Britamund wished she had hidden in her stuffy room after all.

Britamund wished she had hidden in her stuffy room after all. But she had thought that Dunstan would not dare to come find her, no matter where she sat, for she had understood.

She had understood.

She had understood the angry, anxious father. She had understood the sniffling, shame-​​faced farmer’s daughter. She had understood Dunstan’s awkwardness and embarrassment as he excused himself to speak with them privately.

But she had underestimated Dunstan’s brazenness.

She hurriedly opened her book and put on a smile.

She hurriedly opened her book and put on a smile. She would see just how far his brazenness could go.

“I thought I heard pages ruffling back here,” he said softly, smiling back at her.

'I thought I heard pages ruffling back here.'

“From all the way down in your study?” she asked.

“No, no. I was on my way out onto the balcony. I thought I might find you out there, in fact. It’s too pleasant outside to stay in here, isn’t it?”

“Did you wish to speak with me?”

“Ah!” He shrugged helplessly. “Let us say I wanted to sit with you a while. May I?”

Britamund closed her book.

Britamund closed her book, and at once he took it to put it away for her.

She watched his back as he bent to slide it onto the shelf. What did he want with her? Did he want to get the bad taste out of his mouth after that unpleasant interview? Or was he finding himself particularly manly in its aftermath and wishing to bask in the feeling for a while with the closest young woman at hand?

He sat on the couch opposite her chair, but the easy manners he had worn a moment before did not seem to apply to this new position. He was suddenly as awkward and embarrassed as he had been at the sight of his little mistress.

He was suddenly as awkward and embarrassed as he had been at the sight of his little mistress.

“Is there something you wished to say to me, Dunstan?”

He seemed relieved that she had broached the subject. She immediately decided that was the last help he would get out of her.

“In fact, Brit…” He laughed nervously. “You know, one point on which your father and mine have always disagreed is whether it is wisdom or folly to ask the advice of a woman when one is faced with a difficult problem.”

“That may have more to do with the wisdom or folly of the women your father and mine have had to hand,” she said coldly.

'That may have more to do with the wisdom or folly of the women your father and mine have had to hand.'

His forehead creased itself into a thoughtful frown. “I wouldn’t say that, Brit. Even a very silly woman may speak from her woman’s gentle, generous heart, and neither of your father’s wives have been silly. And I consider myself very fortunate to have been promised a wife who is exceptionally clever as well as gentle and generous. And I have much hope that the years will prove her wise.”

He smiled, but she limited herself to blinking her eyes at him. He nervously scratched the back of his neck, perhaps as an excuse to lower his head.

“However,” he said, “you’re still young, and rather more innocent than wise. And perhaps there are certain things I ought not permit myself to mention to you yet.”

'Perhaps there are certain things I ought not permit myself to mention to you yet.'

The blood rushed to her cheeks. He was weirdly prudish in his brazenness. Did he find a perverse delight in ruffling up her innocence, teasing it without quite taking it? Or–

She choked and swallowed. Had Caedwulf told him about Brinstan? Was he the one playing at seeing how brazen she could be with her feigned innocence?

“I see I am distressing you,” he said. “I shan’t say any more.”

“No…” she squeaked.

'Yes, I am.'

“Yes, I am. You needn’t pretend, Brit. My father has always thought there are certain things girls should not know before their time. I have often thought it rather naive of him, but then I don’t have any daughters. And now that there is one young lady in particular whom I love and whose peace of mind I treasure, I begin to understand.”

She could not believe him cruel enough to taunt her if he could speak to her with such gentleness. She was beginning to feel rather guilty herself.

“And I suppose this is one of the things I wish you never had to know,” he sighed.

That did it. Britamund gasped and sat up. “That would be too easy, wouldn’t it?” she cried.

He sat up too, startled. “What?”


“If you could simply ‘protect me’ from the truth?”

“Well… I wish I could. The world can be cruel outside these walls, though I hope there will only be happiness within them.”

“That depends on you to a great degree!”

“I know it. And I shall do the best I can. But I – ”

“So start now!”

'So start now!'

He squinted at her, open-​​mouthed, trying to understand her anger.

“Was there something you wanted to tell me, Dunstan? Some advice you wanted to ask me?”

“Yes, but I don’t know whether I ought.”

“There is no point in trying to protect me from the truth. It always gets out.”

She choked as she remembered the double-​​edged meaning of what she was saying. But she had not done what Dunstan had!

“That’s true, I suppose. I wonder how much you know…” he mused.

'I wonder how much you know...'

“Probably more than you think,” she scowled.

He smiled tenderly at her. “My father is right. I wish you didn’t have to know. I see how it upsets you.”

“Oh, just say it, Dunstan!” she groaned. “I’m not a baby. I live with my brother.”

“Hmm. I admit I’m sorry to learn your brother tells you of such things.”

She snorted.

She snorted.

He prepared himself by wiping his hands on his tunic and began, “It’s about that young girl who was just here.”

She wondered again at his boldness, which could look her in the eyes and speak calmly of such things. But perhaps this was what he wanted to tell her. Perhaps he expected her to accept his mistresses as a matter of course, as Leofric seemed to do. Perhaps she would come to be grateful if he merely kept them out of her sight, as Lady Eadgith seemed to do.

“She lives out at the Bent Creek Farm, almost at the edge of my lands. And you may have heard, or your brother may have told you, that a young girl was raped here two months ago, by an elf. That was the girl.”

'That was the girl.'

Britamund felt a sudden nausea, though she did not know whether it was due to horror of what he had told her or the shock of what he had not told her.


She nodded quickly. She had always promised herself that she would not be subject to the fainting spells of Lady Judith, nor even Eadie-​​like fits of flustered “Oh, dears!” She had always promised herself that she would look unpleasant truths in the face, just like a man.

But she was a woman. And that girl had been… and held down… and…

And she had thought…

And she had thought...

“Brit?” He leaned forward and laid a hand on the back of her hand.

“I’m fine, I’m fine!”

“You’re safe here.”

“I know.”

His face flushed and he squeezed her hand. She knew that he was thinking she would be safer in his bedroom as surely as if he had said it aloud.

She pulled her hand away. She thought she would be safer still at home in hers.

“But didn’t you know?” she asked weakly.

He blinked at her. “Know what?”

'Know what?'

“Who the girl was?”

“Oh. I already knew about that, Brit. I had met her once before, after it happened. Today they came to tell me that there will be a baby.”

She gaped at him.

He stared back at her for a moment, and then his face turned positively purple and he gasped, “You – understand?”

“Yes! Of course!”

'Yes!  Of course!'

“Oh!” He sat back against the cushions, apparently relieved that he would not have to explain.

When his face had drained to something like its usual color she asked, “But you wanted my advice?”

“Yes! I don’t know what to do,” he said miserably, staring at his knees. “I wish my father were here. Last time when he – ” He looked up at her. “You know how Egelric’s boy Gils came to be, don’t you?”

“Of course!”

“I wasn’t there when my father decided what was to be done for his mother. I wish I had been,” he muttered, “so I could know what he was thinking at the time. But either way, I was there when the young woman’s uncle brought her in after she had been… attacked by the other women. They had cut off her hair, and slapped and kicked her. The husband my father had found for her was making her miserable as well.”

'The husband my father had found for her was making her miserable as well.'

She stared.

“You see?” he asked gently. “I wish you didn’t know such things were possible.”

“But, Dunstan… if I am to be lady here… if I am to be Duchess… if I am to help you…”

The grateful smile he gave her was almost overshadowed by the worry that was wrinkling his face.

“Then help me, Brit. What shall I do? What shall I do?” He rubbed his hand roughly over his eyes and cheeks, but even that did not smooth away the lines.

'What did her father ask of you?'

“What did her father ask of you?”

“Oh… He wants what Gils’s mother had – a husband, a farm. And money for himself, because he will have lost the labor of his daughter over the years until she would have married. She’s only thirteen. Younger than you…” he murmured.

“That must be… the right thing,” Britamund faltered, “if that’s what your father did. Isn’t it?”

'Isn't it?'

“I wonder. We know how poorly-​​treated Gils’s mother was. And since this happened, the people here have not been fond of elves. We have a family which is all but shunned at the moment, and no one will buy from them at market, all because they had Paul come to help their baby when it had the summer fever.”

'How can they be so cruel?'

She shook her head. “How can they be so cruel?”

“Because they are afraid, Brit. And it will be worse for the girl, I fear. And – and her name is Matilda,” he said softly. “She was named for my mother.”

'She was named for my mother.'

Britamund had seen him awkward and embarrassed, sheepish, foolish, sullen, stubborn, and many other unflattering things. She did not think she had ever seen him like this. He was more than uncertain, more than bewildered, more than helpless.

She saw that there was something beneath the affectations of sentimental poetry and excessive romance. Perhaps he was no more foolish than Alred had been at seventeen.

He had inherited from his father his sensitive, aching heart.

He had inherited from his father his sensitive, aching heart. In spite of all the poetry and all the sighs – or perhaps because of them – she had never seen it before.

Britamund rose and went to sit beside him on the couch. “What does the girl want? Matilda, I mean.”

'What does the girl want?'

“She didn’t say,” he murmured. “What she wants doesn’t matter. Not to her father. She’s only a girl.”

Britamund was at once relieved and disappointed that he did not look up into her face then.

When it was plain he would not, she asked, “Do you suppose your father would have arranged matters differently if he had known how it would turn out for Gils’s mother?”

“Perhaps. But he never said so.”

“Well, I think it would be a shame for her to be married now, unless there’s a young man who loves her. Everyone already knows what happened to her, so it will be no more difficult to find a husband for her in three months than it is now. Or even in three years, when she’s ready.”

'Or even in three years, when she's ready.'

He frowned thoughtfully.

“And my father always says that, when in doubt, one should favor the decision that can most easily be undone.”

“But, Brit… with the way the people feel now… I fear she will need a husband to protect her.”

“Her father ought to do that. Anyway – I have an idea!” she gasped.

'I have an idea!'

“What?” His forehead wrinkled again, but it was only because he lifted his eyebrows hopefully.

“Why don’t you send her to Egelric and Lili? All the people there are quite accustomed to little half-​​elf children. And they were quite fond of Catan, so they pitied her when she was attacked, and I am certain they will pity Matilda as well. And if they don’t, Egelric will bang on the table and roar at them, and that will knock them back into their sockets.”

Dunstan smiled at her. He seemed to be growing stronger and more confident before her eyes and beneath the touch of the hand she had laid on his shoulder.

Dunstan smiled at her.

“Send her there until she has her baby, or until you have another idea, or she does. Can she spin or weave? Lili will need linens for her new baby.”

“That’s a very good idea, Brit. It’s so good, it’s the same one my father had when Gils’s mother was being harassed by the women and her husband.”

He sneaked his shoulders beneath her arm and came to settle there. As ever, she was determined he would not guess that it had not been her intention.

As ever, she was determined he would not guess that it had not been her intention.

“So!” she said brightly. “In this case we shall simply forego the harassment and the husband. You see the wisdom in asking the advice of a woman?” she teased. “Your father is right.”

“Please don’t tell him I thought so,” he laughed.

“Why not? Now you know the reason why he so often is.”

'Now you know the reason why he so often is.'