Inis Breandán, Isle of Man

They had heard Tryggve's voice thundering up from the hall.

The horn had sounded only once; no ships had landed, and the single sail had belonged to an unfamiliar, deep-​​drafting modern ship that could not have run up onto the gravel beach even if its captain had desired.

A small boat-​​load of men had rowed onto the shore, but this was a common enough occurrence that even Olaf had not cared to go down to inspect the load of wool or nails they had likely brought.

Then they had heard Tryggve’s voice thundering up from the hall.

The men hunched their shoulders and abruptly halted their anxious conversation.

As soon as the door opened, the men hunched their shoulders and halted their agitated conversation, attempting to throw up a wall of silence between themselves and Sigrid and her sons.

'Where is my father?'

“Where is my father?” Olaf asked eagerly once he had seen that no blond head towered above the others.

Silence. Sigrid hastened to open up her hoard of excuses.

A good sea-wife laid up a store of such theories.

Perhaps there had been a storm off the coast of England, and Tryggve had been forced back. Perhaps creaky old Iron Bear had at last “rusted” through and through, as Tryggve often threatened, forcing his ignominious return on a merchant ship. Perhaps Eirik had mistaken the date. Perhaps King Sigefrith or King Godred had found some urgent business for Eirik’s ships elsewhere.

A good sea-​​wife laid up a store of such theories as she did barrels of salt-​​fish: to keep her family alive in times of gnawing need.


“Tryggve,” she said.

Tryggve did not turn so much as his head, but she heard him sigh like a tempest. “Later, Sigi. I shall talk to you alone.”

Sigrid’s stomach began to pitch and sway, as if her nausea of the morning had returned for the afternoon. Tryggve could not look her in the eyes. Tryggve wished to speak to her in private.

Her sons were watching.

She wished he could have, but too much had already been said. Her sons were wondering, and she would have to get enough answers to allow her to select the best excuse for the occasion. Her sons were watching, and she could not be weak before them.

“Where is Eirik?” she demanded.

'Where is Eirik?'

“I said later, Sigi,” Tryggve snapped. “Do I need to speak up?”

The men laughed softly at the idea of Thunder-​​Throat being asked to speak up.

“And I said Where is Eirik, Tryggve. You were sent to bring him home. Now it’s time to explain why you failed to do it.”

Knut let out his breath through his lips in a silent whistle. At last Tryggve turned to Sigrid, wearing a weird smile.

Tryggve turned to Sigrid, wearing a weird smile.

“I was not sent,went, Sigrid.”

She had been high-​​handed with him, it was true, but she did not think it boded well for her husband if her husband’s man could speak to her with such defiance.

“Pardon my Norse,” she grumbled. “But you still seem to have failed.”

“I – said – la – ter,” he repeated with the careful enunciation of a language tutor. “Now take your boys, and go back upstairs, and wait with Guthrun. We men are busy here.”

'Go back upstairs, and wait with Guthrun.'

Trying to focus on his finger bobbing before her face nearly brought Sigrid’s nausea to its logical conclusion. She was so sick, she was so weary – she was a woman, and she was already exhausted from two months of carrying this new, fragile, furtive little life inside of her. She could not bear her own besides.

She was no fit sea-​​wife. Perhaps the day she had long feared was upon her, and she would shame her husband by failing to be brave as she had promised him. The last thing she would do for him would be to shame him with her weeping. The mere thought already brought her to the brink of tears.

The mere thought already brought her to the brink of tears.

But then an indignant little voice peeped out from behind her: “We’re men, too! Mama, too!”

Three-​​year-​​old Pinknose had said his piece, but by the time Sigrid turned to him, he was already looking desperately around in fear that he had said the wrong thing or spoken out of turn. Sigrid would have to stand up for him.

“That’s right!” she cried. “These young men asked you where their father is, and we’re not leaving until we get an answer!”

'These young men asked you where their father is.'

Tryggve groaned in exasperation. “Fine! Listen, then! But I’m not picking you up off the floor if you faint! And I’m not wiping these kids’ noses if they start bawling!”

His temper was terrifying, but his sympathy would have shattered her. As long as she could struggle with Tryggve, she would be too occupied to cry.

“Shut up and say it!” she barked. “Do we look like we’re about to start fainting and bawling and what have you?”

'Do we look like we're about to start fainting and bawling and what have you?'

Njal and Knut chuckled, and she was grateful, for it only infuriated her and Tryggve all the more. Her swelling anger had borne her up so high that she thought it might even carry her dry-​​eyed over the first few minutes following the dreaded words. Still, her heart thumped painfully in her breast.

“He’s in prison, Sigi! And that’s where Njal and I have spent the last few days, so forgive me if I’m in something of a rotten mood!”

“Prison…” she repeated stupidly. Her husband was not dead. Her husband was alive. She felt her fear and courage deflating together.

“Whitehand had us captured in Haeringtun the instant we sat down to take off our boots!” Tryggve stormed. “Ever since Eirik left for Lothere, all up and down both coasts, in every letter it’s been Earl Eirik, Earl Eirik, and finally Whitehand got sick of correcting everyone! So that’s where that got us!”

'So that's where that got us!'

“But that’s not Eirik’s fault!” Sigrid cried.

“It doesn’t matter whose fault it was! Whitehand has been waiting for an excuse like this for months! It’s as your Sigefrith says: A weak king is safer with strong enemies than strong allies.”

He moved to turn back to the other men, but Sigrid caught his arm. Bereft of her towering anger and towering fear, with her fingers pressed against Tryggve’s tense and solid muscle, she was feeling very much a weak woman again, and very small.

She was almost surprised when Tryggve stopped and turned back to her at her touch. Her little hand must have had a fly’s weight to a powerful man such as he.

“But we need to find out who wrote those letters and show him,” she pleaded.

'But we need to find out who wrote those letters and show him.'

“Sigi, he doesn’t care!” Tryggve’s booming voice creaked with impatience. “If he wants to call Eirik a traitor, nothing we can show him will stop him. He wants him to be guilty. He wants him to die.”

Sigrid’s spine snapped as straight as a mast, and her lungs filled with air like sails. Tryggve was saying her husband was not dead… yet. Her panicked heart seemed to stretch and kick in her aching chest as her baby would soon do in her belly – the baby Eirik would never see – the daughter he had so wanted…

Her panicked heart seemed to stretch and kick in her aching chest.

But his eldest son was staring at her from behind a pillar, watching her. She bit her lip to keep the sob down, and she opened her eyes wide to make room for the tears.

“He’s asking an earl’s ransom for him, Sigi,” Tryggve said. “Six hundred marks. Because he knows we can’t pay.”

'Because he knows we can't pay.'

“Six hundred marks!” she gasped, letting all the air out of her chest in one gust. She caught Tryggve’s sleeve and shook it as he turned away from her again. “But if Whitehand asks an earl’s ransom for him, then Whitehand says he’s an earl! And then what’s he punishing him for?” She smiled savagely in satisfaction over her cleverness.

'Oh, that's right.'

“Oh, that’s right,” Tryggve snapped, “let’s just tell him that! And watch him smack his forehead and let Eirik walk out of there! Don’t you see it? What did Pilate write on the Cross? Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews! That’s what Whitehand’s doing with his earl’s ransom, Sigi. Eirik Jarl,” he muttered in disgust, and when he turned away a third time, her clinging fingers could not stop him.

Her clinging fingers could not stop him.

“Where are you going?” she yelped.

“I answered you, and now we’re going to get things done.”

“Wait! What are you doing? Where are you going?”

“To his uncle!”

“His uncle!” she squealed. “That will take weeks! Get back here!” she shrieked as Tryggve turned the corner.

Tryggve whirled around and returned in such a rush that even the men were startled and leapt clear.

Tryggve whirled around and returned in such a rush.

“Whom are you ordering around, woman?” he roared.

Sigrid’s light little body listed dangerously as she was blown back by his fury. But as she charted out the route of escape behind her, she remembered the pillar, and she remembered Olaf standing behind it, watching her.

She stood fast for the moment, though her voice was shaky. “Does my husband live?”

“When I left him he did! But I suggest we stop wasting time!”

Tryggve turned again, and Sigrid screamed, “Stop right there!”

'Stop right there!'

He stopped a moment with his back to her, perhaps trying to calm himself, but Sigrid could hear his panting from across the hall. In his rage he only seemed to swell before her eyes, his broad body rising and billowing up like a thunderhead.

In his rage he only seemed to swell before her eyes.

Sigrid was only a little, desperate woman, and with all these men and all this menace surrounding her, she felt lost in the eye of a storm.

Just as Tryggve turned to rush after her, she scampered up onto the dais Eirik had had built for her chair and his, and where Tryggve, it seemed, dared not yet follow.

She hurried to climb up onto the dais.

This lordly innovation in furnishings had not pleased some of the men, but Eirik had always joked that it was merely meant to give Sigrid a vantage point from which she might look out over other men’s heads and look her husband in the eye.

Perhaps its construction had been unwise or premature, but now the platform served its supposed purpose and gave Sigrid some of the self-​​assurance of the very tall and the very high.

“If my husband still lives, I am mistress here, and it is my husband’s men I am ordering around. And if he does not, then this hall is my son’s, and mistress I am here still.”

'Mistress I am here still.'

The men all looked to Tryggve with questioning eyes, just as her sons were looking to her.

“I did not swear any oath to you!” Tryggve growled.

Sigrid’s heart chattered like teeth. She was not brave. She was not a fit earl’s wife. She wanted to crawl down from the dais, creep beneath her blankets like Estrid’s cat in a thunderstorm, and cry, cry, cry out of longing for her husband. She needed Eirik to come and save Eirik for her.

'Then do!'

But Eirik’s sons were watching her, and Tryggve’s resistance offered the strongest, surest support against which Sigrid could lean. She threw all her weight against it.

“Then do!” she cried. They both stood.

Knut sucked his breath in through his rounded lips in an almost-​​audible whistle.

'To a woman?'

“To a woman?” Tryggve asked with a softness to his voice that was chilling on him.

Sigrid spun about and dragged Eirik’s long sword down from its bracket. It was nearly as tall as she, and both lighter than it appeared and heavier than she could handle. In her fright and confusion it came down with a clatter.

In her fright and confusion it came down with a clatter.

Tryggve moved to catch it, but Sigrid’s sense of the sacredness of swords told her that she must not let any other man take it by the hilt. She pounced on it and lifted her head to glare a threat up at Tryggve, hissing in her throat like a cat. Tryggve stepped back.

Tryggve stepped back.

Sigrid clutched one hand around the hilt as she rose, and with the other pushed herself up against the floor, against her knee, against the chair, as clumsy with this new weight as she would be in a few months with her baby. She had to hope her sons would not know her awkwardness.

Finally she lifted the tip from the floor and bore the weight of the sword on both her arms. Its length multiplied her every twitch into a sickening zigzag at the point of the blade, but Olaf was grinning proudly at her, as if he had never seen such swordsmanship.

Olaf was grinning proudly at her, as if he had never seen such swordsmanship.

Sigrid had never held a sword except in play, when she would squeal and giggle and pretend to be overwhelmed by the sheer masculinity of the thing. Now she was bearing a sword to a grave purpose, and now she felt the sacred power she had always suspected flowing back into her arms and shoulders.

There on Eirik’s lordly dais, with Eirik’s sword in her hands, she had the strength and self-​​assurance of a very tall, very noble, very powerful man. Eirik’s might was hers, since he was not there to bear it.

She had the strength and self-assurance of a very tall, very noble, very powerful man.

“If men call him Earl,” she cried, “and he is imprisoned for being Earl, and he is worth an Earl’s ransom, then I say he is Earl.”

His men looked to one another in astonishment at this scene, but no one seemed to disagree with her words. Even sullen-​​faced Tryggve was silent and listening.

“And I am his lady – and I am your lady, and you shall obey me when he is not here.”

Tryggve stared back at her, meeting her force with equal force.

Tryggve stared back at her, meeting her force with equal force, though she saw something in his eyes that resembled relief. Eirik had told her once that Tryggve was a fine captain but would make a poor commander – he always needed someone, somewhere, approving what he did or telling him what to do.

'Do not tarry.'

“Do not tarry,” she threatened. “We haven’t time, and I shall tell Eirik which of you hesitated and which of you swore boldly. And his sons shall witness.”

“I swear,” Knut shrugged, breaking the male silence. When they all looked at him, he explained, “Better to die for Sigi than die in bed, I guess.”

“Oh, if those are the only options…” Olaf Skeggi grumbled.

'Oh, if those are the only options...'

“Unless you have Eirik’s luck and can hope to do both at the same time,” Knut laughed.

“I swear,” Njal said. “I just don’t want her coming after me with that sword if I don’t.”

The men laughed at him, too, coming to life with the bold, ringing laughter of men among men.

If Tryggve would not swear, it did not matter if the others did.

Still, Sigrid was not satisfied. If Tryggve would not swear, it did not matter if the others did. He was Eirik’s right hand, and she was Eirik’s wife. Only he and she amongst all these ragtag warriors could claim any royal blood. Only Tryggve and she could have demanded oaths of loyalty from the men without provoking endlessly renewed bouts of jealous squabbling.

And while the men might follow Sigrid in Eirik’s absence, after Eirik’s death she and her sons would be pushed aside if Tryggve did not defend them. There could be no landed nobility among the people of the sea. Their only God-​​given right of inheritance was that of sons to avenge their father. They would have to earn back everything that had been his.


“Tryggve,” she said.

“I swear, Lady,” he replied. “Their blood and the blood of your husband shall be on your hands.”

He swore, she knew, because he was not strong enough to wear their blood on his. But his cool agreement knocked away the wall of resistance against which she had been leaning.

'I swear, Lady.'

Suddenly the sword was too heavy for her hands and the platform too dizzyingly high. She had put on the appearance of bravery, and she had reassured her sons, but she was only a weak little woman, and she needed the real courage of a man.

“Very good,” she croaked. “Now, we shall send a ship to Nidaros if you like, but we don’t have weeks to wait for a reply. You shall take me at once to my cousin, King Sigefrith.”

Some of the men tossed their heads in annoyance, but none defied her. She let them grumble, as Eirik did, to let them save their pride.

Amid the bustle she at last indulged in a whispered assurance to herself alone: “Sigefrith will know what to do.”

'Sigefrith will know what to do.'