'I wager you're hungry enough to eat a dozen sweet buns.'

“So!” Estrid said conclusively to Astrid. “After that walk I wager you’re hungry enough to eat a dozen sweet buns.”

Astrid smiled weakly up at her, hesitant as ever to admit a desire for something she might not be allowed to have. Sophie simply stared.

“That would be greedy,” Astrid said after a moment’s reflection, “but I might be able to eat a couple…”

Estrid pulled a thin penny out of her purse and held it enticingly before Astrid’s face until the little girl’s eyes were just as big and round.

Sophie was annoyed. More than anything the tableau reminded her of Estrid teaching one of her dogs to sit up and beg.

'Sophie was annoyed.'

“How many sweet buns do you suppose you could buy with this?” Estrid cooed.

Astrid gasped, “I don’t know… but I suppose a lot!”

Estrid folded the little girl’s fist around the coin and patted it indulgently.

“Then go find out, honey, and sit with the pastrycook till we come, and see how many of them you can eat. And then perhaps we shall go to the dressmaker’s and ask whether she has any scraps to make some princess dresses for your dolls.”

'Then go find out, honey.'

Astrid could not have appeared more dazedly happy if she had been dubbed a princess herself on the spot. When she looked up for permission, Sophie could only wave her towards the pastry shop. She saved all her disapproval for Estrid.

“You just got rid of that little girl,” she growled.

'You just got rid of that little girl.'

“Honey, you are about to understand why!” Estrid laughed.

“Next time you want to get rid of either of those kids, you let me give them the penny.”

“They wouldn’t know what hit them if you did!” Estrid sniffed. “What’s a rich auntie for, if it isn’t to give one pennies at the least provocation?”

“And what am I? The evil stepsister?”

'And what am I?'

“Oh! You’re hardly a stepsister at all – you’re more like her stepmother or something. Or her grandmother, the prudish way you’ve been carrying on today.”

She hooked her fingers into the velvety wool of Sophie’s sleeve and turned her around.

“Now come on down and do me proud, Sophie. You used to know how to make even a dirty old man like Egelric blush.”

'Now come on down and do me proud, Sophie.'

“Judaeus Apella!” Sophie groaned. “What do they sell in here? And how long are they, and how big around?”

Estrid laughed richly. “That’s the spirit! I shall let you ask him that!”

Sophie attempted to snort and immediately found herself in urgent need to stop on the stairs and blow her nose.

Estrid did not wait for her. Her haughty “Good afternoon?” reached Sophie’s ears at the same moment a blast of smoggy air met her at the door.

'Good afternoon?'

She could scarcely breathe through her nose, but she tasted the shop on her tongue like a tarnished spoon. The sweltering humidity stifled her like a hand. She did not want to step inside.

Estrid squeaked, “Come in!” and flapped her hand on her cloak, as if calling one of her dogs.

Out of old, doglike habit, Sophie obeyed. The hot air embraced her triumphantly as she closed the door on her own best chance of escape. When she opened her mouth she found she could breathe no better. The metallic reek of the room smothered her like a man’s sweaty chest.

A man’s deep voice boomed out of the back of the shop, “I come, I come!”

He spoke with the sound of a drum or a low horn: a warning sound that made Sophie’s aching cheekbones buzz.

Her eyelids fluttered desperately against the darkness.

Her eyelids fluttered desperately, trying to make sense of the darkness of the room before he came. Candles shone in every corner and cast reflections off every glittering surface, disorienting her. At her slightest movement they swirled around her like stars detached from their velvety heaven, as when she received a blow to the back of the head.

The man hurried around the low wall, panting an apology. “So, I am sorry, I have no apprentice yet to open door.”

'I have no apprentice yet to open door.'

Like the haunting spirit of a ruin, he seemed the very embodiment of the suffocating air Sophie breathed. He was big and broad-​​shouldered, square-​​jawed and thick-​​necked, with biceps that would crush as easily as embrace. His long fingers had a metallic sheen, like the tines of tarnished forks. His fair skin glowed a mottled pink with heat, and his naked chest was dripping with sweat. Sophie had not smelled anything in four days, but she could taste this man.

Estrid pulled her scarf over her cheek and turned her head quickly to flash a gleeful grin at Sophie. Clearly this shirtless, kilted man was the surprise.

He looked dubiously between the two ladies, taking in their fine, expensive cloaks, before making up his mind to bend deeply at the waist in a humble bow. The medallions he wore swung briefly away from his chest, reflecting candlelight like darting stars. As he stood, they fell back again with a wet slap.

He looked dubiously between the two ladies.

“Ladies?” he prompted.

“So, good man,” Estrid giggled, “my friend and I just noticed there was a new shop, and so, we stepped in here to see what you were selling.” To Sophie she added in a low Norse aside: “And how long it is, and how big around!”

'And how long it is, and how big around!'

The man started and glanced at Sophie, flustered, his eyes briefly wide and revealing. Sophie met his gaze with a blank stare until he recovered and turned back to Estrid with a sly half-​​grin.

“So, ladies,” he replied in perfect, though queerly accented Norse, “I am a silversmith, and sell by weight, not by length or girth. And sadly my scale has not yet been checked! But if you like you may hold my wares in your hands to see how you like the size.”

'But if you like you may hold my wares in your hands.'

Now it was Estrid who looked anxiously to Sophie, but Sophie stared straight ahead at the smutty wood of the half-​​wall. It was stained black nearly to hip-​​height, she noticed coolly. She decided this room must sometimes flood.

“But you… speak Norse?” Estrid asked with a cracked voice. She seemed to be speaking to the man’s groin.

He tapped his tarnished finger against his lips. “Up here I do.”

“But your – your – ” Estrid was suddenly so careful not to stare at his kilt that she seemed incapable of even mentioning it. “We thought you were a Scot!” she gasped.

'We thought you were a Scot!'

Sophie silently objected that she had not thought anything about this man, as she had not even known he existed until a minute ago. She said nothing aloud, however. She knew if she held very still it would soon be over, and she could breathe freely again. Arguing was pointless and would only prolong it.

“Who told you that lie?” the smith demanded. “That Welshman, I bet! I’m a Manxman, ladies, as I’ll have to remind him! And we invented kilts,” he added with a snort.

'And we invented kilts.'

“Are you from Man?” Estrid gushed. “My brother’s from there! Or – not from there, but he’s living there now! Have you heard of him? Eirik! Brass-​​Dog!”

'Have you heard of him?'

The man threw back his head and laughed. “Brass-Dog’s your brother, is he? And Whitehand’s my sister!” He held out his grimy hand to prove the absurdity of his statement.

'Whitehand's my sister!'

Immediately Estrid went as straight and cold as an icicle.

“Beware, my good man,” she murmured in her haughtiest, courtliest Norse. “You have either called me a liar or Whitehand a woman, and you may be surprised when you learn who is the crueler enemy.”

'You may be surprised when you learn who is the crueler enemy.'

The man’s laughter faltered and went tinny. His feet were squarely planted on the floor, but his body swayed slightly above them as his shoulders tried and failed to set themselves square.

He glanced at Sophie, perhaps hoping that she would laugh and unmask the joke behind Estrid’s frigid severity. Sophie stared blankly ahead.

At last he seemed to draw some strength from deep inside himself, and he shook his finger insolently at Estrid.

'He shook his finger insolently at Estrid.'

“Now that you mention it, I do see a resemblance. And I did think you looked like a princess when I saw you.”

Estrid relaxed and swayed. “I am not a princess,” she tittered. She could not resist adding smugly, “Only the granddaughter of princes.”

“And what do you call the sister of a king?” he drawled.

'And what do you call the sister of a king?'

“Ah, but my brother is not a king, good man. Only the great-​​grandson of kings.”

“Would you look any different if he became king?”


“Then you will see that I was right by and by.”

No compliment to her own face or form could flatter Estrid like a compliment to her brother. The smith won from her one of her eager, unaffected, girlish smiles, ever rarer these days.

The smith won from her one of her eager, unaffected, girlish smiles.

So reassured, he tossed his head towards Sophie and said to Estrid, “Better warn me before I get another enemy: who’s her brother? The Archbishop of Canterbury?”

Sophie muttered to herself in her own language, “King Friedrich of the Moors.”

“What say?” the smith asked in English. “She doesn’t understand a word we’re saying, does she?” he asked Estrid in Norse, smiling slyly as though the fact opened up interesting conversational possibilities.

'She doesn't understand a word we're saying, does she?'

Estrid shook her finger at him and scolded, “Oh, yes, she does! I don’t think her brothers are anything, but she married a Norseman. And so, you are just the man she needed to see, for she married a man named Silver-​​White and she still hasn’t bought him anything for Christmas!”

At last Sophie was annoyed enough to hiss, “Estrid!”


She had no intention of spending any of Stein’s silver to buy him a gift consisting of a lesser quantity of the same. He had already spent so much of it to buy the life of her first husband, and still more to buy her a new horse and new gowns and the very cloak she wore.

Stein’s family had been so poor that he thought himself a rich man now, but neither he nor Estrid ever seemed to comprehend that Brede brought in more in a month with his fields and orchards and mills than Thorn-​​Row earned Stein in the space of a year.

Stein would get nothing for Christmas that she and the children could not make themselves. She knew Stein well enough to know that he would be delighted. She only hoped he would come home in time. She only hoped he would come home.

“So, I am just the man you needed to see!” the smith said broadly to her. “What does a silver-​​white man want for Christmas but more silver?”

'What does a silver-white man want for Christmas but more silver?'

“Perhaps he’s sick of silver and wants gold?” Sophie snapped, hoping she appeared disagreeable enough that the man would be put off and return to leering at Estrid.

The man appeared to hesitate, but she had not counted on Estrid.

“Oh, nonsense!” Estrid laughed. “A man can never have too much silver, and a silver man least of all! How about a nice belt buckle like this one?”

The smith chuckled over his shoulder at her. “Oh, is that what you were looking at?”

'Is that what you were looking at?'

Rather than make a distractingly flirtatious reply, Estrid turned stupid, and only blushed and giggled like a girl.

“I think Stein blinds enough people with his face as it is,” Sophie muttered. “He doesn’t need to do it with his crotch, too.”

Estrid squealed, “Sophie!” and laughed so deeply she seemed to feel the need to lean against the sturdy smith.


The smith looked down on her in amusement for a moment before swaying teasingly away to swagger across the room.

“Now,” he pretended to scold, “if her husband can hold up his pants without a belt, at all times and through all seasons, then I can only congratulate him! And her!

'I can only congratulate him!'

He winked at Sophie, and when that failed to produce a reaction, he winked at Estrid to charming effect.

“But I know what every man needs,” he said pompously, “unless he already blinded himself, and that’s a light.

He reached back and lifted a silver candlestick from the table with the same fluid movement some men used to draw a sword.

He reached behind him and snatched a silver candlestick off the table.

“And if he has a light, he needs a candlestick to put it on.”

“Well, perhaps not that,” Estrid said hastily, but too late.

Sophie heard herself moan. It was the guttural, animal moan her body would make in spite of herself, in spite of her defiant vows and valiant struggles to stay silent.

Sophie heard herself moan.

It was the sound she made when her husband dared take her past mere pain and into bodily horrors – when he pressed her nipple between his thumb and the edge of a blade, or held her hand over a fire until she thought she felt her skin melting. It was the sound she made in her head when he held his hand so tightly around her throat she could not breathe to moan.

She had thought she would never hear that sound again. Her husband was dead, dead. But she was still in the grip of his ghost. He was all around her, inside of her, in the suffocating air she tried to breathe.

She was still in the grip of his ghost.

The smith quavered, “Sophia?”

Estrid repeated after him, “Sophie?” perhaps as much to correct him as to comfort her.

“What did I say?”

'What did I say?'

“So,” Estrid said delicately, “that is somewhat difficult to explain…”

Sophie heard herself laugh. She was no more responsible for her laughter than for her moan: it rose irresistibly out of her like bubbles bursting to the surface when putrid muck was stirred.

“Look at the blush on him!” she cried. “Red as a roast piglet! I still do me proud!”

She threw open the door with such a bang that a stripe of wet snow fell onto the threshold from above, and she went out laughing.

She went out laughing.