Sir Baldwin’s Manor, Wintermere

The candlelit arches of windows were plain.

Brede pulled up his horse before the gate and stared over the crossbar. The yellow lights twinkling through the pines had seemed stars at first, turning into torches as they climbed higher on the path up from the lake shore. But once around the last bend, the candlelit arches of open windows were plain.

“That doesn’t look good,” Brede said.

Eadred stretched his shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, maybe it’s not as late as we thought.”

“Maybe, but why are the shutters wide open? Maybe someone’s ill.”

“Maybe Baldwin and Freya are having a party?”

“In the bedrooms?”

Eadred tittered. “Some kind of French party?”

Brede snorted.

He could have shouted for a man to come open for them, but out of respect for those open windows he turned his tired horse and sidled up to the gate to rap on the crossbar with his boot toe. Living at the least certain border of Lothere, Sir Baldwin was obliged to keep wary guards on duty all night, and Brede knew he would not have to shout.

The guardhouse door creaked open and a man stepped out onto the gravel, stooping to duck beneath the doorframe. Brede had lived so long among strangers that recognition whacked him breathless like a hoof to the chest.

It was Cenwald, that towering, familiar figure from his youth at Sigefrith’s castle. Head-​and-​shoulders above other men, the old guard was capable of spotting trouble across a crowded court, so it was nothing for him to spot young squires sneaking out at odd hours.

Cenwald stared up at the two of them from the far side of the gate, trying to make out their faces with eyes not yet accustomed to the darkness. Eadred choked with stifled laughter. He must have recognized the guard, too.

Brede did not know whether Sigefrith had kept the secret of Eadred’s hasty dubbing all these months, but he thought his friend deserved the honor of hearing himself announced as a knight before a former colleague, at least once, for the first time back in Lothere.

“Is there room at the inn,” Brede said, smiling in spite of everything, “for Sir Eadred and his barnacle Brede?”


Cenwald sounded panicked, and Brede got his first hint of the enduring mystery surrounding their fate in the haste with which the guard threw back the bolt and swung open the gate. He reacted as if an avenging enemy might be charging up the path behind them.

He reacted as if an avenging enemy might be charging up the path behind them.

Once out on the road, however, Cenwald recovered some of his wits and lifted his arms to one man and the other, unable to decide whom to grab first, laughing, “Brede! Captain! Praise God!”

Eadred leaned down and slapped Cenwald’s shoulder, and the two jabbered teasing greetings at one another in the gruff voices of guards: men who well knew how far higher-​pitched tones carried in the still air of night.

Meanwhile Brede swung his leg over his horse’s back and dropped to the ground. He could scarcely straighten his knees, and the lower part of his spine seemed to have fused into a lump, but he was standing on Lotherian soil, all carpeted-​over with needles fallen from mighty firs. He was breathing frosty, fir-​scented Lotherian air. He was home.

When Cenwald turned to him, Brede caught the guard’s elbow and nodded up the gravel path towards the manor. “All well with the family?” he asked softly.

“Oh! All well, I pray. It’s the lady’s sister’s lying-​in tonight!”

'It's the lady's sister's lying-in tonight!'

Brede dropped his arm and sighed. “Oh, Ana, that’s right…”

The last time he had seen Eadwyn’s wife, her pregnancy had been nothing more than an extra bump on her curvy figure. But it explained the open windows: the local women opened shutters, chests, and doors to ease the child’s entry into the world.

“The screaming just stopped not long ago,” Cenwald added. “That’ll mean good news or real bad. But my Disa’s been keeping me filled in, and she was saying all was well so far.”

Eadred asked slyly, “Stepping out for a snuggle while the water was on to boil, was she?”

Cenwald laughed. His wife was Baldwin’s cook now, but the little kitchen maid of yore had been known to step out onto the wall for a so-​called snuggle with her sweetheart. Sometimes a squire could blackmail a towering guard into looking the other way.

Brede managed to smile, but the nostalgia only choked his throat and failed to reach his heart to warm him. He turned to his horse and rubbed a hand over its hot neck. Was it too late to ride on?

“The menfolk’ll be in the hall,” Cenwald said. “I’m sure you two’ll be welcome!”

He took the reins of Brede’s horse. Eadred swung himself out of the saddle and dropped out of sight behind his gelding.

“Just one thing,” Brede whispered to Cenwald. He waited until the guard stooped low to hear. “Have you heard any news about my daughter Finna? My middle girl?”

'My middle girl?'

He could not make out the details of Cenwald’s face, but even in the dark he could see his mouth drop open by the pit of deeper darkness it revealed.

“Oh, God, Brede!” he whispered. “I’m sorry! I’m so awfully sorry.”

Brede winced. His moribund hope had finally fallen away, but like a loose tooth hanging by a thread, the separation did not cause much pain. The ache was in a deeper place. But Brede would have to get used to the emptiness that would henceforth meet him whenever he prodded there.

'I so awfully sorry.'

Cenwald tried to lay a hand on Brede’s shoulder, but Brede walked past him, blindly patting the other man’s arm as if he were the one in need of consolation.

Eadred and Cenwald stood at the gate with the horses, watching him perhaps, or perhaps staring awkwardly at their toes. Brede crunched up the path alone. As he neared the manor, slivers of light rimmed the massive double door. Nearer still and he heard male laughter behind it. It would be good news, then.

Brede stepped onto the threshold and leaned his forehead against the oak. He could almost feel the merriment humming through the wood, like a hive of feverish bees. He fantasized about throwing open the door like his uncle and thundering: “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth!”

Then he pulled himself together and prepared to be happy for his friends.

The heavy door was unbolted and well-​oiled, and it opened with scarcely a creak. The men inside were too exuberantly intoxicated to notice him slipping in. Brede stood back and watched them.

Baldwin, Eadwyn, and Bertie were there, Eadwyn’s little brother, Baldwin’s steward, all on their feet, all hooting and laughing. Brede felt like a ghost returning to visit scenes of happiness from his lost life, looking mutely upon the faces of old friends until his ghostly eyes filled with ghostly tears.

Then Baldwin saw him, and then the others, and the laughter died off to be replaced by a moment of blank shock. Brede strode in and summoned up a smile.

Finally Baldwin clapped his hands once and gasped, “Good Lord! You just missed her!”

They all laughed. None of them must have seen the tragic double meaning of the words. Here it was as if Brede were the only one who knew the truth about his daughter, after weeks of feeling like the only man who did not.

'You just missed her!'

He roused himself again and smiled at Eadwyn. “A daughter, then? Sounds like I’m just in time.”

Eadwyn turned still redder and tried to stammer an answer. Baldwin replied grandly in his place.

“Sir, you are just in time to celebrate the birth of the newest subject of His Majesty our King, namely the fair Athelis!”

“I don’t know but I guess she’s not all that fair,” Bertie pointed out. “She was rather purple.”

“The purple Athelis!” Baldwin corrected himself, slurring the poor child’s name almost to the point of slobbering. Then he fell laughing against Brede and gave him a hug.

Baldwin, who never turned down a drink, was extraordinarily drunk even for him. They had all been drinking—even the twelve-​year-​old, if his flushed face was any indication. The room was sour with the smell of wine, as if there was no air left in it that they had not breathed.

Eadred came in while Brede was attempting to steady Baldwin on his own two legs. Baldwin clung like a monkey.

“I see you’ve met my friend Brede!” Eadred laughed.

Baldwin peeled himself off of Brede and staggered forth, arms outstretched, to meet Eadred. At least Eadred saw him coming.

“Come in, Captain! Come in!” Baldwin crowed, though already hanging from Eadred’s shoulders. “You’ll never guess the news!”

“You finally grew a chest hair!”

“Better!” Baldwin flung himself off and nearly fell over backwards. “Our man Wyn here has just officially procreated!”

'Our man Wyn here has just officially procreated!'

Eadred slapped Eadwyn’s back. “I always knew you had it in you!”

Bertie said, “I even knew where he kept it!”

Brede finally laughed. Bertie threw an arm over his shoulder and gave him a squeeze. Even laughing, even looking straight ahead at Baldwin and Eadwyn, Bertie made Brede feel his condolences, and Brede nearly blubbered in gratitude. Somebody remembered her.

“Whelp,” Eadred sighed, “I guess this completely overshadows the news of our return.”

“We won’t even notice you’re here for a few more hours yet,” Bertie agreed.

'We won't even notice you're here for a few more hours yet.'

“Nonsense, my friends!” Baldwin said. “As your unexpected host I declare that your safe return requires yet another round of drinks to be drunk, bottoms to be upped, et cetera!”

He turned unsteadily to survey the multitude of cups and pitchers on his table. Brede blanched. Knowing Baldwin’s style of hospitality, he had considered stopping just outside of the valley rather than staying the night here.

“Hot mulled wine or cold?” Baldwin demanded. “If I could just remember which was which…”

Brede rubbed his filthy hands together and said, “Ah… how about a big basin of hot water instead?”

Baldwin spun around to face Bertie. “Hot water?” he cried. “I don’t know! Do we have any hot water in this house?”

'Hot water?'

“I don’t know!” Bertie gasped. “Do you suppose we could find some hot water around here?”

Baldwin and Bertie clasped arms and danced a bandy-​legged step together, whooping with mirth, obliging Brede and Eadred to dodge their flailing bodies. Eadwyn stammered a series of incomprehensible syllables, but it looked as if nothing would stop them until an ominous rapping sounded through the floorboards from the bedchamber above. For a moment they all fell sheepish and still.

Then, sighing like an exhausted chaperone, Eadred filled a goblet with wine and passed it to Eadwyn. “Boy or girl?” he asked the new father.

Eadwyn began to stutter, “A d-​d-​d-​” but Baldwin forgot his brief resolution to be quiet and shouted, “The lovely Athelis! Verily the fairest maiden of them all, even if she is purple!”

Eadred grinned and lifted a cup to Eadwyn’s. “To Athelis!”

“To Athelis,” Eadwyn replied, and though he did not stutter he turned as red as if he had.

'To Athelis.'

Eadred took a swig from his cup and turned back to the table to fill another. In spite of his resolution, Brede realized he was going to have to drink.

“What say you, Hairy Godmothers?” Baldwin asked, brandishing a cup of his own. “What gifts shall we wish for our fair maid?”

Young Theobald said, “A pony!” He ducked beneath Baldwin’s arm, looking like he was hoping to snag another cup of wine. Brede watched him, wondering what he would have been today if he had started drinking at that age. Dead, probably.

“A pony?” Baldwin echoed, swavering off-​balance as Theobald blundered past a second time. “These aren’t Christmas gifts for Christ’s sake! They’re Hairy Godmother wishes! Who’s the hairiest of them all? Brede! You start!”

Brede did not want to start. What could he say? Good health? Long life? Could he give away what his baby had not had?

“Great beauty,” he said. All his girls were beauties, but Finna, he thought, had been the fairest of them all.

His eyes filled, but Bertie spoke up at once, turning attention away from him.

“I was going to say her mother’s hair, but if Brede covered that, then I wish for her to be as good a cook as my Ma. No offense to Ana.”

Baldwin nodded. “I don’t think Ana can boil an egg. So that’s only kind.”

“And I was going to say her mother’s beauty,” Eadred said, “but Brede took care of that. So I’ll say a singing voice like her auntie’s.”

“What?” Baldwin laughed. “Are we supposed to be patching this girl up from parts of other people? In that case my wish for her is… a husband as honorable as her Papa and as handsome as her Uncle Baldwin!”

He smiled his brilliantly handsome smile.

He smiled his brilliantly handsome smile, and they all groaned.

“And not the contrary!” Bertie added.

Everyone laughed, even Brede, remembering how the handsome Sir Baldwin had come to marry Athelis’s auntie, and imagining him attempting the same with Eadwyn’s nose.

Eadred kept pouring, and cups went back and forth, all glittering silver and sloshing wine, seeming to multiply with every pass. Somehow Brede had avoided them all thus far.

“You’re up, Papa,” Theobald said.

Their laughter faded, and even the drunken among them looked to the young father with the solemnity his new station deserved.

'You're up, Papa.'

What Brede remembered best of becoming a father was awe at the perfection of his tiny, fragile twins, accompanied by a chilling fear for their lives. It was so exquisitely apparent they were God-​given that it only seemed more likely that God would take them away. Brede had felt blessed in those days, even anointed, but not happy.

By the time Thyra, his youngest, was born he was so accustomed to fatherhood that he had had the gall to be sorry she was not a boy. Now it was impossible to imagine her as anything but her precious self, but with that disappointment he had lost his lifelong battle with drink. Not lost: simply given up. Every memory of that day was hazy and tinged with shame.

But when Finna had first been laid in his arms, so healthy and chubby and strong, still everything his heart desired, he had been smitten—fallen completely and eternally in love. He had been so proud of her, so happy to welcome her to this world. Because of Finna he knew just what Eadwyn was feeling.

“I w-​wish for her,” Eadwyn said, “h-​happiness all her life.”

'H-happiness all her life.'

“With which,” Baldwin said grandly, lifting his cup, “nothing else matters. And without which…” He frowned at his reflection in his goblet, betrayed by his own logic.

But his steward followed. “Without which, nothing else matters, either. I wish her all happiness, too. I have nothing more to add.”

It was a handsome thought. Eadred passed a cup to Brede, and he accepted with a gracious nod. Eadred did not know he had resolved to stop drinking. And certainly Brede could not refuse to drink to the happiness of a lady, firstborn child of his dear friends. He would stop tomorrow. This would be his last.

He lifted his cup to join the sparkling, clinking free-​for-​all at the heart of their circle: friends to friends, smiling and feinting as they attempted to respect the age-​old rules not to cross arms, not to drink twice with the same man, and that perilous last instant when one had to look away from the rim and into the fellow’s eyes lest the gesture count for nothing.

And in spite of all that formality there was no rule forbidding a little wine from being sloshed here and there. Brede laughed with the others at the damage to their sleeves. This was how they knew they were men—not fussy women clucking and dabbing at spills with their napkins.

Brede laughed with the others.

Finally Brede drank. Not a sip, but a great swallow worthy of the occasion. It warmed his throat—warmed him all the way down. It was good to be home. For one more night he could forget everything else.

“But you know, Wyn,” Baldwin said with all the pomposity of an intoxicated man who loves the sound of his own voice even when sober, “her happiness depends very much on you. For at least the first fifteen years or so.”

Eadwyn bit his lip and nodded. His eyes were wide and wet.

His brother said, “That’s where the pony comes in handy!”

'That's where the pony comes in handy!'

They laughed. Even Brede laughed, though his heart clenched around a crisp, clear, autumn-​leaf memory of Finna on her fat pony, all pink-​cheeked from the cold, drumming her brown-​stockinged legs against its side to no apparent effect and loving it immensely.

Yes, Brede had given his three-​year-​old daughter her very own pony. If a man could not do that, then what was the point of being wealthy?

And she had had great beauty, too, lovely golden hair like her mother’s, a sweet voice like her aunt’s. She had even had a talent for cooking! Those well-​smashed cherry puddings she had “maked for you, Papa” last summer had been the most delicious puddings he had ever eaten. He had told her so. Her delight in the words had made them so.

He could not even remember it all.

She had had everything a fairy godmother could have offered her. But had she been happy? All her brief life? He had been so often drunk he could not even remember it all.

And how long before those few bright-​colored, perfectly-​preserved, sober summer twilights and autumn afternoons would fill with mist? Already some of the starkest memories of those foggy years were of his little girl twisting away from his kisses, squirming out of his arms, complaining, “Papa, you smell bad.”

Brede blinked his wet eyes and looked up from his cup, wondering at the silence that had taken laughter’s place in the room. He realized it was because of him. No one could quite meet his gaze full-​on, though every man tried. Eadwyn stuttered, “B-​b-​b—” and gave up. Even Baldwin was exceptionally at a loss for words.

If Brede had known about the birth he would have ridden on. What became of the heart of the mourner who entered into the house of mirth? He was as cruelly out-​of-​place as a man making merry in a house of mourning.

It was Bertie who saved him. He leaned a familiar arm on Brede’s shoulder and started up a hushed conversation with him and Eadred, setting the others free to laugh again and smile.

“Say,” Bertie said, “you fellows don’t have any idea what became of Egelric and Finn, do you?”

Eadred began, “Whelp,” before a movement from Brede silenced him. Brede had ordered him to keep his mouth shut until they had seen Sigefrith. One of his reasons for coming to Baldwin’s tonight was a desire to hear the local news from someone so talkative that even Eadred could not interrupt his monologue.

“Why?” Brede asked. “What have you heard?”

The weight of Bertie’s arm lightened for a moment as he shrugged. “Nothing. Just that they got away from you weeks ago. We haven’t heard anything.”

Nothing at all? Had Sigefrith kept up the lie all these months?

Bertie finally lifted his arm and took a drink of wine. He stared down into his cup afterwards. He did not look suspicious—Brede had spent these months constantly scrutinizing men’s faces for hints of suspicion or treachery—but he did look worried.

“I think they may have gone north,” Brede said. “Towards Leol, maybe.”

This was even the truth, so far as Egelric could be trusted. But Egelric and Finn had left them at the coast only yesterday, not weeks ago. They had to be miles yet from Leol.

“Well,” Bertie said, “I don’t know but I wish I knew. Iylaine needs her Da right about now. She and Malcolm had a big fight last night and Malcolm left this morning with his brother and his Da.” Bertie looked up. “Say, you might have met ’em on the road if you’d been half a day earlier. Which way did you come?”

Brede shook his head to cut off that line of questioning. “Never saw them. Wait—you mean Malcolm left the valley?”

“He got unbound from Vash a couple weeks ago. I was there.” Bertie’s mild face twitched into a brief scowl. “Lord, you should have seen it. You should have smelled it. Vash cut him open and bled him half-​dry into a fire. It was like slaughtering time. Bleeding a man like a pig.”

“And today he left?” Eadred asked. “What did the King say? He won’t know what to do with himself without Malcolm to tell him his ideas are full of shit.”

Bertie said, “I don’t know about the King but I guess he knew about it. But Iylaine was that upset. My Ma took her and the kids home with her, afraid she was going to do something crazy.”

Bertie sipped his wine and shook his head. He stared off at the wall behind Eadred, and a rumple in his brow made the ordinary, sheep-​like expression of his long face appear more like the predatory patience of a fox. Bertie was not a talkative man, but it was plain he had a piece to say, and Brede knew he would hang onto it until he had said it.

“Is he coming back?” Eadred asked.

Bertie snorted. “Damn! We forgot to ask him!”

This foray into sarcasm was not like Bertie at all. Brede and Eadred exchanged a glance.

“Well,” Bertie grumbled, “I don’t know but I guess he didn’t say he wasn’t. I don’t think poor Iylaine has stopped being upset about him leaving long enough to ask herself when he’s coming back. I was going to go back there tonight and stay with ’em at my Ma’s, but then I stumbled into this whole baby business.”

He waved his cup at Eadwyn, and when he saw Eadwyn blushing at the notice and stammering, “B-​b-​b—” he lifted his cup properly and smiled. Then he turned back to Brede and Eadred.

“If I hadn’t already promised Sophie and Estrid I’d bring ’em out to Baldwin’s today—Damn!” Bertie smacked his forehead.

Brede gasped. “Estrid’s here?”

'Estrid's here?'

All heads turned towards him. Eadwyn, who had never looked away, stammered desperately, “B-​b-​b—”

And Baldwin, who was never satisfied unless he could have the first, middle, last, and most important word, interrupted him to shout, “Good Lord! I knew I was forgetting something! Your wife’s here!”

'Your wife's here!'