Eadgith collapsed into the chair beside her bed.

Eadgith smoothed the blankets over Emma’s shoulder and then collapsed into the chair beside her bed. They both deserved a good sleep after the night they had spent.

She would just wait here until Sigefrith came to see how they were, and then, if Emma hadn’t awoken, leave her with the nurse and sneak away to sleep an hour or two. The day was dawning – brightly it seemed, judging by the rosy color of the peaks of the western hills – and so it would not be long.

She had sat all night with Emma in her arms, giving her sips of cold willow-​​bark tea laced with honey. It was what her mother had been doing for Siggy, and what she herself had been doing for Emma over the past days, but Sigefrith had hoped that it would make a difference this night.

The evening before, the Duke’s squire had silently presented her with strips of bark that were, Sigefrith explained to her later, cut from the green willow that grew over his wife’s grave. Eadgith had not been delighted by the offering – the Squire frightened her with his dead eyes that flashed occasionally into passion, and the story of the evergreen willow frightened her all the more – but Sigefrith had been grateful.

The people had begun to say that the bark from that willow was only beneficial if it was cut by his own hand, but that he refused to do, and those daring or desperate enough to ask were treated to an outburst of temper so monstrous that it had become part of the legend. So far as anyone knew, the last time he had done so had been when his own lord lay ill after being attacked by an elf, though she would later learn that he had made a similar gift that same evening to the Duchess for little Cynewulf. Afterwards he had gone to his room with a jug of wine and drank until he passed out at his desk, drooling onto the pages of his Psalter, but that Eadgith would never learn.

Emma had grown pale and weak over the past three days, for she had been able to keep nothing in her stomach, not even a drink of water. It was only during the night past that she had managed to drink several cupfuls of the cold tea without “frowing up,” as she said.

Eadgith herself was more at ease now, as well.

It had taken all night to do it, but it was done, and now she seemed cooler and more at ease. 

Eadgith herself was more at ease now, as well. She had been brave for Sigefrith’s sake, but at heart she had been terrified. Would he ever forgive her if Emma died in her care? Would he ever forgive her for forcing him to sleep while his baby lived her last days? But he needed to sleep, regardless… Eadgith was only needed by Emma herself, but all of the people depended on Sigefrith.

She heard a man’s boots trying to come softly down the corridor, and she heard the door open. She sighed in something like contentment. She would be able to tell him hopeful news. She would see him smile, perhaps.

She sighed in something like contentment.

He was standing quietly, contemplating her, she thought. She wondered suddenly whether he were searching her face for signs of despair, and so she lifted the corners of her mouth in a faint smile to reassure him. She was so tired… wouldn’t she have liked to have slept a while in his arms the way Emma had slept in hers! But he needed her strength more than she needed his, she thought. Emma was his own child.

“How is she?”

The voice wasn’t Sigefrith’s. It was a voice she knew and loved, but it sounded so strange that she could scarcely recognize it. It was her brother.

“Oh, Sigefrith!” she gasped and stood up. “I thought you were… Oh, she’s a little better this morning, I believe. She drank several cupfuls.”

'Oh, Sigefrith!'

He went to look down on the sleeping girl. He looked and looked and said nothing.

Eadgith began to grow frightened. “How is Siggy?” she asked his back in a whisper, and immediately hoped he hadn’t heard.

He looked and looked and said nothing.

For a moment, it seemed that he hadn’t. Then he took a deep breath and began to speak, without turning around, in a soft voice that was steady at first. “I came to tell you and Sigefrith. I – ” He stopped and folded his arms across his chest. It almost seemed as if he meant to embrace himself. And then he turned to her and embraced her instead, and he sobbed, “Oh, Eadie! How can it hurt so and not kill me? How?”

And then he turned to her and embraced her instead.