On the third day, Saeward didn't bother hurrying across the court.

On the third day, Saeward didn’t bother hurrying across the court. He had no kitten to hide. The little girl would not be there.

Yesterday, after she’d gone inside, he had folded up the blanket and taken it in to a maid. Now her caretaker would know what she’d been up to in the mornings, and the door would be locked.

He’d seen to it himself, for her own good. That didn’t stop him from being disappointed when he rounded the corner of the cloister and found it empty.

He rounded the corner of the cloister and found it empty.

The second Thursday of the month was the Royal Audience, and the King’s morning meeting with his senior administrators was consequently long. The sun was already getting high when Saeward stepped back outside.

The morning was unpleasantly warm, the air heavy with moisture from the drying rain of the day before.

The little girl was still not there.

The morning was unpleasantly warm.

Saeward straightened his books and set off along the cloister and through the halls. In his room he would trade a few books for a few others, and then he and Aldwin would go over the cases to be heard today and put them in some sort of order. His life would pick up approximately where it had left off when he had departed for Hamelan. He would probably never see the girl again. Even the kitten would grow up and go away.

The King’s meeting must have gone on longer than he’d thought, for when he stepped back out into the court, he felt like he’d stepped into a busy afternoon, and not the mid-​breakfast lull to which he was accustomed.

He felt like he'd stepped into a busy afternoon.

There was a crowd of people, and not the usual stout, drab-​colored serving women with towels on their heads. The sunlight glowed off of the brightly hued gowns of fine ladies and the long, loose tresses of maidens’ hair.

Saeward’s first thought was of a hunting party getting underway, but there were too many small children running about for that. Their shouts and squeals rang off the high stone walls, and Saeward’s shoulders tightened with the thought that he would have to walk right through them and risk being jostled by sweaty bodies and snatched at by sticky hands, even while he was trying to bow right and left to all the ladies.

He’d only made it a few steps into the sunlight when he was accosted by his first lady: the Queen herself.

He'd only made it a few steps into the sunlight when he was accosted by his first lady.

“Why, good morning, Saeward! You’ve stumbled right into the thick of it, haven’t you?”

Saeward bowed. “Good morning, lady. Yes, when I came through here earlier, there were more chickens than people.”

“Well, most of these people will soon be on their way. We were just saying goodbye to our friends. Sir Stein is taking his family home, and Lady Solveig, too, of course.”

That got Saeward's attention.

That got Saeward’s attention. He looked around. There was Lady Solveig, and…

There she was. Sitting all alone on a stool, out of the way. The saddest, loneliest little thing under the sun.

The Queen babbled on, unaware. “We wanted to give Stein and Sophie some quiet time together at Bernwald, but the weather promises to be fair, so they didn’t want to delay. Their quiet time is over, as you can see!”

She made a little laugh. Saeward hardly noticed.

She made a little laugh.

“Lady,” he said, “what about that little girl over there?”

“Jorunn? Oh, dear. The poor darling. She’s one of the orphans from Ramsaa. She doesn’t have any family left, and she’s forgotten how to speak. She’s such a pretty little girl, too.”

So she was called Jorunn. It seemed a big Viking mouthful of a name for such a tiny creature.

So she was called Jorunn.

“Yes,” he said, “but what’s to become of her?”

“I’m not certain. Father Blecca is going to try to find someone to take her in. An older widow, or perhaps one of the other women from Ramsaa. She’s not a misbehaved little girl, and of course she’s quiet as a mouse! But she is uncomfortable around other children, and she needs someone who will be very patient with her. Stein and Sophie are taking her home with them in the meanwhile.”

The Queen paused to titter.

'I wish I could adopt them all.'

“It’s just as well,” she said. “Sigefrith knows if she stays here too much longer, I shall be asking to keep her. I wish I could adopt them all,” she concluded with a sigh.

Suddenly Jorunn seemed to sense their scrutiny, and she looked around.

She looked around.

“There!” the Queen said. “You see, she’s quite well in her head. She knows we’re talking about her. Hallo, sweetie!” she called, waggling her fingers in a feminine little wave.

Saeward himself had been tempted to wave at her, but he thought better of it and gave his beard a squeeze instead. If he’d hoped her face would light up in recognition, his plan failed.

“She’s well indeed in her head, lady,” Saeward said. “She can talk, too.”

“She can?”

“She said several things to me.”

“To you?

'To you?'

“Yes, lady. She said something about a cat mother last Tuesday—I don’t speak Norse—and yesterday she grabbed my beard and said, ‘Skegg.’ Which, Sir Brede informs me, means ‘beard.’”

“She—she grabbed your beard?” The Queen clapped her hand over her mouth to hide her outburst of laughter, but her eyes shone above it. “Oh, how wonderful!”

“That was precisely my reaction,” he said dryly.

“Oh, Saeward!” The Queen laid her hand on his arm. “How wonderful! I don’t believe she’s said a word to anyone in months. How odd that she should pick you! Perhaps you remind her of her father. When did you see her?”

“She has been coming onto the cloister in the mornings. Someone had left the anteroom door unlocked.”

'How wonderful!'

“How wonderful!” The Queen slipped her hand into his elbow and led him towards the girl.

Suddenly flustered, Saeward spluttered an explanation. “I’ve been taking her one of my kittens to play with—that is, a kitten that Littlef—that a mother cat had previously borne in my laundry basket…”

“Hallo, sweetie!” the Queen said, stooping down beside the girl.

Jorunn looked up at her. Saeward hurried to lay his books on the table and stand beside the Queen.

“Here is the nice man with the beard,” the Queen said, failing to hold back a giggle.

'Here is the nice man with the beard.'

“Skegg,” Saeward corrected.

He gave his beard a tweak, but Jorunn did not look at him. He squatted down beside her.

“Good morning, little one,” he said softly. “I missed you today.”

The Queen clasped her hands against her skirts and sighed delightedly. “Oh, did you?” she asked.

“Yes, I did. And the little kitty missed you, too.”

By now Jorunn was determinedly looking at no one. Saeward felt a flutter of panic.

By now Jorunn was determinedly looking at no one.

“Perhaps you could bring the kitten out for her to hold?” the Queen suggested. “Oh, but she’s about to leave! Oh, dear!”

“Must she?” Saeward asked her.

“No, but… Oh, Saeward, will you take her in?”

Saeward stood up straight. Suddenly he felt the sun blazing down on his hair. His collar steamed with sweat.

“She hasn’t said a word to anyone but you,” the Queen added weakly. “She must like you.”

Saeward swallowed and made himself look down at the top of the girl’s blonde head. Her hunched, helpless little body reminded him of himself nearly twenty years before, when he would peek up at sympathetic passers-​by with his big blue eyes and hope against hope that they would take him in.

Saeward stared down at the top of her little blonde head.

Of course, he’d been older than she then, and his cherubic face hadn’t lasted long enough for the right man or woman to find him. A hungry, dirty little boy evoked pity and compassion. A hungry, dirty adolescent sent well-​mannered folk scurrying away in fear.

“If she would like me to,” he said. If he refused, he too would be walking away from that little boy.

“Oh, how wonderful!” the Queen said, beaming. “Sweetie, would you like to stay here and live with this nice man with the beard?”

'Sweetie, would you like to stay here and live with this nice man with the beard?'

“Would you like to stay here with me and the little kitties and the cat mother?” Saeward asked. “The little kitty has sisters and brothers, too, you know. They would all like to meet you.”

Jorunn looked between their faces, alert but expressionless.

“Oh, dear!” the Queen said. “She doesn’t understand what we’re saying. Who’s here…? Olaf! Olaf, come here, please.”

One of the older boys broke away from his companions and stepped up to bow to the Queen.

“Olaf, would you please ask this little girl whether she would like to stay here and live with this man with the beard? In Norse, please.”

Olaf goggled. “Him?

“Yes, dear. Tell her she may nod her head yes if she agrees.”

Olaf hesitated.

Olaf hesitated, but he finally said something to the girl. Saeward thought he did recognize a word like “skegg.”

But Jorunn didn’t give any indication of having heard. Saeward began to fear.

“Please, little one. Say yes or say no. Ja, or… or nod your head.”

'Please, little one.'

Behind him, Olaf shouted, “Sophie!”

The Queen touched Saeward’s shoulder. “She’s afraid. All these people asking her questions…”

“Undoubtedly, lady. A child should never be called upon to answer such a question.”

“Sophie,” Olaf said to someone walking up behind him, followed by a string of Norse. Saeward stiffened.

The Queen hastened to say, “Sophie, Saeward would like to adopt little Jorunn. Isn’t that wonderful? She has said several words to him already.”

'Sophie, Saeward would like to adopt little Jorunn.'

“Judaeus Appella! To him? Was he arresting her for trespassing, or what?”

“No, he let her play with his kittens, and she seems to like his beard.”

“His kittens? His beard?

Olaf next shouted, “Stein!”

Sophie turned and called, “Stein! Come here! I think I’m hearing things!”

Saeward braced himself. He already knew this was not going to end well. All that lacked was someone shouting for the Captain of the Guard.

“Congratulations,” Stein said to Sophie as he strolled up, wincing, his hands over his ears against the shrieking of the toddlers and the barking of the dogs. “I can’t hear a thing.”

Sophie was not in the mood for jokes. She pulled one of his hands down, and he obligingly lowered the other.

“Listen anyway,” she said. “The reeve here wants to adopt Jorunn.”

'The reeve here wants to adopt Jorunn.'

Stein shook his head slightly and blinked. “You do?” he asked Saeward. “You’re not even married, are you?”

The Queen said, “No, but Jorunn has taken a liking to him.”

Sophie explained, “He let her play with his kittens. And his beard.”

Stein blinked again. Then his stare hardened, and his broad mouth set in a line. He stepped between the ladies, and Saeward stepped back, giving the two of them room to face off. The tenor of the conversation had just changed. The squawking and flapping of women had given way to the grim business of men between men.

'What is Jorunn to you?'

“What is Jorunn to you?” Stein asked him.

“Nothing, until two days ago. But I have spoken to her on two occasions and, more remarkably, she has spoken to me.”

“Spoken to you?

“Yes, sir, she told me the mother cat came to take the kitten I let her hold, and yesterday she remarked upon my beard.”

Stein nodded. “Sure she did. Except she doesn’t understand English.”

“She spoke to me in Norse, of course. ‘Cat mother come’—that sounds similar in Norse, doesn’t it? And she called my beard ‘skegg.’ You are welcome to confirm with Sir Brede that I asked him yesterday afternoon what it meant. I assure you, I had no idea until I did.”

“Or, you asked Brede so you would have something to say to me today.”

Saeward reared back, outraged. “Are you calling me a liar?”

'Are you calling me a liar?'

“Not exactly. I’m saying I don’t believe you.”

Saeward was so mortified that he was torn between calling it all off, and insisting just to defy Sir Stein. He was saved from making the ignoble choice by the boom of the tower door opening, and a young page calling out, “Make way for the King!”

The flustered Queen wailed, “Oh, thank Heavens! Ragallach! Please go tell the King I need him!”

Her own page trotted off across the court. The Queen turned back to Stein and Saeward.

“Stein, I believe him. He seems so genuinely concerned.”

Stein threw up his hand. “Ja, but he isn’t married, he doesn’t have a house—does he? What does he know about children? She wets the bed,” he said to Saeward, “did you know that?”

“Sigefrith!” the Queen said in relief as the King strolled up, rubbing his square hands together.

“Morning, runt!” he said to Stein. And to Saeward he said, “There you are! Aldwin was just looking for you.”

“Sigefrith,” the Queen continued, “Saeward wishes to adopt little Jorunn—”

'Saeward wishes to adopt little Jorunn.'

“That won’t be necessary,” Stein interrupted. He traded a pregnant glance with Sophie. “Sophie and I are adopting her.”

The Queen said, “Oh, dear! But I thought… Oh, Sigefrith! You talk to them.”

“Why do you need me?” Sigefrith asked. “I thought Solomon solved this particular conundrum over a thousand years ago.”


“Oh, very well.” He looked Saeward up and down. “Have you heard the shocking things my wife is saying about you? She says you want to adopt a little girl.”

Saeward swallowed. The urge to storm off and forget the entire affair was getting overwhelming. But he managed to say, “If that is what the little girl would like.”

“She has spoken to him,” the Queen pleaded.

“Even if she did,” Stein said, “that doesn’t mean we simply give her to him. He’s not even married! A man can’t raise a little girl by himself.”

'A man can't raise a little girl by himself.'

Saeward pointed at a startled Aldwin. “He is!”

“That’s his daughter! Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because Sophie and I are taking her. Let’s go, Soph.”

He started to turn, and Saeward started to lunge at him, but the King said, “Now, just one moment,” in such a voice that everyone froze.

Sigefrith pinched his beard and narrowed his eyes at Stein.

“This child is our ward, as of Easter Sunday. Or had you forgotten?”

Stein muttered, “No, lord.”

“May God bless you and Sophie for the generosity with which you have opened your home to, err—” He looked back at the swarm of sweaty children romping in his court. “—all these people, but I don’t recall you expressing any desire to adopt this child until he wanted her. Seems to me this was just the situation Solomon had to decide.”

Stein said, “I am simply trying to ensure she goes to a good home!”

Sigefrith said, “So am I.” He snapped his fingers at Saeward. “A word with you.”

He and Saeward stepped aside.

He and Saeward stepped aside.

“Well, young man,” Sigefrith said, thoughtfully stroking his square beard, “I thought I was ready for anything from you, but I see I have underestimated you once again. Only tell me: was this your idea, or was it—”

He turned and spoke to the startled Queen.

“Why, hallo there, honey! Does our reeve have something on his shoulder?”

The Queen turned pink and shrank away, and Sigefrith walloped Saeward’s back.

“Killed it!” he said brightly to his wife. Then he laid his hand on Saeward’s shoulder and muttered, “A word with you in private.

He drove Saeward quickly across the court, their long strides well-​matched. All the dogs and children scurried out of their way.

Saeward expected the King to take him up to his office, but instead they went straight into Saeward’s bedchamber. The morning sun slanted through the open window. Littlefoot padded in from the corridor to see what was going on.

Littlefoot padded in from the corridor to see what was going on.

“Small room for a man and a child,” Sigefrith observed.

“She could have a small trundle bed beneath mine for now. I could get a house.”

“I’m paying you that well, am I?” Sigefrith asked dryly. Then he sighed and scratched his hair. “So this was your idea, after all.”

Saeward did not answer. Sigefrith flopped down in the chair.

Sigefrith flopped down in the chair.

“Was this before or after Stein and Sophie got involved?”

“Before, lord.”

Sigefrith sighed. “My wife thought I was making an uncouth joke out there, but that wasn’t all. I admire Solomon. And his observation was that one of those women wanted what was best for that baby, and the other woman just wanted the baby. Now it’s up to me to figure out who is who, without cutting the poor child in two.”

“I want what is best for her, of course, lord.”

'I want what is best for her, of course, lord.'

“And you don’t think it would be best for her to go to a big house with a mother and father and other children to play with?”

“She is uncomfortable around other children. You can see that for yourself, lord. And Sir Stein didn’t want her until I did, so that wasn’t the choice I was making. It was that or send her off again, and let Father Blecca find someone who wanted her, after a week or a month or never.”

“And you want her right now?”

Saeward didn’t answer straightaway. Here, separated from Sir Stein, in his cool, quiet room, the enormity of what he was suggesting was beginning to dawn on him. Meanwhile Littlefoot sauntered across the rug to his feet and rubbed her flank all along his ankle, purring.

“She spoke to me, lord. She hasn’t spoken to anyone in months. Perhaps she wants me.

'What a remarkable child!'

“What a remarkable child! But do you not at least think, sir, that a young child deserves a mother?”

“My mother died when I was younger than she!” Saeward choked out before he remembered how much it upset him to speak of his early childhood to this man. “My father and I did fine together. Very fine!”

“Yes,” Sigefrith said gently, “I will allow that you did. But this is a little girl, not a boy. Are you considering taking a wife, with all the riches I seem to be showering upon you?”

Saeward closed his eyes. He could almost smell the burning lamps, the old parchment, the oniony odors of supper fading. He could hear his ten-​year-​old voice worrying: How would he ever meet the bride God intended for him, when they lived so far from their people? And his father’s patient voice responding: God will see that you find her.

Saeward no longer believed in God. But he went on believing in his father.

Saeward no longer believed in God.

“Lord,” Saeward said shakily, “if I find the right woman, I will. But I won’t marry just to have a wife.”

“Ah!” Sigefrith sliced his hand through the air. “Perhaps we’ve reached the point where we cut the baby. If I said you cannot adopt the girl if you don’t take a wife?”

Saeward lifted his hands in half-​plea, half-​surrender. “The richest man in the world can only offer what he has. Judge me for what I am, not for what I may be made to be.”

Sigefrith smiled with the corner of his mouth and conceded the point with a nod, but a flicker of sadness deepened the wrinkles around his eyes.

It didn’t last, however, and his teasing grin quickly returned.

'My dear Cockchafer, you are full of surprises today!'

“My dear Cockchafer, you are full of surprises today! I didn’t realize you were a romantic. But speaking practically, what do you intend to do with the child while you are working?”

Saeward hadn’t intended anything, since he hadn’t even had the idea until a few minutes before. The weight was getting impossibly heavy. And yet he found himself scrambling beneath it, attempting to heave it up from below.

“Well,” he said, “what does Aldwin do with his daughter?”

“Aldwin’s daughter spends the day in the bakehouse learning how to make cakes and tarts and getting under the feet of the women. I doubt that will work for this little girl.”

Saeward nervously stroked his beard. And Littlefoot sat down on her haunches and yowled at the King. Saeward was surprised that Sigefrith paid her no attention. Clearly he had been living with cats too long, if he’d come to assume other men attempted to puzzle out what they were trying to say.

“I suppose,” Saeward said, “I shall have to find someone who will keep an eye on her for a few coins. The important thing is—”

'The important thing is--'

He nearly said the important thing was that she would come home to someone who cared about her, and whom she cared about.

Instead he said, more huffily than he meant, “—I have some idea how she feels. My childhood too ended on a night of violence and fear.”

With that, Saeward was swamped by a flood of loathing. There was Sigefrith Hwala, lounging carelessly in a chair, lord of everything he could see, safe and healthy and going to paunch. By Saeward’s reckoning, Sigefrith should have held his head in his hands and stared at the floor in shame.

Instead Sigefrith quietly met his eyes, with that odd look in them that Saeward couldn’t name and could hardly stand. Like forgiveness, except turned around to show the other side. And yet Saeward certainly hadn’t forgiven him.

Instead Sigefrith quietly met his eyes.

“Do you know,” Sigefrith finally said, “this is the first time you’ve shown some interest in another human soul that wasn’t based on seeing justice done for him. Perhaps, if I may presume, you are at last beginning to understand there is more to life than justice. There’s lovingkindness, too, and that’s more important still. ‘The greatest of these is Love.’ That’s in my Bible, if it’s not in yours.”

Saeward’s loathing came to focus in a fiery knot in his chest. How dare Sigefrith Hwala lecture him about love and justice and things he was supposed to understand?

But now if he released the blackness that he held in his heart for Sigefrith, there would be nothing left of him to give to the little girl. So he seethed and ached and said nothing.

“I like seeing this side of you,” Sigefrith said without a trace of irony, “surprising as it is. So I will let you have the child if you are serious about this. On one condition.”

Saeward’s rage ebbed, and he swallowed, listening.

He swallowed, listening.

Sigefrith sat up. “She’s a Christian child, this is a Christian kingdom, and she will be raised as a Christian. I don’t care who sees to her religious upbringing, but if you won’t, you will find someone who will. Is that understood?”

Saeward found himself glancing down at Littlefoot. The mother cat was sitting in a patch of sun before the window, watching him through slitted eyes. She held her tail curved up beside her hip, but the tip of it twitched. Was it a sign? And why was he looking for the opinion of a cat?

“Yes, lord. Understood.”

Sigefrith slapped his thighs and stood. “Excellent. You picked one hell of a day to become a father. Audience today, tournament tomorrow. We’re going to be busy as a couple of one-​eyed cats watching five rat holes.”

You picked one hell of a day to become a father.

Saeward’s blood ran cold. A father? What had he just done?

“However,” Sigefrith confided, “something tells me my wife will think of someone who can keep an eye on the girl for the day. I know! Let’s go out and pretend I had to say No because we couldn’t think of anyone. See what she says. If we play this right, I should have a grateful wife in my bed tonight. They’re good for more than child-​rearing, you know. I still think you should consider marrying.”

Sigefrith clapped Saeward on the shoulder and turned him towards the door. Littlefoot trotted out of the corner to lead the way.

“But wait till you’ve slept on it,” Sigefrith advised. “I recommend you stick to one life-​altering scheme per day.”

'I recommend you stick to one life-altering scheme per day.'