Inis Breandán, Isle of Man

'You're late.'

“You’re late,” Eirik said.

Thorkell stopped, petrified. “Late?”

“Murchad left Glenncaenna over a week ago. It doesn’t take ten days to reach Ireland.”

Thorkell glanced around the unfamiliar room, hoping to see his indignation mirrored in another face. Knut Coal-​biter sprawled across a cushioned bench, half-​awake, rubbing his eyes. Opposite him, Skorri Snake-​tongue stared blearily up at Thorkell from a slouch. Nobody moved to help him. He didn’t see any way out.

He turned back to Eirik and stuttered, “I thought—I thought I was supposed to report back on what happened when he returned! I could hardly do that if I set sail the instant he made land!”

'And have you something to report?'

“And have you something to report?” Eirik asked.

“That I do! Many things!”

“Then this is for you.” Eirik stubbed his finger on the tabletop, beside a slack-​mouthed leather pouch that had spilled a few pennies across the wood.

The coins had been painstakingly polished, and the silver gleamed like gold in the light of costly wax candles. Another reminder of how far Thorkell had come from the days of nagging Harald Leki into flinging a fistful of grubby, clipped coins across a cluttered table.

'You... don't want to hear the report first, lord?'

“You… don’t want to hear the report first, lord?”

Thorkell glanced between Eirik and the coins. Was he supposed to reach out and take them? Dared he while Eirik stood so close to the table?

Eirik planted his hands on his hips and shrugged a shoulder. “So, sometimes I pay in advance.”

'So, sometimes I pay in advance.'

Thorkell crept closer. Beneath the Earl’s unblinking gaze he felt like a man trying to pilfer a dog’s bone.

He picked up the pouch—surprisingly heavy—and began sliding the spilled pennies over the edge of the table to clink into its depths. Too late he realized maybe he was only supposed to take the coins in plain view and not the whole sack.

Thorkell was breaking out all over in a sweat, in spite of the chill night air. He peeked up at Eirik. Eirik finally blinked.

“Aren’t you going to count them?” he asked.

Flustered into a reckless and uncharacteristic bravado, Thorkell pulled the drawstring tight and lifted the pouch to jingle the coins beside his ear.

“One’s missing.”

Skorri laughed appreciatively. Eirik smiled.

“Go ask Skorri,” he said. “He’ll probably find it up your nostril or in your ear.”

Skorri sighed. “I don’t have to take this, you know,” he said, somewhere between a fork-​tongued lisp and a drunken slur. “Always ordering me to stick my fingers into other men’s orifices.”

'Always ordering me to stick my fingers into other men's orifices.'

“If I let you keep half of what you find?” Eirik offered. “Pour him something to put into his mouth-​hole, anyway.”

Skorri lurched up from his slouch to fill another cup with an unsteady hand. Eirik turned back to Thorkell. A human warmth had returned to his face, now that it was lit full-​on by candlelight and he’d just finished speaking to Skorri.

“You look beat, old man,” he said. “No doubt the captain of the Early Morning isn’t one for late nights.”

Thorkell began to relax. “I wouldn’t say that, lord, but it was a hard day on a rough sea. We had to sail wide, coming up on the Calf of Man. We saw masts in the sound.”

He took the tin cup Skorri passed to him and paused to clink it against Skorri’s.

“How many?” Eirik asked.

Thorkell knew by now that Eirik would ask things like that, so he had counted them. “Five, six, maybe more. Didn’t get close enough to count better.”

“They follow you?”

Thorkell left Skorri’s side and went to clasp the hand Knut was holding out to him. He was in his element, talking about the sea and ships, but talking to Eirik was always easier when he didn’t have to look him in the eyes.

“Nah,” he said, “why bother? We were going to get tossed to splinters on that sea, anyway. It’s a miracle we made it back to Saint Brendan’s.”

He started to cross himself, but his hand stopped just below his heart when Eirik remarked, “Miracles are your specialty, I believe.”

'Miracles are your specialty, I believe.'

Thorkell’s arm sank back to his side. O God, O Jesus, O Mary, why did Eirik have to taunt him with this?

Skorri snickered. “So much for me and my piddling magic tricks!”

Knut asked, “You? Where does that leave me? What am I good for?”

“You know,” Skorri said with all the squinting solemnity of a drunk, “I often ask that question myself. What are you good for?”

Eirik interrupted their slurred banter to ask, “What are they saying in Dublin?”

Eirik’s speech was crisp and cold. Eirik had not been drinking, or maybe the Norse spoken in noble houses back in the old country could just make it seem that way. Eirik always sounded like he’d just stepped out of a saga.

Skorri chortled, “About Knut or about the miracle?”

Eirik didn’t answer because the answer was obvious. Thorkell took a deep breath, blew it out between his lips, and said, “You won’t even believe it, lord.”

He took a seat and looked up at the Earl, standing godlike and golden in the light of many candles. Eirik lifted a brow. Thorkell lowered his eyes.

'Or maybe you will.'

“Or maybe you will,” he muttered. He shifted his weight on the thin cushion and rolled his tin cup between his hands.

Eirik prompted, “Try me.”

Thorkell looked up again and saw Eirik tucking back a lock of hair, the hint of smirk on his mouth. He did not look as if he expected to be surprised. Thorkell made up his mind to surprise him.

“So,” he said. “They made him King of Dublin.”

'They made him King of Dublin.'

Eirik’s hand froze halfway down.

Knut burst out laughing. “Who? That Murchad?”

“Aye, Murchad.”

Knut laughed again, but a grim-​faced Skorri whispered, “Blood and thunder…”

Eirik asked, “When was this?”

“Monday morning,” Thorkell said. “He sat up all the night praying in the Christ Church, and the Bishop crowned him in the morning. But they greeted him as a king from the moment he landed on Sunday. Worth being late for, wasn’t it, lord?”

'Worth being late for, wasn't it, lord?'

Eirik ignored that question and asked coolly, “What happened to Muirchertach?”

“Fled in a stolen ship just as Murchad was coming ashore. Had maybe two dozen men with him. The guard all went over to Murchad.”

Eirik had moved closer, and now the candles were at his back. His hair still caught the light and rimmed his head with gold, but his face was dark. Thorkell sank away from him until his back was pressed up against his chair.

His face was dark.

Knut asked him, “All because of the horn?”

“Aye. And the two ladies, too.” Thorkell sat forward again and squinted up into Eirik’s shadowed face. “He even had the two ladies with him when he stepped off his ship. You care to tell me how you knew he was going to do that?”

Eirik drew a great breath and sucked all the air out of the room. “I thought you got rid of them!”

Thorkell cringed. He was angry at Eirik, he was sick of Eirik, but he didn’t have the stones to do more than poke him with his finger and run away when he stirred.

“Not those two ladies,” he hastened to explain.

'Not those two ladies.'

Those two ladies were in Norway by now, if they weren’t at the bottom of the sea for real. They would have set up their own bawdy house by now with the silver Thorkell had paid them, or even made honest women of themselves, so handsomely dowered. Those coins had been polished to glittering, too, he recalled now.

“I’m talking about his sister and his brother’s widow, Sadb of Mull. They returned with him to Dublin. One with raven hair, and the other fox-​red? Everybody saw them in the harbor and the town. You’re telling me that was just a coincidence?”

“Sadb is in Dublin?”

'Sadb is in Dublin?'

“Aye, lord. I figured that was part of your plan somehow.”

Eirik looked at Skorri, and Skorri swore, “God’s blood.”

Thorkell looked a question at Knut, but Knut looked as flummoxed as he. However, Knut was bold enough to ask, “Is that bad?”

'Is that bad?'

Eirik said, “Muirgius of Ramsaa is determined to have her, and Whitehand is going to give him to her if he can get her, and end the fighting that way. She was far safer with Old Aed than she is in Dublin. And so were we.”

“Eh…” Thorkell interrupted. “She’s not exactly in Dublin, lord. Murchad sent the two ladies to Two Ladies.”

Skorri closed his eyes and let his head fall back to thunk against the wall.

Thorkell said, “I guess that wasn’t part of your plan.”

'I guess that wasn't part of your plan.'

Eirik clasped his wrist behind his back and turned to stalk into the light. “No,” he said dryly, “that was not part of my plan.”

“Well,” Thorkell offered, “Murchad did close the harbor at Two Ladies, and he’s garrisoned the fort with a lot of men. That was yesterday. So you see, lord, I’m not late for nothing.”

Eirik grunted. “Where’s Sigrid? Still at Two Ladies?”

“Aye. Murchad took his wife and babes back to Dublin, but he left your lady with the girls. His man Morrann’s in command there. The tall one.”

'His man Morrann's in command there.  The tall one.'

Skorri snorted. “Sigrid’s in command, you mean, and Morrann is suffered to live.”

Thorkell gave him a weak smile.

Eirik paced as far as his writing table and returned. One half of his hair was brightly lit, but his head was low, and the light scarcely touched it from beneath. Thorkell couldn’t read his face, but his posture wasn’t promising.

Who greeted him as king?” he grumbled.

'Who greeted him as king?'

“Everyone,” Thorkell said. “That is, what happened was, the High Steward of the city and a lot of people met him in the harbor. We were there. And the Steward gave him the key to the city, and right after that Muirchertach slipped away. Seemed like the people wanted blood, but they just let him go. And after that…”

Thorkell took a breath. This was the part he kept coming back to. Whenever he felt trapped beneath Eirik’s thumb, whenever he felt like he’d sold his soul, whenever he wondered just what sort of lord he was serving, he thought of that panicked, flustered young man swept up in the press of people, and how all at once he’d been touched by divine grace, and had straightened his shoulders, bowed his head, and led an entire city in prayer.

He thought of that panicked, flustered young man.

“After that, he went to the castle, through the town. And later on, when he came out of there, he went to the Christ Church like I said, and he watched through the night. Just like a king about to be crowned, I guess.”

The moment had passed, and Thorkell found he hadn’t mentioned the prayer to Eirik. He couldn’t. The Earl had already made him whip up a trumpery miracle as a joke. Of course Thorkell knew now that it was part of some larger plan, but he didn’t want to learn that what he’d witnessed last Sunday was another of Eirik’s farces. Murchad of the Chennselaighs had brought the grace of God down on Dublin town. Something holy had happened, and Thorkell had been there. He had even played a small part in its happening. He wanted to believe.

Eirik asked, “Who was at the castle?”

'Who was at the castle?'

“I don’t entirely know, lord. Of course I didn’t get inside. But the guard went over to Murchad, and the navy too, and the Bishop was in on it, or at least he made no objections, so I figure he was there.”

“Ragnaillt? Silkbeard’s daughter?”

“The old lady? She and her grandson are at the castle a lot, but maybe that’s normal. I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, lord. I just saw what went on in the streets and the taverns. Those people love Murchad. They think their new king was chosen by God. It was bigger than Easter.”

'It was bigger than Easter.'

Eirik hitched his thumbs in his belt and stared at the floor between Thorkell’s boots. Thorkell started getting jittery. If Eirik stared like that, it must mean something horrifying was about to happen to his feet.

But in the end Eirik simply muttered, “My money’s on Ragnaillt.”

“Is it now?” Skorri countered, quick as a whip. “Five marks of it, let’s say? What are you wagering?”

'What are you wagering?'

“Who else would it be?” Eirik asked bitterly. “She saw her chance, and she leapt at it.”

“The Bishop maybe?”

“I told you, the Bishop could afford to wait till the High King was dead and Muirchertach was busy squabbling with his brothers over the throne. Ragnaillt wants the use of Dublin’s navy to liberate her son, and Muirchertach wasn’t ever going to give her that.”

Thorkell looked helplessly at Knut. Knut rubbed his face and sighed, “Start over. Who’s the son, and who’s holding him hostage? It isn’t us, is it?”

'It isn't us, is it?'

“Gruffydd of Gwynedd,” Skorri said. “Ragnaillt of Dublin married a runaway Welsh prince, back in the days when Norsemen held half of Ireland, and your granny’s tits were still round as apples. The prince she married was useless, but the son she whelped him ended up winning back Gwynedd for a while. But the Normans won it back and locked him up.”

“And what does that have to do with Murchad?” Knut asked.

Eirik kicked a rumple out of the rug and paced in tight circles like a caged dog.

'It has to do with her wanting a puppet king on the throne of Dublin!'

“It has to do with her wanting a puppet king on the throne of Dublin!” he said, his voice taut with angry frustration. “If she’d been born a man, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, she’d be siting on it herself. Her father was Sigtrygg Silkbeard. And she was the only one of Silkbeard’s spawn worthy of sitting on his knee. God blast her!”

Eirik turned and kicked a pile of pillows out from beneath Knut’s foot. Knut jerked his leg up onto the bench and cowered into the cushions.

“So Murchad is already the puppet king of Dublin,” Skorri said, braving Eirik’s raging back as if to distract him from poor Knut. “Except, the old lady is the one pulling the strings. Dublin’s entire fleet is in her hands. Sure you don’t want to back the Bishop?”

Eirik muttered, “That won’t change anything now.”

'That won't change anything now.'

“And Sadb of Mull is at Two Ladies,” Skorri continued, relentless, “in a fort I could capture with ten men. The God damned Holy Grail. Whoever delivers her to Ramsaa is going to be Muirgius’s new best friend. And nearly half the lords of Man come along with Muirgius. If Whitehand makes peace with Muirgius, we’re cornered, Eirik. Like rats on a burning ship.”

'Like rats on a burning ship.'

“So what do you suggest we do?” Eirik shouted.

Skorri didn’t flinch. “I suggest you saddle up, Sir Percival, and get to the Holy Grail first.”

Eirik turned his face away to cough and waved a dismissive hand, but Skorri wasn’t done.

“Why not? Your wife is there. You’re the only man who can walk right in.”

Eirik muttered, “I am not going to Two Ladies.”

'Why not, God damn it?'

“Why not, God damn it? Didn’t you hear me? Your wife is there! You think if anyone gets in there to take Sadb, he’s going to leave Sigrid sleeping peacefully in her bed? She’s worth as much as Sadb!”

Eirik leaned over Skorri and shouted, “I am not going to Two Ladies!”

Skorri sat up, almost nose-​to-​nose with him, and shouted back, “Why not?”

“Because he is!”

Eirik flung up an arm and pointed at Thorkell’s head. Thorkell fumbled with his cup and splashed ale on his pant leg.

“You’re returning to Dublin,” Eirik said. “Tomorrow.” He snapped his fingers. “In the early morning. You’ll like that, old man.”

'You'll like that, old man.'

Thorkell sat up and banged a fist on the arm of his chair. “Now hold on! I just got back from there, at no small risk to my men and my ship! I don’t even have any ties to Dublin!”

“That’s the point,” Eirik said coolly. “Nobody knows who you are. And more importantly, nobody knows I know who you are. I doubt Sigrid has ever seen your face.”

“What about my men? They want to go home and visit their families! They haven’t been home in months!”

'They haven't been home in months!'

“Go home?” Eirik snapped, suddenly breaking into a sneer. “How are they going to get home? You’ll lose the Early Morning if you take her anywhere north of Mare’s Head, and you’ll be lucky if you don’t lose your skins! Leki’s an outlaw, and so am I, and so are you!” He pointed at Thorkell’s face.

The Earl had run out of patience, and he was a terrifying sight: a towering body, a jabbing finger, a darkened head. Thorkell briefly considered sailing north in the morning and turning himself in to Whitehand. But Whitehand could be just as brutal in his way. Were all rulers of men like this? he wondered. Then he remembered Murchad.

“I’m not kidnapping any women,” Thorkell muttered. “Jesus Christ, I have to draw the line somewhere.”

Eirik quieted at once. “I never told you to. I want you to make sure no women are kidnapped. Quite different.”

'Quite different.'

Thorkell set his cup aside so he could prop his elbows on his knees and lay his face in his hands. His cheeks were hot with the season’s first sunburn. The muscles of his shoulders ached from dragging on the steering oar. Tomorrow he was going to have to do it all over again. And tonight he was going to have to face his men.

“If you had bothered to count those coins,” Eirik said, “you would have found that there was gold among them. You and your men can live on that for quite a while. Enjoy yourselves. Just keep an eye on the ladies of Two Ladies. If there’s any danger, warn Murchad if you must. Tell him I sent you if he won’t listen to anything else. But don’t try to come back here. If I need you, I shall… find you.”

Thorkell lifted his head, made uneasy by Eirik’s hesitation. But Eirik had moved on. Again he clasped his wrist behind his back and walked slowly towards the table. Skorri stared after him, frowning.

Thorkell lifted his head.

“What are we supposed to do?” Thorkell asked. “Are we supposed to watch what’s happening in Dublin or just keep an eye on Two Ladies?”

“Both, if you can. But mostly keep the ladies safe at Two Ladies.”

Thorkell sighed. He and his loutish band of Island warriors were supposed to defend two noble ladies from kidnap, whose safety was a matter of bloodshed and war. All this in a fort that Skorri claimed he could take with ten men.

“And if I fail?” Thorkell grumbled to himself, fatalistic, for he thought he already knew the unpleasant answer.

But Eirik overheard him, and he let his hands fall and turned back. And the answer proved to be more chilling than anything Thorkell had imagined.

“Then,” Eirik said in a cold voice, straight out of a saga, “I shall certainly find you.”

'I shall certainly find you.'