Inis Patraic, Isle of Man

'Wait here.'

Eirik only managed to croak, “Wait here,” before he dashed into the ruddy gloom of the smithy, his throat already burning with bile.

He scarcely made it through the doorway before he pitched forward. His arms and knees prevented him from falling face-​​first onto the cinders, but his stomach seemed to hurtle on without him, and there was nothing to do but open his jaws wide and try to vomit soundlessly, without retching, so Sigrid would not hear.

He could do nothing but open his jaws wide and try to vomit soundlessly, without retching.

By abandoning his throat to his gagging, however, he left it prey to the hacking coughs that were only a deep breath away these last days. He arched his back and tensed in an agonized struggle with his lungs until the tears slipped unwiped down his red face. And when that spasm had passed and he opened his mouth to breathe, he only vomited again.

At last he leaned against the cold stone trough and tried his luck at silent sobbing.

The black wetness of the cinders beneath his face could have been blood.

The black wetness of the cinders beneath his face could have been blood by the hellish light of the forge. The blood on his hand was no brighter nor redder.

He pulled himself up by the edge of the trough and tried to wash his hands and face without splashing.

He was almost surprised that the water did not billow with clouds of steam as he plunged his hands into it, so red-​​hot they seemed. Even clean, when he sucked a mouthful of the rust-​​tinged water out of his palm to rinse his mouth, its metallic taste was like icy blood.

He was seeing blood everywhere.

He was seeing blood everywhere, and Sigrid had seen it, too. She would see it every time she looked at him, and nothing would ever wash him clean.

And now he would have to see her. He had not dared look at her throughout their ordeal: he would have collapsed on the spot to vomit and sob. He had not wanted Sigrid to know what a monster he could be. Even he had not truly known.

He crept out of the smithy and found her precisely where he had left her standing. Like a dutiful wife she had not moved to hide herself, but like a wary little warrior she was already watching him before he stepped out of the shadows, and ready to flee in case he had turned out to be some other man.

She was smiling.

And she was smiling. Even before his own unsmiling face – even after all she had seen – even after all he had done to her and allowed to be done – she was smiling, though it was a strange little smile he scarcely knew.

“I was never so happy to see the stars,” she whispered.

Her bravery was breathtaking – unbelievable. The only possible explanation was that she was unconscious of the danger that had passed and the danger that was still to come.

“I was never so un-​​happy to see a light in the creek tower,” he muttered. “We have to find Skorri.”

'I was never so un-happy to see a light in the creek tower.'

“He will help us,” she said with a childish, smiling faith.

She reached out and rubbed her palm down his breastbone and belly, as if brushing crumbs or rumples from his shirt, in a motherly, wifely, homely gesture that nearly shattered him. He might still have to fight and kill. He might still have to die.

He whispered, “Siri…”

At once she gasped and crashed against his chest – not falling against him, like a fainting woman, but throwing herself at him, like a dauntless warrior, as was her way.

At once she gasped and crashed upon his chest.

He felt the heat of her silent, panting sobs against his neck. Her lips could reach no higher.

For a brief moment he indulged himself and her, letting her squeeze and snuggle with him. He even let himself squeeze and struggle with her, telling himself it was merely to marvel at the elastic strength of her arms and to feel the weighty solidity of her little body.

For a brief moment he forgot everything.

For a brief moment he forgot everything – his cowardice, their danger – until his body reminded him that even a brief moment of wrestling with this woman made him ache with longing, and even when her struggles were due to her terror and not her own desire.

Still she clung to him, as if she had not noticed then or did not notice now.

Ashamed and sickened by himself, as she ought to have been by him, he pushed her away with weak arms.

He pushed her away with weak arms.

“Siri, you must be brave now.”

He was ashamed even to presume to give Sigrid lessons in bravery – he who had nothing but a coward’s fleeting courage of blood lust, battle fever, and blind rage.

She said, “Yes,” more firmly than his arms.

“So, we must find Skorri.” He sighed in frustration and turned away from her, ashamed that she still looked so trusting when he was secretly so unsure. He pinched a fat slab of his lower lip between thumb and finger and mumbled to himself, “He’s either in the hall or in his room, with all those men between us and him… If I knew he was leaving tomorrow we could try to sneak down to hide in one of his ships…”

'Why don't we go watch the latrines?'

“Why don’t we go watch the latrines?” she interrupted.

Eirik turned to look at her.

“He’s probably still in the hall at this hour, eating, or at least drinking.”

He dropped his hand, but still he stared.

At last she shrugged sheepishly and said, “Skorri has a small bladder.”

'Skorri has a small bladder.'

Eirik gasped, “What?”

“Didn’t you ever notice?”

“No! And I’m not certain I’m glad you did!”

But there was a twitching at the corners of his mouth that was beginning to feel like a smile. After all that had happened and all he had done, he was joking with his wife, and she was smirking at him – a true Sigrid smile, not childish but devilish.

He was joking with his wife.

She said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever eaten a dinner with him when he did not excuse himself at least once in the middle of it.”


“House-​​mistresses must notice these things,” she said smugly. “Skorri likes to sit near the door, the better to slip in and out.”

House-mistresses must notice these things.

“Damn!” Eirik gasped again, in admiration.

“And there’s no place where you can be more certain to find a man alone.”

“Damn, Siri! I don’t know why I need me at all, when I have you!”

“Because I need you, silly pig-​​dog.”

She patted his breastbone and straightened out his shirt.

She patted his breastbone and straightened out his shirt.