Inis Patraic, Isle of Man

Eirik had heard much laughter since he had been captured.

Eirik had heard much laughter since he had been captured – none of it friendly, of course, but at least the frank, respectful laughter of men who knew that but for the fickleness of fortune, they and he might have been standing on the opposite sides of the bars. Eirik had taken many hostages and won many ransoms in his time, and he had laughed the same bold laughter himself.

But he had never laughed the laughter he heard coming down the ladder now – this soft chortling like the guggling of some unhealthy, unholy barnyard bird.

It was so repulsive that Eirik turned his face aside.

It was so repulsive that Eirik turned his face aside even before he saw the creature who was making it. It could have been neither friend nor enemy of his. Eirik only had dealings with real men.

He saw nothing, therefore, but somehow he recognized the pale, swanlike figure gliding across the periphery of the periphery of his sight. Somehow he sensed the silence of her feet. Though his mind did not believe, somehow his straying, straggling soul felt her arrival like his home coming to him, since he could not go home.

Somehow his straying, straggling soul felt her arrival like his home coming to him.

Then the creature giggled again, and Eirik’s ears told him that its weird laughter arose from very near the spot where his heart told him his wife stood.

His mind was not consulted at all. He leapt up from the bed and hurled his body against the bars, and when he stepped back to throw it forward a second time, he slipped his arm through and took all the force of the blow on his shoulder. And still his long arm was not long enough.

His long arm was not long enough.

In his frantic attempts to protect her he might have broken his collarbone or more. The young man with her only laughed – and that lewd giggling in her ears was what Eirik could not bear.

But Sigrid herself put a halt to his struggles by calmly, firmly saying his name – “Eirik” – in such a tone that it was clear she would not say it twice, and he had better take heed. So she spoke to her sons when they misbehaved.

Sigrid herself put a halt to his struggles.

She stood straight and still, in spite of the grunting ape who swung from her arm, and no princess had ever held her head so proudly nor so high. Though nothing made sense to him, her eyes pleaded, “Trust me.” Eirik did.

She said, “Step back, Eirik,” softly but firmly, scarcely moving her head. “I’m to come in.”

“Back into the corner, Brass-​​Dog,” the man giggled. “Sit, boy! Sit!”

Eirik was wary and waiting.

Eirik was wary and waiting for his chance to spring at the door, to sweep Sigrid up, to carry her to safety – he could almost believe his bold wife had some such trick planned.

“Sit! Stay!” the man taunted. “Good boy!”

But even as she came in – even after the door had slammed shut behind her – Sigrid continued her slow and stately advance, murmuring in English, “Stay back, Eirik, stay back, stay still,” until she was close enough to touch.

But by that time Eirik no longer dared touch her.

Eirik no longer dared touch her.

“Be gentle with me, Eirik,” she said, still in English.

The foreign words saved him; if she had said it in Norse, his heart would have cracked clean through. If she asked him to be gentle, it meant someone else had been rough.

She lifted her hand to his face. “Did they hurt you?” she whispered.

'Did they hurt you?'

She touched a patch of knobby scabs on his cheek, where his face had been dragged over a rough stone wall. Like a lizard’s scales, they prevented him from feeling the softness of her fingers, and he pulled her hand aside to stroke his bare skin.

“No, no,” he said with a creaky laugh. “I do worse to me all the time, tripping over my long legs and so.”

'I do worse to me all the time, tripping over my long legs and so.'

He was not brave enough to ask her the same question. Somehow she had borne their violence with her body, and yet he could not even bear to hear of it with his ears.

“Stupid stork-​​dog,” she scoffed.

He laughed, “Siri!” so nervously that his high-​​pitched giggle sounded alarmingly like that of the man outside.

She lifted her other arm to his shoulder and at last leaned her body against his. His laughter relaxed and softened, but now he felt the trembling her regal poise had hidden.

She lifted her other arm to his shoulder and at last leaned her body against his.

“Be gentle, Eirik,” she whispered again, but this time through a dreamy smile. She seemed to want a kiss, but she scarcely tilted back her head, and from his height he could only lay his lips against her sweaty brow.

She tasted like Sigrid and the sea, and the reek of no other man was on her. It occurred to him that she might only have been asking for gentleness on account of her baby, and he dared hold her just a little tighter, as her increased preciousness demanded.

But Sigrid was not thinking of sweet things. She laid her head on his shoulder, near his ear, and hastily whispered, “Eirik! Don’t touch my hair. I think Skorri hid something in it. I can feel it rattling around in there, and I think it’s just about to fall out if we don’t do something.”

'I think Skorri hid something in it.'

“Damn!” Eirik gasped. He tried to puzzle out the nature of this gift and the circumstances of its insertion, but in the end he only managed to splutter, “So, that is the last time I laugh at him and his magic tricks!”


She lifted her hand and, unseeing, sought out his mouth with her fingertips. Perhaps she only meant it as a warning, in spite of the English, but Eirik gently caught her fingers between his lips and held them for a moment – until he saw how the man outside had stopped giggling and was now watching them with the wide, white-​​eyed gaze of unholy hunger.

“So,” Sigrid whispered, still unseeing, “go sit on the bed, and I shall come kneel by you and put my head in your lap, and… pretend to…” She paused, meaningfully or shyly. “And meantime you shall take down my hair, and find what’s in there and hide it. It’s on my left side.”

'It's on my left side.'

Eirik stared over her shoulder at the strange man. “What about him?” he muttered.

“That’s why we’re pretending to.” She smashed her face into his neck, though she risked bumping her hair. “He wants to watch,” she mumbled.

Eirik’s fingers clenched fistward before he remembered he was holding his wife between his hands. He felt her twitch – felt her little body jerk at nothing more than the pain of his fingertips pressing briefly into her sides – and he remembered again what she might have endured at the hands of all these men on the island, and of this man in particular.

He felt her twitch.

“Who is that creature?” he hissed.

“I don’t know – Osvald,” she whimpered. “Simply – ignore him, Eirik. He wasn’t supposed to bring me to you at all, but he – he wants to watch. So we must let him.”


“Shhh! Now go sit down.”

'Now go sit down.'

Eirik would not. He could scarcely bear to have this Osvald creature looking at her as it was – his very gaze seemed to ooze over her like slime. He would not expose any more of her to him – no more of her skin, certainly, but no more of her tenderness, either, no more of her passion, and no more of her love. Sigrid was sacred.

But she stepped back and looked up at him expectantly, lifting her eyes to him since she could not lift her head. They sparkled with brave tears, and her luscious mouth was set in a determined line.

Her luscious mouth was set in a determined line.

If she would dare it, who was he to refuse? He could not let her believe she was doing a shocking or a shameful thing.

He glared at Osvald when Sigrid’s back was turned, but he went to sit on the edge of the bed without further protest. He would make it no more difficult for her than necessary.

He lifted his hands to help her kneel without bowing or shaking her head, and down she went with the straight back and high head of a princess – even of a queen – to kneel at his feet and rest her elbows on his knees.

It was Osvald who had captured his attention.

Eirik was dimly aware of her hands creeping beneath his tunic, but it was Osvald who had captured his attention. He knew that there were men who peeped through windows and listened at doors, but he had not known there were those who would come to stand at the bars and so brazenly watch.

Eirik was hypnotized by that unblinking stare, by the tense half-​​smile frozen on the lips, by the softly panting wheeze. The lidless, flickering-​​tongued face of a snake would not have fascinated nor repulsed him more.

Eirik was nearly hypnotized by that unblinking stare.

Then he felt the softness of Sigrid’s fingers stroking his bare skin, and the sinister charm was broken – he gasped and looked down at the top of her head.

He whispered, “Siri!”

She said nothing, but he knew she sighed, for he felt her warm breath blowing over him. Osvald stepped still closer to the bars and stood on his toes, trying to see over or behind her head.

Eirik could not do it. He tried to squirm away from her, but she was leaning her weight on his thighs. Again that nervous giggling bubbled up inside of him.

He tried to squirm away from her.

“Siri!” he whispered. “So, if you do that, I can’t pretend very long!”

If her head had simply popped up to hush him, he might have lost his battle against his panic and squirmed away. But she lifted it with aching slowness, until he could just see her blue eyes looking up from his lap, almost hidden beneath her dark, heavy brows. From that angle it seemed an angry glare. Perhaps it was. Eirik was shamed into stillness.

He felt the hot breath of two whispered syllables against his skin. He guessed, “My hair,” and only then did he remember why she was there.

He hurriedly plunged his hand into the soft coil on the left side of her head. At once his fingers met something cold and hard, but Sigrid squealed and moaned softly as if he had hurt her. He heard a rattle as Osvald leaned against the bars.

He heard a rattle as Osvald leaned against the bars.

Eirik’s heart was pounding with an inexplicable panic: never in his life had he felt such a need to flee. He whispered her name again, anxiously, but again she did not reply. Instead she returned to her task with a determination that alarmed him, as if she had promised the leering man outside more than she had mentioned.

She covered him with kisses, as she did sometimes to wake him, and with one hand she quickly uncoiled the right side of hair and twisted the length of it around her own wrist, as if to tie her head down.

Eirik could bear no more of it; he hurried to unwind the other side. As soon as the key was safe in his pocket and he no longer had to respect the angle of her head, he pulled her up onto his lap and squeezed her so tightly she could do no more. He swore she would do no more, whatever she had promised.

He squeezed her so tightly she could do no more.

“It’s a key,” he whispered. “Not to this door. I think it is the sea creek door. I think Skorri he must put a boat there for us.”

“But how do we get there?” she whimpered.

He sighed and kissed her hair.

“I have a knife,” she whispered.


He was surprised enough that she was able to squirm out of his arms and turn to face him, kneeling over his lap.

“They searched me everywhere,” she whispered, “except for one place. We knew they wouldn’t! In my pad!” Even in the shadows her eyes were bright with defiance. “The wee knife Murchad gave me with the handle that fits over the blade! Just the thing! If I hadn’t – ”

Even in the shadows her eyes were bright with defiance.

He yelped, “Siri!” and squeezed her more tightly than ever. The only living creature more precious than Sigrid with her baby was Sigrid without her baby. The only thing that hurt him more than pain was her pain. “Because of me?” he whimpered.

Sigrid struggled briefly in surprise, but she was quick to understand. “No! you silly pig-​​dog,” she whispered eagerly. “It’s not real. It’s Tryggve’s blood. When we saw the sails he cut himself and caught the blood in a cloth, and I folded it into a pad, and we hid the knife in it because we knew no man would ever touch that. Do you see?”

'Do you see?'

She smiled the overbright, overbroad smile of a child seeking reassurance. He could not let her think that what they had done was shameful or strange.

“That was a good idea, Siri,” he croaked.

She began to wriggle and squirm all over his lap, and he realized when his hapless hand touched a bare calf that she was inching her dress up over her legs.

“Siri, stop,” he groaned.

'Siri, stop.'

She threw her weight against him, knocking him back against the wall. With his body out of the way, she was able to pull up her dress and settle it over her thighs and his like a tent.

Osvald’s face was squeezed between two bars as he strained to see.

“Siri, no…”

“What if he comes in here?” she whispered.

“So, I kill him with my hands,” he hissed.

She grabbed his arm and tried to drag it beneath her skirt. “Find it or I shall,” she whispered. “He’s armed. If he comes in, and we have a knife, it’s our chance.”

'If he comes in, and we have a knife, it's our chance.'

Her bravery shamed him. He reached a tentative hand beneath her skirt and found – to his despair – the silky skin of her inner thigh. He could not do it.

“It’s only Tryggve’s,” she whispered, mistaking his hesitation for squeamishness.

“Where is Tryggve?” he muttered to distract himself as he inched his hand higher.

“I don’t know. They took me on their ship and boarded ours with him on it. We sailed – ”

She gasped and sighed as his hand slipped between the heavy wad of cloth and her body. He cursed himself and his clumsiness; he was her husband, and he still felt as if he was violating her – and all because of the obscene stare of the man who stood behind her, his eyes wide open to watch them, and his mouth drooping open to pollute the very air they breathed with his panting breath.

“ – different ways…” she whispered across Eirik’s lips.

He could feel the hard form of the cunning little collapsible knife through the cloth.

He could feel the hard form of the cunning little collapsible knife through the cloth, but it had been so carefully folded in that he despaired of finding even the beginning of a way to extract it. And with his fumbling the backs of his fingers were playing over her in a tragic simulacrum of what Osvald was no doubt imagining.

“Take it off,” she whispered hoarsely. “I’m not truly bleeding.”

He slipped his other hand in and simply tore through the thin webbing of the knitted belt that held the pad in place, and then the knife all but tumbled out onto his lap.

It was warmer than his hands from such close contact with her body, and he could scarcely bear to touch it – a knife, so near to her… Tryggve’s blood, so near to her…

But he reminded himself that Tryggve and Sigrid had been brave enough to do this thing, and for him.

“Have it?” she whispered.


All at once her towering bravery collapsed..

All at once her towering bravery collapsed. She fell against him, draping her hair over him, twisting her arms around him, squeezing his hips between her knees, as if she meant to wrestle him down. But she snuggled her face against his neck, and she sobbed so deeply his chest ached in sympathy with hers.

He pulled his hands free of her skirt and simply hugged her. “Siri, Siri, Siri…” he sighed.

He thanked God that he had not let his cowardice show: she would never know that she reposed on nothing when she thought she was leaning on his strength.

“So, now you make a pause from so much being brave,” he suggested, “and let me try a while.”

She leaned her weight to the side until she had pulled him down onto the bed beneath her.

She leaned her weight to the side until she had pulled him down onto the bed beneath her.

“Touch me with your hands,” she pleaded – in Norse, because she knew he liked to hear such things in his language.

At the familiar words, Osvald’s gloating laughter began again.


“I don’t care,” she whimpered and clung to him. “Touch me with your good hands.”

'I don't care.'

Eirik began to understand. He ran his hands firmly down her back and sides, as if he were erasing the filthy prints of other hands – as he feared he was.

He would have to find another sentiment for his frank, respectful enemies: he would henceforth reserve his hatred for the men who had hurt his wife. And he swore he would brood a new, vengeful passion for creatures such as Osvald. Mere hatred was not enough for men who could pollute a man’s love with their obscene laughter and rape a man’s wife with their eyes.

Mere hatred was not enough for such men.