No one knew how long Amma had been there.

When the women and children who lived in the stronghold, taking advantage of a sunny day, came down the rocky cliff path to gather bird eggs and seaweed, they saw her standing just below the high-tide line, looking out to sea.

Fulla set her basket down and approached her.

“Amma? What are you doing so far from home?” she asked, but Amma didn’t answer. Instead, she stared out at the waves, eyes narrowed against the sun. Fulla turned to see what her friend was looking at, but there was nothing out of the ordinary—just gannets plummeting into the water for fish, while smaller birds swooped and skimmed over the ocean’s surface. She must have been there for a while, Fulla realized, looking down at the circle of dried salt at the bottom of Amma’s skirt. Long enough for the tide to recede and wool to dry, at the very least, although Fulla had the impression it might have been much longer. Gently, she touched the other woman’s arm. “Amma?” Again, there was no response. “Well,” she said, “I’ll be here if you need anything.”

She might as well have been talking to a post, for all the reaction she got. She pursed her lips and picked up her basket. Glancing back at Amma every now and then, she sent her son up the rocks to hunt for birds’ nests while she raked a stick through the wet seaweed, looking for the only kind worth collecting.

She raised her head just in time to see a boy hauling his arm back, ready to let a pebble fly towards Amma. She rushed over and grabbed him. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she hissed. She gave him her meanest look, then let him run away as she scanned the group for his mother.

Didn’t these women have any compassion? She saw the suspicious glances they cast towards Amma, who stood still and silent as a rock, watching the water. Unusual behavior had been common for Amma ever since she had shown up seeking a place in the kingdom some six winters back. Or was it seven? Fulla couldn’t recall, although she remembered the way people had treated Amma even then. Didn’t they recognize grief when they saw it? And they, the wives and mothers of warriors? It was said that Amma had lost her brother, her husband, even her son in a feud, although she never talked about it, not even to Fulla. No wonder she wanted to live alone far from the hall where nobles’ sons spent their days honing their fighting skills.

Fulla looked over to see her own son climbing down from the rocks, cradling eggs in his shirt, waving away a tern that screamed and flew at him, defending her nest. It wouldn’t be very many summers before Gunnar would be joining his father and his older brothers in the king’s houseguard, for all that he was still a boy. Sword training started early for the youths who lived in the stronghold, and even farmer’s sons traveled to the hall during the winters to learn how to wield spear and ax. She closed her eyes, indulging herself in a brief desire for a time when boys didn’t have to become warriors, when feuds didn’t have to be avenged, when other tribes’ raiding parties didn’t threaten the kingdom of the Geats.

A gray cloud rushed across the sun, blocking its light, and a gust of wind sent dried seaweed skittering over the rocks. In the west, more clouds gathered.

Fulla looked back at Amma, who still hadn’t moved. What did she see out there?

Excerpt copyright © 2010 by Rebecca Barnhouse. Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York

About the book:

Rune, a 16-year-old orphan, tries to save the kingdom from a dragon that attacks the countryside and burns down King Beowulf’s hall. Along the way, he discovers who he is—and his true place in the kingdom. The novel is inspired by the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf.

What people are saying:

“An absorbing tale of a young man finding his courage.” -Booklist

“Nail-biting suspense” -School Library Journal

Release date: October 26, 2010

About the author:

Rebecca Barnhouse is the author of The Book of the Maidservant. She studied Beowulf in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now she teaches it in Ohio, where she is a professor of English at Youngstown State University.