'Well, well, well.'

“Well, well, well,” Caedwulf sneered, before Eirik had even completed the long journey back up from the floor on which he had briefly kneeled. “If it isn’t Brass Balls the Pirate, run aground.”

Eirik barked, “Boy!”


“Watch your tongue, runt,” Sigefrith grinned, “or he’s likely to run you into the ground.”

“I show you what your balls is made of, and it isn’t brass,” Eirik warned him.

“Solid gold,” Caedwulf smirked. “And polished most every night.”

'And polished most every night.'

Eirik could only laugh at his insolence. Caedwulf was the sort of boy who could permit himself such boldness: he was turning into the sort of man who could back it up, and Eirik needed that sort of ally.

He shook hands with Malcolm over Caedwulf’s ducking head, and he let himself be embraced and pummeled by the only earthly king he truly loved.

“What news for me, runt?” Sigefrith asked him. “I haven’t had a letter from over the sea for nearly a fortnight. How’s that little cousin of mine?”

'How's that little cousin of mine?'

“Sigi she is well. She is sick as a dog and happy as a pig when I left her, and she tell me, tell everyone how I am having a daughter in the Midsummer time. So I tell you all.”

“She already picked out a girl?”

“That’s Sigi,” Eirik shrugged.

'That's Sigi.'

“That’s Sigi,” Sigefrith agreed. “She pick out the eyes and hair yet?”

Eirik pointed at his eyes, which were as blue as hers. “Blue. Maybe blue hair, too. If Sigi she make up her mind for blue hair, so, I think she get it. I hope she don’t get the idea, though.”

“Tell Sigi to make up her mind for a mild winter,” Sigefrith said absently, eying Eirik’s coat for bulges that might signify letters. “We hadn’t a good harvest this year.”

“Here, here, and here,” Eirik smiled, patting over his coat and belt. “Flanders here, Dublin here, and Denmark here.”


“Denmark!” Sigefrith gasped and pointed at his open palm. “Let’s have it right here.

Eirik held up his own hand, open and empty. “First! I trade you some letters of yours, for your opinion about some one letter of mine.”

“None of your games!” Caedwulf groaned.

“It is no game,” Eirik snapped, more curtly than he had intended. It was certainly no game to him.

'It is no game.'

He pulled out the folded letter and looked it over for what felt like the last time. It would no longer be quite his own, once these wiser men had seen it. At least half of the thoughts that had grown up around it in his mind were about to be mowed down. For an instant he thought he preferred not knowing to whatever single truth was about to be revealed.

But Sigefrith, always hungry for letters, already had it in his hand. “Eirik–Jarl!” he laughed. “Name of God, runt! I didn’t know we were supposed to be congratulating you – or paying tribute to you, or whatever the situation calls for. That’s the first we’ve heard of it.”

'That's the first we've heard of it.'

“The first time I hear of it, too,” Eirik said gravely.

Sigefrith was instantly serious. “Ah! Is that so…” He pulled Malcolm closer as he unfolded it. “Rhys, eh?”

“So,” Eirik said briskly, “I want you to tell me: Rhys, do he write this because he want me dead, or because someone else want me dead, and he tell Rhys I am called Earl now?”

Sigefrith snorted and handed the letter over to Malcolm.

“Not having read it, I would guess the former. If someone else is thinking to incriminate you, why use Rhys? Why not me or Enna, for example? How many ships did you steal from him, anyway?”

“That was a long time ago!” Eirik wailed. “If a man don’t like me, so, he come and tell me, and we fight like men. Not this kind of sneaky trick.”

'Not this kind of sneaky trick.'

“It doesn’t sound like Rhys,” Sigefrith admitted.

“It isn’t,” Malcolm interrupted. “Rhys didn’t write this.”

“He didn’t?” Eirik asked in dismay. It was the one possibility he had not considered – at least not once he and Tryggve had carefully compared the letter with previous letters from the same hand. “He write just like Rhys!”

'He write just like Rhys!'

Malcolm turned away from the candle and brought the letter back to Eirik. “We shall see about that later. But he didn’t write this. Look.”

He pointed at crosses written in the salutation, at the closing, and elsewhere.

“‘In the name of Christ’… ‘may Christ protect you’… ‘greetings in Christ’… the word ‘Christ’ is written with a cross, plus a ‘T’, plus the Latin ending. Rhys doesn’t do that – he only writes the cross and leaves his reader to figure out the Latin.”

'Rhys doesn't do that.'

“Just like a Welshman!” Caedwulf laughed.

“Exactly,” Malcolm said seriously. “Most of them do.”

Eirik gasped and spluttered, “Damn, boy!”

Malcolm smiled modestly, but Sigefrith was beaming with pride. “No, you may not keep him!” he said preemptively. “He’s worth his weight in solid gold balls, by God!”

'He's worth his weight in solid gold balls, by God!'

“Oh!” Caedwulf protested. “And I?”

Sigefrith jabbed him with an elbow. “You’re only worth the two.”

Caedwulf jabbed him back, and they began to wrestle, but Eirik was too stunned to join in or even to laugh.

Malcolm silently surrendered the letter and then clasped his hands before him, awaiting further orders. But he watched Eirik with that look of cunning in his amber eyes that he shared with the men of his clan, and which inspired in Eirik a superstitious fear such as he had for no other race.

He watched Eirik with that look of cunning in his amber eyes.

Sigefrith noticed their silence and interrupted his wrestling match with a cough. “But one question remains, good Sir Malcolm: who does write their Christs in such a blasphemously grammatical manner?”

Malcolm dropped his arms and spoke seriously again. “The Irish and the Scots of the west and the Isles are known to, but they tend not to write the ‘T’, with a few exceptions that I shall verify for you later. It is quite common in old Sussex and Kent, but not among the Normans there now. Of course…” he mused, as if it were only an afterthought, “they got it from the Saxons, who still often write it that way. Father Brandt does, for example…”

“Raedwald!” Eirik snarled. “As God is my witness – when I catch that man, I tear out his balls through his throat – whatever they are made of!”


“If he has any,” Caedwulf added.

“He has some – or he is madman! When I find him…”

“Listen, runt,” Sigefrith interrupted. “I have a better revenge for you.”

“What’s that?” Eirik asked hopefully, having realized the gravity of swearing before God that he was to do something he suspected was anatomically impossible.

“Make yourself an earl. Then he will simply look like a fool.”

'Make yourself an earl.'

“No no!” Eirik wailed. “I can’t say, ‘I am Earl’, and so, now it is true!”

“Why not?” Caedwulf laughed and shook his father’s arm by the sleeve. “That’s what he did! ‘I am King!’” he intoned, mocking Sigefrith’s deep voice with a voice that was already growing deep. “‘Who says me nay’?”

“Whitehand, perhaps?” Malcolm suggested.

'Oh, no!'

“Oh, no!” Eirik groaned. “Sigi she say exactly the same thing to me: ‘My cousin Sigefrith did!’” he squeaked, though Sigrid’s rich voice was closer to his own baritone than to the little girl’s voice he mocked.

Sigefrith laughed at him, but he clapped him on the shoulder in commiseration. “There’s no ambition like the ambition of an ambitious woman, runt.”

'There's no ambition like the ambition of an ambitious woman, runt.'

“Sigi she is not ambitious,” Eirik mumbled. “She think it normal for me. So, she think I am some kind of great man.”

“What are you then?” Sigefrith asked, beaming with pride. “Look at what you’ve made of yourself!”

“I make nothing! That’s Sigi,” he sighed, shaking his head and frowning into his collar to hide his own secret awe and admiration. “Since years I try to tell her I am just a stupid pig-​​dog. She never do believe me.”

'Since years I try to tell her I am just a stupid pig-dog.'