'Are you sleeping?'

“Hilda!” Sigefrith whispered. “Are you sleeping?”

She lay with her back to him, as always, and her breathing was slow and even, but he wanted to talk to her. He was dying to talk to somebody.

His mother had only been gone for three days, but he was rapidly learning just how much he liked to talk now that there was no one at home willing to listen. 

Hilda did not even pretend to be interested in what he had to say – when she was not insulting his intelligence outright – and his children were too young. Haakon still preferred stories of bears and dragons and monsters to retellings of his father’s own relatively humble adventures, and his daughters were too small for anything but kisses and cuddles.

Young Eirik was more interested in going out with Stein in pursuit of adventures that did not involve monsters of any kind; Aengus was hovering around Maire in the evenings, for she was expecting a new baby at any time; the King, lacking Cenwulf, was too busy to spend much time with him; and Alred spent all his time with Dunstan or else alone, writing poetry or doing who knew what.

Only Brede was left for him.

Only Brede was left for him, and Brede had his own disadvantages. Brede was a clever man, and he would eventually run out of patience with Sigefrith’s nonsense. Ordinarily Sigefrith could count on a few cups of wine to bring a man down to his own level, but Brede did not drink.

Worse, when Sigefrith drank alone, Brede would watch him with a slight, scornful curl to his lip, thinking, Sigefrith knew, that a man need look no farther than the bottom of his cup if he wanted to know why his wife was cold to him. Sigefrith thought this was rather unfair: in the first place, he was never cruel to Hilda, whether he drank or not. And truly, Estrid could be rather chilly as well, and that despite Brede’s sobriety. Unless Estrid came to life behind her bedroom door, Sigefrith thought that Hilda, with her occasional moments of violent affection, was preferable to a steady diet of lukewarm Estrid.

'Hilda, my darling, are you sleeping?'

“Hilda, my darling, are you sleeping?” he whispered again, in Norse now. It was usually safer to speak to Hilda in Norse if he wanted something, except for the times when she would unaccountably turn on him and tell him her language was fit for finer things than his wheedling.

He squirmed closer to her. He could not sleep. He almost wished the baby would wake to give him something to do, but she was sleeping through the night now. Anyway, he would have preferred that Hilda herself wake and give him something to do.

Her white back was raised against him like a wall, and her blonde hair shielded the back of her neck. She was a woman of the kind that Alred characterized as “magnificent,” and by study of those so named, Sigefrith had determined that this meant something like “large.”

Her white back was raised against him like a wall, and her blonde hair shielded the back of her neck.

Queen Maud had been one of them, at least, and the only similarities Sigefrith saw between Maud and his wife were their height, the breadth of their shoulders and hips, and the firm roundness of their arms and legs – though Hilda’s roundness was beginning to go soft rather than firm, and her breadth was increasing with the years.

Hilda was the sort of woman that one thought would make a fine man. Sigefrith liked to call her his Valkyrie, not only because she had the body of a woman warrior, but also, secretly, because the Valkyrie of the songs had names such as “Shrieking” and “Furious.”

But she looked soft and dear in her repose, and at the sound of Blithe stirring in her cradle he was reminded that she was not a bad mother to his children, though she loved them with the rough, fierce love of a lioness. He thought then that she might simply love him in the same way, and that he was wrong to expect her to be gentle and kind.

He felt a surge of tenderness for her that was like an ache, and he thought he could only relieve it by touching her. At last he dared run a hand over her hip and down onto her flank and back again. “Hilda,” he said, softly but aloud.


“What?” she growled.

“I can’t sleep, my Hilda. Come talk to me.”

Talk to you!”

“Or let’s don’t talk, but only come to me for a while.”

“Oh, Sigefrith, I’m sleeping,” she moaned.

“I know, but I’m lonely.”

'I know, but I'm lonely.'

“Good Lord! I never thought I would miss your mother, but it seems she was the only thing standing between me and your fool’s babbling.”

It was cruel, of course, but it was yet many degrees removed from the greater cruelties of which she was capable, and Sigefrith was so accustomed to such treatment by now that he scarcely felt the insult.

“But Hilda, I said we needn’t talk,” he coaxed, and he slid a hand up onto her breast.

'But Hilda, I said we needn't talk.'

“Oh! God!” she snapped and pushed it away. “It’s true your mother never protected me from that!

“Hilda!” he pleaded.

“If you were half the man your father is, you would have ten mistresses by now to take the burden from me!”

“Hilda!” he gasped and sat up. “Is that what you want?”

'Is that what you want?'

She rolled over onto her back and looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully. Now he could see the malevolence of her smile.

“It is a difficult question,” she said. “If you were half the man your father is, perhaps I would want to keep you to myself.”

'It is a difficult question.'

Sigefrith tumbled out of bed and stood glaring at her, crouching over her like a lion about to leap on its prey – though they both knew he would not.

“Is that what you want?” he hissed. “The next time my father is looking for a mistress, shall I recommend you?”

'The next time my father is looking for a mistress, shall I recommend you?'

“Oh, no,” she drawled. “I might have at one time, but any man who wants your mother,” she said with the profound disdain of which she was capable, “must have something wrong with him that I haven’t been able to detect.”

Sigefrith went out at once, before he could work up enough rage to strike her. He did not want to be that sort of man. He did not want to allow her to make him one, though it seemed to be her goal – no doubt so that she could bewail herself over his abuse later.

Barefoot and nearly naked he went out of the bedchamber and down into his study.

Barefoot and nearly naked he went out of the bedchamber and down into his study, where were his books and parchments and quills, his knives and stones, his long needles for repairing the leather of his armor and surcoat, the jesses and leashes of his hawks, his grandfather’s Gospels – everything that reminded him he was a man, and not only a man, but a knight and lord.

Lording it over all these things was the great sword he had had from Hilda's father.

Lording it over all these things was the great sword he had had from Hilda’s father. From point to pommel it was nearly as tall as his own shoulder… and thus taller than Wynsome, he thought as he stood before it. And then he kneeled and lit a fire.

And then he kneeled and lit a fire.

He did try not to think of her, but it had grown into a habit while he was away. All through his journey he had been engaged in a ceaseless dialog with her in his head – though for the most part he spoke and she listened – and all the attention he paid the rest of the world had been concentrated on finding things he could use to make her laugh. In his head!

It was very foolish, he knew, but it had harmed no one. Now, though, it was beginning to eat away at him. Now that she was near, she seemed so much farther away. He could no longer make her laugh even in his head, for he realized how silly were all his thoughts now that he had the ability to repeat them to her.

He realized how silly were all his thoughts now that he had the ability to repeat them to her.

He had never dared call her Wynsome again, but he repeated the word constantly in his mind. His every thought for her was a desire to make her winsome again – if she had ever been! It was not too late to make her so, he thought, but she insisted on doing the work of two women, and she insisted on doing the worrying of an entire family, and she would not let him help her, not truly.

He had the farmhands under his thumb, but she would not speak to him of her own problems. She would not allow him to meet her alone, no matter how he contrived to trap her. He wanted to ask her about the little mother’s health. He wanted to reassure himself of her own. He wanted to make her laugh, as he had a thousand times in his head.

He wanted to make her laugh, as he had a thousand times in his head.

He even dreamt of her now, though they were silly dreams and unsatisfying. He thought that a man had to be clever to have any dreams that made sense. But there was a recent dream that was dear to him, for in that dream he had been able to hold her in his arms. She had shrunk down to the size of a baby, it was true, and he had held her in his arms like his little daughter, but he had held her. At last she had smiled at him and laughed for him, and her bronze-​​green eyes had been sweet and trusting and untroubled as a woman’s should be.

But in life her eyes were troubled and frightened.

But in life her eyes were troubled and frightened. In life she laughed only often enough that he did not quite despair. In life he had only once held her hand, and then she had looked at him like a baby animal surprised in its mother’s absence, with eyes that pleaded not with him, but with fate, or with the gods that baby animals knew, that he not wound her, and that he soon leave her, and that her mother soon return.

And yet he himself was moved with the same tenderness that drives gentle men to the unknowing cruelty of pulling baby animals from their nests – a tenderness that is like an ache – an ache that can only be relieved by holding the little creatures they love.

And yet he himself was moved with the same tenderness.