Eadgith's nightgown glowed in the firelight.

Eadgith’s nightgown glowed in the firelight with the translucent beauty of a fine wax candle. Her hair was bright like a flame. She was still awake.

Leofric was still at home.

He propped his hands on the doorframe and leaned, hanging his head until his rumpled hair hid his face like curtains. He needed a moment to gather his strength.

Every time he was left an hour or two alone, he traveled far away in his mind. Every time he saw a beloved face again, it meant another goodbye.

He had contrived to remain in the company of his friends and family since breakfast, but when all besides Sigefrith, Cearball, and the priest had gone to bed, he had thought it safe to steal away to spend an hour alone. Now he would have to break his heart again with Eadgith and the baby.

'Whatever happened to sleeping through the night?'

“Whatever happened to ‘sleeping through the night?’” he grumbled.

It was difficult enough to hide despair behind feigned annoyance. It would take a genius to disguise it with gallantry and jest.

Eadgith slid the baby down from her shoulder into the comfortable crook of her arm.

'He seems to know something's happening, Leof.'

“He seems to know something’s happening, Leof. He doesn’t cry, but he lies there wide awake, staring like an owl.”

Leofric grunted. “What’s happening is he spent the evening with a couple of girls who are more delighted to be nieces of a baby than ever they were to be big sisters, and they got him too riled up to sleep.”

He pinched the baby’s wrist between the weak thumb and finger of his right hand, and he shook the little fist defiantly.

“I’ll not be any girl’s dolly!” he squeaked on behalf of his son. “They can dress up the cat!”

'They can dress up the cat!'

“Oh, Leof!” Eadgith scoffed.

“Don’t Oh-​​Leof me!” Leofric gasped. “Ornery runt! Now put him to bed, Eadgith,” he said firmly. “I need the sleep I can get.”

Last night in his lonely bed he had traveled as far as Hastings field, and there he had laid down and died, as the Lord had intended. After that he had not dared sleep.

Eadgith snuggled the baby up beneath her breasts. “But look at him, Leof.”

She spoke with the deep, slow voice of a prophetess.

Look at his wise eyes a last time. He may not be awake tomorrow morning when you go.”

'He may not be awake tomorrow morning when you go.'

Leofric sighed. “Woman, there is a knife in that chest over there, if you’re in a hurry to finish me off.”

Look at him,” she pouted, only her petulant self again. “He’ll be crawling all over Creation by the time you return.”

“I swear I shall be home in time to teach him to walk, Eadgith.”

Under his breath he added, “Inch’Allah.


Eadgith gasped, “Leofric!”

Leofric laid his hand on the baby’s head. “Your father’s blessing on you, my son,” he said to soothe her insulted Christian spirit. “May the Lord and all the ladies smile upon you every day of your life. In Christ’s name, Amen.” He winked at his wife.

She shook her head, but a sneaking smile spoiled her scowl. “You old pagan.”

'You old pagan.'

“In Christ’s name, I said!” he protested. “Now put him to bed, or go parade him before some other man’s fire, for I want to sleep.”

He turned about smartly and marched to his mirror.

He had been a soldier so long ago.

Parading him,” Eadgith huffed on her way to the door. “Supposing I paraded myself?”

'Parading him.'

Leofric smiled weakly over his shoulder at her until the hem of her nightgown swept out.

He was alone.

He was alone.

With his left hand he unstrapped and unbuckled his cumbersome belt, and with the right he loosened his laces. He pulled the stiff leather tunic over his head. He pulled the soft wool shirt after it, lifting his arms until he could feel the strain in the scar tissue striping his back.

He touched his hands to the knotted laces of his leggings – he could still perform such fine work as lace-​​picking with his right fingers – but he chanced to glance at the mirror, and he let his arms fall.

He chanced to glance at the mirror, and he let his arms fall.All his adult life he had possessed such monumental self-​​assurance that he had made vanity moot. Not since his youth, so long ago, had he ever stopped to wonder how he must look to a young lady.

He was finer at fifty than he had been at fifteen, he thought, but he saw in every feature the seal of November.

The blooming season was done. The growing season was done. The harvesting and the last, glorious, golden season were done. Finally the snow had begun to fall.

His face was lined, and his chin and chest were beginning to sag.

His face was lined, and his chin and chest were beginning to sag. His waist was wider than it had ever been. The crisp edges of his newly-​​hewn silhouette had been eroded into vague roundness. There was gray in his rumpled hair and his beard.

The first cracks had appeared, and the frost was working its way in, splitting and grinding from the inside what lashes and arrows had failed to breach.

Eadgith returned, and he worked up a weak smile again, but she did not meet it with one of her own.

He worked up a weak smile again.'

“Are the boys still up?” she asked.

To her they were not boys – they were men her own age.

“I heard them in the hall when I came up,” he muttered. He turned to her and asked, “Is that whose fire you were planning to parade yourself before?”



What?” she squawked.


“Don’t think I didn’t notice him staring at your tits all evening.”

Eadgith’s eyes were as round as an owl’s. “I am old enough to be his mother!”

He was old enough to be her father.

He took Eadgith’s hand and pulled her towards him. She stomped and scuffed her feet like an unwilling child, but she came. With his right arm he scooped her up and pulled her back against his chest. He wanted to see her in the mirror.

How much of what mirrors told was untrue?

Look at you,” he demanded before he had looked himself. “Not a day over delicious.”

'Look at you.'

“Oh, rot,” she huffed.

The lantern burning beneath her chin made her eyes appear as hollow as a skull’s, but the shadow atop her breasts only brought out their living lusciousness.

The shadow atop her breasts only brought out their living lusciousness.

She had been scrawny and angular when he had married her, but the inevitable softening of motherhood and middle age had only made her caressably plump, where a plump girl would have swollen and sagged.

Too fine a wife for an old man.

Some young gentlemen have a bad habit of falling in love with their friends’ mothers,” he murmured teasingly. “As I am told.”

With his arm around her waist he swayed her from side to side with the swaying of his body.

But she bent like young grass. His swelling belly would nestle into the curve of her back.

Eadgith rolled her eyes in their hollows. “I won’t let it become my problem if his mama weaned him too soon.”

Leofric laughed.

Leofric laughed. He saw she was trying to make a joke, though she managed no more than a weary upturn to the corners of her mouth.

“Fortunately I leave Naedre and his budding teeth to defend his dinner. And lest the young Irishman aim a little lower,” he grumbled in her ear, “I leave Sigefrith and his sword. They’ll be calling him Carry-​​ball by the time Sigefrith’s through carving him.”

Eadgith snorted. “He won’t even try.”

“He would try if he thought he could get away with it. Mark my words, Eadgith,” he growled. “Take it as a warning if you won’t take it any other way.”

'Take it as a warning if you won't take it any other way.'

She tried to turn towards him or turn away from him, and then he clamped his arms around her.

His woman.

The feeling of his hot breath coming back off her hair made his breath come faster. Her shoulders struggling against his chest made him feel strong, and her hip rocking against his groin made him feel young. Most of all, the idea of that prancing, pouting Irishman sneaking into her bed as soon as he was gone made him feel like an outraged god before an altar profaned.

He would say goodbye to her so hard she would not soon forget him.

He would say goodbye to her so hard she would not soon forget him.

So he would not forget her.

She squawked, “Leof – ”

Love, love.

He gripped her tighter.

She must have sensed she would not be able to squirm away from him. She threw her head back against his collarbone with a soundless crack and demanded sharply, “Do you know what Blythe said to me when I went to kiss her goodnight?”

Out of the mouths of babes.…

Leofric’s arms dropped and hung loose like slack ropes. Eadgith stepped away and walked to the fire, her head high but her limbs shaking.

Leofric breathed heavily and stared after her.

Leofric breathed heavily and stared after her.He was dizzy and steady by turns as his blood moved in a slow eddy between head and groin, head and groin, unsure. His heart turned senselessly in the center like a clump of floating chaff and leaves.

“She said that we are all practicing for when Grandfather will be dead.” He heard her swallow from across the room. “Where do you suppose she got that idea?”

He sighed and followed her to the fire. “Now, Pigeon, that is no doubt a very imperfect rendering of something she imperfectly heard when I imperfectly said it.”

'What did you say?'

“What did you say?”

“I don’t even know what I said!” he groaned. “I don’t know what she could have heard to come up with that. I only ever meant that her father will have to be lord here a while without me to back him up. We shall see how he takes to it.”

“We don’t need… practice,” she croaked.

'We don't need practice.'Her voice was thick with unshed tears.

“Now, you know precisely where I’m going and where I shall be,” he said wearily. “I shall be at Thorhold until Wednesday morning, and you can easily send me a message there if I’m needed.”

It was not too late to look for a message. Had she found his? He knew only that it had been left.

“And even afterwards,” he grumbled, “I’m only going to Winchester, and there’s only the one road. A messenger on fast horses will travel three or five times as fast as we ever shall. If there’s an emergency, you’ll know how to find me.”

'If there's an emergency, you'll know how to find me.'How far would he have to travel before he would be out of the range of fast horses? How far would he have to go before he could stop harking at every sound of hooves in hope of a reply?

“For eight years we practiced that you were dead,” Eadgith said.

Her voice was dark. It seemed she had not heard anything he had said.

“Sigefrith, too,” she muttered. “We know it can be done. We do not need to practice it again.”

'We do not need to practice it again.'

“Eadgith, it isn’t as if I’m going to war, or going to Jerusalem like Brit. A few weeks going there and a few weeks getting home. I thought you might rejoice to have Wyn and the grandbabies here for Christmas. All to yourself,” he mumbled.

Eadgith might have heard, but she had not listened. She had her things she wanted to say, and she would say them, though he answered her in tongues.

“Why are you going, Leof?” she demanded. “You owe me at least that much – to tell me why.”

'Why are you going, Leof?'

“Well, Pigeon, first of all you know how much I owe Theobald. This castle, these hills… I had to borrow money even to get here, you know – I had nothing.”

“I too!” she said defiantly. “I had to go begging to Alix! And if she didn’t curl her lip at me!”

Without a pause he murmured, “And I thought I ought to do at least that one thing for him,” speaking low to soothe her ancient jealousy. “Perhaps the last thing I ever can. And you know, Pigeon,” he said wryly, “if ever there was a man who had stored up sins enough to warrant a pilgrimage or ten…”

'If ever there was a man who had stored up sins enough to warrant a pilgrimage or ten...'

“Why, truly?” she asked breathlessly. “To forget her?”

He had said goodbye so hard.


“To get over her?”


She stepped away from him.

Holding him at a distance.

“You owe me at least the truth!”

'You owe me at least the truth!'

He gasped, “I owe you so much more than that!”

She looked up at him worriedly through her pale lashes.

It was not what she had expected from him.

“The only woman who ever loved me…” he whispered.

'The only woman who ever loved me...'The one man who loved her.

“Oh, rot,” Eadgith scowled. “You don’t expect me to believe that not one out of all those girls – ”

“Not one,” he echoed. “Real love, I mean. The sort that loves and demands nothing – ”

“Nothing is not what I demand, but it is often what I get!”

“You get nothing, and you love me anyway. That’s what I mean.”

It was not what she expected.

He kissed her forehead and sighed. His breath was lost in her hair.

He kissed her forehead and sighed.

She tried to shove him away, but did not quite try to escape. He curved his arms around her like a fence and let her struggle inside.

“How do you do it?” he whispered.

He tightened his arms, pulling her so close that she had no place to put her own but around his waist.

“I don’t know,” she said sourly. “I don’t know how not to do it. The Lord knows I’ve tried.”

“Even when I was dead – for eight years you still loved me,” he said in wonder.

'Even when I was dead--for eight years you still loved me.'

She snorted. “If it were that easy, I would have taken that knife and killed you long ago.”

He slipped his arms beneath hers, lifting them onto his shoulders. He bent her body back until he held the burden of her weight.

His arms were still that strong.

He bent her body back until he held the burden of her weight.

“How do you bear it, Pigeon?” he whispered.

He did not wait for her to answer, though he would have liked to have known.

He would love her so hard.

She breathed, “Leof – ”

Love, love.

'Even when I was dead--for eight years you still loved me.'