On the second day, Saeward combed his beard with great care.

On the second day, Saeward combed his beard with great care—albeit omitting Sigefrith’s suggested ribbon—and counted and sorted all his documents before he ever left his room. Moreover, he tidied up his table, paced, patted Littlefoot, and generally fidgeted until he’d heard Ralf go through the court and into the castle.

Even then he waited a few minutes. But once he was certain he would be the last to arrive, he grabbed his books, scooped up the littlest kitten, and hurried out into the corridor.

He paused in the doorway.

He paused in the doorway, where he could see the entire court without being too conspicuous. Ralf was long gone. The kitchens were all a-​clatter, but outside beneath the overcast sky there was no one but Nidian, Seaxbeorht, and some boy leading his donkey home through the gate. Thankfully, there was not a guard in sight.

Saeward went out, but he only took a few steps before Bernwald’s steward stepped through the arch. Saeward dashed back inside and hid himself behind the doorway. What was Wynn doing here on a Wednesday morning? Was the schedule still mixed up due to Easter?

Fortunately Wynn was distracted with dodging the donkey and calling out greetings to Nidian and Seaxbeorht, and he hadn’t seemed to notice Saeward at all.

Saeward waited until the door had closed behind Wynn, too, and gave him an extra minute for good measure. But the kitten was squirming against his chest now, so he couldn’t delay long. As soon as he dared, he dashed across the court as fast as a long-​legged stride could take him.

As soon as he dared, he dashed across the court.

He thought he’d made it. But he’d scarcely closed the door behind him and turned the corner towards the stairs when he heard boots pounding across the flagstones outside and the hinges scraping as the door was flung open again.

“What in the hell was that?” Natanleod shouted.

'What in the hell was that?'

“I beg your pardon?”

Saeward turned. The kitten wriggled against his tunic, trying to climb up the cover of a book.

“What was that all about?” Natanleod demanded. “Waiting till Ralf was gone, then getting halfway across the court before tucking your tail between your legs and hiding yourself till Wynn was gone, too?”

“Are you spying on me, now, Captain?”

'Are you spying on me, now, Captain?'

“I am doing my God damned job! What are you up to? It looked mighty suspicious from where I was standing.”

Saeward shifted his books, trying to make the kitten slide back down. “Perhaps I was taking your advice,” he answered coolly. “Don’t want to show up all at once and give anyone ideas. You ought to be careful about being seen chasing after me and cornering me in dark corridors, you know.”

Natanleod’s face flushed an unhealthy red, and Saeward began to worry this was turning into something that risked injuring the kitten. Fortunately, with a last shudder, Natanleod brought himself back under control.


“Listen,” he panted, “I don’t know who you are or where you’re from, but I think this boy-​loving farce of yours is the least of what’s wrong with you. Maybe it’s true and maybe it ain’t, but either way I think it’s a God damned diversion. I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m warning you, we’ve got our eyes on you. You’re a weasel in sheep’s clothing if I ever saw one.”

“Did you see one? How remarkable.”

Natanleod began changing color again. Then the kitten mewed, and his eyes went wide.

“What in the hell?”

Saeward flushed, but he had the presence of mind to say, “I beg your pardon. My weasel is showing. I meant to say baaaa!

'I meant to say baaaa!'

Natanleod’s nostrils flared. They glared at each other, shoulders squared, fists clenched, lungs heaving, and the blood pounding in their ears. If not for the armful of books—and kitten—Saeward would have swung first.

“One of these days,” Natanleod growled, “I hope to meet you when I’m off duty.”

'I hope to meet you when I'm off duty.'

Saeward stared into Natanleod’s glittering bulldog-​brown eyes. With every tightly-​twisted fiber of his soul he longed to ask, “Your room or mine?” and provoke the brawl that had been brewing since the day they’d met.

But the kitten squirmed and scrabbled between his breast and his books, and he didn’t want the thing to get crushed or stomped upon. He would have to let this shit-​sucking Captain of the Guard have the last word. For today.

He nodded slightly, intimating that he accepted the invitation for some future date, and turned to head for the stairs.

“A curse on you!” Natanleod shouted after him. “And a curse on the hand that rocked your cradle!”

Saeward had to take a deep breath, but he kept walking. He couldn’t take the girl a mangled kitten.

He couldn’t meet her shaking with fury, either. He stopped just behind the door to the cloister and tried to calm himself. He loosened his grip on the books, and both he and the kitten spent a moment simply catching their breath.

Why was he doing this, anyway? If he hadn’t been sneaking a kitten around, he wouldn’t have been confronted by the Captain of the Guard.

And why was he sneaking? It wasn’t a crime to carry kittens to little orphan girls. Besides, what were the odds she would even be there? The door would be locked, or her caretaker would have kept an eye on her today, or Ralf would have sent for the nurse already. Saeward would dump the kitten in the empty cloister, and Littlefoot would find it, and that would be all.

Propelled by a rush of ruffled pride, Saeward squared his shoulders and marched through the door. But a glimpse of colored cloth through the arches made him hurry. He nearly stumbled over his own feet when they failed to carry him fast enough. She was there.

His charge startled her again, and she scrambled up.

She scrambled up.

What was all this? She had dragged one of the Queen’s embroidered blankets out onto the dusty cloister. She must have been cold, for her dress was of such skimpy cloth… but was it a dress or a nightdress? Had she come straight from her bed? Dear Lord, she hadn’t slept out here, had she?

“Good morning, little one,” Saeward said, smiling in reassurance in spite of his own worry. “I see you’ve made yourself a nest.”

Her pinched face relaxed as he held out the kitten. She reached up for it, almost smiling. Saeward laid his palms over the backs of her hands as he passed the kitten over. They were chilly, but not the icy mitts of a child who has slept outdoors all night.

“The little kitty was asking for you this morning,” he said. “‘Where is the nice girl who played with me yesterday?’”

'The little kitty was asking for you this morning.'

The girl sat down on the blanket and settled the mewing kitten on her lap to stroke and pet.

Saeward told himself he ought to send for someone to take her inside. He could let her keep the kitten to play with. But surely Ralf already had. Ralf would have checked to see whether she was there. And anyway, Wednesday morning meetings never lasted long. It would be a market day, no matter what holiday preceded it, and everyone would have work to do.

So he backed away quietly.

So he backed away quietly, content to have been forgotten. He tiptoed to the Yellow Room, and found himself arriving last, as he had planned. Sigefrith looked a bit annoyed. Ralf scarcely looked at him at all.

Saeward planned to bring the subject up with Ralf after the meeting, but Ralf fell into conversation with Sigefrith, and Saeward thought of a last-​minute something he had to note down, and when he accidentally dropped the parchment, it happened to slide to the other side of the table and he had to go around. Thus, when he finally looked up, he discovered he was the last one to leave.

He waited another minute to be sure, then scooped up his books and hurried outside.

She was still there, on the blanket. The kitten was there, too. But the first one to notice him was Littlefoot, who was stalking back and forth just beyond the hem of the blanket. She was clearly waiting for him, for as soon as he arrived she looked up and yowled.

As soon as he arrived she looked up and yowled.

Saeward had not realized that cats possessed enough natural intelligence to give a man a scolding. It must have been a universal gift granted females.

“The cat mother!” he gasped. “I am found out!”

The little girl broke into silent giggles. Littlefoot padded onto the blanket and turned around to face him, stationing her small body as a barrier between Saeward and the two youngsters. She meowed a warning.

“Do not fear, cat mother. I’m not here to injure your charges.”

Saeward laid his books aside and sat himself down on the small corner of blanket Littlefoot was allowing him. He noticed a few twigs and feathery fronds of weeds scattered on the cloth. Apparently the girl had ventured into the garden to find some toys for the kitten. He wondered what she was wearing on her feet.

“I see you know what kind of toys little kitties like,” he said.

'I see you know what kind of toys little kitties like.'

He twirled a weed stem before the kitten’s nose, tempting it into pouncing and capturing it. Then he scooped up a few of the others, using the opportunity to pull back a rumple of the blanket and peek at the girl’s foot.

It was bare, and the sole was dirty, and the thing was so tiny and delicate-​looking that Saeward’s heart ached for it. It didn’t have the shiny pink scars of frostbite or chilblains, but it was the idea that irked him: the thought that someone was neglecting this child to the point of letting her patter about barefoot and half-​dressed for at least as long as Saeward’s half-​hour meeting.

Saeward cradled the tiny foot in his hand, wanting to warm it. Meanwhile he stroked Littlefoot’s head with the other hand until she sat down on her haunches and began to purr. But Saeward wasn’t fooled. She couldn’t resist a good petting, but she was watching him through slitted eyes.

“My name is Saeward,” he said to the girl. He stopped petting Littlefoot long enough to press his hand to his chest and repeat the name: “Saeward.”

She listened politely while she stroked Littlefoot’s silky back, but she didn’t volunteer her own.

She listened politely while she stroked Littlefoot's silky back.

Saeward had managed to meet Lady Solveig and her older children the day before, but this little girl hadn’t been with them, and he hadn’t known on what pretext to ask about her. He would have to think of some way to learn her name. He was the reeve after all! He would only be doing his God damned job.

He moved his hand to the cat’s head and said, “The cat mother’s name is Littlefoot. Little—foot.”

He didn’t know how much the girl understood. He knew some Norse words were quite like the English. Generally the simplest ones.

To help her, he held his finger and thumb a half inch apart and said, “Little.” Then he gave her foot a gentle squeeze and said, “Foot.”

The girl smiled and wriggled her toes in his hand. Saeward smiled so hard it hurt. She was much cuter than a kitten.

“Little—foot,” he repeated, giving the purring cat a pat on the head. Littlefoot folded her front paws beneath her breast and lay down.

Abruptly the girl leaned forward and reached over Littlefoot’s back to make a squeezing gesture in front of Saeward’s face.

She looked more earnest than distressed, but Saeward relaxed his hold on her foot.

“What is it, little one?”

'What is it, little one?'

She made the squeezing motion again, and Saeward leaned closer. The girl took hold of his beard in her small fist and squeezed.

“Skegg,” she said out loud.


Saeward was transfixed. Littlefoot lazily turned her head around to look at where the sound had come from, but soon turned her face back to the wall and purred.

“What was that?” Saeward asked softly. “Skegg?”

He couldn’t think of any English words that came close. It could have been anything—except, probably, with his luck, beard.

He waited for her to answer, or to squeeze again, or something. Instead she sat with his beard clenched in her hand and her blue eyes sparkling as her gaze flickered over the four corners of his face. Then she let go, tossed back a rumple of blankets, and got up.

Littlefoot meowed beneath the blanket that had fallen over her. Saeward resisted the urge to take the girl’s hand and hold her back. Instead he sat on the blanket and watched her walk away.

Instead he sat on the blanket and watched her walk away.

Her gray soles flashed at him as she padded off across the cold flagstones. She held herself so straight as she walked, and she tossed her tangled hair back over her shoulder like a skimpy cloak. She was the saddest, loneliest little thing Saeward had seen in a long while. And he had seen many of the world’s saddest, loneliest little things.

Littlefoot crawled out from beneath the blanket and sat at Saeward’s side, her grudge against him forgotten. The wee white paw of her kitten snatched at her twitching tail from the depths of a blanket cave.

“I’ve got to tell someone about that girl,” Saeward said to the cat mother beside him. “I can’t keep tempting her out here with a kitten.”

Littlefoot purred. Saeward looked down to see her whiskered face turned up to him, her eyes serenely closed and her lips curving back in a slight, sharp-​toothed smile.

“God help me,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Now I am talking to cats.”

'Now I am talking to cats.'