The men who had raised her had taught her to step smartly like a soldier.

Matilda Cild had learned to walk beneath an ancient oaken table, by wandering between the knees of the earls, knights, and generals seated round. She must have tripped and toddled then, but the men who had raised her had taught her to step smartly like a soldier, even at such mundane moments as when answering a knock at the door.

And yet no soldier, Alred thought, had ever looked so fine and full and deliciously quivering from behind.

As he watched her, he unconsciously lifted the curtain hem with the tip of his sword, moved by an old habit of inching heavy skirts up above slender ankles, up and up over round calves and thighs…

He unconsciously lifted the curtain hem with the tip of his sword.

He had already forgotten the book he had been reading. Now he only hoped the inn-keeper’s wife—or whoever it was—would not tarry long.

Matilda laid one hand flat on the door as she opened the latch with the other.

“Yes?” she called.

A flash of afternoon sunlight gleamed off the gold of her wedding ring as the door swung open, and then—

Darkness. Matilda was gone.

Alred shoved back the curtain with his elbow and arced his sword precisely up through the narrow parting, untangled. Elbow, step, step, present—his body moved unconsciously, out of long habit and rehearsal, but his heart was thundering, and in his mind he howled curses at himself. The one time a knock at the door had warranted the precautions he always insisted upon, and he had failed—too busy admiring the sway of Matilda’s thighs.

He immediately saw his opponents’ disadvantage if they were to be lured through the awkward doorway into the blinding sunlight of the room, and he shouted threats in English and French to draw attention to himself.

He shouted threats in English and French.

From the hallway there came only a demented growling, munching, and gobbling such as Grendel’s mother might have made over the cradle when nibbling her baby’s hairy toes. This was shortly topped by Matilda’s shrieks and—was it giggles?

Then Alred heard a booming baritone laughter he well knew, and Sigefrith Hwala knocked the door wide open with the side of his boot. He staggered in beneath a kicking, squirming, squealing armful of beautiful girl.

Sigefrith Hwala knocked open the door.

Alred let his sword arm fall.

“Name of God!” Sigefrith swore. “You’re heavier than I remember! Are you getting fat?”

“No, you’re simply getting out of practice!” Matilda scolded. “We haven’t seen you in a donkey’s age! Sigefrith!”

Sigefrith Hwala knocked open the door.

“Out of practice!” Sigefrith gasped. “Supposing I practice on you?” He swung her lightly in his arms as if considering tossing her over the footboard onto the bed. Alred laid his sword flat upon the silken spread, in case he was.

“Oh! Put me down, Sigefrith!” Matilda huffed. “You smell like a walking, talking armpit.”

Sigefrith laughed again, delighted, and gently lowered her legs. Alred could not help but notice that he failed to stoop to make up for their great difference in heights, and that Matilda was obliged to slide down the front of his body to the floor.

Matilda seemed not to notice, however, for she turned to him, beaming, and cried, “Alred!”—so overflowing with gladness that she wanted to share it with him.

“Alred!” Sigefrith echoed.

“Jupiter!” Alred laughed shakily.


“Not the man you were expecting to see?” Sigefrith asked, hitching his thumb at the sword on the bed.

Before Alred could answer, Sigefrith stooped and grabbed him in a bearlike hug. But after a first squeeze, Sigefrith freed an arm to pull back the curtain and peer through to the other side—unconsciously, Alred thought, with the habit of an outlaw, as Alred too had been forced to learn.

Sigefrith dropped the curtain and gave Alred’s back a last slap before turning to Matilda.

“Two beds! A wise precaution.”

'Two beds!'

“We’ve almost worn out the other already!” Matilda said proudly.

“You have? How long have you been here?”

“A week!” she giggled.

“A full week it’s held up!” Sigefrith took hold of the bedpost and shook it to test the frame. “Taking it easy on the man, are you?”

“Ha ha ha!”

Matilda slipped one arm around Sigefrith’s waist and the other around her husband’s, pulling them closer by sheer shortness of limbs.

Matilda slipped one arm around Sigefrith's waist.

“Good God on his mountain, Sigefrith! What are you doing here? We were certain you had gone to Denmark! Lots of men with lesser ties than you to King Sweyn have gone there,” she added petulantly. She gave Sigefrith’s waist a scolding pinch.

Sigefrith gently nipped her cheek between his grubby fingers and grinned at her, but his voice was neither merry nor teasing. “And that vexes you on my behalf, does it? Afraid a lot of men with lesser ties are going to scoop up all the biggest crumbs of charity old Sweyn is doling out?”

Matilda wiped her cheek and pouted with her little mouth, unaware as ever of how adorably absurd she looked, though a sneaking sideways glance at Alred made him think she was perhaps conscious of how kissable she was.

“No, Matilda,” Sigefrith said gravely. “You shall not soon see me crawling around beneath Sweyn’s table, nor any other foreign king’s. Danish though my blood may be, I was born on British soil, and I shall live and die and be buried on British soil. I will not leave this island.”

Matilda dropped her arms and hitched her skirt up high enough to allow her to comfortably hop up onto the bed and fold her legs beneath her.

She hopped up onto the bed and folded her legs beneath her.

Some men may have perfectly respectable reasons for going abroad,” she grumbled, “which have nothing to do with groveling and begging.”

“And some women?” Sigefrith mused, risking a wink at Alred while Matilda tucked her skirts about her ankles.

“And anyway, this does not sound very much like you, Sigefrith Hwala. You are not the sort of man to pass up an opportunity merely out of some patrimonial pride or poetic ideal.

Alred’s heart contracted at the scornful way she spoke the word poetic. She might only have been criticizing Sigefrith’s failure to be true to his nature, but regardless, her nature was more like Sigefrith’s than like his.

“Is that so?” Sigefrith smirked. “Then we must assume that I have found a better opportunity on my own.”

'Then we must assume that I have found a better opportunity on my own.'

She clapped her hands in excitement. “Sigefrith!” Then, growing wary, she warned, “You had better not tell me you bent over and took some Norman charity up the ass, my lord, or we shall get straight to that die on English soil business right here.” She leaned across the bed to pat the crossbar of Alred’s sword.

Sigefrith laughed at her. “No Norman charity can save me now, Matilda, however well endowed! I participated in four uprisings last winter, and led one. There’s not a boy-​whore in Babylon whose ass is worth more than my severed head.” He grinned through it all, but at the last his hand came up unconsciously to rub his neck.

“So what is your other opportunity?” Matilda demanded.

“Ah! Only that I have found a king in the North whose poetic ideals so closely match my own that I have sworn to serve him in everything, even unto scratching his hairy balls when they itch.”

He paused only long enough to allow Matilda’s outrage to grow to an adorable height.

“To wit, myself.”

“Your—” Matilda’s outrage collapsed, and she snorted and snickered. “King Sigefrith?

'King Sigefrith?'

He made her a smart bow. “At your service.”

“Ball-​scratching sounds just about like your poetic ideal, old man,” Alred ventured.

Sigefrith turned to him and grinned. In a flash like glinting sunlight Alred saw just how much he had changed since that foggy October morning when he had last turned his head to smile so broadly on him. The scruffy, untrimmed beard and the gleaming teeth were the same; the cheeks were just so sunburnt and the nose so haphazardly peeling; and those hazel eyes would sparkle like tide pools until they closed on his dying day—but there was a shadow over everything now, a gray mist of pain.

Sigefrith had not spent the winter gadding about with the same blind optimism he seemed to be displaying now. He had been beaten, and beaten, and beaten down, and kept getting up again. Alred turned to pick at a dent in the side table, humbled and ashamed.

Alred turned to pick at a dent in the side table, humbled and ashamed.

“And King Sigefrith sounds about like your limp sense of humor,” Matilda added sourly. “Let’s hear the good news, now, or make something up, for if you’ve gotten my hopes up for nothing, I shall be sore.”

“I hope to leave the humor to Alred henceforth,” Sigefrith said flatly. “I wasn’t joking.”

'I wasn't joking.'

Matilda rolled her eyes and sighed through her nose and made much show of pretending to play along. “All right, then, Your Majesty—King Sigefrith of What?”

“King Sigefrith of Lothere,” he replied, at once all smiles. “The fairest little valley on this big fat island. Only kingdom-​sized by the Irish definition, mind you, but a new king has to start somewhere, I suppose.”

He hooked his thumbs into his vest, lifted his square chin, and looked as self-​important as he could manage—which, considering it was Sigefrith, was important indeed. Even at his most carefree moments, Alred had seen men mistake him for the higher-​ranking but less-​impressive personages he simply accompanied.

Matilda looked uneasily up at Alred, and Alred lifted his eyebrows at her. Sigefrith finally broke beneath the weight of his own gravitas and burst out laughing.

Matilda clapped her hands to her forehead and groaned, “Holy goat-​fondling God! I know what it is!”

“What is it, my beauty?” Alred dutifully inquired.

'What is it, my beauty?'

“Sigefrith is in love!”

“I am not!” he laughed.

“Whom did you marry?” she sighed. “God help us! The doe-​eyed, calf-​witted heiress to some ass-​crack of a valley, and now he prances in here and calls himself the King of Love!

“I am not married!” Sigefrith protested, still laughing. He wiped the corner of his eye with the heel of his hand. “Name of God! The King of Lothere, I said!”

'The King of Lothere, I said!'

“Who is she?” Matilda insisted. “God damn! If Leofric was good for nothing else, which I have not yet determined, he always did at least contrive to prevent you from marrying your wench-​of-​the-​week!”

Alred winced. Sigefrith had an outward mastery over his emotions that Alred had always envied, but even he could not keep up such riotous laughter at the mention of his slain friend.

Even Matilda seemed to realize the error of her impetuous tongue.

Alred knew better than to believe he had been insulted by the “wench-​of-​the-​week.” Sigefrith had loved Leofric as he had never yet loved a woman. Even Matilda seemed to realize the error of her impetuous tongue, and she softened into a meek and enticingly kissable little lump of beautiful girl.

“I swear to you, Matilda, that there is as yet no Queen of Lothere, though I intend to begin a proper search for a bride when I have a moment’s time.”

“You—married,” Matilda scoffed softly, as if she had not just accused him of the same.

“I know this royalty business sounds mad, honey,” Sigefrith soothed. “I simply wanted to see your reaction—and it was well worth the trouble, I might add.” He smiled at her, and paused to give her a chance to feel forgiven. “But the matter is quite simple once it is explained. You see, I traveled ever northward this winter, with no aim except to get up and leave town as soon as I heard the name ‘William’ spoken.”

You see, I traveled ever northward this winter.

Matilda picked at the embroidery on the spread and huffed in acknowledgment. Their own progress that winter had been much the same, except that they had usually fled town after Matilda’s reaction to the sound of the name had made them unwelcome at their present inn.

“And I made it all the way into Cumbria,” Sigefrith continued in a strained voice, “and I began to think that if I ever reached Old Man Hadrian’s wall, I would lie down and die on the spot. Out of… ah, grief or something,” he mumbled. “You suppose a man can truly die of grief, Alred?” he asked, rubbing his beard and looking blandly curious, as if he had merely asked whether a particular piece of land might profitably be planted with wheat.

Alred turned away and shrugged with the pale insides of his wrists. “If he loses everything he lived for, I suppose…” he conceded, as though he had not spent the entire winter composing phrases beginning with “If ever…” and ending “…I shall die.”

“Hmm. Well, in any event, I never made it, for I found my little valley just south of Leol.”

He rocked back onto his heels and smiled dreamily, looking much like a man in love in spite of his protests to the contrary.

He rocked back onto his heels and smiled dreamily.

“To think I might have missed it! One has to ride straight into it, for it’s easier to go round. But what was a mountain pass or two to me? I crested the hills just at sunset—and Alred, I wished you had been with me, to put words to what I saw. Simply the most beautiful thing I had ever beheld. The forests, the meadows, the hills, and the river shining like a thread of gold, all winding through it…”

Alred glanced down at Matilda and found her listening raptly.

Alred glanced down at Matilda and found her listening raptly to Sigefrith with a dreamy smile of her own. For all her huffing and her stomping and her ripping blasphemies, he knew there was a golden thread of romance running through her too, and Sigefrith with the boyish eagerness of his ambitions made it hum like a harp string.

Alred knew that the beauty for her was not in the pretty words nor even in the luminous scene they described, but in the glory of the great man’s uplifted face and the grandeur of his vision. Alred was reminded that he was only a common little thing—only a poet of pretty words, a plucker of his ordinary harp’s quite ordinary strings.

“Oh, Sigefrith, I wish we had been!” she sighed. Then, slinging on her mantle of practical considerations again, she added dryly, “But you left out the part where the people of Lothere rise up and embrace you as their king.”

“Well, you see,” Sigefrith explained, “there weren’t any. On account of the curse.”

'There weren't any.'

“Oh, Sigefrith, don’t!” Matilda groaned. “I was starting to believe you!”

“It’s true! Not the curse, that is, but the people thinking it true! There were people in the valley a hundred years ago, but a plague wiped them out and left only the people in the hills. And, Matilda!” he pleaded, making the curtain flutter behind him with the wild swoops of his gesturing arms. “Everything they built was left behind! Stone barns and buildings wanting only a roof, roads and walls and bridges, foundations of fortresses! All it lacks is people and a king!” Abruptly he seemed to remember his original point and said gravely, “But to this day, no one has dared go live in the valley again, out of dread of the curse of the elves.” He folded his arms over his chest and grinned in conclusion, wrinkling his sunburnt nose.

“Old man,” Alred sighed, “you are the most abominably cheerful ghost-​story-​teller I have ever heard.”

'You are the most abominably cheerful ghost-story-teller I have ever heard.'

Matilda laughed, and Sigefrith only grinned the wider. “You don’t suppose I believe that fairy tale nonsense, do you? But the Baron in the hills does. He’s the real reason why no one has resettled the valley, if you want my opinion. The people I talked to seemed willing enough to go.”

'The people I talked to seemed willing enough to go.'

“Because you asked them, Sigefrith,” Matilda said with an oddly proprietary pride.

Sigefrith snorted. “Leading men into perceived danger is much like making cattle or horses ford a river, Matilda. One can’t force them into it, but once they’ve seen one beast wading through, the rest will often follow.”

“And you are that beast!” Matilda giggled.

'And you are that beast!'

Sigefrith smiled in agreement. “Once they’d seen me go down into the valley and come up again unscathed a few times… I even slept a night in one of the old barns to prove my point. Nor elf nor ghost nor fairy did I see.”

“That settles it!” Matilda said.

Alred thought it settled nothing. He pushed himself away from the table and protested sharply, “So… what? You intend to lead the Baron’s people down into the cursed valley like some sort of… addlepated Pied Piper?”

Matilda threw up her arms and fell back onto the bedspread in a half-​swoon. “Sigefrith, you are a fairy tale!”

With her rolling thighs and hips and breasts she looked more luxurious than the silk on which she sprawled. Unconsciously Alred felt for his sword, and then remembered it was lying half-​submerged in silk beside her. He clenched his hands into fists.

But when he looked up at the other man, he found Sigefrith ignoring Matilda’s writhing and frowning slightly at him.

“The Baron is in accord with my plans. I shall take only such young couples and adventurous men as care to go. They’ve not had good harvests these past years. And I do intend to recompense the man.”

Alred snorted, more to clear his mind of the fog of jealousy than to indicate his disapproval, though he disapproved as well.

“So what are you saying, then?” he demanded. “Skim the cream off the mad Baron’s young-​and-​adventurous population and set yourself up as lord in an all-​but-​foreign land— Do they even speak English there? And if you truly intend to call yourself a King—you, an outlaw—in open defiance of Wil—” He stopped his tongue just in time, out of habitual dread of what Matilda would say. “Of everything…”

Matilda clasped her knees and pulled herself up to sit.

Matilda clasped her knees and pulled herself up to sit.

“Some men are simply born to rule, Alred,” she said. Her voice was merely musing, but Alred heard in it a direct criticism of himself. “No—not even born to it,” she said, staring dreamily up beyond Sigefrith’s head, “for any man might inherit a title or a position of power. Some men simply can’t not do it. Some men, whatever you do to them, wherever you put them, so long as there are other men there, they will naturally lead.”

“Only look at Harold,” Sigefrith said softly.

'Only look at Harold.'

Alred had not heard Sigefrith speak the name since that last black October night, when he had pulled back the cellar door where Alred and some of the wounded men were lying and murmured through: “Harold is dead.” Alred had never heard silence like the silence that had followed that phrase.

Now he was standing in the April sun, safe in a warm, clean room, but at the sound of that name on that voice, utterly unchanged, he could feel the cold and fear again, and smell the sharp odor of new turnips in the dank air, and taste the vomit and the blood.

“He simply couldn’t not be king,” Matilda agreed in the same mournful tone, soft as rain soaking into the raw earth of graves.

Alred looked between their faces, invisible, drawn back through a rent in time to a place now inhabited only by the dead. Mighty men like Harold and Leofric were there. It was inconceivable that lowly he was not.

“And by God, Sigefrith,” Matilda said ominously, “you make me realize his sons simply can not. Alred, take out the box.”

'Alred, take out the box.'

Alred’s eyelids fluttered. “My beauty?” he wheezed.

“Take out the box,” she commanded.

Sigefrith turned on Alred a gaze of only the mildest curiosity, but then Sigefrith had the self-​mastery of a diplomat. If he had not thought the matter of grave importance, he would simply have asked what it was.

Alred dropped to his knees and bowed like a dog to fit his head and shoulders beneath the low frame of the bed. As he scrabbled and dug through the rolled blankets and empty sacks, he imagined his wife sitting pert and pretty over his head, staring admiringly up at Sigefrith; and Sigefrith staring admiringly down into the cleft between her breasts.

They were so perfectly matched in everything but height that a marriage between them must have seemed a foregone conclusion to anyone who had known them before Alred had. That there seemed to have been no question of the thing proved, to Alred’s mind, that the question had necessarily come up and been dismissed. And he could not fathom why.

Matilda was giggling by the time his hands found the rough painted wood of the old coffer, and the straw mattress was rustling alarmingly. He imagined Sigefrith bending down with fingers curled to threaten a tickle, and Matilda twisting and squirming coyly away, arching her back like a sly cat inviting a caress—not there, but here…

Suddenly his own back arched, and the sharp edge of the bed frame stabbed into his spine—the reflexive reaction, he realized an instant later, to an angry pinch on his behind. He grabbed the box between his hands and scuttled out backwards like a ferret with a rat, panicked and outraged at the idea it had been Sigefrith’s hand. But he heard Matilda fall back onto the mattress as he came clear, shrieking with breathless laughter.

“I couldn’t help it!” she protested to the red face that popped up above the edge of the bed. “You should have seen yourself, poking around down there with your ass in the air! No self-​respecting woman could resist!”

“Even I was sorely tempted,” Sigefrith chuckled.

Alred hopped up and hefted the box onto the table, grumbling, “What about my self-​respect, woman?”

What about my self-respect, woman?

Matilda tipped over onto the pillows and laughed. Alred’s flush was spreading down his neck and up the backs of his hands. He wanted to climb on top of her, pin her down with his legs and arm, and pinch her everywhere he could reach until she laughed and sobbed and pleaded. He wanted to show her just how utterly she was his.

Sigefrith suggested, “Send her down there later and see what you can’t help doing.”

“Spank her, to start,” Alred muttered, forgetting for an instant who and even where Sigefrith was.

Then he noticed Sigefrith unconsciously rubbing his palms together and watching Matilda’s writhing out of the corner of his eye—doubtlessly imagining spanking her himself.

Alred flipped up the lid of the coffer and eased out the crumpled velvet cloth he had stuffed inside to muffle the clinking when they rode. As expected, Sigefrith’s attention whipped back around at the sound of a few clinging coins being shaken back into the pile. As expected, Matilda sat up to watch his reaction.

He failed to hide his surprise.

“Oh! Hmm,” Sigefrith said hoarsely. Then he recovered well enough to intone, “The box.

The box,” Matilda agreed.

Alred carelessly picked a bit of straw out of his hair, for once more master of his emotions than Sigefrith Hwala. “One hundred years of Sebright plunder,” he said grimly.

“Hmm. An enterprising family,” Sigefrith ventured.

“There are some gems and fittings in there of a suspiciously religious nature,” Alred said. “I think it best not to inquire too closely into the enterprises of my grandfathers.”

'There are some gems and fittings in there of a suspiciously religious nature.'

“Understood.” Sigefrith wriggled his finger down between the coins as far as the first knuckle. “Ah… what’s beneath the gold on top there?”

Alred answered, “More gold.”

“Oh.” Sigefrith withdrew his finger.

“Mostly. A bit of silver, but I took most of that out to live on. Jewelry and so on.”

Sigefrith chuckled sheepishly. “Looks like what one might call a king’s ransom. And I’m well situated to know it.”

Alred asked, “How much are kings going for these days?”

Sigefrith laughed until he looked up and saw that Alred’s mouth was flat and his face serious.

“Hmm. Well, we had meant to ask twelve hundred marks for Hardrada, had we captured him alive.”

'Well, we had meant to ask twelve hundred marks for Hardrada.'

Alred slipped the folded square of parchment out from beneath the strap on the lid and handed it over to Sigefrith without a word. Then he stared past Sigefrith to Matilda. Sigefrith opened the parchment. Matilda bit her lip and stared past Sigefrith to him.

Alred knew what she was thinking. They were both remembering. After they had drawn up that tally one rainy night last November, they had crawled beneath the blankets and merely held one another, shivering with childlike fright of the monster under the bed.

Sigefrith folded up the parchment again and handed it back to Alred. His cheeks were pale where they were not pink from sun.

“So, do you suppose you could make something of that?” Matilda asked. “Your Majesty?

'So, do you suppose you could make something of that?'

“I fancy I could,” Sigefrith admitted. “Things I hadn’t dared dream of yet.”

“Liar!” Matilda laughed. “There’s nothing you daren’t dream! Dream-​King Sigefrith of England!”

Sigefrith smiled sheepishly.

“Deny it!”

He did not, and she laughed in delight at his daring.

“There are dreams, and there are plans, Matilda.”

Matilda cracked her knuckles and shook her hands. “Then let’s start planning! Is your valley defensible? Tell me about these fortresses, Sigefrith.” She asked coyly, “Would you happen to have a spare?”

Sigefrith grinned. “Well, I’ve seen—”

Alred grabbed his sleeve and yanked. “Sigefrith!” he whispered. “Take the gold. God bless you and keep you and so on. But we’re not coming!”


“It took me the entire winter to convince her to go to Ireland! Now, simply let me take enough to buy myself a nice estate over there, and you may have the rest. All I want is to take her somewhere safe and quiet, and start a family, and—I don’t know… breed horses, or something…”

'All I want is to take her somewhere safe and quiet.'

Sigefrith was looking at him strangely. No—he was looking at him sadly.

“Alred,” he murmured. “This is Matilda.”

No more needed be said. Alred’s heart was crushed and torn beneath a splintering wheel of shame.

“Forget I ever said that, old man,” he croaked. Even his whispers could be thick with tears.

Sigefrith clapped his hand on Alred’s shoulder and squeezed down through muscle to the bone.

“Forgotten,” he whispered. Even Sigefrith’s whispers were baritone.

“Please don’t tell Matilda,” Alred begged.

“What are you two whispering about over there?” Matilda asked suspiciously.

“Oh!” Sigefrith laughed. “I was just telling Alred that with what he’s bringing to the table, he’s the man who ought to be king!”

'He's the man who ought to be king!'

“I like that plan!” Matilda giggled and scrambled off the bed to throw a companionable arm around Sigefrith’s waist. “We shall just see whether this big fat island is big enough for two Queen Matildas,” she blustered, swaying and swaggering like a cocky little soldier.

Alred was certain that she had once been and was sometimes still, like Sigefrith, Dream-​Queen of England. And yet she must have known when she married him that she would never, never truly be. He could not fathom why she had.

“No, my beauty,” Alred told her. “Some men are simply born to be King.”

'Some men are simply born to be King.'