Dover, England

'Uncle, did you ever lie with two women at the same time?'

“Uncle, did you ever lie with two women at the same time?”

“Gunnora!” Leofric grabbed her wrist. “Did I what?

“Lie with two women at the same time? Those two women up there are saying they would, so I wondered, did you ever?”

“Baby,” he whispered, “those women are prostitutes!”

“I know. I only wondered whether you did.

He glared.

Gunnora took the hint. She bounced on her heels and turned her face away to watch the sailors and dock workers jostling past.

Gunnora took the hint.

Veiled, she seemed all eyes; and Leofric was vigilant to shield her from the displays of lewdness and brutality on offer in port towns. But he had not reckoned on her ears.

She sniffled behind her veil, and he heard her breath coming in shivering gasps. Her cloak was wet to the knees, and he feared it went worse for her beneath it.

She was cold, her feet were soaked and chilled and tired, and—God bless her—she had never yet complained. He thought he ought to make allowances. Perhaps she was trying to keep herself warm by keeping her little mind busy.

Leofric gently grasped her elbow to keep her at his side while he attempted to get his bearings.

Leofric gently grasped her elbow.

He was aware they were conspicuous, she in her salt-​stained crimson cloak and he, imposing in spite of himself, tall and mighty and armed with a sword. He was aware that the only comportment they could have carried off was the swaggering self-​importance that had always come naturally to him. He had bluffed his way through the ports of Al-Jaza’ir, Bonifacio, and Genova with a veiled lady on his arm, but he had been in his thirties then. He feared he no longer had it in him.

At fifty, a mere three days’ lack of sleep and chronic watchfulness and fear had left him slow-​witted and stuporous, made his head ache and his stomach burn with bile. He was never entirely asleep when sleeping, never entirely awake when on his feet; and life and dreams had blurred into a boundless landscape of gray wood and water, of fraying rope, of clunking oars and slapping waves. If not for Gunnora he might have let himself go under.

She turned to him with another of her whipcrack questions and jolted him awake.

“Did you ever lie two men with one woman?”

He yanked on her elbow and spun her around. “Son of a serpent! Is nothing sacred to you, girl?”

'Son of a serpent!'

She wrinkled her nose behind her veil. “I was only wondering, because I can imagine what one woman might do with two men, but I can’t imagine what one man could do with two women…”

Leofric spluttered and scowled until he turned red, and for all that he only came up with the lamest response in the parental repertoire: “What would your father say if he heard you just now?”

“Why? Did you do it with him?”

Leofric choked.

He did not have time to flounder for another response, for a small figure burst out of the crowd, laughing and squealing, “My lord! My lord! It’s really you!”

'It's really you!'

It was young Colban—here!

Leofric gasped, “Son of a serpent!”

“I know! I know!” Colban laughed and hopped around on the crunchy gravel. “Son of a serpent! I couldn’t believe my ears! But it’s really you! How did you find us? Is Cedric here?”

Gunnora whispered sharply, “Uncle!”

'Is Cedric here?'

Leofric looked up and followed her gaze to the chain-​mailed man clinking past with a heavy sword slung from his belt: one of the soldiers garrisoned at the cliff-​top fortress. The man seemed distracted, but Colban’s glee was bound to attract at least amused attention.

“Come here, runt.”

Leofric slipped his hands into the armholes of the boy’s surcoat and marched him backwards until he thumped against the wall. Colban giggled all the way.

Leofric squatted down to speak softly to him. “Now, listen here. You never saw me before in your life. I’m in a bit of a fix here…”

'I'm in a bit of a fix here...'

A fix the boy’s presence could help him out of? Leofric’s dazed mind was slow to make sense of the situation. How did the runt get here? With whom? What did it mean?

Colban asked, “Ach, are you still on your pilgrimage?”

“That’s right. See, I went on a bit of a pilgrimage to my old home. That’s my niece there. Baldwin’s baby sister. I kidnapped her.”

Colban looked up at Gunnora, blank-​faced with shock. Gunnora waved down at him and smiled with her eyes.

Leofric said, “I rescued her, one might say. You see—”

'I rescued her.'

Colban whispered, “Kidnapped her?” and laughed gleefully as only a twelve-​year-​old scamp could.

“Listen, runt—”

Leofric paused, alerted by the sound of feet pounding across the packed dirt behind him.

Before he could look, he was heaved up and slammed against the wall.

He was heaved up and slammed against the wall.

Just below him Colban started gibbering raucous, nonsensical sounds. Leofric flung out his arms to shield the boy, opening up his belly to a hurtling left fist.

Colban hopped and gabbled, and Leofric heard sounds that resembled the names of his children: ‘Cedric,’ perhaps, a few times, and then most definitely ‘Sigefrith.’

His attacker flung him off and limped back a few steps. It was Colban’s father, looking no less stunned than Leofric.

It was Colban's father.

Malcolm whispered tautly, “I beg your lordship’s pardon. I—I saw you with my boy…”

Leofric nodded and curled an arm around his heaving belly. He could taste his bread and onion dinner in the back of his mouth.

Colban continued a frantic explanation that was, Leofric realized now, composed of presumably sensical Gaelic.

Colban continued a frantic explanation.

Malcolm lifted his head and looked past Colban at Gunnora. The boy must have reached the niece-​kidnapping part of the story. Gunnora looked past them all and quavered, “Oh, Uncle, here comes the guard!”

Leofric heard him then, too—clinking and clunking as he jogged back to their party with his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Malcolm’s expression soured. “The devil! Leave him to me,” he whispered. “Don’t move unless I put my hand on my sword, and if I do—run. Follow the lad.”

'Leave him to me.'

He gave Leofric a last, sharp glance that seemed intended to remind him who was the true lord here. He spun on his heel just as the soldier jogged up behind him, turning the harmless act of looking over a man’s shoulder into a nose-​to-​nose confrontation. The soldier flinched. Malcolm strode boldly ahead, forcing the man to fall into step beside him or be jostled along.

Malcolm strode boldly ahead.

Leofric hunched away to lean against the wall, despairing. That unshakable self-​confidence had used to be his. He had talked his way out of worse crimes than fist-​fights in rowdy port towns.

Over Colban’s head he whispered, “Baby!”

Gunnora asked, “Uncle, who is that man?”

'Uncle, who is that man?'

“That man is a friend of your cousin Sigefrith’s. Listen, Baby. If anything happens to me tonight, you go with him if you can get away. He’ll help you if you ask it for Sigefrith’s sake.”

Colban peered up at them both. “We’ll help you!” he promised. “I’m Cedric’s friend, too.”

Meanwhile Malcolm had reached some point in his story that had turned the suspicious Norman guard into an anxious witness to an affair he wanted no part of. Malcolm even gave the man a consoling pat on the shoulder.

Malcolm even gave the man a consoling pat on the shoulder.

Colban’s presence notwithstanding, Leofric wondered whether he could truly trust this suave Scot with his pretty young niece. For that matter, he wondered whether he could trust his pretty young niece with Malcolm. But the scandal surrounding her disappearance could scarcely be made blacker now. And if Malcolm could talk their way out of compromising situations with the local troops, he might be able to help Leofric too.

Malcolm sent the soldier off with a kindly word, and the man continued along his former path, all but tiptoeing now.

Malcolm flung a surly glance over his shoulder that went a fair way to dispersing the crowd that had gathered in hopes of arrests or brawls. Then he tossed his head at Leofric and the others and strode off across the road. Leofric hurried to follow.

Leofric hurried to follow.

“My lord, you owe me an alibi,” Malcolm said when Leofric reached his side. “I had to use an excellent excuse I’d been saving for this town. I cannot afford to be banned from Dover. And I cannot simply throw a hood over my head and hide my limp and my nose.”

“I am in your debt.”

'I am in your debt.'

“And will you quit looking about you? Are you wanting to be recognized?”

Leofric stiffened. There was but one man alive to whom Leofric allowed the right to order him around, and Malcolm was not that man. As they plowed their way through the crowd, it was Leofric’s straight shoulders and high head that scattered the curious men and sent them creeping back to their customary occupations.

Malcolm led them straight across the road and strode into a narrow alley as if narrow alleys were his especial domain. Leofric whipped his cape back off his arms and stepped in behind him as if he came to conquer.

'I would not even have attracted his attention.'

“I would not even have attracted his attention if you had not decided to start a brawl.”

“Aye, and I would not have been starting a brawl if I hadn’t seen a man all in black pressing my son up against the wall, and a flashy whore sizing him up!”

“That flashy whore is my niece, sir!”

'Aye, well, it isn't embroidered across her scarf, now, is it?'

“Aye, well, it isn’t embroidered across her scarf, now, is it? If it amuses fine ladies to dress all in scarlet, then let them stay home! Hereabouts the only women in red you’ll see are whores or keepers of whores! Begging your pardon, my lady—if, indeed, you are one.”

Leofric grabbed a fistful of the man’s coat, and Malcolm laid his hand on his knife. They stood so a moment, nose-​to-​nose, breathing the same fog.

Colban said, “I think she is, Da. Her eyes are the same color as Cedric’s.”

'I think she is, Da.'

His father grinned at him out of the side of his mouth and quirked his insolent brow at Leofric. “Eh, now? Looking into ladies’ eyes from all the way down there, are you, lad?”

He shoved Leofric off and moved his hand to the hilt of his sword, so that he could make a graceful bow to Gunnora. “Begging your pardon, my lady.” He winked at her and turned scowling back to Leofric. “What do you want? Who sent you? Sigefrith?”

'Who sent you?  Sigefrith?'

Colban said, “No, Da, he’s not looking for us. He never even went home since he left on his pilgrimage. Did you?”

Leofric shook his head.

Malcolm’s shoulders sank. “When did you leave?”

“We left Thorhold on the seventeenth of December.”

Malcolm stepped backwards and stared wide-​eyed at Leofric as at a ghost. “Jesus Christ… You don’t even know…”

'You don't even know...'

Leofric shuddered with terror. A month and a half of possible events crammed in on him; all the dear people of Lothere suddenly seemed so near. Anything could have happened. Something could have happened to Sigefrith or Eadie… or Hetty!

“Egelric was banished, my lord,” Colban hastened to explain. “Because of… uh…” He glanced warily up at Gunnora. “…injury he did to Maire. And Maire… she’s dead.”

“And my family?”

“All well, my lord.”

'All well, my lord.'

Leofric dared not ask about Hetty by name. He stared at Colban, hoping the boy would understand and volunteer the news. Colban only blinked at him.

He looked to Malcolm, but Malcolm was leaning against the wall and looking dazedly down at a patch of dead weeds clumped against the opposite corner. Leofric remembered that Maire had been Malcolm’s wife, too.

Maire had been Malcolm's wife, too.

Leofric said, “I’m sorry.”

Malcolm jerked away, flattening himself against the wall, looking as startled as if Leofric had slapped him.

“…about Maire.”

Malcolm blinked a few times and nodded. “What can I do for you?” he asked, sounding meek and contrite.

“I need to get out of Norman lands, if you can be of any help with that. North, south, east, or west, so long as it’s out of range of the law. I’d be more than grateful. This is my brother’s baby girl, and I’ll not let her be married to a man my brother would have despised.”

'This is my brother's baby girl.'

Malcolm scratched his cheek with the back of his thumbnail and blinked as if he were forcing himself to rouse. “Need a ship, then?”

“I reckon I’m half a day ahead of the men pursuing me, if said men have figured out which direction we’ve taken. We left Bristelmestun before dawn this morning.”

“Need a captain who won’t ask too many questions, aye? Can you pay?”

“I can pay.”

Malcolm looked down at Colban. Colban nodded eagerly. Malcolm sighed and rubbed his fist in his palm.

“I know your man, then. But you mustn’t ask too many questions, aye?”

'I know your man, then.'