Sophie woke in a panic.

Sophie woke in a panic. But there was no one… nothing…

And then she heard it—a man’s heavy tread behind the curtain. She shrieked.

“Soph! It’s only Stein!” He hurried through the curtain. “I’m home.”

'I'm home.'

“Oh!” She laughed wildly. “I thought you were…” She didn’t know what she had thought he was. Leof was dead.

“I know, but I have a lot to do in the next few days,” he sighed.

He must have thought she had meant to say, “You were not supposed to be home until tomorrow.” It was just as well.

“May I light the candle?” he asked.

“Might as well,” she drawled. “You’re not any prettier in the dark. Nor any darker.”

'You're not any prettier in the dark.'

“Is that a compliment?” He disappeared to light a rush in the corridor.

Sophie hurriedly combed through her curls with her fingers. When he returned, she said, “If you like. So… is it true?”

“Gossip travels faster than I do, apparently,” he muttered.

“Poor Edris,” she sighed. “He loved her so.”

'Poor Edris.'

“And she loved him, which is more to the point.”

“Of course…”

“So, Sophie,” he said with the gentle, patient voice he often used with her and Astrid both, “Sigefrith and Baldwin mean to ride out here tomorrow to talk to you. You know the workings of your step-grand-ogre’s evil mind better than anyone here.”

'Is that a compliment?'

“Is that a compliment?” she smiled. “What happened?”

“She wrote to say he died of a fever all the way back at the end of April. Didn’t mention young Baldwin at all except to say that he was well and sent his love.”

“Isn’t he coming home? He’s Earl now.”

Stein snorted. “Shield your eyes, Soph—here goes my shirt.”

She pretended to hide her eyes, for the Silver-​White Knight’s natural defenses were rumored to include the ability to blind with the glare of his pale skin.

Once the shirt had gone, he wagged a finger in the direction of her chest and said, “Mind you, you’re looking rather dangerous there yourself.”

Sophie turned away abruptly on the pretense of straightening the sheets, but in fact to hide what must have been a startling blush.

Sophie turned away abruptly on the pretense of straightening the sheets.

He had noticed! She had very nearly worn an old nightgown, since she had thought he would not be home, but on a whim she had put on the prettiest, most revealing of them all. It was made from Lili’s favorite pattern, and she had sworn that it would prove irresistible sooner or later.

“She didn’t say anything about Baldwin coming home,” Stein said.

'She didn't say anything about Baldwin coming home.'

Sophie leaned on the bed, pressing her knuckles deep into the mattress, listening as much to the laces of his boots whipping through his fingers as she did to his voice. His slender hands were as unlike Leof’s fat truncheons as he was unlike Leof.

“Neither sending him home nor having someone sent to bring him home,” he continued after he had tossed down one of his boots.

“She probably hopes she’ll be allowed to keep him,” Sophie said. “Sweet juniper! Last time he was there she was already trying to figure out how she could make him Baron in Beda’s place. That may be what she’s planning.”

'That may be what she's planning.'

“See, Soph? That’s why Sigefrith and Baldwin want to talk to you.”

“Why Baldwin?”

“Sigefrith is sending him to fetch young Baldwin home. Or the Earl, I should say. He’s the only one who has been to Saxony before, among those of us who didn’t go away this spring. Though Brede is going, too, and he already went away.”

“Brede simply wants to get away from his wife.”

“I know. Oh—you might think it a shame you married me, now. You could have gone home with—with them.”

“Home?” she snorted. “Back to the step-​grand-​ogre?”

“Right,” he laughed. “Bad idea.”

'Bad idea.'

And then she realized that he might have meant that he thought it was a shame.

“Oh, and Aengus is going, too,” he said. “And I’m going, too. You don’t mind, do you, Soph? Nobody here listens to what I say, anyway.”

“Mind?” she echoed softly.

“Baby Gamle is all better now, and… and I wouldn’t have left Olaf and Astrid here alone, but since you’re here…”

'But since you're here...'

“You don’t have to ask my permission, Stein.”

“I know, but… anyway.”

She turned away to fluff her pillow, and he took the opportunity to hurry around the bed.

'She turned away to fluff her pillow.'

“What a troop we’ll make, eh, Soph?” he laughed awkwardly. “A broken-​hearted knight, a knight whose wife won’t speak to him, a knight whose wife only speaks to yell at him, and one jolly knight who adores his wife and is only going because he’s the only one who knows the way. Eh? The only one who doesn’t want to get away for a while is the one who has to go.”

'The only one who doesn't want to get away for a while is the one who has to go.'

She determined by process of elimination that he was the broken-​hearted knight. He was also one of the three who wanted to get away.

“You don’t suppose baby Gamle will miss me, do you?” he asked softly.

'You don't suppose baby Gamle will miss me, do you?'

“He’s still young,” she said. “Baby Brandt will miss you more.”

“Poor little fellow,” he chuckled.

“And you had better not tell Eadric you’re going until you’re gone. He’s mad about you.”


“It doesn’t take long with you, Stein.”

'It doesn't take long with you, Stein.'

“Is that a compliment?”


“Oh…” He laughed weakly upon realizing that it was not some sort of joke.

“And you had better not die while you’re away,” she said sternly. “I’m warning you. Those kids have had enough moving around and people dying in their short lives.”

“All of them,” he said wistfully.

'All of them.'


“All of them have. My brother and sister, and your boys, and baby Gamle. He hasn’t moved anywhere, but… so.”

“I suppose we have, too, for that matter,” she mused. “So… don’t die, Stein.”

“I shall try not to. But, Soph… you’ll take care of baby Gamle if something happens, won’t you? I know we’re not… truly…”

'You'll take care of baby Gamle if something happens, won't you?'

She waited to hear what they “truly were not”, but he seemed to take it as hesitation.

“Won’t you, Soph? If you… if you wanted to marry again, like my sister, that would be different…”

'I don't want to so much as think about that.'

“Oh, Stein,” she sighed wearily. “I don’t want to so much as think about that. Simply come home again and save me the trouble. But don’t worry—I shall certainly take care of baby Gamle for you, if that is what you want for him.”

“Will you? Will you be a mother to him? I mean… you already are…

“Of course I shall. I’m already mad about him.”

“You are? Already?” He laughed and pulled the sheets up over his body. “Must be something about the men in my family.”

'Must be something about the men in my family.'

“Must be.”

“Oh, I forgot the candle…”

Sophie sat up and blew it out.

“Good night, Soph. We can talk more about it tomorrow. My trip, I mean.”

“Good night, Stein.”

As soon as she had pulled the sheets up over herself and gotten settled again, he said, “Oh, Sophie? I forgot something else.”

'Oh, Sophie?  I forgot something else.'

“What now?” she sighed.

“I forgot to kiss you.”

Sophie had not forgotten.

On their wedding night, hoping to ease the awkwardness of finding themselves side-​by-​side in bed, she had suggested, “Let’s kiss and call it a consummation.”

Since then they had consummated their marriage every night in the same way, with a quick peck so ritualized that it had lost even the poignancy of those first days when they were only two anguished souls meeting lip-​to-​lip in the dark.

He had kissed her with far more passion two Christmases ago beneath the mistletoe.

He had kissed her with far more passion two Christmases ago beneath the mistletoe, though she’d had another husband then. Indeed, she’d felt enough of a spark pass between them then that she’d sometimes wondered, if she had not been married…

But there was only this quick peck, and then he was safely on his side of the bed again, and she on hers. And soon he would be gone.

Then he was safely on his side of the bed again, and she on hers.