'It could be Eirik in a cloak.'

“It could be Eirik in a cloak,” Diarmait said, abruptly reawakening an argument that Egelric had—to his relief—thought closed. “Some of those men look rather tall.”

Muirgius bellowed, “It isn’t Eirik, for the love of Macaille! Brass-​Dog never arrives but he’s standing in the prow, and the blond hair of him flying like a yellow flag!”

Muirgius tossed back his head to smirk at mac Nuadu behind him, and by the time his gaze returned to the sea, Eadred’s grim face had turned to Egelric.

Eadred's grim face had turned to Egelric.

Egelric snorted impatiently. Aye, it was a problem—Muirgius was the hereditary chief of the Gaels of Ramsaa, and mac Nuadu had as his life’s sole purpose the goal of taking his place, and if the two sworn enemies could unite to scoff at their foreign lord, then matters were looking dire for Diarmait.

Egelric did not know what Eadred expected him to do about it.

But Egelric did not know what Eadred expected him to do about it. It had been well established that Egelric did not know how to talk to young men.

“But perhaps he wouldn’t in the rain—he’s ill, you know,” Diarmait insisted.

“Aye, and I’m telling you why!”

Diarmait flapped his arms at his side like a thwarted child. Egelric did not know which of his peevishness and his ill-​concealed longing for Eirik’s return posed the greater danger to him here.

''Tisn't Norsemen.'

“’Tisn’t Norsemen,” Eadred muttered. “One of them has opened his cloak, and I saw the bare legs of him.”

Muirgius whistled through his teeth, and he and mac Nuadu turned together, united in their admiration of Eadred’s eyes.

“Pity you can’t see the color of his kilt!” Muirgius said.


Diarmait cried, “Dark? Dark? It’s Eochaid! It’ll be Bright Swan, with Eirik’s sail!”

Egelric thrust forward his head and squinted through veils of misty rain to where the river ran into the sea. By now the men who had disembarked were all shedding their stiff cloaks of oilskin and tossing them back onto the deck of the ship. There were three of them ashore, and four after a last skipped over the side already uncloaked. From this distance, to all eyes but Eadred’s perhaps, they were still only black blurs moving through fog. But black they were.

“It’ll be one of the brothers of me!” Diarmait babbled left and right, indiscriminately at Muirgius and at Finn, though the latter could scarcely have understood a word he said. “Word from my father! It’s Donnchad I wager! I’d know him by his walk.”

'Donnchad I wager!'

Finn laughed companionably with Diarmait, but he turned to Egelric for a translation. Egelric could not face him. A chill dread was trickling down the back of his neck and sinking into his spine, as if he had not laced his skin tightly enough against the rain.

“Who’s the woman?” Muirgius asked.

Diarmait echoed at a higher pitch, “The woman?”

Muirgius pointed his arm past Diarmait’s cheek. A heavy bundle that the four men had hefted from the ship was now in fact standing on its feet, and the dark cloak they peeled away revealed a bell-​shaped column of gold that shone like a beacon through the fog.

“Sweet Jesus…”

'Sweet Jesus...'

Muirgius laughed aloud and walloped Diarmait across his back, making his amulets swing up and clink against his breast. “Your wife, I gather! Just when you thought you were free!”

At last Finn had heard a word he recognized. “It is your wife?” he asked Diarmait.

“Holy God, it looks like Sadb in her wedding dress,” Diarmait whimpered in English.

Finn laughed. “Now you’re in trouble!”

“Now I’m in trouble!” Diarmait agreed.

Refusing elbows all around, the girl lifted her hems and marched out across the rocky beach alone. Her skirts flapped and billowed, revealing glimpses of stockinged legs that were black and slender as wicks. The wind whipped out curls of her ruddy hair like flags.

The girl lifted her hems and marched out across the rocky beach alone.

“She sailed all the way from Scotland dressed like that?” Muirgius murmured in wonder.

The girl’s feet stumbled through soft patches of sand and gravel, but she held herself straight as a mast and only bobbed like a little ship riding through troughs of waves.

Mac Nuadu countered, “She sailed all the way from Scotland in this weather and she can still walk straight?”

'She sailed all the way from Scotland and she can still walk straight?'

The hissing rain needled her bare face, and yet the girl was as stoic as a maiden marching through clouds of incense on her father’s arm. The warmly-​dressed men in the watchtower laid their bows aside and leaned over the wall to cheer. The people huddled in the shelter of the stable sent up a louder cheer in reply.

Egelric saw through the girl.

But Egelric saw through the girl as if she were made of the fog she parted with her body, clear to the dark-​kilted figures who had fallen into a line behind her. Three were tall men and one slight: three brothers and one boy. This was what Eadred had seen before the others. This had been the meaning of that grim glance.

“Is she wearing a wolf pelt?” Finn asked dubiously.

'Is she wearing a wolf pelt?'

“Aye, laddie,” Diarmait laughed. “Never say I will to a lass who comes to the altar clad in the skin of a wild beast—my warning to you.”

“Did she kill it herself?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised!”

Eadred looked at Brede’s sword, Brede looked at Eadred’s, and each nodded at the other. Egelric sucked in his breath and shook with a towering fury. He would not be defended. He would rather die. But not before his son.

'That's--that looks like Comgeall!'

Then his son cried, “That’s—that looks like Comgeall!”

Egelric saw his head start to turn, and he hurriedly closed his eyes. He could not face him.

“Aye, it’s my brothers!” Diarmait said softly to Finn, though his voice shook with excitement. “And Eochaid! He has seen my father!”

The sea wind gusted across the fire, blowing a billow of heat and gritty smoke over the men. Egelric snorted to clear his nose and opened his eyes after it passed. He found himself staring straight past the flaming glory of Sadb’s dress and hair into the dark amber of Comgeall’s eyes.

He found himself staring straight past the flaming glory of Sadb's dress.

Diarmait bleated, “Sadb!”

Comgeall quickly looked aside. But another change in the wind blew a black curtain of smoke behind the girl, and when it cleared Comgeall was looking at Egelric again. This time both stared until Eochaid stepped away from the brothers and stopped beneath the edge of the tent with Sadb, blocking their view.

Eochaid saluted Diarmait as a fellow lord, with a wrist pressed to his heart, and after an awkward moment Diarmait greeted him in kind. Then Eochaid bowed deeply to Sadb.

“My lady, I have delivered you to your husband.”

'My lady, I have delivered you to your husband.'

Immediately Donnchad and Cathal stepped up on either side of the pair. Diarmait held his hands out halfway to his wife, but the girl did not lift her own to meet them. Raindrops still trickled down her wet face, and she did not even lift a finger to wipe them away.

Donnchad produced a drinking horn, and only then did Sadb hold out her hand to take it. Cathal passed a small flask to Eochaid.

Diarmait quavered, “Sadb?”

Donnchad laid a hand on his shoulder and shoved him down onto his knee to join the Manxmen who had kneeled a moment before. The people gabbled in excitement atop the walls and in the stable, and a few old men had already stepped out to kneel in the arches of the doors.

Egelric understood there was some sort of ceremony going on.

Egelric understood there was some sort of ceremony underway—that this was perhaps his one chance to flee. Scarcely moving his head, he scanned the beach with his eyes, calculating his available paths. Before him were the brothers, the boundless sea, and a ship that would not set sail for his orders. To his left there was an unpredictable crowd, and behind him loomed the city wall—no single man could open its massive door.

Behind him loomed the city wall.

There was only the river. He turned his head aside. Down the center of its channel it was a glossy black, too grimly occupied in rushing out into the falling tide to make a frothy show, but along the banks the churning waters flashed with the lurid pink of ground flesh. The Norsemen of Ramsaa must have made the same fatal calculation in their last moments: the only path open to them had been death. Their bodies were still washing onto the shore.

Egelric looked back, and Comgeall turned his head sharply towards the fire. It seemed Comgeall’s role in this rite was keeping an eye on him until the end.

It seemed Comgeall's role in this rite was keeping an eye on him.

Egelric was trapped. There was only one fate open to him, and his feet were already far along on the path.

Egelric was free. He no longer felt the wind or the fire, and the solemn Gaelic chimed like soft bells. His heart was galloping a retreat: its pounding sounded from shrouded distances. A senseless elation billowed up in its place, flinging out his shattered spirit in sparks that flew up and never fell.

Young Sadb was the most magnificent, most radiant woman he had ever beheld.

The fog was as gray as ever, but veils of ugliness parted like clouds and revealed the sacred beauty of the world to him. With her rumpled, rain-​spotted dress, her wolf-​pelt, and her bedraggled curls, young Sadb was the most magnificent, most radiant woman he had ever beheld. Diarmait and his black-​kilted brothers were as regal as the angels holding up the four corners of the sky.

Diarmait and his black-kilted brothers were regal as the angels.

But the world held nothing more precious, more beautiful than his boy.

For a few moments—he thought them his last—Egelric saw as God. He could have numbered every silky, blue-​black hair on his son’s head. He could have named every dear freckle on his face, plotted every crease of his palm, traced every spoke in the brown of his eyes.

He could have named every dear freckle on his face.

He decided he would go willingly with these men, if only they would let him embrace his son a last time. He would tell Finn how dearly he loved him, how deeply sorry he was. He did not know how to talk to young men, it seemed, but Finn would have sons one day. He would have a lifetime to understand.

Eyes wide open, he watched the beloved head as it turned. He waited with serene patience to see the beloved profile, to meet the beloved eyes, as though they had all the time left to the world. But Finn was turning his head to follow the arrival of a man.

Finn was turning his head to follow the arrival of a man.

At once the veils snapped shut, and Egelric was slapped with the sordid ugliness of his own life—the sodden ruin he had made of it. Overhead the wind whipped loose a flap of the tent and sloshed his face with rain. Egelric did not lift a finger to wipe it away.

“Cousin,” Donnchad glowered.


Eadred and Brede were sidling closer. Finn’s face was flushed as far as his ears.

Egelric recalled that Finn and Donnchad had never met—Donnchad might not even have known who he was. A feeble hope flapped in his breast like a broken-​winged bird: surely no son of Aed—Old Aed, who had seen his own father slain—would slay a man before the eyes of his son.

“Should I be congratulating Sigefrith,” Donnchad asked darkly, “or is he simply quicker to make his congratulations than we?”

Egelric understood every word, but he could not put so much as two of them together so that they made any sense. He licked his lips. The rainwater trickling through his beard mingled with his cold sweat and was made saltier than the sea.

Egelric licked his lips.

“Had he any part in this?” Donnchad demanded.

It made no sense. Sigefrith? Maire? Who would even think it?

Eadred said in his stuttering Gaelic, “Sigefrith was only learning of it Sunday.”

Donnchad inhaled sharply and looked down on Eadred’s gingery hair and freckled skin, and farther still to his Manxman’s knitted shirt, floppy patterned sleeves, and the unfamiliar plaid of his kilt.

Then a smile tweaked up the corners of his mouth and he said in English, “Ho, Brede! How are you, lad?” He reached a hand around Finn, and Brede reacted quickly to grasp it and give it a squeeze.

At the same time Donnchad clapped Egelric’s shoulder with his left hand and nodded down at Eadred.

“Sunday, was it?” he asked Brede.

Brede, who had not the advantage of understanding the prior Gaelic conversation, nevertheless only fluttered an eyelid before replying, “We arrived yesterday evening.”

'We arrived yesterday evening.'

“Is Sigefrith here, then?”

“He sent only the four of us.”

Donnchad withdrew his hand and lifted his head to look over the small crowd, but Brede laid one hand on Eadred’s shoulder and the other on Finn’s to announce, “Sir Eadred, and Egelric’s son Finn.”

Eadred added apologetically, “Formerly Captain of His Majesty’s Guard.”

“Ach!” Donnchad burst out laughing and prodded Eadred’s breast with his fists. “The devil you are! I knew I had seen something like your face before. I was fearing I had killed your father or some kin of you!”

'I was fearing I had killed your father or some kin of you!'

Eadred flushed and tried to laugh with him, all out of breath.

“And Finn! By God!” Donnchad pressed his wide mouth into a line. “By God!” he whispered. “The stolen one, was he? And you’re all but a man now,” he said to Finn. “Your father must be splitting open with the pride of you.”

He looked up and gave Egelric a wistful smile, father to father.

Egelric moved his numb lips, trying to recall how it felt to speak words, to be an ordinary man. Was it possible that Donnchad did not yet know?

But when he looked past Donnchad’s shoulder his gaze plunged directly into the pit of Comgeall’s. Comgeall scowled and turned his face away, but Egelric understood he was still being watched. And Donnchad, therefore, was only playing with him.

Comgeall scowled and turned his face away.

Donnchad saw his attention waver and turned his head, but he looked no farther than Cathal behind him.

“Come, brother! You’ll be wanting to meet Egelric’s son, Finn, the one the elves stole!” As Cathal stepped up, he added, “And Sir…”

“Eadred,” Eadred supplied.

“Eadred! Sigefrith’s men.”

Cathal nodded and clasped hands all around, beginning with Egelric’s. Cathal’s hand was cold, but strong and dry, and after it had moved on, Egelric clasped his own hands together, trying to understand how one of them could have lain so limp in another’s, so clammy and dead.

Egelric clasped his own hands together.

“I must admit,” Donnchad said grimly to him in Gaelic, “it’s glad I am to see you men here. It’s little enough our father is letting us do for the lad.”

He tossed his head back towards Diarmait, who stood chattering with his young wife and his Manxmen. Then he waited for Egelric to make a comment. Eadred leaned his head aside to look anxiously into Egelric’s face. Egelric was the only one of the four who could hope to follow a serious conversation in the language.

Egelric was the only one of the four who could hope to follow a serious conversation in the language.

“Eochaid’s to take all his ships home,” Donnchad finally said. “Three Winds was all he gave him—”

“All—all his ships?” Egelric blurted, stuttering and shivering. It was all he could do to speak—he could not help interrupting.

'All--all his ships?'

Donnchad grunted. “Aye. Diarmait acted without orders—he will not help him. His mother thought it enough to send Sadb to him, and his grandfather’s horn. Mael na mBo came as king here once,” he sighed. “Mayhap there will be those who are remembering…” Donnchad looked back over his shoulder to his young brother, shaking his head slowly.

Eadred gave Egelric a last glance and sighed with impatience. “How can he…” he faltered, searching his words. “Defend… without ships?”

Donnchad turned back to him. “There’ll be little danger from seaward ere the spring. He’ll have the ships he captured. He’ll be needing no more if he’s not going raiding.” He glanced mournfully behind him. “Rather, it’s the danger from inside the fort we’re fearing. We’re glad to find you here.” He hooked his thumb into a ring of his sword belt and sighed conclusively.

'We're glad to find you here.'

Cathal asked Egelric, “Was Sigefrith a part of this?”

“Nay, brother,” Donnchad answered for him. “He was only learning of it on Sunday. We might have beaten them here, had we the lassie to hand,” he smiled.

Cathal smiled with him, and a crease faded from between his eyes.

Eadred added, “Sigefrith is… keeping Young Aed, uh… occupied…”

“The devil he is!” Donnchad gasped. “Is he in Lothere, then? What will our father say when he hears about that?”

'The devil he is!'

Cathal laughed—an almost surreal sight. “Thank you?” he guessed.

Nothing made any sense. Egelric looked beyond the brothers, and like the last sign of sanity in the world, he saw Comgeall staring back at him.

Donnchad frowned and turned to follow his gaze, but he only chuckled when it fell on Comgeall.

“Ach! Never mind my brother, Cousin. He’ll still be sore for what happened with old Flann’s poor girl. You’re the last man we were expecting to find here. He’ll have made you out to be a bigger villain than you were,” he winked. “It’s the way of him.”

Cathal said, “Every time he tells the tale, you’re turning into an uglier bastard.”

Donnchad laughed and threw an arm over Egelric’s shoulders. “Is that even possible?”

'Is that even possible?'

He leaned, as if he needed Egelric’s strength, and Egelric crumpled and hunched beneath his arm like rotten wood.

“Was I telling you how we’re glad to see you all?” Donnchad sighed. “Let’s see what we can do for the lad, all together.” He added in a grumble, “Given that our father said we mayn’t do a blessed thing, God damn him. Eh, laddie?” he said slyly to Finn, who could have heard little and understood nothing at all. “And happy Christmas to you! We sail in the morning with all the ships, by God… by God…”

He shook his head mournfully and squeezed Egelric’s shoulder, as if Egelric were his family, his friend—as if Egelric were still an ordinary man. And Egelric was already dead.

Donnchad whispered, “Poor young fools.”

'Poor young fools.'