man less suitable to deliver a marriage proposal. Godred of Dublin was coarse, marginally
Christian—indeed, marginally sane—and easily riled. Nevertheless, King Olaf liked him, and for
that reason alone, Somerled had selected him as his envoy.
“No side trips,” Somerled shouted before Godred was too far away to hear. “Ye have
three places to go and that’s it: the Isle of Man, your clan, and back here.” Godred was prone to
Unless bad weather or the scent of easy plunder pulled Godred and his thirty oarsmen
off course, Somerled would have Olaf’s answer in a few days. If Olaf agreed to the marriage,
Somerled would add a wife to the items decorating his new castle at Finlaggan and eventually,
the Isle of Man to his expanding area of influence.
The nobles would respect him then. Half-breed or not.
Behind him, a door squealed on one of the two guardhouses standing sentinel over the
Sound of Islay. The small building spat out Hakon, his chief guard, another man of Dublin birth
and temperament. Hakon strode the length of the jetty to join him. “I have every confidence the
Norns will weave Godred a successful journey, my lord king,” he said, his words puffing white
clouds above his tawny sheepskin cape.
“If your goddesses have woven anything, it’s an unfortunate headwind,” Somerled said.
“Godred is forced to tack.” He closed his cloak and secured it at his throat with a brooch he once
plucked from a Viking who no longer needed it. “The wind promises hail. My proposal will be
“Aye, likely,” Hakon said, his hair and beard whipping into copper clouds, “but it will
hasten Olaf’s reply. Do not despair, my lord. Ragnhilde will marry ye soon enough.”
Despair? Somerled stifled a laugh. Did Hakon think he had feelings for a lassie he had
never met? He was about to tease his guard about being a romantic when Hakon stiffened.
“Another ship,” Hakon said, looking past Somerled’s shoulder.
Somerled spun around to inspect the northwestern waters of the channel separating Jura
and Islay—the jewel of the Hebrides and the island that served as the seat of his burgeoning
kingdom. “Where?” he asked, squinting.
Hakon thrust a finger toward the fog bank blanketing the horizon. “There, at the
promontory, in that pale blue strip of water. See it?”
At first, Somerled saw nothing but swooping terns and ranks of swells. Then, an
unadorned sail appeared. It crested on a wave, dipped low, and vanished.
“Should I sound the horn?” Hakon asked.
Somerled raked his fingers through the coarse, wheaten mess slapping at his eyes and
held it at his nape while he considered his response. Behind them, the signal tower on Ben Vicar
was smoke-free. Across the sound, the towers on the frosty Paps of Jura were likewise unlit,
although clouds partially obscured their peaks. The Paps had a commanding view. If a signal fire
blazed anywhere, the men stationed there would have seen it and lit their own.
“My lord king, should I sound the horn?” Hakon impatiently palmed the battle horn
dangling at his broad chest.
Men began to gather on the jetty.
“Let us wait. It is only one ship, and it looks to be a trader. The signal fires would blaze
by now if it were someone worthy of our concern.” Somerled glanced back at the mud and
thatch cottages shouldering against one another. At their doors, the bows of half his impressive
fleet rested on the shoreline, a sandy slip extending well into the distance. The rest of his ships
sheltered at the far side of Islay, in Loch Indaal. A signal fire would deploy them quickly and,
“Alert the village. Have Cormac ready Dragon’s Claw,” he said, “but send only the
nyvaigs for now.” The nyvaigs were smaller, but no less deadly. They would be out and back
Hakon sprinted through the gathering crowd and past the guardhouses. He leapt over
a pile of rocks with surprising agility for a man of his years and size. In no time, specialized
warriors and oarsmen were boarding the boats. A pony thundered inland, its rider instructed to
warn, not panic, the people of Finlaggan.
Though Somerled carried his mighty sword, he had dressed for warmth, not battle. His
mail shirt, aketon, and helmet hung in his bedchamber, two miles away in Finlaggan. He singled
out a boy in the crowd. “Lad, find me a helmet and a shield, and be quick about it.”
The boy shot like an arrow toward the cottages.
Somerled held his breath as he watched the nyvaigs head out. At the first flash of steel, he
would blow the battle horn. His men would light the towers and he would board Dragon’s Claw.
The foreigner would be sorry he entered the Sound of Islay.
The ship’s features were barely discernible, but he could see that its high prow lacked
a figurehead. He was trying to identify the banner fluttering on its masthead when the ship’s
sail dropped and scattered gulls like chaff in the wind. His heart hammered against his chest as
he waited for the foreign vessel to sprout oars; it didn’t. It stalled—a sign its crew had dropped
Dragon’s Claw bobbed next to him at the jetty, her top rail lined with colorful shields and
her benches holding sixty-four of his savage warriors. Cormac gripped the tiller, but he would
move aside when Somerled barked the order to do so. He would serve as his own shipmaster in
the face of an enemy.
Low and curvy with a dragon’s head exhaling oaken flames from her prow, Dragon’s
Claw was his favorite vessel, not because she was new or particularly seaworthy, but because he
had wrenched her from the last Viking to leave his father’s lands.
The memory of that battle warmed him and occupied his thoughts while the nyvaigs
swarmed around the foreigner. Then, they swung about, furled their sails, and rowed for home
like many-legged insects skittering on the water’s surface.
When the boats reached the beach, Hakon jumped from his nyvaig and jogged through
ankle-deep water, apparently too impatient to wait for his men to haul the vessel’s keel onto the
sand. “Well, my lord king,” he said, “it seems to be the day for marriage proposals. It is an envoy
from Moray, who comes at the behest of Malcolm. He asks to speak with ye regarding Bethoc.”
“Malcolm MacHeth . . . the Malcolm MacHeth . . . wants my sister?”
He had met Malcolm MacHeth only once, at King David’s court, on a night spoiled by
ill-bred lassies who had mocked his foreign garb and speech. Malcolm, a bastard nephew of the
Scots king, had observed his humiliation and pretended not to notice.
Yet here was Malcolm of Moray, a claimant to the Scottish throne and a known rebel,
seeking Bethoc’s hand in marriage. Tainted bloodline or not, Somerled was apparently worthy of