“Hark!” Sigefrith said softly, and he held up a hand to halt Malcolm in mid-​sentence.

Malcolm had heard the knock, however, and already halted himself. For a moment he was still and silent as he considered the sound. Then he began his analysis.

Then he began his analysis.

“Three knocks, evenly spaced,” he said thoughtfully. “Rather high up the door, I believe.”

Sigefrith nodded in encouragement.

“Someone whom the guards permitted to come up alone—but a gentle hand,” he added hastily. “A woman, I think. A meek sort of woman. I shall guess… Edris. Or perhaps a Wynflaed.”

A Wynflaed?” Sigefrith chuckled. “Have we several?”

'Have we several?'

“A lady of that sort,” Malcolm explained. “It isn’t Eadie or Brit or Emmie, and I don’t have much experience with ladies’ knocks of any other variety, so I cannot be more precise.”

Sigefrith smacked his hands down on his thighs. “Very well! We shall see. However, you should have taken the opportunity to familiarize yourself with ladies’ knocks of various varieties before you got yourself married to a woman who batters down doors,” he winked. “Who is it?” he called sweetly before Malcolm could protest.

A muffled voice replied, “Leofric!” from behind the door.

Malcolm recoiled as if he had been slapped. “Good Lord!”

'Good Lord!'

At first Sigefrith freely laughed at his knight’s dismay, but then the sickening reality of the situation slumped over him and suffocated his laughter into a snarl.

“Name of God!” he bellowed. “The last man on earth I want to see!”

Leofric opened the door slightly and applied his face to the crack. “I know, runt,” he said meekly, “but I’m the first one in line.”

Sigefrith’s laughter struggled free again and burst out of him. He could not hate the man no matter how hard he tried.

“Get your sorry logic and your sorry carcass in here, old goat!” he ordered. “You’ll never guess what Malcolm said about you!”

Leofric grinned sheepishly in relief as he ambled in. “What did he say?”

'What did he say?'

“He says you knock like a sissy-​ass girl!”

Leofric’s smile went wan for an instant, but he recovered himself quickly and held up his fist.

“So young runts have said about old dogs throughout all ages!” he intoned. “I hereby challenge you to a duel of knocks, young Sir Malcolm, with doors of your choosing!”

Malcolm grinned at him. “We meet at dawn!”

'We meet at dawn!'

“Let us drink to your mutual destruction, gentlemen,” Sigefrith proposed. He grabbed Malcolm’s shoulder and pulled his head near. “Kindly go fetch us three cups and some wine, runt—and get yourself lost for about a quarter hour on the way, will you?”

Malcolm grunted and went off unquestioning. Sigefrith knew that not a minute more or less than a quarter hour would pass before he returned, and that the number of the cups would be three, and that the wine would be precisely good enough for the occasion, without being too good. Such was the reliability of Malcolm.

Malcolm grunted and went off unquestioning.

Sadly, there were few men like Malcolm in Sigefrith’s kingdom, and none in his own family.

Until the door had closed softly behind Malcolm’s back, therefore, Sigefrith glared at Leofric with all his might.

A year before Leofric would have met his stare and smiled mockingly with one corner of his mouth all the while, but now both corners drooped, and the eyes were bleary without the wicked laughter in them, and the whiskers were going gray. Sigefrith saw that Leofric was becoming an old dog indeed.

Leofric was becoming an old dog indeed.

As soon as the door was shut, Sigefrith threw his arms around him and pounded his broad back. “God damn you!” he said affectionately.

“You too, runt!” Leofric chuckled.

Sigefrith threw his arms around him and pounded his broad back.

“What are you doing here? I thought I told you to stay away? Is it about the boy?”

Leofric lifted his head. “What—Cedric? What’s this I hear?” he asked ominously.

Sigefrith snorted and waved his hand at the wall. “Leave him be, Leof. I took care of him. We had it out man-​to-​man. He doesn’t need Papa to go over him a second time.”

“I suppose he’s too old to be spanked,” Leofric grumbled with a trace of mournfulness.

“When they’re old enough to spank, they’re too old to be spanked, as my esteemed sire used to say,” Sigefrith smirked.

'When they're old enough to spank, they're too old to be spanked.'

Leofric gave him a shrewd stare, but Sigefrith ignored it and teased on.

“And I strictly forbid you to spank Eadie—I reserve that delightful duty for myself.”

Leofric grimaced, and Sigefrith laughed at him.

“You weren’t too angry at my baby, were you?” Leofric growled.

'You weren't too angry at my baby, were you?'

“Only just enough to impress her into not trying it again,” Sigefrith winked. “And there’s nothing on earth like a contrite woman in your bed, as you would know if you had ever once stopped being wicked long enough to let a woman feel naughty in comparison.”

As Sigefrith had hoped, Leofric groaned in agony at the thought of his baby’s contrition in an ugly old man’s bed. Sigefrith allowed himself a last laugh, and then he grew merciful.

'I wish you had been there, Leof.'

“I wish you had been there, Leof,” he sighed as he herded Leofric over to a chair. “Close your eyes and you would have sworn you were in the presence of my blessed mother. I have never been so proud of any woman whom I did not personally sire.”

Leofric grinned foolishly. “And I did sire her!”

“And I’ve never felt like such a heartless bastard in all my days. Don’t you dare tell her I said all that!” he warned.

'Don't you dare tell her I said all that!'

Leofric sniffed. “I shall simply tell her how proud I am of her, and how you can go to hell for all I care, you heartless bastard.”

“Same as every time,” Sigefrith smiled. “But do me a favor and just grunt at Cedric when you see him and leave it at that. He’s been through a lot this week, thanks to his bull-​headedness and soft-​heartedness combined. That’s one conflicted runt you made there, Leof. He’s just like you—with a conscience.”

Leofric’s brows crumpled together in consternation. “He certainly does find strange ways to get into trouble,” he mumbled.

'He certainly does find strange ways to get into trouble.'

Sigefrith laughed. “God love him!”

“How is he otherwise?” Leofric asked. “Staying out of trouble, and so on?”

Sigefrith shrugged. “I keep an eye on him. Alone he’s not much trouble, but he’ll go along with anything Cubby dreams up, I gather, though he tends to share the blame.”

'What about the girls and so on?'

“What about with the girls and so on?”

And so on!” Sigefrith laughed wickedly. “I don’t know, Leof. I find it more efficient to keep an eye on Emmie and the girls that matter to me, and let the boys sort the rest out between them.”

“But do they?”

“Jesus Christ! Ask him, if you must know!”

'Jesus Christ!  Ask him, if you must know!'

“I don’t know how to, runt,” Leofric said miserably. “It’s… I mean… with Kraaia, for instance, of course he knows I would tan his hide if he did her dishonor… but he doesn’t even try!” he wailed.

Sigefrith began to chuckle.

“You don’t think there’s… anything wrong with the boy, do you?” Leofric asked fearfully.

'You don't think there's... anything wrong with the boy, do you?'

Wrong, as in…”

You know!” Leofric whispered.

Sigefrith could not help but laugh.

“It isn’t funny,” Leofric pouted. “Just because your runt probably has more children by now than you do…”

Leofric was looking so pitiful that Sigefrith finally took pity.

“God help me,” Sigefrith sighed wearily. “I think I saw my eyes in the kitchen just last week,” he lied.

Leofric was looking so pitiful that Sigefrith finally took pity. He lifted his boot and kicked Leofric in the knee.

“Give him time to grow into it, Leof. He’s only twelve.”

“And how old were you?” Leofric challenged.

'How old were you?'

“Let not me set the example!” Sigefrith grinned. “Anyway, Sigefrith didn’t have Haakon till he was fifteen or so. The runt still has plenty of time, and you have plenty of grand-​runts already, so there’s no hurry. And God blind me, but before I die I should like to see one of my squires attain knighthood without resorting to the excuse of family.

'I should like to see one of my squires attain knighthood without resorting to the excuse of family.'

Leofric appeared to consider this advice for a moment, but it proved to be for no nobler purpose than a search for counterexamples.

“There was Brede,” he said.

'There was Brede.'

“Brede had his brother and sisters coming. That’s family.”

Leofric cocked his head and thought again. “There was Malcolm.”

“Malcolm didn’t—”

'Malcolm didn't--'

Sigefrith stopped short and lifted his hand out of habit, though Leofric was no Malcolm to guess at knocks.

“Who is it?” he called warily. He could not believe an entire quarter hour had passed already.

“Malcolm, sire.”

Sigefrith held his breath. If Malcolm could return so soon and call him “sire”, it could be for no good news.

Sigefrith held his breath.

Sigefrith was a king and accustomed to a daily burden of care, but at the present moment, all he knew was that his most precious, most promiscuous son—the one person of whom he was most proud in all the world—was somewhere far away, and anything could happen to him at any time, and Sigefrith would not learn of it for days or weeks, if he had the good fortune to learn of it at all.

“Well, what is it?” he barked, angry because he was afraid.

Malcolm opened the door and poked his big nose inside, but after an instant’s hesitation he stepped in and closed the door behind him. Even an instant’s hesitation was strange on Malcolm.

'Sigefrith's heart pounded so hard his teeth were clapping together with every throb.'

Sigefrith’s heart pounded so wildly his teeth were clapping together with every throb.

“Excuse me for returning so soon,” Malcolm said softly.

“Empty-​handed!” Leofric interrupted, blind to the subtle shades of Malcolm.


Malcolm ignored him. “There’s someone here I think you ought to see, and it’s rather urgent. He has a long way to ride before nightfall.”

“A messenger?” Sigefrith asked hoarsely.

'A messenger?'

Malcolm appeared startled and stood a little straighter. “No, no—only Lord Brinstan.”

Only Malcolm could have permitted himself that “only”, and only at that moment. Only Malcolm read the subtle shades of Sigefrith so well.

'No, no--only Lord Brinstan.'

Leofric let a great breath whistle out between his lips. “Son of a serpent!” he said in wonder. “The balls of that boy!” Then he winked slyly at Sigefrith and said, “I suppose that makes me the next-​to-​last man!”

'I suppose that makes me the next-to-last man!'