Carn Liath, Galloway, Scotland

Thorkell was halfway out of bed.

Thorkell was halfway out of bed before he knew he was in it, with a knife clenched in his far hand and his feet flat on the mattress, ready to spring. Eirik was wary enough to have leapt more than an arm’s length away.

“What is it?” Thorkell whispered.

He tasted treachery, whether Eirik’s against Aed, Aed’s against Eirik, or Eirik’s against Thorkell himself. He still did not know why Eirik had brought him.

Eirik whispered, “I can’t sleep!”

Thorkell stared. Was this one of the duties expected of the men who served the unaccountable Earl?

Eirik saw his astonishment and flashed a teasing grin, so quick that Thorkell’s bleary eyes almost missed it.

Eirik saw his astonishment and flashed a teasing grin.

“What d’you want me to do about it?” Thorkell grumbled. “Fetch you some hot milk?”

Eirik whispered, “No! I want to ask you something. Then—” He held up his finger. “—perhaps I shall sleep.”

He turned to pick up the low stool and plunk it down at the foot of Thorkell’s bed.

Thorkell threw off the blankets and dragged himself up to sit. He hid his knife in a rumple of the quilt behind him.

“Ask me what?” he muttered. “For a lullaby?”

'Ask me what?'

“Ha! Good idea. You can sing me the tale of the Two Ladies while we’re at it.”

Eirik started to sit, but he had misjudged the length of his own legs and bumped his knees against the bed frame on his way down. He coughed into one hand and scooted the stool backwards from a squat with the other, jouncing about with an excitement he had no business to feel at that hour of the night.

Thorkell lolled his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. “Why don’t you go wake the Fox, then? I don’t know that one.”

Eirik shot up straight, startling Thorkell into cracking his head against the stone.

“What? Why not?”

Thorkell’s bewildered astonishment, at first mirroring Eirik’s own, gave way to a trickle of doubt, and then a rush of sickening fear. He had made a terrible miscalculation. Perhaps the Earl’s idle-​sounding “maybes” were meant as dire commands.

Eirik looked away and nodded, which appeared more ominous to Thorkell than a glowering shake of the head.

Eirik looked away and nodded.

“I—I’m sorry, my lord, I didn’t think to ask him after you stepped away. I’ll try to see him in the morning and ask him—”

Eirik sliced his hand through the air. “No, don’t,” he whispered. “I don’t want anyone to think I was asking about it.” He slid the stool to a comfortable distance and sat.

Thorkell slumped against the wall and looked back over the evening with new eyes. The field that had seemed so bland and featureless proved to be mined with stumps and foxholes that cast long shadows in the raking light of dawn.

He whispered, “You knew he wasn’t an Irishman all along!”

Eirik smiled and cracked his knuckles.

“Why didn’t you warn me?”

'Why didn't you warn me?'

“Because I only thought of it then. Don’t worry about it. Perhaps he’ll think of it himself and sing it before we leave. But if not, keep your ears open. I want that story.”

Thorkell thought it unlikely Sinnach would spontaneously volunteer, given that Thorkell had warned him against reminding Eirik of Two Ladies. And with that thought another surprising idea flashed into his mind: one he should have seen the evening before.

“You knew that story already.”

Eirik bowed upon his stool. “So I did. But no more than what he told us. I want details.” He propped his foot on the bed frame and rested his chin in his hand. “What were their names? What do they wear? Anything. Go to Dublin and sit around in the taverns until someone sings about them. Or go get yourself a sweetheart from Two Ladies and ask her to tell you a different bedtime story every night until she tells about the ghosts. Get me that story.”

Thorkell finally threw up his hands, as much to defend himself as to slow Eirik down. “Wait—you want me to go to Ireland?”

'Wait--you want me to go to Ireland?'

“It’s the likeliest way. And nobody knows you’re my man, so nobody will trace your interest in the story back to me.”

Thorkell wilted against the wall. He had not known he was Eirik’s man, either. He wondered whether Leki did.

“Just don’t ask for the story specifically,” Eirik whispered. “You’re only a bard looking for new songs. Any songs. Come back to me as soon as you get that one. And if you see or hear of anyone surprising being in residence at Two Ladies… give me a report when you get back. But don’t make a fuss.” He winked. “I already know about it.”

Thorkell stared at him. In spite of the wink and the sly smile, Eirik appeared to be serious.

“Begging your lordship’s pardon,” Thorkell whispered, “you want me to go poking around Ireland hoping someone happens to sing a particular song? When there’s a man three doors down who knows it?” He pointed at the wall.

“I told you, I don’t want anyone to know I was asking. I want to play a joke on my friend Murchad.” He sat up abruptly and smiled, as if he had indeed “only thought of it then.”

'I want to play a joke on my friend Murchad.'

Thorkell sighed in despair. An icy breeze from the bay flapped the burlap curtain that hung over the far window, revealing a slit of rich blue sky against the drab shadows and stone. It all seemed so crisply real that he could not bring himself to hope he was dreaming.

“Am I to take my ship or go alone?”

“Take your ship. Ah—oh…” Eirik pinched his beard and frowned. “She isn’t here, is she.”

“She’s still at Mare’s Head, God willing.”

Eirik waved his hand. “No matter, we can spare a few days. Let me worry about Leki. Most of his ships were Skorri’s anyway. He may render his account to Skorri before he squawks about the Early Morning.

Eirik cupped his chin in his palm and frowned at the footboard of the bed.

“I shall give you a letter to Enna of Leinster, too, in case you get into any trouble. But stay away from the manor house at Two Ladies.”

“Because of the joke,” Thorkell grumbled.

'Because of the joke.'

He had followed unconscionable orders in the past, and committed acts he wished he could forget. Still, even if there was less danger for his men in Ireland than on Man, there was nevertheless something surpassingly sinister about sending men onto the open sea in winter for reasons of whimsy. Thorkell did not approve.

“It will be a very funny joke,” Eirik said meekly.

“It had better be.”

“I would not send you so far for a chuckle.”

He patted the corner of the mattress and stood up. He wrapped his arm around his bare chest and tucked his hand into his armpit, and turned and paced to the blue slit of window and back again, jerky and jouncing. He coughed as he strode, without slowing, as if it had become a habit with him and no longer required concentration.

Thorkell had never seen the Earl shirtless before, and he was surprised at how much muscle was packed onto his tall frame. He was all rippling flanks and broad shoulders, like a horse made to start fast and win sprints, but whose long legs would not endure over distances. And he did not seem to be sound of wind.

“However,” Eirik whispered as he came near again, “that was not what I wanted to ask you.” He sat on the stool. “So, do you remember those women Leki hid in the caves at Mare’s Head?”

'So, do you remember those women?'

This was one of the experiences Thorkell wished he could forget. He had not killed any of the men himself, but he had held one of the women while she watched.

“Of course.”

“Remember how they used to sing at night?”

Thorkell rocked himself on the mattress and tucked the blankets around him in a sort of nest. He nodded.

Eirik whispered, “The funny thing is, they don’t sing any more since we took them in. Not that kind of song anyway. I never heard it. What was it like?”

Thorkell took a deep breath and sighed. “Sounded unearthly, to be sure, coming out of the caves like that. From the fort it seemed to be coming out of the sea, and from the beach it seemed to come from the sky.”

“Leki says it wasn’t Gaelic.”

'Leki says it wasn't Gaelic.'

Thorkell snorted. “Course it was Gaelic. Leki doesn’t understand half of the Gaelic he hears as it is. It’s just really old Gaelic. You know how old words and turns of phrase can be preserved by being passed down in song.”

Eirik frowned for a moment, and then looked up with new hope. “Were they pagan songs?”

Thorkell tipped back his head and smiled. “You’ve been listening to Leki.”

“That’s why I’m asking you now.”

“That’s why you couldn’t sleep? They weren’t pagans, they weren’t druids, they weren’t selkies, they weren’t ghosts. They were just ordinary, modern Gaelic women singing old laments that their grandmothers learned from their own grandmothers.”

'They were just ordinary, modern Gaelic women.'

“Did you know their songs?”

“No, my family’s from Islay, not Man. And songs like that don’t travel the way the songs of bards do. They’re women’s songs, passed down from mother to daughter. Even if you go no farther than Ramsaa they might have different songs.”

“But you could tell they were old.”

“You can tell the Norse sagas are old by the language, can’t you?”

Eirik grunted. He coughed with a look of concentration, as if coughing could help clear his mind.

He coughed with a look of concentration.

Thorkell glanced over at the bed beside his, where a mound of blankets hid the body of Eirik’s man, Knut Coal-​biter. Knut had not moved since Thorkell had awoken. He could only have been feigning sleep.

Eirik whispered, “Did you learn any of the songs while they were there?”

Thorkell drew himself up. He had scarcely noticed the cold, but all at once goosebumps stippled his skin. He had listened, to be sure—even volunteered to guard the beach so he could hear better—but it had felt like stealing, or like taking pleasure in a burial ground.

Eirik asked, “Would you remember them?”

Thorkell whispered, “Some of them… But they’re women’s songs, my lord. I couldn’t—”

'I couldn't--'

Eirik cut him off with another slice of his hand. He leapt off his stool and stalked over to the far window and back.

“Do you remember the words? The old words?”

Thorkell nodded hesitantly, and Eirik replied with a brisk nod of his own.

“Don’t forget them. But don’t sing them for now. And don’t tell anyone about this conversation. Don’t want to spoil the joke, right?”

He winked, but like his idle “maybes,” Thorkell thought even his winks might best be taken as commands.

“Now,” Eirik whispered, stretching luxuriously, “I am going back to bed.”

'I am going back to bed.'

“Can I just ask you one thing first?”

Eirik grinned. “I brought you because your men like you so much. So I thought I would, too.”

Thorkell held his breath.

“Wasn’t that what you were about to ask me?”

“It was.”

“Ha ha!” Eirik gave Thorkell’s shoulder a friendly slap. “Get some sleep, old man. You look like you need it.”

'Get some sleep, old man.'

Thorkell waited until Eirik had snuck out and closed the door. Then he picked up his knife and flopped back onto his pillow. Knut sat up at once.

“What in thunder was that all about?”

Knut sat up at once.

“I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

“Ooh! Forget I asked, then.” Knut flopped back himself.

“Does he do that often?”

“Do what? Wake a man up in the middle of the night with crazy questions? Tsch! Fairly often. But Skorri usually gets the brunt of that.”

Thorkell pounded his pillow into shape and slid his knife back beneath it. “He should at least put on a shirt and a pair of socks before he goes running around in the middle of the night, with a cough like that.”

'He should at least put on a shirt and a pair of socks.'

Knut did not answer for a while. Finally he asked, “Did he seem feverish or anything?”

“Like how? He was jumping around like a sand hopper.”

“Like sweating or anything.”

Thorkell had not noticed. He had not noticed the contrary either. He realized he would have to start paying closer attention to everything, if he was to make it as Eirik’s man.

“Is he that sick?” he asked Knut.

“I don’t know. I guess he is. Either that, or he’s planning an invasion of Hell, and he only knows one way to get there.”

'I don't know.  I guess he is.'