Britamund had not been alone with her future father-in-law since he had returned.

Britamund had not been alone with her future father-​​in-​​law since he had returned. There had been dinners and parties, and they had even danced together, but she knew how well Alred could hide his feelings behind his jokes and his gallantry.

Now they were alone, and he had no need to hide his feelings. If he stood with his back to her, it was not to hide the sorrow or the anger of his face. It was because it was his back he wanted her to see.

It was his back he wanted her to see.

There had been times when she had thought he was the only one who understood her. There had even been times when she had thought he was the only one who loved her. Brinstan loved and understood her, but she had already lost Brinstan. Now she had lost this last, gentle ally as well, and she was left desolate.

She imagined her mother had known how to hold back her tears when her heart was breaking, and Britamund was trying to learn the knack. She lifted her head and took a step into the room, but she stopped when she heard Alred begin to speak… or hum…

She lifted her head and took a step into the room.

He was humming – a hesitant, half-​​worded humming such as she had heard from him many times on long rides or when he was kept waiting. He was composing a new song. Either he meant it as a further snub, or he simply hadn’t heard her come in.


“Brit!” He spun around and smacked his forehead. “Jupiter! When did you learn how to sneak? I thought you galloped everywhere!”

He closed the door with one hand even as he took one of hers in the other. Britamund was too stunned to do more than let him lift it to his lips.

“Sometimes it suffices to call upon a Muse, and she arrives!”

'Sometimes it suffices to call upon a Muse, and she arrives!'

She smiled weakly. “I hope you won’t ask me to provide a rhyme.”

“Don’t worry: it wasn’t that sort of song,” he winked. “I have a bearded Muse or two upon whom I call when I need one of those.”

She giggled, and then she understood: he simply did not yet know. If anything, it made the heartbreak worse.

“Is it why you sent for me?” she asked.

'Is it why you sent for me?'

“No, it is not, my dear. It is time we talked about serious things.”

His voice was grave, but as he spoke he pulled her closer to him with the hand he still held, and he put his other arm around her back to lead her to the couch. This, she thought, was more than gallantry, and nor did it hide the sorrow on his face.

“You know?” she asked softly.

“I know what your brother told me and what your father told me. I also know your brother and your father, and I am able to see a little ways beyond what they told me.”

'I am able to see a little ways beyond what they told me.'

“Now you want me to tell you.”

“Hmm.” He rubbed his nose with the heel of his hand. “No. You don’t need to tell me anything, though you may tell me what you like. Now I want us to figure out together what is to be done.”

She stared blankly at him.

“You may be wondering why your father hasn’t announced your marriage,” he said. “He believes he is giving me the time to reconsider, but truly I have been trying to give him time to reconsider. However, I think you know how stubborn your father can be.”

'However, I think you know how stubborn your father can be.'

Britamund shrugged in reluctant agreement.

“I’ve known him for over twenty years, Brit, and I do have some influence with him. But there is only so much even I can do. I must be honest and tell you that I think there is no chance your father will ever accept Brinstan as a son-​​in-​​law.”

She was still holding back her tears, but he wiped her cheek with his thumb as though he had seen them falling.

“Brinstan has violated his trust, his hospitality, and, if I may say so, his daughter. It is truly a pity that you were not both honest from the beginning, though I admit that it might have changed nothing.”

Britamund looked down at her lap. She knew she would spend the rest of her life wondering.

Britamund looked down at her lap.

“Now,” he said briskly, “you’re a brave young lady and honest with yourself, and I don’t think you will waste much time on dreams that can’t come true. You and I shall instead decide how best to use the rather limited options your father has left open to us.”

“What options?” she croaked. What she wanted to ask was, “We?”

“Well,” he sighed, “I believe you will either marry my son – sooner or later – or you will be sent into a convent, perhaps for the rest of your life, or perhaps until your father finds some other husband for you, which I think rather more likely, since your father is a very ambitious man, and you are a very beautiful young lady.”

“But do you still want me?” she whispered.

'But do you still want me?'

“Want you!”

He pulled her against his chest and crushed her in a hug.

“Brit, if you won’t marry my son, I mean to convert my castle into a convent so that I may keep you here with me.”

He pulled her against his chest and crushed her in a hug.

She laughed. “You in charge of a lot of nuns?”

He grinned wickedly. “Clever, isn’t it? They won’t need to confess anything since I shall have been party to their sins.”

'They won't need to confess anything since I shall have been party to their sins.'

“Are you trying to tempt me into taking the veil?”

“So that I may take it off of you again?” he laughed. “Jupiter, don’t tempt me! But, Brit…”

His laughter died, and as she slipped out of his arms he brushed his fingers over her dry cheek again.

“If you truly cannot bear to marry my son, I shall tell your father that I refuse to have you as a daughter. But it will break my heart to say it. Is Dunstan so very dreadful?”

'Is Dunstan so very dreadful?'


“Ah! That’s already better than I had feared. But you don’t love him – is that it?”

“I love him in a way…”

'I love him in a way...'

“As a friend?”

“As a…”

“As a brother?”

“As a… man…”

Alred’s eyebrows arched up.

Alred's eyebrows arched up.

“As a… man I can help…” she faltered.

She wanted to say that she would willingly call herself his wife, his lady, his Duchess. She would willingly sit across from him at his table and stand at his side when they went before their people. She would willingly advise him when he asked for her opinion and manage his affairs when he was away.

She would even willingly be a mother to his children, who would, with such a father, very likely be exceptional children. If only she could have the children without the need for him to put them into her first!

“He’s a good man!” she sobbed, desperate to say something.

'He's a good man!'

Alred patted her knee. “I’m glad you think so,” he said gently. “I would say rather that he promises to be. He still has a certain amount of ridiculousness to work out of him, in which task I hope you will be able to help him. And I do believe he loves you, to the point of having become rather tedious to the rest of his family.”

“And to me.” She tried to smile.

'And to me.'


Alred paused to rub his nose thoughtfully, but he said no more about that.

“Granting him his tedious and ridiculous points,” he continued, “will you then marry him? Forgive me for making you decide now, but I fear that if I make your father wait much longer, he will grow so disgusted with me that he will simply make up his own mind and call it off himself.”

'Forgive me for making you decide now.'

She nodded.

He took her hands in his. “Will you?”

She nodded again.

She nodded again.

“Thank you.” He brought her hands to his lips and kissed them both. “I could not have imagined a better wife for Dunstan, as you will see in ten or twenty years when you will have made him the ‘good man’ you already believe him. Now, I have enough influence with your father that I may be able to convince him to wait until you are sixteen, as we had previously planned. I could certainly come up with a reason why Dunstan mayn’t marry until then. But perhaps that is not what you want?”

'But perhaps that is not what you want?'

Britamund said nothing. She wished he would decide.

“I think fifteen is absurdly young to marry, but I suspect that may be due to my having a daughter who is nearly thirteen. You are in some ways wiser and more capable than many women will ever be. Also, I have noticed that your father is scarcely speaking to you these days, and Eadie scarcely dares defy him, and your brother is more insufferable than ever now that he has his own betrothal to accept with ostentatious good grace. Perhaps you would rather go live at Dunellen, where there would only be one ridiculous personage for you to bear?”

There was that. There was also her own principle of never putting off the inevitable, no matter how disagreeable.

'I admit the thought of having my first grandchild a year early makes me feel a bit giddy.'

“And…” He smiled sheepishly. “I admit the thought of having my first grandchild a year early makes me feel a bit giddy.”

“And a bit old?” she smiled.

“Who said anything about old? I want to have grandchildren when I’m still young! I want to take your first baby and my next one, and put them on the floor together when they start crawling, and make them race, as my brother and I used to do with frogs when we were boys.”

Britamund laughed out loud.

Britamund laughed out loud.

“I’m quite serious, young lady. I’m not eighteen any longer, but I can still turn them out. I’m getting better and better at it, in fact. Did you ever see a baby crawl like David? Lo, the voice of his knees was like unto thunder in the hills! And then I came home and found him staggering around on his two feet like a little Goliath. How the mighty are risen!” he said sadly, and he shook his head and sighed.

Britamund reached out her arms and hugged him. “Stop being so adorable,” she scolded. “You make me wish I could marry you.

“Ah, but you are, my beauty. As you shall see in ten or twenty years, you are.”

'Ah, but you are, my beauty.'