Malcolm had mapped out a finely-shaded protocol.

For all the apparent informality of Sigefrith’s court, Malcolm had mapped out a finely-​​shaded protocol governing the manner in which his subjects were permitted to greet him.

A blessed few – the Duke, or Lord Hingwar – could acquit themselves with a bow. Some, like Caedwulf, Sir Sigefrith, or Malcolm himself, dropped joyously to their knee like dogs fawning and crouching before their master; and like dogs they knew that they would receive a caress in the guise of a blow as soon as they bounded up again.

Like dogs they knew that they would receive a caress.

Others, such as Ralf, Eadric, and the King’s closest aides, went soberly to kneel, and lesser men kneeled humbly or nervously; and none dared rise until the King had the grace to nod, after the lapse of time precisely matched to the kneeler’s shade of rank. Even the curtsies of ladies were graded by depth and duration, and only the Abbot could permit himself to hold his head high.

Malcolm had thought he had cataloged them all, from the blind beggar’s roadside cringing to the Duke’s courtly bow, but he had never seen anything like this tableau of humility and stony disdain.

He had never seen anything like this tableau of humility and stony disdain.

The seconds accorded barons’ sons soon passed, and then of knights, and then of secretaries. Malcolm lifted his head and stared down his nose at Sigefrith in slight warning. Even Leofric was intrigued enough for his gaze to flutter between Brinstan and the back of Sigefrith’s head.

Sigefrith imperiously ignored them all.

Finally even the delay for the indulgent notice granted to roadside beggars had passed. Malcolm saw it as surely as the last grains of sand slipping through the neck of a glass. Sigefrith was henceforth deliberately ignoring the young man. Malcolm held his breath and waited.

Sigefrith imperiously ignored them all.

Sigefrith was almost still – merely tapping his little finger on his hip to indicate his impatience with this unwelcome person’s continuing presence. Leofric uncrossed and recrossed his arms like a man thinking of his sword and immediately reminding himself it was not a time for swords.

At last, to Malcolm’s despair, Brinstan lifted his head and shifted his weight from his knee onto his opposite heel. The gesture was perhaps unconscious, but Malcolm knew then that Sigefrith’s arrogance had just cost him some part of the penitence in which Brinstan had come. Henceforth the boy was being indulgent of the man.

Henceforth the boy was being indulgent of the man.

Alone in his household Malcolm had come down with a cold, and now he put it to use, clamping his lips together and inhaling deeply with such a loud, wet, unappetizing sniffle that the King’s silent dignity was quite spoiled.

Immediately Sigefrith snarled, “Didn’t your father warn you I meant to horse-​​whip you if you ever set cloven hoof in this valley again?”

'Didn't your father warn you?'

It was, unfortunately, something like what Malcolm had expected him to say, but at least it was speech.

“I know it,” Brinstan said evenly, “but I must speak to Your Majesty first. Or afterwards.”

Leofric smiled appreciatively to himself.

Leofric smiled appreciatively to himself.

Sigefrith’s nod was more of a toss of his head, but Brinstan rose without hesitation.

“If I may, sire,” Brinstan added softly, but not meekly.

“What is it?” Sigefrith snapped. “You might have sent me a letter – if you could resist writing it in code!”

Malcolm permitted himself to frown, now that Sigefrith had ceased staring off over their heads. Sigefrith saw it, and his cheek twitched beneath his eye.

“What is it?” he repeated gruffly.

'What is it?'

“When is the last time you saw my father?” Brinstan asked.

“It was…” Sigefrith’s mouth slowly twisted itself into a smile. “Why, it must have been on the joyous occasion of my daughter’s wedding…”

Now Malcolm flatly scowled.

Now Malcolm flatly scowled.

Sigefrith scratched his hair viciously until it was well-​​rumpled, and then he folded his arms and tucked his hands into his armpits, thereby composing himself into something like Sigefrith again.

“Wherefore?” he asked. “Has he gone missing?”

Some slight flippancy remained in the question, but Sigefrith’s eyes were too busy studying Brinstan to engage themselves in any further shows of disdain. His mind was clearly milling away again. Malcolm allowed himself to relax.

His mind was clearly milling away again.

“No, but I just saw him for the first time since the spring,” Brinstan said. “He’s changed. A lot. He seems very ill. I wondered whether you had seen.”

Sigefrith slowly unfolded his arms. “He seemed well enough when I saw him.” He sent a questioning glance over Brinstan’s shoulder at Malcolm, but Malcolm was not ready to commit himself to an opinion.

Malcolm was not ready to commit himself to an opinion.

“Then he has failed rapidly,” Brinstan said. “I have never seen him so thin. And he’s scarcely sleeping. He’s having dreams…”

Dreams!” Sigefrith rolled his eyes.

“That’s not all.”

Then, to Malcolm’s surprise and admiration, Brinstan waited. He waited until Sigefrith asked, “What else?”

“My brothers are ill, too, and they are not having dreams. My elder brothers, I mean. Eada’s sons are fine.”

This time the questioning glance was passed between Leofric and Sigefrith before being sent along to Malcolm.

This time the questioning glance was passed between Leofric and Sigefrith.

“And Maud?” Sigefrith asked.

“She’s fine, too,” Brinstan said.

“She isn’t an obstacle to anyone,” Malcolm observed.

“Ah!” Sigefrith smiled. “Sir Malcolm speaks! What say you, runt? The Baron’s family being poisoned?”

“That’s what Brinstan thinks.”

“I didn’t say that!” Brinstan protested, suddenly flustered out of his self-​​command.

'I didn't say that!'

Malcolm shook his head. “You wouldn’t have ridden all this way to say what you said, in the order in which you said it, if you didn’t think so.” He kindly omitted the additional effort of facing Sigefrith’s threatened wrath.

Sigefrith awkwardly tapped Brinstan’s arm with the side of his fist. “If you want our advice, runt, you’d better tell us everything that’s on your mind. Else our advice won’t be worth having.”

Brinstan hesitated only a moment. “Something’s not right there,” he blurted. “Osfrey and his son have their thumbs in every pie. My father could scarcely answer any question I had for him about what’s happening in our own lands. ‘You would have to ask Osfrey,’” he quoted in a whine. “‘Osfrey’s been handling that…’”

Sigefrith closed his eyes – the better, Malcolm thought, to avoid his own.

Sigefrith closed his eyes.

Malcolm had pleaded with him to accept the Baron’s invitation to his baby’s christening in the autumn, but Sigefrith’s stubborn, unpragmatic, un-​​Sigefrith-​​like pride had refused. Sigefrith had not been to Thorhold in nearly a year.

“And they’re all sick,” Brinstan continued, “but nobody seems to notice it. My own brothers don’t realize they’re ill, but I see it–I’ve been away long enough. Fenric’s face is almost gray,” he said pleadingly.

'Fenric's face is almost gray.'

Brinstan paused and looked around at each of the men – hoping, Malcolm thought, that someone would say what he was thinking and thereby make it seem a reasonable thought to have.

“You believe they’re being poisoned,” Malcolm said coolly.

“I don’t know!”

“Leila’s brother knows a thing or two about poison,” Leofric said. “Might ask him to have a look at them.”

'Leila's brother knows a thing or two about poison.'

“I can’t!” Brinstan protested. “I can’t let them know that I suspect anything! I feel like I’m completely alone up there! I’m not even supposed to be here – I told my father I was only going to greet the Princess, and I have– Princess Irene,” he said softly as his mind caught up with his mouth.

'I told my father I was only going to greet the Princess.'

Sigefrith grunted.

“And I must be back by nightfall… And I hate to ask the Princess to–Princess Irene–to lie for me…” he stuttered.

Sigefrith sighed and stepped aside. “Sit down, runt. You’ve come a long way and have a long way to go. I shall write a letter to Irene, and I shall ask her to lie. You may deliver it on your way home.”

'Sit down, runt.'

“And a horse…” Brinstan mumbled.

“And a horse!” Sigefrith groaned and waved impatiently at the chair. “I’ve one of Britmar’s hunters anyway – you might take it and say you took it out of his own stable.”

As Brinstan slipped between the King and Leofric he hastily added, “And there’s one more thing…”

“Name of God!” Sigefrith wailed. “What else?”

Brinstan ducked his head between his shoulders as he sat. “My father is leaving on a pilgrimage next Thursday.”

'My father is leaving on a pilgrimage next Thursday.'

“A what when?” Sigefrith gasped. Then he laughed. “Who? Your father? Your father won’t cross the road without someone to push him off and someone else to hold his hand! Your father has never been anywhere in his life without me!”

'Your father won't cross the road.'

“I wish you were going with him now,” Brinstan mumbled. “It’s not what or when but where, sire. He means to go to Winchester.”

Leofric’s mouth fell open, and he slumped himself dramatically back upon the oaken chest like a man falling into a faint.

“Winchester?” Sigefrith repeated.

“Yes, sire.”

'Yes, sire.'

“On Thursday?”

“Yes, sire.”

Leofric continued grimacing like a man going into a fit.

“Does your father know where Winchester is?” Sigefrith asked.

'Does your father know where Winchester is?'

“Yes, sire. He knows.”

“And does your father know how the roads are between here and Winchester?”


“I see. Well, runt, I don’t know how matters stand in the south, but no one has repaired the road between Catrehala and Mameceaster since the Romans themselves packed up and headed home upon it. And if we have half a foot of snow I doubt he’ll even find it.”

“I don’t know about that,” Brinstan said awkwardly, “but I rather want him to go.”

'I rather want him to go.'

“Oh, you do?” Sigefrith chuckled. He sent a wink over at Leofric, but Leofric had stopped his shimmying and sat very still.

“Because it’s what Osfrey doesn’t want,” Brinstan said. “I shall be at home handling my father’s affairs while he’s away, instead of Osfrey. I shall send Osfrey packing the instant my father crosses out of the valley. And if my father is away, then whatever… if anything at home is making him ill, then perhaps he will recover. Even if he only gets as far as Hamelan and has to stop a month to recuperate, away from Osfrey and Eada, it will be a blessing.”

“Is he going alone?” Malcolm asked.

Brinstan fidgeted with his knees and scratched the back of his neck. “That’s the thing…”

'That's the thing...'

“If he takes even one man who is loyal to the person or persons who are poisoning him – assuming there are such persons,” Malcolm added, “which I hesitate to do – then it makes little difference whether he’s home or in Catrehala.”

'It makes little difference whether he's home or in Catrehala.'

“That’s the thing,” Brinstan repeated. “I was hoping… to ask Eadwyn to go with him.”

Sigefrith laughed. “Osfrey’s son Eadwyn?”

“I think he loves my father more than his own,” Brinstan said. “I would trust Eadwyn more than anyone else from home, except my own two brothers.”

'I would trust Eadwyn more than anyone else from home.'

“Who are also being poisoned, if your father is,” Sigefrith pointed out.

“I know – and that’s why I wanted to send Ethelmer to Winchester with my father. And Fenric…” Brinstan lowered his eyes and said no more.

After the seconds allotted to barons’ sons had passed, Sigefrith tossed his head and sighed. “And Fenric, you were hoping I would welcome him back here.”

Brinstan looked up. “I could also send him to Ana or Freya or my grandfather, but I don’t want to put them into danger either.”

Me, on the other hand…” Sigefrith muttered.

'Me, on the other hand.'

You, I know, could defend him with no danger to yourself. And it would not be so obvious I was trying to protect him, since he has lived here before.”

“You do remember why I sent him away?” Sigefrith snapped.

“Yes, sire, but I am certain he would obey you in everything this time. I would swear it.”

Malcolm could see Sigefrith’s unhealthy, unpragmatic pride hardening up again. Though he had nothing to add just then, he hastened to speak as a distraction.

He hastened to speak as a distraction.

“So, you’re thinking to send your ill father off with your ill eleven-​​year-​​old brother and one young knight who is the very son of the man whose influence you fear?”

“I could go with them,” Leofric said gravely.

'I could go with them.'

Sigefrith laughed shortly like a dog barking, but it soon turned into a snarl.

“Good God’s blood! You, Leof? You’re all mad! Tell them they’re mad!” he begged Malcolm.

'Tell them they're mad!'

Malcolm leaned back against the bookcase and said nothing.

Leofric began meekly, “I can go – ”

“Out of the question!” Sigefrith snapped. “I need you here.”

Leofric sat up straight upon the chest. “You had better hope you do not, Sigefrith. I’m getting old, and you’ll soon have to do without me.”

'I'm getting old, and you'll soon have to do without me.'

“You’re not ten years older than I!”

“But I am old,” Leofric said mournfully, as if in reply to a joke no one had made. He lifted his right hand for a moment before letting it fall heavily upon his lap. “I’m an old man, runt. I shall never fight again. I already know you’ll never send me anywhere again. Let me go out one last time while I can still ride.”

Sigefrith laughed pleadingly. “Leof!”


“Let Sigefrith go to Raegiming,” Leofric said. “Let him take Wynflaed and the children and everyone. Eadgith will be beside herself with glee, with Wyn and all those grandbabies around, and Sigefrith will have a chance to be a lord for a few months. And when I return, I can show him where he went wrong. He won’t have that chance if we wait until I die.”



Leofric rubbed and picked at his right hand with a fidgety nervousness Malcolm had never seen on him. He scarcely seemed to see the hand as part of himself: it was a foreign object in the grasp of the left – even the instrument of a crime – and he seemed disturbed by what it had done, or not done, or done too well.

“Let me see Winchester one more time before I die, runt,” he pleaded. “Don’t you remember?”

Sigefrith said nothing, but his shoulders sagged.

“Let me see the place where Matilda was born one last time before I die,” he added softly.

'Let me see the place where Matilda was born one last time before I die.'

Sigefrith sucked in a breath, and his back snapped straight.

“Not for me!” Leofric hastened to add. “For Leia. God knows she’ll never have anything of her mother’s besides her chin and eyes,” he muttered. His head drooped over his hand again. “Perhaps I can find something for her from her mother’s girlhood. Something from when she belonged to no one.”

Sigefrith snorted. “God knows she carved her name in enough church pews and chair backs. You ought to find something.”

'God knows she carved her name in enough church pews and chair backs.'

Leofric grimaced and passed his hand over his face – his left hand, Malcolm noted, which was more than odd.

“On second thought I think you’re so old you’ve gone soft in the head,” Sigefrith grumbled.

Though Leofric pouted and Sigefrith groused, their voices had mellowed together into the same tone: the fond softness of old friends, who had the habit of saying so much without words that they sometimes forgot their actual words could be overheard.

Malcolm felt a slight shame over his spying.

Malcolm felt a slight shame over his spying, but this woebegone Leofric was something new, and to Malcolm’s mind anything new needed to be observed.

“Let me go, runt,” Leofric said wearily. “I think I need to get away for a while.” He stared at the palm of his right hand, lying limply open on his lap like a discarded glove. “I think it would do me some good.”


“I think it would do my father some good, too,” Brinstan said hopefully, slicing through that intimacy with perfect innocence.

'I think it would do my father some good, too.'

Sigefrith heaved a great sigh.

“Especially if you’re there, my lord.”

Leofric smiled with his mouth, though not his eyes.

“A journey is always good for turning one’s mind out of its familiar traces,” Brinstan said with self-​​assurance, though Malcolm knew he himself had never gone farther than Hamelan. “And I just want to get him away from Osfrey for a while – and if Lord Hingwar is there, perhaps he can…”

'If Lord Hingwar is there, perhaps he can...'

“Don’t say talk some sense into him!” Sigefrith warned.


“Don’t say talk some sense into him! You will all surely ignore me, as everyone does around here lately, but I’m warning you: you’re sending the senile out to lead the dumb and the blind! A fine party of pilgrims they’ll make: a red-​​headed madman, an eleven-​​year-​​old nose-​​picker, a stuttering knight, and a potbellied old lord!”

Leofric rubbed the palm of his right hand with the thumb of his left. “I am not pot-​​bellied,” he pouted.

“No, but you are old!” Sigefrith howled, in a joke that made nobody laugh. “God damn!”

'God damn!'