Synne lay still on her bed and listened to the rain.

Synne lay still on her bed and listened to the rain. She was not a melancholy girl and did not ordinarily appreciate storms, but tonight a vague feeling of dissatisfaction lay over her like the sluggish fog that blanketed the moat, and the grumble of the distant thunder expressed her feelings nicely.

It had not been raining that afternoon, and she had been able to go out with Freya and Ana and the boys, but these outings were no longer the pleasure they had lately been. Malcolm’s “cousin” Iylaine had suddenly begun joining them, and it felt as if everything had changed.

She wouldn’t have worried so much if Iylaine had been trying to monopolize his attention as she usually did. Indeed, she wouldn’t have worried so much if Malcolm had also paid Iylaine as much attention as he usually did. But now the two scarcely spoke: Malcolm stayed with Synne and his cousin Murchad, and Iylaine usually spoke with Eadwyn.

She could find two possible explanations for this uncharacteristic behavior.

She could find two possible explanations for this uncharacteristic behavior, only one of which she liked. The first was that Iylaine had suddenly taken a liking to Eadwyn, and meanwhile Malcolm didn’t mind because he liked Synne herself.

The other was that the two of them were so close that they didn’t need to speak to one another to enjoy themselves together, and in that case Synne did not doubt they laughed about her when they were alone.

The latter possibility was mortifying enough that she could almost swear off of Malcolm, only to assure herself that they could have nothing to mock.

But he was so clever! So funny! So gallant! And he was nearly always at her side! Surely that meant something.

Surely that meant something.

And yet she would have traded all of his jokes and his gallantries only to hear him call her “silly girl” with the same voice he used when he ran out of patience with his cousin.

She took a deep breath and sighed, and the odor of the muddy court reminded her that it was not likely she would see him tomorrow anyway. How she hated the rain, after all!

“What?” she snapped when a knock came at her door. She had thought it late enough that she could expect to be left in peace. Sigefrith had been shut up with Brede so long that she had despaired of being able to see her favorite cousin tonight, and she had thought that Estrid had gone to bed with a headache.

The door was cracked open, and to her surprise it was the voice of Sigefrith himself that asked, “Still awake, runt?”

“Oh! Sigefrith! Yes!”

“Still… ah…”

“Dressed?” she giggled. “Yes, of course. Come in.”

He poked his head in, grinning sheepishly. “Excellent!” he said, and then the rest of him followed.

The rest of him followed.

“You like sleeping in drafts, I see,” he said after he had sat, and he waved at the open window behind him..

“I like to hear the storm.” She hopped out of bed and shut the window before pulling up the other chair before him.

“Thank you. As for myself, I do not like to be reminded that I shall shortly be walking home in the rain.”

“You could stay the night.”

'You could stay the night.'

“Ah, but I believe my wife would miss me.”

“Oh, of course. Poor Eadie!”

“She’s not so much to be pitied,” he chuckled. “I flatter myself that she’s rather happy at the moment.”

“I know, but – ” Synne blushed. There were certain things that she was finding herself incapable of mentioning before Sigefrith or her brother these days.

'I know, but--'

“Please don’t make me feel worse about that than I already do,” he sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know how any man has ever succeeding in having more than one child with the same woman. We might succeed in fooling you the first time, but once you know what to expect… Edris says you women forget after a while, but – ”

He stopped and looked up at her as if he had only just realized she was there. Synne smiled awkwardly.

“Damned if I didn’t chose the worst way to begin this conversation,” he said. “I tried it once on your brother, and that already didn’t work out as planned, and I think I was quite eloquent that day.”

'I think I was quite eloquent that day.'

“You talked about… that with my brother?”

“Oh, Synn,” he laughed. “And I pride myself on being a diplomat.”

She giggled.

“Allow me to begin again.” He cleared his throat, laid his hands on his knees, and leaned forward to peer at her out of one eye, as he liked to do to make her laugh. “Tell me, runt,” he said. “Did you not find it odd that your bearish brother suddenly began allowing you to go out with your friends all these golden afternoons?”

'Did you not find it odd that your bearish brother suddenly began allowing you to go out with your friends all these golden afternoons?'

“Maire was always there!”

“I know she was, but you could have ‘arranged a meeting at a different location.’”

“I never did!” she huffed.

“God bless you! How I wish I could put you in a box and keep you.”

“That’s precisely what Brede has been trying to do to me ever since Sigi…” She trailed off. It was another thing she could not mention.

'That's precisely what Brede has been trying to do to me ever since Sigi...'

“But you’ve enjoyed yourself these past weeks?”

“Oh, yes! Are you trying to tell me that I have you to thank?”

“I? Hmm! You can thank me for taming your brother the bear.”

She giggled, and he laughed awkwardly.

“Synn, I do not see any elegant way to say this, so I shall simply ask you: what do you think of Murchad?”

'What do you think of Murchad?'


Synne could feel the blood come rushing to her face. She was a clever girl, and she understood at once. All of the rides and picnics – all of the dinners with Donnchad and Comgeall and Maire and Murchad – the sudden frequency with which Murchad visited his cousin Malcolm at the castle – Brede’s acquiescence in her outings with the young men – the wistful smiles Estrid gave her from across the room…

Synne could feel the blood come rushing to her face.

“Does Murchad know?” she gasped. She did not know for how long she had been gaping at Sigefrith before she spoke. He had been patient if it had been long.

Sigefrith seemed to relax slightly as he realized that she had understood without requiring an explanation. “It was his own father who told him.”

“What… does he think?”

“About you or about the matter at hand?” Sigefrith asked slyly, apparently hoping he could make her laugh.

'About you or about the matter at hand?'

Synne could only stare at him.

“Ah, well,” he said, more seriously. “I believe it was his praise of you that put the idea in the Bearded Head in the first place.”

“Of me?” she squeaked.

“I am surprised that it surprises you.”

“But why me?

“I would have thought it obvious. But if you want his specific reasons, you will have to ask him.”

“But – does he like me?”

'But--does he like me?'

“I believe I may presume to say yes.”

“But – but why does his father want me for him?”

“Ah!” Sigefrith leaned forward again and examined her face closely. “Are you a runt or a woman?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were simply a woman, I would tell you that the young man is very fond of you and that his father wanted to make him happy.”

'If you were simply a woman, I would tell you that the young man is very fond of you and that his father wanted to make him happy.'

“But I suppose I’m a runt, though. So why? I should like to know what good I am to Old Aed.”

“Hmm! Very well. At least I may return to the familiar topic of diplomacy. The very short answer, my dear cousin, is that you are my dear cousin, and since Aed’s son can’t marry me, you were the next best candidate. The long answer is this: not only are you my cousin, but your brother is married to Tryggvason’s niece, and your sister is married to Tryggvason’s nephew, and Eirik himself is becoming a powerful man in his own right, and he has cast his lot with Godred Whitehand. This same Godred Whitehand is poised to terrorize every kingdom bordering the Irish Sea, which includes the western coast of Scotland and its isles. Moreover, as the second son of Aed’s Irish wife, Murchad inherits a good piece of land in Leinster, and I believe that by allying himself with Eirik’s family, Aed believes he will stand a chance of keeping it if and when Whitehand attacks Ireland.”

Synne exhaled slowly.

“You’re thinking that you should have left matters with the question, ‘Does he like me?’” Sigefrith smiled.

Sigefrith smiled.

“But what is the advantage to you?” she asked with sudden shrewdness.

“You are a runt! The fact is, I should like an alliance with Lord Aed myself. It will put me safely in the middle ground of a good number of enmities.”

“What enmities?”

'What enmities?'

“Well, Whitehand’s Norsemen against Aed’s Scots, for one,” he began, ticking them off on his fingers as he went. “Whitehand’s Norsemen against King Olaf’s, by the logic that the enemy of Olaf’s enemy is Olaf’s friend. Furthermore, if Whitehand stays, then Aed and I both have our link with him, and if Whitehand goes, and if the Irish reclaim their territories, then since Murchad is the grandson of the old King of Leinster, we here shall be all the better situated with respect to them. Next, there is the enmity between Old Aed and King Malcolm. I have long been coming down too close to King Malcolm’s side due to my correspondence with his queen. And I should like to stand on the side of Old Aed for a change instead of favoring Gog, for reasons of my own. Finally, I am neatly avoiding the conflict between your brother and your brother-​​in-​​law by choosing a husband for you who is neither half-​​Dane-​​half-​​Norse nor half-​​Norse-​​half-​​Dane.”

'Finally, I am neatly avoiding the conflict between your brother and your brother-in-law.'

Sigefrith sat back and waited.

“I never thought I would be so important,” she murmured.

“Mind you, the runt is fond of you. Aengus says he seems to be evaluating his potential for beardedness in every mirror and puddle he sees.”

Synne gasped and sobbed.

Synne gasped and sobbed.

At that thought, she had realized all the rest of what this meant for her. He would want to kiss her with his mouth, be it bearded or unbearded, and he would want her to pay attention to him alone. He would take her away from her family and to his home, or possibly even across the sea. He would lie beside her at night, and she would bear his children, and he would rule over her. She would never again be able to ask herself what it would be like to love and be loved by such and such a man, because she now knew precisely whom she would marry, and who she had to hope would love her, and whom she had to hope she would love.

In the space of a few moments, she had been shown the one path down which she would walk all the rest of her life.

In the space of a few moments, she had been shown the one path down which she would walk all the rest of her life. Though she could not see what lay farther ahead, her feet were already on it, and she would never again stand at a crossroads and wonder which way she would be told to turn.

Sigefrith rose. He meant to come to comfort her, she thought, but she was ashamed she needed to be comforted, and she rose as well. They collided halfway between their chairs in a jumble of arms that resolved itself into an embrace. He only stroked her hair for a moment; he seemed shaken by her response.

'I'm in no position to be a judge of such matters.'

“I’m in no position to be a judge of such matters,” he laughed hesitantly, “but I had not thought he was so dreadful a character as to make ladies cry.”

“That’s not it!” she sobbed.

“What is it, then?” he asked gently. “Is there someone else?”

She was grateful he would ask. There was no reason why her feelings or even her opinion of the matter should be taken into account.

“No, there’s no one else,” she said, trying to laugh. Of course there was no one else. There was no Malcolm. Malcolm had faded away like a fog before the sun.

'No, there's no one else.'

“Excellent!” He squeezed her. “He’s fond of you, and you can do a lot with a man who’s fond of you, if you don’t push him too hard. I think you’re just the girl he needs to make a fine man of him. What is it, then? You know – it’s not for tomorrow!” he laughed. “The runt is not even sixteen yet. Is that it? It won’t be for a few years yet. You’re still mine for a while – and I am not saying I won’t be tempted to put you in a box and keep you for myself after all. You’re the only girl I know worthy of the name ‘runt’. How I shall envy Old Aed once he gets you to himself!”

'How I shall envy Old Aed once he gets you to himself!'

“But I thought I was to marry Murchad!” she said, managing a little laugh at last.

“Be that as it may, Old Aed will be delighted with you.”

“I shall never be able to look him in the eye!” she cried in despair. “After all the dreadful jokes I have made about his beard! I must learn to be more ladylike, Sigefrith,” she said with a hesitant giggle, “as you tried to tell me.”

“My dear,” he laughed, “your dreadful jokes are what he will love best about you. I know it is one of the things that Murchad admires. I pray you, don’t change a thing!” He squeezed her again. “Silly girl!”

'Silly girl!'