Leofric lit the candle, but it did not wake his wife.

Leofric lit the candle, but it did not wake his wife. Nevertheless, he saw that the irrational fear that had driven him home in the middle of the night had been unfounded, as irrational fears usually were.

She lay on the right side of the bed, as Judith had. The flickering candlelight made her face seem to quiver, as Judith’s had, and aside from that, he could not consciously perceive any movement in her at all.

She lived.

But she lived. Beneath the freckles, her face was slightly flushed from sleep, and her eyelids were soft and smooth. There was something full and heavy about her lips; and they lay almost imperceptibly parted, mobile and warm over her pretty, perfect teeth, as though their own fullness and heaviness were ever so slightly too much to bear.

She was forty-​​three years old, and he saw that she had become one of the most beautiful women of her generation. It was partly from the simple virtue of having survived forty-​​three years, but even Swan-​​neck herself – even at thirty-​​five – had not been so fresh nor so fair. His wife had been a bony, gawky, freckle-​​faced thing when he had married her, but age had only softened her and, he thought miserably, made her more dear.

Age had softened her and made her more dear.

Leofric turned away from the bed and began to undress – not noisily, for he did not want to wake her, but not quietly either, for he almost hoped she would wake.

It did not seem quite right that she should be there. Judith had been almost twenty years younger than she, and Britmar had been a kind and generous husband, whereas Leofric himself could be a brute at times. Yet it had been Judith to die. Leofric’s irrational fear was that the Almighty would soon realize and rectify His mistake.

It did not seem quite right that an old sinner such as he would be constantly rewarded.

It did not seem quite right that an old sinner such as he would be constantly rewarded. He had already stopped to peek at each of his youngest children, and they all slept as prettily as his wife. He did not fear daring the wrath of God on his own behalf, but he could not bear to think of some innocent coming to harm because of him – his wife… his children and grandchildren… young Catan…

He could not bear to think of some innocent coming to harm because of him.

Leofric blew out the candle before the mirror, but he left burning the one on the table beside the bed. Eadgith could put it out if it woke her, and if it did not, then he could watch her sleep a while until he fell asleep himself. If he died in the night, the last thing he would have seen would be her face, and that would be some comfort to him in Hell.

That would be some comfort to him in Hell.

But he was a big man, and of course his own blundering as he climbed into bed woke her – as he had almost hoped it would.

“Leof?” she whimpered.

“It is only I, my pigeon.”

She grunted, but after a moment she seemed to realize he was not supposed to be there. He was supposed to have stayed at Acanweald, of course, but beyond that, he had only shared a bed with her a few times since he had come home from Egelric’s.

But she only asked, “Did you just get home?”

“Just a while ago,” he murmured. He flexed his fingers uncertainly, and his hand hesitated. But she seemed so soft and touchable when she was sleepy.

She squirmed up out of the blankets and sat back against her pillow. “But… in the middle of the night… what…”

“I came home so I could bring you to the funeral tomorrow.”

'I came home so I could bring you to the funeral tomorrow.'

“Oh!” she scoffed. “You could have sent a groom for that.”

“I shall not let you go out for a three hour ride into the wilderness with only a groom for company.”

“A guard then.”

“There is not a man in this castle whose sword arm I trust enough to entrust you to it,” he grumbled.

Eadgith only snorted and stared up at him. With the candle behind her head, her face was all in shadow, but it was a pale shadow that seemed to shine slightly with its own light, like an oval moon.

Eadgith only snorted and stared up at him.

Something about the sleepy calm of her face reminded him of his long-​​dead mother. Many women had loved him in many different ways, but Eadgith and his mother were the only two who had ever cuddled and coddled him, and they were the only two who had ever loved him when he misbehaved.

“I’m so glad we’re old, my pigeon!” he wailed, overcome.

“What?” she squawked. “Speak for yourself!”

“No! Listen! Because we already have such pretty children, and we shall have more and more grandchildren every year, and so we don’t need any more for ourselves. Do we?”

'Do we?'

She let her head fall back against the headboard. “Oh, Leof,” she sighed.

“Now you’re safe.” He patted her hip. “And I’m so much older than you, I shall be certain to have you with me until I die. And when Hraef gets a little older, you shall have me to baby instead.”

He slipped an arm behind her and gave her the sly smile that had always gone a long way towards getting his sins pardoned him.

He slipped an arm behind her and gave her the sly smile.

Eadgith shook her head, but the smile seemed to be working. He sneaked his free hand up and cupped it under one of her breasts. He did not know many forty-​​three-​​year-​​old woman who could rival her in the matter of breasts.

But Eadgith pushed his hand away. “Oh, don’t touch me, Leof,” she groaned. “I’m sore.”

“Are you still angry at me, pigeon?” he whimpered. “I’m sorry.”

'I'm sorry.'

“I’m not sore at you, you big looby. I’m simply sore.”

But Hraefen had been weaned months ago. “Sore how?” he whispered. It was true there were many ways for women to die besides childbirth. He had not considered that possibility.

“Sore, because I am not as old as you seem to think I am,” she grumbled.

“What – ”


“I’m pregnant.”

“What?” Leofric scrambled up from the bed and then came crawling back into it again. “What? But – when?”

“When you came home from Egelric’s with your tail between your legs,” she sighed, “and decided to remind me who my husband was.”

“Eadgith! But I didn’t mean it! That!

'But I didn't mean it!'

“Nevertheless, you made your point.”

“Son of a serpent!” Leofric sat down on the bed again with a thump. “You don’t suppose the Lord heard anything I just said about not wanting any more children, do you?”

“I don’t think the Lord pays any attention to you.

“Unless it’s to toy with me.”

'Unless it's to toy with me.'

“You might be right about that.”

“Son of a serpent!” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly through his nose.

“You’re not as old as you think you are, either,” she said after a moment. “You don’t need to prove it with any young girls.”

Though he could feel the pout of his lower lip, there must have been something else on his face, for she lifted her hand and gently stroked it over his forehead and down his cheek, as she did her babies when they were ill or troubled.

“I shall be good,” he mumbled. “I promise. I don’t want anything to happen to you. Two.”

“I said I don’t think the Lord pays any attention to you, anyway, Leof,” she sighed. “But I shall be very glad.”

'I shall be very glad.'