Inis Breandán, Isle of Man

A hundred times before Stein must have come down this corridor to find Solveig at her loom.

A hundred times before Stein must have come down this corridor to find Solveig at her loom. But tonight, something about the candlelight flickering through the warp threads gave him pause.

He stopped just out of sight and watched Solveig’s silhouette swaying behind the cords: passing the shuttle from hand-​to-​hand, wielding her swordlike wand of polished wood to pack the weft, and raising or lowering the shed bar to begin the rite again.

Take away the loom and it looked like witchcraft. Put the loom back and she looked like one of the Norns: the three giantesses from the time of the old gods, who spun and wove the fates of men at the foot of the Tree of the World.

That was what had stopped him. It was the Norns who decided when to snip the thread—sometimes when the fabric was only a third or a fourth of the way done. Like Solveig’s cloth. Like his sister’s life.

Stein continued down the corridor and passed Eirik sitting at his writing table. He must have done that a hundred times before, too. Eirik was often at his writing table. Not always writing.

He continued down the corridor and passed Eirik sitting at his writing table.

But tonight he had a couple of sheets of parchment before him. A letter well underway, Stein thought, giving it a disinterested glance, though Eirik seemed to be at a loss for his next words.

He stepped around the loom, startling Solveig.

“Oh, Stein!” She parked her shuttle in one of the holes on the frame and pushed back her stool. “How is she?”

'How is she?'

“Easier now,” he said hoarsely. “They’re going to try to change her dressings.”

He shuffled past her without meeting her eyes again and flopped down on the bench.

Solveig clucked and said, “Poor thing,” and Stein didn’t know whom she meant.

“Let me get you a drink,” she said.

He heard her skirts swish off the rug onto the wooden floor. He was too tired to protest that she needn’t trouble herself, as he usually did.

“Lord?” she prompted Eirik. Eirik grunted his permission, and she filled a goblet from the pitcher beside his hand. Stein yawned and rubbed his eyes. The skin beneath them was red and scaly from so much rubbing and probably from tears too.

“You should get some sleep,” Solveig said, pressing her advice on him as gently and as inexorably as she did the goblet of wine.

Out of politeness Stein took a drink, though the cold wine curdled in his stomach. Solveig’s skirts dragged over the rug as she went to sit opposite him. At the writing table Eirik coughed.

At the writing table Eirik coughed.

“Not tonight,” Stein finally said.

He swirled the wine around in his goblet before setting it on the table beside him. His stomach would never let him drink enough of it to read what might be written in the lees.

“I think it might be tonight.”

'I think it might be tonight.'

Solveig clasped her hands in her lap and looked at him. “You have thought so many times before,” she reminded him softly.

Stein sighed. He could not speak his second, shameful phrase aloud, though it was on everyone’s mind. I hope it is tonight.

He folded his arms and leaned back against the cushion. There came a time in every wasting illness, he thought, when one stopped praying for a recovery and began hoping for a swift end. No matter how beloved the invalid.

He remembered sitting up in bed as a boy, praying God to take his father that night and release his mother from her bondage. And he’d loved his father so.

“On my father’s last night,” he said to Solveig, “he woke up. Truly woke up. Mother brought us all in there and he smiled at all of us. Couldn’t speak but he smiled.”

'Couldn't speak but he smiled.'

Stein did not know how his mother had gone, nor his brother Harald, because he hadn’t been there. But they’d all died of the same wasting illness of the lungs. It seemed to be the fate of his family. Sometimes he caught himself taking care how deeply he breathed.

“So, I want to be there when she wakes,” he explained.

Eirik coughed.

“I shall sit with her tonight,” Solveig said. “You must sleep.”

She saw him reaching for a pile of blankets with his heel, trying to scoot himself down far enough to prop his feet up on it. She jumped up merely to push it a few inches closer for him.

“Thank you,” he said. He supposed he’d just accepted her other offer as well.

Solveig sat down again and straightened her skirts around her ankles. Stein slitted his eyes and looked at her.

Stein slitted his eyes and looked at her.

The tapestry of Solveig’s life would show a sudden change where the Norns had run out of thread and continued with wool of another color. Only last autumn she was Lady of Ramsaa, and then Diarmait had made her a penniless widow, and now here she was in the household of the man who had sailed with Diarmait and later had him slain. How the Fates must have cackled over that crossing of the threads.

She might have been Eirik’s hostage if there’d been anyone who cared enough what became of her to pay a ransom, but there wasn’t, so she was Eirik’s guest. The roles of mistress of a noble household and helpmeet to a noble man were the only life she knew, so she went on serving Eirik and Stein as mechanically as she worked at her weaving. She had not yet noticed or not yet accepted that her fate had forever altered.

“I promise I shall wake you if she comes around,” Solveig said.

“Or if there’s any change,” Stein cautioned, meaning a change for the worse.

'Or if there's any change.'

“I know.”

Stein closed his eyes. Eirik coughed, and then his pen scritched over his parchment as if the cough had cleared his head as well as his lungs.

“Stein?” Solveig asked.

Stein opened one eye. She’d been rubbing a fold of her apron between her hands. One didn’t see Solveig looking nervous all that often.

“Did she ask about the baby at all?”

'Did she ask about the baby at all?'

“She didn’t ask about anything, Sol,” Stein said gently. “She’s beyond that now.”

Solveig sighed, and she turned her fretting gaze towards her loom.

They both knew it was an ominous sign. No matter how she suffered, Guthrun still took such joy in her baby, and every day little Harald seemed to come up with some new trick that had been worth living to see. If the Lord had answered Stein’s first vague prayers, Guthrun would have missed so much delight.

It was humbling. Who was Stein to decide when his sister’s life was no longer worth living?

But of course it wasn’t his decision to make. He let his head roll to the side and his gaze drifted over to join Solveig’s at the loom. He could care for his sister with all tenderness—and he did—and he could pray God to end her agony—and he did that too—but she would die when it came her time to die. Fate, as Alred had written in his most famous poem, was inexorable.

Eirik coughed. A surge of wind sang a long, low note at the balcony door. Stein saw Solveig turn her head to listen.

Stein saw Solveig turn her head to listen.

“So, that will be clearing up the weather,” he muttered. “God forgive me if I’m glad of it. I mean to sail as soon as we can.”

“You want to be at home,” Solveig said soothingly, as if assuring him it was nothing to be ashamed of.

Stein folded his arms behind his head and crossed one leg over his knee. “I used to think I missed the sea,” he said to her. “Now that I’ve spent a few months on this flat rock, I’ve figured out what I truly miss is the fjords. And the valleys of Lothere are so steep, they’re just fjords filled with forests and meads instead of water.”

'They're just fjords filled with forests and meads instead of water.'

His voice had started out bitter, but he heard it softening at the end, and he realized just how deeply he had come to love that land. Solveig was right. He did want to be at home.

“I shall like Lothere, then,” she said. “I miss the fjords too.”

“Does Orm remember them?”

Orm was Solveig’s eldest, a boy Olaf’s age. Stein hoped they would be friends.

“I don’t know,” Solveig said. “He thinks he does. Perhaps he only ‘remembers’ his father’s stories.”

“Anyway, he tells me he’s never seen a tree tall enough to make a mast. He’s about to get a shock.” Stein worked up a weary grin. “I told him, in Lothere we have trees so tall, no keel could hope to hold them. He doesn’t believe me.”

Solveig smiled. “He doesn’t believe anything you say since you told him about your elves.”

“Doesn’t he know the land of Lothere lies east of the sun and west of the moon?”

Stein tipped back his head and thought of Sophie.

Stein tipped back his head and thought of Sophie telling one of her troll-​and-​ogre bedtime tales. As long as he was imagining, he imagined Astrid was up past her usual bedtime, and Sophie was already dressed for bed, with her hair in a mess of curls all over her soft shoulders. And all her growling and fee-​fi-​fo-​fumming was making her cheeks pink and her breasts shake in her nightgown. Stein had to admit to a little sympathy for the ogre. She looked so luscious he wanted to eat her.

“It does seem a bit like a fairy tale,” Solveig said weakly.

Stein lifted his head. Right. Solveig.

Right.  Solveig.

“Good King Sigefrith of Fairyland?” he teased, and then he laughed because the idea was so preposterous. “Fairy tales pop like soap bubbles when Sigefrith touches them. Dragons aren’t slain, they’re just obliged to sign treaties.”

'Dragons aren't slain, they're just obliged to sign treaties.'

Eirik snorted at his table. Stein had all but forgotten he was there, but Eirik always did seem to be listening with one ear.

Stein yawned and rubbed his eyes. “So, that’s enough bedtime stories for me. Where’s the baby, Sol? You didn’t put him in my room, did you?”

“No, he’s in mine. I meant for you to get some sleep.”

'No, he's in mine.'

Stein sniffed and thought about the soon-​to-​be orphan, already set adrift in his little basket. He had no homeland now that he was banished from his mother’s room. A tiny wanderer, like the hero of Alred’s most famous poem.

“Poor little fellow,” Stein said. “Doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to make his first sea voyage at the tender age of eight months. Baby’s first Viking raid.”

Solveig made a somber smile.

“Sweyn’s, too,” Eirik said.

His deep voice left a nervous silence after it, like a rumble of thunder. Stein looked at Solveig and Solveig looked at Stein.

Stein looked at Solveig.

“Pardon?” Stein prompted.

“It will be Sweyn’s first sea voyage, too,” Eirik replied without looking around.

Solveig lifted her brows. Stein sat up.

“Where’s Sweyn going?” he asked.

'Where's Sweyn going?'

“To Lothere with you.”

Judaeus Appella. Stein felt like every word he said was causing him to slip deeper into some ravine, but he couldn’t just hang there halfway down.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Eirik said, “that I want you to raise him. And I would like him to marry one of your daughters.”

“But I don’t have any daughters.”

“Then you and Sophie need to get to work on that.”

'Then you and Sophie need to get to work on that.'

Eirik did not sound like he was joking. For that matter Eirik never left any doubt when he was joking. It was just that he sometimes said things so shocking one wished he wasn’t serious.

“What’s Sigi going to say?” Stein asked. Sigi, he thought, was the one earthly power Eirik dared not defy.

But Eirik only said, “I am his father. I decide.”

“I do not think,” Stein muttered, mostly to himself, “that’s what Sigi is going to say.”

'I do not think that's what Sigi is going to say.'

Then he sighed and spoke aloud.

“Listen, Eirik, you know I love the little fellow, and I’m honored that you would trust me with your son, but… So, I can’t ask Sophie to do that. We already have a house full of children that aren’t entirely ours, and more on the way.”

He gave Solveig what he hoped was a reassuring glance. He didn’t know how he was going to explain her arrival to Sophie, but at least her stay with them wasn’t likely to last eighteen years or more.

“You’re his godfather, aren’t you?” Eirik asked brusquely enough that Stein bristled.

'You're his godfather, aren't you?'

“Yes, I am, but the idea was that I would raise him if you died.”

“What’s a few months more or less?”


Stein looked to Solveig for help, but she was absolutely cringing. Eirik bent over his table and coughed as if to prove his point.

Stein looked to Solveig for help, but she was absolutely cringing.

Stein was annoyed. He felt trapped, and he was annoyed that Eirik had taken such a happy moment—back when they were all rejoicing together: he and Lathir newly married, and Eirik and Sigi delighting in their strong new baby, and no taste of blood or war in the air—and turned it into another instrument of leverage.

He could almost imagine Eirik had timed his baby’s conception to make its birth coincide with Stein’s wedding to a girl he hadn’t even met yet and who wouldn’t survive a year—and all to gain him a nest into which to shove his cuckoo’s egg, leaving another harried couple to raise his offspring. He could almost imagine Eirik had timed his coughs.

He could almost imagine Eirik had timed his coughs.

But Eirik kept coughing, and his body heaved though he braced his arms against the table, and Stein forgot all that and remembered only that Eirik was his kinsman and his friend, and also a fellow mortal man, afraid of death.

Stein got up and walked around the loom. Eirik heard him coming and hunched his shoulders defensively, and when he couldn’t stop coughing in time, he pounded the table with his fist.

“Eirik, Eirik… take it easy…”

After getting his coughing under control, Eirik spat into a rag and held it open to examine its contents. Stein didn’t see any blood. If Eirik was coughing blood already Stein hadn’t seen it yet.

“Why don’t you take the boys and go to Ireland instead?” he suggested softly. “Visit Sigi and that Murchad for a while.”

'Visit Sigi for a while.'

Eirik folded his rag. “And what happens here?”

“So, Eirik…”

Stein bit his lip. He was Eirik’s friend, but these days he wasn’t certain even Eirik’s friends could permit themselves to say things Eirik didn’t want to hear.

“Perhaps,” he said gently, “you’ve done all you can here for a while.”

It was the truth, and Eirik knew it and raged against it. Spring was here, and soon Whitehand’s ships would spill into the sea. This flat rock could not be taken, and Eirik could withstand a siege of a few months, but that only helped if there was someone who would eventually arrive to break it, and there wasn’t.

So Eirik wrote letters and took hostages and raged. Fate was inexorable. And yet Eirik kept snatching at the shuttle and clawing at the weft.

Eirik kept snatching at the shuttle and clawing at the weft.

“And so then?” Eirik asked. “I go putter about Murchad’s garden and gain a few months—for what? So I can die in my bed?”

He pounded his fist on the table and Stein drew back.

“So I can end up all skin and bones and bedsores like your sister, shitting myself and being spoon-​fed pap? So I can die in my bed, and my sons will say: His last act was to smile? To smile?”

He twisted around and smiled up at Stein, but it was a feral leer. Stein’s father had had a beautiful smile and it was one of the things Stein remembered best about him. It was how he wanted to remember him. He did not want Eirik’s sons to remember him like this.

Eirik slammed his fist down again. “I want my sons to say: He died up to his knees in the blood of his enemies! I want to die with my sword in my hand!”

Eirik coughed and turned away. He fingered his rag but did not bring it to his lips.

He fingered his rag but did not bring it to his lips.

“Who can stand in the way of a man who does not fear death?” Eirik asked. His low voice rumbled with menace, like distant thunder. “They will look in my eyes and know that I fear nothing, and they will falter. I will slay dragons. I will live a lifetime in one season. I will take everything I can touch and give it to my sons.”

Stein propped his hands on his thighs and leaned over Eirik, willing him to look up. But Eirik’s mighty head could not be moved by lowly Stein’s force of will.

“Eirik,” Stein said, summoning all his compassion and all his delicacy, “don’t make the mistake of trading a happy life for a glorious death.”

“Why do you call it a mistake? You’ve been living too long among Englishmen, Stein. ‘Cattle die, kindred die, all men die the same,’” Eirik chanted, quoting a song far older than Alred’s, “‘but I know one thing that never dies: the great man’s glorious name.’”

He picked up his pen and dipped it in the ink.

“Raise him to be a good man. I know you can do that. It’s up to him to be great, if that is his destiny.”



Stein’s shoulders slumped and his arms dangled limp at his sides. He was too exhausted to argue. He was almost too exhausted to stand. And because Eirik had waited so long and chosen just this moment, the Norns would weave yet another color of thread into Stein’s motley canvas. He would be raising orphans for the rest of his life. Such was his fate, it seemed, and fate was inexorable.

“Go to bed, Stein,” Eirik muttered. “Solveig will wake you if there’s any change.”

“Right,” he sighed.

He trudged around the loom to kiss Solveig’s cheek and bid her goodnight. He trudged back and dawdled beside Eirik’s chair like a child hoping sad eyes would suffice to annul some punishment or dreaded task. But Eirik’s quill scratched over the parchment. He had found his words.

And then one of the Norns tugged on a thread and Stein glanced back into the shadowy corner by the balcony door.

Stein glanced back into the shadowy corner by the balcony door.

He saw a striped blanket, which was no great surprise in a room occupied throughout the day by a half dozen small children and toddlers, but he also saw a white cloth draped in such a way that it seemed to cover a skinny limb.

A sort of sad dread flooded up in him as he stepped into the corner and the curves of a hip and back and shoulder appeared, surmounted by a tangle of pale hair.

The curves of a hip and back and shoulder appeared.

“Oh, sweetie,” he sighed as he kneeled beside the little girl.

It was Jorunn, a little nobody, who unlike the other orphans of Ramsaa had no one left at all. Stein had kept her back when Eirik had taken a shipload of refugees to Lothere, thinking first that Solveig would warm up to her and love her for the sake of her own eight-​year-​old daughter, who had died in the river on Saint Flannan’s Day; and second, when that did not work out, that she might be friends with Astrid.

But Stein despaired of her now. Something had happened to her mind while she floundered in the icy river. She’d never spoken a word since that night, she often wet the bed, and the most initiative she showed was her frightening tendency to wander, sometimes into dangerous places.

Stein did not know how he could explain her to Sophie. Especially if—as seemed inevitable, for Eirik was inexorable as fate—he was bringing home another little fellow still in diapers.

It was Stein’s fate, perhaps, to save shipwrecked and stranded souls. Some force kept washing them up on his shore. But a single loom could string only so many threads. He could not save them all.

He could not save them all.