Littlefoot sat watching him dress.

Safe, on Saeward’s bed, from the predations of her kittens, Littlefoot sat watching him dress. He did not believe the old wives’ tales of cats sucking the breath of babies, but there was no denying they had a knack for deflating a man’s dignity.

As for the kittens, they were running amok as they always did at this hour of the morning, and one of them hurled its small body at Saeward’s ankle and wrapped its paws around his leg. The growling little animal twisted its head, lashed its tail, and bit the fabric of his trousers, but he didn’t try to shake it off. Kittens were indeed like lice, he was finding. After a while one gave up and let them romp.

While the kitten gnawed his ankle and Littlefoot looked on, Saeward took out his tiny silver comb—a recent gift to himself—and began tidying his beard.

Littlefoot followed the flashing silver with her eyes for a while, and finally meowed.

“You’re one to talk,” he said. “You spend more time grooming your whiskers than I do.”

'You're one to talk.'

Littlefoot twitched the tip of her tail.

Saeward put down the comb and leaned closer to the mirror. As a boy, he’d used to sit on the foot of the bed like Littlefoot and watch his father grooming his beard. And if he’d had a tail he would have twitched it.

Lacking such a limb, he’d used to whine instead, begging his father to shave his face and the back of his head, like the other boys’ fathers. Saeward’s boyhood dream had consisted of being less conspicuous. But his father would always smile and answer, “The Talmud says the beard is the adornment of the man.”

He wondered what his father would say if he saw him now.

He wondered what his father would say if he saw him now, with a beard so long he could grasp it in his fist.

And he wondered what his father would say after he told him his beard had nothing to do with the Talmud. For shaving a man’s beard was the first thing they did to him upon locking him up. Beards bred lice. To Saeward, a long beard was a badge of innocence, proving incontrovertibly that a man hadn’t been in prison for at least that long.

To Saeward, a long beard was a badge of innocence.

While he wondered, the ordinary hubbub of the court outside formed itself into clear shouts of greeting, good morning, and finally the name he had been listening for: Ralf!

Saeward tried to dash for the door, but he was dragged to a stop by the startled kitten swinging wildly from his pant leg. Stooping, hopping, dodging around the four other tiny monsters who attended to this new game with great interest, he managed to dislodge the kitten, swipe his books from his table, and jog out into the court.


Ralf stopped and turned to him, smiling. But Natanleod and Alfwold were out this morning, too.

Ralf stopped and turned to him, smiling.

“Why, Saeward!” Natanleod crooned. “Welcome home!”

“Good morning, gentlemen,” he muttered.

Fortunately Ralf knew better than to encourage them by paying them any mind. And when he said, “Welcome home!” it was honest.

“Thank you,” Saeward replied as Ralf fell in beside him. “It is good to be back.”

'How was your trip?'

Ralf asked, “How was your trip?”

“Very productive, or so I was told.”

Sigefrith had sent him as an envoy to Hamelan: an odd mission for a royal reeve, even if he’d ended up helping Lord Hamelan with some unrelated matters of law. He wondered whether Sigefrith had chosen him to permit him to be away during Easter. Sigefrith hadn’t said, and he didn’t intend to ask.

Ralf said, “I hope you managed to have some fun nevertheless.”

“Yes, but I hope that part wasn’t productive. She had a father.”

Ralf laughed. “You didn’t give your name, did you?”

'You didn't give your name, did you?'

“Not my real one.”

“Should be safe.”

“So how was your Easter holiday?”

“Oh, it was fine,” Ralf said. “Fair weather, good food. And my friend Wyn stayed the night. He returned here late on Sunday. Have you heard the news? Sir Egelric is home.”

“I’ve heard that bit of news from every single person who has spoken to me since I returned, thank you very much. Now is a fine time if you want to get away with doing something scandalous, Ralf. Nobody’s talking about anything else.”

'Now is a fine time if you want to get away with doing something scandalous, Ralf.'

“Well, I was thinking—”

Saeward caught Ralf’s sleeve to silence him. He whispered, “Did you hear something?”

They listened. Saeward hadn’t heard anything, really, but he’d sensed it. And he sensed it again: the almost inaudible patter of soft-​soled feet attempting to go unheard.

He ducked his head through one of the arches in time to see a flash of movement on the far side of the cloister.

“Who’s there?” he shouted.

Behind him, Ralf nervously shifted his books on his arm. “Probably just a maid,” he said.

“Then why doesn’t she answer?” Saeward asked. He poked his head through again and shouted, “Answer! In the name of the King!”

No answer. Saeward turned to Ralf.

“You go that way, I’ll go this way.”

Ralf’s eyes went wide, but that was nothing compared to his expression when Saeward drew a dagger.

“Take it!” Saeward hissed.

“I c-couldn’t—”

'I c-couldn't--'

“You won’t need to! Just take it! The King is in that room, you ninny! And no maids are supposed to be on this cloister!”

“It could be Princess Emma,” Ralf whispered.

“Princess Emma is still in bed, you may be certain. And if it’s she, she’ll think it the funniest joke ever! Now go!”

Ralf finally went. Saeward drew a second knife and ran around the cloister faster than Ralf could jog, determined to get there first. If anyone was getting stabbed today, he didn’t want it to be an accident.

The wiser course of action, he realized, would have been to stand guard before the door out of the cloister—hoping it was the only one that was unlocked—and send Ralf to alert the King and his men in the Yellow Room. But if Saeward was going to be caught attempting to save Sigefrith Hwala from assassination, he at least wanted to be sure a real assassin was involved.

A wise precaution, as it proved.

A wise precaution, as it proved.

He’d been ready for anything, so it wasn’t as if he almost tripped over her or ran right by. Still, he was so surprised it took him a moment to realize what he was seeing and put away his knife.

Meanwhile Ralf jogged up and stopped at his side. Soft-​hearted fellow that he was, he stooped over and crooned, “Ohhh…” before he remembered the dagger and jerked back, staring at his fist as if it held a snake. Saeward pinched the blade between his fingers and held it until Ralf let go and allowed him to put it away.

At no point did the tiny girl huddled in the alcove even flinch.

“I know who this is,” Ralf said softly, stooping over the child again. “Hallo, sweetie. What are you doing outside so early in the morning?”

“Somebody’s child?” Saeward asked, glancing her over. Her gown was of cheap wool, but it was clean and unpatched, and someone had spent some time on her braids.

In truth, he didn’t care who she was. He only wanted to keep this story away from the guards. Valiantly saving the King from a six-​year-​old girl!

'Not exactly.'

“Not exactly,” Ralf said, straightening a little. “Poor thing. She’s an orphan Sir Stein brought back from Ramsaa. You heard Sir Stein was home, didn’t you?”

Saeward had stiffened at the word “orphan,” but Ralf didn’t seem to notice.

“I hadn’t heard,” Saeward muttered. “Sigefrith was in a hurry to read his letters, and everyone else is talking about Sir Egelric.”

“He’s—you’ve met Stein, haven’t you? The silver-​haired knight?”

“I met him.”

“Well,” Ralf confided in a low voice, “he returned just before Easter. Brought back Earl Eirik’s son, and the widow of Ramsaa’s former lord and her children, and this little one here, since no one else wanted her. Poor little mite,” he added, shaking his head mournfully as he looked her over.

Then he sucked in his breath and cast a nervous glance up at Saeward, probably hoping he wasn’t about to be accused of hypocrisy again. And Saeward wanted nothing more than to forget that conversation had ever happened!

'They said she was a tanner's daughter.'

“They said she was a tanner’s daughter,” Ralf continued, for he was as bad as a maiden aunt when it came to gossip. “Her father died in the battle, and she fell in the river that night when everyone was running away. Lady Solveig’s daughter died in it. You’ll meet her today if you dine here. She’s taking care of this little girl till they figure out what to do about her. They pulled her out of the water, but it must have done something to her head. She hasn’t said a word since Saint Flannan’s Day.”

Saeward frowned and picked at the binding of a book with his thumbnail. He had nothing but sympathy for the child, but now he was too afraid of showing an interest in orphans to do more than glance at the top of her blonde head and appear very bored. What had possessed him to say what he had?

“She shouldn’t be out here unsupervised,” he said.

Ralf sighed. “I know, but she doesn’t mean any harm.”

Ralf squatted beside her and said a few words in Norse. Saeward had never learned to speak the language, but there were still a few true Norsemen in Normandy, and he’d heard it sometimes in his youth.

Ralf squatted beside her.

The little girl met Ralf’s eyes when he spoke to her, but of course she didn’t reply.

Ralf sighed again and stood up, cracking his knees. “I don’t know what to do about her.”

“What should we do?” Saeward snapped. “Somebody should have been watching her. She isn’t our responsibility.”

Ralf looked at him, and Saeward was petrified. Ralf, he was certain, was on the verge of reminding him of that hideous conversation.

But Ralf turned away, shamefaced. “I suppose not. Anyway, she can’t get into much trouble out here.”

“Somebody is bound to come looking for her. We have work to do.”

The child looked up. Her face was pale and expressionless, but her eyes were alert, though the soul behind them had retreated as far as it could go. And her eyes looked deep into his, almost all the way back to where his soul hid.

Saeward didn’t believe for a second that something had happened to her head. He’d tried not talking for a while, too, at the beginning. But quickly he’d had to learn how to lie, how to wheedle, and how to say No, No, No.

His gorge rose, and he turned on his heel and stalked away. He focused on the thudding of his feet, soon joined by Ralf’s as the man scuttled around the corner and hurried to catch up. Step by step, Saeward had nearly reconstructed his self-​command by the time they opened the door.

“Oh, no!” Ralf sighed once he’d seen inside. “We’re the last ones again!”

“I wasn’t counting,” Sigefrith said, “but now that you mention it…”

Ralf began, “We found the—” but Saeward cut him off.

“It’s my fault, lord. I saw Ralf coming in and made him wait up for me. I was still combing my beard.”

'I was still combing my beard.'

As he’d hoped, someone said, “Oh, that explains it!”—Prince Caedwulf, in the event—and everyone laughed. Saeward and Ralf were able to take their seats without further ado, and Sigefrith, as usual, got right down to business.

Saeward slumped in his chair, relieved. And his self-​command collapsed like a column of sand.

If he’d been alone he would have known how to handle the situation. It was Ralf’s presence—it was the fear that Ralf would turn to him and say, “If you’re so fond of widows and orphans…”

Why had he ever opened his mouth? Why had he ever invited Ralf to his room? Why had he ever let himself try to make a friend at all?


Saeward lifted his head. “Lord?”


“I asked you a question.”

“I—beg your pardon. I didn’t hear.”

Sigefrith smiled slightly over a clenched jaw. “There’s not a hair out of place, you know.”

“What? Oh!”

Saeward nervously touched his beard and then rested his arm on his pile of books. He picked at one of the covers with his thumbnail. That gave him an idea.

“I beg your pardon. It isn’t that. I just realized I forgot something in my room. A—a document.”

“A document… you need here?” Sigefrith asked pointedly.

“Yes, lord. If I might…?” Saeward scooted back his chair and hesitated on the edge of his seat. “I won’t be long.”

Sigefrith took a deep breath. “Next time, braid a ribbon through your beard, count your documents twice, and show up late if you must, but by God”—he pounded the table—“show up ready to work! We’re running behind this week, first with your absence and then the holidays!”

Saeward got up. “I know, lord. I beg your pardon.”

He gathered up his books in fumbling hands and hurried to the door. He feared Ralf would turn around and ask him to do something about the girl outside, but Ralf was leaning over the table, studying a set of figures. He didn’t say a word.

Once outside, Saeward hugged his books to his chest and tried to calm his racing heart.

Saeward hugged his books to his chest and tried to calm his racing heart.

What had he said over there? “Not our responsibility?” Maybe the girl didn’t understand English, but what orphan didn’t understand cowardice and self-​justification? What orphan didn’t understand the guilty, shrinking air of adults who knew they ought to do something but couldn’t be bothered?

Was that what he was now?

He crept to the corner of the cloister and peeked. She was still there. She saw him, but she didn’t perk up. She didn’t expect anything from him. She probably knew better by now.

What should he do? Tell someone she was on the cloister, perhaps, but whom? He didn’t know this Solveig woman. A nurse? A maid?

In any case, he’d said he needed to get something from his room, so to his room he would go. He would think about it there.

He’d forgotten Natanleod and Alfwold were outside.

He'd forgotten Natanleod and Alfwold were outside.

“Back already?” Natanleod asked. “What’s the matter? Hanging back for a while? Afraid if you and Ralf show up arm-​in-​arm too many mornings, people are going to get ideas?”

Saeward ignored him and returned to his room.

Littlefoot was lounging on his bed, grooming her paw. She gave him the glance of annoyed surprise that housewives reserved for husbands who returned home in the middle of the day. The kittens still frolicked on the floor.

Saeward stopped in the center of his bedside rug, hugging his books to his chest. The kittens pounced on his toes and attacked his pant legs, but Saeward stood as if stunned. Now what should he do?

His gaze roamed aimlessly over the fittings and furniture until it lit upon the fifth kitten: the shy, quiet one; the runt remaining after the true runt died. Its idea of play consisted of hiding beneath the bed or beside the wardrobe, and reaching out a tentative paw to swat at its littermates as they romped by. Today it was sitting off to the side, peering up at him with its nearsighted blue eyes and twitching the tip of its tiny tail.

Saeward scooped it up and deposited it atop his stack of books. He clutched the whole pile to his chest and hurried outside before Littlefoot noticed what he was about.

“I got news for you, honey!” Natanleod shouted as he crossed the court. “People already have ideas!

'I got news for you, honey!'

Saeward walked faster. The kitten squirmed against his tunic. If Natanleod heard it cry! If the guards saw him carrying a kitten about!

Once he was in the castle, he gave the kitten some breathing room. The startled little thing sneezed. He hustled up the stairs, down the corridor, and out onto the cloister without being seen.

The little girl was still there. He rushed at her so quickly that she scrambled to her feet.

He rushed at her so quickly that she scrambled to her feet.

“I was wondering,” he said, all out of breath, “if you could do a favor for me.”

He held out the kitten, and an expression of real interest came to the girl’s eyes. Carefully she lifted it from his hand.

“I have a meeting in that room over there, and my kitten cries if I leave it alone too long. Would you play with it while I’m in the room? I shall be just over there.”

'Would you play with it while I'm in the room?'

In spite of his pointing and his pantomiming, he feared she couldn’t understand a word. She probably believed he was giving her the kitten.

Well, and so he would, if she wanted it! She wasn’t smiling, but like any little girl she was obviously fond of soft, fluffy kittens. There was nothing wrong with her head.

“Thank you,” Saeward said softly as he backed away.

What was “Thank you” in Norse? He couldn’t remember even that.

“I won’t be long.”

She no longer paid him attention, rapt as she was with the kitten. And that was as it should be, he thought as he rounded the corner. His throat was thick again, but not with nausea this time. The pain that had awoken in him was somewhat relieved.

Sigefrith gave him a jovial “Welcome back!” upon his return to the Yellow Room. Apparently business was progressing well without him. “All’s right with the world?” Sigefrith asked.

“Yes, lord. I beg everyone’s indulgence. For me, today is effectively Monday.”

“For us, too,” Father Blecca pointed out. “Yesterday we celebrated Easter Monday.”

'For us, too.'

“And that,” Sigefrith said, “is why I work you twice as hard on Easter Tuesday. If I may, gentlemen?”

Ralf kept his eyes averted, and Saeward tried to do the same, but otherwise it was business as usual.

Saeward was a little surprised at how comfortable it felt to fall back into his routine. Ever more often he forgot to be amazed that he had a job now, with duties and responsibilities and pay. He had a room of his own with a soft, clean bed and a door that locked from the inside. And there were people who noticed when he was absent and said “Welcome home” when he returned. Some even meant it. That surprised him still.

But after their meeting was finished and they rose to go their separate ways, Saeward began to panic again. Would Ralf check on the little girl and find her with the kitten? Would he mention her out loud? Would he expect Saeward to do something?

Saeward hung back, fussing with his notes. He saw Aldwin putting away his pens and capping his ink at his table opposite the door, and he asked, “Would you mind if I borrowed your pen for a moment? I’ve a few things I want to jot down before I forget.”

Aldwin got up. “Be my guest. Don’t forget to cap the ink.”

Saeward sank onto Aldwin’s chair. He opened the ink and pretended to test a pen while he watched everyone filing out. Ralf hesitated in the doorway, looking towards the corner of the cloister, but Aldwin said something to him and they went off with everyone else.

Saeward waited until he heard the door slam. Then he capped the ink, scooped up his books, and dashed outside.

She was still there. But he spied no white ball of fluff, and the girl appeared distressed. Even afraid to meet his eyes.

The girl appeared distressed.

Saeward squatted down and said gently, “Well, what’s the matter, little one? Did the kitten run away?”

He spoke through a smile, trying to reassure her, but the girl looked close to tears. They were not the tears of a spoiled princess who has lost something she desired. They were the tears of a child afraid of consequences.

'Where did the kitten go?'

“Where did the kitten go?” he asked softly. “Did it go to chase birds in the grass? Did it go to the kitchens to get some milk? I don’t mind, you know. I’m not angry.”

The girl opened and closed her mouth and made a halting gesture that was almost a wave of her arm towards the far door. Saeward was pleased to get that much out of her. But there was more.

She held up her little hands helplessly, and in a tiny, tearful voice said something like, “Cattar mothar comm.”

She held up her little hands helplessly.

Saeward held his breath. Hadn’t Ralf said she hadn’t spoken a word since the massacre? He must have been mistaken. Or Saeward was mixing everything up in his head.

“What did you say?” he asked softly.

She didn’t repeat it, so he tried to decipher it from memory.

“Cat… mother… come? Did the mother cat come? Did the cat mother come and take the little kitty away?”

She didn't answer, but she met his eyes.

She didn’t answer, but she was heartened enough to hold his gaze. Saeward smiled.

“Well, it was probably time for the little kitty to go home for her bath. Little kitties take a lot of baths, you know. But it was good of you to stay and tell me, so I wouldn’t worry about my kitten. You were a good gir—”

She turned and walked down the cloistered alley without so much as a blink of goodbye. She walked quickly, twisting her arms, and her cheap dress drew taut over her skinny shoulders. She looked so weak and small that even a hawk circling in the sky would have made a man fear for her.

At the end of the alley she stood on tiptoes, opened a door, and disappeared inside.

That door was infrequently used and, so far as Saeward knew, always locked. Somehow she’d found it open.

Saeward knew he ought to see that it was locked up again. He knew he ought to, but he wasn’t certain he would. If necessary, he could defend Sigefrith Hwala against a six-​year-​old girl.

Saeward knew he ought to see that it was locked up again.