Halsfield, Wessex, England

Leofric folded up the letter crease by crease.

Leofric folded up the letter crease by crease as they walked, taking his time in the hope that words would come to him.

Finally he said, “I don’t know how I shall be able to thank you.”

Seyert waved the back of his hand dismissively. “If you encounter any of the King’s men, it will be easier to explain you are the friend of Sir Robert than that you have been dead for almost twenty years.”

'I don't simply mean about the letter.'

I don’t simply mean about the letter.” Leofric held up the folded square a last time before tucking it into his purse. “Nor about your hospitality these last days. I mean… I feel I ought to thank you on behalf of my brother. You cared for his widow. You raised his children as your own. You made his lands and his people and this old house prosper.”

Leofric stopped when they stepped into the old tower, forcing Seyert to turn back to him.

Between gentlemen,” Seyert said, “we need not mention such things.”

'We need not mention such things.'

He was obviously embarrassed by this display of gratitude. Leofric was just as discomfited by the need for it. It was a crushing burden. He would have been glad to have found a way to worm out from under it.

As a gentleman, I must. If not for my brother’s sake then for my own. Knowing Alix as I did — and knowing her relationship with my wife — I can only suppose that some of the favors done Eadgith and my children in those days originated in you.”

Now Seyert was frankly disconcerted, and he turned halfway back towards the hall. “I can neither admit any lack of regard on my late wife’s part nor pretend a lack of sympathy for your family on my own. Therefore we shall say nothing of it.”

Nevertheless I wish it were in my power to repay you.”

Seyert turned back to him. “We are both getting old, are we not? Tell your gratitude to your children. Perhaps someday they might render service to mine. Now, I think I hear your nieces coming into the hall. Shall we go in?”

As it happened they did not have the time to go anywhere. The hall doors creaked inward, pulled open by Seyert’s son Guillaume, but as soon as his arms fell, a squealing blur of flapping red cloth sped through and hurtled towards Leofric.

Uncle! You’re here!”

'You're here!'

He braced himself and caught her, and Gunnora threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on both cheeks, so heartily that he felt the silky coldness of her face pressed against his.

Mmm, you’re warm!”

Leofric laughed. “Baby! Is that you?”

Who else would it be?”

Well, now, I do ordinarily like to get a good look at a woman before she starts kissing me all over my face…”

He pushed her out to arm’s length — not to identify her, of course, but for the pleasure of looking at her.

He pushed her out to arm's length.

Her eyes were neither emerald nor sapphire but plain hazel, and her skin was an everyday pale that was prevented from aspiring to alabaster by being lightly freckled like Eadie’s. Nevertheless there was something jewel-​like about her beauty, something sparkling and precious, and her frost-​nipped cheeks only heightened it by giving her the touch of color she needed.

Oh!” she scoffed, all out of breath. “If any other woman kisses you like that in this house, I insist you tell me at once!” She stomped her foot on the tile. “I am terribly jealous.”

Leofric looked to the only “other woman” for him in the house — her elder sister behind her — but he knew that Ogive would never indulge in such raptures. She was as stiff and brittle as her mother had been, encased in her rime of glittering dignity. Ogive kept her old uncle on the ration of two frosty kisses per day, no more or less than she gave to each of her children, to her stepfather, and to her siblings. So had she been raised by Alix.

Gunnora, on the other hand, resembled her father — though her father had never displayed such affection for anyone.

Uncle!” Gunnora said, startling him out of his wistfulness. “Let us go for a walk after supper again tonight! Up to the very top of the hill!”

She released her grip on his sleeves to gesture dreamily toward the grilles on the old tower doors.

'The night is so clear!'

The night is so clear! Every star is in its place, and the land is dark, with little specks of home fires along the roads like rivers of stars down below. If we go up tonight, you will be able to pretend nothing has changed, and you will not feel sad. From the top of the hill, a clear winter’s night has not changed in a thousand years.”

From whom did she get it?

From whom did she get it? Gunnora was a stubborn, arrogant, irreverent, worldly young woman — the very image of her father — but at times she would flash out with a hint of poetry, like a doughty, dun-​colored bird ruffling its feathers to reveal a glimpse of glorious underplumage. Leofric was powerfully fond of her already, but at such times she nearly broke his heart clean through. He wanted to learn what she, mysteriously, already knew.

Then she startled him again by flashing a devilish smile back over her shoulder.

'I do not try to imply you are a thousand years old, Uncle.'

I do not try to imply that you are a thousand years old, Uncle. But you are a thousand years ugly!”

Leofric laughed, and her sister scolded her from across the hall. It was a family joke, as far as Leofric was concerned, and yet Gunnora had grasped it at once, and Ogive would never understand.

Gunnora fled back to his side to escape her scowling sister. “Mayn’t we, Uncle?” she pleaded prettily, smiling in her certitude that the favor would be granted. “I shall even behave at supper.”

'I shall even behave at supper.'


What was one more night? What was a day’s delay? He had a letter from Seyert now, if there was trouble along the way.

If he walked along the chalky crest of the hill tonight, with the same old stars in their same old places and a dear young lady on his arm, he would add another shining hour to his treasure store of memories. He would never forget this night.

He would never forget this night.

But if he went, he did not know how he would ever tear himself away. His heart was already divided. He could not allow it to be ripped to shreds.

I wish I could — I’m sorry — but I must leave tonight, right after supper. I must — ”

Tomorrow?” She tried to sound hopeful, intending perhaps to shame him into giving in, but the corners of her mouth quivered, and she eyed him worriedly.


Tomorrow I shall be gone, Baby. I must be in Wareham tonight. There’s a party of pilgrims heading north tomorrow, and I want to go with them.”

But you said you would stay five or ten days.”

Her voice was plaintive as a child’s, and her lower lip pouted like the mouths of his own little babies when they were sad. He felt his resolution wavering again, but now that he was speaking, the heartbreaking words came more easily to him.

He explained gently, “Those five or ten days included the time spent traveling here from Winchester and back. Two days to come, two days to return, and I’ve already spent two days here, Baby. That’s six days. No less than what I promised.”

'That's six days.'

She looked very close to tears — more sparkling and precious than ever — but having known her father he wondered how deeply they were felt. Some women trained with tears as men trained with swords and arms.

She surprised him again by hiding the woeful look behind a half-​convincing expression of hopefulness, proving the tears had been real. Very prettily she marched him into the corner near the door, as doughty little women drove towering men.

She leaned close and whispered as if imparting a naughty secret. “Dear Uncle, won’t you please take me with you?”

'Dear Uncle, won't you please take me with you?'

She smiled at him with all her might and main, but her damp lashes still sparkled. He was reminded how pitiful were her arms: as a woman under Norman law she had only smiles and tears and stubbornness wherewith to defend herself. Without her unsuspected ally the English priest, even these would not have sufficed.

But under Norman law Leofric could not defend her at all. In truth, he might as well have been dead.

'Baby, you know I can't do that...'

Baby, you know I can’t do that…”

Please, Uncle, please!” she whispered. “You know why…”

Her sister asked ominously, “What are you talking about over there? Leave our Uncle be.”

Leofric peeked around the corner.

Leofric peeked around the corner. He could not see Ogive from where he stood, but Seyert could see him — and he was watching.

Leofric leaned low and whispered, “I shall talk to your brother as soon as I’m home — ”

She wailed, “No, now!”

Her sister barked, “Gunnora!” Leofric heard her shoes start across the floor: a measured tap-​tap-​tap like the ghost of Alix stalking through the hall, stately even in her outrage.

Baby — ”


No!” Gunnora yanked her hands away from his. “Do not bother! Do not trouble yourself, Uncle! It isn’t as if you troubled yourself with us any time in the last twenty years! You do not care about us at all!”

Baby, that’s not true!”

She yanked her sleeve out of his hand and tore off in a flapping red blur, barreling past Seyert to swing herself around the banister and gallop up the stairs.

Leofric ran after her.

Leofric ran after her, but Ogive threw her arm out across his path as if she thought herself strong enough to stop him. To avoid knocking her down, he was indeed forced to stop, meek as a lamb. He watched helplessly as Gunnora fled through the arch and turned towards her room, gulping with half-​stifled sobs. An instant later he heard a door slam.

Do not go after her!” Ogive commanded. “That is precisely what she wants.”

'That is precisely what she wants.'

Leofric knew it. If a child fled crying that one did not care for her, it meant she wanted — precisely — to be pursued and reassured she was loved. For every girl like Eadie or sweet little Mae, who crept confidingly to her father’s side and wriggled her way into a cuddle, there was a Leia or a Gunnora who stormed and slammed and shoved him away, only to strangle him with passionate hugs when she was recaptured. Leofric was not altogether certain he did not prefer the latter kind.

And then there were girls like Ogive.

I allowed that she might come among us as a courtesy to you, dear Uncle, but I knew that she would not reckon the favor! She could not behave herself even for two days — even for you! And so she embarrasses our sainted mother, who raised her, and embarrasses Sir Robert, and embarrasses all of us before you!

'And so she embarrasses our sainted mother.'

There were girls who thought of love as a form of polite address, owed in various shades to the various members of their entourage, and precisely proportioned according to rank. There were girls who thought of treating their sisters as fellow persons as a “favor,” and who viewed affection as a treat like dessert to be withheld.

For the first time since he had returned to the old house, Leofric acted discourteously. He walked away from Ogive while she was still holding forth on the depravities of her sister.

Do not go after her!” Ogive shouted, interrupting herself. “Do not indulge her!”

Leofric took the old stairs two by two and swung himself around the banister at the turning as he had always used to do. It had always exasperated Alix, too.

Once at the top, intimidated by his own thundering stride in the narrow hall, he slowed his jog to a shuffle and stopped before Gunnora’s door meek as a lamb.

He stopped before Gunnora's door.

Baby — ”

Go away!” a tearful, tragic voice shouted from within. “I never want to see you again!” Her sarcastic spirit roused itself well enough to add sourly, “Not that there was any chance of that happening!”

Leofric pressed his cheek against the cool wood and called through the crack. Nature or much training had given him a voice that could be gentle even when loud. “Baby, come out, please! Come sit beside your old uncle at supper, at least.”

He heard the hollow knocks of Ogive’s heels falling upon the stairs.

'Gunnora, please!'

Gunnora, please! Don’t let this be your goodbye to me. I don’t know when I shall be able to come see you again. I’m getting old.”

And ugly!”

Baby!” Leofric leaned his forehead against the door and chuckled, but it hurt like a cough.

Ogive turned the corner and strode down the hall. Her hand slipped into her pocket and came out jingling.

Pardon me, Uncle,” she said.

Leofric stepped back and watched as she fastened a lock to the door and closed it with one of the tinkling keys on her chain.

Baby!” Leofric whispered. “You can’t lock her in there!”

'I certainly can.'

I certainly can.” Loud enough for Gunnora to hear she shouted, “She knows the rules! The door shall be opened at breakfast.”

But you can’t make her go to bed without her supper! Son of a serpent! She’s a grown woman, Al — Ogive — not a disobedient child!”

Ogive dropped her clinking chain of keys into her pocket. “If she comports herself as a child then she shall be punished as one. Do not pity her for her supper, Uncle. She is a thief, also, and has crammed her room with sweets, you may be certain.”

Leofric stared at her, certain that such plain outrage showed in his expression that she would be shamed. But however she might resemble her father in the lips, the brows, or the hazel eyes, the very ghost of Alix shone out of her face.

Utterly undaunted, Ogive folded her hands and sharpened her stare into one of reproach against him. “I cannot criticize you, for I know you did not plan the timing of your visit. But you must realize that you could not have come at a worse time. Your visit will have made her more recalcitrant than ever. You do her no favors by encouraging her to rebel.”

'You do her no favors by encouraging her to rebel.'

Leofric looked down and rubbed his thumb over the long scar that streaked his palm: a gory second life-​line carved beside the first. Every day he performed the exercises Yusuf had prescribed him, but he doubted he would ever again have the strength to wield a sword in combat. Still, it had taken this trip home to show him just how spent and worthless he was.

He was no lord here: his titles were all made-​up and no one here believed in them. He was no knight; he could scarcely draw his own sword. He had no legal body. His very name was worthless. His signature on a contract would have counted for nothing, like invisible ink wasted in a ghostly scrawl.

His brother’s baby daughter had begged for his help, smiling through tears with the certitude that he would save her, and he could do nothing for her. He might as well have been dead.

He might as well have been dead.