Stein's eyes went straight to Sophie's.

Stein’s eyes went straight to Sophie’s as soon as she stepped into the hall. She stopped walking, and he stopped dead in the middle of a sentence, and everything went still except for the clamor of Sophie’s heart thudding its way up into her throat.

Then Astrid shattered the silence by squealing, “Stein! You’re home!”

That was precisely what Sophie had been thinking. But because Astrid had said it first, Stein turned his attention to her. And all the fuss and chatter started up again.

Eadric clattered in behind Sophie in his little hard-​soled shoes, and Brandt writhed in her arms in his desperation to be put down and follow his brother. An unfamiliar baby whined on Edris’s shoulder, and Astrid ran at Stein between a strange woman and a strange boy, narrowly escaping the countercharge of a strange, auburn-​haired toddler, and who in Jehoshephat’s name were all these people?

Who in Jehoshephat's name were all these people?

“Astrid, heil!” Stein held out his arms just in time to catch Astrid as she leapt at him.

The sight of her skinny arms clamping Stein’s white hair against the back of his neck wrung Sophie’s heart. One rarely saw Stein at home without at least one little monkey clinging to him. She’d missed him for the children’s sake as much as her own. She’d done her best, but there was no standing in for Stein.

“You missed my birthday!” Astrid cried. “By one day! Listen! Put me down! You missed my birthday, but did you know Estrid has the same birthday as me? So we had our birthday together, and we had everything to eat that both of us like!”

'So we had our birthday together!'

“That sounds like a feast,” Stein said breathlessly, for Brandt was tugging on his pants, and Eadric had simply wrapped himself around his leg. And the baby Edris was holding started to cry.

Sophie looked around while Stein wrestled both her boys into his arms in spite of the evident desire of each to “go first.”

Who were all these people? She counted three, four, five children, with the baby; all of them so blond that the auburn-​haired little boy stuck out like an ugly duckling. The strange woman was busy soothing the small child she held, in spite of the girl’s drowsy indifference to all the confusion around her.

The woman was, Sophie thought, deliberately not looking at her; and all Sophie could see of her was an elegant profile and a crown of wheat-​colored braids beneath a filmy veil.

The woman was, Sophie thought, deliberately not looking at her.

Who was this woman, and why was she traveling with Stein? A pinprick of jealousy found Sophie’s heart and drew a welling drop of blood.

Then the auburn-​haired mite stopped at Stein’s feet and demanded, “My turn!”

Your turn?” Stein groaned as he stooped to set Brandt and Eadric back on the floor. “It has been your turn for the past week!”

“Who is everyone?” Astrid asked, again putting Sophie’s thoughts into words. “Did they come with you?”

'Who is everyone?'

Stein scratched his hair and turned a sheepish smile on his sister, deliberately aiming lower than Sophie’s face.

“I suppose it’s time for some introductions. This little rascal,” he said, teasing the toddler at his feet with his boot toe, “is my godson, Sweyn.”

Sophie was startled enough to echo, “Your godson?”

Her motherly instinct was first to flare up, full of jealousy for her sons, who would have to share Stein with this interloper. It took a moment for the flames to subside and for her to figure out who the little boy was.

“Eirik’s son?” she asked. Only then did she realize what this meant. “Oh, dear God!”

Stein winced. “No, no, he’s fine. At least, he was when I left. But he wants us to keep Sweyn safe for him.”

“For how long?” Astrid asked with mild curiosity, saving Sophie, who dared not be so petty as to ask.

The little boy looked up at her and Astrid with a similar curiosity but a devilish smile. Sophie reckoned he would still be in diapers for another year at least. And he looked like the enterprising sort who might be amused by smearing their contents on the walls.

The little boy looked up at her and Astrid with a similar curiosity but a devilish smile.

“For as long as he needs,” Stein said as he guided Astrid past little Sweyn and up to Edris. “And, sweetie, this baby is your own nephew, Harald. Do you remember how Guthrun was getting ready to have a baby last time you saw her?”

“Did she die?”

“Yes, she did. About a week ago.”

Edris tried to lower the baby into Astrid’s sight, but that only made him squirm and fuss the more. He was pink-​faced and tear-​stained now, but he looked to be a pretty baby, with chubby limbs, fair skin like Stein’s, a tuft of golden hair atop his head, and several handsome teeth. Another couple years of diapers.

Astrid asked, “Is he crying because he’s sad his Mama died?”

“Right now,” Stein said gently, leaning over Astrid’s shoulder as she looked at the baby, “I think he’s crying because he missed his nap, and he’s been traveling for days and days, so he’s very tired. But I’m certain he’s sad, too, so we must be especially kind to him. He loved his Mama very much.”

Stein straightened slowly, with stiff movements, revealing how he too had been traveling for days and days and was very tired. And the quick glance he lifted to Sophie from beneath his pale lashes was sad. Sophie’s heart ached for him. He too had loved Guthrun—loved her so much he had left everything and stayed with her till she died. Sophie swore she would be especially kind to him. She just needed to be given the chance.

“And this is Solveig, and her children,” Stein said, speaking at adult-​height again but avoiding Sophie’s eyes. “Orm is Olaf’s age, and Thorarna is five, and Thora will be two in the summer. They’re going to stay with us for a while.”

'They're going to stay with us for a while.'

“Heil!” Astrid said, glancing all around, but mostly at the five-​year-​old beside her.

The five-​year-​old was probably used to that, Sophie thought. If her siblings had milk-​white skin then hers was the color of pale honey, and her face was exquisitely pretty and probably always would be.

Sophie felt jealous for Astrid’s sake: plain, round-​faced, weak-​chinned, pasty-​white, earnest little Astrid. The five-​year-​old looked like the gilded princess Astrid longed to be. And she returned Astrid’s curious gaze with a heavy-​lidded, princess-​like stare.

“Ardith’s sister is four,” Astrid said to the girl, attempting to make friends. The girl only blinked at her. She would be a handful, Sophie reckoned.

Fortunately this Orm boy appeared to be of an age to entertain himself with Olaf’s help, and he did not have the sullen, wish-​I-​were-​anywhere-​else look that some twelve-​year-​olds constantly wore. He even gave Sophie a shy smile that made up her mind to like him.

But his mother… His mother was whispering something into Stein’s ear that earned her one of Stein’s smiles.

His mother was whispering something into Stein's ear that earned her one of Stein's smiles.

It made no difference that a closer study of her face revealed careworn lines that never quite faded between frowns or smiles, nor that the mother of a boy Olaf’s age was necessarily several years older than Stein. She was still a beauty, and one was scarcely tempted to add “for her age.” And this strange, elegant blonde had grown close enough to Stein that he had offered her a home.

“So, Sol,” he said, “this is my wife, Sophie.”

Being called his wife helped a little. But he laid a hand on Solveig’s arm, and did not touch Sophie at all.

But he laid a hand on Solveig's arm.

“Heil, Sophie,” Solveig said. “I hope we do not impose.”

“Of course not,” Sophie was obliged to reply. “You’re very welcome. It’s a big house.”

“Thank you. Stein has told me so much about you. I find your Norse quite good,” she added. The sly glance she sent at Stein implied he had told her otherwise, though it looked less scolding than amused.

“Not at all,” Sophie drawled. “I mix up my words all the time. That tends to happen when one learns one’s fourth language.”

Solveig’s smile went a little flat. That round had been for Sophie.

But it was a cheap victory.

But it was a cheap victory, and she did not even know by how much she started at a disadvantage. What had Stein told the woman? Had he told her how she’d throttled her first husband with a candlestick? How he’d never thought of marrying her, but had been dragged out of his bed in his underpants and bullied into it by a little blonde spitfire? How he’d spent more than half of their wedded life abroad, by his own choosing, and had never even consummated their marriage till the last weeks before he’d gone away to Man?

And what had happened in the four months he was there?

An awkward silence set in at adult-​height, even while Astrid and Ardith could be heard chattering; the three littlest boys ran hollering around the room, enjoying the wide open spaces and congenial acoustics of Bernwald’s hall; and the baby in Edris’s arms began to wail.

There was such cacophony that at first Sophie hardly heard what Stein did: a new cry, but so weak and wavering that it was quite outdone by the baby’s lusty squalls. She only noticed it when Stein reacted.

She only noticed it when Stein reacted.

“Sweet Mother of Mercy,” he sighed. Then he turned. “Girls! Come here, girls.”

He scooted Astrid and Ardith away from an alcove, revealing—Sweet Mother of Mercy!—another child. Another blonde-​haired mite of a girl, about the size of the five-​year-​old Thorarna, but merely pink and white where Thorarna was gold. It was hard to say whether she was the Little Princess’s rival in prettiness, with her face so distorted by fear.

That made six, Sophie reckoned. At least this one looked to be out of diapers.

Sophie herded Astrid and Ardith away while Stein soothed the whimpering child.

“I don’t think she speaks English,” Sophie told the abashed girls.

“But I tried Norse with her!” Astrid protested.

“Girls,” Stein said softly as he joined them, “that’s Jorunn. I was about to introduce you.”

'We were only trying to make friends.'

“We were only trying to make friends,” Astrid said.

“I know, girls, but we have to be especially gentle with Jorunn. She’s an orphan like you and me, except she doesn’t have any big brothers or sisters or uncles to take her in. Her father died a few months ago, and the same day Jorunn fell in the water and almost drowned. So, after all that she doesn’t feel like talking any more. She understands if you speak Norse with her, but she gets scared sometimes if she doesn’t know you, or you corner her.”

“But she was in a corner!” Astrid pointed out. “How could we not corner her?”

'How could we not corner her?'

Stein sighed and got down onto one knee. Astrid was exasperated and almost in tears, but Sophie suspected it was only the fear of the unknown and the inexplicable. Stein guessed it, too, and did not lose patience with her. Sometimes Sophie thought he was more cut out to be a mother than she was.

“So,” Stein said, “remember when you got your new kitten, and she was so scared of everything being strange and new that she hid under your bed? And how Sophie told you if you waited right next to the bed she would never come out, but if you left her alone and gave her time to gain confidence, she would come out by herself?”

Astrid was still shaken enough to respond with annoyance. She rolled her eyes and said, “So, what you are trying to say is that Jorunn is like my kitten, and if we leave her alone she will come out and make friends by herself.”

Stein pretended to slump in exhaustion. “You figured that out before I was half-​done. So I suppose I got down on my knees for nothing. Help me up, Princess Know-​Everything of Mighty-​wisdom-​land.”

Astrid finally broke into a smile in spite of herself, and she gave Stein a shove as he climbed back to his feet.

Once he was up, he turned to Sophie. His gaze caught hers, and for a moment it was like that first instant when the entire hall had grown quiet, or seemed to. She thought he was about to say something, or even reach out and touch her. But he only rubbed his forehead and turned away.

Then he rubbed his forehead and turned away.

“So, how is Baby Gamle?” he asked.

Thankfully Astrid responded in Sophie’s place. “He’s fine, but he’s not Baby Gamle any more! Wait till you see how big he is! He’s almost walking!”


“He can walk all around the furniture or if you hold his hand! He’s having his afternoon nap right now. Want to see him?”

Stein gave Sophie a lingering look she did not know how to read. “Yes, I believe I would.”

Astrid grabbed his hand and tugged. “Come on! I’ll show you where he sleeps. He takes his naps in Sophie’s bed but he has a trundle bed at night. I sleep with Ardith and Matilda!”

Stein resisted her pull and waited patiently until she stopped for breath. “That’s good, but if he’s in Sophie’s bed then perhaps Sophie should show me.”

“You think I don’t know where it is?”

“Astrid,” Edris called, “why don’t you come help me calm baby Harald? Perhaps he will like you better, because you’ll remind him of his Mama.”

'Why don't you come help me calm baby Harald?'

“Aww! Poor baby!” Astrid trotted off with her arms outstretched to take Harald, her other nephew utterly forgotten. Ardith obediently followed.

Sophie turned a stunned look towards Edris. That maneuver had been so blatant she was a little surprised it had worked on nine-​year-​old Princess Know-​Everything. Edris smirked.

“Excuse me, Sol,” Stein said. “I’ll be right back.”

Solveig smiled. Her smile lines deepened into crevasses, but even when she smiled the lines of her frowns and her sorrows did not go away.

“Go see your son,” she advised. “And take your time.”

Apparently Solveig’s dismissal made it official. Stein awaited no further courtesies and hurried for the stairs. Sophie wasn’t sure she was supposed to follow until he stopped to hold the door open for her and turned back to see why she wasn’t on her way through. Then she hurried too.

On their way up, with Stein following behind her and Sophie unable to see his face, Stein said softly, “Sorry, Soph. I didn’t mean to surprise you like this.”

Sophie snorted, but he didn’t leave her time to reply. Not that she knew what to say.

“I’d meant to leave everyone at Baldwin’s for another night,” he said, “and come alone to prepare you. But, so. I hadn’t thought of how many children are there already.”

Sophie recited, “Britmar’s four, Baldwin’s two, and now Eadwyn and Ana’s baby too.”

“I couldn’t do that to Freya,” Stein said ruefully. “I have never seen so many children in one small hall in my life. And it’s Easter tomorrow, too. So we came on today.”

“I couldn’t be happier.”

“Really, Soph?”

They’d reached the top of the stairs, and Sophie was able to turn back and look him in the eye while she opened the door. “Really.”

Stein gave her a tired smile. Sophie went into the corridor ahead of him.

“I don’t know what Eirik told you about Solveig,” Stein said as they tiptoed past closed doors. “I couldn’t explain there in front of her.”

Sophie snorted. “Eirik did not see fit to mention her.”

Stein sighed. “Her husband was Lord of Ramsaa. He told you what happened at Ramsaa, didn’t he?”

Sophie stopped in the dim hallway and flattened her palms against the door that was hers. So that’s who she was, the mysterious, elegant blonde: the widow of a lord.

“I know what happened at Ramsaa,” she whispered.

“So. Her husband was killed on his ship, and she had a daughter about Astrid’s age who drowned in the river. Eirik was hoping someone would ask for her, but no one ever did. She may still have family in Norway. So I invited her to stay with us while she waits to hear.”

“I’m sure we’ll get on fine,” Sophie said, though her head swam. “I wish Olaf and Baldwin had been here this afternoon. Poor Orm looks like he could use a few hours with boys his age.”

Stein chuckled and sighed. “I don’t know what we would have done without him on this trip. He wants to help his mother. He’s the man of the family now.”

Sophie did not know what else to say, so she opened the door.

Her maid started awake and stumbled out of her chair. “Sir!” she gasped. “You’re home! Welcome home, sir!”

Stein laughed. “Meleri!”

He looked delighted to see her familiar face, but his expression changed as soon as he glimpsed the little body on the bed. Sophie felt like an interloper herself, witnessing his love for the son he’d made with his first wife. She did not want Meleri to see at all.

“Go find Bebbe or one of the house maids,” she ordered the girl, “and ask whether you can be of any help. The Countess is receiving unexpected guests.”

“I should say so!” Meleri breathed as she sidled out the door, her wide eyes fixed on Stein. Stein only had eyes for the boy.

“Is this Baby Gamle?” he asked softly. “He has shoes!

'He has shoes!'

Sophie quietly closed the door and swished into the room.

“He must have fallen asleep with them on,” she said, flustered to be caught in a moment of maternal failure. “He’ll be walking any day now. One day he’ll forget he’s supposed to hang on to the furniture or somebody’s leg, and away he’ll go.”

Stein rested his knuckles on the mattress and leaned over the bed.

“He looks like Baby Gamle…” he admitted, though he still sounded dubious.

“He looks like you, Stein.”

“Nobody will ever call him Silver-​White, though.”

“Not for another sixty years, at least.”

'Not for another sixty years, at least.'

Stein was silent for a while, and Sophie considered telling him more about what he’d missed of his son’s babyhood. She was glad she’d said nothing, however, for it seemed he’d been thinking of his first wife.

“It will soon be his birthday, won’t it?” he asked.

Gamle had been born—and Lathir had died—on Holy Saturday of the year before. It was not a full year by the calendar, but Stein must have noticed the date.

“Astrid’s counting down the days,” was all Sophie dared say.

Stein snorted. “And we shall have a feast of everything that he likes best to eat. Which will be?”

He glanced back over his shoulder, and Sophie’s heart swelled. Stein’s wry smile, Stein’s tired blue eyes, and Stein’s incorrigible tuft of hair that insisted on growing forwards when all the rest lay flat…

“It will be cheese,” she said. “Platters and platters of tiny cubes of cheese.”

'It will be cheese.'


Stein doubled over and buried his face in the mattress to stifle his laughter. At least, it looked like laughter at first. Soon Sophie wondered whether it was half-​laughter, half-​sob.

“You’ve done such a fine job raising him,” he finally quavered, still bent over the bed. “I can never thank you.”

“He thanks me enough on his own. He’s learned how to give kisses. All I have to do is ask.”

“Really?” Stein stood up and turned to grin at her. “I hope you take advantage of his generosity.”

'I hope you take advantage of his generosity.'

“Oh, I do.”

For a moment, she thought Stein was about to show a little generosity of his own. But he turned abruptly towards the window.

It was so awkward. They’d lost ground—lost all the intimacy of their last month together. Perhaps that stage of their marriage had been too short to leave a durable impression.

It was so awkward.

Maybe Stein had reconsidered. Or maybe he had something to confess. He’d been away so long, and must have needed comfort during that time. And now he could scarcely look her in the eyes.

“I’m so sorry, Soph,” he said hoarsely.

Sophie clenched her fists until her nails bit into her palms. She told herself she’d been wrong to expect fidelity from him. She should have been touched that he felt guilty about it, at least. Leofwine had liked to rub it in. But with Leofwine it had never hurt like this.

He said, “I thought you were going to push me down the stairs, when I said that. About not wanting to do that to Freya, when that’s just what I’m doing to you. Except at Freya’s it was just one night, and you, I don’t know for how long.”

“Oh, Stein, stop it.”

'Oh, Stein, stop it.'

“No, I’m sorry. I never meant for this.” He ruffled the towels on the dressing table and straightened Sophie’s hair picks and combs. “I always knew Guthrun wouldn’t make it, but I’d hoped Tryggve would return to take care of Harald. And I never knew Eirik meant to send Sweyn until almost the day we left. And Solveig… Eirik has too much to worry about; he can’t help Solveig and her children. I thought Sigefrith might do something for her, but I couldn’t make that offer for him, so we’ll have to help her ourselves if he won’t.”

His hands wandered among her pots and vials until he picked up one of her perfumes, opened the flask, and inhaled hungrily.

“I know she’s no relation, but so. And Jorunn…” He corked the flask and set it back with the others. In a throaty voice he said, “I don’t have any excuse for Jorunn.”

'I don't have any excuse for Jorunn.'

He braced his hands on the edge of the table and leaned over the basin till Sophie feared he was about to be sick.

“She was the tanner’s daughter, and she hadn’t a mother, and so the women hardly knew she existed. Nobody visits a tanner. So nobody wanted her. But I promise you, I’ll find a place for her as soon as I can. She’s not a bad child, she just needs patience and quiet. Perhaps an old widow with no children at home. Or even a convent. Eirik sent me home with some silver for all the times I held the fort in his absence. I know we need it ourselves, but…”

“Stein. We’ll find the room if we have to.”

“Thank you, Soph. But what I’m trying to say is: I’m sorry. I already left you alone with my brother and sister and son, and now… so. My godson and my nephew and a bunch of people who aren’t even related to me. I hardly know how it happened. I’m twenty years old and I have a family of eleven. Which means you do, too, and you didn’t even have a choice. So I’m sorry, Sophie. I’m too soft-​hearted.”

He concluded with a small, self-​deprecating laugh, but Sophie was outraged.

“Nobody,” she said, “gets to call you too soft-​hearted in front of me. That includes you.”

Stein laughed again, but Sophie did not want him to think she was joking.

“After everything you’ve done for me and my sons!”

He stopped laughing. “That was different.”

“Why? How? How is it different? Solveig is another widow with young children. The only difference is: she didn’t kill anyone, and you can’t legally marry her, too.”

“It’s different,” Stein said quietly, “because I needed you.”

Sophie was so ready for an argument that this sudden change in tone left her stunned.

Stein pushed back the basin and turned to lean against the edge of the table. His blue eyes were surrounded by purple shadows. His whole body drooped, even to his rebellious lock of hair.

“Lili was right about that. I needed a woman. And after a while I needed a wife, too. It only seemed crazy at the time because it was Lili, and it was the middle of the night, and underpants were involved.”

Sophie burst out laughing—quietly, on account of Gamle—and after a sly grin Stein laughed too.

“Some of the best times in my life,” Sophie said, “involved Lili, the middle of the night, and underpants.”

'Some of the best times in my life involved Lili.'

“Mine too,” Stein agreed.

He reached out to take Sophie’s hand and pulled her closer to his perch on the edge of her dressing table.

“Come here, Soph. I’m a little afraid to touch you, so tell me if I do it wrong. I haven’t put my arms around a healthy woman in months.”

A lump rose in Sophie’s throat, and she bit her lip as his arms went around her. How could she have doubted him when he had never given her cause for doubt?

He pressed her body against his and ran his hands up and down her back. “Guthrun was just skin and bones,” he whispered. “In places only bones, when the bedsores got bad.”

“I’m so sorry about your sister, Stein.”

“She sent her blessings. She knew I couldn’t have stayed with her if not for you.”

Sophie pressed her mouth against Stein’s shoulder and blinked back tears. She was feeling several things at once—relief, sorrow, guilt, and joy—but they all made her want to cry.

She was feeling several things at once.

Stein pulled her belly tight against his and slid his hand down further, cupping and kneading, as if he truly did need to relearn her curves.

He whispered, “I’m sorry about all this…”

“Stop saying that.”

“All right, all right,” he soothed. “Last time. You’re too good to me, though.” Abruptly he pulled back his head. “No, wait. Nobody gets to call you too good in front of me. That includes me.”

Sophie laughed, and Stein grinned.

Sophie laughed.

“So,” he said, “what were you telling me about what a person needs to do to get a kiss around here?”

Sophie’s eyes were wet, but she held his gaze for a while just to make the moment last. Stein was home!

Finally she admitted, “He only has to ask.”

'He only has to ask.'