'It's from Eirik, isn't it?'

“It’s from Eirik, isn’t it?”

Sigefrith stopped, open-​​mouthed, in the middle of his word. He had not even said the letter had come from overseas. He had scarcely had the time to say “letter.”

Dunstan glanced over at Malcolm, still standing in the corner by the door.

Dunstan glanced over at Malcolm.

Malcolm’s face was damp, and his lips pinched into a thin line. He looked like a man attempting to go about his business in spite of a powerful flux cramping his gut. Perhaps a glimpse of Malcolm had been his father’s clue. Dunstan hoped Malcolm was only ill.

“No,” Sigefrith said at last, “it’s from Diarmait. In Gaelic, since Diarmait’s an illiterate jackal, so I brought Malcolm.”

Malcolm stepped away from the wall and headed for a chair at the table.

Malcolm stepped away from the wall and headed for a chair at the table.

“It’s mostly a waste of ink,” Sigefrith said. “The first half of it is news we already learned from Donnchad. He tells us how many ships he has, but if he’s telling the truth of that by letter he’s a bigger fool than I already thought him, and I have already allotted him a generous portion of folly.”

Malcolm smoothed the letter flat on the table. His hands seemed to dance around a particular spot on the small parchment, as if one word among all those inked-​​in Celtic letters had not yet dried.

“And he takes a snotty tone with me,” Sigefrith said. “I want you to bear that in mind, too, Alred. Runt, read the first part. The prosperity part.”

Malcolm cleared his throat. It was not the drawn-​​out rattling of a sick man, but merely the polite cough of a secretary. Malcolm was not ill.

Diarmait, Lord of Ramsaa, and Sadb his wife, to Sigefrith, King of Lothere, greetings.

Malcolm's translation into English was smooth and unhesitating.

Malcolm’s translation into English was smooth and unhesitating, but his Gaelic accent was uncharacteristically thick, as if his tongue sought to pronounce the words his eyes read. Dunstan could almost hear the Scottish lord Diarmait speaking through him.

Because you desire to hear from us especially and know how we fare, therefore we make you this report of our prosperity.” Malcolm sat back.

“‘Because you desire to hear from us especially,’” Sigefrith simpered. “Obnoxious little shit. One would think I’m his tutor making him do his lessons. Which, I hear tell, Murchad often did for him anyway. For that matter, Murchad writes to me in Latin.”

'For that matter, Murchad writes to me in Latin.'

He chuckled weakly and rubbed one sweaty palm in a circle over the other. Dunstan’s father’s expression remained blank. Dunstan gave Sigefrith a wry half-​​smile in his stead.

“Well,” Sigefrith rumbled, “there’s only the one line that will be of much interest to you. Read it, please, Malcolm.”

Malcolm squared his shoulders over the parchment and bowed his head, like a deacon preparing for the Gospel reading.

On the sixth day of Christmas, we punished Egelric for his crimes.

His voice was steady, but once the words had been pronounced, he shuddered and rubbed his arms through his sleeves.

“That’s all, Alred,” Sigefrith said, hastening to soothe a man who had not reacted in any visible way. “That’s all he says about it. Don’t think the worst. ‘Punished.’ It could mean anything. Couldn’t it, Malcolm?”

Sigefrith squeezed his shoulder.

Malcolm’s hands stopped.


“It could mean anything,” Malcolm echoed.

The flatness of his voice made his agreement seem only a question of vocabulary. Malcolm did not share Sigefrith’s optimistic vision of “anything.”

'It could mean anything.'

Sigefrith said, “The letter was dated the ninth of Christmastide. And there was one more bit of uninteresting news after the sixth, so it doesn’t seem as if he wrote me only to fling that in my face. Unless that extra bit of news was part of the jibe.”

He rubbed his beard and frowned into Dunstan’s father’s face. Dunstan searched the sagging pouches beneath his father’s eyes for traces of tears. He even peered closely at the lashes – only delicately pressed together, not squinted shut – for a promise of tears to come. But his father’s face was slack and expressionless as the face of a corpse.

He even peered closely at the lashes.

“Damn it, Alred,” Sigefrith grumbled, “say something. Damn me to Hell if you like. It was my idea.”

His father’s lashes fluttered and finally opened to reveal the groggy gaze of the recently awakened. “What were we doing on the sixth day of Christmas, Dunstan?”

Dunstan took a breath and looked to Sigefrith for guidance. Sigefrith was looking to him.

“We might have been doing anything, mightn’t we?” his father mused. He strolled as far as the doorway and turned. “Dancing, perhaps. Eating cakes, drinking sweet wine, surely. Whom did we invite for dinner? Ah, if I could remember that I would know.” He tapped his lips with a fingertip. “Was that one of the days Sophie and Estrid were here? We must have a look in my journal.” 

'We must have a look in my journal.'

Dunstan broke first. “Father…”

“I want to know what I was doing that day,” his father said, his voice quiet and calm. “When next I meet him, on this earth or in the hereafter, I wish to have the answer. He will want to know.”

Sigefrith protested, “But we don’t even know what they’ve done to him…”

“Anything, I believe you said?”

'Anything, I believe you said?'

“Well, I don’t think he’s dead, in any event. Malcolm, read the last bit, the bit from Brede. Brede squeezed in a line at the bottom beneath Diarmait’s hen-​​scratch. Listen and tell me if you don’t notice something odd.”

Malcolm read, “Please it you, my lord, to convey my tender affection to my wife, sons, and daughters.

Sigefrith clapped his big hands together. “Ha! Catch that?”

Dunstan’s father seemed to be going back into his daze, so Dunstan answered in his place.

Dunstan answered in his place.

“Brede doesn’t have sons.

“Excellent observation, runt. Either Brede has a bastard he erroneously believes I know about, or Brede is speaking for more than himself alone. And, erroneous bastards aside, the only one of our remaining men who has sons is Egelric. Egelric was alive to greet them on the ninth day of Christmas therefore. And there are four ink dots beneath Brede’s name – tell them about the dots, runt.”

Malcolm lifted his head for a moment. “There are four dots.”

'There are four dots.'

“Four dots! I think Brede’s trying to tell us they’re all still alive. He didn’t make a mark to show he’s being held hostage, and he didn’t make a mark to ask for help, so the worst of it seems to be that Diarmait won’t let him write his own damned letter.”

“Or perhaps he did,” Dunstan said, grasping at the first optimistic idea that had come to mind, “but it was lost. Or is on its way.”

“It could be! The man who delivered this one says traffic is all but impossible in that part of the sea, from the Mull of Galloway to Ravenglass. Eirik’s been returning Aed’s sails one-​​by-​​one and swapping his own between his own fleet and ships he’s captured, which means no one knows who anyone is anymore, until it’s too late.”

'Or perhaps he did.'

Sigefrith began ticking off points on his fingers.

“Half-​​black, half-​​colored fleets – and ships being captured and subsequently rescued by different ships with the same color sails – or the same ships with different sails – or the same ships with different crews… I’m getting confused myself here!” Reaching his thumb, he added, “And an all-​​black fleet has been prowling the coast of Galloway in the winter for the first time in years, which makes me think Young Aed is putting his oar into the water for as long as the confusion lasts.” Sigefrith laughed and clapped his hands atop his head. “Name of God! Makes me wish I had a little navy of my own again!”

Dunstan grinned at his antics. “So, godfather, the Viking blood is at last calling out to the sea?”

“Whom are you laughing at, son-​​in-​​law? There’ll be Viking blood in the veins of your runts, remember.”

Dunstan wrinkled his nose and took a step back.

Dunstan wrinkled his nose.

The thought that the sons of his loins might in fact resemble Sigefrith was one that had the power to jolt him awake, in a cold sweat, out of nightmares of babies with square chins and square beards.

All this time his father and Malcolm had been side-​​by-​​side, silent together, ignoring Sigefrith and Dunstan entirely. Malcolm no longer frequented the halls of Nothelm as he had in his boyhood, but he and the Duke would forever share a love for the same young lady and the same man.

“Read it to me, again, Malcolm,” Dunstan’s father said wistfully, “if you please. In the Gaelic.”

Sigefrith clenched his teeth and sighed. Dunstan knew his impatience was only the symptom of a sense of helplessness. Dunstan too sighed and snapped at his father sometimes.

Punished, that’s all he said, Alred. It tells us nothing, and it would only distress us to guess.”

“Sigefrith, you forget to whom you speak. Words do not mean anything. Words do not tell us nothing.

'Sigefrith, you forget to whom you speak.'

Sigefrith scowled. “I wager Diarmait deliberately chose that word to tell us nothing. To tell us just enough to make us worry.”

“Regardless, Diarmait chose that word for a reason, and I would do it the dignity of hearing it said as it was intended.” He turned back to the table and laid his hand on the back of Malcolm’s chair. “Malcolm, forgive me for distressing you, but I should like to hear it once.”

'I should like to hear it once.'

Sigefrith said, “You don’t even speak Gaelic, for the love of God!”

Dunstan’s father’s hand slid off the chair and onto Malcolm’s shoulder. Malcolm bowed his head over the parchment and read aloud. The phrase was short and ugly – Dunstan did not like the sound of Gaelic – but his father took a slow breath and tipped back his head as if it were a strain of haunting music.

He let out his breath in a sigh. “Tell me, now: is punished a sufficient translation?”

Malcolm grunted and looked down to line up the parchment squarely with the edge of the table.

“Ah!” Dunstan’s father smiled. “I forget that you Scots do have a word that means absolutely nothing.”

Malcolm looked up.

Malcolm looked up.

“That sound you just made – that guttural vociferation of which you are all so fond. Or perhaps I should say it can mean anything, rather? Egelric could hold an entire conversation with me by putting forth no more effort than pronouncing that word at proper intervals.”

The corners of Malcolm’s broad mouth turned up and quivered. For a moment Dunstan believed he was about to see Malcolm cry.

His father continued gently, “But that’s not the word Diarmait wrote, is it?”

Malcolm’s mouth fell flat. Dunstan glanced at Sigefrith, but it did not look as if Sigefrith meant to interfere again. For a moment it almost looked as if Sigefrith himself would cry.

For a moment it almost looked as if Sigefrith himself would cry.

“Well, no,” Malcolm said, “the word he wrote means punished but it’s a…” He made a helpless gesture over the parchment that was like sprinkling invisible sand over ink that was not quite dry. “It means a sort of punishment that is fitting and proper to the crime. Not a fine, not a… a legal formality of a thing.”

“Vengeance?” Dunstan’s father suggested.


“Ah. Ah.” Dunstan’s father stepped back and addressed the King. “Funny, isn’t it? How life, like water, flows into its proper channels? Consider how a man may be sent into make-​​believe exile for trumped-​​up crimes, and nevertheless come to justice thereby.”

He lifted his finger high and stepped back into the doorway.

He lifted his finger high.

“Those of us who decide men’s destinies might be excused for feeling as if we unwittingly embody the Hand of God at times.”

Sigefrith pushed back his hair and sighed. “Alred, it was my idea…”

“I am his lord, and no man stands between us.”

“And I am your lord, and no man in this kingdom defies me.”

Dunstan’s father took another step back and straightened his body into the bard’s stance. The shadow of the wall eclipsed half his face, warping his familiar features into something sinister. The echoes in the narrow stone stairwell made his voice seem to come from on high.

“Thou deliverest me unto mine enemies! Yea, thou castest me down among those that rise up against me: thou hast delivered me unto the violent man. Therefore I will give curses unto thee, O lord, among the heathen, and call down maledictions upon thy name.”

He stepped back and went dark. He turned and trod softly up the stairs.

When the door at the top had slammed, Dunstan ventured to say, “I think that was from a Psalm.”

'I think that was from a Psalm.'

“A damned heretical one,” Sigefrith grumbled.

“He must have changed a few words…”

Sigefrith grabbed Dunstan by the back of his neck and shook him gently. “Sorry about this. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told him anything till we knew more, but with the seas the way they are…”

“He would have been angry if he had learned you had news and hadn’t told him. And hurt. You know he’s been worried about him…”

Dunstan looked to Malcolm, but Malcolm leaned wearily back in his chair, his gaze averted and his eyes vague. He looked like a man suffering a terrible flux: turned inward, communing with his pain.

Sigefrith sighed and clapped Dunstan on the back. “I shall go talk to him, runt. The Lord knows you deserve a rest.”

'The Lord knows you deserve a rest.'