Saeward didn't even recognize her at first.

Saeward didn’t even recognize her at first: the timid, freckle-​faced young woman who’d come to his door in a plain gown and a carelessly braided rope of hair. She might have been a maid. It was the sight of the Queen’s dog behind her that provided the essential clue—and then his jaw dropped.

'Good evening, Saeward.'

“Good evening, Saeward. I hope I don’t intrude. I just put Drageling to bed, and I wanted to see how you and Jorunn were getting on.”

“Lady…” Saeward stammered. “I was just—we were just—”

The Queen tipped to the side to peer past him into the room. “Hallo, sweetie!” she called, waving her fingers at Jorunn.

She leaned so far that Saeward felt obliged to step aside, and she took that as an invitation to come right in.

“Why, look at all these kittens!” she said to Jorunn. “What fun you must be having!”

Left alone in the corridor, the Queen’s dog wagged her tail at him. Saeward ran his hands through his hair, took a deep breath, and turned back into the room. The room in which Sigefrith Hwala’s young wife was now standing.

“I see you’re all ready for bed!” she was saying. “Isn’t that a pretty nightgown!”

'Isn't that a pretty nightgown!'

“Fortunately she can dress herself,” Saeward said. “I did have to help her with her braids. And I brushed her hair. I hope I did it right.”

“Did you give it one hundred strokes?”

“One hundred?

The Queen hitched up her skirts and sat on the edge of Saeward’s bed. Saeward winced and looked at the ceiling. Sigefrith was directly overhead, creaking around in his office as he did every night until quite late.

Oblivious to his unease, the Queen explained, “One should give a girl’s hair one hundred strokes every morning and one hundred every night. It helps it grow thick and lustrous.”

'One should give a girl's hair one hundred strokes every morning.'

So he was to be responsible for the luster of a young girl’s hair. Truly, he’d had no idea what he was getting into. He’d been thinking in terms of a place to sleep, food, perhaps a new dress from time to time…

“I’m… afraid I didn’t count, lady.”

The Queen tittered. “Oh! Never mind for tonight. It won’t fall out, will it, sweetie?” She ran her hand over Jorunn’s silky head, stroking her like a cat. “Such pretty blonde hair…”

Saeward took a few steps into the room. He was careful to leave the door wide open, and anyway Jorunn was there, and the Queen had brought her dog… and Hell, why not count the cat as a chaperone while he was at it?

“One hundred strokes,” he muttered. “Clearly, I have a lot to learn about little girls.”

“That is why I came down,” the Queen said brightly. “To see how you two were getting on. What did you do this evening?” she asked Jorunn. “Did you play with the kittens?”

“Did we ever!” Saeward answered for her. Jorunn gave him a timid smile.

'Did we ever!'

Earlier he’d even gotten down on the floor and joined in the play. It had helped put off the moment when he would have to start figuring out what he was going to do.

“How many kittens do you have?” the Queen asked. She subtly turned the question aside to Saeward, and he noticed it and was grateful for it, because it took some of the pressure off the poor, uncomprehending girl.

“Five,” he answered. “Fimm ketlingr,” he added for Jorunn’s benefit, holding up five fingers to be sure. Most of his Norse vocabulary currently consisted of the activities and anatomy of kittens.

“Five kittens!” the Queen said to her. “Goodness me! What a rumpus you shall have in your bed tonight!”

Oh, no. Saeward looked down at the little bed he’d made out of folded blankets and a pile of pillows. The kittens had already plowed through the pile, and one of them appeared to be wriggling between the layers of blankets.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted. “Should I lock them out?”

'Oh, no, I don't believe you ought.'

“Oh, no, I don’t believe you ought. It would take more than a few kittens to wake a child who is truly tired, and anyway, she has probably worn them out with all the play.”

Littlefoot padded out of the corner, looking over the unusually large assembly of humans with a skeptical eye. She meowed a question at Saeward, sounding rather like she wanted to know how many more females were expected to invade the room she suffered him to share with her. But she rubbed her flank along his ankle all the same.

“And I believe it would be a comfort,” the Queen said, “to have a purring kitten or two in one’s bed, the first night in a strange new place.”

Jorunn followed after Littlefoot, reaching out to give her a caress. Saeward had to dodge out of her way, and in his narrow room, he was all but obliged to sit down if he didn’t want to step on any of the kittens that might have been worming through Jorunn’s blankets. He could sit in the chair, and be down low, at an awkward angle, and far away from his guest, or he could sit on the bed.

With the door open, he decided it was safe to to sit on the bed. Still, he was careful to leave a good person-​width on either side.

But the Queen looked up at the ceiling just as he was settling in, and he knew then he’d made the wrong decision. It was bad enough that Saeward had noticed the impropriety of her visit, but if she was aware of it…

However, the Queen simply sighed and said, “I remember the first night I spent in this castle. My first night in Lothere. Sigefrith gave me my own room, right at the very top of this tower. I’m certain he thought he was being kind, but I was so sad and lonesome that night. I knew I would never see my home again. I wish I could go back and give that little girl a hug, and tell her everything will be fine.”

They both looked at Jorunn, who was playing with Littlefoot and paying them no mind.

They both looked at Jorunn.

Saeward wondered what a twenty-​year-​old Jorunn would want to come back and tell herself tonight. What would she wish he had done? He ran his hands through his hair and propped his elbows on his knees, overwhelmed by the weight of mistakes he hadn’t even made yet.

“I would have been grateful for a cat,” the Queen said softly.

'I would have been grateful for a cat.'

Saeward sat up and slapped his thighs. “I am certainly grateful for that cat. She and her kittens keep Jorunn entertained. The cat mother did seem rather put-​upon when I brought her in here, but she seems to have adopted another ‘kitten’ with little complaint.”

The Queen laughed.

Kattar-​mothir,” he said, and Jorunn glanced back at him, smiling.

He explained to the Queen, “Sir Brede wrote down a few things I might need to know how to say to her.”

He put one foot on a flat spot on the blankets, stood up far enough to grab the parchment on the table, and thumped back onto the bed again.

“I can’t read,” the Queen said when he tried to hand the page to her, “but wasn’t that kind! What did you learn to say?”

“Oh, practical things,” he said, looking over the list. “Are you hungry? Are you tired? It is time for bed. Good morning, good night. How to count to ten. Dress, stockings, shoes, teeth, hair.”

Saeward had decided he would learn Norse by working his way down.

At the very end, unasked, Brede had put “I love you.” Saeward had decided he would learn Norse by working his way down.

“Saeward,” the Queen blurted, “I wanted to tell you… how glad I am you’ve done this.”

Saeward sighed and laid the parchment on the mattress beside him. He’d known this was coming. And the last thing he wanted anywhere near his bed was Sigefrith’s grateful wife!

“Sigefrith teases you so much,” she said, “and Stein was angry… I didn’t get a chance to tell you today.”

“Thank you, lady, but there’s no need.”

Nor did he deserve it. A man didn’t deserve praise for rushing into a life-​altering decision without thinking. Now, if just one person were to ask him, “Are you sure about this?” he would probably break down and say, “No, I don’t know what came over me, please take her away!” Even if his gut ached every time he imagined the look in Jorunn’s eyes.

“No,” the Queen insisted, “there is. I can never tell you just how wonderful it is. She knows now that somebody wanted her, and it was somebody she wanted, too.”

Saeward sniffed.

Saeward sniffed. “I wish I was sure about that,” he muttered. “I wish she’d at least nodded her head yes. I don’t think anyone believes she spoke to me. I scarcely believe it myself.”

I believe you.”

“I still wish she would do it again, just once, in front of witnesses.”

Saeward was startled when the Queen laughed out loud. “Witnesses! You’re thinking like a reeve,” she scolded, smiling. “I am thinking like a mother, and I tell you, it’s not a bad sign she hasn’t said any more. She doesn’t need to. She reached out to you, and you responded. Now she is safe, and she can talk when she’s ready.”

Saeward propped his chin on his hand and sighed. “If you think so, lady.”

“I do,” she said, glowing over his acknowledgment and kicking her dangling feet against the bed frame like a girl.

'I do.'

Saeward wondered idly whether Sigefrith ever let his young wife win an argument.

After a while she licked her lips and, nodding over Jorunn’s head at the table, said, “Saeward, I don’t mean to tell you how to raise your daughter, but you oughtn’t leave knives lying around where little hands might find them and cut themselves.”

“Oh, Hell! What was I thinking?” Saeward vaulted off the bed as if there were no time to lose. Jorunn ducked, Littlefoot meowed, and Saeward grabbed both knives and hurried to hide them on the top shelf of the wardrobe.

It only took a few seconds, but afterwards he had to lean his forehead against the wardrobe door, trying to calm himself. His blood pounded in his ears to the cadence of I can’t do this, I can’t do this. He was not fit to raise a child. In his world, children cut other people with knives. And he had just frightened Jorunn, if not the Queen.

“Now, it’s no harm done,” the Queen soothed. “You’ll have to grow accustomed to having a child around, that’s all.”

Saeward peeled himself away from the wardrobe and staggered back to sit on the bed. “Forgive me, lady,” he muttered. “I’m a bit jumpy tonight.”

'I'm a bit jumpy tonight.'

The Queen tittered. “Like spit on a hot skillet.”

Saeward lifted an eyebrow and turned his head to look at her. Her face was bright pink.

“As Sigefrith would say,” she added sheepishly.

“Yes, he would say that.”

She laughed, and Saeward granted her one half of a smile. Even so, he paused to study her more closely. She was damnably nervous, but she wasn’t looking up at the ceiling, and she wasn’t starting at every noise out in the court. He decided she was so shy that she hadn’t even noticed the impropriety of her visit. She needed all her concentration to converse with a man she scarcely knew.

“Lady,” he said, “on the contrary, I beg you, tell me how to raise her. Tell me everything I’m doing wrong.”

“Oh, you’re doing fine so far. You’ll soon settle into a routine. The first days are the hardest. And unlike a newborn, I expect she’ll sleep through the night!”

'Oh, you're doing fine so far.'

Saeward grunted and thought for a moment. Impropriety notwithstanding, as long as she was here, he could get some advice.

“Could you at least tell me how I am to go about dressing her? She only has the one gown, and it’s a skimpy thing. I want to have some dresses made.”

“Oh, Saeward!” she moaned ecstatically, causing Saeward to send an alarmed glance at the ceiling. “How I envy you! Dressing such a pretty little girl!”

“Yes, well, as a man I doubt I’ll find it as enjoyable as you imagine. But I don’t even know whom to ask, much less what to ask for.”

“The whom is easy. We can ask the woman who makes my children’s clothes.”

When, he wondered, had “I” turned into “We”?

When had the 'I' turned into 'We'?

“She made the prettiest cornflower blue dress for my niece Dora last summer. Something like it would be simply lovely on Jorunn. And,” she added hopefully, “if you need some other ideas…”

“Lady, if it would amuse you to order some dresses for her, I would be endlessly grateful.”

“Could I?” she begged.

Saeward didn’t know whether to laugh at her or to pull out his hair or to shake his head and sigh. “Yes, lady,” he said, “I daresay you could.”

She clasped her hands to her breast and sighed happily. “Did you hear that, sweetie? We get to have some new dresses made for you!”

Jorunn looked around, having guessed by the tone of voice that she was being addressed. But she remained on the floor with the cat.

The Queen sighed. “It’s been so long since Emma has let me help her choose a dress. She has always been her own woman, ever since she was small.”

Saeward snorted. He didn’t doubt that in the least.

'She has always been her own woman.'

“And Britamund could never be made to care, which did take some of the fun out of it for me. I do hope Jorunn will like pretty dresses. I envy my sister-​in-​law, and my mother, too. They still have young girls to dress.”

Saeward waved at Jorunn. “Be my guest, lady.”

“Thank you, Saeward.”

Her voice was so low and earnest that Saeward was confused and even worried. He hadn’t accidentally given Jorunn herself away, had he?

“I had a daughter of my own once,” the Queen said softly. “She only lived a day.”

So that was it.

'I had a daughter of my own once.'

“Yes, lady, I’ve heard.”

She looked up at him. There was such raw longing on her face that Saeward clapped his mouth shut a moment too late.

“What did you hear?” she asked.

Saeward coughed. “Well…” he said, carefully choosing his words. “I’ve heard her name was Catherine. And the people who were here then, who remember her, they speak of her with fondness and regret.”

That was true enough, though he supposed the fondness and regret was more for their poor beloved Queen than for the day-​old infant scarcely anyone had seen.

“Does Sigefrith ever speak of her?” she asked.

'Does Sigefrith ever speak of her?'

Her voice broke, and her eyes filled with tears. By now Saeward had made up his mind: he definitely wanted to pull out his hair. What was it about Sigefrith Hwala’s womenfolk? Had he instructed them to hound him? Saeward would not have been surprised.

“Of course he does,” he replied. But that didn’t get him off the hook.

“What does he say?” she whispered. A tear ran down her cheek. Was a reeve supposed to offer a handkerchief to a queen? Was he allowed?

Meanwhile Jorunn got up and turned to them, her little face drawn with worry. Saeward absently put a hand out to her while he tried to think of something to tell the Queen. To his astonishment, Jorunn padded closer.

Jorunn padded closer.

“Well,” he said shakily, rattled to find a weepy woman at his side and a worried child between his knees. “That is, we men don’t talk about our children the way you do. But what I mean to say is… he counts her. He says he’s had three daughters.”

The Queen repeated simply, “He counts her.”

Saeward realized too late how insignificant that seemed. He tried to compensate, adding, “And you know, lady, he’s very fond of daughters.”

The Queen broke into a teary smile and whispered, “He counts her.” Then she turned her smile up towards the ceiling, and Saeward saw she’d been aware of Sigefrith’s presence all along.

Just then Saeward felt a couple of sharp tugs on his sleeve, and he turned back to Jorunn, flustered. He’d never had to deal much with females, apart from getting his business done between their legs, and now he had to handle two at once.

“What is it, little one?”

'What is it, little one?'

The earnestness of her face hinted at a busy mind behind it. For a heartbeat Saeward thought she was about to say something… in front of a witness this time.

Instead she opened her mouth wide, pinched one of her top teeth between her fingertips, and wiggled it. Saeward was baffled. But the Queen understood.

Saeward was baffled.

“Goodness me!” she said. “You have a loose tooth! What a big girl!”

“A loose tooth!” Saeward repeated. “What should I do?”

“Why, nothing!” the Queen laughed. “It will fall out on its own.”

“But what if it gets stuck in her food? What if she swallows it?”

You are beginning to sound like a new father! She will be fine.” The Queen was swinging her feet again, and her girlish insouciance reassured him more than any words.

“Well…” he admitted. “If you think so.”

'Well... if you think so.'

“Tell him he’s being silly, Jorunn. You’ve lost teeth before. One would think he hadn’t!”

“Do you suppose it’s hurting her?”

“No, I think she just wanted to show you.”

Saeward cupped her little face between his hands. Inside he was a queasy, confusing mix of proud and flattered and terrified. Jorunn’s grave expression was unreadable, but she didn’t pull away.

For long seconds they remained nose-​to-​nose and eye-​to-​eye. Say something, he pleaded. A bird lit on the stone sill outside and twittered in the twilight.

In a low, motherly voice, the Queen said, “She looks tired, Saeward.”

Saeward let go. Was that all that intense little stare meant? That she was tired?

Was that all that intense little stare meant?

“Do you think so?” he asked.

“You mustn’t count on her telling you when she’s ready to sleep. Children don’t seem to know it. They simply play themselves sick if you let them.”

“How should I know it, then?”

The Queen smiled and kicked her leg. “You’ll learn her moods. For now, it’s spring, and sunset is the perfect time for her to go to bed. It helps if you make a routine. Perhaps a cup of milk while she’s getting her hair brushed, then her prayers, then she could lie down in bed while you tell her a little story.”

Oh, no. Saeward squeezed his eyes shut.

'Don't you know any stories?'

“Don’t you know any stories?” the Queen asked.

“Yes, lady, but… I don’t know any prayers. Suitable for young children.”

Saeward was a calloused liar, but this one pierced even him to the quick: this slap to the faces of his father and mother, who had taught him to recite that most sacred prayer, the Shema Yisrael, from the cradle.

For the first few weeks of his exile, he’d even gone on praying it without them, shivering over the words in barns and sheds, trying to warm himself over the ashes of his old life. One morning he’d awoken so cold and hungry that he hadn’t bothered. And he’d never said it again, not even when he was waiting to be hanged. He couldn’t start again now.

“Oh, dear!” the Queen said. “We must ask Estrid or Brede what prayers they learned as children. But you might as well teach her to pray in English. You can say it for her every night until she has learned it herself.”

'You can say it for her.'

Saeward’s immediate concern was not being obliged to say it right then. If he wasn’t praying his own prayers, he wasn’t about to start praying the Christians’.

“Would you teach her, lady?”

The Queen tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and went on kicking her feet. She took a while to answer, and Saeward worried that he had asked too much after all. Strange, considering she would probably have kept Jorunn for herself if she could.

Finally she mused, “I wonder whether she had a godmother?”

Saeward snorted. “If she did, her so-​called godmother did nothing to help her.”

“Oh, dear! But… well, I could be a sort of foster godmother to her, couldn’t I?”

Saeward looked at her.

“Not officially, of course,” she added weakly, blushing at her audacity.

Saeward looked at her.

Saeward wanted to ask her what her husband would think. Hell, he didn’t know what he thought himself. Since he’d come to Lothere, his life had already become so thoroughly entangled with Sigefrith’s that he didn’t know how he would break free of him. Not that he’d ever truly been free of him.

Meanwhile, though, this little girl needed more than a place to sleep, new dresses, and food. He was going to make a wreck of things if he tried to do this alone. He didn’t even know how to care for a child’s hair.

“I would be grateful, lady,” he said. “Jorunn and I would be honored.”

'I would be grateful, lady.'