Black Shield Maiden

About the Book

From Willow Smith and Jess Hendel comes a powerful and groundbreaking historical saga about an African warrior in the world of the Vikings.

“Intimate, tender, and fiercely epic.”—Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone

Lore, legend, and history tell us of the Vikings: warrior kings on epic journeys of conquest and plunder. But the stories we know are not the only stories to tell. There is another story, one that has been lost to the mists of time: the saga of the dark queen.

This saga begins with Yafeu, a defiant yet fiercely compassionate young warrior who is stolen from her home in the flourishing Ghānaian empire and taken to a distant kingdom in the North. There she is thrust into a strange, cold world of savage shield maidens, tyrannical rulers, and mysterious gods.

And there she also finds something unexpected: a kindred spirit. She comes to serve Freydis, a shy princess who couldn’t be more different from the confident and self-possessed Yafeu.

But they both want the same thing: to forge their own fate. Yafeu inspires Freydis to dream of a future greater than the one that the king and queen have forced upon her. And with the princess at her side, Yafeu learns to navigate this new world and grows increasingly determined to become one of the legendary shield maidens—to fight not only for her freedom but for the freedom of others.

Yafeu may have lost her home, but she still knows who she is, and she’s not afraid to be the flame that burns a city to the ground so a new world can rise from the ashes. She will alter the course of history—and become the revolutionary heroine of her own myth.
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Praise for Black Shield Maiden

“Intimate, tender, and fiercely epic . . . With Black Shield Maiden, Willow Smith and Jess Hendel pull the reader into a rich adventure filled with detailed prose and poignant symbolism. You quickly become endeared with the character of Yafeu and her plight as a young woman in a vicious world. With her first foray into literature, Smith proves there is no limit to her boundless imagination and explosive creativity.”—Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone
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Black Shield Maiden



The antelope calf strays too far from his mother.

I crouch behind a boulder, tracking his movements as he combs the parched riverbank for sparse clumps of hippo grass. My ankles are strained, my thighs tight as bowstrings. From the moment I spotted the small herd trotting toward the White River, I haven’t moved a muscle. After years of practice, I can ignore the discomfort, keeping my breath steady, even stopping my joints from creaking as I slow my nyama—­the energy that flows through all things—­until I’m as motionless as the boulder.

You must be as still as death itself.

Papa’s rich, deep voice booms in my mind, as though he had just spoken aloud. As though he were here beside me.

Focus, he says.

I ride the breath as it leaves my body. Soon I can feel the nyama of the herd as clearly as my own. It flows between the calf and his mother, her presence always mindful of his, and his of hers. He’s old enough to have weaned, but young enough that his sense for danger is dull. A new blade in need of grinding.

The White River is shallow and murky, its bank naked without the grasses that once speckled the red-­brown mud like spots on a giraffe. All around me, the land is dry and brittle and nearly empty of life; it will be a full moon cycle or more before Sogbo blesses us with rains and we can sow the loam with seed. But pink light softens the barrenness of the earth as Lisa peeks above the horizon. He blankets my dark skin in a welcome warmth, lights up the scattered acacia trees, and rouses the firefinches to their morning song. Even the birds were asleep when I rose, stirred in the middle of Mawu’s reign by the restlessness that seizes me when the hour is ripe for a hunt.

The calf ambles closer still, his shadow creeping up the boulder in the dawn’s half-­light. I can already picture his tiny horns joining the teeth and claws on my hunter’s tunic. Tokens of the animals I’ve given to the long night.

Trust your instinct. Yet another of Papa’s lessons. It is instinct that acts through you to make the kill.

My patience is poised on the tip of my throwing knife as I slide it out of its sheath. I raise my arm so slowly it aches and bring the blade behind my ear.


Just as I’m about to strike—­a flash of brown and black darts from behind an acacia trunk. A painted wolf lunges at my prey.

The herd scatters. The calf flees with his mother. The wolf snaps her teeth and gives a moment’s chase before slowing to watch the antelope disappear into the horizon. There’s no chance of outrunning the herd; we both know that.

Legba’s cunning! My heart sinks into my empty stomach. All that patience—­wasted!

I stand, relieving the ache in my thighs, and level a glare at the painted wolf. She stares after the herd, apparently unaware of me.

Maybe I should add her teeth to my collection. She’s probably too heavy to carry all the way home, but I could skin her and give the pelt to Mama. The morning doesn’t have to be a total waste.

I raise my dagger again, but something makes me hesitate. She’s little more than a cub, and the bones jutting out from her haunches betray the meagerness of the dry season. Perhaps she was separated from her mother during the last rains. Only an inexperienced huntress would spring too soon like that, ruining an easy kill.

Hunger makes us all too bold.

As if sensing my thoughts, she swivels her head back, meeting my gaze.

Her umber eyes bore into mine, and suddenly the Sahel fades to a blur.

Time slows to a crawl. The air thrums with a nameless foreboding. It coils around my heart, like the great snake Bida tightening around a fresh kill.

But then the wolf turns and trots away, and the feeling passes as quickly as it came.

I shrug myself back to my senses. My tongue is swollen, and my mouth tastes like dirt. How long has it been since I had any water?

I grunt my frustration and sheathe the dagger. Dangling bones thwack against my chest as I walk toward the river. I swallow a few gulps of water, then splash some on my face, enjoying the shock of cold against my skin.

But I can’t wash the little wolf from my mind.

It reminds me of something that happened years ago, on the banks of this same White River, though many days’ ride from where I am now.

It was back when we lived on the roads between cities and home was only each other. I was at that age when my body didn’t know itself yet, when I always had scrapes on my arms and my knees knocked together when I ran.

We had set up our tent outside the city of Jenne. Papa knew some nobles there who would pay handsomely for the new weapons he had forged, and Mama was planning to coax their wives into buying a few of her necklaces.

Papa and I woke early in the morning to fish, before the air grew too thick and hot to bear. Kamo and Goleh were too young and unruly to come along, so we left them sleeping in the tent with Mama. I remember the thrill I felt at that; there was no greater treasure to me than the time Papa and I spent together, just the two of us.

It was right after the first floods of the rainy season, and the river was teeming with life. I struggled to haul a full net of butter fish onto our little canoe and tipped us over, sending both of us, along with our catch, splashing into the water. Mama would have been furious, but Papa howled with laughter and dunked my head beneath the surface. He tugged the boat to shore while I swam behind.

Papa saw the crocodile before I did. I only saw his eyes go wide, heard him shout at me to swim faster. I pumped my arms and legs as hard as I could, knowing it didn’t matter, that the crocodile would easily catch me here in the water and my short life would be over soon. But some stubborn instinct drove me to keep swimming. My whole body pulsed with my heart when I finally scrambled onto the bank.

Papa lifted me up and set me down behind him like a sack of millet. I turned back to see him facing the crocodile, who was waiting half submerged in the shallow waters, his eyes fixed on Papa. He drew his dagger and passed it from hand to hand. I still remember how it shimmered in the sunlight, as if Gu had ordered Lisa to send his power into the blade.

It seemed like an eternity passed while Papa and the crocodile stared each other down. Then the crocodile spun around and swam off, disappearing into the depths of the river.

“The gods have saved us!” I cried out, triumphant.

“No.” Papa sheathed his dagger. He knelt and took my hands in his own. “People want to believe that the gods or the spirits are responsible for everything that happens in their lives. The truth is that belief itself is what controls their fate.” His mahogany eyes shone with conviction. “Belief is power, daughter of mine. But it’s also a choice. When you choose to believe in something, you give it power. I chose to believe that I was stronger than the crocodile. And so I was. That is why he left. Not because the gods saved me. Or, perhaps, the gods did save me. Perhaps they saved me because I was willing to save myself.”

I felt my brow scrunching. “Mama says we must honor the gods, and the ancestors too. She says I have much to learn from them.”

He smiled one of his mysterious half smiles, where only one of his dimples appears. “Your mother is very wise.”

Bewildered, I could only gape at him. But one thing was clear: My Papa was no ordinary blacksmith. From that moment on, he was like a hero from one of the old stories in my eyes: Yafeu, the man who cowed a crocodile!

When we returned to our tent, I told Mama what had happened. I thought she would be as amazed as I was, but instead she became wary and told us to pack our things. The crocodile was a warning from the gods, she said. It was a sign that the city wasn’t safe for us. I shared a knowing smile with Papa, but we did as she asked and left Jenne that same day.

The day after, Jenne was attacked by unknown warriors from the North. Word spread that they swarmed the city, burned the sacred groves, destroyed the statues of our gods, and killed anyone who stood in their way.

A chill dances up my spine despite the swelling heat.

If the crocodile truly was a warning from the gods . . . What does the painted wolf bode for me?

About the Author

Willow Smith
Willow Smith is a singer, songwriter, and activist. More by Willow Smith
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About the Author

Jess Hendel
Jess Hendel is a writer based in Los Angeles. She received her MFA in Writing for Screen and Television from the University of Southern California and her BA in Sociology from Amherst College. More by Jess Hendel
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