Old Belsar had preceded them all the way up the stairs.

Old Belsar had preceded them all the way up the stairs, turning back every few steps to make certain they were coming, and then running a short space ahead to howl. He threw open doors with the hurled weight of his body, thumped against the legs of startled servants to clear the way, and at last pulled up sharply in the hall with an ear-​​splitting crescendo of barking that would have rivaled the royal herald himself, if ever it came to announcing a very large crowd of people who all were named Woo-​​woo-​​woo.

He pulled up sharply in the hall.

Eadred declared enthusiastically, “That’s a fine dog for greeting!”

It was a cravenly act to attempt to ingratiate himself with a man by complimenting his dog, but he was nervous enough by now to be willing to try anything short of bribery. For that matter, he was suddenly sorry he had not thought to bring a jug of wine.

He was suddenly sorry he had not thought to bring a jug of wine.

Egelric had sat immobile throughout the dog’s rhapsody, but Eadred’s voice seemed to startle him.

“Captain!” he cried.

Belsar corrected, “Woo-​​woo-​​woo!”

Egelric turned his head for but an instant before wearily beginning to rise.

Egelric turned his head only briefly before wearily beginning to rise.

He explained, “I thought it was one of Finn’s friends, the way he tore down the stairs.”

“The Captain is my friend!” Finn protested with Belsar-​​like exuberance. “Aren’t you my friend?”

Eadred laughed awkwardly. “Well,” he dodged, “I’ll admit that’s mighty friendly of you!”

'The Captain is my friend!'

Ordinarily Eadred was proud to call himself the friend of boys half his age, but he had long since lost the habit of looking upon a fourteen-​​year-​​old as a rival for a young lady’s affections. Rather than feeling at an advantage with his grown man’s confidence and experience, in the present circumstance he only felt foolish and fourteen.

And Egelric was the most formidable father young Eadred had ever faced. He did not even step forward to meet him, man-​​to-​​man, but stood back like a lord.

At first Eadred thought he only wanted to stay within the range of firelight.

Eadred tried to explain it away as a desire to stay within the range of the firelight, but in fact, with the fire at his back, Egelric was not in the light at all. A dim, subterranean glow illuminated only the overhang of the craggiest features of his face, and the back-​​lit translucency of his sleeves revealed the black masses of powerfully-​​muscled arms beneath. Eadred was not reassured.

Eadred was not reassured.

He wiped his clammy hand upon his thigh and stepped forward to hold it out to Egelric before it had time to sweat again. Belsar uttered an encouraging “Woof!” Egelric clasped it and squeezed.

“Evening, Captain,” he nodded.

At thirty-​​one Eadred did at least know enough of men’s handshakes to realize that Egelric was not attempting to crush him into submission by the proxy of his hand.

“Evening, sir!” Eadred grinned.

“Ach, sir!” Egelric rocked his head back and chuckled wickedly. “I know why you’re here if I’m sir. And in your Sunday best, too,” he cooed.

He freed his hand to give Eadred a paternal pat on the shoulder. Eadred thought himself fortunate it had not come upon his curly head.

“I’ll call you sir in a week,” Egelric threatened, “and you’ll see how you like it.”

'I'll call you sir in a week.'

“He will probably like it a lot at first,” Finn said. “I would! Sir Captain, that is!”

Black as Egelric’s face was, there was no doubt its crags had shifted into a smile. “Finn…” he sighed.

“I know! I shall go have some wine brought. Hot or not?”


“Which do you rather, Captain?” Finn begged.

“Why don’t you take this dog out for a bit first?”

'Why don't you take this dog out for a bit first?'

“But he just went out! Are you staying the night?” he asked Eadred.

Finally the paternal hand came down on Finn’s shoulder. “Take him out again,” his father said warningly, “or at least take him out of here.”

Finn gabbled on as though he had not heard. “May I ride back with you tomorrow?”



No one could ignore that voice when it chose to command. It rivalled the King’s. Even Belsar flattened his ears and pressed his stumpy tail down as far as it would go.

“I believe the Captain wants to have a word with me alone.”

Finn was perhaps old enough not to cry, but at fourteen he had not yet lost the habit of blinking rapidly at disappointment’s sting.

“What about?” he asked meekly.

'What about?'

After a moment, when he realized he would not be told even that much, he hung his head and made a little, pouting frown.

“Perhaps he will tell you later,” Egelric consoled, fatherlike.

Childlike, Finn would not be appeased. He looked up at Eadred, and at last he took in the details of the Sunday best, the clean shave, the uncharacteristic silence.

He whuffed at the dog and left without meeting Eadred’s eyes, striding silent and elf-​​like as he did when not forgetting himself in his boyish exuberance. Faithful old Belsar followed him out to the tune of his clacking claws.

Egelric muttered, “Hot or not?”

'Hot or not?'

Eadred whipped his curly head around and swallowed painfully in agitation.

Hot, clearly. Egelric’s body blocked the firelight, and the sullen glow that infused his brow and cheek and nose could only have smoldered up from within. It was no wonder Condal thought he ought to be terrified of the man. He looked the devil Lili had always called him.

It was no wonder Condal thought he ought to be terrified of the man.

“The wine?” Egelric prompted. “You look like you need it.”

“Ach! Ah – maybe later…” Eadred stammered.

Egelric sighed heavily. “Maybe later,” he muttered to himself. “Fortunately I am forearmed. Have a seat, if you care to,” he added politely. “I do.”

He kept his back to the fire and sat as heavily as he sighed.

He kept his back to the fire and sat as heavily as he sighed.

Eadred scurried to the couch and sat close to the candles. He tugged at the collar of his Sunday best and cleared his throat like a boy who fears his voice is about to crack.

“Whelp,” he announced with his broadest sailor’s son’s twang, in a vain attempt to make himself feel more at ease, “I guess you already guessed why I’m here.”

'I guess you already guessed why I'm here.'

Egelric bowed his head. The light on his chin blazed up his cheek until it met the impenetrable black shadows of his eyes and could go no farther.

Eadred asked, “Did Connie, ah… tell you I would come?”

“Not a – ”

Eadred bleated, “Because if she begged you to save her from that dreadful red-​​headed Captain-​​man, it would be a real kindness if you could just tell me to stop right now and go my way, and I swear I won’t trouble her or you any more.”

“…word did she say to me before I left,” Egelric continued patiently, “excepting Goodbye. And not even a kiss to warm my cheek,” he sighed. “My Lady Gwynn has evidently helped her see the horrors of my beard.”

'My Lady Gwynn has evidently helped her see the horrors of my beard.'

He rubbed that horrifying appendage thoughtfully and perhaps a little fondly. The shadows were so heavy over him, it was not certain his teeth could have been seen had he smiled.

“But her sisters have already said a great number of things,” Egelric mused, “as her sisters are wont to do in any circumstance.”

Eadred winced. “They did?”

'They did?'

“Cat said a heap of fine things about you, and Girl-​​Flann said everything the opposite.”

Eadred laced his fingers nervously together and wondered whether this meant him good or ill. Perhaps the squawking sisters canceled one another out, but Egelric had reminded him that Lady Gwynn had Condal’s ear for whispering, and Eadred knew her ladyship found him horrifying in more aspects than merely his beard.

Softly he said, “I’d like to speak for my own self, if you don’t mind.”

Egelric folded his own black hands together. “Pray do.”

'Pray do.'

“Well, I’ve only spent one evening with Connie… with – with Condal,” Eadred stammered.

“Did she not say you might call her Connie?”

“No, she did…”

“Then pray do.”

Eadred took a fortifying breath and began again. “But she told me if I wanted to be getting to know her, I would have to ask leave of you.”

Connie did?” Egelric asked warily.

'Connie did?'

“Yes…” Eadred squeaked. “Is that bad?”

“Hmph. I was just wondering that myself.”

Eadred allowed him to wonder a while before he broke down and asked the question that had plagued him for days.

“But do you think she even knows what she asked me to ask?”

“Do you know what you’re asking?” Egelric demanded softly of someone overhead.

Unsure whether he ought to reply, Eadred blundered on with his explanation.

“I mean, a man doesn’t ask permission of a girl’s guardian to… pay attention to her unless he means something by it. But I wonder if she thought of that,” he murmured.

'But I wonder if she thought of that.'

“What do you mean by it?” Egelric asked gravely.

From such depths of shadows no mere twinkling of an eye could escape. Nor wink nor glowering brow could ever be seen. Eadred would have to speak as to a voice, as if blind.

“He ought to mean to marry her in the end,” he explained from the safety of the third person. “If she’ll have him, that is. And if Connie didn’t say anything to you,” he added, “then I guess she wasn’t trying to get rid of me that way. So I wonder if she even knew.”

Egelric grunted. “I expect she knows.”

'I expect she knows.'

His intonation was so ominous that Eadred lost what little hope this conclusion had gained him.

“So… is that bad?”

“It means I’m still listening,” Egelric said gruffly.

Eadred felt as though he had just cleared a first hurdle. A sudden stupid grin obliged him to turn his face aside – directly into the dazzling light.

A sudden stupid grin obliged him to turn his face aside.

He realized then that Egelric could see him quite clearly out of his depths of shadows, and not one of the foolish or frightened expressions that passed over his freckled face would be missed. Eadred had not felt so at the mercy of another man since he had been a ragged orphan with skinned knees gone begging for a chance from a young king.

“Well, I’m going to be a knight in a week from today,” he said softly, as much to remind himself he was no longer that ragged orphan as to inform Egelric, who already knew.

“I’m not forgetting it,” Egelric nodded. “I owe you a sir.”

'I owe you a sir.'

Eadred smiled foolishly and a little fearfully. “And I shall have Eight-​​Mile House for manor… and twelve hides of land for my fee,” he added proudly. “As many as years I served as Captain.”

“It’ll take half as many years again to get that many acres under plow,” Egelric grumbled.

“Well,” Eadred faltered, “I don’t know much about that yet…”

'I don't know much about that yet...'

“No, you don’t.”

“But I mean to learn. I never was a man made for the sea, so maybe I’m made for the land.”

“Maybe,” was all Egelric would admit.

“Anyway, I already have three families eager to go, and Aethelnoth is coming when he gets married – his girl’s a dairy farmer’s daughter and she knows all there is to know about milk and cheese. And we’ll have a mill and a bridge, and I’ll get my dues from those – ”

“Better see to the grist before you see to the mill,” Egelric interrupted.

'Better see to the grist before you see to the mill.'

Though his head leaned slightly into the glow of the fire, it seemed that the shadows of his face were licking hungrily away at the light, and the light was losing. His black head looked as hard and unforgiving as an anvil and hell-​​kissed as a forge.

“I know all that, Egelric,” Eadred said humbly. “I know it takes time.”

“Then why are you talking to me now?”

“Well, I’m not a penniless man even now, you know,” Eadred huffed. “And if anyone knows how to make the most of the least, it’s me, with my up-​​raising. And we were happier in our little shack than a lot of the noble people I see around me, if I may say. Not that I would take Connie into a little shack – ”

'Not that I would take Connie into a little shack--'

Egelric clapped his hands upon the arms of his chair and leaned menacingly forward.

“Eight-​​Mile House is a stone hut that I can’t stand up straight in, and last time I was out there it wanted a door!”

“I don’t mean to live in the house that is!” Eadred cried. “I’ll have a room at the castle for a while, and we’ll build a little house out to Eight-​​Mile, and in a few months we can go out there and live till the big house is built.”

Egelric leaned still farther forward. The light had won the back of his right hand and gilded even its black and curling hair, but the hair of his head hung straight before his cheek and made of his whole face a shadow.

“Just when were you planning on getting married?” he demanded.

'Just when were you planning on getting married?'

Eadred knew then that everything he had said and planned to say was wrong. He did not yet know by just how much, however, and he corrected himself too sparingly.

“Well, I guess a young lady would probably like to have her little house built first…”

Egelric collapsed into his chair with a faint whuff of breath, like the dog. “I guess so!” he agreed.

“But I want to let Connie have her say in the building of it, if it’s to be her house someday,” Eadred explained. “I’ll build it out of gingerbread with a taffy roof, if that’s what she likes.”

'I'll build it out of gingerbread with a taffy roof, if that's what she likes.'

Egelric snorted in derision, but Eadred immediately fell in love with the idea, if only for the giggle he imagined it would tease out of Condal. Later he would embellish it with every sort of treat and goodie he knew, but for now he packed it up carefully and stored it away.

“But if I’m to do that,” he said gravely to compensate for his most recent foolishness, “I need to… have certain arrangements decided upon right off. And, you know, Egelric, there’s likely to be war in the spring…”

“I know it,” Egelric muttered.

'I know it.'

“And I want to get my house and my farms and my everything started and squared away before I go, if I can.”

“And your wife too.”

“And my wife too,” Eadred agreed.

'And my wife too.'

The shadowed side of his face flared quite pink, but the candlelit side fairly burned. My wife, he had said. Suddenly it was not merely a pair of English words; it was the name of a particular girl.

Egelric sat back and stretched out his legs comfortably before him.

Egelric sat back and stretched out his legs comfortably before him.

“How much do you know about this young lady?” he asked.

Eadred sat up straighter. “Well, I know her sisters fairly well, so I know about her family and her station and all that. And I know she’s Gog’s cousin, and I’m just a sailor’s son who can’t read and can’t dance her fancy dances, but we’re men, not horses to be bred according to bloodlines, and I’m not ashamed of anything I am. And I haven’t done anything I’d be ashamed to admit, either, and that’s the important thing,” he concluded stubbornly.

'And that's the important thing.'

“I’ll be the last man to argue with that,” Egelric sighed. “But I meant the girl. She’s not quite like her big sisters, you know.”

“I noticed that from the first,” Eadred said with a warning frown. He did not intend to share with any man his precise observations of her shyness, her sweetness, of her earnest, dimpled, adorable loveliness, but he would knock down any man who in any way disagreed.

Egelric asked, “Did you know her Mama died when she was only five?”

'Did you know her Mama died when she was only five?'

His voice creaked like an old man’s, and he gestured at the nearest nothingness as old men did when they spoke of the past, as though it filled the present in ways young men could not see.

“Still wearing her little dresses that showed her fat knees?” Egelric croaked. “With her… her hair sticking out all over her head?”

He held his hand over his face for a moment. Even the blackness of shadows was not shield enough for his rawness, it seemed.

Eadred discreetly turned his gaze away, only for it to fall upon the empty chair on the other side of the hearth. It was brightly lit on the side, but turned so that a shadow reclined sinuously upon the cushions and trailed onto the floor like skirts.

Eadred glanced uneasily at the chair on the other side of the hearth.

“I knew her mother was dead…” he ventured.

Egelric dropped his hand. “And did you know her father was dead?”

“I knew that too.”

“And did you know how she lost her sister Eithne?”

So plainly stated, Eadred began to feel the crush of Condal’s sorrows upon his own shoulders. Oh, he would carry them for her if he could!

Oh, he would carry them for her if he could!

He croaked, “I…”

“She may still live,” Egelric said darkly, “and I pray God she does, but after what that man did to her I think the sweet sister Connie used to know is gone forever.”

Eadred only dared nod.

Egelric lifted his head as if to nod in reply, but he simply held it high.

'Now, you only knew her for one evening.'

“Now, you only knew her for one evening,” he said stiffly, “but I’ve known her since she was a tiny girl and screamed when she saw me. And she always was very close to Eithne, and she always was very close to her father. And she was very close to her mother, too, as only little girls and little mothers can be.”

The shadow moved, and Eadred saw the profile of an ugly nose against the light of the fire. For an instant Egelric revealed the left side of his face enough to look at the chair.

For an instant Egelric revealed his face enough to look at the chair.

He shook his head slowly.

“Already at thirteen she’s lost the three people she loved most in the world. Each after the other. And now you want to take her to wife before the spring so you can have your everything you’ve ever wanted all squared away. So you can die satisfied if – heaven forfend – you must die. And to do that you’re willing to risk making that little girl a widow by the fall. And who says widow might say mother too.”

'Or you could leave her alone to heal and grow.'

Eadred was perhaps man enough not to cry, but his eyes blinked rapidly.

“Or,” Egelric continued softly, “you could leave her alone to heal and grow, and to learn English, and to learn all the things a girl may learn from a wise and motherly woman like Hetty, for she has sorely lacked a mother. And when you come back from the war – which God grant you will – you will find a happier and healthier girl than the one you met two nights ago. And a stronger girl than she would have been if she had spent the summer worrying about you.”

Eadred swallowed dryly.

Eadred swallowed dryly.

Egelric concluded, fatherlike, “And if she says to you again in the fall, when your first harvest is in: Go ask Cousin Egelric, then come back here and I shall listen to you.”

Eadred coughed up a weak laugh he intended for self-​​deprecating. “How can I argue with that?”

Egelric sat so far back into the shadows that the light flooded over him, revealing a bruise.

“I shall likely think less of you if you try.”

'I shall likely think less of you if you try.'