Out here, in the bright air, in the gold-flowered meadow bordered by dark pines, and with her father at her side, Eadgith felt free again.

Out here, in the bright air, in the gold-​​flowered meadow bordered by dark pines, and with her father at her side, Eadgith felt free again.

She hadn’t realized how much the castle and her little room at the top of it had come to feel like a prison to her. Between her mother and her sister-​​in-​​law, she was locked up as securely as the dragon in the dungeon.

What a relief it had been when she had learned that her father was at Nothelm and wanted to see her! And any doubts she had had when she had hesitantly asked whether she might visit him again so soon had melted at the sight of his smile – he was handsome when he smiled! – and at the way he had pulled her down on the couch next to him, and squeezed her, and reminded her that she might visit him as often and as long as she liked.

Oh, it felt good to be wanted and loved by somebody!

Oh, it felt good to be wanted and loved by somebody! Of course her mother loved her, but her mother was so busy with Haakon now, and working on the house with Hilda. Eadgith found it difficult to spend time with her mother unless it involved one or both of those two.

And she knew her mother didn’t love her best. To her mother, she was but a fellow pensioner, and her mother sympathized with her insofar as she imagined that Eadgith felt the same way she did about their lot in life, but there was only one star in her mother’s sky, and that was Sigefrith.

Her mother had sent all of their coin with Sigefrith when he went to Tryggvason so that he might be outfitted as befitted a young man of his rank, though far beyond what befitted their wealth. With it had gone any dowry she might have had, besides her blood, which was only that of a great-​​great-​​granddaughter of a foreign king, and at best a descendent of King Edward the Elder, who had lived two centuries before.

Of course, it would all be different now – her cousin was a lord, though an outlaw, and still a very wealthy man. But the fact remained that her mother had once laid all her hopes on Sigefrith, even if it had meant that she and her daughter would remain fellow pensioners all the rest of their days.

She knew her father did not see things the same way.

She knew her father did not see things the same way. Even before he and her brother had fought, she knew that her father had met him not as the little boy he had left, but as a man, and a man who might be a dangerous enemy. Her father knew where Sigefrith’s loyalties lay.

But to her father, she herself was still the tiny girl he had left behind. He did not mistrust her. And, what was more, though she could scarcely remember those days, she had the idea that she had always been his special favorite. His baby, as he still called her.

It felt good to be loved best by somebody!

It felt good to be loved best by somebody! She had lived so long in the shadows of others that she sometimes felt quite blinded by the radiance of his handsome smile when it shone directly on her, for her alone.

She turned her head and smiled at him, and she was promptly dazzled by the smile he gave in return.

“Let us have a last run,” he called, and urged his horse on.

She did not wish the ride to end any sooner than necessary, for the square silhouette of his keep was already clearly visible against the sky, but he did not leave her much choice.

The last of the meadow went by in a blur of gold, and then they climbed the narrow path through the pines, and then they were home.

The men scuttled around upon the sight of their lord like anxious insects whose flagstone roof has been lifted away. One of them took her bags, another took her horse, and then her father took her inside.

She had hoped he might let her refresh herself in her room, but instead he put an arm over her shoulder and said, “Let us go surprise Leila. She will be glad to see you. At least it will prove I haven’t misbehaved on the way home,” he laughed to himself.

He took her up to their bedroom, where Leila spent her afternoons, and sent her first through the door.

'Here is a surprise for you, habibi.'

“Here is a surprise for you, habibi,” he said.

Leila sat on her long couch before the cold fire, embroidering something colorful and geometric with the same sort of scallops Eadgith had used for her dragons. Her brown skin seemed twice as dark in the green light of her tall, domed lanterns, and her smile twice as bright.

Her smile seemed twice as bright.

“That is very kind of the both of you,” she said. “You know how I get lonely for the company of a lady.”

“Papa’s home!” Cedric cried.

“I know no ladies more charming than this one,” her father said.

“Papa’s home!” Cedric repeated, running across the floor to throw himself at his father’s legs.

'Papa's home!'

“That’s right, runt, Papa’s home,” her father laughed.

“Papa!” Raegan giggled.

“That’s right, my baby.”

Eadgith bristled to hear him use his name for her.

Meanwhile Leila was putting away her embroidery and standing – but to do so she clutched at the arm of the couch and pushed herself awkwardly to her feet. And when she was quite standing, Eadgith thought she could see why – and any doubts remaining were dispelled when her father bent and knocked gently on her belly and asked, “Anyone home?”

'Anyone home?'


And meanwhile both Raegan and Cedric were hanging from his legs, and Leila was smiling her twice-​​bright smile, and Eadgith stood against the wall, quite forgotten for the moment.

Nobody loved her best.

Nobody loved her best.