Inis Patraic, Isle of Man

Harald Leki was--quite ostentatiously--trying not to laugh.

Harald Leki was—quite ostentatiously—trying not to laugh.

Caedwulf watched him with ostentatious gravity. He did not see what part of “His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Caedwulf of Lothere” was so amusing.

“Sigefrith, son of Leofric, Lord Hingwar and Lord Raegiming,” Kormak droned. “Domnall, son of Aed, Chief of the Clan of Colin the Black.”

Caedwulf could not decide whether this introduction by a chieftain of the Isles instead of some ordinary doorkeeper was intended as an honor or as a subtle joke. Given Leki’s choking and tittering, he suspected it was the latter.

He suspected it was the latter.

“Stein, son of Gamle Silver-​white, son of Astrid of Hringarike. Brede and Selwyn, sons of Sigefrith Stearn of Greve. Aengus, son of Colin the Cunning. I hope I have not insulted anyone by disregard of precedence,” Kormak added with a thin Gaelic smile. “In this country, precedence goes to the man who shoulders his way first through the door.”

They all laughed: all of Whitehand’s men, his sons, his queen, himself.

Caedwulf laughed with them. His father had taught him always to laugh at a joke intended as an insult—not the loudest, but always boldly, with neither awkwardness nor hesitation, and always, always smiling so as to show his teeth.

Whitehand rose from his chair and strode slowly towards him, with the loose-​hipped sauntering characteristic of him and all cats.

Whitehand rose from his chair and strode slowly towards him.

Caedwulf waited for a moment with both boots planted solidly on the floor and his weight well back on his heels, staring into Whitehand’s eyes for as long as Whitehand would stare back. His father had taught him that the advantage went to the man who was last to look away. His father had taught him that the advantage went to the man who walked less than half-​way to meet.

“By God,” Whitehand chuckled. “It is not often we have such a fair-​faced company of gentlemen in our hall. All of my men are wind-​whipped, sun-​burnt, tangle-​haired, and scarred.”

Caedwulf waited for a moment.

Caedwulf waited another instant before putting his first foot forward. He knew that this seeming compliment had been intended as an insult to their experience—and perhaps most particularly his own, since Sigefrith and Brede and Stein had already fought at Whitehand’s side.

Caedwulf’s exploits in battle, meanwhile, consisted of scarcely more than a series of cattle raids between tribes of Scots. The fact galled him and almost humiliated him—and he realized just in time that Whitehand surely knew it.

Caedwulf stepped forward, smiling with all his teeth, and bowed to the Queen. “Fortunately Her Majesty your wife is nigh to lend her beauty when we are not.”

The Queen smiled, showing none of her teeth—but Caedwulf knew ladies were exempt from that rule.

The Queen smiled, showing none of her teeth.

She had not forgotten that Caedwulf’s father had fought and won at the battle that had cost the life of hers. Nor would Caedwulf ever forget that Harold of England might have won at Hastings if her father had not distracted the English army at Stamford Bridge a few days before. She and Caedwulf were hereditary enemies as Caedwulf and Whitehand himself were not. Nevertheless, neither Whitehand nor son of Whitehand would ever be his friend so long as Ragnhild Maria lived.

'So beautiful is she.'

“So beautiful is she,” Caedwulf added in his most courtly Norse, “I believe you may comfortably spare the beauty of my cousin Sigrid, and allow her to return home with her brothers.”

It had seemed to Caedwulf a very crafty, very elegant opening. But Whitehand snorted softly and smiled.

Whitehand snorted softly and smiled.

“So much beauty I cannot spare, as I do not have it in my possession. Sigrid is not here.”

Caedwulf had thought up a clever reply to every possible objection—except for that one.

He flung out his arms, stiff and awkward as a teetering toddler, and squawked a very English, “What?”


Harald Leki laughed aloud. “Don’t tell them that before you find out how much ransom they brought!”

“Weren’t you informed?” Whitehand purred.

Selwyn wailed, “Where is my sister?”—Brede was growling blasphemies in his throat—and for the first time Crown Prince Caedwulf sensed his angry, anxious, dangerously armed men milling around him like limbs he could not control.

In spite of his father’s advice, he found himself shouting, as if saying a thing louder could make it more true.

“I was informed she was here by a man Your Majesty’s men beat half to death with an oar!” he cried. “And they said they were bringing her here! So, here or not, it is you who shall guarantee her safety!”

'So, here or not, it is you who shall guarantee her safety!'

“That is most inconvenient for me,” Whitehand snapped, “since she is presently with her husband, and there is not a patch of earth or sea between Ireland and Britain where his safety can be guaranteed!”

“She’s with Eirik?” Brede asked, with such sudden, childish hopefulness that Caedwulf could have groaned in despair.

'She's with Eirik?'

“They left here three days ago,” Whitehand cried, “saying farewell to only three of my men on their way—and not one was surviving the leave-​taking! So you may use what ransom you brought to compensate their families!”

“We didn’t bring any ransom!” Caedwulf blurted, forgetting every one of the half-​dozen brilliantly defiant ways he had dreamt up to make this announcement.

Harald Leki spat through his teeth and heaved himself up from his chair. “And how did you expect to buy your own freedom, gentlemen? This game could go on for weeks.”

'And how did you expect to buy your own freedom?'

Caedwulf glanced behind him and slightly upwards—out of habit, he realized with a sudden, sickening feeling of helplessness. For the first time his father was not there.

“You wouldn’t dare!” Selwyn growled.

'You wouldn't dare!'

“Are you better men than your sister?” Leki chuckled. “Better women, perhaps…”

Caedwulf flung out an arm in time to catch Selwyn in his charge, but the act nearly knocked him off balance, and Brede was glowering at his other side.

Caedwulf looked behind him in desperate search for aid—in search of the man who would say some unanswerable thing that would give him command of every man in the room—but his father was not there.

Young Sigefrith was no Leofric. Young Domnall was no Aed. They were all good men—the sort who would stick with him no matter how desperate the situation became—but not one was the sort of man who could get them out of it.

Young Sigefrith was no Leofric.

Had he brought nothing but the inferior sons of great men? Was he nothing but the inferior son of a great man?

“What might they not dare?” he cried, trying to draw attention back onto himself, for he could not have held Selwyn and Brede both, and Stein and Sigefrith were creeping dangerously near.

He succeeded—every man looked to him. Every man looked just in time to see him staring stupidly up into the air, his mouth hanging open, his jaw trembling. Caedwulf son of Sigefrith could not think of a single blessed word to say.

Caedwulf son of Sigefrith could not think of a single blessed word to say.

Harald, second son of Godred Whitehand—almost precisely Caedwulf’s own age—began to giggle. Ragnhild Maria, daughter of Harald Hardrada, tossed back her golden hair and smiled at her eldest son. Lagman, Crown Prince of Man and the Isles, who ought to have been considered no more than Caedwulf’s equal, had not even bothered to rise.

Lagman had not even bothered to rise.

And Harald Leki—whose ancestors could have come no closer to royalty than emptying the chamber pots of the same—stepped up, bowed his head, and spat through his teeth onto the toe of Caedwulf’s boot.

'That I dare.'

“That I dare,” he smirked.

Caedwulf’s gaping mouth twisted itself up into a snarl. He would allow such a gesture of no man—of none but Ogive of Flanders herself, and even she had not made it yet, for she had not yet decided whether he was the part of his father’s kingdom she most desired to spit upon.

At the thought of Ogive, his lips twisted further into one of her own crabby little expressions. He could perfectly imagine what Ogive would have said—so perfectly that he was able to say it.

He could perfectly imagine what Ogive would have said.

“Thank you for proving my point, Leki,” he said sourly, “though I was not speaking particularly of your vulgarity.” He turned to Whitehand. “I was thinking of your treachery.”

Whitehand smiled and nodded encouragingly, as if eager to hear more.

Whitehand smiled and nodded encouragingly.

“I…” Caedwulf could not bear it—the smirking, the chuckling. It had not occurred to him that these men might simply fail to take him seriously. He tried to imagine what Ogive would do… surely she would sniff and tip up her nose…

Her nose! He had her nose in his pocket! He dipped his hand into it and pinched his thumb between his first two fingers—an entirely absurd gesture, and one at which Ogive herself would have rolled her eyes in scorn, but the thought of Ogive’s magnificent scorn made it easier to muster his own.

Caedwulf tipped up his nose and sniffed.

Caedwulf tipped up his nose and sniffed. “You have not even a pirate’s honor, much less a king’s. Even a pirate would not lock a man up for not being an earl and then put the price of the same on his freedom. Even a pirate would not capture and detain a man engaged in the sacred duty of obtaining his lord’s ransom—and still less kidnap a lady—a noblewoman—descended of kings.

“But I am no pirate, Caedwulf,” Whitehand said with exaggerated patience. “I did not order Sigrid’s supposed kidnap. Indeed, I did not order Eirik’s capture either. I—”

“You didn’t let him go!” Brede interrupted.

Whitehand’s face twitched like the hide of a horse bothered by a fly, but he did not so much as glance at Brede.

Whitehand's face twitched.

“Permit me to offer Your Highness a lesson in kingship,” Whitehand said. “A king—at least, a king with more than a handful of men,” he corrected, with a gracefully dismissive flutter of his white fingers in the direction of Sigefrith and Stein. “A king must trust his men to think and act for themselves, and to the best of his abilities profit from their actions, even if they do not do as he would have done. Even a king cannot be everywhere and know everything at once.”

'Thank you.'

“Thank you,” Caedwulf said with a slight bow of his head, “and in exchange permit me to give you a little lesson in kingship. A king may not allow himself the excuse of blaming his men. A true king is responsible for everything his men do.”

Whitehand smacked one fair hand into the other, startling Caedwulf out of his smugness. “And that is why I locked Eirik up in the tower!” he cried shrilly. “What else can I do if I cannot trust a man to act in my interests? A king needs loyalty!”

'A king needs loyalty!'

“Eirik was loyal to you!”

“That is not what I have heard!”

“That wasn’t Eirik’s fault!” Caedwulf’s voice was steadily rising in pitch like a child’s. “Those were lies! Someone was forging letters to condemn him!”

“Then that someone is Eirik’s problem,” Whitehand said. “Eirik—or rather, what everyone believes about Eirik—is mine. A man’s good name is his own to maintain.”

“And what about our sister?” Selwyn asked.

'And what about our sister?'

“Your sister!” Whitehand groaned. “I let them both go—what more do you want of me? An escort? I let them both go! He knows where he stands with me now! I don’t need his ransom, and I certainly don’t need him here! I would even have sent his ships back to him, if any of my men were foolish enough to set forth in the middle of winter in one of those—crumbling antiques of his.”

'I would even have sent his ships back to him.'

“They’re good ships,” Sigefrith muttered darkly.

“Are they?” Lagman smirked. “Then you may sail them back to his island.”

“Do!” his father grumbled. “You will be more likely to meet your cousins that way than any other—they must surely be at the bottom of the sea by now, with the storms we’ve had off the coast.”

Brede snarled, “If anything happened to my sister!”

'If anything happened to my sister!'

He moved too suddenly for Caedwulf to catch him; Caedwulf only managed to make him stumble as he went by, preventing Brede from defending himself as Whitehand neatly punched him in the eye.

For an instant Caedwulf felt the panicked despair of a man tumbling down and down and down. His men and Whitehand’s were flailing around him like limbs he could not control, and his only thought was that he wanted his father more than he had ever wanted anything. His was the helpless terror of a child just learning to walk, whose Papa has let go of his hands too soon.

Then Whitehand said an unanswerable thing that gave him command of every man in the room. “Enough!” he roared. “There will be no violence before the Queen!”

'There will be no violence before the Queen!'

The men all stopped where they stood, and the arms that had been raised to strike or to struggle slowly drifted back down to their sides.

“We are not pirates here, gentlemen,” Whitehand said coolly, rubbing his white fist in the palm of his white hand. “In this hall we respect ladies, descended from kings.

“I hope Sigrid will be of the same opinion when we next meet,” Sigefrith said in his flawless Norse. “For Your Majesty’s sake.”

'I hope Sigrid will be of the same opinion when we next meet.'

Sigefrith glared at Whitehand from beneath his dark brows that were in no way inferior to his father’s, and he set his full mouth firm in that scornful, masterful frown his father had. At that moment he was the living image of the great man.

Caedwulf saw that Whitehand was the first to look away.

Whitehand was the first to look away.