Cnocc na Marbh, Isle of Man

'It's Brass-Dog, all right.'

It’s Brass-​Dog, all right,” Ulf said as Harald and Thorkell stepped out onto the roof. “I told you they had to be his men camped up there. Look! You can see the sun shining off his hair.”

Thorkell muttered, “His men, maybe, but maybe not him. Lots of men have blond hair.”

Tall like that? Who walk like that?”

'Tall like that?'

Thorkell only grunted. The lone man was close enough now that there could be little doubt it was Eirik, or an apparition of Eirik. He had Eirik’s long, square stride, but the glitter of dew on the grass swishing around his feet made him seem to float just above a mist.

Aside from the man, nothing on the hill slope rose higher than a hummocky clump of sedge — nothing to allow Harald a sense of distance or perspective. The man might have been an insect or a colossus — might have been racing over the landscape or treading in place.

Ulf laughed. “So, I guess he’s alive after all! God blind me!”

'So, I guess he is alive after all!'

Harald shivered and rubbed the back of his neck, smoothing down the prickling hairs.

Thorkell said, “He isn’t carrying a flag of truce.”

He’s alone!” Ulf cried. “What in thunder is he going to do with or without a flag of truce? Slay us all, one by one?”

Thorkell did not answer. Harald supposed he was considering the likelihood of this outcome: the realm of possibility had not yet been fully charted when it came to Eirik.

Then disarm him!” Harald said. “Unless you think he can slay us all with his bare hands too? Send him into the hall to me. And keep everyone out of there. I want to meet him alone.”

'Send him into the hall to me.'

Ulf cried, “Alone?” but Harald was already scrambling down the ladder.

He jogged across the court and grabbed a spear as he stepped into the hall. All the way down the narrow aisle he rapped the butt end of the staff against the timbers to rouse his men, and shouted orders to rise.

A few swords were drawn at first, by the hands of the sleepiest and most disoriented, who were doubtlessly waking from violent dreams. A more practical man near the door only rolled over onto his elbow and asked, “Are they attacking?”

Brass-Dog’s coming alone to see me,” Harald shouted, “and I want all you mongrels out of here! Eat your breakfast in the kitchen! Up up up!”

A truce?” another man asked dubiously.

What else? Out! Put your pants on outside, Olaf, I don’t care if you’re naked!”

His men staggered out, grumbling and farting and squinting into the dawn light, some clumsily wrapped in their wrinkled shirts, others cloaked with blankets that trailed behind them in the dust.

Harald bounded up onto the ledge at the far end of the hall and watched them go, leaning on his spear like a bishop on his crosier, until the last man had shuffled out and slammed the great door behind him. And he stood a while longer still, surveying the scarves of smoke that writhed beneath the loft roof as if ghostly heads still moved among them; surveying the skins and blankets that still lay rumpled in the round shapes of sleeping men.

The sudden darkness was unnerving as an eclipse of the sun.

The sudden darkness was unnerving as an eclipse of the sun. The sudden silence was stifling, after the door had shut out the voices of both the sea and his sailors. Near the fire a haunch of ham swung back and forth through the smoke, creaking on its leather thong, until it had spent the last of the impulse granted it by a carelessly jostling man. And Harald stood alone at the head of his empty hall, leaning on his iron-​tipped staff like the Lord of the Dead.

He swore and hurled the spear away, then watched breathlessly as it clattered across the floor, almost expecting it to transform into one of the serpents of Pharaoh’s wicked magicians. Nothing happened. He turned his back to the hall long enough to say a prayer of penance before the cross on the wall, and then he sat, and he waited.

He waited.

He was calm now, he assured himself, lofty in his smoldering anger at Eirik’s insolence. The minutes slipped by like whitecaps beneath the belly of a soaring gull, until the doors opened again.

Eirik opened them both, as if he could not fit through one alone. He parted the darkness with his two hands until the light was as wide as the breadth of his arms.

Eirik opened them both himself.

Harald squinted, blinded. His eyes were accustomed to life beneath the sun — not peering through doorways from the depths of smoke-​filled halls. He squeezed his hands into fists, trying to calm himself by forcing all his tension to the ends of his limbs.

Eirik stepped inside and pulled the doors closed behind him. The light narrowed, squeezing towards the dark line of his body, until the doors thudded against their frame and the light went out. Eirik was in the hall, but until Harald’s eyes adjusted, he was only a phantom sound emanating from the glowing afterimage of a silhouette.

Harald’s heart pounded. Eirik did not say a word, but moved through the smoke with the same long, square stride that had swirled the mist.

Eirik did not say a word.

Harald swore to himself that he would not rise. He was lord of this hall, and Eirik was a traitor to his king. Eirik would show respect to him.

But Eirik did not even look at him — not quite. Eirik stared straight ahead — straight through him to the wall where even the skill of Harald’s crew at deck-​scouring had not quite erased the phantom images of ancient skulls. Eirik was not seeing the living man, but the dead.

Eirik was not seeing the living man, but the dead.

Harald gripped the arms of his chair and pushed himself to his feet, determined to be seen. He longed to hold his cast-​off spear again, both to steady himself and as a long weapon in case of need. But he dared not even glance aside.

Eirik strode up as far as the ledge before he looked at Harald, and then he simply looked: no word of greeting, no challenge, no joke; only a gaze as passionless as a snake’s.

Eirik strode up as far as the ledge before he looked at Harald.

In his panic Harald snidely repeated what Ulf had said: “So, at least we know you’re still alive.”

Eirik blinked and cocked his head. “Are you sure about that?”

Harald’s heart thundered. He nearly leapt down off the ledge and bolted. He might have run out to the edge of the rocks and hurled himself out into the blessed sea.

'Are you sure about that?'

Eirik lifted one foot onto the ledge and reached up his hand.

Behold my hands and my feet, Harald recalled from Easter Plays past. Touch me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see me have.

Harald put out a hand, and Eirik grasped it — solid flesh and strong bones — and swung himself up onto the ledge. He grabbed Harald by the shoulders and said, “Heill.”

Harald stared blankly up at him, and Eirik peered down into his eyes for long seconds, as though reading through the history of the past weeks. Then he slung an arm around Harald’s back and squeezed.

Harald nearly fainted: from relief, from a sense of rescue, and from an overwhelming, breath-​shortening, heart-​quickening fondness. Never in his thirty-​two years had he loved a man as he loved Eirik at that moment.

But Eirik soon shrugged him off and gave his arm a friendly clap. “So,” he said, pointing at the wall with his thumb, “I see you’ve been doing some redecorating around here.”

'I see you've been doing some redecorating around here.'

Harald nearly howled. “Redecorating is what what you call it? I took those things down and gave them a Christian burial! That’s what I call it!”

Eirik clucked at him. “Those were pagans, you know. They might not have been restless before, but if you gave those dead a Christian burial…” He shook his head mournfully.

Harald grit his teeth and seethed. “Don’t even say that!”

'Don't even say that!'

Say what?”

Don’t even say it! You have no fucking idea what’s been going on here if you can say that!”

Eirik pushed up his sleeves and strolled over to the brazier. “What has been going on here?”

'Is that what you're here for?'

Is that what you’re here for? Don’t you know?”

I am here to pay a visit to my new neighbor. I heard you were lord here. Which rather surprised me, as I thought Muiredach was.”

Muiredach is dead.”

I supposed as much.”

I killed him.”

'I killed him.'

Eirik only inclined his head.

Harald laughed weirdly. “His blood was as red as mine!” He pointed at the stitched-​up gash on his brow. “The whole half of my face was red with blood — and by the time I was done with him the rest of it was! I never knew if it was his or mine!” He hiccuped another laugh.

Eirik rubbed his hands together above the coals as if he were washing them with fire.

Whitehand made me do it,” Harald pleaded. “Did you hear what happened? At Primrose Hill?”

'Did you hear what happened?'

What happened at Primrose Hill?”

Harald felt another surge of relief. Eirik simply did not know.

So, you know Eyvind son of Olaf?”

Eirik grunted.

They hung him over the ramparts at Primrose Hill. And if the ravens haven’t picked him apart he’s hanging there still.”

'They hung him over the ramparts at Primrose Hill.'

Harald was glad to see a flash of astonishment lighten Eirik’s eyes, but Eirik turned his head quickly away, as if to hide it, and coughed into his fist.

Harald hurried to explain. “We sent Eyvind and two, three dozen men up to see how things stood with Primrose Hill. Up by way of the Solaby, with orders to stay in the woods, so no one would know they were coming, right? But someone knew they were coming. And they strung up Eyvind and eleven other men — all the men from Norway like you and me.”

'And they strung up Eyvind and eleven other men.'

Reckless by now with wretchedness, Harald tapped Eirik’s arm with the back of his hand, daring the young nobleman to deny he had anything in common with the son of a whore. But Eirik did not draw back from his touch. Instead he looked down on Harald with an unfamiliar intensity in his blue eyes — a softness, as if he meant to soak up whatever Harald had to say.

Instead he looked down on Harald with an unfamiliar intensity in his blue eyes.

And the men who just weren’t Gael enough for them,” Harald said, “they put out their eyes with burning stakes and set them loose to wander blind. That’s what happened at Primrose Hill. What we did here was nothing.”

Harald waited and stared. Finally Eirik said, “I see.”

And you know how they knew they were coming? You know what they said? They say the horn of Mael na mBo blows three times to warn them whenever danger’s coming! A hundred-​fifty-​year-​old drinking horn!” Harald laughed. “They treat that thing like the fucking Trump of Doom up there! They say they can’t be beaten so long as they have that horn! What do you think of that?”

Harald laughed again, but he watched Eirik for his reaction. He wished Eirik would laugh too.

Harald laughed again.

Eirik said thoughtfully, “That was a clever idea.”

Right! Wasn’t it?” Harald tittered in relief. “But who do you think really warned them?”


Ha! You see? He was there that day when Eyvind got his orders.”

Eirik leaned away from the brazier and looked behind him, out over the empty hall. An embroidered curtain fluttered in a draft before the alcove where Muiredach of Mare’s Head once slept with his wife.

'Whitehand made me do it.'

We gave them all a Christian burial,” Harald pleaded. “Whitehand made me kill him. Ordered me to do it. It was do or die. He ordered me to kill Muiredach myself, with my own axe.”

Eirik grimaced and looked down at the fire, but Harald grabbed his arm and twisted his fingers into his sleeve until Eirik looked at him.

Eirik looked at him.

Harald had once mocked Eirik for puking and blubbering after executing that German knight, but eight days ago Harald had learned how it was. Eight days ago he had learned a few things about himself and Eirik both, and a few things about Whitehand, too. But the understanding was so hard-​won that he would not let Eirik disclaim membership in their horrific fraternity now.

He made you do it too!” Harald whispered. “I was there!”

Eirik hurriedly looked away again, but this time Harald was satisfied at his reaction and let go of his sleeve.

'But that wasn't enough for him!'

But that wasn’t enough for him!” Harald said. “You know what else he made me do? He ordered me to kill all the men and boys in his family, too. Even his brothers and nephews! And his sons, Eirik. Do you hear me? Babies! Whitehand wanted me to kill babies! But I didn’t do it! He’ll kill me when he finds out, but I didn’t do it!”

Harald laughed until he had to stop for breath. Eirik seemed impassive, but Harald sensed him tense as a snake about to strike, listening and watching and almost tasting the air.

Eirik seemed impassive.

You know what I did? I put them all in the caves down there in the rocks, the women and the girls and children and babies. There’s caves down there in the rocks. Did you know that? They used to hide there back in the old days when the Norsemen came raiding down the coast. Did you hear that? And I’m a Norseman, and I fucking put them down there — to protect them from me!”

He could not stop laughing at the absurdity of it all. He laughed until tears ran from the crow’s-foot corners of his eyes.

He could not stop laughing at the absurdity of it all.

And the priest is down there with them too! And he refused to shrive us!” Harald’s wild mirth soured abruptly into a snarl. “Hey! Did you hear that? He can’t do that! We have murder on our souls and he won’t shrive us! It isn’t Christian! They aren’t any of them Christian down there, not even the priest! You should hear them at night, Eirik. Did you hear them last night? Could you hear them up there? They howl like the damned half the night, till I can’t even sleep — till I think I hear them all the time, even when they’re quiet! It’ll make your blood run cold. They make a wolf pack seem like a nice, homey sound!”

'That is how they mourn their dead.'

That is how they mourn their dead.”

Like thunder it is! I know keening when I hear it! They’re singing wicked songs down there! There isn’t even hardly a word of Gaelic in it! Unholy songs! They’re a lot of fucking druids, or — or something unholy!”

Eirik asked, “How many are there?”

What? How many are there?”

'Like thunder it is!'

How many are down in those caves?”

I don’t know — eight, ten women maybe, depending on how old you start counting. And the priest, and all the kids.”

How long have they been down there?”

'How long have they been down there?'

A week. But — but what in thunder was I supposed to do with them? We were supposed to kill the boys! Those boys are Muiredach’s heirs! And every of them is going to be looking to take revenge on me one day! I let them all live, and for that they’re going to kill me!”

Harald started to laugh again, but Eirik cut him short. “Can they get down to the cove from there?”

Harald hesitated. “Well… They could — but I’ve got men guarding the path down there. What am I supposed to do? I can’t let them get at my ships!”

Could they get down to the cove if there were ships waiting for them there?”

'Could they get down to the cove?'

Harald stared at him, mistrustful and unsure.

Eirik sighed. “If my ships were waiting for them there? I’ll take them back with me. And I’ll send another priest for you here. You’ll sleep better at night if the caves are quiet and your souls are shriven, won’t you?”

Oh, wouldn’t he! For a moment Harald slumped in relief. Then he saw that the idea was simply too good to be true.

Didn’t you listen to anything I said? Those people are officially dead. At least the boys are. I can’t let them out of there.”

'Didn't you listen to anything I said?'

I shall take them back with me and keep them on my island.” Eirik snorted and sliced his hand back and forth through a ribbon of smoke rising from the coals. “At least until they can be resurrected.”

Harald chewed on his lip. There had to be a trick to it. “Don’t you have the people from Ramsaa there with you? You can’t put good Christian folk together with those pagans.”

Eirik sighed. “I’m about to get most of the Ramsaa people off the island anyway. I suppose they can dwell on the same ground for a few days without corrupting one another. Even if I loan you our priest.”

Harald could not understand. If it was not a trick, there was a catch. “Why do you want to do this? This is all your own fault, you know! Diarmait is your creation, you know! You’re the one who needs to be shriven! Muiredach’s blood is on your hands as much as mine!”

Do you need anything else? Food or weapons? Do you have a smith?”

'Do you have a smith?'

Are you fucking listening to me? What do you want with me?”

You’re going to need axes if you want to keep working on your palisades. And shovels for earthworks.”

Right! You’re going to provide me with axes and shovels so that I can build up my defenses to protect myself from you!” Harald laughed. “Hell, why not? I’m protecting Muiredach’s family from me after all!”

Harald,” Eirik said patiently, “do you even know who your enemies are?”

Everybody! Muiredach’s family for killing half of them, Whitehand for not killing the other half… Kormak hates my guts… Diarmait’s tribe would kill me for the crime of being blond… and you! Can you believe this? My new neighbor is Eirik Motherfucking Jarl! I’m a dead man! I can never step out of this fort again!”

'I can never step out of this fort again!'

He was giggling again, and he simply could not stop. Never in his angry life had he laughed so much as in these past eight days. His own men were likely to become his enemies if he could not get himself under control.

Can you believe this shit, Eirik? I can only live as long as I stay on the Hill of the Dead! No — wait! Even the dead pagans want to kill me now, for saying a prayer over their grave!”

I am not your enemy.”

Like thunder you aren’t! Is this some kind of joke?”

'Is this some kind of joke?'


Harald sucked his lip between his teeth and stared up at the young man through desperate tears. If it was not a joke, if it was not a trick, if there was no catch…

Eirik sighed and rubbed his forehead between his eyes. “I’m not your enemy, Harald. We’re on the same side now.”

Like thunder! Jesus Christ.” Harald shook his head. “I don’t even know what side I’m on. What side are we on?”

Eirik patted his arm and gave him a wry half-​smile. “The southeast side, neighbor.”

'The southeast side, neighbor.'