'Is he armed?'

“Is he armed?”

Cenwulf grunted. “I don’t see a shield.”

Colburga knew her laconic husband well enough to conclude that the man outside did have a sword.

The morning was hot for April, the air dense and sticky. Colburga’s nausea was returning in spite of the dry toast she had eaten. Perhaps it had been her last breakfast as a free woman. Perhaps she would never wake beside her husband again.

Perhaps she would never see her husband again.

“Does it look like a Norman?”

“What does a Norman look like?” Cenwulf demanded, anxious enough that he could snap at her. “All I can see is a big straw hat and a – ” He raised a hand behind his head to silence them both.

“Is he coming here?” Colburga whispered.

Of course he was coming here. Their borrowed cottage was at the end of the end of the road, so far from any town that men turned back long before they lost themselves here.

'He's a tall fellow.'

“He’s a tall fellow,” Cenwulf muttered. “On donkey-​​back his feet almost touch the ground.”

A faint hope flared up above Colburga’s roiling worry. It was an absurd idea… but perhaps that was why Cenwulf had made her have it.

“Do you suppose it’s Sigefrith?” she quavered, since he would never dare.

'Do you suppose it's Sigefrith?'

“Sigefrith on the back of an ass?” Cenwulf asked wryly.

“I shall get the palm fronds!” Colburga giggled.

“Shh!” Abruptly Cenwulf straightened and flattened himself against the window frame. It seemed the man was coming to the door. When he had passed the window, Cenwulf peeled himself away from the wall and pulled a weapon down from its bracket – not a sword, but a dagger.

“Get back there and get down,” he ordered Colburga. “Hide under the bed if you must. I don’t want him to know I’ve a woman here.”

'Get back there and get down.'

“Love…” she began breathlessly.

What? She had a thousand things to tell him, and perhaps she would never have a chance at more than one. She chose the most Colburga thing to say.

She pointed discreetly at the table. “I think he’ll guess by the lace.”

Cenwulf choked, and his grim face cracked into a smile as he passed her – perhaps for the last time.

'I shall tell him lacemaking is all we English knights have left to do.'

“I shall tell him lacemaking is all we English knights have left to do.” He waved at her with the butt of his knife. “Get down!” he mouthed.

Colburga scurried behind the wooden screen and squatted below the level of the grilles. Still, she could not help but peek around the corner as Cenwulf tiptoed to the door.

She could not help but peek around the corner.

She told herself that no one – not even a Norman – would be so careless as to go alone to arrest an English knight. She told herself that a doorway was no place to swing a sword. She told herself a good many comforting things in those slow seconds, but she would not have been Colburga if she had not admitted the painful truth to herself all the while.

They had been found. She had only to hope that it had been by a friend.

The man outside took the short flight of stairs in a single bound and pranced through the narrow entry to the door. The light rapping at the latch could only have been delivered with a grand flourish if it was to be in keeping with the exuberance it followed.

Cenwulf butted his shoulder up against the wood and heaved. Colburga heard a thud and a scuffle and two voices cry out together “Name of God!” – her husband’s, and another voice she knew.

“I’m unarmed! Ah… if you disregard my sword there.”

'I'm unarmed!'

After his first blasphemous outburst, Cenwulf met the visitor with chilling silence. The visitor met his silence with booming baritone laughter. It was, without a doubt, Sigefrith.

“What ho, young death’s-head?” Sigefrith demanded. “By God, it does me good to be glowered at by you!”

Colburga stuffed the heel of her hand into her mouth to stop her nervous giggling. Long-​​legged Lord Hwala on the back of a donkey! She envisioned a trail of tiny hoofprints with a deep furrow on either side. And a straw hat!

Cenwulf croaked, “Sigefrith!”

Behind the half-​​wall she heard the grunting and pounding of a hearty masculine hug.

'Where's Colburga?'

“Where’s Colburga? Smell me coming?”

“You are rather ripe,” Cenwulf grumbled.

Sigefrith laughed at the compliment. “There she is!” he cried, pointing accusingly at a slip of red hair peeking out behind the wall. “Schatz! Are you attempting to avoid me?”

“She’s sulking because you didn’t wear your floppy hat inside,” Cenwulf said, at last breaking into a grin. “She wanted to see it.”

'She's sulking because you didn't wear your floppy hat inside.'

“What I really want to see is your donkey!” Colburga said.

Sigefrith immediately scuffed his heel on the boards, skipped into the air, and danced to his own tune as he sang a verse from an old, familiar song:

And when we trotted o’er the lea, how I whooped and laughed with glee, for all the girls came out to see–

Colburga threw out her arms and joined him in the two-​​word refrain:

My ass!

'My ass!'

“Do you see what you’ve started?” Cenwulf sighed as he passed.

Sigefrith grabbed her while her arms were still open and spun her around in a dizzying hug. He was grubby and stubbled and sunburnt, and he reeked of unwashed man, but he was so comfortingly Sigefrith that she felt halfway home. Or farther still – she had not seen Sigefrith so merry since before that fateful battle, and the loss of his lands and his king and his country, and the death of his dearest friend.

He was grubby and stubbled and sunburnt.

“My lord!” she sighed into his sweaty shoulder.

“That’s only the start of it!” Sigefrith laughed. “How are you, honey?”

He pushed her far enough away from him that he could look her up and down, with special attention paid to her middle. She was wearing a bulky gown, but there was nothing to see there in any case. Not quite yet.

'Up for a ride?'

“Up for a ride?” he asked her.

“Not on donkey-​​back, I hope,” Cenwulf said.

“What? Our Lord rode thusly and was none the less lordly for it. It’s a very fine ass I have. Wait till Colburga sees it.”

Cenwulf scowled, rolled his eyes, and sighed loudly through his nose. He was evidently delighted.

He grumbled, “I wager you rode all this way on the back of a donkey just so you could safely pronounce that phrase in front of my wife.”

'Do you truly believe I have nothing better to do?'

“Do you truly believe I have nothing better to do than to sit on my ass and dream up vulgar things to say and do to your wife?”

Cenwulf’s brows lowered. Colburga and Sigefrith both knew him well enough to see the sign as ominous.

Sigefrith patted her arm. “Say something, honey. Your husband looks like he wants to go out and kick my poor ass.”

Colburga blurted, “Where are we going?”

She bit her lip and waited for the delightful news that had brought the old Sigefrith back to life and back to the two of them. Perhaps Harold’s sons had returned to win back their father’s kingdom – or even the Aetheling, old Ironside’s exiled grandson. Perhaps the English people had revolted and chased the Normans out of Britain. Perhaps–

“Lothere!” Sigefrith beamed. “A delightful valley in the Borderlands, well-​​protected by mountains, well-​​watered by the River Camm, and well-​​ruled by its handsome young monarch, King Sigefrith the First.”


Cenwulf and Colburga both waited patiently for the conclusion of the joke, he scowling and she smiling. But Sigefrith was not telling a joke.

“And you two have the honor of being my first subjects.”

Cenwulf swallowed and twisted his lips, as if he held something unpleasant on his tongue but could not bring himself to spit it out. Colburga had the chilling suspicion that he believed something was wrong with Sigefrith.

Cenwulf swallowed and twisted his lips.

“Lothere?” Cenwulf whispered. His tongue slipped briefly past his teeth, as if to shove out the sour thing.

“You won’t believe your eyes,” Sigefrith said. “It’s tremendous! It’s beautiful! It’s completely uninhabited! And it’s mine!”

Cenwulf blinked, and in the blink of his eye Sigefrith’s weird gaiety stilled into the majesty that made him seem a lord by more than mere accident of birth. Harold had seen it, and had trusted him with responsibilities far out of proportion to his age and his little domain by the sea.

Had Harold lived, Sigefrith would one day have become a very powerful man. Harold had not; but when she saw that stubborn, noble face, Colburga believed Sigefrith might yet be.

'I know it sounds mad.'

“I know it sounds mad,” Sigefrith admitted. “I had to get up and ride down into that valley several times before I believed it myself. The place is abandoned. The people there died or left a hundred years ago and simply never returned. There are walls still standing, stone barns needing nothing more than roofs… and castles!” he said reverently. “Stone foundations we can build upon!”

Cenwulf groaned and flopped his arms limply at his sides. “Building! That’s the bug that’s bit you!”

'That's the bug that's bit you!'

Colburga smiled and gave Sigefrith’s shoulder a friendly rub. Sigefrith was never happier than when he was organizing constructions and improvements and rehabilitations, meeting with builders and farmers, and drawing maps and plans. If the least lowly crofter at Hwaelnaess wanted the attention of his lord, he had only to gather three boards together and claim he was thinking of erecting a shed.

'Building an entire kingdom!'

“Building an entire kingdom!” Sigefrith said. “The work of several lifetimes! That reminds me – I need to get to work on building an heir or two. You still don’t have any sisters, do you, honey?” he asked Colburga.

“Wait – a kingdom?” Cenwulf interrupted.

“That’s what I said! The territory belongs to no one. The Baron there’s a little mad – ”

“So there is someone,” Cenwulf protested.

Sigefrith squeezed his shoulder to silence him. “In the hills. He swore on the Cross that he held no claim over the valley, and when I asked him whether he would, ah… mind a new neighbor, he said he could say nothing against it, so long as I swore on the Cross that he was no lord of mine.” Sigefrith grinned and shrugged. “So, just to make matters clear, I said I would have no lord at all besides the Lord above, which by my reckoning makes me King.”

'Which by my reckoning makes me King.'

“Sigefrith!” Cenwulf groaned. “Listen to yourself! You’re either mad, or… or…”

“Or the entire rest of the world is!” Sigefrith said. His sea-​​bright hazel eyes sparkled merrily on either side of his peeling nose.

“And if it’s a contest between Sigefrith and the world,” Colburga said, “then I put my money on this man.”

'I put my money on this man.'

“I didn’t know you were a gambler,” Sigefrith chuckled.

“My pin money would all be on you,” she said, flushing pink with loyalty and pride, “if I had any money. Or any pins.”

“Sigefrith,” Cenwulf wailed, “you’re asking me to gamble more than money!”

Colburga and Sigefrith both stopped giggling. Cenwulf made a valiant effort to look her in the eyes, but he could not help glancing once or twice at her midsection. Sigefrith lifted his eyebrows and frankly stared.

“Ach, just tell him!” she groaned. She clasped Sigefrith’s shoulder to pull herself up to the level of his beard and purred, “Schatz, I’m expecting.”


Sigefrith laughed awkwardly and gave her husband’s shoulder a few light punches. Cenwulf’s limp body rocked and absorbed the blows.

Cenwulf's limp body rocked and absorbed the blows.

“Look what happens when I leave you two alone a few months with nothing better to do,” Sigefrith scolded. “Finally figured out between the two of you where that thing goes.”

He winked at Colburga, since Cenwulf’s averted eyes were not receptive to a wink. Colburga’s heart ached for her husband – it was not the first time she had been “expecting”, but it was the first time they had ever told. She decided it would simply have to work out this time.

She decided it would simply have to work out this time.

“Sigefrith, come to Saxony with us,” Cenwulf pleaded. “It’s April – it should be safe to get a ship in Wales – ”

“And sail past Hwaelnaess?” Sigefrith interrupted, still smiling. “Shall I wave to the Normans in the windows of my castle?” His cheeriness made his words all the more chilling. “I told you I would not leave this island. I will live here and I will die here. By God’s name, if we’re no longer at war then we’re in rebellion, and I for one am not giving up.”

He scratched a few flakes of chaff from his beard and confided dreamily to Colburga, “When we were boys, we always did fancy we should like to be outlaws. Did he tell you about the time we made a mantrap – ”

'Did he tell you about the time we made a mantrap--'

“I am not giving up!” Cenwulf groaned. “It’s not that! It’s simply…” He looked helplessly at Colburga. Colburga looked at Sigefrith. Sigefrith looked at Cenwulf until Cenwulf turned his head.

Again Sigefrith’s back had straightened, his shoulders broadened, and his square jaw firmly set. The majesty that silently inhabited him was surfacing again. Colburga began to understand then why men addressed themselves only to the Majesties of kings, and why kings spoke of themselves as We.

Sigefrith looked at Cenwulf until Cenwulf turned his head.

“I absolved you of your oath to me because I had lost my title and my lands. Now I have lands and title again, but far grander now. It’s up to you whether you want to swear that oath to me again.”

“What lands? What title?” Cenwulf demanded. “By what right?”

“By right of Who Shall Say Me Nay,” Sigefrith said. “And by God’s will. And where His fails I shall fill the breach with my own. And if that fails…” He shrugged and smiled.

'And if that fails...'

This was the Sigefrith Colburga remembered. The Sigefrith she knew did not despair when faced with difficulty. Indeed, the Sigefrith she knew skipped despair entirely and could only plunge from bold optimism into utter, shatter-​​hearted despondency. Colburga hoped she would never meet the Sigefrith of that terrible winter again.

“Well, I’m condemned to die anyway,” Sigefrith said. “And if I succeed… Your gambling wife will explain to you how the reward must be great in proportion to the risk.” He nudged Colburga with one elbow and Cenwulf with the other. “And I doubt William will make it that far north this year or even the next. Plenty of time for you young lovers to drop a runt or two.”

“Lothere, population four or five,” Colburga giggled.

Sigefrith clapped his big hands together, startling Cenwulf out of some dark brooding.

Sigefrith clapped his big hands together.

“That reminds me – I hope to have it up to five by the end of the week! I may have found Alred and Matilda!”

“Never!” Colburga squealed. “Are they still in England?”

“I think it must be they! The rumors say it was William’s wife Matilda, but they’re both remarkably small women, and what would the Duchess of Normandy be doing in Mameceaster? And why would William’s Matilda object to hearing her husband called ‘The Conqueror’, to the extent that she would crack a soup plate over a man’s head and make such shocking accusations against his mother that I blush merely to think of them in the presence of your feminine ears?”

'I blush merely to think of them.'

“That’s not a blush, Sigefrith,” Colburga laughed, “that’s sunburn.” For good measure she wiped his cheek with her thumb to be certain it was not grime.

“Sounds like our Matilda,” Cenwulf said gravely.

And,” Sigefrith continued, “she was last seen hieing her out of town, accompanied by a small man on a tall horse, which – ”

“ – sounds like Alred on the back of Jupiter!” Colburga concluded for him.

“By God, I hope it is! If he managed to get home before the Normans reached his place, he’ll be rich as Croesus. And every kingdom needs a Croesus. Makes things ever so much fun at dice.” He winked at Colburga, and Colburga skipped with glee.

Colburga skipped with glee.

“Where are they now, if they hied them out of town?” Cenwulf demanded, filling his customary role of snuffing all premature merry-​​making with the wet blanket of reason.

Sigefrith shrugged, unconcerned. “They headed west, and on that road the only place to go is Forneby. I simply have to get to them before they can get passage to Ireland. Harold’s sons are supposed to have gone there, and Matilda may want to join her cousins.”

Colburga said, “I doubt Matilda wants to leave Britain any more than you do.”

“She may feel that she has no choice,” Sigefrith admitted. “But I’m about to give them one!”

Colburga clapped her hands in delight and looked up into her husband’s downcast face, expecting to see a gladness mirroring her own. Like a storm cloud it was black from beneath.

Like a storm cloud it was black from beneath.

She knew that Cenwulf alone would have gladly followed Sigefrith into the maddest schemes, as he always had, since they had been little boys together with matching scrapes on their knees. If he was hesitating now it was on account of her and their child.

For a moment she let herself bask in his love and protection and her own giddy sense of mattering more than anything to someone. Then she nocked her finger beneath his bristly chin and tipped his face back up into the light. He blinked at her as if awakening.

“But, Sigefrith,” she said, “I doubt Matilda will stand for it if you tell her she has the honor of being a mere Subject Number Three. You ought to ask them first.”

Meanwhile she and Cenwulf would decide.

Sigefrith looked between the two of them.

Sigefrith looked between the two of them, smiling faintly, though there was an extra crinkle beside his eyes and a furrow between his brows that came from more than mere habit of squinting into the sun. Sigefrith, she thought, was wise enough to guess what they both were thinking, but not yet wise enough to know what they felt. Sigefrith had never loved someone more than anything.

He quickly recovered his high spirits, however, and made her a gallant bow that would have been worthy of Alred, had his leg not been quite so awkwardly long.

“It just so happens I was on my way to Forneby to make the necessary enquiries,” he said.

Cenwulf sighed and muttered, “Now let’s just hope it wasn’t truly William’s Matilda run off with a diminutive lover.”

“Fancy,” Colburga snickered, remembering her earlier vision, “going to meet the so-​​called Queen of England on donkey-​​back and in a big straw hat.”

Cenwulf groaned in premonition.

Cenwulf groaned in premonition.

“What?” Sigefrith gasped. “Let her try to look down upon me – from her height my ass is all she’ll get to see!”

“That’s a very handsome ass you have, sir!” Colburga hooted.

Sigefrith clasped her arms and spun around once with her, and then they danced together through the tiny cottage as in happier times they had danced down the length of Hwaelnaess’s grand hall, singing:

Marry, I do remember yet — how pleased and proud I used to get — when like a little king I’d sit — upon my ass!

'And I do remember yet...'