Inis Breandán, Isle of Man

'Mama!  Mama!'

“Mama! Mama!”

Sigrid shouted, “Watch out for your brothers!”


Olaf skidded along the wall, narrowly missing the toddlers playing on the floor – but at least he missed them. That was the most Sigrid could hope from her wild eldest son.

“Mama!” he panted. “I have to go see! I think I heard the horn!”

'I have to go see!  I think I heard the horn!'

“So go see,” she said.

Olaf had already dashed past her and out onto the narrow balcony overlooking the open sea.

“Do you suppose he did?” Guthrun asked hopefully.

'Do you suppose he did?'

Sigrid snorted. “Last night he woke me up because he thought he heard the horn in the middle of the night. He’s simply desperate for Eirik to get home in time for the baby’s birthday tomorrow. Eirik always gives presents to all the boys on each of their birthdays. That way they don’t learn to be jealous of their brothers.”

'That way they don't learn to be jealous of their brothers.'

“That’s a nice idea.”

“So,” she smiled, “hurry and have you some more babies, and you can put it to use.”

But that was perhaps asking too much of the frail woman. Her body could scarcely nourish the one baby she had – and a tiny baby it was.

But that was perhaps asking too much of the frail woman.

As for Sigrid, she had taken advantage of Eirik’s most recent absence to wean Sweyn. She did not need a man pawing at her breasts when they ached so. But she was eager to start it all over again soon: Eirik had hinted that he would like a daughter, and Sigrid was dying to see what sort of daughter a daughter of Eirik would be.

Olaf reappeared and squealed, “Mama! They’re here! They’re almost here! May I go down to the shore?”

'May I go down to the shore?'

He was already balancing on one foot, poised to tear back down the hall.

“Yes, you may – but stay behind the wall!”


“I mean it! I shall ask your father where he found you.”

He hesitated for a moment.

He hesitated for a moment, then ran off without another word, judging it not worth wasting time on a battle he was unlikely to win. He knew his Mama was not soft, and she could not be wheedled. She was raising men, not sycophants.

“Shall we go out and look?” Sigrid asked her companion.

'Oh, no.'

“Oh, no,” Guthrun said shyly. “If it’s certain they’re coming, I shall wait here with the little ones.”

“It’s quite warm today…”

Guthrun only smiled pleadingly. Sigrid went out alone.

Sigrid went out alone.

To her surprise she saw the two ships close to shore, already under oars. It appeared that Olaf had missed the first blast of the horn, or else the man watching for sails had been absent from his post. She swore he would be punished if it was so.

But otherwise it was an agreeable surprise, for it meant she hadn’t long to wait. She could clearly see the prow of Iron Bear, orange as a flame from rust, and make out the single star painted on the flapping, half-​​furled sail of Eirik’s own ship.

'They're here!'

“They’re here!” she shouted back to Guthrun.

She waited until she could see the tall man standing on the prow of Sea Star, one hand raised to shoulder-​​height, clinging to the forestay. She waved and waved until the other hand came up to wave in reply.

She waved and waved until the other hand came up to wave in reply.

Then she laughed in delight and ran inside.

Of course he had only been to Lothere and back, and there was unlikely to have been any danger at a wedding. There had been times when she had so despaired of ever seeing him again that she had run down to the beach herself, even out past the wall – even out into the surf to meet Eirik as he waded in.

Today she merely wiped Sweyn’s runny nose, combed through Harald’s hair with her fingertips, and sat herself primly onto the couch again. Too much ecstasy over such a brief and harmless trip would only dilute the passion of the next time she met him in the water. But she would not hide her smile.

But she would not hide her smile.

She made conversation with Guthrun until she heard Olaf’s feet come galloping down the hallway again. “Mama! Mama!”

“Watch out for your brothers!”

“I know!” He swerved past them and threw himself into her lap. “Papa’s home! And Tryggve! Get up!” He tugged on her hand until she rose, and then launched himself at Guthrun. “Get up! Get up!”

“Be nice!” Sigrid scolded him. She did not know how to explain the young woman’s weakness to him yet.

“Be nice?” Eirik stepped right over his laughing little sons’ heads and pulled Sigrid against him, not roughly, but powerfully.

'Be nice?'

She laughed. “You have my permission to be naughty.”

She waited for him to kiss her, but he only looked down into her face, smiling. She waited so long she began to run out of laughter, and it sputtered out awkwardly as she began to grow concerned. His eyes seemed confused and his face was the mask of a smile.

His eyes seemed confused and his face was the mask of a smile.

“What did I say?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he answered in English. “I am thinking, last night, the last thing I think before I go to sleep is how I want to hear you laughing.”

She did not understand why he would speak English to her, unless it was that Tryggve was no master of the language and Guthrun spoke it not at all. But he was not ordinarily shy about being affectionate with her before them. Then he said something that chilled her.

“I almost don’t wake up, and so, it is the last thing I ever think. So, I think the Lord He give me my last wish, and I wait to see do I die now.”

'I wait to see do I die now.'


But he released her and allowed himself to be distracted by his squealing sons, whom he had been ignoring thus far.

She turned her face to the window to ponder his words while she awaited his attention.

She turned her face to the window.

Eirik always said that he would die young, but one expected him to die in battle, in combat, or in a storm. For the first time she considered the possibility that he would simply die, perhaps of illness, perhaps in his sleep.

For the first time she wondered whether it was more than a warrior’s fatalism that led him to say he would die young. Perhaps he had a way of knowing something she did not.



He was already walking into their bedchamber when she turned around.

“Please watch the boys,” she said to Tryggve and Guthrun as she went by.

It was not uncommon for Eirik to take her to their room immediately upon returning from a trip, but ordinarily it was always a question of who could take their hands off the other long enough to open the door. She knew he must have something grave to tell her.

She knew he must have something grave to tell her.

She followed him quietly to the window, and when she was near enough to be grabbed, he turned around and pulled her close to him. He drew a deep breath from the coils of her hair and said, “So, I think somebody tried to kill me last night.”

'So, I think somebody tried to kill me last night.'

He spoke so calmly that she could scarcely believe she had understood correctly. “Someone tried to kill you last night?” she repeated in English.

“While I am sleeping, someone come in my room and knock a lamp on the floor to make a fire. I saw a rat, too, but so, a rat he don’t open a door to come in. And I find a secret door open on the wall when I get up.”

This was too much strange information at once. “You put out the fire?” she mumbled into his shoulder, though it was apparent he had.

'You put out the fire?'

And yet, by speaking of what had surely happened, she made more real what had clearly not. She was able to see her husband trapped behind a veil of smoke and flames, his naked back pressed against the cold stone of a wall while the heat of a fire seared the beautiful, beloved front of him–

Sigrid was a small woman, but she was solidly built, and if she flung all her weight at her wiry husband she could knock him against the wall. However, she was too short to kiss him if he did not bow his head to her, so she had to content herself with what she could reach.

If she flung all her weight at her wiry husband she could knock him against the wall.

High on his neck she could only taste the briny sweat of the sea, so she yanked open the collar of his shirt and kissed her way down his breastbone until she found the metallic sweat of the man.

At first he was so startled he gasped, then he sighed, but soon he lifted her away from him and laughed at her.

“So, you think you put me on fire again since last night it don’t work?”

“I shall put it out with my tongue.”

“Siri, it don’t work that way,” he laughed. “I explain you later.”

'I explain you later.'

If he was laughing, all would be well.

“Very well,” she said. “For now, you shall ‘explain me’ what happened.”

“So!” he began. “Did I already tell you, Raedwald he was in Lothere one night while I am there, and leave again before morning?”

“Raedwald!” she snarled. She had absorbed her husband’s own hatred of the man.

“And, so, four, five days later, I almost die in my bed at Hwitsands?”



“So, I tell you, when I wake up, there is a one small fire on the floor and a one big rat on the table. And the rat he leave by this secret door, which I did not see before I go to bed. And it is open then. And this rat by himself, perhaps he knock over the lamp, but he did not open the door. So!”

“So someone else came into your room?”

“So, I think someone else come and knock over the lamp. And the rat, he is already there doing his business of rat, and he jump on the table because he is scared of fire.”

“And you think it was Raedwald?”

“I don’t know. But I think Blaehwen he know. In the morning he is scared of me.

'In the morning he is scared of me.'

“But surely he wouldn’t set fire to his own castle! Or even let someone else do it.”

Eirik opened his mouth in consternation, and then closed it thoughtfully over his thumb.

“You didn’t think of that?”

“No.” He frowned comically. “Stupid pig-​​dog! Lucky to have you! What else don’t I think of, Siri?”

'What else don't I think of, Siri?'

Sigrid tried to think quickly. “Was… someone in your room when you woke?”

“I don’t know, but I hear a big thumping sound.”

“It might have been the big rat. Or others. What if the rat did knock over the lamp, but the door was open because someone else had been there earlier?”

“Why don’t he kill me then?”

Sigrid sighed and straightened his shirt, as if he were only another of her boys. “Perhaps he wasn’t trying to kill you, stupid pig-​​dog! Did anyone steal anything from you?”

'Perhaps he wasn't trying to kill you, stupid pig-dog!'

“No! I already did think of that.”

“Did you have letters?”

“Of course! I go to Lothere. I have letters from everybody, for everybody. But so, they are all here in my bag.”

“Reading a letter doesn’t make it disappear, Eirik.”

“They are still sealed!” he protested.

“Perhaps he was interrupted by the rat.”

'Perhaps he was interrupted by the rat.'

He frowned stubbornly. “Or so, perhaps he try to kill me but he is interrupted by the rat.”

Sigrid sighed. “You seem determined to convince me that someone tried to kill you last night,” she grumbled.

“I don’t know,” he said with an uncharacteristic wistfulness. “I rather believe your spy story, Siri.”

And yet she knew it was his own assassin story he believed. Again she wondered whether he knew something she did not.

Again she wondered whether he knew something she did not.