Cover image for The soul thief
The soul thief
Holland, Cecelia, 1943-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Forge, [2002]

Physical Description:
300 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
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X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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They were one soul in two bodies, Corban and Mav, twins born to the lord of a Irish coastal farmstead. Mav had the second sight and was her father's delight; Corban, though, was a deep disappointment, finally exiled for refusing his father's command to go and take up a sword for the High King.But on the night of Corban's exile, as he slept in the woods and brooded on injustice, the dreadful dragon ships of the Vikings bore down on his home with fire and the sword. The farm was plundered and burned; all the people were slain, save the young women - they were raped and dragged off to a life of slavery.From the coast of Ireland to the occupied village of Dublin, across the Irish Sea to a Viking stronghold in Britain, and then across the North Sea to the Kingdom of the Danes. Corban is drawn in the track of his ravaged sister, fighting for his own life and to earn the influence and money he will need to buy her freedom. His quest is not hopeless, for Mav's second sight, made stronger by the dreadful fate that has befallen her, has brought her to the attention of the Lady of Hedeby. The Lady, wealthy and influential in the Kingdom of the Danes, has bought Mav; she intends to use the twins , and their link with each other, to extend that influence far beyond Hedeby.

Author Notes

Born in Henderson, Nevada, Cecelia Holland was educated at Pennsylvania State University and Connecticut College, where she received her B.A. degree. She has served as a visiting professor of English at Connecticut College since 1979.

Holland's historical novels have received broad critical acclaim. According to one critic, she "proves that there can be more to historical thrillers than swordplay and seduction." (Time) Among her novels is City of God (1979), which is set in Rome during the period of the Borgia family. Told from the point of view of Nicolas, a secretary to the Florentine ambassador to Rome, this novel brings to life the period of the Renaissance, including the political intrigue that characterized Rome at the time. Other works include Until the Sun Falls (1969), a story of the ancient Mongols and their empire, The Firedrake (1966), her first published novel, Great Maria (1974), The Bear Flag (1990), and Pacific Street (1991).

Holland is very adept at capturing the period she writes about, including the clothing, furnishings, and customs of the time. One critic has noted that Holland "is never guilty of the fatuity which plagues most historical fiction: she never nudges the reader into agreeing that folks way back then were really just like you and me, only they bathed less often."

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Holland has penned another pulse-pounding historical saga brimming with authentic period detail and distinguished by vivid characterizations. Branded a coward and banished by his father, a distraught Corban Loose-Strife is uncertain what the future holds for him. When he returns home to confer in secret with his twin sister, Mav, he discovers that a Viking invasion has decimated the family farmstead. Unable to find Mav's body among the smoldering ruins, Corban correctly concludes that the Viking savages have kidnapped his beloved sister. Vowing to rescue Mav, he sets off across the sea in search of both his sister and personal redemption. Bound to her brother by a powerful psychic connection, Mav is able to withstand the agony of her enslavement as she senses her brother drawing ever closer. Like Holland's previous yarns, elements of romance, mysticism, and suspense are interwoven into one superlative, spine-tingling adventure. Margaret Flanagan.

Publisher's Weekly Review

A bloody Viking raid on an Irish coastal town is the springboard for a nonstop romp through a fictional time of evil sorcery, ruthless kings, fierce pirates, kidnapped heroines, sweet romance and everyday heroes, set against the brutal backdrop of Norse life in feudal times. Ruthless King Bloodaxe of Jorvik abducts the young women of a small Irish village, killing and destroying all else. A young man, Corban, escapes and with the aid of Einar, a Norse workman in the Viking market town of Dubh Linn, sets out for Jorvik to rescue his abducted twin sister, Mav. Meanwhile, in the Jorvik slave market, Mav reveals magical powers that catch the eye of the Lady of Hedeby, a sorceress who buys the girl with an evil plan in mind. On their way to Jorvik, Corban and Einar encounter pirates and vagabonds, and when they arrive they face the deadly threat of Bloodaxe, his sorceress queen Gunnhild a rival of the Lady of Hedeby and his henchmen. Along the way, he falls in love with Benna, a penniless potter with hidden talent. At last he is reunited with Mav, but before he can truly rejoice, the Lady makes him a pawn in her plot to decide the Norwegian throne. The novel's final showdown is a bit hokey but satisfying, and Holland delivers an artful blend of history and fantasy throughout. (Apr.) Forecast: The author of more than 20 novels, Holland (The Angel and the Sword, etc.) has enough of a fan base to assure respectable sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Action and period flavor characterize Holland's latest historical novel (after Floating Worlds). Set during the tenth-century Viking occupation of Jorvik (York, England), the action revolves around a young Irish farmboy, Corban, who is exiled from the family farmstead for refusing to fight for their liege lord. Corban's father even strips him of his family name, renaming him "Loose-strife." When he returns to the farm to visit his twin sister, Mav, Corban comes upon his murdered family, the victims of Viking marauders led by Eric Bloodaxe. Unable to find his sister, he surmises that she has been taken as a slave. He is overcome by grief and doubt but courageously sets off to find her. As he persists through long journeys, naval adventures, and grave danger, Corban matures into a brave and strong young man. With vivid descriptions and continual action, combined with elements of mysticism, sorcery, and politics, Holland fleshes out a lively account of Eric Bloodaxe (d. 954), who has been otherwise ignored as historical subject. Recommended for larger public libraries. Jean Langlais, St. Charles P.L., IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



CHAPTER ONE "You coward, Corban. Loose-strife! Changeling! No-Son! So I call you! You do no good, you only cause me trouble!" Corban stood, his jaw clenched, silent, enduring the pounding of his father's wrath. He felt all their eyes on him--his mother, hunched at his towering father's side, his brother like a mouse down by the table, his little sister and his grandmother at the hearth--but no one spoke out for him. They kept still, out of the way, while his father roared. "For the sake of your family, I order you to go! Find some shred of manhood in you and take up a sword with the High King!" "No," Corban said. He stood fast, staring at the floor, unable even to look his father in the face. If he obeyed he was nothing. If he went to the High King he would stand under the King as here he stood under his father, he would never have what he wanted. He had no idea what he wanted. "Damn you! You are not my son!" "Father, please!" That clear voice rang through the hall. Corban lifted his head. Behind him his sister Mav had come in the door. She walked swiftly up, her head high, and went by him and stood before their father, and laid her hand on his arm. "Sir, don't speak so. Don't say what cannot be unsaid." The old man turned his gaze on her, his shaggy grey hair wild around his head like the bursting of a sun, and smiled, as he always smiled for her. He said, "I wish you were the male, and he the female. I would have no doubt of you." "Father," she said. "I beg you. Make peace with him." He swung his gaze toward Corban, who lowered his eyes, unwilling to look his father in the face. "Peace? He gets no peace from me! You will do as I bid you, Corban, and go offer your service to the High King. Or leave this place and this family forever!" At the last word his voice cracked like a whip. Corban clenched his fist. "You give me no choice," he said, low, and turned, and went toward the door. Now suddenly his mother cried out, not words, not even his name, but a wail, rising above the sudden low rumble of voices. He caught a glimpse of his little sister, watching him open-mouthed. He reached the door and went out into the bright sunshine, and stood there, surprised at his own calm, looking around him at the farm yard, the stone wall of the byre, the mound of cut turf, the bondsmen walking away down toward the green meadow, where the cows were already grazing. Past everything the glitter of the sea dazzled his eyes. He drew a deep breath. He turned, and his gaze found the long path that led past the byre, past the bake oven and the pigsty, up over the hill and away. He started off. This part was easy enough, he had been going this way all his life. When he came to the place where the path turned up the hill Mav caught up with him. They walked along together a while, climbing the grassy treeless hill. He glanced at her, striding along beside him, with the wind blowing her long black hair back, her cheeks ruddy. She murmured as she walked, and turned, looking back, her lips moving. He went along a step ahead of her, toward the top of the hill. He began to think of the way ahead but could not. He was just going away. He had his cloak, and his sling in his belt, nothing else. His heart sank. He said, suddenly, "I'm not a coward." "What are you, then?" she said. Beside him she strode along, her long skirts whipping around her legs. Her words rang in his ears. He had no answer; he knew nothing of himself save what he would not be. She was watching him, her eyebrows raised, as if he might say something, but he could not. Her gaze jerked suddenly off around past him, back the way they had come, and a low moan burst from her. He looked; he saw nothing. They had come to the top of the hill, where a grey rock thrust up through the green sod, its surface rough with patches of lichen. He said, "What's wrong, Mav?" She gave a shudder, as if something shook her from top to bottom, and lowered her eyes. She did not answer. From the belly of her cloak she drew forth a loaf of bread and a jug. "Take these." "You are good," he said, grateful, and took them, and set them on the rock. He took hold of her hand and looked into her face. "What is it?" "Ah, I don't know," she said. She was staring away toward the sea. With her free hand she drew the cloak tight around her again, the wind buffeting her, plucking at her hair. The linen hem of her gown fluttered. "I think only that something is coming. Someone." Her long cold fingers tightened around his. He looked away back down the path, toward the farm. He doubted her somewhat. They saw few travellers, out here at the edge of the world. Still, what she said impressed him. She was long-sighted, his sister. She knew what happened before it did, she could find what was lost, she could see what was hidden. Whenever before he had seen her this way, generally then something did happen, not always evil, but often evil; he remembered especially how she had twitched and murmured like this for two days before a sudden storm off the sea wrecked their fishing boats and killed half their cattle. Some said she made the evil happen. He held tight to her hand. He knew that was not so. She was good, she was true as steel; his father was right about her. He wondered if she foresaw his banishment. He said, "Father will let me come back, maybe tomorrow. You know how he is." But he was not sure. The fury that had stiffened him had melted away and he knew nowhere to go. Off to the west the land rose toward the low hills in the distance, all turning brown now as the winter crept toward them. Suddenly his homefire seemed the only warm place in the world, his family the only people who would ever love him. Mav drew her hand from his grip; she gripped the cloak in her fist, her face staring fixed at the sea. "I will try, Corban. I will talk to him." She raked her hair away from her face. Then suddenly she flung her arms around his neck. "Corban. I'll make him let you back, or we'll go away together. Now, go into the woods and wait, and meet me here tomorrow, when the sun is well up." She pushed abruptly away from him. "Will you be hungry? Did I bring you enough?" Her eyes turned steadily away from him, toward the sea. He thought she looked beautiful, her hair flying in the wind, and her cheeks red and her eyes bright. He knew she would not leave their home, even to go with him. He said, "Tomorrow then." She came around to him again, leaning on him, and kissed his cheek. She looked deep into his eyes, their noses almost touching. "I think I shall bring you home again, Corban," she said. "But better it would be if you came home yourself, alone, and faced him, and made him take you as you are." She kissed him again and stood back, frowning, her gaze running suddenly over him, and she made as if to pull off her cloak and give it him. He laughed at that; he caught her hand. "No, no, I am warm enough." And she shrugged. Without a word, she turned, and went off back down the path to the farm. He watched her go, his mirth fading. They had been born on the same day, one-two out of the womb; folk said they were as alike in their looks as two eggs, and yet he saw nothing of himself in her. Mav was straight and clean, she thought long on everything, she had no fear, and cared for all of them. Corban was neither wise nor brave, his father wanted him to be wise and brave, and so, clutching always to himself that part of himself his father could not touch, he was foolish and slack. Whatever else he would be, whenever he began to form a thought of that, he saw his father there ahead of him. He took the bread from his wallet, and ate it. He went away over the hill, and down through the oak wood, hunting squirrels with his sling. Against them he was a brawny man, he knew their ways as they coiled around the oaks, and waited patiently and struck when they grew too curious or bold. He worked his way so along the edge of the great wood, where the going was easier, following the line of meadows and bogs where the red deer grazed. He watched for the bright splashes of nut trees and for berries. He flushed a covey of little marsh hens that fluttered up and away across the meadow, their wings buzzing. The grass was turning yellow, dying back for the winter, yet the day was warm and he had no use for his cloak and wore his shirt down around his waist. Going down a long brushy hill he came on fresh bear droppings full of seeds. Twice he killed squirrels in his hunting and hung the stripped bodies from his belt. The sun rolled away into the west and he was far from home. Ahead of him the forest lay thick and shadowy, and to his right, to the north, the hills sloped down and he could see the sheen of water in the distance and knew it to be the long lake. He walked that way across a bog, following an old path marked with stones, and went down a steep long slope toward the water. Coming around the flank of a hill, he reached the shore. Afar he could see men in a boat on the lake fishing. The curling water of the lake rippled along the shore. The sun was sinking down and he was tired suddenly and cold, and he pulled his shirt up, and wrapped his cloak around him. Against the face of a pocky grey boulder he made a little fire and spitted his squirrels. At home they would be gathered to eat, his father and mother sitting together, and his younger brother taking them their meat and bread and filling the cup between them. His sisters next beside them, waiting until they were done, and then the bondsmen and their wives and children, all around in a ring. His spirits drooped. He wished suddenly he were among them, in their shared warmth, waiting for the common meat, telling some joke to make them laugh. He remembered his little sister, how she had looked when his father cast him out, her eyes round, her head twisted on her neck to watch him go; she had been sitting by the hearth, with his grandmother roasting apples, and her eyes followed him the whole way across the room to the door. He would never go back. He did not need them, he would go on by himself. He needed nobody. He thought of the great inland farm, Dun Maire, where a girl lived who had looked on him well, and more, the last time he was there. He could go there. He might never go back again to his home. He thought of Mav, and his mind faltered; he loved his sister best, alone, of all of them. Certainly, in a flash, he hated them all, all but Mav: his father, his mother who had said nothing, his brother Finn, who mumbled and bowed and prayed like a madman to convince his father he would make the priest the old man wanted. He loved Mav. He would go back, for his sister's sake. A prickle of uneasiness passed through him. Surely he would go back. The sun set; while it sank down to its rest it swept a wash of color over the sky above and over the lake below, until all the world streamed with the strong ruddy light. The rosy hue faded at once. On the lake, the little boat rowed slowly away. Corban felt the dark settle over him, fitting down around the glow of his fire. He felt his aloneness like the cold air all around him, the singleness of his being, untouched. He shuddered off that feeling. In the morning he would go back to the rock above the farm, and Mav would have won their father over, and they would let him go home again. He ate the squirrels, sucking the bones empty. He would work harder than usual for a while, to make up for it all, and soon enough there would be another quarrel. He flung the bones into the trees. Wrapping himself up in his cloak, he said an old charm against fairies, even though his father wasn't there to hear it, and lay down to sleep. His father was a stout Christian, and they had pounded the Cross and the Trinity into him all his life, but it was no use to him, any of it. Mav went her own way, and some of the bonders, while praying loudly to his father's face, made offerings to the old folk; but he put no more faith in the sidhe than he did in Christ, since they had let Christ defeat them. There was no place for him, the world was not of a piece with him. He was outside everything, belonging not even to his own family, not to anywhere or anyone. Lying there, watching the fire die down to glowing ash, he felt empty as the hollow of a beggar's hand. The fire darkened, showing a single dull red eye under the weight of ash. The lake glimmered under the moon, and he slept. * * * "Mav," her father said, "don't talk to me anymore about Corban. I want nothing more to do with him. Damn him, I hope he never comes home." "Ah," she said, "what are you saying?" She flung her hands up. They were standing in the center of the hall, with all the family gathered for the evening meal; the chatter and laughter of the other people smothered their talk. She took her father by the arm. "Once more, Papa. Forgive him, just once more." "Bah." He shrugged her hand off. Under the great wooly ridges of his brows his eyes burned hot. He gripped her by the arm, hard, but his voice was gentle. "For you, my dear one, my darling, I would do almost anything, but this time--no." He bent and put his lips against her forehead, and went off down the long room. She stayed where she stood. Around her the bondsmen and their wives and children stuffed themselves with bread and fish. By the fire somebody was telling a story. The room was smoky from the fire, and too hot. All her nerves rippled again. Everything in her was churning. Her mind strained toward her brother, off in the wilderness. Her father was wrong. Corban was unformed as a chick in the egg, but in him there was a rare goodness: not what their father wanted, but finer still. She had to bring him home again. But some cold dread dragged her down. For an instant, she thought of something else, something terrible, but it was gone before she could lay her mind on it. She went away from the fire, to the cool by the door. Her mother sat at the table still, picking at a piece of meat, her headdress all undone and hanging around her ears. Mav's little sister came running up, holding out her hands, and their mother took her and lifted her onto her lap. The two heads bowed together, the child's cheek smooth and the mother's rough, the child's hair black and the mother's grey. Her younger brother Finn came up. "What did Papa say?" "You should hope he lets Corban come back," Mav said, with an edge in her voice. She thought he sometimes steered their father against their brother. "Or next he will be wanting you to go off to King Brian's court." "Not me," Finn said. He was eating nuts by the handful; he spoke through a mush of filberts. "I shall go to be a priest, and make sermons all over Ireland." "I hope not spitting on people as you do it," she said, brushing bits of nut off her sleeve. Finn snorted at her. "When I am a bishop you will like me better." "When you are a bishop, I will fall over speechless with surprise." Again in her mind, some great wave rose, like the breast of the sea, as if to break up and drown all her thinking. She shut her eyes, queasy in her stomach, struggling against that feeling of dread. When she looked up again Finn was gone. She folded her arms over her chest, looking out over the hall. Without Corban there it felt only half-real to her. He had to come home. She would make sure that he came home. Over there by the hearth, one of the women began to sing in a high, light voice, an old song of Saint Brendan, and all around the room, others joined in, a seamless cloak of voices. She leaned against the wall behind her, shivering in the draft. She had a song to sing, but they would not hear it; and she bit her lips to keep them silenced, and hugged her arms around herself and waited. * * * Corban slept without dreams. When he came awake finally in the morning, he thought again of not going home at all, but of walking on, along the margin of the lake, and finding somewhere else to live. Dun Maire, or O'Banlon's homestead farther north. O'Banlon with his great flocks and herds always needed men. But he thought of Mav and suddenly a fierce wild yearning arose in him to see her. He remembered how she had been the day before, uneasy and restless. He thought suddenly that he should have gone back with her to the farm, as she had said, and challenged his father. What would he have said? He knew he was no hero. What his father wanted of him he could not do. To strut and shout as he had seen such men do, to fight not to save himself and his own but merely to further the wishes of the high king--another man's wishes-- "You coward, Corban." He felt the words still like a whip, even in his memory, like a lash across his face. He wondered if he were in fact such an empty man as his father said. He climbed up along the steep hillside, against the margin of the oaky wood, the going harder this way, mostly uphill, when the day before he had gone so easily down. Crossing the bog, he cut through the forest toward his home. The leaves of the trees were turning and falling and underfoot he trod on carpets of thick damp forest rot, hard to keep a firm footing on. He was hungry. He reached the top of the hill and looked out toward the sea, and saw there a column of smoke rising up, black and rolling. For an instant, he thought, What are they cooking, to make so great a smoke? Then he began to run, his heart pounding, straight down into the glen. Thick billows of smoke rolled off across the sky. He sobbed as he ran. The downward hill gave him long, long strides. It seemed so far still. His lungs were bursting. He flew by the rock where the day before he had met his sister and turned down onto the path. The glen opened up before him. The smoke rose from the house, from the byre, from the cookhouse, black billows of smoke blown down low by the wind. As he ran he saw people scurrying across the open ground between the buildings and the home pasture. Beyond the drifting smoke, through it, he could see the dragon-headed ships drawn up along the beach. He screamed. He stretched his legs to giant strides, hurtling down the path. Now among the rushing and scurrying of the people he could see bodies sprawled on the ground, and heard shouts and shrieks. He rushed down the last stretch of the path to the back of the farm, past the midden heap, toward the blazing pigsty and the byre. They were driving off the cattle. Already most of the herd was shuffling away down toward the beach. Just past the byre he came on a big man with a long braided beard waving a stick at a brindle cow and her calf, and Corban without pausing in his long strides leapt on him from the side. The bearded man went down under him with a yell. Corban hit the ground so hard all the breath left him. He clutched at the body under him, struggling to get air. The man under him roared, and rolled over, throwing him off. Corban scrambled away; he looked around quickly and saw, surprised, that he and this other were the only people he could see. Somewhere though, a woman was screaming. Flame crackled. The bearded man raised his stick and came at him. Corban dodged, all his hair standing up on end. He stooped, groping over the ground, and felt a rock under one hand, and leapt up, breathless, just as the other man swung his stick. The blow struck him glancing on the shoulder but still knocked him to his knees. The bearded man let out a howl of triumph. Swung the long stick high. Corban reeled away from the stroke, snatching the sling from his belt, but he had no chance to load the stone. The stick cracked him across the head and he went down cold. * * * He woke in the dark, and thought he was blind. He blinked. For a moment he had no memory. He could smell smoke, and he pushed himself up on his arms and looked around, and saw it was night, deep in the night. His head hurt. Above him, above the stone wall of the cattle byre, the thatch was gone; he saw the rough line of the top of the wall against a strange red haze in the dark. He leapt up, all his memory flooding back, the smoke, the bearded man, the ships on the beach. He screamed, "Mav!" His heart thundered under his ribs, painfully hard. Standing, he could see past the stone wall of the byre. The house beyond was mostly gone now, the fire low and crackling along the last of the walls, casting up a red blur into the air. He blinked again, looking around him. The brindle cow and her calf were gone, the bearded man was gone. He groaned. His belly heaved, and his legs sagged at the knees. "Mav!" He staggered out toward the fire. The light grew stronger as he passed the byre wall. The whole of the long meadow down to the sea was filled with a faint orange flicker of light from the burning house. He saw a dark shape stretched on the ground and went down and knelt by it, and put a hand on it, and saw it was one of the bondsmen. His head was smashed in, his brains like a red pudding on the ground. Corban was sick to his stomach; he lurched off away from the body and threw up. From there he saw another, right in front of the doorway to the house--what had been the doorway to the house--and that one he knew at once. His knees gave out and he fell. He stood and staggered over and fell again to his knees by his father, but he dared not touch him. He should have come, she was right, he should have come down. His father lay with his face turned away, the harsh line of cheekbone and jaw fuzzy with dried blood. Corban sobbed; his eyes stung from the smoke. He croaked out something, a call to God, and shut his lips again. God had not saved his father. He shambled off toward the next dead, two more of the bondsmen, sprawled in a heap. He straightened. The dawn was coming, the sky turning paler. He screamed, "Mav!" and there was no answer. He wheeled around, looking for the others. His mother, his grandmother, his sisters, his brother Finn. He went from one heaped corpse to the next, rushing back and forth across the meadow. Too few. At first he found mostly the bondsmen: they would have come out to defend the farm. Then where the edge of the pasture ridged out over the sloping sandy beach, out in front of them all, he came on his brother, lying sprawled face down with a club still in his hands, his back carved open in a great red wound. "Finn." He had fought them, his brother, slight and young, always praying. It seemed he had led the fight. Corban's chest throbbed, some hard hot lump lodged in his chest refusing to come up or go down; he stood beside his brother a long while. Better to have died so than be Corban now, he thought, and the great lump in his chest choked off his breath. He drew back from Finn, his heart pounding, afraid. He had seen no sign of his mother. He stumbled on, following the trampled bloody trail down onto the beach. He remembered seeing the ships drawn up on the beach; now they were gone, even the family's fishing boats were gone. Along the sea's edge were heaps of bones, and piles of guts and heads and hoofs, slick drying puddles of blood. They had slaughtered the cattle here. The stench made him gag; his legs wobbled. Beyond the slaughterground a row of black buzzards flapped and lumbered awkwardly away from him down the beach, too heavy with feasting to fly. His heart clenched in his chest. Ahead he saw a woman's shape, but it was his mother's old spinning woman, crumpled on the grass. Nearer the water lay a baby, its head horribly flattened. By the very edge of the waves he found his little sister, four years old. Her eyes were open. Her hair floated on the little lapping waves. There was a horrible wound in her chest, a gash that seemed bigger than she was, a great mouth come out of the sea to eat her up. He sank over her, rocking back and forth, gasping for air again. His hands moved over her, not touching, as if he could somehow smooth together the hole in her chest. Mav. He stood. He turned and looked back at the burning house. His heart was a drum, a thunder in his ears. This girl, and the old woman, the baby--where were the other women? He bent to gather the little girl up in his arms and trudged up toward the house again. The day was breaking over him, clear and cool. Going back up he saw now the tracks where the old woman had been dragged along--that was why they had killed her, he thought in a flash, because she was too weak to keep up. Why they had killed the baby, and this child in his arms. They wanted strong young people. Strong young women. Mav. His legs wobbled. He went on back toward the house, and laid down his little sister in the dooryard where his father lay. Grimly he went around between the house and the cookhouse, and there at last he found his mother, crumpled in a heap near the cookhouse door. He lifted her in his arms; she was stiffening, her hands flexed like claws. She had fought them, then, like Finn. No use, but she had fought them. A surge of pride struck him unawares, that his family should have struggled so against their doom. He took her to his father, lying before his doorstep, and laid her down beside him. Tears streamed down his face. He tried to say words but nothing would come. His mouth worked, but his mind was empty. He buried his face in his hands. He thought of Mav. He knew she was taken. He went back down to the sea's edge, where the surf broke, and stretched his gaze out across the water, as if she might have left a track on the waves. The water rose and fell away from him. Before he realized it he had walked out into the waves, into the sea, reaching with his gaze as far as he could over the water. Toward the horizon, where they had taken her. The sea lifted him, as if it would carry him away after her. He shivered in the cold. He backed away, back up onto the beach. In his mind he heard her calling out to him. He knew she was alive, that she was out there, somewhere. He should have come back with her. He bent his head and wept. The rest of the day he gathered them up, all the dead, and laid them in the dooryard around his father. He could not bury them, there were too many of them. It cost him all his strength to drag them, cold and stiff, some from the far edge of the meadow. Overhead, ravens and buzzards circled and he kept them up there with his sling. Off by the edge of the meadow, he saw a long grey shape skulking, too far away to shoot. The raiders had left one of the pigs in the sty, where it had burned along with the buildings, so Corban ate of fine roast pork all day long. But it choked him to swallow the flesh. All the while, he thought of what he could do to find Mav, and by afternoon he had resolved to go to a place called the Black Pond, which was down on the coast a little, on a river there. He knew that the foreigners kept a market there and perhaps the men who had done this would take what they had stolen there, to sell. He thought he might also find the men who had done this. What he could do then he had no way to know. He bundled up all his rage and hate and stuffed it away in a black corner of his mind, down out of reach. He went all over the farm, making sure he had discovered everybody. By the ruined byre he caught sight of another wolf, slinking into the brush behind the midden, and back by the field of corpses the birds were lighting on the ground. The wolves and buzzards would get them all in the end, anyway. His mind was clogged, he could feel nothing, think nothing, and he was weary to his bones. When he had at last done, and all his people were gathered in the dooryard, he stood there, and thought he should say something over them. He had lost all sense of them as horrible, from the custom of handling them, and now saw them as the people they had been, and still were, for a little while, in some way. Many still had their eyes open, which made it seem all the more that they lived, inside: some little warm life still there, inside. Others lay in strange poses, curled up, or stretched sideways, one arm awkwardly out, clutching the air. The smell of them made him sick to his stomach. He had to get out of here, out of this place of death, where he couldn't even breathe. When he left, he knew, the scavengers would come, and tear them apart. Now suddenly words leapt from his tongue. "I can't help you any more than this. I'm sorry I was not here to die with you, but I shall find Mav." He was weeping again, like a woman, he felt himself pitiful and frail, useless in this huge task before him, and yet he dared not turn from it, because what else could he do? He stretched his hands out toward them. "Good-bye. Good-bye." He turned, and made ready to go. He had put some of the roasted pig into a sack, and he slung that on his shoulder. He found a stout stick to lean on. He filled his waterskin with water, took the stick, and walked across the farm, weeping as he walked. He went down along the seam between the pasture and the sandy beach, and crossed the little stream that ran down to the sea. On the far bank he climbed up the narrow path to the top of the sea cliff. There he looked ahead and saw the land rolling away before him, vanishing into the haze of the distance, and he quailed from it. As he stood there, unsure how to go on, he realized he was not alone after all. They had all come with him. He saw nothing, and yet he sensed them all around him. They spoke, their voices jumbled, complaining, reproachful, and sad. They tugged on his arm, and poked him, they breathed down his neck and draped themselves across his shoulder. They made the air thick, so that he went along stiff-legged, his hair on end. He heard the deep rumble of his father's voice; and his mother's sigh; and low and terrible, the baby's hopeless wailing; and all the while, the many others, muttering and weeping and trudging along with him. He went forward as stiff as wood, his breath stuck like a fire in his throat. So he traveled in a great cloud of souls along the top of the cliff, where the path ran bare as a scar through the high yellow grass all bent down by the harsh wind off the sea. But as he went along, he realized that those around him were becoming fewer, their voices hushed. They touched him less and less. One by one they were falling behind, going back to the farm again. Now he was afraid of losing them. He began to listen for them, as the voices died away. In the thinning braid of their voices he could no longer find the baby's crying, and then his little sister was gone, then Finn and his mother, until at last he heard only his father, and that fainter and more seldom. Corban crept along the path, bent under the weight of this, his ears straining, until he had gone a long, long way and heard nothing. Then he sat down by the road and wept again, until his eyes were dry. He sat slumped by the road, his hands dangling over his knees. He felt thin and flat as a winding sheet. He had thought he was alone before, he had thought he was no part of them, but he had always been part of them, he had measured himself against them, needed them always to set himself against. Now he knew better, too late now he knew what it meant to be alone. His head hurt where the stick had struck him. His belly churned. His feet were sore already. The ordinary world settled down around him, the twittering of birds, the long grass bending and hissing under the wind. The sky was enormous, stippled with thin cloud, traced with long-gliding gulls. He had thought two nights before that he might leave them. He remembered that with an agony like a white-hot iron through his mind. He had brought this on himself. He had made this happen. Grimly he rose, and put his legs under him, and set off down the road to find his sister. Mav thought she might die; she might float up from her body and sail away across the stars, back to the farm. She had seen her father killed, her sister killed; shackled together with the other women, she had been flung down in the wooden belly of a ship. She had thought then of climbing up and throwing herself over the side of the ship, but the chains held her fast to the other women around her and she could not rise. Then they came quickly to some other place, and they were dragged off the ship and thrown down on the sand, and all the men made use of them. The men made a big fire somewhere near and roasted meat and drank and all the while one after another they had the women. Mav lay still, her eyes shut, while they hollowed her out like a hole in the ground. The woman next to her was from the farm; once, as they lay there, somehow, her head turned, their eyes met, and she saw death there, in her bondswoman's eyes. A moment later they dragged her body away. She stared up at the sun, then the moon, then the sun again. More women came, from other places. "Our men will come," one shouted, over and over. Mav lay still, thinking: All our men are dead. When she thought of her mother and father, her sister and her brothers, from deep in her belly a wave of such feeling rose into her head and her eyes and her mouth that would drown her if she let it break. She could die, somehow, and be safe from this. She knew if she lived on, that worse would come, that her soul might die, wink out like a candle in the rain. "Our men will come--" Dead. All but one. She kept her eyes shut, and thought of her brother Corban, and her ruined body throbbed, quickening again. Around her as her senses sharpened she could make out the other women, groaning and crying, some of them, but many only lying there on the rocky shore. She felt them around her and in her, all their terrors and pain, and gritted her teeth. It was too much, it was too hard. She would die. She saw her mother and her father hovering around her, and talked to them, and saw her brother Finn smiling at her, although he was dead, and the stars shone through him. Farther away, she saw her brother Corban, coming toward her. "Worthless boy," her father said. No. He was still there, he was coming after her. No, she said, to the starry sky. Her father floated around her, her mother, summoning her. She could go back to them, to the farm. "Damn Corban," her father said. "No son of mine." No. She saw Corban coming after her. She saw him stagger on the long road. She forced herself back into her body, down into her fingers and toes, even into the bloody ruin of her woman's place, which no man had known until so many of them did. She took up the pain, even the pain and the fear of the other women. She would live. Corban was coming. Beside her someone was weeping, low and wretched. She turned, as much as she could with the ropes around her, and moved her arm and touched the unseen, unknown girl there. That girl jumped, afraid. Mav whispered, "I am here." At the sound of her voice the girl stilled, and crept a little toward her, and Mav slid her bound arm around her and comforted her. "I am here," she said, into the girl's filthy, sea-smelling hair. "I am here." Copyright © 2002 by Cecelia Holland Excerpted from The Soul Thief by Cecelia Holland All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.