Ráth an Bheirt Bhan, Leinster, Ireland

'I thought you just ate?'

“I thought you just ate?” Cearball smirked.

Eirik did not put down his spoon, but he held it immobile halfway between his mouth and the bowl, which gesture seemed more menacing still.

“Please, both of you, help yourselves,” Murchad said quickly.

'Please, both of you, help yourselves.'

Eirik swallowed and scooped up another spoonful of porridge. “You ever been in prison, Cannibal?”

“Cearball,” Cearball corrected.

“Prison?” Murchad asked timidly.

Eirik muttered, “Sometimes a man like to eat just because he can,” and he shoved the spoon into his mouth to prove the point.

For a moment Eirik’s chewing was all that could be heard, but Cearball sprawled well back in his chair to prove how unimpressed he was.

Cearball sprawled well back in his chair to prove how unimpressed he was.

Murchad asked weakly, “Have you been in prison?”

It was already apparent from Eirik’s face that wherever he had been, he had not been well-​​treated. One of his eyes was surrounded by the ghastly green-​​violet of a fading bruise, and frostbite and windburn alone could not account for the scabby scrapes on his cheek.

He had not been well-treated.

“Not the kind we find you in, either,” Eirik grumbled. “With curtains in the windows.” He snorted in derision and ate another heaping spoonful of porridge.

“My lady was with him,” Skorri added softly, but it was Eirik he watched as he spoke.

'My lady was with him.'

Even granting Skorri his awkwardness with Gaelic and his Manx dialect, Murchad had never heard him speak of Sigrid as “his lady” in any language. He thought perhaps Skorri had found himself a third wife since their last meeting, but he could not politely ask so plainly.

“A lady was in prison with you?” he ventured.

'A lady was in prison with you?'

“An earl’s wife,” Skorri replied, still staring at Eirik.

Eirik lifted his bowl near his mouth and glared at Skorri over the rim.

“And where was the earl meanwhile?” Cearball chuckled.

'And where was the earl meanwhile?'

Eirik calmly chewed, but the stare that passed between him and Skorri was growing so thick that Murchad pictured himself taking a knife and slicing off a slab of it, like cold porridge – not that he dared raise a knife within reach of the two men.

But Eirik suddenly slammed down his bowl and said, “In my pants!”

Skorri pounded his fist on the table and burst into strident laughter more suited for the deck of a ship than Synne’s quiet dining hall, and Eirik joined him with a laugh that would have carried from one ship to another in a gale.

Cearball snorted and sat up. “Is that some kind of joke?”

“That’s some kind of riddle, boy,” Eirik hooted.

“Eirik’s your earl,” Skorri explained.

'Eirik's your earl.'

“Damn!” Eirik shook his head and shoveled several more spoons of porridge into his mouth without stopping to swallow.

Cearball only rolled his eyes up to gaze at the ceiling, leaving Murchad the responsibility of saying something.

“My uncle asked me about that…” he said.

“So, he get a letter?” Eirik mumbled through his mouthful.

“Aye… it’s Domnall of Aileach was wondering whether he had a stronger ally than he knew. Enna thinks if you’re an Earl in your own right he may not be needing Whitehand.”

Eirik paused again with his spoon in the air.

Eirik paused again with his spoon in the air.

“I have two ships right now,” he said softly. “Not even – they belong to him.” He pointed his spoon at Skorri.

“They’re yours,” Skorri said.

“And forty men if I count Sigi as two.” He shoved his bowl away and dropped his face into his hand, as if suddenly sickened by the food – or by some thought.

“What happened?” Murchad asked. “Did they take your island?”

'What happened?'

“I don’t know who is on my island,” Eirik muttered. He added in a whisper, “My boys were there…”

Skorri leaned over the table to say softly in Norse, “Olaf’s holding the fort. And every time a ship comes near, Pinknose is pulling down his pants and waving his pink cheeks at them.”

Eirik snorted and grimaced behind his hand. Murchad looked helplessly at his cousin, but Cearball was lost in the studied ennui of a childless, wifeless, hearthless nineteen-​​year-​​old.

“Was Sigi with you in prison?” Murchad asked, snatching at the one thing he believed he had almost understood.

'Was Sigi with you in prison?'

“Aye, Sigi was with me in prison,” Eirik snapped, banging the edge of his hand down on the table like an executioner’s axe. “So, I go to see King Sigefrith and got captured when I get to the shore. And Sigi she hear about that and she try to go see Sigefrith too, and so, she get captured too, and into prison she go. And don’t you be asking how we get out, but Skorri he gave us his two ships he had and take us here, and now he lose everything else he don’t have. And so,” he concluded, glaring at Skorri, “Eirik is your earl, and all he have is his pants.”

“You have more than you know, Eirik,” Skorri said.

“Shirt and coat, too,” Eirik muttered.

“I shall do anything I can for you,” Murchad said. “And I’m certain my father will, too. And my uncle, too.”

'I shall do anything I can for you.'

Eirik picked up his spoon and stabbed at his porridge. “Anything?”

Immediately Murchad regretted his generous words, though he had not forgotten he owed Eirik his happiness. His prisons had not always had curtains in the windows.

“Aye, of course…”

“You take care of Sigi for me,” Eirik said. He took a bite and mumbled, “Until I come back, which is probably never. I don’t want her to go to Brede.”

“I’m certain…”

Cearball was looking interested in the conversation, but he still offered no assistance.

Cearball was looking interested in the conversation.

“…it won’t be necessary,” Murchad continued, “but we shall be delighted to have her here for a while. Synn wasn’t thinking she would ever see her sister again.”

Eirik grunted. “So, tomorrow we leave again. I try to go home. And you, I need you to go to Sigefrith, and you tell him everything what happened.” He coughed into his fist and wiped his nose on his sleeve before returning to scraping his bowl.


“I?” Murchad whispered.

“Even Whitehand he is not so stupid to put a son of Aed and nephew of Enna in prison. You go by the north, like you go to see your father, or so. And you don’t turn till you get far past the Island. And tell Sigefrith what I say – no letters this time. Damn!”


“That’s not ‘anything’, Brother Murchad?” Eirik asked pointedly.

'That's not 'anything', Brother Murchad?'

“No, but… It’s Synne,” Murchad whispered. “It’s any day now we’re expecting her to be confined.

“I thought you said after Christmas?”

“So it would be if it were only the one baby…”

'So it would be if it were only the one baby...'

Eirik snorted and shook his head. “The old ‘I’m having twins’ excuse,” he said mournfully to Skorri.

“But it’s the truth,” Murchad whimpered.

“I shall go,” Cearball interrupted. The Norsemen looked to him in surprise, and the remaining Gael in relief.

“I know why you’re going,” Eirik grumbled.

“Is she of portable size?” Cearball grinned. “I believe her grandmother was lifted onto a horse by the back of her collar.”

'Is she of portable size?'

“Fits in your pocket,” Eirik said.

“Whitehand won’t molest me at all,” Cearball shrugged. “What am I? The feckless nephew of the Queen of Leinster. He doesn’t even know I know you. No one will stop me.”

“No one will stop you from going,” Murchad said, “but if you’re looking too long on Gwynn of Nothelm, I’m thinking you won’t be coming home.”

'No one will stop you from going.'

“Does she have a lover?”

“A father!” Eirik and Murchad said together.

Cearball laughed. “An old man! How dangerous can he be?”

'How dangerous can he be?'