Inis Patraic, Isle of Man

In his own house, Godred Whitehand wore fine leather shoes.

In his own house, Godred Whitehand wore fine leather shoes of such softness that any cat would have liked two pair to muffle the sound of his tramping paws.

It was the house itself that betrayed him – the creaking of the door both deafening his keen ears and announcing his arrival to the fellow-​​predator who crouched behind it.

It was his house that betrayed him.

One hand clutched a fistful of his hair, yanking his head back to expose his throat to the knife held by the other. The steel was cold, but it was the flat of the blade he felt, tight against the hard knob of his Adam’s apple.

Then the hand left his hair and found his back, and he was flung against the opposite wall. Like a cat he righted himself at the last instant, turning himself around in time to catch his snarling attacker with his hands–

It was his house that betrayed him.

–but too late to catch the knife that thrust itself up between them and laid itself against his neck again. Now that he felt the edge of the blade there was no cold, but rather a slight, searing pain where it slit into his skin, nicking nerves without quite slicing through.

“The King is dead, the King is dead!” the man gibbered in Gaelic. “Saints preserve us! The King is – dead – dead – dead!” he giggled. And then he began to laugh.


Then he began to laugh.

Kormak flicked the edge of his blade back and away, and he easily stepped out from the grip of Godred’s stunned hands. “Luckily for you!” he laughed, switching to Norse.

“What are you doing in here?” Godred growled.

Without awaiting a reply he hustled out to light a rush. Though a dancing flame might give away the shaking of his hands, this seemed preferable to standing alone with Black Kormak in the dark.

“Testing our kingdom’s defenses!” Kormak declared as he stepped back into the room. “It appears they are defenseless!”

'It appears they are defenseless!'

“I’m in my own house!” Godred snapped. “There’s only one way in, and it’s guarded!”

“Do you trust your guards?”



“Do you trust the men your guards trust?”

“Yes! There aren’t ten men they’ll let in here without me, and you’re one of them! So what does this stunt prove?”

“Trust me?” Kormak cooed.

“Yes! At some point a king simply has to trust his guards, and his men, and his God.”

“Trust,” Kormak smiled, “but take a knife – that’s the Manxman’s motto.”

'Trust me?'

He spun his knife between his fingers and slipped it into his belt with the grace of the Gaels, who handled knives almost from the cradle. Privately Godred thought they must have considered themselves something lacking, if they felt obliged to whip out their knives at every occasion and wave them about for all to see.

“If I carried a knife,” Godred muttered, “you would be dead now.”

'You would be dead now, Kormak.'

Kormak chuckled in his throat like a warbling bird. “I’m not fearing. If it was my fate to be killed by you, I would have died years ago. The devil knows you’ve wanted to do it often enough.”

He still smiled, but his gaze went suddenly as sharp as his knife, and he seemed to lift it up against Godred’s face in another challenge.

He still smiled, but his gaze went suddenly as sharp as his knife'

Godred felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle up almost until he shivered. His hand was twitching to touch the stinging welt on his neck and to see whether it bled, but he knew instinctively that it would be an error to reveal he had a wound.

To calm his hand he hooked his thumb over his belt and held it at his hip, as he often did to prevent himself from drawing his sword, from punching his men, from slapping his wife, from smacking his children. Godred Whitehand was famed for his magnificent self-​​mastery, but in truth he had such a vile temper that in nearly every one of his tunics he had worn a thumb-​​sized hole in the cloth beneath his belt.

'Where were you at supper?'

“Where were you at supper?” he growled.

“My excuses to the Queen,” Kormak said, though his smile was not in the least apologetic. “I had me a private supper with Muiredach of Mare’s Head, from down-​​island.”

“He’s here?” Godred scowled. “Are you chief of the chieftains now, that they come to you before they come to me?”

“Ach, but you can trust me,” Kormak winked. “Leave me to take the risk of trusting them. But I think you ought to talk to him,” he added, growing serious at last. “He’s come from Saint Brendan’s.”

'But I think you ought to talk to him.'

Godred held his breath and waited. His impassivity was magnificent, but his thumb was nervously worming its way down into the hole it had worn.

“Brass Dog is home.”

Godred turned his face aside and slowly exhaled through his nose.

“And Silver-​​White got his ships home to him.”

“And Snake-​​Tongue?” Godred muttered.

'And Snake-Tongue?'

“There, too. They haven’t lost a ship.”

“They’ve lost ships!” Godred snarled. “Leki can have everything Snake-​​Tongue left behind. Let him try to go home again! He’s lost everything!”

Kormak shrugged impatiently as if he did not agree but did not care to argue.

Kormak shrugged impatiently.

“There’s something strange happening there, though,” he said darkly. “Silver-​​White and Snake-​​Tongue are handling everything. Eirik stays upstairs all the time.”

Godred considered this for a moment. “Are we even certain he’s there?”

'Are we even certain he's there?'

Kormak replied without hesitation, as if he had been expecting the question but had not intended to speak unless Godred asked it.

“Muiredach saw him come out of the chapel. There’s no mistaking Eirik and his blond head.”

'There's no mistaking Eirik and his blond head.'

Kormak patted his own black head, but it was Godred’s hair he was leering at. He knew Godred wore his dark hair like a stain – like glowering proof that he was not what Eirik and Silver-​​White and even his wife were – no descendant of Eirik Fairhair, no great-​​grandson of flaxen-​​headed King Olaf the Saint. He was rough iron to their regal gold.

“Is he wounded or what?” Godred scowled.

“Not that anyone saw. Muiredach has another idea.” Kormak smiled mysteriously and waited for Godred to ask.

“What?” he muttered.

He subtly tried to slip past Kormak and into the room.

He subtly tried to slip past Kormak and into the room, but however he leaned, Kormak leaned himself into his path. In spite of his small size he was pressing the tall king back into the narrow, candlelit corner, and all the shadows of the room were behind him like a leaning wall of darkness threatening to fall.

“No one has seen Sigrid,” Kormak whispered. “It may be he’s not coming down because he’s grieving. It may be she’s dead.”

Godred snorted. “If she’s dead it’s her own fault.”

Kormak smiled indulgently, but he shook his head. “No, Godred. If she’s dead, so are you. You’ve been dead since before I killed you just now. You’ve been dead for days.”

'You've been dead since before I killed you just now.'

Godred blinked slowly at him, unimpressed as ever by such Gaelic soothsaying.

“Brass Dog is not one of the men the guards will allow through those doors,” Godred reminded him.

'Brass Dog is not one of the men the guards will allow through those doors.'

“Doesn’t matter,” Kormak smiled. “Two weeks ago you may have had an enemy you could slay, Godred, but if Sigrid is dead, Eirik will not rest until she is avenged. If he must, he will claw his way out of his grave and come after you, and drag you kicking down to Hell with him, though you lay him at the bottom of the sea and set a mountain upon him.”

Kormak concluded this prophecy by crossing himself.

Kormak concluded this prophecy by crossing himself.

Godred sniffed. “Is that all, Kormak?”

“That all?” he laughed. “Aye! Or – no, rather. I should warn you, in case Muiredach doesn’t. He says the chiefs of the south were meeting, and they didn’t invite him or me. You know what that means,” he said ominously.

'You know what that means.'

“Not particularly,” Godred muttered. In spite of his best efforts to civilize them, the Manxmen followed their own inscrutable laws whenever he was not watching.

“It means they’re deciding what to do about Brass Dog, since they already know what Muiredach and I have decided. And we can guess what they might be deciding, seeing as they’re already calling him Earl.”

Godred hissed his angry breath between his teeth. There were chieftains in the south who still refused to call him King.

Godred hissed his angry breath between his teeth.

“Listen to me, Godred,” Kormak said coldly, “since you trust me. You may not like it, but you need to find a face-​​saving way to get back on good terms with Brass Dog.”

“If Eirik wants to save face he can begin by putting an end to this Earl business.”

Kormak clucked at him. “That isn’t what I meant, friend. You need to find a way to save your face.”

'That isn't what I meant, friend.'

Kormak reached up between them and patted Godred’s cheek before Godred could unhook his thumb from his belt and knock the hand away.

“If you don’t…” Kormak’s eyes slowly closed into catlike slits, and he whispered, “you will be looking for a way to save your neck.”

Godred jammed his thumb beneath his belt again and stood unflinching, unimpressed. Eventually Kormak would be obliged to wipe that mysterious look from his face, open his eyes, and stand straight like a man, and more the fool he would look then.

Godred jammed his thumb beneath his belt again and stood unflinching, unimpressed.

Meanwhile the hidden thumb moved, rubbing over the fraying edges of the hole, trying to smooth it flat and close it up again. Nevertheless Godred knew nothing could ever weave rent cloth whole, and thread by thread it would unravel until it fell apart entirely. At best he could cover it with a face-​​saving patch, but the hole would remain, unseen but spreading perhaps, until even the patch fell away.

“Heed me, Godred,” Kormak said darkly, startling him into yanking his hand away. “If it’s not my fate to be killed by you, it may be that it is to be killed with you, and I’m not ready to die.”

'I'm not ready to die.'

“Nor am I, Kormak,” Godred muttered. “Let that satisfy you.”

Kormak smiled. “I am glad to hear it,” he chirped and bowed like a songbird. “Goodnight, my lord. Sleep well – or work well, or whatever…” His hand fluttered in the direction of the pile of books and papers on Godred’s writing table.


“Likewise,” Godred said. He snorted ironically at the turn the night had taken. “In fact, I was only coming in here to get a book.”

“Ach! Having trouble sleeping?” Kormak purred. He threw open the creaking door and paused in the doorway. “In your shoes,” he muttered in Gaelic, “so would I.”

'In your shoes, so would I.'