Inis Patraic, Isle of Man

Sigrid's most vivid impressions of her capture and captivity had been of hands.

Sigrid’s most vivid impressions of her capture and captivity had been of hands. She, a lady, a daughter and sister of knights and cousin of a king, had never known how free men’s hands could be with a woman they did not respect and whose family they did not fear.

Every one of them had wanted to put his hands on her.

When the men had passed her from ship to boat to ship on the open sea, every one of them had wanted to put his hands on her to “help” her over. Then they had to “help” her stand, “help” her sit, “help” her move. They had to hold her still to keep her from throwing herself into the water. They had to hold her up to show her off to one another and exclaim over their prize.

They had to search her for weapons – over and over, as each man seemed unwilling to believe the assurances of the two or five or ten who had gone before him and insisted on searching her himself. They all repeated the same gestures, all laughing deep in their throats: their hands sliding up her belly, over her breasts, down her waist and hips and thighs.

They all repeated the same gestures.

Then there had been the creeping hands of Osvald, her self-​​appointed guard. He did not seem to outrank the others, but in some weaselish way he always slithered back to her every time someone pulled her aside.

Then there had been Osvald.

When the sun had gone down on the sea, Osvald had even pulled a blanket over the two of them and squeezed her tightly between the beam of the ship and his body – “to keep her warm” he had chortled. By God’s mercy he had not touched her with his hands then, but she was almost certain he had been touching himself. That last ruddy twilight hour of evening had been the most horrific she had ever known.

He could not keep his hands from her.

Osvald could not keep his hands from her even as they came into the hall: though she went willingly, he still had to push her along every few steps, preventing her from walking with dignity into the presence of the King.

Whitehand had become her enemy, but the groping hands of the sailors had humiliated and terrified her to such shivering weakness that she was grateful to see him. King Godred, at least, was a noble man. She had dined at his table, sewed with his wife, and cuddled his babies on her lap. He would recognize the respect he owed a lady, she thought – even to the lady of his rival.

He prevented her even from walking with dignity into the presence of the King.

And she was relieved to see men she knew, too: not friends of Eirik, perhaps, and not gallants like her old friend Alred, but such gentlemen as could be found in the court of the pirate king.

As she stumbled in she first saw Harald Leki, and though he was not smiling now, she took some comfort in imagining him with his famous crooked grin that was widest on the fair half of his face and wickedest on the half that was most scarred.

The man opposite him was black Kormak, chieftain of an Island tribe: he had been great friends with her brother Murchad in happier times.

The man opposite him was black Kormak.

And hidden from her sight until she stood well in the hall was one of her husband’s friends, Skorri Snake-​​Tongue, warming himself by the fire like any self-​​esteeming reptile.

And hidden from her sight until she stood well in the hall was one of her husband's friends.

How often he had warmed himself by her fire at home! He had no sons of his own, but he was a darling with hers, letting them pile onto his lap, patiently sticking out his forked tongue for their recurrent inspections, and amusing them with little magic tricks. After his last visit, it had taken several spankings to convince Pinknose to leave his baby brother’s diaper alone, since Skorri had demonstrated that there was a never ending supply of pennies within.

He would not let the men abuse her.

He was startled to see her, and in the first instant he almost stood. He did not – and she did not blame him – but she knew she could lay all her hope in his strength without shame. He would not let the men abuse her. He would help Eirik when the time was ripe.

“Hmm hmm hmm,” Whitehand chuckled as he rose from his chair. “What wonders do wash up after storms.”

'What wonders do wash up after storms.'

“Brass-Dog’s wife,” Kormak murmured in something like amused astonishment.

“Sigrid Brass-​​Bitch,” Harald cooed.

The men laughed, all around her: right and left and before and behind – even Skorri. Sigrid balled up her fists until her nails bit into her palms and told herself he had to.

“We caught her fleeing northward with Thunder-​​Throat,” Osvald said.

Whitehand leaned over her in a leering inspection.

Whitehand leaned over her in a leering inspection.

“A pity you brought her in, then. Perhaps she was going to get her husband’s ransom.” He bent his head to her ear and murmured, “Good evening, Sigrid,” so softly only she could hear, and so breathily it seemed his true purpose was to heat the shivering skin of her neck. But he did not touch her with his hands.

She took a deep breath to begin the speech she had been preparing all through her captivity on the ship – except when Osvald’s squirming presence prevented her from thinking about anything – but she did not even have the chance to open her mouth.

“Perhaps she can work it off,” Harald suggested.

'Perhaps she can work it off.'

“How? Spinning wool into gold?” Kormak laughed.

“No, you idiot. How much would you spend for a night in her bed?”

Whitehand bit his fingertip and looked thoughtfully at Sigrid – not into her eyes, not at her face, but quite deliberately at her mouth.

She pressed her lips together, trying to make them less full, less desirable. Eirik always said men would do anything for a chance to kiss lips like hers. Now she saw how much danger there was in “anything” for her.

She pressed her lips together.

“Five marks tonight, if I get to her before you do,” Kormak offered.

“Ten if after?” Harald laughed.

“You owe me if after!”

'You owe me if after!'

The wide circle around her laughed again: the same deep, vulgar laughter she had heard on the ship, laughing through lust, a low chortling that was like a cote of sinister doves.

Only Whitehand did not laugh, and he was walking around her in a tight inner circle, inspecting her from every side, breathing on her cheeks and neck, breathing on her tense lips.

She cursed her feeble courage, but she could not stand her ground. She began backing towards the fire, both to put a barrier at her back and to put Skorri at her side.

She began backing towards the fire.

But when the laughter began to die, Skorri said, “Twenty!” and set it off again, still more brutal and battering: the true laughter of men among men, unrestrained by respect for ladies.

Sigrid bit her lips together – not to make them less lovely, but to hold back her sob. It was the way of men in all things, she knew: making everything a contest, each trying to outdo the one who had gone before. But though she knew Skorri could not simply stand up and rescue her, she had never thought he would act to rile the men.

She had never thought he would act to rile the men.

“Twenty!” Harald leaned over the arm of his chair to spit into the corner before he stood. “Never met a woman worth that. Not even to keep.” He grinned at Sigrid and winked at Kormak.

“Ach, but I think he’s meaning to keep her,” Kormak smiled. “Twenty marks is an investment for the likes of Skorri. Once she finds out what he can do with that forked tongue of his, she’ll be coming back for free.”

They laughed brutally – Skorri the loudest among them.

They laughed brutally--Skorri the loudest among them.

Sigrid had been concentrating on the movements of the men about her, like a wary deer surrounded by wolves, but at that idea her thoughts turned inward, cascading in on herself in a tide of revulsion.

So many times she had seen Skorri waggle his tongue at her boys to make them laugh: he could move the two forked tips separately. It had always seemed so boyishly innocent, and she had laughed freely with them, but now it appeared vulgar and vile. She had never thought of what that tongue might do to a woman – to her – but perhaps all men did. Perhaps Skorri did.

She had never thought of what that tongue might do to a woman.

Sigrid could not help it – she opened her mouth to grimace and to gasp.

The King pounced, as if he had been awaiting precisely this – but not to kiss her. He lifted one of his famous fair hands, soft and white as a woman’s and big as a man’s, and jabbed a finger between her lips. He only hooked it over her bottom teeth for an instant, roughly pressing her tongue down into her mouth before yanking his hand away again.

He yanked his hand away again.

Sigrid had been far too startled to bite it, if that was what he had feared. It was an absurd, senseless gesture – she could not understand what it meant – and yet her body did.

Her jaws sprang wide; her tongue jammed itself between her teeth to force out the intruder, though it was long gone; and she gagged as if her throat was trying to turn itself inside out. She turned aside to spit or drool or vomit into the fire pit, but as she bent down, Skorri grabbed her hips from behind and pulled them against his.

Her back arched round as a bow to pull herself out of his grasp, but it only brought her face up to meet Harald’s crooked grin.

Her face came up to meet Harald's crooked grin.

Sigrid screamed and closed her eyes so she would not have to see them closing in on her – squinted up her face until her eyes were lost in the creases between her cheeks and brows, to protect her eyes from ever having to see again.

All her fine, brave, insolent speech was forgotten. She flailed her arms like a toddler, battering a wall of bodies she could not see and could not move, and shrieked, “No! No! No!”

They laughed.

'Let me go!'

“Let me go!”

“But Sigi!” Whitehand gasped, feigning dismay. “You only just arrived!”

She told herself she must not cry. She was Eirik’s wife, she reminded herself, and she would go down fighting, as Tryggve said Eirik had. She thought of how they had trapped him and beat him, and her anger gave her strength.

“I am not here for a visit!” she snarled. “You had me kidnapped! You – ” Her Norse invectives failed her. “ – brute!”


Harald tilted out a hip and cried in an overfeminine falsetto, “Oh, Whitehand! You brute, you!”

The men laughed. King Godred smiled.

“Cowards!” she hissed.

Their laughter went on but grew deeper and more menacing, like the grumbling of wolves. Whitehand’s smile soured. Men did not like to hear their courage questioned.

Whitehand's smile soured.

“I did not order your capture, Sigrid,” Whitehand murmured. “But I am a man who knows how to profit from life’s little surprises. I am certain this one will be quite profitable once your family has learned of it. No? I think your dear cousin King Sigefrith will reward me well for ‘rescuing you’ from these stormy seas.”

“He will ‘reward you’ with the edge of a sword!” Sigrid snarled.

“Ah ah ah!” He wagged his white finger at her. “I think he will not. Your cousin is a diplomat: he will do anything to avoid a fight. He will pay, and then he will begin a carefully orchestrated fit of grumbling by courier, but if he finds an advantage for him in it later, he will be the first to call me his dearest friend. That is what we call a coward, Sigrid.”

You are what I call a coward,” she cried shrilly, stupidly. “You dog! All of you dogs!”

'All of you dogs!'

She swung her fists right and left and smashed them into hard bodies. It only seemed to make the men laugh more loudly, and the men she hit laughed hardest of all.

“We thought you liked dogs, Sigi!” Skorri crooned. “You married one!”

“Worms!” she snarled. “Maggots! Reptiles!”

'Maggots!  Reptiles!'

But the men did not seem to find these insults offensive at all. Harald laughed so wildly at the last word that he had to lean a hand on the chimney to hold himself up.

“Ow ow ow!” he panted. “You know, Sigi, they used to call him Skorri the Snake before he slit his tongue!”

She felt Skorri’s hand sliding down her back.

She felt Skorri's hand sliding down her back.

“Why don’t you come to my room and let me show you why?” he cooed.

Sigrid jammed her elbow into Skorri’s ribs and shoved Harald away with the other hand – but if she could strike them both at the same time, it only proved they were pressing closer.

She ducked down beneath Skorri’s laughing head and growled up at him, “Traitor! Fair-​​weather friend!”

Skorri flicked his forked tongue out at her like a snake.

“Coward! Cowards!”

Again the word had its effect.

'Oh, please!'

“Oh, please!” Whitehand snapped. “Spare us, Sigrid! Stay home with your babies if you want to be safe! You knew what you were risking! God only knows what trouble you were planning if you’d gone wherever you were going.” He pinched her chin roughly between his white fingers until she swatted it away.

“Coward!” she spat.


“Oh, evil, cowardly men!” he sneered. “Harassing a poor, defenseless little woman!

“I’m not talking about how you’re treating me,” she said coldly. “I’m talking about what you did to Eirik.”

She heard Skorri’s soft, snuffling laughter near her ear and jammed her elbow back into his side again. But she knew he would return before long.

“Your husband was a traitor to me,” Whitehand said. “I do not suffer the like long.”

'Your husband was a traitor to me.'

“Those were lies! Lies! Lies!”

She cursed herself and her stupidity. All her fine speech had been forgotten. All her bold words that would have made Eirik proud were gone. She was arguing with all the subtlety of a toddler, as if shrieking a thing over and over made it more true.

Whitehand shrugged. “Some men were beginning to believe them. Including your husband.”

“No! Including you!

'Including you!'

Whitehand smiled indulgently at her.

You were afraid of him – that’s what I mean by coward! You feared he was powerful enough to make the lies true!”

Whitehand’s smile changed to a scowl with an almost comical abruptness. “That isn’t how it works, Sigi,” he growled.

'That isn't how it works, Sigi.'

“It is! You were afraid of him! You’re too weak to have such strong allies!”

Whitehand sniffed. “So, is that what he is telling people?”

“No! That is what everyone knows!”

The men laughed appreciatively, and for the moment, their hands and hips stopped darting at her as they all stepped back to watch what Whitehand would say next.

The men laughed appreciatively.

Sigrid felt a flush blaze across her cheeks, hot as the fire behind her. A surge of strength spread out into her arms and hands, as when she had held Eirik’s sword over the men. She had made her words a weapon. She must have stumbled across what Eirik would have said.

“Take care, Sigrid,” Whitehand growled. “Do not think that you will be treated like a lady if you speak as offensively as a man. For the same crime I would punish a woman as soon as a man. Unless you would like me to have one of these men take you out and demonstrate the difference?”

They might as well have been chained wolves, and he might as well have been holding the leash.

They might as well have been chained wolves, and he might as well have been holding the leash.

Sigrid did not need a demonstration. She knew what she was: weak and a woman, at the mercy of the strength of men. Harald’s strength was wrapped around her waist, Olaf’s strength was yanking on her arm, and Skorri’s strength flung itself over her shoulder and pulled her beneath Skorri’s arm, crushing her tightly against Skorri’s body.

Skorri's strength flung itself over her shoulder and pulled her beneath Skorri's arm.

“You are a loyal wife,” Whitehand said coldly. “We shall carve it on your tomb if you do not survive the lesson.”

Then he stood regal and silent, watching as the other men pulled and pawed at her.

Her hand had clamped itself over her mouth as tightly as the hands of the men – so tightly she did not even realize it was her own until Harald pulled it away to peck at her cheek. Her mouth freed, she heard a hideous wail come out of it that she did not know she had meant to make.

She still felt her body being yanked around between them.

She still felt her body being yanked around between them like a bone between squabbling dogs, but they seemed to have shaken her Sigrid-​​soul loose, and she was rattling around inside of her body, no longer a part of it, but only trapped within.

Whitehand turned abruptly and stalked away. “Take her to the tower,” he ordered.

'Take her to the tower.'

The men howled in disappointment.

“After?” Harald asked sweetly.

“Now! I want her locked up!”

“I promise she won’t get out from under me!” Harald grinned.

'I promise she won't get out from under me!'

Skorri yanked her away from Harald and tried to pull her arm up cosily over his shoulder and slip his own around her waist. Sigrid flailed weakly and threw it off.

“Twenty marks, I said!”

“She’s not a widow yet, Skorri,” Whitehand growled. “Save your money for your morning-​​gift.”

Skorri caught her waist with one hand. The other he lifted to her head.

The other he lifted to her head.

“Jewels for her hair I shall buy her,” he crooned, lisping softly like a serpent with his forked tongue.

His fingers dove into her coil of hair, but he did not simply stab them straight to her head. He slid them in slowly, poking and prodding, plunging them deeper every time they withdrew.

He slid them in slowly, poking and prodding.

“A man would do anything for hair like this,” he whispered. “A woman with hair like ropes is just what drives a sailor wild, Siri. We never saw a rope but we wanted to tie something down with it. Eh, Harald?”

“Or someone,” Harald smiled.

'Or someone.'

Sigrid could not even squirm away; her spine was rigid with horror. It was another senseless gesture she could not have imagined – Skorri’s fingers like Whitehand’s – but again her body knew. When his fingers finally touched her scalp she screamed.

At once he pulled his hand free and slowly drew the backs of his fingers across his lips, beneath his nose, tasting them or smelling them. Then he grabbed her with both hands and pressed his mouth directly into her hair, just over her ear.

'Hair like that is a danger to you, Siri.'

“Hair like that is a danger to you, Siri, with all these sailors around,” he purred. She felt his hot breath all the way down to her shivering skin. “Better not let any man but your husband into it.”

Harald laughed wickedly and fanned himself with his hand. “Damn, Skorri! You’re getting me hot here!”

Skorri leaned over Sigrid and flicked his forked tongue at his friend. They both laughed together, over her, as if she were not even there. She was so close to fainting that she scarcely was.

They both laughed together, over her, as if she were not even there.

At the edge of her awareness Sigrid heard a crash of some flung object, and Whitehand roaring, “What are you two doing over there! I said take her out of here!”

“I’ll take her, sire,” Osvald chirped.

Sigrid moaned.

Sigrid moaned.

“I’ll take her,” Skorri said.

“I don’t trust you with her three paces out of here!” the King cried. “You take her, boy.”

'You take her, boy.'

“Should I put her in with Brass-​​Dog?” Osvald asked.

“No, you dumb animal! What are we doing? Rewarding him? Put her upstairs, and lock her in! And get her something to eat.”

“I think I’ll find something for her to eat,” Osvald giggled.

'I think I'll find something for her to eat.'

“Don’t you touch her,” Skorri said behind her. All the sinister dove-​​like cooing had gone out of his voice, and now it dripped with raw venom.

“Unless you have more than twenty marks on you,” Kormak chuckled.

“Not even!”

“I won’t, Captain,” Osvald said, still giggling. “I know, I know.”

'I know, I know.'

“Whitehand didn’t take her away from me to give her to a mongrel like you,” Skorri said.

“I know, I know!” 

“I mean it, puppy,” Skorri growled. “Or that’s the last bitch you’ll ever mount.”

Osvald laughed as he led her away, though even while still in Skorri’s sight he was driving her forward as much with his hips as with his hands.

'I mean it.'