In the past year her family had scattered.

Egelric had not recalled the date until he had seen the torches of the tower shining below the horizon, twinkling like gloomy stars in the Underworld’s upside-​​down sky. Last night had been the anniversary of Judith’s death. He had arrived perhaps at the very hour.

In the past year her family had scattered.

In the past year her family had scattered; her husband was on his way to the Holy Land if he still lived, and her children had gone to stay with his brother. The castle had something of the sepulcher now, lacking the laughter and the squalling of its children, lacking its lord’s high, clear voice that had rung through it like a trumpet, lacking the heavily-​​accented plaints of its lady.

The castle had something of the sepulcher now.

There were no longer muddy boot prints on the stones, but there were trackless drifts of dust. Britmar’s hounds no longer romped through the hall, but the mice had made merry in the sheets that had covered Egelric’s bed. There were still servants in the place, but they produced so little effect on the material world that they might have been ghosts – and so avoided Egelric’s eyes and so ignored his pleas that he had begun to feel like one himself.

“Hallo there!” he called loudly as the next one breezed past. His voice rang through the hall like a horn, but the woman stubbornly walked several more steps before she even swerved out of her path.

'Aye now?'

“Aye now?” she mumbled. Her bedraggled dress could not have belonged to a more important personage than a scullery woman or milk maid, but Egelric was growing desperate.

“Listen, I simply need to have a message taken to the Princess,” he said slowly. He was beginning to believe the lot of them had gone daft for lack of clever company.

“Ach!” she wheezed in amusement. “You’re thinking I can read letters?”

“It is not a letter, woman!” he groaned for the third time. “Just a single English sentence!”

'Just a single English sentence!'

“But she cain’t speak English!” the woman scoffed. “Not too good! You oughter be telling the priest or her serving-​​man,” she scolded as she began to wander off again.


Egelric’s hand leapt up to grab her shoulder and stop her, but he pulled it away in time, yanking his arm back roughly like a leash around the neck of a vicious dog. The hand bit down on itself, slicing crescent-​​shaped welts into his palm.

“That’s two or three of you have already gone off saying they’ll find someone to tell her!” he snarled. “Just tell her, for the love of heaven! I want to be on my way! Just tell her His Grace the Duke repeats his invitation to Nothelm for Christmas, that is all!

He forced his fingers open and smacked his palms together so hard they stung, punishing each with the other, but the woman did not seem to take the hint.

'I want to get out of here!'

“Fancy!” she laughed as she waddled away, swaying her hips and swishing her mottled skirts as she must have supposed great ladies did. “Me passing a message from a Duke to a Princess! What would my old Ma have said?”

She laughed again as she went out through the door, so hilariously that Egelric could not hope she meant to tell.

Egelric could not hope she meant to tell.'

This was what a great house became when its great lady died, he thought. The mice and the servants grew equally impudent, and the dust drifted into corners like snow.

Perhaps this was what his own house would seem to a lone traveler one year hence. He decided the idea pleased him. A grand castle made a grand tomb.

This was why these traces of a living lady had so galled him.'

And this, he realized suddenly, was why these scattered traces of a living lady had so galled him since he had come into the hall last night. These books, this basket of embroidery, this spindle and shuttle – these pretty things and practical things were meant to amuse her and occupy her time. She still had time to spend.

To Egelric it seemed no nobler than setting up a tent over a grave and spreading a tidy lace tablecloth over a coffin. More impudent than any bold rodents were these living ladies who went on living when dead ladies were dead.

It was no better than setting up a tent over a grave.'

In his haste to be gone, Egelric decided he would speak with Father Dominic if he had to, or even Andronikos, though Roman priests and sexless giants who molested little girls were among the last men he cared to see.

But that was counting without the entire race of women.

That was counting without the entire race of women.