Alred had stood, but before Leofric had even been shown into the room.

Alred had stood, but he had stood before Leofric had even been shown into the room, making it seem due less to courtesy than to an unwillingness to be caught at a disadvantage. Nor did Leofric fail to notice the sword behind him – nor the jug perched beside it.

The superficial cordiality of their relation had grown brittle in the last days, with jagged edges that snagged on every little thing. Leofric would not have come at all were it only for his own sake.

“Evening, Leofric.” Alred smiled ironically, as if Leofric’s arrival only proved a point he had been trying to make.

“Evening,” Leofric muttered.


“Can I offer you a drink?” Alred was already moving to take a second cup as he asked.

Leofric decided to surprise him. He also did not want to loosen his already tenuous self-​​control. “Not tonight, thank you.”

Alred changed course gracefully, by his nature, but slowly, by the influence of what he had already drunk. He inclined his head toward the couch and asked, “Can I offer you a seat, at least? Or won’t you stay long?” He smiled again, slightly.

He smiled again, slightly.

“That I shall gladly take.”

As he sat, Leofric glanced over the clutter on Alred’s desk and caught a glimpse of parchment, half-​​filled. The strokes were fat and dark and slowly written, and there was a narrow ribbon of white down the center of the page, marking the pause in every line. He had caught Alred in the middle of writing a poem.

Leofric could not help it; he felt a pernicious desire to be outraged. “Writing a letter, are you?” he grunted.

Leofric could not help it.

He could almost feel Hetty’s pain through the stone walls, bearing on him like a winter chill. He might have had the generosity to suppose that Alred was not with her because she was already sleeping, or talking with Edris, or otherwise not in need of company – but he had already seen enough of Alred’s recent behavior to drain all the indulgence out of him. Leofric had spent the last several days storming in and storming out of Egelric’s castle, helpless and silent, longing and unable to interfere.

“A letter to the dead,” Alred replied at once, not quite under his breath. Then he sat back in his chair and looked up with a sickly, sickening smile, as if the idea had not yet occurred him, but pleased him now that it had. “As Dunstan did the day his mother died.”

'As Dunstan did the day his mother died.'

Leofric was annoyed to hear himself audibly suck in his breath. He had only meant to make a subtle stab, but he had forgotten his opponent. Alred met every stroke with parry and thrust. He never fought defensively.

Alred lifted his quill and twirled it grandly between his fingers. “Shall I send your regards?”

Leofric was still more horrified, off-​​balance and stumbling. “No,” he croaked.

Leofric was still more horrified.

“What may I do for you, then?”

Leofric coughed into his hand. “I need to ask…” He had thought to phrase it as a favor, but he was beginning to wish he had merely taken matters into his own clumsy hands. “…your opinion.”

“I am not of the same mind for a quarter hour at a time these days,” Alred said briskly, “but if my opinion of the moment interests you, you may have it. On what matter?”

'On what matter?'

“It’s about… I believe…” Leofric rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. He tried and failed to quickly think of something else he could pretend to want to know, so he was forced to speak truly. “Someone needs to do something about Egelric’s… situation…”

“Ah, someone…” Alred said thoughtfully.

“It’s about those girls he has out there. Kraaia and Eithne and Connie. Don’t you think it’s a… a problem?”

He tried to make a helpless gesture.

He tried to make a helpless gesture, but he noticed too late that it was the same sort of gesture he might have made when describing to a man the size of a woman’s breasts.

“A… problem?” Alred echoed. He lifted an eyebrow ironically, but the effect was spoiled by a nervous twitch of the eyelid below.

He lifted an eyebrow ironically.

“Well, Iylaine is there now, but she’ll be home on Sunday, and then…”

“Ah, I see,” Alred smiled. “Our newly delivered bachelor friend is going to be living with three nubile young females. How clever of you to have noticed it. Not many men would have.”

Leofric frowned mightily. Alred was mocking circles around him.

“I am not worried about what he will do,” he snapped. “Only about what people will say.”

'Only about what people will say.'

“You are?” Alred asked. “That is to say: you are, Leofric?”

“They are only little girls. Were you not clever enough to notice it?”

“Eithne is sixteen. It seems to me that you married your own daughter at sixteen.”

“And so is Eithne married.”

“Therefore she is perfectly safe from other men’s attentions. What sort of brute would dare… oh!” he tittered. His face was turning an unhealthy red, belying the apparent carelessness of his wit. “Forgive me, old man…”

'Forgive me, old man...'

Leofric’s own face was turning red with anger. “Yes, yes, very amusing, Alred! Now let us discuss this like adults, or I shall handle it myself.”

“Why don’t you, Leofric? You seemed to ‘handle’ Eithne’s sister well enough. Or are three girls too much for you at once, at your age?”

Leofric was on his feet before he remembered he had left his own sword at the gatehouse with his cloak.

Leofric was on his feet.

“You are making light of the virtue of three orphaned little girls,” he growled. “I came here hoping you would help me protect it. I see I am addressing the wrong man.”

Alred grew pale and quiet and small, so abruptly that Leofric was startled. The man appeared almost ill. Leofric recalled then that Alred’s father had died of a weak heart, and his grandfather likewise.

“What would you have me do?” Alred breathed. “Shall I suggest to him that he can’t be trusted with young ladies mere days after he laid his beloved wife in her tomb?”

'What would you have me do?'

“That is not quite what I had in mind,” Leofric grumbled. “I think Catan would be willing to take Eithne and Connie back, from what I saw of them together at the funeral. But you see, I cannot ask her.”

“No, indeed, you cannot.” Alred smiled painfully.

“And don’t forget Finn. He’s at that age.”

“That age…” Alred whispered.

“I think Wynn and Sigefrith will take Kraaia if I wheedle a bit. But I don’t – with the – girls…” Leofric gestured helplessly, trying to move his hands in the shape of nothing feminine, though he was finding that the shape of females came surprisingly naturally to his hands. “Eithne and…”

Leofric gestured helplessly.

“Yes, yes, I see,” Alred said dully. “I shall ask Hetty to talk to Cat. When she comes for the – ”

Leofric’s arms dropped so suddenly they clapped against his hips, interrupting Alred in mid-​​promise. He barked, “No!”

Alred lifted his nose and stared warily up at him with eyes that scarcely consented to focus. “I beg your pardon?”

“You shall not ask Hetty to do anything. She just lost her sister.”

Alred’s eyes went wide with amazement, which only showed how redly they were rimmed from drink or from tears. “Do you suppose I don’t know that?”

'Do you suppose I don't know that?'

Leofric snorted. “I wonder.”

Alred was wary enough not to turn his head, but he could not prevent his eyes from glancing at his sword as he remembered its presence. Leofric was too much of a swordsman himself to miss it.

He bowed his head, but on a diagonal, making of it only half a bow. “Good night, Alred.”

“Hetty is stronger than you think!” Alred protested.

Leofric turned his back on him, sword or no sword, and strode for the door.

Leofric turned his back on him.

“Stronger than I!” Alred bleated.

Leofric stopped and struggled for a moment with a pernicious desire to tell Alred he was wrong – to tell Alred that he had better pray he was right.

Instead he balled his hands into the shape of fists and muttered, “Then you may be very proud of her. And ashamed of yourself.”

'Then you may be very proud of her.'