Sir Baldwin’s Manor, Wintermere

With a fingertip Estrid traced the dust out of curlicue carvings.

With a fingertip Estrid traced the dust out of curlicue carvings on the back of the door, stopping and starting as the vines led her through a maze full of nothing but dead ends.

At home she would have known the pattern with her eyes closed. At home she could have found her way to the guest room door in the dark, her feet padding through the corridors as they existed in her mind, but here Eadwyn had had to point it out to her. She had gotten turned about and lost her way.

Was it possible that such a familiar person as a seven years’ husband could be found behind a strange door?

She listened, so well acquainted with his sounds that she could see him in the dark. She heard the floorboards creak beneath his feet and saw him move. A pocketful of coins, cloak pins, and other masculine bric-​a-​brac clattered onto a tray. A sniffle. A muffled thump: a tunic carelessly dropped.

But she heard no shuffling, no dragging feet, no banging into furniture.

She heard no shuffling.

Then she heard the splash of two hands plunging into water and the slap of two wet palms against a face. Estrid pressed her hands against her cheeks, so intimately familiar with his gestures that she could almost feel his body in her own. She closed her eyes and wiped her hands back into her hair, as he was doing behind the wall. He would be leaving damp streaks across his temples, she only dust.

She expected him to snort in conclusion like a horse, but instead he sniffled again. Estrid let her arms fall. Was he crying or only cold? Eadwyn had told her he already knew about—

Estrid’s eyes brimmed with tears, and resolutely she wiped them away with the back of her hand and knocked on the door before they had the time to dry. Then, waiting for Brede’s thudding feet to cross the floor, she thought how absurd it was to knock for admittance to her husband’s bedroom.

She scarcely glimpsed his face, but he must have seen a wet, woozy smile on hers before he embraced her. Her feet left the floor, and the hems of her skirts flared behind her and flapped against his legs as he spun her into the room. With a heel or an elbow he shut the door, then leaned forward to settle her on her feet, still holding her pressed tightly against him.

That brief swirl of movement was followed by such stillness as comes after the crash of a tree. Estrid’s skirts swished the floor and fell quiet. Cold air from the open windows touched her cheek.

They did not talk.

They did not speak, and Estrid began to cry in breathy silence. Only once she made a sound, when he slid his hand beneath her hair to hold the back of her neck in the warm clasp of his fingers.

Her little yelp at this unexpected tenderness made him hold her tighter, and at last she let her head droop against his shoulder. It had been so long since she had not shriveled and puckered away from his touch. So long since he had touched her this way.

Wetted by tears, the crook of his neck smelled like his pillow at home. Estrid relaxed against his bare skin and let herself cry. For the first time in a month her sobs did not wring her like fists, but left her, like something that could be poured out. For the first time she felt some relief.

Wetted by tears, the crook of his neck smelled like his pillow at home.

Brede cried too. She knew it mostly from his sniffling, but sometimes his chest heaved beneath her and his arms shuddered. He held back his sobs with the same gentle strength that held her, as if his grief too might have spilled out of him, but he did not want her to drown.

Estrid was touched and grateful for his care and concern. And she was annoyed at herself for letting herself go, because she soon had to squirm an arm free to pull out one of the handkerchiefs that stuffed her purse fat.

While she blew her nose, Brede sniffled and looked around for a cloth of his own, with one arm still warm about her shoulders. He was down to his trousers and had no purse, so Estrid pulled out another handkerchief and handed it to him while she wiped her face.

Brede laughed a little at the lacy trim—the first time she had heard his voice in months—but he blew his nose like a trumpet. Estrid snorted sloppily and giggled, and they smiled at one another with teary faces, still clinging loosely together with an arm each.

The sight of him made her shy.

The sight of him made her shy. Neither had yet spoken, and she feared their first word would be something stupid, something about snot or lace, so she cleared her throat, took up her stateliest, courtliest Norse, and said, “Heill, hjartath mitt.

It was the greeting her aunt always gave her Uncle Haakon when he returned from the sea, and she had taught it to Sigrid while Sigrid was living in Norway. Hail, my heart: it was probably the closest the unromantic little woman ever came to telling Estrid’s poor brother I love you.

But then—Estrid’s lip quivered—who was she to criticize her sister-​in-​law? She did not think Sigrid had ever let herself be touched by another man.

Brede’s face had been soft and sheepish, perhaps preparing that comment about snot or lacy trim, or perhaps only his familiar Danish greeting of “Hallo, Puss.” But he composed himself in reply to her formality, and said in his courtliest, stateliest Norse, “Hail, wife of mine.”

'Hail, wife of mine.'

She regretted the stiffness she had introduced between them. It was strange, but she missed those snotty, teary smiles of a moment before.

She dabbed at her nose and laughed shakily. “I can’t believe you’re here! I was expecting anything tonight but you. Or so, mostly a baby, but not you, anyway.”

He cocked his head and smiled. His voice was creaky and stuffy. “In that case I don’t blame you for not looking out for a couple of men on horseback.”

He cocked his head and smiled.

She smiled, but her heart pained her. She had looked out for him every night for weeks. She had cried into his pillow. It was only when she had started to think of K again that he had come.

“I can’t believe it’s you.” She squeezed his arm to reassure herself that it was. The muscle was harder than she remembered. “We only just came today! And I almost didn’t come at all. Sophie had to drag me by my hair. I…”

How could she put the anguish of this last month of nights into words? She got up more often to check on her children than she had when they were newborns. And almost as soon as she was back in her bed, the wondering would begin again: What if one of them had stopped breathing?

How could she put the anguish of this last month of nights into words?

She was getting up more frequently with every passing night. Even she knew it had to stop. Still, it had taken Eadie, Sophie, and Bertie combined to coax, command, and carry her away.

Brede touched her damp cheek, and out of reflex she tensed, expecting to be groped. But his fingers were gentle.

“How are you, Puss?”

She looked up at him. She knew every turn of his face. She knew every freckle, every lash, every fold, and so she knew that something had changed. He looked older. Sober in more ways than mere abstention from wine. He looked wayworn and sorrowful and wise.

He looked wayworn and wise.

“What happened to you out there?” she whispered.

He touched a fingertip to her lips. “Nothing, compared to what you’ve been through.”

She opened her mouth and sucked in a breath past his finger. She tried to hold herself together this time. He pulled her head closer, and she expected a kiss, but he only pressed her forehead against his cheek and sighed into her hair. His big hand clasped the back of her head.

She thanked God he already knew. She could not have told him. She did not know how she would ever move the vastness of her grief with cupfuls of words. But when he held the back of her neck in his warm hand she could feel it flow between them, the level falling.

'I'm so sorry I wasn't here for you.'

He said, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for you.”

Estrid shook her head. A man had to be a man.

“Eirik came… four days after,” she faltered. “And so, that helped. But he couldn’t stay long.”

Brede was quiet, stroking the side of her neck with the pad of his thumb. She wanted him to acknowledge her brother.

“Did he tell you?” she asked.

Brede sighed. “I didn’t see him.”

Estrid lifted her head. “What? Didn’t he save you?”

Brede dropped his arms.

Brede dropped his arms. He muttered, “You might say that.” He turned away to the window in the alcove. “May we shut these now?”

“Of course. But Brede—”

“Please, I don’t want to talk about your brother tonight.”

He leaned over the steaming basin and pulled the shutter closed. Goosebumps stippled the backs of his arms. When he stood back, she noticed that the lumps of flesh on either side of his waist were gone.

The lumps of flesh on either side of his waist were gone.

“What happened to you out there?” she asked again.


A hard edge came into his voice, and Estrid was hurt that he would respond with annoyance to the concern in hers. She turned abruptly and walked over his rumpled tunic to get to the other window. She would not pick it up and fold it, she promised herself.

Brede followed her out of the alcove, and spoke softly again. “Let me talk to Sigefrith first, please, so I don’t forget what I have and haven’t told. Let me get a night’s sleep first.”

Estrid stuck her head outside. She could hear Freya squealing in delight over her sister’s baby in the next room. She pulled the shutter closed and the delight stopped.

“Puss, don’t be angry at me,” he said. “None of that matters to us. I’m just too tired to talk about it tonight.”

Estrid did not turn. “Eirik asked me whether there was anything he could do for me. And I told him to bring you home.”

'I told him to bring you home.'

“He certainly did anything,” Brede muttered.

Then he sighed. She heard him scratch his hair.

“Listen, Puss. I would suffer anything to spare you pain. And I’m glad I made it back here for you, and perhaps I shall even be grateful to Eirik someday, but God knows I did suffer.”

Estrid turned then.

He concluded, “So I don’t want to talk about it tonight.”

“Did somebody hurt you?”

“What hurt most was knowing, and not being able to get back to you for weeks. No.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “What hurt most was not even knowing for certain. Perhaps I’ll thank Eirik someday, but that was the cruelest message I ever received. I hope he thought it necessary. He could at least have given me some proof it was really from him.”

Estrid shook her head, confused. Eirik had not explained his plan to her. All that had mattered at the time was that Eirik had a plan.

Estrid shook her head, confused.

“Didn’t you recognize the bag?” she asked.

“What bag? They were in a plain, ordinary, white bag.”

“What were?”

Brede finally stopped scowling at her absent brother and turned his befuddled face to her. After a moment his brows lowered again and the corners of his mouth turned down. “The coins. He sent me money.”

Estrid whimpered, “Didn’t you get my bag?”

'Didn't you get my bag?'

Your bag?”

“Eirik took my sewing bag so you would know he had been to see me.”

Estrid’s eyes filled with tears, and Brede’s face softened. “I never got your bag, Puss. I only saw a plain white one.”

“But what happened to my bag?”

'But what happened to my bag?'

It was stupid, but she was crying over her lost bag. And Brede pulled her close and tried to comfort her as if it mattered.

“Perhaps the men that met me sold it,” he murmured. “It was such a pretty bag… all the hours you spent beading it…”

“But why steal the bag and not the money?”

Brede stroked her hair. “I’m certain they thought the money was the important thing and the bag was just a bag.”

“But I wanted you to have that bag…” She had imagined him receiving it, keeping it close, cherishing it for her sake. And all this time he had not had it.

'I wanted you to have that bag...'

“I wager it was a love-​gift for somebody’s sweetheart, Puss. That’s how fine it was. A marry-​me gift, I wager. Even thieves have romances. But we shall make you a new bag now. All sea-​green silk, inside and out, with a gold clasp, and all beaded-​over with pearls…”

His low voice and his luxurious words reminded her of the songs she sang to her girls: a sea-wife’s lullabies, naming all the pretty things Papa would bring them when his ship came in on the tide.

Estrid’s father had died while she was still in the womb, so to her the finest treasure aboard those dream-​ships had always been the Papa coming home. She had always had gold and pearls aplenty.

And yet she had been so enamored of her lover at first, she had fantasized about Brede dying and never coming back!

Estrid’s tears spilled over onto Brede’s bare skin. She had to pull herself together. What were they talking about? A new bag.

'What were they talking about?'

We shall make it?” she mumbled between sniffles. She kneaded her handkerchief in her fist, but she did not want to lift her head from Brede’s shoulder to wipe her nose.

“Why not?” he asked. “I can learn to bead. I learned to knit on Man.”

Now Estrid pulled back her head. “You did not!

He grinned at her. “I certainly did. All the men knit there.”

“You did not!

They laughed together, she teary-​eyed and sniffly, he fond and tired.

They laughed together.

“I expect to see proof of this newfound talent, sir,” she said, attempting to squeeze her smile into a stern pout.

“Just as soon as my hands have healed.” Brede held up one palm and pointed at it with the other hand, tallying his injuries. “Rope burns, old blisters from oars and fresh ones from reins…”

“Oh, Brede…”

Estrid stuffed her handkerchief away and cupped his big hand in her palms. She looked right at the scabs and blisters, but she was only truly seeing what her fingertips were tracing on the other side: its ridges, its rough skin and hair, its knuckles, its sinews. She knew the back of that hand as well as her own.

Brede looked embarrassed at her rapt attention and tried to take back his hand, but Estrid pulled it up and pressed it against her cheek. She realized her face was flushed and hot, and feared the salt of her tears would sting more than soothe, but Brede closed his eyes and sighed. The frowning lines of his face faded, and even his eyelids went smooth. Not fatigue, not exasperation: the look of a man taking pleasure in her touch. A familiar warmth flooded Estrid’s belly.

She laid her other hand on his bare chest, and Brede snapped awake. He plucked both of her hands away, smiling apologetically, etching tired lines around his eyes.

“Let me finish washing up,” he said, “and we shall go to bed. You’re probably exhausted, too, from tending Ana.”

“Oh, bother! You’re not that dirty, are you?”

'You're not that dirty, are you?'

Brede gave a spot beneath his collarbone a brisk rub, and lifted his hand away to reveal gray rolls of dirt. Estrid wrinkled her nose.

“Last night I was so tired I slept in my mail.”

“It’s a wonder you didn’t bake. So, let’s take care of you.”

Estrid marched into the alcove to fetch the basin of water. Brede lifted his hands helplessly as Estrid marched back through the steam. She clunked the basin down on a chest and tossed a big towel out across the floor.

“I can take care of me myself,” he pleaded.

Estrid snapped her fingers and pointed at the towel. She did not know what possessed her, but she answered him in Danish. “When’s the last time you washed behind your ears?”

He laughed. “Didn’t you just tell me I’m not that dirty?” But he stepped onto the towel.

Estrid folded another towel and dipped a corner into the water. “Lift your arms. Just like cleaning the barn: we start in the dirtiest part and work outwards.”

“Is this going to tickle?”

'Is this going to tickle?'

“If you are lucky, it won’t hurt.”

She grabbed his opposite shoulder to steady him and scrubbed at his armpit, pressing so hard that water squeezed out of the towel and trickled down his ribs. He grabbed the dry trailing end of the towel and rubbed his side.

“That does tickle!”


He was so winsome with his Danish. Except for private conversations with his brother and uncle, he only spoke it when he played with his littlest babies. Even then it was only as a treat to himself, for he wanted them to speak English.

He had long since given up his Danish love-​talk with her. She had made certain he understood how grating she found it—not because it was, but because it hurt him.

Estrid wet the towel again and went to his other armpit.

“Puss,” he said.




He sighed and waited until she lowered her head to scrub down his side. When had she last seen his ribs?

“How is everyone at home?” he asked softly in Norse. “How are the children taking it?”

Estrid kept scrubbing, grateful for her task. “So, Dyr and Daeg are all right. They… understand everything. They are sad, but so.”

She bustled off to get more water. Brede turned to watch her.

“Thyra, she doesn’t understand.”

Estrid clapped the towel against his shoulder blade and rubbed. Water trickled down his back. Brede did not speak or squirm.

“Sometimes she seems to think Finna’s coming back because we tell her you are. Sometimes that you’re never coming back because Finna isn’t. She doesn’t seem to let it bother her very often. But so, sometimes I believe that girl thinks about a lot of things we never guess.”

“She’s deep.”


Estrid wet a different corner of her towel and went to scrub Brede’s chest. He wore a new silver medallion on a long cord. Some saint she did not know. She lifted it away from his skin to pass the towel beneath. She did not like this unfamiliar thing on his person. It made her imagine him far away, suffering and praying without her.

She slapped the towel against his breast, and rivulets of water ran down his belly.

She slapped the towel against his breast.

He whispered, “Puss.”


She put one hand on his back so that she could press harder. She had to stand very close to him. Their bodies rocked with every stroke of her arm.

“Will they be happy to see me?”

“Of course they will.”

“No, will they truly? Did they truly miss having me around?”

'Did they truly miss having me around?'

Estrid’s scrubbing slowed. “Of course they did, Brede. Your children love you, you know. You’re a good father when you’re…”

“…not drunk.”

“No, I meant to say in a good mood. But…”

“But, so.”

She sighed and washed his neck. “But, so,” she agreed.

He pinched the edge of the towel to get her attention. “I mean to be in a good mood more often now. All the time, I mean.”

Estrid looked up at his face.

“No—I mean, not drink. That’s what I mean. I shall say it plainly: the wine I tasted downstairs shall be the last. I promise. There.”

His face was flushed red as if he had in fact been drinking. Estrid trailed the wet corner of the towel over his collarbone, suddenly angry that it had taken the death of their daughter to bring him to this. She had begged him so many times in vain.

'I want us to be happy again.'

“I want us to be happy again,” he said. “I know—I know we’ll never be quite that happy again, but I want us to be a happy family again. I never want to make another such a journey home, fearing my own children will be sorry to see me arrive. That my own wife will wish I’d stayed gone.”

Estrid sobbed. Brede mistook it for heartache, and he pulled her head close and shushed her, never dreaming that she had fantasized about receiving news of his death.

“I’m sorry, Puss,” he murmured into her hair. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

He tugged the wet towel out of her hands and dropped it onto the floor.

“Let’s get me dried off and go to bed. I want to hold you.”

Estrid twined her arms around his back and pulled herself tight against him. She was startled to find him already hard.

“Sorry!” he winced, in an entirely different tone of sorry. “I haven’t been so… clean in months…”

Estrid was rigid, but Brede nestled her close.

Estrid was rigid, but Brede nestled her close, rubbed her back, and finally slid his hand up beneath her hair. She noticed now how he caressed her skin with only the tips of his fingers, so gentle that he even thought to protect her from the touch of his scabby palm.

Gradually she relaxed and tried to settle her body into his familiar hollows, but she wanted to draw back from the feeling of her husband hard against her, wanting her, pressing into a belly that was already full with another man’s child. For a fleeting instant she had another murderous thought, and she whimpered.

Brede cuddled her close, never dreaming. She knew she could never tell him.

She knew she could never tell him.

“Puss,” he sighed, his head on her shoulder and hers on his. “Sometimes even a kiss seems crass, and I only want to hold you.”

Estrid sniffled and pulled herself together. “Don’t tell Mind-​of-​his-​own down there.”

Brede chuckled. His breast rumbled against hers. His arms enfolded her in an ever-​narrowing embrace. She felt something billowing out of him, something warm and cloudlike that rose above the sludge of grief she had waded through for weeks. She sought to name it. He could not be feeling happiness, not now. Not contentment, either.

Then he pulled back his head and smiled at her. He tipped his forehead against hers, smiled just before her nose, spoke a few warm words across her lips. She remembered: it was love.

“Hallo, heart of mine.”

He said it in Danish. She thought it very fine.

'Hallo, heart of mine.'