'Old Papa!  You're back!'

Drage scrambled up from the rug and squealed, “Old Papa! You’re back!”

Leofric stooped down and opened his arms to make himself an ideal target for the inevitable collision.

Leofric stooped down and opened his arms.

Drage was a very demanding little boy at nearly all times, but in the first moments of his grandfather’s arrivals, he only ever wanted a squeeze sufficiently spine-​​cracking to be recounted proudly like a war-​​wound to his little cousins and friends.

He only ever wanted a squeeze.

Nor was Drage a generous child, but in those brief moments he unwittingly gave Leofric what everyone else had been denying him for days: love that did not judge, love that did not accuse, love that did not question.

But then the questions began.

“What happened to your hand?” the boy gasped.

'What happened to your hand?'

“I cut it.”

“Oh!” Drage’s eyes were bright with his little boy’s lust for blood and gore. “Did it bleed? Does it hurt?”

“Like hell.”

'Like hell.'

“Oh!” Drage glanced eagerly at his mother to see how she would react to this forbidden word.

Eadgith was so unaffected that Leofric began to worry, but Drage seemed to believe his grandfather had slyly slipped a blasphemy past her, for he doubled over and wheezed with half-​​stifled, wicked giggles.

“Listen up, runt,” Leofric said, heading off the inevitable series of demands. “You go to your room and put on your boots and clothes and all, and when I’m done speaking to Mama, I shall take you for a ride.”

'I shall take you for a ride.'

Eadgith sat ominously silent throughout the long negotiations over the direction, destination, and duration of this outing. Leofric’s hand was sweaty and stinging in its bandage by the time Drage had gone skipping out.

“How are you, my baby?” he asked meekly, summoning up all the sheepish charm that usually sufficed to mollify her and her mother when he had been bad.

'How are you, my baby?'

Eadgith was unmoved. “We are tolerably well. How are my cousins?”

“They are well, and they send their love to you, of course.” Leofric attempted to nonchalantly scratch his hair, but he had to abandon the attempt when his bandaged hand bumped painfully against his skull. “Freya sends kisses for all the children.”

Eadgith turned her face away from him, ostentatiously staring at nothing.

Eadgith turned her face away from him, ostentatiously staring at nothing.

Leofric had not seen his daughter since supper on Sunday, and he had not known what to expect. It appeared now he was bumping up painfully against the worst.

He abandoned his attempt at charm, too, and asked gravely, “How is he?”

Eadgith lifted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Didn’t you talk to Sigefrith?”

'Didn't you talk to Sigefrith?'

Leofric winced. “Noooo…” he said. “Not yet…”

“Who let you in here?” she demanded, the pitch of her voice rising in proportion with her outrage. “Did you simply walk in?”

“Well, baby…”

“I see,” she said, coldly queenlike. “Then I shall have the task – for it is assuredly not a pleasure – of telling you that Alred is still between life and death, and he has not yet awoken nor done more than move occasionally and moan.”

'Can't those damned elves do anything?'

“Can’t those damned elves do anything?” Leofric cried, though his anger was not truly directed at the elves.

Those elves did all they could, Father, but he has lost much of his blood, as I am told. There is nothing they can do about that.”

Leofric lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut until the need for tears had passed. He had known Alred still lived, as news of the Duke’s death would have fanned out through the valley like flocks of starlings. But he had not expected this next-​​worst possible news.

Leofric lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut until the need for tears had passed.

When she saw he would speak no further, Eadgith rose and said, “I suggest you leave before Dunstan sees you here. Or even Sigefrith. Particularly if you cannot hold a sword.”

Leofric flung up his arms and howled, “Son of a serpent! I didn’t do it! I even tried to stop him! I would still be able to hold a sword if I hadn’t!”

'I would still be able to hold a sword if I hadn't!'

He waved his bandaged hand before her face, and Eadgith ducked away as if she feared he had meant to strike her with it. Once again Leofric felt the stabbing pain of self-​​reproach like a sword in his own side. He knew he would never – could never – hurt his baby, and yet he must seem such a monster that she feared he might.

He dropped himself onto the bench and hung his head, squeezing his eyes shut until the tears had spread safely into his lashes.

He dropped himself onto the bench and hung his head.

“How is Hetty?” he muttered.

Eadgith gasped in ostentatious outrage. “You dare ask?”

“A man may ask, mayn’t he? I care. Would your sensibilities be less offended if I didn’t give a damn?”

She gasped again, but Leofric was past the point of minding his daughter’s sensibilities, one way or the other.

She gasped again.

“How is she?” he demanded. “Who’s taking care of her?”

“She is certainly well taken-​​care-​​of!” Eadgith cried. “The idea! Do you suppose she has been cast out to beg her bread?”

“Who’s helping her? Who’s talking to her?”

'Who's helping her?  Who's talking to her?'

“No one is talking to her because she hasn’t said one word in two days! That’s where your only talking got you!”

Eadgith spoke with such shrill vehemence that Leofric could hear Sigefrith’s roaring behind the words. It was like Eadgith to quote her husband when her own mind came up short.

“Someone could talk to her, Eadgith. Someone could tell her she isn’t to blame. Someone could – ” He had to pause a moment to take a breath, for tears were stinging the back of his throat. “ – tell her that she is loved. Simply loved. She needs to hear it.”

“You dare!”

'You dare!'

“Tell her, Eadie,” he pleaded.

“I shall not pass such–messages–to her from you!”

Such viciousness would have startled Leofric even on her mother. His own patience had quite run out, but for Hetty’s sake he found he was not too proud to beg.

For Hetty's sake he found he was not too proud to beg.

“Not from me, if you don’t want,” he said softly. “From you, from anyone, I don’t care. Please, baby, tell her you love her. Tell her you don’t blame her, you don’t judge her…”

“There is no denying that Hetty has done wrong,” Eadgith said coldly. “And you all the more, Father. I shan’t say one word to her on your account until you have gone home to Mother and told her you love her!

With every other word she stabbed her finger into her palm.

With every other word she stabbed her finger into her palm, with such savagery that Leofric thought himself fortunate that she was no man and had only her fingers wherewith to stab.

But Hetty too was only a woman, and she had neither armor nor shield. The harsh words, pointing fingers, and condemning stares of her friends would be as knives to the sensitive little lady.

Leofric could have borne the condemnation of his family and friends better if it had not served to remind him how unbearable it must have been for Hetty. He had always known how to take care of his own big self, but from this distance, he could not take care of her.

He could not take care of her.