He had nevertheless been dreading coming home.

Stein truly was tired of traveling, but he had nevertheless been dreading coming home.

He did not believe in ghosts, but he had thought that after months spent where nothing should remind him of Lathir, the house would be haunted by emptiness, as familiar, beloved things can be more shockingly brought to mind in their absence than ever in their presence.

He had nevertheless been dreading coming home.

He found it was not so. In fact, many things had reminded him of Lathir, even so far from home; and meanwhile he had been away so long that the old familiar things of home were no longer so very familiar.

He also found that the anticipated emptiness was filled by his sister, his baby, his two little stepsons, and Sophie – his wife, he reminded himself, for the first time laying the word upon her with all its weight and worth, if only in his mind.

He also found the emptiness he expected filled by his sister, his baby, his two little stepsons, and Sophie.

It was not the first time, however, that he thought of them with the collective term of family. This was his family, as he had said to so many people throughout his travels.

It was not the family he had imagined with Lathir through those long, lazy, happy winter months, but it was his. And he was home just in time for another long and lazy – and perhaps even happy – winter. He was home.

He was home just in time for another long and lazy--and perhaps even happy--winter.

His little sister had stood squirming eagerly behind Sophie at first, but her half-​​fledged sense of decorum did not hold out long.

“Stein!” She raced around Sophie and tried to fling her arms around his neck, leaping up when he did not lean over quickly enough for her. “I knew you would come home!” she squealed.

'I knew you would come home!'

Stein saw at once that she was healthy enough for a good, strong squeeze.

“Thank you for your confidence!” he laughed. “But we must speak English for Sophie and the boys, remember.”

“I know,” she replied in English. “But I am teaching her some Norse. And she is teaching me some Saxon, so we may speak that, too.”

“That’s fine,” Stein said, though he looked up at Sophie as he spoke, “seeing as we are now in the possession of a quaint little manor in Saxony, with a pretty parish church all in pink stone.” He only glanced back at Astrid to impart this last bit of information, which he was certain would intrigue her.

Pink?” Astrid gasped in wonder.


Sophie lifted an eyebrow. “Possession?” she asked.

“Your step-​​grand-​​ogre took quite a liking to your Silver-​​White Knight,” Stein said proudly and a little shyly.

Sophie snorted, but she also blushed.

“Quite enough to give me a house and beg me to live in it,” he said. “Us, I mean.”

She had also laughed until she cried when Stein had told her the story of how he and Sophie had come to be married, infuriating him – which only made her laugh all the more. And she had begged him to congratulate Sophie for finding such a novel manner to exchange a poor husband for a fine one. Stein had sworn to himself he never would.

'Which one?'

“Which one?” Sophie asked.


“Ach! Some of Beda’s best wine comes from those hills! She must have liked you. She meant to tempt you.”

“I know. I still like it here better. But we can always give it to one of our ch – ”

It was too late. He had already said too much not to finish the sentence. And anyway, he had a child, and she had children, so it was perfectly acceptable for him to speak of their children.

'But we can always give it to one of our ch--'

“ – ildren.”

But he had called more attention to the word with his hesitation than if he had merely blurted it out. Fortunately his sister was there to provide a distraction, for he found he could not even look at Sophie – his wife.

“Is it truly pink?” Astrid begged.

“Pink as Eadric’s behind after I caught him in the cake batter,” Sophie said. She glared meaningfully at her eldest son, who hid his face in his hands and giggled. “I am sorry we shan’t be having any cake tonight, Stein.”

“It was supposed to be a surprise,” Astrid sighed. “Apple cake with currants.”

'It was supposed to be a surprise.'

“A surprise!” Stein cried. “I was supposed to be the surprise! Who told you I was coming?”

“One of the Duke’s men was out here this morning,” Sophie said. “He said you were at Bernwald last night.”

“Is that why everyone is here looking so pretty?” He stroked his sister’s long, silvery hair, which he had never seen worn loose during the day.

I look pretty all the time now,” Astrid said. “Sophie says I must wear my hair long, as it is so straight and fine and beautiful.” She spun around suddenly, and her hair floated about her like veils. “And because I am a little girl, and grown women are supposed to wear their hair up–not little girls.”

'Grown women are supposed to wear their hair up.'

“Is that why Sophie wears hers up now?” he asked her, though he looked at Sophie. In fact, he could not stop looking at Sophie.

Sophie snorted. “I wear mine up because I might have a flock of starlings roosting in my curls and never know it.”

“Oh. I thought perhaps it was the new fashion. I never saw Hetty with her hair up before today.”

“She did it because I shamed her into it, she says,” Sophie murmured. “She’s older than I. But she has such pretty hair,” she added, almost to herself.

“I like your curls, Soph.”

'I like your curls, Soph.'

Her free hand flew up and hovered over her hair like a lost starling. “You don’t like it up?” Her voice sounded anxious, but she did not stop smiling.

He laughed. “I tell you I do like your curls, and you think I am trying to tell you I do not like it as it is.” He realized too late that it was perhaps Leofwine who had taught her to find the criticism buried in a compliment. “I think it’s quite elegant. Don’t you, Astrid?”

He smiled hopefully at his sister.

“And quite grown-​​up,” Astrid nodded.

“And besides,” Stein added, “I shall see your curls tonight.”

Once again he had spoken without thinking, but he hoped he had not said the wrong thing. Now he was certainly thinking.

Sophie's breast rose and fell a few times.

Sophie’s breast rose and fell a few times, more rapidly than it ought, but perhaps it was only because baby Gamle was squirming against it in his efforts to get a better view of his father.

“Somebody wants to inspect this strange man,” Sophie said, “before allowing him amongst the ladies.”

Astrid cried, “He is the curiousest baby ever, Sophie says!”

“‘Sophie’ does not say it quite that way,” she drawled. “Come here, Stein.”

“Does he ever wink at you?” Stein asked her, since he could think of nothing intelligent to say.

'Does he ever wink at you?'

“Just like all the men,” she purred.

“Oh! He’s the only one who has my permission to do it!”


She was trying to be her sly self, but he could tell she was laughing in little breathless giggles, for though Gamle had quieted, her breasts were still shaking slightly, hinting at just how soft they were. As he bent to take the baby from her arms, he could not resist leaning closer for a better look.

He could not resist leaning closer for a better look.

He had never noticed how many colors of freckles she had, nor how creamy-​​white her shoulders and chest were beneath them. Her skin appeared silkier than the rough skin of his man’s fingertips could measure, and he would have to shave himself twice before daring to lay his cheek against it. Even his lips seemed too coarse to kiss it, though he longed to try.

All in all, he did not think he possessed skin fine enough to be worthy of touching hers, excepting perhaps his eyelids. If he could lay his head just so…

But he was holding Gamle by now, and he felt cruder and rougher than ever.

'He's so soft!'

“He’s so soft!” he murmured, for his mind was still clinging to his impressions of Sophie.

“I believe he’s just about ripe,” Sophie said.

“To eat?” Astrid squealed.

“To eat,” Stein agreed and lifted the baby up to noisily kiss his round belly.

'To eat.'

He had been practicing on his nephew Harald for the past several days, but he succeeded beyond his greatest expectations: Gamle laughed a deep, rolling laugh that – transposed a few octaves – could have been the very laughter of his grandfather and namesake.

“Who taught you how to laugh like that?” Stein gasped.

'Who taught you how to laugh like that?'

“Sophie did!” Astrid said. “She kisses him like that all the time, and eats and eats and eats him up!”

Stein had not even thought as far as the idea of Sophie’s lips on his own skin. Now he felt hot and dizzy and a little bold. Perhaps she was only waiting for him to notice her. Tonight he would show her he had.

Perhaps she was only waiting for him to notice her.

Now I’m jealous!” he laughed.

Sophie did not laugh, but she smiled fiercely, as she had been smiling without cease since the moment he had stepped through the door.

She smiled fiercely.