Saturdays were always busy days for the royal steward.

Saturdays were always busy days for the royal steward, but this was the anniversary of the old Queen’s death, and the King would not be bothered except in dire need.

Ralf had done all he could to prepare their morning’s work for Monday, but now he found himself in the eerily unfamiliar situation of having a Saturday afternoon free.

He stepped outside and saw the height of the sun.

When he stepped outside and saw the height of the pale sun that shimmered through the clouds, he thought he even had enough time to ride down to the market before dinner.

Thereupon he decided he would buy a wheel of the sweet Dunellen cheese Aelia so favored, and a pot of chicken livers for Aphrodite and Chloe, and for himself a jug of wine. They would eat and drink themselves into a long afternoon nap before the fire, and then Ralf would put up his feet and read from that borrowed book of Norse epic tragedy he had been saving for just such a gloomy occasion.

“Ralf!” a voice called joyously from on high. “There you are!”

'There you are!'

Ralf looked up with dread, for he knew that ringing voice full well. It was the Captain of the Guard shouting down from the height of the wall, with his recent, unflagging glee: the man least suited to any gloomy occasion.

Ralf’s instinctive reaction was to wonder whether he could run fast enough to reach the bridge before Eadred had made his way down, but he pulled together enough politeness to call, “What ho, Captain? Were you needing something from me?”

'Were you needing something from me?'

Wait – here!” Eadred commanded. He began shuffling sideways along the wall, not daring to turn his eyes away from Ralf, until at last his grin broke into laughter and his sidling into a run.

The younger of the two guards behind Ralf barked, “No running on the walls!” as the Captain himself so often did.

Eadred laughed, “Right!” and slowed into the fastest, most unintentionally comical walk Ralf had ever seen.

The two guards laughed softly at each other. Ralf closed his eyes and sighed.

Eadred must have run again as soon as he stepped off the wall and into the castle, for he burst out of the tower door at a reckless speed, and he was forced to clutch at Ralf’s coat as he arrived to drag himself to a stop.


“Ralf!” he panted. “My friend! My brother! My patron saint! What are you doing tonight?” He concluded with what he must have believed his most appealing grin.

Ralf knew better than to reveal to this man the precise nature of his plans for the evening. He said gravely, “Staying home.

Eadred’s appealing grin fell open into a look of dismay. “That’s not what you’re supposed to say!”

'That's not what you're supposed to say!'

“What am I supposed to say, O my acolyte?” Ralf asked wearily.

“You’re supposed to say, ‘Going to spend an evening at Nothelm!’” Eadred smiled eagerly again, for these days his eager smile never abandoned him for long. “Aren’t you going?”

Ralf twitched his sleeve out of Eadred’s clasp and stepped grandly away.

“This was to be the first occasion when I would have seen Flann together with her new husband,” he explained with mournful gravity. “Therefore I shall not go.”

'Therefore I shall not go.'

Eadred snorted and rolled his eyes. “But then the next occasion will be the first occasion, and the next and the next, and then you’ll never go anywhere again!” He clapped his hand down on Ralf’s shoulder and shook it. “Come on!”

“The next occasion will not be the same,” Ralf glowered. “If you are incapable of understanding that…

Eadred sidled hastily around Ralf and planted himself in his path.

“Ralf! My brother! Just because one woman wouldn’t have you, I won’t let you swear off all of them forever. She wouldn’t have me either, I remind you!”

'She wouldn't have me either.'

He grinned as merrily as ever while he said it, proving how little he understood.

“You wouldn’t want to disappoint her ladyship, now…” he wheedled.

“Her ladyship will have more interesting distractions than I.” Ralf yanked his sleeve out of the man’s grasp a second time. “Is that all, young barnacle?”

“But, Ralf,” Eadred whimpered. “I need you to go. I need you to get an invitation for me! Her ladyship would do anything for you…”

'Her ladyship would do anything for you...'

Ralf rolled his eyes and groaned. “Is that all, my brother? When’s the last time you were home?”

“I’ve been on duty all morning… Why?” His hopeful, eager smile was already on the mend.

“I’m certain there’s an invitation waiting for you there. His Grace has invited every unmarried man and boy of respectable rank in the kingdom, as far as I can tell.”

'I'm certain there's an invitation waiting for you there.'

“What?” Eadred laughed. “Why?”

“Because last night he tried to get rid of all the men at supper, and both of his daughters managed to get kissed anyway. And some kisses, from what they’re saying! So tonight he seems to be trying to weight the scales the other way. Perhaps hoping there will be so many older men around that the young ones won’t get a chance, and the young ladies will be left the uninteresting task of kissing men old enough to be their fathers.”

“Or perhaps we’ll all slay each other in our attempts to get at the girls!” Eadred cried. He smacked his fist into his palm and declared, “Send them at me! Last man standing wins!”

'It's been good knowing you, lad.'

“It’s been good knowing you, lad,” Ralf sighed and patted him fondly on the back. “But I forgot to mention: Saeward’s going.”

“What?” Eadred squawked. He protectively slapped his hand over the eye whose magnificent bruise had only recently faded.

“I suppose you’ll finally see some proof he likes women after all,” Ralf chuckled wickedly.

'I suppose you'll finally see some proof he likes women after all.'

“Mother of Pearl!” Eadred swore. “I had all the proof I need! He can like girls or boys or nanny goats for all I care!”

“Unless he’s only going to the party to annoy you…” Ralf said thoughtfully.

“He’s only going to steal the girl I want,” Eadred wailed. “Just to prove he likes them! I know it!”

'I know it!'

Ralf paused to consider the current crop of female friends and inhabitants of Nothelm. “Who’s the girl you want?” he asked, mystified. “There won’t be anyone there. Only friends of the family – married ladies and little girls. And Lasrua, but I wouldn’t – ”

“What about Flann’s sister?” Eadred demanded.

Still Ralf was mystified. “Catan?” he gasped. “You’re afraid of Saeward and not afraid of a jealous elf?

“I am not afraid of anybody!” Eadred huffed. “And I meant Condal,” he added with a grand sigh.

'And I meant Condal.'

“Condal?” Ralf gasped again.

Eadred jabbed his elbow into Ralf’s ribs. “Shhh! What if that diabolical reeve is listening?”

“But she’s only a little girl!” Ralf protested.

“She may be little yet,” Eadred laughed, cupping his hands over his chest to demonstrate in what manner he meant it, “but she’s not a little girl!

“She can scarcely be older than fourteen! If that!”

'She can scarcely be older than fourteen!'


“How old are you, old barnacle?”

“Thirty-​​one. That’s nothing! Our gracious Queen was married at fifteen, and if Sigefrith wasn’t a dirty old bastard at his age when he married her, then I’m certainly not at mine.”

“I never said he wasn’t,” Ralf grumbled.

'I'm telling!'

“I’m telling!” Eadred taunted, like a little boy himself. “Come, Ralf – Lady Gwynn’s the same age, and she’s mad about you.”

“I have no designs on Lady Gwynn!”

“You ought to!” Eadred whistled. “What a prize! Even if you do have nose hairs taller than she is, my dear giant. But I digress. I think fourteen is just about the right age for a wife. You can still make her what you like. What would you have me do – marry a thirty-​​year-​​old widow with six brats and seven teeth?”

“No,” Ralf grumbled, “but a girl nineteen or so…”

'Well, if she was nineteen I would gladly marry her.'

“Well, if she was nineteen I would gladly marry her, but I can’t wait that long. We’re going to war in the spring, and I want to have my house and my wife all settled in by then. For if I must die,” he said with an unintentionally comical air of tragedy, “I should like to know there is a chance I have left a little red-​​headed heir behind. A post – post – ”


Ralf sighed and shook his head. “Posthumous.”

“Posthumous son! You understand perfectly, Brother Ralf. And I have a clear advantage over our goat-​​fondling reeve,” he said slyly. “For I speak a bit of the Gaelic. I wager the dear, shy little lass will be delighted to discover a man at the party who speaks her own language.”

'I wager the dear, shy little lass will be delighted.'

“I reckon she will,” Ralf said dryly.

“Won’t you come?” Eadred pleaded. “Then all I have to do is stick close to you, and Condal will stick close to Lady Gwynn, and in effect she won’t leave my side!”

“I shall not go,” Ralf grumbled. “I intend to go to market, and then home, and thereafter I hope not to see you until Monday morn. No offense.”

“I’ll come with you to market, at least,” Eadred said gaily. He fell into step beside Ralf. “Do you think it’s too forward to give a girl a gift the first time you dance with her?”

He fell into step beside Ralf.


“Ahhh… what about myself?” He hesitantly sniffed the back of his wrist and then stuck his nose deep into his armpit for a sniff and a grimace. “You always smell nice, Ralf. What do you wear?”

“Keep it down, Captain!” Ralf snickered. “If Saeward ever hears you telling me I smell nice after you wondered whether he likes women…”

“Right!” Eadred laughed. “Let’s keep the compliments between you and me, dear love. But – ”



Eadred spun around to face the young guard who had come hustling up behind them.

“Holy Mother of Pearl! Tell me you didn’t just hear that last bit, lad!”

The guard stopped and stared dumbly at the two of them. “No…”

“Good!” Eadred beamed. “Now what can I do for you?”

“Aren’t you on duty, Captain?”

Eadred looked worriedly down the path towards the bridge, and then up the path at the long distance he had already covered on his absent-​​minded way out.

Then he laughed. “Right!”