'Certain you won't stay for supper?'

“Certain you won’t stay for supper?” the King asked.

“Oh, no! Estrid will have my hide if I miss supper again without warning her.” Brede was smiling, but it seemed he could not resist adding: “She can’t stand for me to get out and have fun if she’s stuck at home.”

Brede was smiling.

“What about you, Whey-​face?” the King asked Stein.

“What kind of a squire would I be if I went one way and let my knight go the other?”

Stein too was smiling, but in truth he would have preferred to stay. Supper with Estrid at one end of the table and Brede at the other was never very congenial, and it was made even more of a trial by the fact that Stein himself was always seated beside their simple-​minded son.

But lately Brede always left the tables of their friends after the first cup of wine had been drained. He did not even require that the cup be his own, since he was wary of the bottomless cup of wine that was miraculously created if his own cup was topped off every time someone else at the table emptied his. And a table manned by the likes of Prince Caedwulf and young Selwyn could see entire cups emptied between two sips of Brede’s.

A table manned by the likes of Prince Caedwulf and young Selwyn could see entire cups emptied between two sips of Brede's.

Stein often thought that his life, at least, would be merrier if Brede would simply drink or not drink and let the others have their way.

Brede did not know it, but he was rapidly self-​restraining himself out of a squire. Stein owed Brede for taking him out of the obscurity of his widowed mother’s household, but he had several paths open to him now as a man, and the only thing still keeping him at Brede’s side was his inability to decide among them.

'In that case you may send in the crowd of yammering I-don't-know-whos...'

“Well,” the King said, “in that case you may send in the crowd of yammering I-don’t-know-whos who seem to be milling around in the hall—Oh!”

Emma had come skipping in from the front hall, where one could actually hear much shushing and little yammering.

“Was that you making all that noise, Emmie-​Em?” Sigefrith asked her.

'Was that you making all that noise, Emmie-Em?'

“No!” she laughed. “I never make so much noise. Noisy people!” she shouted for the benefit of the mysterious gigglers in the hall. “Papa, you must guess who it is. It’s a big surprise!”

“Hmm… it must be… the Sultan of Persia!”

Emma laughed and denied it, but a swarthy gentleman did come striding into the hall, shaking his head in wonder. “Damn! The first guess, too!”

'Damn!  The first guess, too!'

Emma wailed a protest, but her big surprise was already on its way, and the participant and audience in her little guessing game were already rising to greet it.

The Sultan of Persia was none other than Old Aed’s third son Comgeall, followed by his sister Maire and his brother-​in-​law Aengus. Somewhere between them a young boy had come in, too, looking Aedy enough to be some brother or half-​brother of the others.

But Stein scarcely noticed them, and he only laughed absently when Comgeall came stumbling into him, howling: “My eyes! My eyes!” Comgeall liked to pretend that Stein’s pallor was blinding, but Stein himself was temporarily blinded to all but the shyly smiling face of a dark-​haired young lady lingering in the hall.

Stein himself was temporarily blinded to all but the shyly smiling face of a dark-haired young lady lingering in the hall.

There was a multitude of dark-​haired young ladies in the household of Lord Aed, but Stein had not forgotten this one. He had stared at that shyly smiling face all through a long dinner only a year ago, when he and Brede had gone with Eirik in search of Murchad and had stopped briefly to speak to Aed at the start of their journey.

He thought he might manage to speak to her now.

He had not spoken to her then, for her father had kept her as close to his side as he could without lashing her to his arm, but Stein was certain that an older half-​brother could not be nearly as fearsome a guardian as the Bearded One. He thought he might manage to speak to her now. He might even manage to kiss her hand.

He resisted the urge to go forth to meet her, and instead slipped around to stand at the side of the King.

He slipped around to stand at the side of the King.

Caedwulf and Selwyn rushed in where Stein had been wise enough not to tread, but as he had anticipated, Comgeall immediately announced, “This one isn’t for you in any case,” took his sister upon his arm, and brought her to meet the King—and Stein as a consequence.

“You’re remembering our sister Lathir?” Comgeall asked.

'You remember our sister Lathir?'

Sigefrith nudged Stein. “Quick!” he whispered loudly. “What would Alred say?”

Stein bowed. “Suggesting otherwise would not do her beauty justice.”

“Damn! That’s a good one. That even works if one forgets. Which, mind you, I haven’t.” He winked at the girl and kissed her hand. “And you don’t understand a word we’re saying, do you?”

“She understood the word ‘beauty,’” Comgeall said.

'Ah!  Just as Stein here knows the words 'drunken ass' in every language.'

“Ah!” Sigefrith nodded knowingly. “Just as Stein here knows the words ‘drunken ass’ in every Western language.”

“Only since I came to your court,” Stein protested.

“An obvious but effective parry, runt. But how comes she here?” he asked Comgeall. “The last time I was before the Bearded One, he had the Smiley One here firmly embedded in one armpit, and the Bouncy One in the other.”

Comgeall laughed. “That’s how you remember them?”

'That's how you remember them?'

“I know what your father is hoping to do with Bouncy, but Smiley presented no prior threat to my offspring. Drage is only four, I remind you.”

“Lathir is not for you and yours,” Comgeall said. “I’ve been charged with the impossible task of finding her a husband among the Norsemen of the Isles.”

Lathir must have understood at least a few words of English, for her smile died. Stein, however, thought her possibly more fetching without it. He wished he could tell her… he did not know what. That he was on her side?

He wished he could tell her... he did not know what.

“That shouldn’t be difficult,” Sigefrith said.

“Finding a Norseman with a pulse who wants her shouldn’t be difficult,” Comgeall said.

At once Stein felt Sigefrith’s fingers stealthily close over his wrist, and he swatted the insolent hand away without, he hoped, making the gesture noticed.

Comgeall shook his head regretfully.

Comgeall shook his head regretfully. “The Herculean part of the task will be finding one who will make a good alliance—and! and!”

“And?” Sigefrith asked.

“One whom she favors.”

Sigefrith groaned. “Alas! Surely any daughter of Aed is too clever to fall for one of those shambling heaps of milk-​white manhood.”


“That is what I fear,” Comgeall sighed.

“Oh!” Stein whined.

“Look at this one, for instance,” Sigefrith said. “White as a toad’s belly.”

“No, thank you,” Comgeall said. “Last time I looked at that one, I was picking shards of eyeball out of my shirt for hours.”

Stein forced himself to keep smiling.

Stein forced himself to keep smiling, so that the young lady would not realize he was being insulted.

“Well,” Sigefrith shrugged, “that’s what you’ll get if you look at a man who’s descended from a king so pale they call him Fairface to this day.”

“Fairhair,” Stein corrected.

“That’s right. Which side was he on again? Your father’s?”

“Both sides,” Stein said, smiling more broadly as he began to catch on.

'Both sides.'

“That’s your problem, then. You see,” he explained to Comgeall, “a man like my friend Eirik, whose mother was only a Dane, is only half as bright as he could have been. He barely shines brightly enough to hide the ugly.”

“I see,” Comgeall smiled.

'I see.'

“And men like Whitehand himself, why, his secret is in wearing gloves. Without them, his hands would be just about as brown as yours. His father wasn’t called Harald the Black for nothing. Who was his family again?” he asked Stein.

“Nobody,” Stein shrugged. “Some King of Dublin.”

'Some King of Dublin.'

“Right. You see? If you want to find a real, pure-​blooded Norseman of the best and oldest families—and I don’t mean King Olaf and his ignoble ilk—you will have to start wearing a dark veil over your eyes. Or you can settle for some half-​breed such as Eirik, or a mongrel nobody such as Godred and his clan.”

“I shall keep that in mind,” Comgeall chuckled. “But I had forgotten this toad-​belly was here at all. I had meant to ask you for a letter to get us across the sea, and a Norse-​speaker if you had one to spare…”

'A Norse-speaker if you had one to spare...'

Stein coughed.

“Well, there’s young Sigefrith,” Sigefrith mused. “Brede’s Norse isn’t bad either.”

“What about Toad-​belly?” Comgeall asked.

“Yes, what about me?” Stein asked Sigefrith.

'Yes, what about me?'

“Ah, but Toad-​belly is Sir Brede’s squire,” Sigefrith shrugged helplessly. “What kind of squire would go one way and let his knight go the other?”

“But a knight can go wherever his king sends him,” Stein protested.

“And that’s why I was thinking of Sigefrith or Brede… Of course, they’re married and wouldn’t want to leave their families. But, say! You haven’t found a wife yet. Perhaps, if Brede could part with you for a while, you could find one there?”

“Perhaps,” Stein nodded eagerly.


“Perhaps, if you’re thinking to be a knight of mine, we could wait to arrange that until after you return. After all, if you marry some foot-soldier’s natural daughter, you wouldn’t expect the same generosity from your king as if you married, say, a great lord’s daughter.”

“That’s true,” Stein said.

'If you could find the daughter of a great lord while you're there.'

If you could find the daughter of a great lord while you’re there—which I doubt, because except for your cousin Eirik, Godred’s followers really are a lot of riff-raff—I would be obliged to do something very fine for you if I wanted to keep your loyalty. After all, there would be your duty to the girl’s father, as well as all of the many ties of friendship you have to your cousin Eirik, and to Tryggvason, and to so many others of the great families of the Norse kingdom… Indeed, sometimes I think I’m not worthy of you, runt.”

“I wouldn’t say that…

Sigefrith turned back to Comgeall and shrugged.

“Well!” Sigefrith turned back to Comgeall and shrugged. “I don’t think Brede will miss him for a month or two or seven. You may have him if you like. He speaks decent Norse, and if you lash him to your prow you will see your way through any fog.”

'That's a generous offer.'

“That’s a generous offer,” Comgeall said. “But it would be a difficult position from which to attempt to make a great lord’s daughter fond of one.”

“I trust Toad-​belly to manage that.”

'I trust Toad-belly to manage that.'