Inis Breandán, Isle of Man

Stein was smiling at young Olaf's excitement.

Stein was smiling at young Olaf’s excitement, at Eirik’s teasing, and at his own delight in finding his own people and his own language again after months of seeing foreign faces in Saxon-​​speaking countries.

Fortunately his smile was wide enough that it survived the shock of seeing his sister, though he feared the rest of his face betrayed him.

He feared the rest of his face betrayed him.

Sigrid herself helped Guthrun rise from the bench, and Stein was almost surprised that she was able to shuffle across the floor unaided to meet him.

“Oh, Stein, Stein! What a happy surprise!”

'What a happy surprise!'

She was trying to express joy in a voice that had grown accustomed to speaking softly so as to preserve itself. Their mother’s had been the same the last time he had seen her.

“How are Olaf and Astrid?” she asked. “And your little baby boy?”

He tried to hug her as he always did, but he could scarcely feel her inside her heavy gowns. Her body seemed to have shrunken away from them, like a shriveled seed in its silken husk.

He tried to hug her as he always did.

“I have no idea,” he said between kisses to her hollow cheeks. “I came here on my way home, and once I get there, I’m not leaving again until King Sigefrith says I must! I’m sick of traveling.”

“Oh… then, I may tell you that, last we heard, all were well. Baby Gamle!” She smiled brightly, as if it gave her pleasure merely to say the name. It had been their father’s.

'Baby Gamle!'

“Baby Gamle!” he repeated, grinning with satisfaction. “And how – ” He could not ask her how she was, nor did he need to. “ – is baby Harald?”

“Come and see!” she whispered eagerly.

She turned to the cradle, but Sigrid slipped past her and pounced on him.

“How is baby Stein, first of all?” she cackled.

'How is baby Stein, first of all?'

“Oh,” Eirik said thoughtfully. “I was thinking it was baby Sweyn who needed his diaper changed, but it must be baby Stein I’m smelling.”

Stein laughed and squirmed beneath Eirik’s teasing and Sigrid’s tickling fingers. It was a relief to laugh again, to speak Norse again, to be himself again, after months of maintaining a gloom he felt obliged to feel. It also helped ward off the chill his sister’s illness threw over him.

Stein laughed and squirmed beneath Eirik's teasing and Sigrid's tickling fingers.

He made way for Guthrun to shuffle to the cradle and lift her baby son from his nap. “Here he is!” she said with shy pride. “Three months old in four more days.”

It was the baby he had expected to find sickly, for the last time he had seen him, a few days after his birth, he had been told by everyone except Guthrun that he was not expected to live. But the baby was fat and pink, and he looked strong despite his sleepiness.

But the baby was fat and pink, and he looked strong despite his sleepiness.

Stein wondered whether his sister had so suddenly declined because she had been feeding her strength into her baby. Lili had told him that Lathir had done the same.

“Looks just like Tryggve,” Stein said approvingly.

'Looks just like Tryggve.'

“Sings just like him, too,” Eirik grumbled. “I hear Harald screaming in your sister’s room better than I ever did Sweyn in mine.”

“Oh, you love him,” Sigrid scoffed.

Eirik bent and kissed the little bald head, which seemed to prove he did.

Sigrid grabbed Stein by the wrist and dragged him over to the bench.

“How’s Brede?” she asked. “And why didn’t he come with you to see his sister?”

'Oh, he went to Scotland with Aengus.'

“Oh, he went to Scotland with Aengus. He knew if he came with me, he would have to go home that much sooner.”

“Eirik,” she groaned. “You need to give that boy a ship. He’ll never be happy on a farm.”

Eirik swung himself around and gave Sigrid a look that could only be described as a warning.

“I hope you’ll stay at least a few days!” Guthrun sighed. “God only knows when we shall meet again.”

Sigrid sent Stein a look he could not decipher. He was already thinking to himself that God alone knew whether he would ever meet his sister again.

'We shan't let him leave until we've finished with him.'

“We shan’t let him leave until we’ve finished with him,” Sigrid promised her. “But he will be wanting to get home to ‘baby Gamle’, and your brother and sister, and his wife.” She smiled slyly up at Stein. “Perhaps she’ll even have a little secret to tell you when you get home? You’ve been away a while.”

“She – had better not!” Stein gasped before realizing that it would have been wiser to make a joke. Sophie had already informed him – to her obvious relief – that Leofwine would not be having any posthumous children, and she certainly wasn’t having any of his.

'She--had better not!'

“Stein!” Guthrun wailed.

Sigrid sucked on her fingertip for a moment, the time required to explain to herself this seemingly absurd statement. “Don’t tell me you have never – ” She glanced quickly over at Olaf to be sure he was otherwise occupied. “–known your wife, Stein.”

He had spent three minutes in the room, and already she had him trapped. He laughed sheepishly.

He laughed sheepishly.

“Sophie?” Eirik cried. “She’ll make herself known.”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Sigrid said.

“Right…” Stein shrugged. “But it’s… not like that…”

“With Sophie?” Sigrid cried in disbelief.

Stein finally let his smile drop; the rising gloom he felt now was real. “It’s not like that, Sigi,” he murmured. “You know how we came to be married.”

'It's not like that, Sigi.'

“Yes, but – still! Sophie!” Even Sigrid’s smile was beginning to appear forced, however.

“Leof killed Sophie long before Sophie killed Leof, I think,” Stein said gravely.

Eirik coughed and sat himself meekly down beside Olaf. There was not a man who had known her who did not feel a little ashamed of what they had allowed to happen to her, despite knowing that they could have done nothing to stop it.

“So long as she’s not dead, she’s still alive,” Sigrid said. “It’s not too late for her to be happy.”

“Don’t you love her, Stein?” Guthrun asked mournfully.

'Don't you love her, Stein?'

Stein sighed and rubbed his hands together as attentively as if he had been washing them. His sister was very young, he reminded himself, and she had always been excessively naive, even for her age. Perhaps it was because she was never meant to grow old.

“I mean it,” Sigrid said. “I don’t think – ”

“Need we talk about this?” Stein smiled politely to compensate for the rudeness of interrupting her.

“Do you still miss Lathir?” Guthrun asked.

Stein let his hands drop and hang limply from his arms. He could not even muster the breath for a sigh.

He could not even muster the breath for a sigh.

“What’s true for Sophie is true for both of you,” Sigrid said.

Eirik sat back and crossed his long legs. “I have always thought Sophie would be a girl worth knowing…” he mused.

Stein could only see Sigrid’s half of the look she exchanged with her husband, but her half was a wicked smile: she knew he was only teasing her. Such complicit glances were only one of the thousand things he missed about Lathir…

It appeared they were both wickedly amused.

But Sophie too knew how to glance; she could make Stein choke on his mutton with nothing more than a well-​​timed, well-​​honed smirk from the far end of their long dinner table.

For the last three months he had tried to store up all of the funny moments of his trip, knowing they would be twice as funny if he shared them with her. He also knew he would forget most of them. How much easier it would have been if she could have simply come along!

“Sophie has always wanted to get to know Stein,” Sigrid smiled, “which is perhaps more important.”

“Perhaps,” Eirik said gravely.


“How was she last time you saw her?” Sigrid asked him. “Lonely?”

Eirik snorted, but his voice deepened; he was speaking seriously now. “Sophie would never show it if she were. But I shall tell you one thing, boy.” He lifted his foot and jabbed Stein in the rear with his toe. “She is trying very hard to be worthy of you. There is no more certain way to know a lady loves you.”

“Perhaps she is only feeling grateful for what I did?” Stein suggested with a feeble smile.

'Perhaps she is only feeling grateful for what I did?'

“Ah, no,” Eirik said. “Ah, no. She would never forgive you for making her feel that.

“Listen to him!” Sigrid groaned. “That gangling looby giving advice about love!

'That gangling looby giving advice about love!'

Eirik slid a foot out across the floor, and his gangling leg was long enough that Sigrid scarcely had to lift hers to playfully stomp on it with her little slipper.

It was another thing Stein missed about Lathir: touching and being touched. He would stay a few days for his sister’s sake, but he thought he would find it difficult to watch Eirik with Sigrid. They were quite obviously in love. Stein missed that, too.

Stein missed that, too.