Ráth an Bheirt Bhan, Leinster, Ireland

Olaf's plan to surprise his Mama from her nap was foiled by Mama herself.

Olaf’s plan to surprise his Mama from her nap was foiled by Mama herself, for she’d had the foresight to be already awake.

Still, he was pleased to see the unguarded expression of delight that crossed her face. They had at least surprised her!

Then Mama clasped her hands over her heart and wailed, “Vikings! It’s a raid!”

Olaf laughed at his mother’s quick wit, and his father growled, “Prepare to be pillaged, wench!” but they were both stuck behind Pinknose, who was stumping his tedious way up the few stairs while squealing and jabbering at Mama. Pinknose was not very good at walking and talking at the same time.

“Mama!” Pinknose was saying, stalled halfway up the steps. “I’m a Viking! I went on Papa’s biggest ship!”

Mama freed Olaf and his father by stooping down and swinging Pinknose up into her arms. “Good for you!”

“And Papa says I got good sea legs!” Pinknose shrieked, pumping his legs at the air while Mama carried him into the room.

'And Papa says I got good sea legs!'

“Watch Mama’s belly, boy!” their father said. “There’s a baby in there.”

Mama just laughed. “It’s about time that baby was getting a kick or two, after all the kicks she’s been giving me!”

Still, she lifted Pinknose away from her belly. It was plain to see there was a baby in there, and it looked like a big one. Olaf didn’t know what to think about that. He wouldn’t be displeased if it turned out to be a girl. A girl would mind him, and she would give him someone to stick up for. But he didn’t want another little brother.

He didn't want another little brother.

“And, Mama!” Pinknose went on. “I got to steer the ship myself, with Papa! And I got to call the orders sometimes! Papa told me what to say, and all the men did what I said!”

Mama said, “Good for you! You’ll be commanding your own ship in no time!”

She slung Pinknose over one hip and reached for Olaf with her freed hand. Olaf wrapped his arms around her soft legs, trying to avoid both Pinknose’s kicking feet and the awkward lump of the baby in her belly, which, once he was settled in, left him feeling rather pushed off to the side. Mama stroked his hair, and that was nice, but Pinknose wanted all the attention for himself.

“And, Mama!” he cried, bouncing on Mama’s hip like it was a trotting horse. “I got to command Sea Star on the open sea! Olaf,” he added scornfully, “never did that in his whole life! Papa told him he had to go on War Cry with Skorri!”


Oh, Olaf understood better now. He still thought Pinknose was a brat for bragging, but he was no longer jealous, exactly. Skorri had explained it all to him while they stood at the stern of War Cry. How a man with a sea to cross sent each of his sons on a different ship. That way if anything happened to one ship, at least the others might arrive safely.

And how, since Pinknose would be staying behind in Ireland, no one knew when he would get another chance to sail with their father. How, if anything happened, Pinknose would always be able to say it was his father who’d taught him to steer a ship.

If anything happened. People said that a lot.

“Good job!” Mama said. “And I wager Skorri was glad for Olaf’s help!”

She slid Pinknose off her hip and hunkered down to set him on the floor, bringing her down to Olaf’s height.

“I remember the first ship you ever helped steer,” she said to him. “It was your grandfather’s ship, mean old Iron Bear! Why, I don’t think Pinknose was even born then, was he?”

'I remember the first ship you ever helped steer.'

“No, he wasn’t!” Olaf grinned. Clever Mama had just put Pinknose back in his place, though Pinknose probably didn’t even notice.

“Is Skorri here too?” Mama asked, looking up-​up-​up at Olaf’s father. “Aed is going to pee his pants with glee!”

Pee his pants with glee! Olaf would remember that one for later. Mama was no Solveig, that was for sure.

“Ach! So would that Murchad,” Mama gabbled, “but you just missed him! He sailed for Scotland not a week ago. I hope he comes back soon to see you! Oh, my boys!”

Mama crouched down to hug Olaf with one arm and Pinknose with the other—a good, strong, backbreaking squeeze. Olaf hugged her with both arms and all his might. Of course he was not a baby like Pinknose and didn’t need his Mama, but suddenly he was not so sure he preferred staying at Saint Brendan’s with his father, even if there was men’s work to be done. It was a shame there was this baby to wait for. Otherwise Mama could have come home.

Olaf hugged her with all his might.

“A pity about that Murchad,” Olaf’s father said.

“Isn’t it?” Mama asked, peeping up from between Olaf’s and Pinknose’s heads. “Oh, who’s holding the fort, if Skorri’s here? Have you heard from Tryggve?”

“No word from Tryggve, I’m afraid. And, Siri, I’m sad to say poor Guthrun crossed the bar early Friday morning.”

Mama made a soft cry and loosened her hold on Olaf and Pinknose. “God rest her soul,” she said in her quaint Danish. The sound of it made Olaf start feeling sad all over again, but Pinknose piped up to say, “I thought we put her underneath the church?”

Mama stood, and Olaf and Pinknose were left facing her skirt. Olaf growled, “It’s just an expression.”

“Poor baby Harald,” Mama said to their father. “He still has family in Norway, but—”

“Stein took him home to Lothere,” their father said, cutting Mama off coldly. “He stayed with us till Guthrun crossed.”

“Oh. Poor Stein, then,” Mama said with a sad giggle. “He has only one baby of his own, but how many other kids to raise?”

Olaf’s father was silent, and Olaf did not like the sound. He looked up and saw his father’s throat from beneath, spasming as he swallowed. At Olaf’s height his father’s hands were clenching and unclenching. Suddenly Olaf wished he could be somewhere else for a little while. Skorri had muttered something about not wanting to see Mama’s face when she was told, and now Olaf didn’t either.

Mama, once again, proved to have a fearsomely quick wit. “Where,” she asked in a different voice, “is Sweyn?”

“On his way to Lothere, God willing.”

'On his way to Lothere, God willing.'

Mama thwacked her hands against her skirts. “What?

“I sent him to Lothere with Stein.”

“You did what? You sent our son away with Stein?”

“Stein,” Olaf’s father said, “is his godfather.”

“And I am his mother!”

'And I am his mother!'

There was a strange sound in Mama’s voice—a growl in her throat, like the snarl of a dog shaking a dying animal in its jaws. Stupid Pinknose could think of nothing better to do than flop down on his bottom and begin to cry.

“I am his father,” their father said, as passionless as Mama was tearful and raging. “I have made up my mind.”

“Without even consulting me?” Mama shouted.

Olaf was trying so hard to remain invisible that he was practically holding his breath, but Pinknose just had to let out another wail.

“Take your brother downstairs to Aunt Synne, boy,” their father said, waving his hand in annoyance, scarcely glancing down at the two of them. Still holding his breath, Olaf grabbed Pinknose’s hand and pulled him to his feet.

Olaf grabbed Pinknose's hand and pulled him to his feet.

“How dare you?” Mama shouted over their heads. “How dare you?”

Olaf’s heart was pounding so hard. He didn’t know why he was so scared, but seeing his father get yelled at was scarier than being yelled at himself. And stupid Pinknose had to slow him down, hiccuping and gulping and taking the stairs one by one.

“By all the saints,” Mama cried, “I haven’t seen my boys in months, and now you tell me I won’t see my baby again until when?

“Sigrid, you knew this day would come—”

“Not now! Not while he’s a baby! By Christ’s name, he won’t even remember me! He’ll grow up thinking Sophie’s his mother! Sophie!”

Mama laughed hysterically and Olaf—after trying to be invisible all this time—was moved to pull the door shut with a slam. He was shaking so hard! He didn’t even know why. And his stupid brother was staring up at him with snot running down onto his lip, expecting him to know what to do.

The next thing he heard was his father barking, “Calm yourself!” and Mama shouting back, “God damn you to Hell!”

No, Mama was not like Solveig at all. Olaf pressed his ear against the door.

Olaf pressed his ear against the door.

Pinknose started whining, “I want to go down by Skorri,” but Olaf shushed him straightaway.

He heard only the confusing rumble of his father’s voice at first. The next thing that came clear was Mama crying, “Olaf too? Olaf too?”

So, his father had just told Mama Olaf wouldn’t be staying with her in Ireland. What would he have done if he’d been in the room for that? He wanted to hug Mama’s legs and tell her it was all right, he would stay with her after all. But he knew there was men’s work to be done.

Pinknose pulled on Olaf’s hand and began another whine.

“Shut up!” Olaf hissed. “We are listening here!”

Pinknose took a shuddering, snotty breath and pressed his ear against the door as his big brother had done. Olaf reapplied his own ear in time to hear his father getting angrier, but he was not yet thundering, and his words were impossible to understand.

Olaf supposed he was explaining to Mama as he had explained to Olaf and Pinknose. How this was one way alliances were made. How foster brothers could be more beloved than real brothers. How foster sisters could one day become brides. And how a man could hardly make war against the father of a foster son he loved.

But perhaps Skorri’s explanation answered here too. Olaf’s father was putting each of his sons in a different kingdom, each on a different isle. In case anything happened? What could happen to small boys? They didn’t die like Guthrun or sink like ships.

What could happen to small boys?

Next thing Olaf understood was Mama shrieking, “You are not going to split up this family!”

His father replied angrily, saying something about, “…in my family! I went to foster with my uncle before I was two!”

“Your father was dead!”

“And so will I soon be!”


“I’m dying, Sigrid!” Olaf’s father shouted, thundering at last. “Just like Guthrun! Look at me! Tell me you don’t see a change!”

“No, I can’t say I do!” Mama cried. “But then stupidity seldom has outward symptoms!”

At Olaf’s feet Pinknose quavered, “Is Papa going to die like Guthrun?”

“Shut—up!” Olaf whispered. Why did the brat have to put his ear to the door just then?

“Is Papa going to die when I’m in Ireland?” Pinknose whimpered.

Olaf glared down at him. Pinknose’s eyes were full of tears, his fat lip quivering as it often did. Baby Sweyn cried less than this kid.

“It’s just an expression,” Olaf said gruffly while his parents shouted behind the door, their overlapping voices a confusing tangle of sound.

“What’s an expression?”

“It means no.”

Pinknose stared up at him, skepticism stealing over his wet face. Sometimes the kid looked a lot like Mama. Abruptly Pinknose pushed himself away from the door and announced, “I’m going to go ask Skorri, is Papa going to die.”

'I'm going to go ask Skorri.'

Olaf whispered, “Get back here!”

But Pinknose had made up his mind, and like Mama’s, his mind was not easily unmade. Off he went towards the stairs. In Aunt Synne’s house there were a great many stairs to climb, and Pinknose didn’t even know the trick of them yet. Olaf would have to go with him to hold his hand.

Soon, Olaf promised himself, soon he would be at home and there would be no more little brothers underfoot. No more nap times to be respected, faces to be wiped, toys to be fetched, or hands to be held. Soon Olaf would have his father to himself, man to man.

Somehow the idea didn’t cheer him as he’d thought it would.

Somehow the idea didn't cheer him as he'd thought it would.