There was a light in the room, like the creeping light of dawn.

There was a light in the room, like the creeping flush of dawn, or like the glow of a dim or distant candle. Synne was still deep in sleep, and somehow she knew it was not time to wake.

Even if it had been, waking was often the hardest thing Synne did all day. The only thing harder than waking was waiting for the news whenever she heard that Sigefrith had had a letter from the north or from the Isles. When she blew out her candle at night, it was with an unspoken wish that the dawn would never come.

Thus Synne decided that she did not want to wake, nor was it time to wake, and so the dawn could come without her, or else her sister could go away again with the candle, or whoever it was. She grunted her disapproval of dawn and candles and sisters, and she rolled over onto her side.

But that only made the light brighter, as if it had been brought closer and then doubled.

That only made the light brighter.

“Synne!” someone whispered.

Someone waited a long time. Someone had exceptional patience, or someone was watching her sleep. Either possibility was perfectly fine with her, though she would have preferred the light be extinguished.

Finally someone could wait no longer. “Synne! Please wake!”

It sounded like a man’s whisper. It must have been her brother, she thought. It could not have been very urgent, or he would have shaken her awake. It was simply very annoying.

“Go away,” she groaned.

'Go away.'

“Synne!” her brother called again, though he still whispered.

Then she remembered that her brother was not at home. Her brother had gone away with Eirik two months before. The only man in the house beside the steward and servants was her uncle—and she had never quite convinced herself that her uncle was not a little mad, nor that he was free of impure thoughts.

In her sleepy confusion, that thought was enough to frighten her. Panicked, she sat up suddenly and cracked her forehead against the skull of the man who was leaning over her bed.

She sat up suddenly and cracked her forehead against the skull of the man who was leaning over her bed.

“Aie!” he cried softly and held a hand to his head. “Synne!”

In the first instant, all she saw was the man’s bare chest. A strange, half-​naked man had come to her in her bed.

She was too dumbfounded to scream. She would later wonder whether people who were capable of screaming in fright were so very frightened at all.

She was too dumbfounded to scream.

“Who!” she gasped.

“Synne! It’s Murchad! Don’t you know me?”

Synne was afraid to move and afraid to think—afraid that the moment she truly believed it was he, he would vanish like a dream.

“We just got home an hour or two ago, with your brother and Eirik,” he whispered. “They wanted to wait and surprise you at breakfast, but I couldn’t wait. And I thought it would be cruel to you, to surprise you so…”

'I thought it would be cruel to you, to surprise you so...'

Synne was speechless and trembling with joy. But she must not believe…

Murchad did not understand her silence. “Oh… I’m sorry…” he mumbled as he looked down at his state of undress and hers.

“And Diarmait?” she whispered.

“Oh!” he smiled in relief. “He’s well. He went directly home to my father, to tell him to make ready for us. For our wedding, I mean. If you still want me, I mean,” he added shyly.

Then she believed. That was certainly Murchad. She wrapped her arms around his neck and let him pull her to her feet, though she thought she wouldn’t have minded if he had instead let her pull him into her bed. The important thing was to hold him and touch him and smell him and reassure herself that he was real.

The important thing was to hold him and touch him and smell him and reassure herself that he was real.

It was amazing how perfectly she had remembered the odor of his neck and hair. It was amazing that his back felt precisely like Murchad’s back, despite the fact that she had never touched him or even seen him without a shirt. But there was one thing about him that had certainly changed.

“But you have a beard!” she gasped.

“Don’t you like it?” he whispered.

“You know I like beards!”

'You know I like beards!'

“That’s the only thing one can do in prison: grow a beard. One doesn’t have much choice, in fact.”

“In prison?” she whimpered and held him close again. Of course, if he had not written and had not come to her, something had prevented him. But she could not bear to think of him suffering—and all the while she had felt sorry for herself, merely because he was not here!

'In prison?'

“Whisht!” he soothed when he felt the first tear touch his shoulder. “It wasn’t so very bad. The first prison was bad, but that was only for a month or so. Afterwards we were locked up like gentlemen. We were together, and they let us have our affairs, except what could be used as weapons. I had my head-​drying towel and everything. No razor, though.”

“Your poor towel!” she blubbered. “Your poor head!”

“Aye,” he sighed. “My poor head, when the woman who did our laundry sent my head-​drying towel away for rags because she thought it too worn, and thought it kind to give me another. I still had other things you’d given me, but I thought my heart would break over that ‘poor towel.’ You should have given me a Murchad-​tear-​drying towel for that occasion, Synn.”

'You should have given me a Murchad tear-drying towel for that occasion, Synn.'


“Where’s yours?” he whispered and wiped a tear away with his thumb. “I can’t even dry your tears with the edge of my sleeve, since I was in too much of a hurry even to put on a shirt.”

“I put it away,” she said mournfully. “It made me cry only to see it.”

He laughed softly at her and pulled her over to the couch against the window. He tried to pull her down beside him when he sat, but she was feeling reckless and tried to sit on his lap, as Eadgith did so often with Sigefrith.

She was feeling reckless and tried to sit on his lap.

She decided at once either that it was not as comfortable as it appeared or that there was a trick to it that she had not yet learned.

Murchad smiled at her in surprise or amusement, but he settled her on his lap and then she found it quite comfortable after all.

“I’m not too heavy for you?” she whispered.

Murchad stared at her in surprise as well as amusement. “No!” he said finally. “What an idea! And I think you’ve grown thinner since I saw you last.”

'I think you've grown thinner since I saw you last.'

“So have you.”

“Aye, but I was in prison, girlie,” he whispered and tried to kiss her.

“But who put you in prison?” she gasped.

“Only my mother’s cousin, who had my house. Our house, I mean.”

“He did mean you ill!”

“He accused us of murder and had us locked up until we could be tried before the king. And then he ‘forgot’ to tell the king.”

“But why didn’t he simply—” Synne could not bear to finish her thought, and she dodged his lips only to hide her face in his neck again. It still smelled like Murchad…

She dodged his lips only to hide her face in his neck again.

“Fortunately he is more devious than you, Synn. If he had ‘simply’ killed us, my mother’s house should have gone to my brother Domnall. But if he had us beheaded as murderers, our house and lands would have been forfeit. He was in no hurry, though. He feared our own uncle would not wish us killed, and so he seemed to be hoping King Enna would conveniently die soon.”

“But will he?”

“I think the High King would find it convenient. But, Synn—I didn’t come into your room in the middle of the night to discuss the treachery of Irishmen.”

“Why did you come, then?” she smiled, feeling reckless and wicked. Surely, she told herself, her own brother was nothing compared to treacherous Irishmen. Surely none of those everyday rules of conduct applied to this situation.

'I only came to look at you.'

“I only came to look at you,” he said tenderly. “But I had to wake you, when I saw you. And I had to talk to you, and touch you, and kiss you. If you will ever allow me to.”

“Oh!” she giggled.

“You may kiss me now and talk later, or talk now and kiss me at the breakfast table,” he teased. “Your choice.”

“Well,” she smiled, “tomorrow’s Sunday, so Uncle won’t be there for breakfast…”

'Tomorrow's Sunday, so Uncle won't be there for breakfast...'


“But breakfast lasts only an hour.”

“And we have hours until the dawn.”

“I hope it never comes,” she sighed.

“I simply hope your brother never does.”

'I simply hope your brother never does.'