Carn Liath, Galloway, Scotland

Young Aed's narrow, barrel-vaulted hall hummed with the sound-heightening silence of caves.

Young Aed’s narrow, barrel-​vaulted hall hummed with the sound-​heightening silence of caves. Every crack and pop of the fire was followed by pinging echoes. The whetstone walls sharpened even Eirik’s rich voice to a merciless edge.

Njal felt a stifling sense of trespass in the Underworld, as once when he and his men had hidden for days in the crypts of the monastery at Ard Mor. The yellow man facing him across the fire looked like the dead.


“Welcome,” Aed said. “We are honored.”

Eirik inclined his head, which did not even begin to make up for their difference in heights. “We are obliged. My compliments to your steward, also. Your table does you more honor than the guests sitting at it.”

Even from behind, Njal knew Eirik well enough to detect a playful wink in the doglike tilt of his head. Aed finally smiled.

“I wonder at the chickens of your country, though,” Eirik said.

“How so?”

Eirik scratched his head and looked mystified.

“Every man he get a leg!” Eirik said, mystified. “Your chickens, they grow like caterpillars, or so? And a pitcher of mead at every hand. I never have a so quiet supper with my men. Nothing to fight over!”

Aed laughed. “You may be thanking my steward for that, too, I suppose. I wouldn’t have thought of it.”

“Oh!” Eirik chuckled knowingly. “Your steward, he must entertain Norsemen before.”

Aed shrugged. “Perhaps he did. But it would have been before my time.”

Eirik nodded, folded his hands, and took a step towards the fire. Aed matched his step.

“Is he very old?” Eirik asked.

“He seems so to me,” Aed said, smiling. “He’s at least a grandfather.”

“A pity he’s so deaf.”

“A… what?” Aed’s smile remained, but his forehead wrinkled into an expression of confusion.

Eirik waved an arm at the men opposite him. “I tell him how I want to speak with you alone. But here are two men. So, I think he must not hear.”

'But here are two men.'

Aed’s voice hardened. “Ach, I see! But mayhap you’re being a bit hard-​of-​hearing yourself. You mayn’t have noticed the two men who followed your own self in.”

Njal flushed, as if he truly had come in uninvited. Young Aed was younger and more delicate than his reputation implied, but when he looked at a man, one felt a frosty plummeting in the belly, as if locking gazes with a wolf.

One felt a sudden, frosty plummeting in the belly, as if locking gazes with a wolf.

But Aed quickly turned his chilling eyes to Eirik and smiled.

Eirik shrugged broadly. “No, I hear them. I tell them to come. So, Skorri, we need him later.”

“Ach, is that so? And what about the other fellow?”

Njal braced himself for that amber-​eyed stare and met it full-​on. It took holding his breath.

Njal braced himself for that amber-eyed stare and met it full-on.

“So, that is Njal,” Eirik said. “We might need him later, if things don’t go so well for Skorri. I need a hand to carry out the body.”

Aed and his wolf-​pelt-​wearing friend laughed, and Skorri wryly smiled.

“Ach, I hope it won’t be necessary!” Aed said to Skorri. “How I longed to see your tongue when I was a lad!”

Skorri took advantage of this attention to stride closer to the fire. Njal kept himself at his side.

“Way back in olden times, was it?” Skorri asked.

'Way back in olden times, was it?'

Aed grinned at him. “In truth I still want to see it to this day.”

“My point. But you know how it goes: you have to at least buy me a drink first.”

The wolf-​pelted man laughed. He was Aed’s dangerously erratic lieutenant, Congal son of Congal, famed for having fought off a wolf pack alone, on horseback, and killed the lead wolf with his spear. But some said it was not the man who had vanquished and come away with the wolf’s pelt, but the wolf who had donned the skin of the man.

'Buy you a drink, too?'

“Buy you a drink, too?” Congal asked, fluttering his lashes. “You’re an expensive one, aren’t you? Didn’t you get a leg?

Skorri said, “I’m more of a breast man.”

Congal laughed. “You too? You’re in luck, Captain. I cannot say much about the bustiness of our chickens, but our women, now…”

Aed smiled at Skorri and then at Eirik. “I hope you’ll be letting my men stay after all. You see? They’re already making friends!”

Njal tensed at the idea that he might be expected to “make friends” with the unsmiling death’s head opposite him: Gaethine son of Augstin, called the Black Monk on Man.

Gaethine seemed to have the same thought and glanced past Aed at Njal.

Gaethine seemed to have the same thought and stared past Aed at Njal, his mouth twisted into a frown of annoyance. Their mutual dislike of the prospect of getting acquainted did not go far to endear them to one another.

“So,” Eirik said, shrugging helplessly, “I thought, Norse… Gaels… Who knew we would have so much in common?”

“Breast or leg?” Congal asked him. “Or… tail?”

'Or... tail?'

Eirik’s jovial mask slipped for the first time, as his attention rushed inward at this sudden, ill-​timed reminder of his wife. Master of his thoughts though he was, he would not be able to help wondering, at least for an instant, what part of Sigrid he liked best.

Njal looked to Skorri, hoping Skorri would know how to call Eirik back out of there. But it was Aed who spoke.

“I’m sorry about your wife.”

'I'm sorry about your wife.'

Eirik’s thin face turned cadaverous and puddled with shadows as he tipped back his head. The tale of Sigrid’s death was the hardest lie Eirik had ever lived. Other men’s well-​meant sympathy was killing him. Njal and Skorri could not even see any sense in keeping up the story, now that she was safe.

Njal glanced at Skorri and saw knots and ropes in every clenched muscle in his neck and jaw. But Eirik recovered before Skorri found it necessary to intervene.

Njal glanced at Skorri.

“Thank you,” Eirik said, his taut voice slackening as he spoke. “But she has gone to a better place.”

Aed bowed. “To the West, as we Gaels say?”

“Aye, to the West.”

Skorri relaxed all at once, sighing like a deflating sail. Njal quietly cracked a knuckle in an attempt to relieve his anxiety, but the pop caught Gaethine’s attention, and he wished he had not.

Aed said, “I am certain she is at peace now. With family.”

'I am certain she is at peace now.'

“Aye, she is with her family,” Eirik said. “I don’t know, will I ever join her there? With the life that I lead? But so!” Eirik shrugged helplessly and let his arms fall limp. “I think I go to the other place very soon. I only hope my boys they will go where Sigrid is, someday. Even if I am no more here to guide them.”

“So far as my prayers have power, I will be honored to help them.”

Aed cocked his head but stared evenly at Eirik through a haze of smoke and shimmering air. Eirik held his stare.

Eirik held his stare.

“Thank you. I think your prayers they reach very far.”

They said no more. A burning log popped between them, and Njal jumped. Congal too was fidgety, looking from face to face. Gaethine stared at Aed, and Skorri at Eirik, and finally Congal and Njal crossed glances out of desperation.

Abruptly Eirik turned halfway around and turned back again. “Nice window,” he said to Aed.

'Nice window.'

Njal shuddered at this latest twist upon his nerves. Just when he had thought something was about to happen!

Aed said, “Thank you.”

“Was it locally done?”

Njal whispered to Skorri, “That does it! If they’re going to talk about the food, and the livestock, and now the fucking architecture! We’re going to be here all night!”

Skorri smiled with the corner of his mouth. “That’s not what they’re talking about.”

“What in thunder did you two want me here for anyway?”

“Maybe so you would pay attention and learn something, dimwit.”

'Maybe so you would pay attention and learn something, dimwit.'

Njal sniffed. “I’m sleeping on my ship tonight. I’m telling you now.”

Skorri shrugged. “More breasts for me.”

Aed was telling Eirik, “It was a chapel in my grandfather’s time, before my father built the church on the hill. My father always used to boast that never a drop of blood has been spilled in his hall, unto this day.”

“Is that why your so polite steward he take all our knives after supper?” Eirik asked, feigning sudden enlightenment. “But so, you choose some odd decorations for a bloodless hall.”

He nodded towards the wall behind Aed. Aed glanced back at the swords hanging on either side of the alcove.

“What? Those steel crosses back there?”

'Those steel crosses back there?'

Eirik laughed.

“So, shall we send Skorri on his way?” Aed asked. “What would the father of me be saying if he learned that the first blood spilt in his hall was mine? A pity it would be.”

“You think Skorri he is here to kill you with a sword?”

'You think Skorri he is here to kill you with a sword?'

“It’s a long way you’ve come, at some risk. It must be something important. I flatter myself that my life would be worth the trip.”

He looked back to Eirik and took a step nearer the fire. Eirik matched his step, lessening the distance between them still more.

Skorri leaned against Njal’s shoulder and hastily whispered, “Half a mark says Eirik’s on Aed’s side by the time he gets to me.”

Skorri leaned against Njal's shoulder.

Njal wrinkled what was left of his forehead. He never liked to bet against Eirik, but he thought it might be worth half a mark to instill some sense into this incomprehensible meeting. It would be like a cock fight. He liked cock fights.

He whispered, “Done.”

Eirik asked, “What about strangulation?”

Gaethine coughed. He failed to get Aed’s attention, and had to content himself with looking angrily between Eirik and Aed. Congal grinned.

Aed said, “Strangulation is acceptable.”

Eirik rubbed his chin and took a swishing step sideways, nearer not the fire, but Congal. Aed scuffed the toe of his boot in the cinders and matched his step.

Eirik asked, “What about a blow to the head?”

'What about a blow to the head?'

“Only if it isn’t making an open wound.”

Aed’s gravity finally broke down. He swayed from head to toe with boyish laughter, but Njal saw how he coordinated all his gestures to wind up on the far side of the fire, precisely halfway, forcing Eirik back towards the window. Njal cackled just loud enough for Skorri to hear.

“But, ah… am I permitted to defend myself?” Aed asked sweetly.

'Am I permitted to defend myself?'

“Ach, of course! A man, if he is attacked, always he have the right to defend himself.”

Aed tossed his head, no longer laughing. “That sounds dangerous for Skorri.”

Njal looked over at Skorri. Skorri scratched his jaw and glanced beneath his fingernails, appearing so utterly unconcerned that Njal finally understood that Eirik and Aed were not talking about Skorri at all, not even in jest.

Eirik said, “Indeed. Especially attacking a man in in his own home, well-​defended…”

He gestured at Congal and Gaethine beside him. Congal gave him an uneasy smile and took a half-​step back, and Eirik filled in the space he left.

Eirik filled in the space he left.

“So, it is a very dangerous idea,” Eirik concluded. “That is why Njal, he always say, only attack if you are much, much stronger enough to win the fight. And so, do you know what Skorri he say to Njal?”

Njal went rigid. They had not rehearsed any of this.

Aed shook his head.

Aed shook his head.

“Skorri, he say: Sometimes, the only way how to win, it is to not fight.”

Aed stared at him, unblinking and unmoved. “That’s your game, isn’t it? Not mine.”

Congal chortled. “Didn’t work out too well for you last time, either, at Ramsaa.”

Skorri flinched and looked up from the gravel he was stirring with his toe. Eirik took a deliberate step closer to Aed, leaving Aed no choice but to step back or crane his neck to look Eirik in the eyes. Aed stepped back. Eirik did not look at Congal at all.

Eirik did not look at Congal at all.

“Diarmait,” Eirik said, “is not the man his brother is. I did not know. I never had a brother.”

Gaethine said, “You’ll find they’re not interchangeable.”

Aed turned his head to give Gaethine a glance that Njal could not see from where he stood. But when Aed looked back around, Eirik was standing a few inches closer than before, and Aed slid another boot backwards.

He asked warily, “What do you want, Eirik?”

“What do you want, Aed?”

Aed pushed his sleeves up above his wrists, one after the other, without looking down. “I want to see Skorri’s tongue before I die.”

“That is not much, for a so ambitious man, as I hear you are.”

'That is not much.'

“I speak only of things which I suppose you are in a position to help me obtain.”

“I can only put you in position. What you obtain afterwards, that is up to you.”

Njal watched Aed’s right cuff creep down his forearm until it slipped loose and flopped over his wrist. Aed hastily shoved it back up.

“What position can you put me in?”

“Inside the gates of Ramsaa, you and your men, on the fourth day of March, at the falling of the tide.”

Eirik lowered his head and took a deliberate step, and Aed stepped back. They were both definitely on Aed’s side.

Skorri whispered, “What do you owe me by now, pinchfist? Something like five marks?”

'What do you owe me now?'

Aed asked, “And what is the advantage to you, of my position?

“There are two things in Ramsaa that I want. You may keep the rest.”

“And they are?”

“They are, first, Sigefrith’s men. Four men, one who is my sister’s husband, delivered to Ravenglass in good health.”

“Sigefrith’s men!” Aed snorted. “For that alone I would refuse.”

'For that alone I would refuse.'

“If you refuse Ramsaa to spite Sigefrith,” Eirik replied, “you are not the man I thought you were, either. And so, I take my men, and we go. Thank you for the chicken.”

The fire cracked and spat, filling the silence with a sinister sound. Both of Aed’s sleeves slipped down, unnoticed. He had gone too far, but he was too proud and too young to turn himself around.

Njal began to fear that their long journey would come to nothing. Eirik, certainly, would not release a man from such a challenge. But he had not yet turned for the door, so the challenge still stood.

The challenge still stood.

Congal asked, “What’s the other thing?”

“The horn of Mael na mBo.”

Congal snorted. “Oh, is that all?”

Aed asked, “What are you wanting with the drinking horn of a dead Irish king?”

'What are you wanting with the drinking horn of a dead Irish king?'

“The living Irish kings are still using theirs.”

Aed snorted and shook his head in disbelief.

“Also,” Eirik said, “I think I know what you would do with your new position. And it is what must be done.”

Aed went on shaking his head. “And how are you planning to get me into my new position? On the fourth day of March?”

Eirik clapped his hands and sent echoes clattering between the vaulted walls like startled bats.

“And that,” he said, grinning, “is what for we need Skorri!”

'And that is what for we need Skorri!'

Skorri waggled his eyebrows at Njal and stepped up before Aed. Aed looked at his friends and laughed a little nervously. His friends took up positions behind Eirik, Gaethine within reach of a sword. Njal began planning his attack.

Eirik asked Skorri, “Did you see it?”

“I think I saw something flashing behind his ear there.”

Aed glanced back at the swords. “No blood, Captain! I insist. Or else we step outside.”

Skorri said, “No, it’s in your hair.”

“My hair?” Aed patted the sides of his head.

'No, it's in your hair.'

Skorri pushed up his loose sleeves for an instant and waved his empty hands before Congal and Gaethine. “No knives, gentlemen,” he said in his lisping Gaelic. “No strangulation, either.” He turned to Aed. “My lord?”


Skorri stuck out his little finger and slid it up beneath the drape of Aed’s loosely gathered hair. Aed’s eyes went wide, but he did his valiant best not to flinch. Njal bit his lips between his teeth to stifle a laugh.

Suddenly Aed jumped back, shuddering, and howled, “Christ! That was cold!”

'Christ!  That was cold!'

Skorri frowned at the object he was holding in his hand and held it up to the light. It was not, as rehearsed, a little brass dog, but an apple core, still fresh and faintly browned.

Congal burst out laughing. “So that’s where you’ve been hiding them, Gaeth!”

For an instant Eirik’s face was blank with shock, and that was more than Njal could take without grinning. Now he understood why Skorri had refused the apple pie at dessert and hoarded the plate of apples.

For an instant Eirik's face was blank with shock.

Eirik asked, “Is that all what was in there?”

Skorri shrugged. “Sorry, Eirik. That’s what was on top. Let me just look…”

Aed bleated, “Wait!” but Skorri went back for another attempt. He extracted a second apple core just as Aed clapped his hands over his ears.

Eirik groaned. “Skorri!”


“What can I do? It’s a rubbish heap in there.”

Congal choked with laughter and wiped tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand. Finally Njal himself broke down. He still did not know why Eirik had wanted him there, but he was glad he had come. He would be telling this story for weeks—once it was safe to tell.

“So,” Eirik said, “can you look in the other ear?”

'Can you look in the other ear?'

Aed said, “Now, hold on!”

Skorri pushed up his sleeve and fluttered his hand near Aed’s neck. “Ach, no, my lord! There it is. It fell down into your collar.”

This time he came up with the dog, and after holding it up triumphantly to Eirik, he slapped it down onto Aed’s open hand.

“A—dog?” Aed cried. “A—brass—dog?”

Congal danced between Eirik and the fire, hooting with laughter. “Now, if you can be teaching me that—preferably down a female collar—you, Captain, will be my new best friend!”

“And that,” Skorri said, “will be worth the long trip.”

'That will be worth the long trip.'