'Almost every afternoon.'

“She does almost every afternoon,” Hattie was giggling somewhere far off. She paused, then, as one rarely paused while reading aloud, and in any case she was no longer speaking German. Nevertheless Hetty could not quite bring herself to wonder why.

Then she heard a deep voice chuckling wickedly, followed at once by a feminine falsetto crooning, “But, Alred, I am not tired!”

Hetty opened her eyes just in time to see Alred turn and saunter away, shaking his hips seductively, to Hattie’s great, giggling amusement.

Hetty opened her eyes just in time to see Alred turn.


Alred spun on his heel and waggled his hips back over to the couch.

“What ho, my beauty?” he demanded. “Naughty as your son! Defiantly proclaiming your wide-​awakeness all the way up the stairs, and falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow!”

'What ho, my beauty?'

“But—was I sleeping?” Hetty protested.

She did not think she had been, but her mouth was sticky and her eyes dry, and lately she did often miss large swaths of story when Hattie read to her. Still, she could not help thinking that Alred would have known this if he ever came to visit her during the afternoon “quiet times” that he himself imposed upon her, whether or not she admitted she was tired.

“If you have to ask…” Alred chuckled.

He turned away again just as Hetty raised her hand to him. She thought he had simply not seen, but as he passed behind the screen he said, “Pray do not get up for me, dear Hetty! Sleep, by all means! I need you just as perfectly rested, perfectly charming, and perfectly beautiful as you can be tonight!”

Hetty pushed herself up to sit against the cushions.

Hetty pushed herself up to sit against the cushions. Her head was muddled with drowsiness, and she could not recall… what was happening tonight? The party was tomorrow. Oh, she had forgotten something important, and had nothing planned! What kind of wife was she?

“What are we doing tonight?” she asked feebly.

'What are we doing tonight?'

“Having supper!” Alred intoned, as he might have announced their certain doom and ruin.

Hetty pulled herself up by the arm of the couch while Hattie was occupied in giggling.

Hattie was occupied in giggling.

“Oh, dear, have we no meat?” Hetty whimpered.

Alred groaned, “O dearest Hedwige, we have alas too much!”

Hetty tramped around the corner to join him. “Did Osh bring a deer?” she asked hopefully.

'Did Osh bring a deer?'

Her friend Osh could go out to the forest and fetch a deer as easily as her cook could walk down to the market and fetch a wheel of cheese. He did it so easily, in fact, that Hetty was too awed to ever ask it of him.

“He shall if you so much as hint at a hankering for venison, my beauty, but that is not our present circumstance!”

'He shall if you so much as hint at a hankering for venison, my beauty.'

He paused in his grand gesticulations and bent his head to hers. Out of unforgotten habit, Hetty shivered in delight and stretched out her neck for a kiss, but his lips stopped well short of her skin.

“Hetty, dear, supposing there were a man who had, let us say, two feet—and for the sake of argument that he happened to be somewhat small in stature—and that this man may have, hypothetically speaking, at some arbitrary time in the past, procured for himself a pair of wooden wedges that he might slip into his boots to make himself seem a bit taller… would you have any idea where such a man might have put them?”

'Would you have any idea where such a man might have put them?'

He smiled sheepishly, making himself look as dear and winsome as David with a beard—so like him, in fact, that Hetty almost found the courage to kiss his cheek of her own accord.

“Ach, Alred!” she scolded in a whisper. She was so close she could feel her breath coming back against her lips from off his face. Then he pulled his head away.

“The day is dire, dear Hetty!” he proclaimed. “I need every inch I can get.”

He winked at her.

He winked at her, and quick as a wink he turned away and grabbed the handles of the heavy drawer in both hands.

Then he paused, his head bowed almost to the wood. Hetty stepped aside, less to give him room than to discreetly turn her eyes away from his hesitation—and less to spare him their stare than to hide their pain.

Hetty stepped aside.

She knew he was calculating how best to open the drawer without hurting his side, though he would have denied it. He would never admit any of his new handicaps to her, except the only one she would rather not hear: he was not too proud or too ashamed to tell her that he found it too painful to make love to her in their bed.

Hetty was so distracted by her own self-​pity that she forgot what she had meant to tell him until she heard the wooden drawer scraping over wood.

“Ach, Alred!” she whimpered—but by then it was too late. By then she was already hearing his angry breath hiss out through his nose.

'Ach, Alred!'

“What in the name of Jove happened in here?”

“Ach, Alred! L—” she blurted, and then she stopped—just in time. She swayed dizzily, almost falling off-​balance, her very toes seeming to curl over the edge of the invisible cliff she skirted every day in her mind.

She had almost said the name. She had not said the name in weeks, though at times she had had to contort her English into the most elaborate passive constructions to avoid it.

“Haakon and Heafoc were brought home today,” she said shakily, “and they were here with the Old Man…”

She had not said the name, but Alred had heard it anyway. She could tell by the way his sleeves drew tight around the muscles of his arm, and the way the cords of his neck stretched taut like shrouds and forestay.

She had not said the name, but Alred had heard it anyway.

Hetty had not said the name in weeks. She even hesitated to speak of Love now: the word was the half the name. Alred no longer said the word to her either.

“I found them in here when I came up for my quiet time,” she explained. “You see, Haakon’s grandmother—”

Alred shoved the drawer shut with a slam, in spite of any strain to his side.

“In here?” he demanded.

Hetty took a short breath and began again. “You see, Haakon’s grandmother made him and Heaf such handsome little surcoats with mail on the shoulders, and the Old Man wanted to find one of your old ones—”

Haakon's grandmother made him and Heaf such handsome little surcoats.

“In here?” he asked again, waving his hand stiffly at the chest—almost slicing it through the air.

“I know you do not like anyone to open your drawers, Alred,” Hetty said anxiously, beginning to fear for the boys more than herself. “I told them it was very naughty…”

“He knows full well I don’t want him in here!” Alred shouted. “It was that Haakon’s idea, I would swear it!”

“Now, now,” she soothed, “they only took out a very few things and were trying them on—they did not dig so very deep at all, as you will see…”

'I shall give him the spanking of three boys.'

“I shall give him the spanking of three boys, and he may distribute them to his fellows as he sees fit!” Alred snarled.

“Alred!” Hetty gasped. For Cynewulf’s sake she fought back her own fear and squeaked, “But he is ten… We decided…”

“I decided he was too old for spankings, but if he intends to misbehave like a four-​year-​old, he shall be punished like one!” He slammed the side of his fist against the chest, but his voice suddenly went as shrill as a whistle. “There are some things of his mother’s for him in here! But I don’t want him to see them yet!”

'I don't want him to see them yet!'

Hetty was petrified, and her sensitive soul could even feel Hattie’s awkward stillness behind her. Alred was known for roaring on the rare occasions when his children truly misbehaved, but she had never heard him shrieking so. She did not want Cynewulf to hear it, ever.

'Alred, do not spank him, please.'

“Alred, do not spank him, please,” she said softly. “I told the boys it was very naughty, and I promised the Old Man I shall make him a surcoat just as nice, and just his size…”

For a moment longer he glared at her. Hetty felt his stare searching down into her like a lantern: he was wondering whether she herself had availed herself of the occasion to snoop through his—or rather Matilda’s—belongings.

He was wondering whether she herself had availed herself of the occasion.

Then his face softened, and the ropes of his neck went slack. He clamped his left elbow against his side, but with his right hand he reached out and stroked her arm and the side of her belly.

“Forgive me, my beauty,” he murmured. “None of that is any fault of yours. Indeed, you are a true saint: punishing a boy by offering him what he was trying to steal.”

'You will not spank him?'

“You will not spank him?” she asked.

“Hetty, I am shrewd enough a man not to hit gentlemen who are or soon will be taller than I,” he winked.

Then his buoyant good spirits seemed to swell up in him again like wind in sails.

“Therefore,” he said grandly, “I believe it would behoove me to be shod with these hypothetical devices whose existence I have just conjectured—tonight and for the foreseeable future.”

'I believe it would behoove me to shod myself with these hypothetical devices.'

Hetty’s slow-​blooming smile was cut short by this reminder. “Ach! But what is happening tonight?”

Alred slid an arm around the small of her back and steered her towards the bed.

“Do sit down, dear lady,” he begged, “that you may gracefully faint away upon your pillow rather than flop down most ingloriously as I did when I learned the news.”

Hetty giggled.

Hetty giggled. He did seem to be teasing, and he had said she needed to be beautiful and charming this evening…

“Is someone special coming to supper?” she guessed.

“Someone! Special!” he grimaced. “Hetty! Dearest Hetty! My very nemesis is at our gates! Mine enemy is upon me! My doom is nigh! And that insufferable Sir Egelric has invited him to supper!”

'My doom is nigh!'

Hetty blinked at him in bewilderment. “Is it King William?” she asked.

“Would only it were he!” Alred wailed.

Hetty’s world dropped away from her, her vision spun off into whiteness, and her body was washed with heat, as though she were falling back beneath the sun and the pale sky. Alred’s nemesis… his enemy… his doom… invited to supper… Her feet were slipping, her fingers were scrabbling at the crumbling edge…

Her feet were slipping.

“Alack, our supper guest is an Irish knight… with violet eyes!” Alred groaned.

Hetty opened her mouth and tried to pant herself back into consciousness, while Hattie shrieked and stifled a laugh across the room.

“Have you no pity, Mistress Hattie?” Alred begged the maid.

Hattie flapped her skirts straight and hopped up from the couch. “Pity?” she tittered. She walked behind the screen to put the book away, shaking her hips absurdly in imitation of Alred’s earlier performance. “I think it is the most romantic thing I ever heard!” she declared, with an extra-​wide swoop of her skirts and her behind as she passed.

She shook her hips just as absurdly as Alred had.

Won’t you come tonight, dear Hattie?” Alred wheedled. “You are just the shape and size and color to distract an Irishman!”

“Ach, no!” Hattie gasped. “I do not speak any Irish!”

“You wouldn’t have to speak, my dear,” he said. “Simply walk around a bit…” He wiggled his hips slightly in demonstration.

'You wouldn't have to speak, my dear.'

“Alred…” Hetty quavered.

Alred clapped his hands and turned back to her. “Yes, my beauty! We are in perfect accord! Fortunately, I have a plan!”

“Ach, Alred! Not these… boot things…”

'Not these... boot things.'

“Not only! Listen! In spite of Hattie’s resistance we must endeavor to surround the gentleman with such a bower of full-​blown beauty that he will scarcely notice my shy little buds in the shadows.”

Hetty began to giggle at his nonsense, though her lingering dizziness made her laughter sound tinny and distant to her ears.

Alred rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Now then, I have already rid us of Egelric’s ugly nose at least until tomorrow by sending him off with a message for Irene, but we must—”

'Now then, I have already rid us of Egelric's ugly nose.'

“Alred!” Hetty gasped, thinking anxiously back to Egelric’s last encounter with Irene and Andronikos… and her first sighting of a man’s blood on another man’s tunic… and her shivering, fascinated fright of the man’s big body that could make another’s bleed, and then walk about and talk to ladies as if nothing had happened…

“What?” Alred grinned sheepishly. “He seemed glad to go! That’s a good three hours in which he won’t have to be agreeable to anyone except his horse, and you know how he likes that. But there remain the dual problems of Paul and Osh, who are so very agreeable…”

Hetty gasped, “Alred! Problems!

'Alred!  Problems!'

“But Hetty, I need their wives!”

Hetty laughed freely at him, for whether his comedy was unintentional or deliberate jest, she had not seen him so animated in a while—not since…

“Now, I am certain I can find a baby out at Dunellen who will have a most inconvenient little illness tonight and thereby take care of Paul, but I don’t know how to get rid of Osh…”

“Alred!” she giggled. “We do not get rid of our dear friends!”

'Only for an evening, my dear.'

“Only for an evening, my dear,” he pleaded. “You must help me find a pretext! For if I can dispatch Osh and Paul to opposite corners of the kingdom, I shall be guaranteed the company of the lovely lady-​Flann, Cat, Connie, and Rua—and between those four tall, Gaelic-​lilting lasses, I cannot imagine that any Irish knights will take an interest in my poor little Gwynn with her English and Greek.”

“Ach, Alred!” Hetty scoffed, trying to twist her pretty lips into a frown. “Do you know how silly you sound? I do not think Gwynn thinks half as much about violet eyes as you do. She only likes to be teased about the gentlemen—she does not think twice about the color of their eyes.”

'She does not think twice about the color of their eyes.'

“But she only has to think once, Hetty!” he protested. “Egelric says he is quite dashing!”

“Egelric said dashing?” Hetty asked skeptically.

“Something like that! Say—what is Sophie doing tonight?” he asked.

'Say--what is Sophie doing tonight?'

He was as endearing as David when David was asking for a treat and threw up the full force of his curly-​headed charm.

Hetty dared to catch one of his hands as he waved them about, for this sudden return of his vitality called up vague, bodily memories of her own—of pulling him towards her, of falling back upon her pillows, of seeing his dark eyes smiling above her, of closing her eyes in full confidence that she would immediately be kissed…

It had seemed real then, she told herself as his hand slipped away, but then dreams always did while they were being dreamed.

It had seemed real then.

“Sophie is staying with Estrid tonight, I think,” Hetty said softly.

“Curses! That is too far to ride for supper. But she will be at the party tomorrow—Aie!” he shrieked. His body jerked straight and then crumpled around his belly, and for a moment Hetty feared he had injured himself with his flailing. But he merely whimpered, “The party! Jupiter! I forgot about the party! I shall have to invite him to the party!”

'I shall have to invite him to the party!'

“That would only be polite, Alred,” Hetty smiled.

“And there will be dancing! Dancing! During Advent!” He stood straight and rubbed his hands together in wicked glee. “That’s my plan! I shall invite Matthew!”

'I shall invite Matthew!'

Hetty laughed. “Alred, you know that Matthew will be at the Abbey tomorrow night so that the Abbot can celebrate the Mass at the castle.”

“That was the entire point of the party, wasn’t it?” he lamented, looking very much like David when David was denied some treat.

“That was the entire point,” she agreed.

“Then I am lost, dear Hedwige,” he sighed. “There remains nothing but to stand myself up on stilts and paint fearsome patterns on my face with woad, in the hope of scaring him off. Or… paint fearsome patterns on Gwynn’s face with woad!” he cried.

'Or paint fearsome patterns on Gwynn's face with woad!'

“There shall be no stilts, Alred,” Hetty laughed. “There shall be no woad, and there shall be no nonsense! We shall show this gentleman every courtesy, and be so charming that he will beg Gwynn’s hand in marriage merely for the chance to have us as parents.”

“Perhaps not that charming, my beauty.” He smiled wistfully and wandered away from her. “Though I doubt your charm can be so easily suppressed.”

“Perhaps he will be very charming himself, and you will be delighted to have him as a suitor for Gwynn.”

'Perhaps he will be very charming himself.'

He wedged his thumbnail between the drawer and the chest and scraped it up and down. “Perhaps,” he sighed.

“You want her to be happy someday, Alred,” she gently reminded him. “Perhaps not quite yet, but you want her to be happy and find love.”

The last word curled up strangely at the end, almost like a question—like a rope tossed out to him in the hope that he would catch it and tow her in. He did not; he said nothing. Perhaps, she thought, he no longer heard the word when she spoke it.

Only then did she realize she had.

Only then did she realize she had. She had said the word. She had named half of the name. She felt a new dizziness rushing over her like wind, or like falling through the air. No one would catch her.

Alred pushed himself off from the chest and said brightly, “On the other hand, let us not forget one thing: this is Egelric, Hetty. This ‘Irish knight’ he’s cackling about could prove to be seventy-​eight years old and have but three teeth in his head, notwithstanding his violet eyes.”

Hetty tried to smile. “That is very true, Alred. And he could also be married already.”

“And smell of bacon grease and stale beer!”

'And smell of bacon grease and stale beer!'

“And have a big wart on his nose!” Hattie proposed.

“That’s the spirit, ladies!” Alred beamed. “And more hairs growing out of the wart than upon his head!”

“And growing out of his ears!” Hetty added, for this was one of her own secret horrors.

'And growing out of his ears!'

“And out of his nose!” Alred said dreamily. “That would be more like Egelric, wouldn’t it, my dears? No wonder he was in such haste to hie him away from here!”

Hetty thought that Egelric would rather be wanting to stick around to see the look on Alred’s and Gwynn’s faces, but she did not want to deflate Alred’s fickle, gusting spirits by pointing it out to him.

“My invitation to supper remains open, dear Hattie, if you would like to observe such a beast,” Alred said as he sailed away. “Nevertheless I shall go down and at least assure myself that my boots with the tall heels are in good repair.”

'Nevertheless I shall go down.'

“If you change your mind later, my lord,” Hattie curtsied, “and wish to have your face painted with woad, I shall be in my room.”

Alred paused thoughtfully for a moment with one heel in the air. “That is the strangest invitation to a lady’s chamber I have ever received, dear Hattie. I congratulate you.” Then he continued on his way, calling out, “Good afternoon, ladies!”

Hetty sat quite still, and nevertheless she seemed to be sinking heavily into the mattress. In spite of the first budding signs of the return of his old good humor, her husband had not kissed so much as her hand.

She seemed to be sinking heavily into the mattress.

Perhaps she had been wrong to tell herself, “Soon.” Perhaps she had been wrong to think, “When he is feeling more like himself again.”

Hattie laughed and shook her hips all the way back to her couch, for her own private amusement. “If there is anyone I feel sorry for, it is that poor Irish knight!” she declared. “What a crazy castle he will find himself coming to! Shall I read to you more, Hetty?”

Hetty’s hand fumbled out to the Psalter that lay on her bedside table—for it was her bedside now. Alred had never explained why, and she dared not ask. She did not know whether it was her body he wanted to keep off his injured side, or her head off his broken heart. She did not want to know.

She did not want to know.

“No, dear,” she quavered. “I think I shall read my psalms for Sunday. I doubt we shall find time tomorrow, with the party…”

“And the Irish knight!” Hattie said enthusiastically.

Hetty dragged her finger up the side of the book, ruffling the uneven pages with her fingernail, loath to open it. There had been a time when her Sunday reading was her secret delight: when, after she had dutifully read her appointed psalms, she would permit herself to unfold the creased parchment hidden inside the book and read again her Song of Songs. She had known it by heart, of course, but reading it with her eyes and holding it in her hands had made it seem more real.

Such was the tragic irony of her life.

Such was the tragic irony of her life that her one proof of the reality of her love had been the most false—that her love’s happiest hours had been spent when she had not even been loved.

Wearily she let the book fall open where it would, for she could not even remember the Psalms for Sunday, nor quite bring herself to care.

But like a little miracle, it fell open to reveal a creased parchment. She blinked at it, disbelieving, though she quickly saw it was not the same. Then her mind began to whir.

She blinked at it, disbelieving.

It might have seemed cruel to leave it there—if she had been certain he even remembered where she had once kept it—but it could also have been evidence of thoughtful, thorough love. It could have been an attempt to make up for past errors: an attempt to start over again, by writing her the poem he ought to have written then.

Hetty balanced the open book in her palm and carefully lifted the edge of the parchment in the other.

She saw at once that it was not written in Alred’s extravagant hand. The letters were blocky and black and stiffly arrayed, like rows of awkward little boys unaccustomed to having clean tunics and scrubbed faces and being herded into line.

It was not the hand of a child, but of a grown man writing with childish concentration—of a crude man, with his head bowed deeply over the parchment, fingers tense around the new quill, trying to write in a manner he believed fine.

It was not the hand of a child.

It was not the work of a poet, nor even a poetic child; it was a poem only in the most technical sense—it followed every rule of syllable, alliteration, and rhyme—but as a work of art, it was laughably, lamentably absurd. The metaphor of a lock and missing key for a lady’s unattainable love was so old and so overdone, it must have already seemed cliché when the pharaohs were locking up their tombs. And the florid, unfamiliar words chosen to express it seemed both strained and spilled together; he might have found them by squeezing a book of poetry between his big hands until the words dripped out like blood.

Only one word flowed naturally from his pen, and the curling, unaffected vivacity of the letters made it stand out from the others all over the page. It was the one word he wrote more often than any other, for it was his very name—the one word that was real and true: Leof, Leof, Leof… Love, Love, Love…

It was the one word that was real and true.