hover a foot above the gray, choppy waves. Before her, a rocky beach was strewn with lounging Norsemen, recovering from their shipwreck. The remains of the Gulldreki stuck up from the seabed like rotten teeth fifty yards east.
Guilt racked Minerva’s insides. If she hadn’t run into the longship . . .
Recompense was clearly in order.
She floated the disc toward the beach, drawing the Norsemen and women to a slack-jawed stand. Captain Alfhild helped a bloodied boy to his feet, his arm strapped to his chest with leather bindings. A victim of the collision?
Minerva swallowed hard and stepped off the disc onto the pebbles. A flick of a switch on her bracelet, and the disc shot back toward the Tempus and entered through the hatch. The hatch slammed closed, and the copper fish’s engine hummed. It reversed straight back, as no normal fish ever could, sinking slowly beneath the waves until it could be seen no more.
The Norsemen drew their axes.
If there was one thing that Minerva had learned from reading the travel tales of English explorers, it was that they never let foreigners see them sweat. She strode confidently toward Alfhild and her bloodied charge, keeping her chin high and her spine ramrod straight within her leather corset. The sailors watched her, their eyes darting between Minerva and Alfhild, waiting for a sign of threat or weakness.
Minerva gave neither. She reached into her utility belt and drew out a squishy magenta gel pack. Except for a second pack she’d left in her steamship cabin in 1896, this was the sole prototype of her universal cure-all, the Pink Poultice of Panacea.
Alfhild’s eyes narrowed, and her hand moved toward her axe.
“Captain, I cannot repair your ship. But I can repair your shipmate. Allow me to administer this medicine, and your colleague shall be returned to full health within hours. I guarantee his full—”
Before she could blink, Alfhild had shot behind her, grabbing her throat with a calloused hand, hot breath warming her right ear. The blade of the axe pressed against her neck, cold, sharp, unforgiving.
“—recovery.” Minerva froze, staring directly into the blue eyes of the swaying boy. Blood darkened his makeshift bandage, and his jaw was set firmly against pain. He stared at Minerva, at the pink pack in her hand, and a wry smile lit up his filthy face. In Icelandic, he said, “So, Auntie, this is the goddess who saved us from Rán?”
Alfhild grunted. “She says she’s Minerva, a Roman goddess.”
“Not a local goddess, then? Shame. I hear the Irish had mighty powerful goddesses before the Christians drove them away with their hymns and liturgies.”
Minerva held her breath. One false move, and the axe would sever her carotid artery. She suppressed her fear, staring at the boy with what she hoped was defiance. Hadn’t she and Alfhild shared a moment of connection on the submersible? A hint of a smile, the exchange of names, it had all been so civilized. How could the sailor suddenly turn so . . . feral?
The boy held out his good arm. “Let her go, Auntie. I’ll take a wandering goddess’ magic over this pain.”
Auntie. The wild woman was defending her sister’s child. A laudable action, though terrifying in its execution.
The axe blade lifted from her neck. Alfhild whispered, “Can you really save him, goddess? His wound has grown sick, and his days grow short.”
“I’ll do everything in my power. I promise.”
Alfhild released her. Minerva felt her back chill without the sailor’s embrace. She turned to face Alfhild, whose eyes were clouded with hope and despair. She must surely love this boy like her own son.
Minerva’s heart clenched for her pain.
The boy cleared his throat. “Ummm, goddess Minerva, if you’re not too busy . . . this wound isn’t healing itself.”
Minerva flushed, and she turned away from Alfhild. “My apologies, master. . . ?”
He tilted up his chin. “Dreng Lokisson.”
This proud declaration raised a ripple of laughter from the sailors. Minerva nodded. “Right, young fellow-me-lad. I’ll need you to take off your shirt and lie on the sand. This will only take a minute. Ten, if it works correctly.”
He gaped. “What do you mean, if?”
An hour later, Alfhild stroked the hair from Dreng’s forehead. The pulsing, pink blob on his shoulder had eaten his pain, and through its gelatinous mass she should see new skin growing over his ragged wound.
“It took longer than ten minutes,” grumbled Dreng.
Alfhild snorted. “It was faster than a slow death from evil spirits. They were inside your wound, Dreng, gnawing away at your strength.” She kept her eyes on Minerva, who sat alone on a rock beneath the cliff face, drawing pictures in a leather-bound book.
Dreng followed her gaze. “She’s an odd bird, your goddess.”
“Immortals aren’t like you and me. They live by their own rules.”
“That fish of hers, anything inside?”
“Nothing useful. No weapons, no food. Just bound pages like those she draws in.”
“Books?” Dreng’s eyes lit up. Ever since a captured English monk had taught him to read and write, he’d been obsessed with all things written and carved.
“Not for you, Lokisson. You get in enough mischief without adding more learning to the mix. Your mother should never have let you read the philosophers. Aristotle can only lead to heartbreak. I told her so at the time.”
“I could teach you to read.”
“I read the weather, and what’s in men’s hearts. I don’t need anything more.”
Dreng nodded toward Minerva. “And what do you think is in her heart, Auntie? Or rather, who?”
Alfhild’s chest tightened. “How should I know?”
“I think you know. She keeps glancing over at you.”
“She does not.”
“She does too.”
Alfhild studied Minerva, who caught her stare and blushed.
Dreng snickered. “Hah. Why don’t you talk to her? See if she’d like to work her magic on you? That heart of yours could use a healing touch.”
Alfhild pursed her lips. “If you’re well enough to spout nonsense, you’re well enough to walk. Come on, we need to find shelter before the night rolls in.”
“Will you carry me?”
Alfhild snorted and rose to her feet. She shouted, “Everybody up. Time to greet the locals.”
The crew laughed, each tapping their axe blades and drawing the symbol of Odin or Freya in the air.
As the warriors stood and stretched, Alfhild noted Minerva kept her head down, oblivious to the movement before her. She approached the goddess stealthily, curious to see her artwork. The deity had stuffed her pages into her backpack whenever Alfhild’s crew members had approached. It seemed a more cunning approach was needed.
Alfhild swung wide, and slipped along the cliff face as silent as a ghost. She crept up behind Minerva, and peered over her shoulder. There, sketched in charcoal, she saw her own portrait, smiling. Her hair tumbled as wild and free as a sea nymph’s, cascading over bare shoulder and breasts.
Minerva squealed and clutched the sketchbook to her ample bosom. “Don’t look.”
“Let me see.”
Minerva shook her head. “It’s not finished.”
“I see I’m not wearing anything.”
“It’s art. You don’t need to be.”
Alfhild ran her hand along her thick unkempt braids. When had she last combed out her hair? Six months ago? A year? “You draw everyone you meet?”
“I draw people and things that interest me. My sketchbook is a record of everything unusual I encounter. It’s my personal history, laid bare. It’s not something I readily share.”
“Not for a very long time.”
Alfhild tugged at her remaining earlobe. “Seems a crime not to share such a wondrous talent.”
Their eyes met. This time, it was Alfhild who looked away.
Minerva smiled. “Perhaps later tonight. I assume you’re heading for the monastery?”
“You know, Cell-Ruaid Monastery? According to my travel compass, it should be no more than fifteen minutes’ walk along the beach, just around the headland. Records indicate there was—is—a small fishing village there that supplies the monks with fresh fish. I assume it was their beacon that guided us to shore.”
“A monastery, with monks? Robes, crosses, incense, that kind of thing?”
“And a superb group of calligraphers who produce the finest scrolls south of Dublin. I intend to purchase one.”
Alfhild looked at Minerva’s backpack with new interest. “With gold?”
“With a trade. An assortment of religious artifacts in exchange for a simple scroll. One would imagine monks have no interest in earthly treasures such as gold.”
Alfhild chuckled. “You haven’t met many monks, have you?”
“Well, no. Not one, to be honest.”
Alfhild straightened her posture. “Goddess, you saved Dreng’s life, and I am indebted. I swear now before Freya, Lady of the Vanir, that I’ll help you get your scroll or die trying.”
Minerva’s eyes widened. “Oh, I’m sure dying won’t be necessary.”
Alfhild drew the symbol of Freya in the air. “We’ll see.”
Minerva, compass in hand, led the way to Cell-Ruaid. Burdened by her backpack, she slipped and slid on the slick rocks. Alfhild followed on her heels, as close and silent as a shadow. It was still light, but within the hour, night would shroud the land and make the journey far more treacherous.
Minerva rounded the headland, spying the flaming beacon that had guided them when the sky was dark with storm clouds. Four men in tattered gray cloaks sat cross-legged beside the fire, passing around a wineskin and laughing. A double-masted ocean curach, a hybrid of the skin-covered and plank-built boats favored by the Irish, was moored besides six smaller cousins in a wide pebbled bay. Thatched, mud walled cottages, a dozen or so, dotted the steep cliffside. A winding track led up to the top of the cliff, where the square bell tower of Cell-Ruaid protruded from a gray stone barn-turned-monastery. It was hardly the most impressive place of worship on the Irish coast, but had achieved fame for both its calligraphers and the rosy dawns and sunsets that painted the tower red against the sullen sky.
“We don’t want to alarm them,” said Minerva over her shoulder. “Perhaps I should go and greet them alone, to inform them that we are here to purchase a scroll, not to—”
Alfhild sprinted by her, axe raised, her crew drawn behind her like a cloak.
Minerva gasped. “Wait, what are you—”
The Norse raced along the beach, bearing down on the oblivious Irishmen.
Dreng appeared at her side. “Don’t worry. They’ll be fine.”
“What are they—?”
“Our main goal is to secure the ship. Most likely still got its last catch aboard. Plenty of fish to see us home.” His eyes were fixed on the compass in her hand. “May I see your pretty bauble?”
Aghast by the sailors’ charge, Minerva absently handed him the compass. “But . . . I mean, they’re not, you’re not—”
The Norsemen reached the beacon. Before the Irishmen could call out for help, Alfhild and her crew expertly thumped them unconscious.
“—You’re not Vikings, are you?”
Dreng turned the compass over in his hand. “No. What are Vikings?”
“Well, for want of a better word, pirates.”
“Oh, well then yes, we’re pirates. What did you think the axes were for, chopping fish?”
Minerva bit her lip. “I thought, maybe for cutting ropes. I’m not well-versed in nautical ways. Oh, dear. I never intended—”
Dreng sniffed. “We won’t kill ’em unless they fight. There’s no honor in slaying cowards. Let their own Gods punish them for their weakness.”
“Kill? Heavens. This is so much worse than a butterfly.”
The Norse ran into the cottages, driving out the inhabitants to join their comatose comrades. Alfhild and two men raced up the track toward the monastery, as quick as greyhounds set upon a hare.
Minerva temples throbbed. “Should I try and stop them?”
Minerva glanced down at the boy. “I’m not an actual goddess, you know. I’m something even better. A scientist.”
His eyes lit up. “Like Pythagoras?”
“I suppose, minus the beard.”
He grinned. “I read the tale of Agnodice, the ancient Greek physician. She was the reason the Greeks changed their laws to allow female doctors.”
“Then it seems the Athenians were more civilized than my own countrymen. In my world, women are merely chattel in the eyes of the law, forced to depend on male relatives for allowances and small freedoms. It’s just not fair!”
An Irishman burst out of a cottage holding a sea bass he’d apparently been skinning. Minerva winced as a Norse woman snatched the fish from him, and slapped him across the face with it.
“He should have brought the skinning knife,” Dreng noted sagely. “Though it wouldn’t have done him any good. These folks aren’t warriors.”
A dozen Irish men, women, and children had now been herded to the beacon. They cringed upon the pebbles, crossing their chests and clutching one another.
Minerva murmured, “This is terrible.”
A sly grin crept over Dreng’s face. “Maybe your copper beast could help you cast a friendship spell? Make all the Irish happy to see us, thrilled to share their winter stores with the Norse?”
Minerva glanced down at her recall bracelet. “I don’t think so. It’s merely a transport. A scientific wonder perhaps, but not magic.”
Dreng eyed the bracelet curiously. Minerva frowned and tugged down her lace sleeve, hiding the copper band from view. “Speaking of friendship spells, you’re being awfully sociable, Dreng, for a pirate.”
The boy pointed to his healed shoulder. “You helped me, I help you. You’re one of us now. An auntie, like Alfhild, without the blood tie. My auntie, the goddess-scientist.”
Two Norse women climbed onto the curach and tested the rigging as their clanmates cast booty from the cottages into the ship. To Minerva’s relief, the Vikings showed no interest in further harming the villagers.
Dreng said in a serious tone, “If it makes you feel any better, we’re doing these people a favor. From now on, they’ll keep watch for attacks from the sea. Not all Norse are so kind to their prisoners.”
“You should tell them so. I’m sure they’ll be overflowing with gratitude.” With that, Minerva tightened the straps on her backpack and set off on the long walk up to the monastery.
Dreng and the crew followed her, cheerfully herding their prisoners while composing a jaunty shanty.
Minerva cocked her head. Surely, she didn’t hear the word goldfish in the chorus?
. . . Minerva’s Magic Goldfish. Answers every sailor’s wish . . .
Three hours later, Alfhild checked the rope binding a monk’s wrists, and gave him a gentle shove back to his fellow prisoners huddled in the monastery’s great hall. The former barn was lit with tallow reed lamps made with pig fat, and the smoky scent of roasting pork made her belly rumble.
Dreng brought her over a hunk of bread and spit-cooked cod. “You’re always the last to eat, Auntie.”
“I’m stronger than the rest.”
“Aye, that you are.” He flopped beside her as she sat upon a wooden bench. She chomped down on the buttered bread, counting the prisoners. The village had sheltered ten women, five children, and sixteen men. The monks added eight men more, one blind, one deaf. An easy target for her crew. Not one of the villagers had put up a fight, which both pleased and disappointed her. She hadn’t lost any warriors, whose strong arms she’d need to guide the stolen curachhome, but then again, her axe had not sung a song of blood to Freya. Their good fortune at finding this settlement could surely not last without some sort of sacrifice.
“Thirsty?” Dreng pulled a swollen wineskin from his belt. “The monks say it’s blessed, not for us ‘heathens.’ Want some?”
She took the wineskin, and drank in the blackberry-and-grape blend. “I’ve had better.” The monks muttered to their neighbors, but none dared look her in the eye.
“Dull lot, aren’t they?” said Dreng, playing with a metal bauble in his hand. “You know, Minerva might appreciate a little wine. She’s stretched tighter than a drumskin. If we’re to set sail at dawn, you’ve got plenty of time to share a drink and a laugh. Might help you both relax.”
“You tryin’ to play matchmaker?”
“What if I am? You deserve a few hours of pleasure. I’ve barely seen you smile the last three winters.”
“Maybe your constant troublemaking took away my smile.”
He grinned. “Hah. I just add a little excitement to everyone’s day. Imagine how boring life would be without me?”
“Spoken like a true Loki’s son.”
“I wear the name as a badge of honor. Why are you still sitting here? Don’t you have a goddess to charm?”
Alfhild swigged down the full-bodied wine, ignoring the monks glares.
Now, what exactly could she say to charm a goddess?
Minerva sat on an oak desk in the scriptorium, a former hayshed, as Brother Fergal put the finishing touches on her scroll.
“. . . and I really am most dreadfully sorry about the, well, hostage situation. I’m assured that the Norse will be setting off at first light, and no one will be harmed.”
The stout, red-haired monk glowered at her. “Your heathen friends are taking all our stores.”
“Not all. They’re leaving you a month’s worth of dried fish. There’s plenty of time for you to restock before winter.”
“They’re also taking our biggest ship.”
“But you have smaller ones that will surely suffice until you raise the funds to build another. As I said, these relics I brought you— Saint Crispin’s finger, four shards of the holy cross blessed by the pope in Rome, an illumination of the Virgin Mary—”
“Which seems to be a copy of my original design.”
“Well, it’s a very popular likeness where I come from.”
“Which is where?”
“Umm . . . never mind. Are we done?”
The monk held up the parchment scroll, blowing gently on the inked letters. “There’s your message.”
“Good.” Minerva rummaged inside her backpack, and drew out a lead-lined tin. “Please place it in here. I need you to bury this box in the third grave from the southern corner of your graveyard. Don’t worry, you only need to dig down for a foot or so.”
Fergal blinked at her. “And why should I desecrate our dead?”
A woman’s voice growled from the doorway, “Because I’ll hang you from the rafters by your guts if you don’t.”
“Alfhild!” Minerva beamed at the tall Viking. “How goes your . . . salvage expedition?”
“They don’t have much to take. But it’s enough to keep my crew happy.” She walked over to Fergal, who leaned back on his stool, wide-eyed and pale. “And you want to keep my crew happy, don’t you, monk?”
“So, take the nice lady’s box and put it where she says.”
The monk held his hand over his heart. “I swear by Almighty God it shall be done.”
Minerva breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Brother Fergal. That’s most kind of you. Once the tin is buried, please hurry back. I have further questions about your calligraphy technique.”
Alfhild said, “Yes, hurry back here, Fergal, or your robe-clad brothers will be making the long voyage back to Sogn Fyord as our slaves.”
Fergal gasped and sprinted out the door, scroll and tin in hand.
“But, Alfhild, you wouldn’t really—”
“Nah. Too much trouble. I don’t need surly monks bringing down the crew’s spirits. They’ve soared since Dreng found the Abbot’s stash of valuables. Crosses, goblets, you name it!”
“Oh dear, surely you’re not taking . . .”
“Red wine?” Alfhild held out a bulging wineskin.
“I rarely imbibe alcohol.”
“Then maybe it’s time for a change.”
Maybe it was.
Minerva took the wineskin, removed the cork, and pressed the horn mouth to her open lips. Fruity warmth raced down her throat and burned across her chest. “My, that’s quite strong, isn’t it?”
“It gets better the more you drink.”
Minerva tipped back her head and gulped. “Is this a Beaujolais?”
Alfhild shrugged. “You want to go see the Abbot’s cell? Seems he doesn’t care to sleep on a simple reed mat like his fellow monks. He’s got a feather-stuffed mattress and a wolf-skin blanket.”
“Ummm, well, I’ve never seen a wolf-skin blanket. It sounds—”
Alfhild leant in and planted a soft kiss on Minerva’s lips.
“—intriguing,” said Minerva, with a smile.
Minerva awoke to the sound of distant horns, trumpeting an off-tune melody. She lifted her head from Alfhild’s shoulder. The Viking’s blonde hair flowed over her gently rising chest, coaxed from its braids and combed to silk by Minerva. She’d sang songs as she worked, silly vaudeville tunes, a half-forgotten aria.
She’d never felt so free.
Alfhild told her tales of the fjords, of cruel gods, and long-lost loves.
And they’d kissed.
It was delicious. Dangerous. Divine. Alfhild was the true goddess, not she.
Or maybe they both were?
It was a thesis she would have to explore in more detail. For the sake of science.
The horns grew closer. A bell tolled once, twice.
Alfhild flicked open her eyes and leapt to her feet in one feline movement. She dragged on her tunic and breastplate, trousers and boots as Minerva blinked and reached for her bloomers. “Stay here,” the Viking commanded.
“Not likely,” said Minerva, buttoning her lace blouse. She stopped, staring at her bare wrist where the submersible’s recall bracelet should be.
But . . . she’d had it on last night, even throughout her passionate embrace with . . .
Alfhild was gone; racing out into the night with her axe in her hand.
Two leather wineskins lay empty on the floor.
Two? She thought they’d shared only one. How had the second arrived?
Someone appeared in the doorway. There stood Dreng, panting, a bulging burlap sack slung over his shoulder. “We’ve got to get down to the ship. Some shifty monk took off in the night and raised the militia from a nearby town. There must be sixty of them, armed to the teeth, and hungry for blood. Our best warriors are holding them off so the rest of us can scarper. At least one of us has to get home to tell our tales.”
“I can’t recall Brother Fergal returning from the graveyard. He must have . . . oh, that devil! And he swore he would bury my . . .”
The room spun like a kaleidoscope. She half-sat, half-collapsed onto the bed. The scroll didn’t matter now that her bracelet was gone.
She was never getting home.
Heaven help her.
The next few moments were a blur. She rose, numbly pulling on her remaining clothes. Dreng was hardly a traditional lady’s maid, but he did a good job lacing up her leather corset.
“Nice armor,” he said, testing the leather with the point of his knife. “Should come in handy as we head for the ship.”
“I’m not going to the ship.” Minerva picked up her blunderbuss. “Show me to the battle.”
Alfhild swept through the militia’s ranks like a whirlwind, hacking, punching, and kicking. Her axe sang its song to Freya, glinting in the dawn light as Dellingr’s fiery chariot burned away the stars. A trance-like serenity wrapped her in a silken shroud. She danced, laughing, with the dead of decades past. Her children, never grown, clutched at her tunic, striking out with tiny fists as her enemies closed in. The sky dripped with blood, the earth claimed the dead, and a chorus of Valkyries sang her name. “Alfhild, Alfhild . . .”
It was a good death.
And yet . . .
Amidst the blood and the gore and the shrieks of the fallen . . .
A vision of Minerva. Dark hair tumbling. Brown eyes shining. Smooth perfect skin unmarred by blade or sun. Her laugh, tinkling like a spring set free from glacial ice.
Their time was over.
Goodbye, my goddess.
The Valkyries’ song swelled. “Alfhild, Alfhild . . .”
“Auntie!” Dreng screamed.
A thunderous boom. A sea of soldiers rippled before her. Warriors fell, howling with pain.
There stood Minerva, black smoke curling from her long metal stick.
“I’m out of buckshot,” she shouted, waving the stick. “A retreat might be in order.”
A deep cut above Alfhild’s left eye poured hot blood down her cheek. She wiped it away with swollen knuckles, bones grating in broken fingers. Dreng picked his way over the wounded men, whacking several with his laden sack as they clawed at his legs. The remaining combatants backed away, muttering of witchcraft and drawing the sign of the cross.
Four Norse lay dead amongst twenty or more foes. Grim smiles twisted their faces.
The Valkyries had sung their names.
Freya was kind.
Minerva tucked her metal stick under her arm and drew a strange device from her belt. She shook it at the militia. “Gentlemen, don’t make me use my Mosborough Multipurpose Gum Gun for violence and mayhem. I warn you, its burns can be quite horrific.”
Dreng grasped Alfhild’s bloodied arm. “To the ship, Auntie.”
The Valkyries sang a new song. “To the ship, to the ship, to the ship . . .”
The Fólkvangr awaited her.
The ship of the dead.
Drops of seawater from the curach’s oars splashed across Minerva’s cheeks, adding to the tears that dripped off her chin onto Alfhild’s broken body. The Viking’s blue eyes were shuttered, her head cradled in Minerva’s lap. She rested on a blanket in the bottom of the ship, surrounded by dried fish, sacks of grain, gold goblets, and silver chalices.
Only the faint rise and fall of her breastplate confirmed that Alfhild yet lived.
Minerva wiped her lover’s face with a lace handkerchief, and sobbed until her tears ran dry.
Eight Norsemen rowed on, with no jaunty song to lift their hearts. Their ragged breaths were lost in the wind as Dreng and three Norse women unfurled the skin sails.
The sails caught the breeze, and the ship surged out to sea.
Dreng crouched beside Minerva, staring at his fallen Aunt. “She’s leaving us?”
Minerva nodded, stroking Alfhild’s golden hair. “Her blood is on my hands. I sank the Gulldreki. I led you to the monastery. I distracted her as the monk escaped. I may as well have struck her down myself.”
Dreng placed his hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off. “Don’t. She was everything I didn’t deserve. Brave, selfless.”
Kind. Beneath her warrior exterior, she’d been extremely kind. Gentle, even.
Minerva’s heart ached for what might have been. The places they wouldn’t see, the moments they wouldn’t share. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Damn my arrogance. She’ll die because I had to prove myself to a world who couldn’t care less. I’m a monster.”
“No auntie of mine is a monster. A goddess, maybe. Perhaps a goddess with a healing touch?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have another Pink Poultice of Panacea with me. Your shoulder took my only supply.”
“With you? You have more?”
“Back in my cabin, a thousand years from now. Without my vessel, I’m shipwrecked here. Cast adrift in time and—”
“Might this help?” Deng pushed up his tunic sleeve. Her copper transmitter bracelet encircled his grubby forearm.
“How on earth did you—?”
“I found it. In the Abbot’s cell.”
“No, you didn’t. The floor was bare.”
“Then I found it outside, in the mud.”
“You took it off my arm while I slept!”
He shrugged. “We’ll never know for sure.”
“Do you want it? Or not?”
“Well, yes. But . . .”
He clasped the bracelet onto her wrist. “Freya can wait. I put my faith in the goddess of science.”
She blinked. “You don’t understand who I am.”
“Of course, I do.” He grinned. “You’re my second favorite auntie in the whole wide world.”
Alfhild drifted from a dream of battle into the soft embrace of a feather bed. Her body tingled, but didn’t ache as it usually did upon stirring. She flexed her fingers. No broken bones. She opened her eyes to darkness, and gingerly lifted her head. No pain shot down her spine.
Being dead felt better than she’d expected.
She reached out her left hand, brushing her fingers against a cold metal wall. Waves crashed outside, the air tasted of salt, and her bed gently swayed. She was on a ship.
Of course she was.
High up in the wall, a round portal was open to the night sky. Dark clouds obscured the moon, until Mani’s silver chariot burst through, and the moon god cast light onto the world. His divine luminescence revealed the full glory of her afterlife.
She was in a metal room strewn with books and clothes.
And a goddess dozed in a chair beside her.
Alfhild grinned and stretched to stroke her lover’s cheek. Minerva awoke, her eyes bright in the moonlight. “Alfhild! You’re awake! Oh, my goodness, it worked! I didn’t know if it would. I had to dilute the pink poultice to cover all your wounds. There were so many, Alfhild. I thought I would lose you forever. I deserved no less. I’m so sorry for everything. It’s all my fault—”
Alfhild swung her legs to sit on the edge of the bed. She leaned over to Minerva and kissed her a passion that left them both breathless.
“Wait.” Minerva pulled away, her cheeks pinker than any poultice. “Later. You need to recuperate, gather your strength.”
Alfhild flexed her biceps. “I feel like I’m twenty years old.”
Minerva laughed. “You look it! The poultice healed your old scars. And your tattoos, sorry about that. It’s unfortunate about your earlobe. Perhaps if a body part is removed, it can’t be replaced.”
“It’s alright. I wasn’t using it.” She reached for Minerva’s breasts. The goddess wriggled away, batting at her hands playfully. “Behave. You don’t understand what I’ve done.”
“I’m sure I’ve done far worse.”
A shadow crossed Minerva’s face. “Have you ever upset the natural order of the universe?”
“I’ve had my moments.”
“Seriously, listen. This may not make sense to you right now, but I’ll do my best to explain. I’m a time traveler.”
She blinked. “What? That doesn’t shock you?”
Alfhild shrugged. “Nothing shocks me anymore. The world is full of gods and magic. Anything is possible. So, if you say you can travel in time, so be it.”
“That’s . . . well, right now, that’s quite a helpful world view. In brief, my giant goldfish is my time ship. Dreng stole my ‘magic’ bracelet and boarded her. He stole every one of my science and history books. That sack he was carrying around was stuffed with the collective knowledge of a thousand years.”
“Did he now? He’s a light-fingered devil. Always has been.” Alfhild’s belly grumbled for attention. She rubbed her stomach. “Doesn’t the afterlife hold massive feasts with unlimited mead?”
“I have a few slices of fruit cake in my trunk. Hold on.” Minerva stood and went to a large leather trunk at the rear of the room. She lit a candle, and searched within. “I’m sorry my cabin’s such a mess. I’ve been trying to figure out all the changes before returning to dry land. It seems when Dreng Lokisson became the first Emperor of Europe—”
“He what now?” Alfhild shook her head. “Oh, that boy, nothing but mischief. Him and his books.”
“Him and my books, to be exact. He used the knowledge in my library to build a vast Nordic Empire that rules the world to this day. The Norman invasion? Never happened. The War of the Roses? Didn’t occur.” She brought over a slice of cake. “Here, you’ll love this.”
She did. “Beer to wash it down?”
“I can put on a pot of tea. Or maybe we should open a bottle of champagne? We either have to celebrate, or drown our sorrows. I’m not sure which.”
“Let’s drink while we decide.”
Minerva went and drew a green bottle out of the trunk. “I brought this on board to make a toast in case my temporal experiment proved successful. I’ll pop the . . .”
A projectile exploded into the ceiling. Alfhild’s hand flew to her axe.
It wasn’t on her hip.
“Oops. Sorry,” said Minerva. “Your axe is in the trunk, with your clothes, cleaned of all the . . . well, cleaned.”
The skirmish. It was time for the difficult question. “Am I dead?”
“What? No. Not even slightly, despite your best efforts.”
Huh. Freya must have an even greater battle planned for her.
Minerva handed her the bottle. “Bottoms up. I don’t have any glasses.”
Alfhild took a hearty gulp. It tasted almost as good as mead.
She passed the bottle to Minerva, who swigged like a pirate. “So, we’re celebrating the fact that yesterday, the Royal Society for Paranormal Peculiarities dug up my scroll from the abandoned graveyard at Cell-Ruaid Monastery. It seems that wretched monk did bury my tin before running off to fetch the militia. I’m now officially a member of the Society.”
No matter what nonsense words Minerva used, just hearing the joy in her voice made Alfhild’s heart swell. “That’s good.”
“But here’s the thing. I’m not the first woman member. There have been women in science for centuries. Women and men are seen as equals, Alfhild. Equals!”
“Why wouldn’t they be?”
“Ah, yes. Your clan had ideas ahead of its time as regards equal rights for the sexes. Dreng passed on the teachings of your people. Women can vote and stand for office in the Danelaw Assembly. We can be teachers, doctors, and astronomers. No one raises an eyebrow to a woman speaking her mind.”
“I should damn well hope not.”
Minerva handled back the bottle. “Many things have stayed the same. But the place names are all different, there are dragons carved into every form of architecture, and Queen Victoria has been replaced by Emperor Sven Lokisson the Thirteenth. Your great-great-great—”
“Nephew?” Alfhild groaned. “Not another one. Is that the sorrow part?”
“No. The sorrow part is that I’ve created an entirely new reality. Where does that leave me, morally? The world seems prosperous and peaceful. No one is starving. The arts and science are revered. But am I morally obligated to try and put things back the way they were?”
“And ruin Dreng’s fun? He’d never forgive you.”
“Then, I can live this life? Here, with you?”
Alfhild leaned in kissed her champagne lips. “Can you think of a better way to spend your time?”
“I honestly can’t.”
Then let’s toast.” Alfhild raised the bottle. “To time. Goddess of second chances.”
“May she always show us what truly matters. To time.”
And in a realm between now, then, and forever, a forgotten deity smiled.
Elizabeth Chatsworth is a British author and actor (SAG-AFTRA) based in Connecticut. She writes of rogues, rebels, and renegades across time and space. From Victorian sensibilities to interstellar travel, her fiction takes you on an adventure like no other!
Elizabeth is an RWA® Golden Heart® finalist, a Pitch Wars alumna, and a member of the SCBWI and the Authors Guild. She’s the author of THE BRASS QUEEN, an award-winning fantasy set in an alternate Victorian age. Her time-travel novelette “Ten Minutes After Teatime” is a New England Reader’s Choice finalist.
When she’s not writing, Elizabeth creates voice-overs for commercials, videos, and computer games. If there’s an elf, a witch, or an aristocrat in a video game, it might be her. There’s a rumor she possesses the world’s best scone recipe. Contact her at www.elizabethchatsworth.com to see if it’s true.