He would not be able to sleep until he had looked in on Margaret.

It was a morbid impulse—Alred was at least that honest with himself—but he would not be able to sleep until he had looked in on Margaret. Today the Lord had sent him a reminder of the horrors that could befall a fatherless twelve-​year-​old girl. While the iron was still hot he wanted to brand his soul.

He crossed the room without hearing her stir, but he did not look at her yet. He stopped before the fire, his back to the bed, and lifted a piece of wood from the basket. He had only meant to add it to the fire, but its heft in his hand gave him pause.

The piece was split from a broad log, and with the bark-​covered side in his palm, the cut faces came together in a hatchet-​shaped, weapon-​like wedge. If he were to stumble upon a man hiking up the skirts of a twelve-​year-​old girl, he knew just where he would slam it, and how hard.

This was the crowning injustice of a situation that was already hideously unfair. The elf girl had done just what any warm-​blooded, right-​feeling man would have done. And for that she was charged with murder. For that she was the one who had committed a crime.

Absently Alred brushed a dusting of soot from a cut surface of the wood. His wedding band whirred over the ridges of its rings.

He had committed himself, now that he had taken the elf to be locked up at Nothelm rather than in one of the castle’s lightless cells. Her pregnancy afforded her protection from execution for at least the next few months, but something would have to be done soon.

He could not keep her indefinitely in his old barracks when his most loyal servants were already relaying their protests. No more could he responsibly release her—a murderess, an elf—to return to live among innocent people as if nothing had been. Even before the murder, Osh had warned him that she was uncivilized, wanton, almost a wild animal; and Alred could not deny her behavior in the minutes and hours after the killing had been surpassingly strange.

Thus far he had failed to find anything better than Sigefrith’s suggestion to brand her and banish her from the valley. But whenever he thought of a scarred and exiled soul, wayworn, wandering forlorn…

Alred pressed his fist between his eyes until the flood of tears had subsided, uncried. Then he laid the slab of wood upon the fire and wiped his dirty hands on his handkerchief. At last he turned.

Margaret was tucked snug beneath her blankets. From the fireside her head was hidden behind the curtain, but he saw the little ridge her body made—one which ended far above the foot of the bed. She was so small.

Alred crept to her bedside and peered behind the curtain.

Alred crept to her bedside and peered behind the curtain.

The sight of her sleeping face still had the power to stop his breath in his throat, as it had the first time he had laid eyes on her, sleeping on her mother’s breast twelve years before. The curve of one lip nestling against the other. The dark fan of her lashes. The slight flush of her cheeks. Her innocence and helplessness.

The sight of her sleeping face still had the power to stop his breath in his throat.

This was what Curran Graybeard had looked upon with lewd desire. There existed men so twisted that even by Alred’s dark mind they could not be fathomed.

And in this hideous, horror-​filled world he had almost abandoned his daughter. In a world peopled by men like Curran Graybeard, who threatened and bullied children into slaking his lusts. By men like young Sigefrith’s steward, who would look the other way in exchange for a bribe. By men like the children’s neighbors, who must have known what was happening, but who preferred to consider it none of their affair.

Alred touched her hair on the pillow.

Alred touched Margaret’s hair on the pillow. It was flyaway and wild, impenetrable, subject to snarls, and so beautiful—just like the girl. Her hair—her heritage from him—had taught her both impatience with proprieties and an urge to impose order on a chaotic world.

And it smelled, when he buried his nose in it, like rose petals sprinkled on warm bread.

And it smelled, when he buried his nose in it, like rose petals sprinkled on warm bread.

Alred had not meant to wake her, but Margaret had always been a light sleeper. She woke at his first gasp at her ear, his first stifled sob, and sat up so abruptly she nearly whacked her forehead against his nose.

“What— Where’s Hetty? Is the baby here?”

'Is the baby here?'

“No, my dear, no…” Alred rubbed her back until she realized she was only half awake and flopped back onto her pillow.

A nagging self-​reproach rose in him as he remembered that he had not, in fact, called upon Hetty that evening, so occupied had he been with the question of Aia. He had no idea how she fared since the dinner hour.

He reassured himself that his valet, at least, would have informed him if something was wrong, and he stuffed the reproach back down.

“Hetty is sleeping,” he soothed, “and the baby is still where we left him, safe in her tummy.”

“Then what do you want?” Margaret mumbled, too drowsy for courtesy.

“I was only admiring you, my lady.”

Margaret looked up at him with a squint that was less than admiring. “Were you crying?”

“So it would seem!” Alred smiled and rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand. “Your father is known to be sentimental.”

“Oh, if that’s all.” She shrugged herself deeper into her pillow and, softening, tipped up her chin and smiled. In a childish voice she asked, “Won’t you get the chair and sit with me a while?” More Margaret-​like she added, “Seeing as you already woke me.”

“Nothing would delight me more.”

Alred stepped away to fetch the cushioned stool on which she sat every morning, scowling and spitting like a cat in the bath, while her maid attempted to comb her hair. Alred did not much blame Leofgyth for accepting the first likely marriage proposal to come her way.

“Shall I tell you a fairy story?” he asked.

'Shall I tell you a fairy story?'

“Oh, not goblins and princesses!” Margaret yawned. Abruptly childlike again, she asked, “Don’t you remember how you used to sing me to sleep every night?”

Alred smiled in spite of a stitch of pain. He remembered. On occasion he had even been annoyed to be called away from guests because his most willful child would not sleep until she had had Papa’s song. But the annoyance had never lasted beyond the moment he crossed the threshold of her room and saw her tearstained little face relax into contentment at the sight of him.

“Would you like me to sing you a song, then?”

“Before you go,” she said, snuggling down again. “How come you never sing me to sleep any longer? I wonder when you stopped. Was it when David was born?”

“I don’t quite recall the last time, my dear, for I certainly never called it so at the time. I suppose I foolishly imagined your childhood would last forever, and I would always have another chance.”

“But you have a chance right now!”

Alred winced. A chance that he had almost thrown away.

“So it wasn’t the last time,” she concluded. “Anyway, I doubt I shall ever be too old for Papa’s song, even when you’re an old old man with white hair, and I’m a grown-​up lady. We shall be quite absurd, you and I, and shan’t care a fig!”

Alred laughed a little, wondering what her husband would say to this arrangement. But tonight he did not even want to mention husbands to her.

“Is that why you were crying?” she asked softly. “Because it’s almost my birthday?”

'Is that why you were crying?'

“My dear! I told you I was only admiring you. Do you think me wretched with fear that I shan’t find a gift for you in time?”

She attempted to straighten the wry twist of her mouth. He knew that—Margaret-like—she already knew precisely what her gift was, and how many hands tall, and what color its coat and mane and tail, and where it was stabled. If he knew Wulsy’s weakness for her wiles, she had probably already put her gift through its paces.

No,” she corrected him wearily, “because I am already almost twelve. I am still your little girl, you know.”

“Ah! Little girl! And if I told you I shed a tear because you are only almost twelve?”

She snorted, but she gave full rein to her wry smile.

“Indeed, my dear,” he sighed, “I was remembering the first time I ever beheld you. Almost twelve years ago this night. A lifetime ago to you, I grant, but to me…”

Margaret did not make one of her typical sarcastic replies to any sign of sentimentality. Sleepy, or perhaps simply in a sentimental mood herself, she lay back quietly on her pillow, and watched him out of sparkling black eyes. A baby, she had liked to lie on his lap and peer up with the same rapt attention as he spoke to her of matters she was then too young to understand. He wondered whether she was old enough now.

“Do not misunderstand me,” he said. “I love all my children beyond measure, and I treasure all my memories of you. But I think, if I could choose one night to live over again, I would choose the night of your birth.”

In spite of her fair-​minded self, Margaret smiled, pleased and flattered.

In spite of her fair-minded self, Margaret smiled.

“Meeting you—learning you were both safe—was the crowning happiness of that night, of course. But even the fear and the waiting were a sort of… ecstasy.”

He watched his daughter’s face for signs of confusion—the wrinkled forehead, the quirk of the heavy black brows he had given her—but her expression remained still as a pond on a windless day. He leaned closer, glimpsing unfathomed depths of her own through the glimmer of his reflected face.

Then a little dab of pure Margaret darted up like a fish. “There was also that smacker you laid on Gunnie,” she pointed out.

Alred laughed. “The poor woman simply had the misadventure of being the bearer of happy news.”

“Suppose it had been our old Cook!”

'Suppose it had been our old Cook!'

“Suppose it had!” Alred laughed with her and concluded with a sigh. “It was the one time I watched alone, now that I think of it. But I never felt alone.” He rubbed his beard thoughtfully as he remembered. “That was when the chapel was first built. And I watched there all through the night. And I knew I was not alone.”

Rather than something wry, she asked, childlike, “The Lord was with you?”

He might have given her a child’s reply—“Yes, Margaret, the Lord”—and left it at that. But her dark eyes were peering deeply into his.

He said, “Never, I think, before or since—not in battle, not in sickness, not in terror—have I so felt the truth of that beautiful Psalm: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me.’”

“And you must have prayed to some effect, for Mother came through it beautifully. And I came rump-​first into the world!” She grinned, for Margaret-​like, she was very proud of the manner of her arrival.

'And I came rump-first into the world!'

Alred laughed, and tears tingled in the corners of his eyes. With Margaret before him, so beautiful, so bursting with life, the embers of that twelve-​year-​old joy were kindling in him again. He could almost feel the presence of the Lord pressing into the corners of the room. He could almost—almost—believe that his dream-​Matilda had been real, and she truly was with him always, even now, as she had sworn. Something was bursting out of him—if not life, then love.

“Father, you’re crying,” Margaret mourned.

“Alas, my eyes!” He summoned up a smile for her and stroked her arm beneath the coverlet. “Believe me, child, I am not unhappy. When one is old, there is happiness to be wrung out of happy memories. And I speak of my happiest night, you will recall.”

Margaret settled back, but her mouth drooped into a pout. She did not approve of the sorts of happiness that made her father weep, he knew.

“Beloved child, twelve years ago I begged your mother not to say anything to make me sentimental, for I did not want to cry and look like an ass. And she told me that she had always liked to see me cry, because it helped her at times she could not.” He hesitated, then added, “Sometimes you and your sister remind me of your mother and myself.”

Margaret rolled her eyes. “Gwynn is a quadruple-​ninny with taffy for brains.”

“My dear… so was your mother.”

'My dear... so was your mother.'

Margaret snorted and attempted to scowl, but quickly broke into giggles. “And here I have been led to believe she was a brilliant woman with a sharp wit! What scoundrel has perpetrated this deception?”

“She was that, too, Margaret. Although you could scarcely be less like one another, you and your sister are both so like your mother.”

Something in this seemed to strike Margaret, for she lifted her head and asked with an abrupt change in tone, “Father, may I ask you something about Mother?”

Alred sat back, a little worried. Gwynn often asked about her mother, and Dunstan remembered her well enough that he and his father could simply talk about her. But Margaret—God bless her, she was surely too young to have remembered her—did not often seem to care what her mother had been.

“Anything, my dear.”

Alred’s unease proved to have been well-​founded. She asked bluntly, “Do you know why Mother gave the key especially to me and not to Gwynn?”

Alred pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his hands. “Well… perhaps she knew that you were a curious sort of girl who liked to poke about in secret places and peek at things that are locked away.” He held the handkerchief to his mouth and coughed—“Such as birthday presents.”

The little scamp scarcely blushed. “Yes, but Gwynn is the sort to swoon over fairy tale castles and kidnapped princesses and heirloom keys. Not I. And anyway, even if Mother thought I should have the key, why didn’t she leave Gwynn something especially for her?”

'Why didn't she leave Gwynn something especially for her?'

“Well, my dear, in truth you were not supposed to have the key yet, either. But Dunstan forced my hand. Your mother did leave something for each one of you. Gwynn is to have something that was very precious to her. But she isn’t to have it yet.”

“Oh. Well, that’s better than I had hoped. But why can’t she have it now? Her poor stupid heart is broken because Mother left the key especially to me. Can’t you at least tell her that she’s getting something, someday?

Alred wiped his hands again and folded the cloth. He worried he had already said too much to his secret-​peeking, birthday-​present-​finding little girl.

“I have considered it, but I fear she will beg me for it, and…” He sighed. “I cannot but feel that if she has been pleading for it, it will not mean as much when it is received. Consider it as a secret her mother wanted to tell her. There is a difference between a secret revealed in love and a secret imparted after lengthy interrogation.”

Margaret laughed. “What you’re saying is that you are helpless to resist her when she bats her eyelashes at you and says ‘Pretty please?’”

'That is precisely what I am saying.'

“That is precisely what I am saying.”

Margaret smiled and settled into thought. After a moment she asked, “So why not give her a little something to tide her over till she can have the real thing from Mother?”

Alred rubbed his nose. “What do you have in mind? She already knows which of your mother’s jewels she’s to have. I daresay it would be a disappointment if it’s something she already expects.”

“I don’t know. Don’t you have anything of Mother’s that she doesn’t know about? Even if it’s something silly. Like Mother’s penknife. After all, I only got a key, not jewels.”

“Why in Jupiter’s name would your mother want Gwynn to have her penknife?”

“I don’t know! You must make up a story to go along with it.”

Alred sighed. “I like this idea less and less. I cannot lie to your sister about a gift of her mother’s.”

'I cannot lie to your sister about a gift of her mother's.'


Margaret sniffed and scooted down into her blankets. Alred rested his chin in his hand. He did not like deceiving Gwynn at all. But he loved that Margaret was sitting up with him in the middle of the night, scheming to spare her taffy-​brained sister’s poor stupid heart. It was balm for his scorched soul.

“I know!” Margaret said. “I know how we can not lie at all.”

“Pray tell.”

Margaret grinned. “I shall tell her! I shall tell her I found out that Mother has left her something very special, but she’s not to have it yet. Which is true. And she mustn’t beg you about it because…” Margaret tapped her lip. “Because I overheard you talking about it. When I was supposed to be sleeping. Which is true! I shan’t mention I overheard you telling it to me. She will think I was sneaking out of bed and eavesdropping!”

'She will think I was sneaking out of bed and eavesdropping!'

Alred laughed. “Surely she will never think you capable of such perfidy.”

“Oh, she will,” Margaret assured him, failing to catch his irony. “And this way she’ll know Mother didn’t overlook her. And so, even though she doesn’t have it yet, she will have the fun of wondering and dreaming about it till she can have it. I think it’s a good plan, don’t you? You know Gwynn loves the anticipation part anyway.”

“Indeed,” Alred mused, “she’s never one to look for her gifts ahead of time, is she?”

“No, she never does,” Margaret agreed, heartily enough that he thought she might be deliberately deflecting his irony after all. “But do you think the gift will stand up to so much anticipation? I don’t suppose she will have it for a year or more?”

“I hope not for several years more.”

'I hope not for several years more.'

“When she marries?”

“Sooner than that, I imagine. But not soon.”

“Oh. So do you think she’ll like it if we get her started dreaming about it now? It won’t be a disappointment? Gwynn has quite a romantic imagination, you know. She might be a little sad if it’s only a penknife.”

Alred smiled. “My dear, it is ever so much more romantic than a penknife. If I know your sister at all, I trust she will appreciate it as your mother meant it.”

Margaret sat up on her elbow and leaned over the side of her bed. “Father,” she whispered confidingly, “won’t you tell me what it is?”

“No, daughter, I shall not tell you what it is. But I hope Gwynn will show it to you in good time.”

Margaret flopped back onto her bed. She stared up at the ceiling, her frowning brows hinting she was deep in thought.

“My dear,” Alred warned her, “I hope that you will not succumb to your own curiosity. Your sister will not be able to appreciate the gift as your mother meant it if I cannot give it to her at the proper time, in the proper way. Please do not deprive her of that. There can never be another such a gift to take its place.”

'There can never be another such a gift to take its place.'

Margaret turned her head on the pillow and looked at him. Her black eyes sparkled with mute sorrow, and Alred realized she might miss her mother more than she ever revealed. Like Matilda she could not relieve herself by crying. Her depths were brackish with unshed tears.

“I know you won’t,” Alred assured her, his voice thick.

“Don’t cry,” she whispered.

He brought his hand to his mouth and held it while he tried to collect himself. Before he could reply, he heard the squeak of a door hinge in the hallway, and a scuffling step. Margaret perked up: she heard it too. Alred lowered his hand.

“If that boy is sneaking downstairs again for another orgy in Hetty’s pantry…”

“Oh, I don’t think he’ll do that again,” Margaret said. “Last time, Hetty thought he was so hungry because he had worms, and you wouldn’t believe the stuff she made him drink.”

“Wouldn’t I?”

“It was black. And it hardly even poured.”

But it did not seem to be Cynewulf—or if it was, he was not in search of pastry—for they heard a jangle of the door handle, and the lightest knuckles rapping at the door.

But it did not seem to be Cynewulf.