'Is nothing sacred in these degenerate times?'

Sigefrith stared helplessly across a table that was crowded with the affairs of business and breakfast alike. “Is nothing sacred in these degenerate times?” he whimpered. “Monday morning, runt! Monday morning!”

The young guard, still on his knee, bowed his head in blushing apology. “I beg your pardon, lord, but—”

“Monday morning!” Sigefrith gasped, expiring against the back of his chair. “What more can I do, O Lord? Breakfast at midnight? If I wake these valiant men at the ass-​crack of dawn, it’s precisely so that we can get a little work done before lesser mortals are astir to interrupt us!”

'What more can I do, O Lord?'

“That’s just it, lord,” the Captain ventured. “It’s—”

Aethelnoth tugged on his sleeve, and Natanleod bent his head to receive the rest of the whispered message. Sigefrith took a bite out of his buttered bread and watched them while he chewed.

The message delivered, Natanleod snorted and smiled with one corner of his mouth. “You’d best hear it, lord.”

He jerked his head towards the empty corner and slid back his chair. Sigefrith bit off another hunk of bread before he stood. At least he could use the trip around the table to chew.

“It’s not any lesser mortals, I was about to say,” Natanleod whispered once the three of them were assembled beside the door. “A knight… and a goddess, did you say?”

'A knight... and a goddess, did you say?'

Aethelnoth flushed red, but he protested manfully, “I never said anything of the kind! She’s not my type, anyway.”

“That’s not what Arcil—”

Sigefrith cleared his throat, still chewing. Aethelnoth snapped to attention.

“Right,” he whispered. “It’s Sir Aengus, lord. And the elf lady, Lasrua. And Domnall and one of Aengus’s guards. And it seems… uh… urgent that they see you.”

Sigefrith considered this while he chewed. Aengus did not travel with a guard except when he traveled out of the country, and when he did there was a particular fellow who often tagged along with him. Somebody’s bastard, Malcolm said. Aengus had taken pity on him, as was his way.

Indeed, the entire delegation seemed to consist of Aengus and his protégés.

Sigefrith swallowed his mouthful and asked, “No three-​legged dogs or lame horses along with them?”

Aethelnoth blinked. “Sire? I didn’t see their horses…”

'I didn't see their horses...'

“Never mind.”

Sigefrith wiped his mouth on his sleeve and glanced back at the bleary-​eyed men who sat silent around the table, picking at their food and frittering away precious minutes of their Monday morning.

“I suppose this must be a private urgent meeting?” he grumbled to Aethelnoth. “Have them shown into my study. I shall be right with them.”

“Ah, lord?” Aethelnoth interrupted. “I meant to say Sir Aengus didn’t want it to be known that they were here at all. I let ’em in to wait in the gatehouse. I take it they left their horses in the village, if they didn’t walk the whole way, ’cause they came to the gate on foot.”

Sigefrith rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed.

“Very well!” He snapped his fingers at Caedwulf. “You there, runt! Take my place and get things moving in here. I shan’t be long, but I expect to see some progress when I return.”

Caedwulf slid over into Sigefrith’s chair and picked up his knife. “Were you having the ham or the beef this morning?” he asked sweetly.

“I didn’t mean breakfast! Name of God!” He scooted Aethelnoth out the door ahead of him. Just before he pulled it closed, he turned back to shout: “The ham! Two slices. I’m watching my figure.”

Aethelnoth burst out laughing until Sigefrith breezed by him in the cloister, and he had to hustle to catch up.

“‘The turd seldom falls far from the horse’s ass,’” Sigefrith quoted as the guard came panting up behind him on his way down the stairs. “As my esteemed sire used to say.”

“You were the turd, lord?”

“And now I am a horse’s ass! Makes one think, doesn’t it?”

On that sage note he flung open the door to the inner court and scattered a flock of drowsy chickens.

Monday morning! Sigefrith was not a man to stop in doorways and admire the dawn, but he savored every step to the gatehouse. The cold air was pungent with the smudgy smoke of fires being kindled, and his court was coming to life with the thump and clatter and infant cries of households awakening.

And best of all he loved the light, the sky—that deepest cornflower blue, shading into violet. As long as that color endured, anything was possible in the coming day. On Monday mornings most of all: six full days of work stretched luxuriously before him, and this might yet be the week in which he accomplished everything he had planned.

But once clear of the towers, Sigefrith could see a sullen glow of sunlight in the east. The dawn was slipping away, and so far he had accomplished nothing but a few bites of buttered bread.

And so it was that some sullen glow of his own must have shone out of his face when he stepped into the gatehouse, for the little party assembled therein nearly tumbled over their chairs and one another in their haste to curtsey or to kneel on the dirt floor. Sigefrith stopped a moment in the doorway to savor the effect. Then he pulled the door closed.

Sigefrith stopped a moment in the doorway to savor the effect.

“Well, good morning,” he said. “To what do we owe the honor, et cetera?” He nodded at Lasrua—dressed for travel, she seemed to be!—and the young men behind her. “Good morning, Lasrua, runts.”

Then he put out a hand to Aengus and pulled him up onto his wobbling legs.

“Rough night, meatwit? You look like a death’s head on a mopstick.”

Aengus broke into a bleary grin and returned Sigefrith’s clasp on his hand. “I’ve slept better. Morning, Sigefrith. We’re sorry to disturb you, but I guessed you’d be awake—”

“Awake, breakfasting, and meeting with my household.”

Aengus winced.

“So I would appreciate it if we could transact this business without unnecessary palaver, hmm?”

Sigefrith turned towards the warmth of the brazier but watched Aengus out of the corner of his eye.

He turned his head to glare at Aengus out of one eye.

“What is it, Aengus? An elopement? If it is, that’s the ugliest pair of bridesmaids I ever saw.”

“No, it is not!” Aengus cried.

Sigefrith peeked at Lasrua. She betrayed no outrage at all—neither at Sigefrith’s comment, nor at Aengus’s.

Sigefrith turned back to the brazier and pushed up his sleeves. “What, then?”

Aengus stepped up behind him, with—Sigefrith did not fail to notice—Lasrua at his side. Domnall and the guard remained behind the table. It seemed they were only along for the ride.

“Lord,” Aengus said, “I’m asking your permission to leave the country for a few weeks.”

“For the four of you, I gather?”

'For the four of you, I gather?'


Sigefrith glanced back at Domnall. He and the other fellow were sitting down at the table again, and neither appeared anxious to hear the outcome of the conversation across the room. Domnall looked like a boy routed from his warm bed, docile from drowsiness. He did not seem intent on visiting his own family. Thus it all came down to Lasrua.

Aengus added, “To Dunfermline.”

“To Dunfermline?” Sigefrith cried.

There went his vague idea that Aengus was delivering Lasrua to her husband’s country—and with it disappeared his vague hope that young Malcolm could accompany Aengus home.

That left Sigefrith with nothing but his annoyance at having been called from his breakfast.

That left Sigefrith with nothing but his annoyance at having been called from his breakfast, compounded by his unwillingness to spare one of his best knights.

“What in Jehoshephat’s name do the four of you want in Dunfermline?”

Aengus appeared somewhat cowed by the explosion, but Lasrua answered coolly, “I wish to find out where Malcolm has gone.”

“Well if that isn’t a wild goose chase! So you think he’s in Dunfermline?”

'So you think he's in Dunfermline?'

Glancing sideways at Lasrua, Aengus ventured, “It seems a likely place to start…”

Lasrua turned to him with a flick of her long lashes. “I do not mind telling,” she said softly to him. “It will be abroad soon enough.”

She turned back to Sigefrith, and everything about her went hard: spine, shoulders, mouth, eyes. Even her purling elven intonations were pruned back to their staccato stems.

“Malcolm was last seen in Dunfermline,” she said. “He left on a ship. Lord Colban’s messenger reached him there in January. He knows I did not die. But he seems to wish I had.”

'He knows I did not die.'

It was plain what Malcolm had seen in her. She was a young Maud: a beautiful, forbidding fortress. Malcolm had no patience with females who crumpled at the merest sultry gaze and melted at a lingering touch. What Malcolm relished was a chance to trot out his grappling hooks and his pick axes.

“You have my sympathy,” Sigefrith said, bowing his head. “But then, you always have. However, I think you do him too much honor by going after him. The finest revenge one can take against that man is treating him as beneath one’s notice. Feeling inconsequential is the one thing he can’t bear.”

“I will do him no honor,” Lasrua assured Sigefrith. “I want the marriage annulled, and I could have it so at once, I am told. But, you see,”—she smiled a chilly little smile—“I want him to say the words. I want him to forswear himself. When his first marriage was annulled, he continued to wear Maire’s ring, and acted as if he were the one wronged. He will not do the same to me.”

'He will not do the same to me.'

Aengus sucked in a sharp breath, and at last Lasrua showed her first sign of emotion: she turned quickly to him and tilted her head in one of those mute expressions of sympathy women had. And Aengus—cringing a little, staggering a little from lack of sleep and surfeit of drink—stared up at her with wetly adoring eyes. Lasrua stroked his sleeve with her thumb before she turned determinedly back to Sigefrith.

So that, Sigefrith thought, was the way the wind was blowing. Well, he had not forgotten what Eadie had been to him once, under similar circumstances. He had no particular objection to the course the wind had taken. But he wanted Aengus at home.

“I feel for you,” Sigefrith said gently to the girl, “but is this expedition truly necessary? I think it will not answer.”

Aengus protested, “But, Sigefrith!”

“But, meatwit!” Sigefrith wailed in imitation. “Tell me, did you come up with this plan before or after you got entirely shit-​faced last night? I beg your pardon, Lasrua. But have you even thought this through? Have you told her—?”

Faced with Aengus’s wilting expression, he turned to Lasrua.

“Honey,” he said, “Dunfermline is very, very far from here. Farther than one end of this valley to the other. You’ve been to Raegiming. You could ride to Raegiming and back four times before reaching Dunfermline! And there will be no friendly manors along the way. There will be inns, and they are very dirty and sometimes dangerous for young ladies.”

'There will be inns.'

Lasrua’s lip was beginning to curl at this gentle explanation. Sigefrith hardened up his tone.

“And Dunfermline is not like our tidy little villages. You must imagine every house in Lothere—and every man, woman, child, dog, and dungheap—crammed into our little market town down by the river. And there are mighty men there, and equally mighty criminals and thieves. And what you seem not to understand is that Malcolm is not, in fact, as consequential a personage as he lets on. You will not be able to ask the innkeepers and harbormasters when they last saw him, and expect them to have any notion of whom you speak. Particularly if they have not seem him since—January, did you say?”

Lasrua blinked at him, working up a sullen glow of her own.

“However,” Sigefrith said, gently again, “I often send messengers to Dunfermline, and I shall be glad to ask them to make inquiries on your behalf. It is worth a try. But it will not be worth your trouble to go. Nor the risk.”

To this last he added a warning glance at Aengus. Unfortunately Aengus had been waiting for the first glance to jump in with another idea.

“That’s just it!” he said. “We shan’t only ask the innkeepers and harbormasters. We shall ask the King!”

Sigefrith laughed.

“No, listen!” Aengus begged. “You’ve always said you wished you had a pair of elf ears to spy for you in Dunfermline. And here they are!”

'And here they are!'

Aengus’s grin seemed to be infectious, for Lasrua broke into a sheepish smile. However, she failed to ask Aengus to stop teasing, as Sigefrith momentarily hoped. The idea was fantastical, but the two ninnyhammers appeared to be serious.

Sigefrith smiled, though his patience was wearing thin. “Aengus, merely being able to hear does not make one a spy—any more than being able to speak makes you or me a poet.”

“But she’ll be a grand spy!” Aengus said. “For she can hear what men are whispering—she can hear through doors and floors! She can hear the things men will say when they’re certain none can hear them! And that’s better than you can hope from any of your so-​called spies who are trying to be inconspicuous by dressing as charwomen!”

Sigefrith snorted, wondering sourly how some of his “so-​called spies” would take the suggestion that they performed their duties dressed as women. But one thin tendril of his attention peeled itself away and retreated to turn over the idea in the back of his mind, seeking a way he might profit from it.

But one thin tendril of his attention peeled itself away.

“That’s why we didn’t want anyone to know we saw you,” Aengus explained eagerly. “Everyone will think we left without asking leave of you, and no one will guess you sent us!”

Sigefrith took a breath to reinforce his crumbling patience. “You’re probably right, Aengus. I think you’ve hit upon a better pretense than dressing up as a charwoman. For I think it very likely that everyone will believe you’ve eloped with Malcolm’s wife—forgive me for saying so, my dear—again!

Aengus shrank his head meekly into his shoulders, but he kept smiling.

Lasrua said, “My father knows the truth about Malcolm. He will guess where we have gone.”

'My father knows the truth about Malcolm.'

“Oh, he will, will he?” Sigefrith asked. “Must I then understand that he does not at present know where you have gone?”

Aengus tittered. “Hated to wake him… Had a little too much to drink last night…”

“He is not the only one!” Sigefrith clapped his hands conclusively. “I am sorry, boys and girls, but if your papas never said you may, then I cannot countenance this expedition.”

“But, Sigefrith!” Aengus pleaded.

Lasrua interrupted coldly with, “I am not a girl. I am seventeen years old, and I do not need my father’s permission to travel.”

“Perhaps not, but you need mine,” Sigefrith said, just as cold. “And you shan’t have it. I have a daughter about your age—happily married, mistress of a castle, with a child on the way—quite a little woman, in fact. But I would slay any man who packed her off without my consent on such a mission as you propose!”

'I would slay any man who packed her off without my consent on such a mission as you propose!'

Lasrua’s pale face was turning fiery in the cheeks, but Sigefrith turned to Aengus before she could speak.

“And you, meatwit, I need you here. I appreciate your thoughtful offer to serve me abroad by squiring Lasrua’s ears hither and yon, but you may serve me better by staying put. We have men to train! I could give you a crew of fifty murderers who’ve all violated one another’s sisters, and by the end of the month you’d have them all swearing eternal brotherhood and promising to be godfathers to one another’s runts—and more to the point, have assembled them into a shield wall so tight a gnat couldn’t get through it! If I had a dozen men like you, Aengus, I might let you go. But I’ve only the one.”

Aengus was looking crushed. Doubtlessly he had been looking forward to a few weeks of close quarters with Lasrua. Sigefrith wondered how he himself would have liked to take a little trip with Eadie in those early days—without her father’s knowledge or consent, by God!

Oh, Sigefrith wished he could have let Aengus go, after all. But he truly did need him there. The best he could do was praise him to his lady love.

'I am sorry.'

“I am sorry,” Sigefrith said to the simmering girl. “But you’re asking for the loan of my most valuable knight. He knows how to make soldiers love and trust one another. And, perhaps more importantly, love and trust themselves.”

Sigefrith glanced back at Domnall, remembering the anxious, twitchy, sickly little boy who had come to abide with Aengus and Maire two years before.

And that proved to be a mistake, for another tendril of his mind perked up and reminded him that the runt was a genius with ciphers—liked to encode and decode letters for fun, to Cedric’s and Cubby’s utter bafflement. If anybody in that room was cut out to be a spy, it was the thirteen-​year-​old whose head was nodding over the table. Or was he listening to the conversation across the room?

“Then Aengus will stay,” Lasrua said. “But I will go.”

'But I will go.'

Aengus pleaded softly, “Rua…” but Sigefrith interrupted him to thunder, “No, you will not! This has gone on long enough! My subjects do not leave this valley without my permission!”

“I am not your subject!” she shot back. “I married a man who is a subject of the King of Scots!”

Sigefrith clenched his jaw and sighed deeply through his nose. “Take care, young lady. Take utmost care how you speak about that. You cannot tell me you must go to Scotland because you aren’t married, and that I must let you go because you are. If you are overheard insisting on the validity of your marriage, then you will find it very difficult to have it annulled thereafter—whatever Malcolm swears or forswears. Do you understand that?”

Lasrua glared at him.

Lasrua glared at him, straight-​backed and shaking and—Oh! very Maudlike in her mist of beauty and her glittering carapace of pride. It was clear who had thought up this little plan, and she surely hadn’t been shit-​faced at the time—only determined enough and alluring enough to make a doting lover consent to anything. Aengus was wax in her hands.

“If you will tarry,” Sigefrith said slowly, anticipating an explosion, “you may breakfast with us, and our reeve shall explain the law to you.”

“No, thank you, I will not tarry!”

Aengus cringed and pleaded, “Rua!”

Lasrua spun on her heel, intending, evidently, to leave the presence of the King without awaiting a dismissal. Sigefrith had no time to be more than grimly amused by her antics before Aengus grabbed her arm and stopped her.

She tried once to twitch away, as if it had not occurred to her that a mere Aengus could have anything to say about the matter. On the second twitch she turned back and stared with surprise at the hand that was gripping her shoulder. Aengus waited until she lifted her gaze to his face, and then he said one or two rather stern things to her in Gaelic.

It worked. Blinking her black lashes like a girl just shaken awake, Lasrua subsided into a very pretty, flushed confusion.

Aengus let her go and turned to Sigefrith, still stern. “Then I must ask it of you as a favor, Sigefrith,” he said. “Man to man.”

'Man to man.'

He put out his hand. Sigefrith’s many tendrils of attention were rapt on this unexpected outburst, and he put his hand into Aengus’s without calculation. Aengus clasped it tight.

“Twice now,” he said, “my cousin has rampaged through a woman’s life, and wounded her heart and her pride and her peace of mind, in ways we’ve not been able to repair, no matter how we’ve tried. And I don’t think we ought to let him do it a third time, not if there’s a way to prevent it.”

Aengus squeezed Sigefrith’s hand ever tighter as he fought to keep his voice steady. His eyes were soft and wet with grief, but below their shining surface there was a glint of anger too. Aengus had never before presumed upon this bond they shared—their matching, slashing wounds: a rough scar in Sigefrith’s case, still bleeding in Aengus’s. Sigefrith had not realized Aengus even saw the similarity. But for the moment their wounds were laid bare. Knight and King were meeting man to man.

Knight and King were meeting man to man.

“And I ask it of you also,” Aengus said when he had recovered his voice, “as a favor for Domnall and myself. Any day now Egelric is going to return to this valley, and we wish to be far away from here when he does. At least until his accursed name is no longer on every tongue.”

Sigefrith tossed his head and withdrew his hand. His mind was already made up, but he was grateful to have an ordinary annoyance to gripe about, before his eyes had a chance to grow soft and wet.

“Ethelwyn has been gone for ten days,” he said. “If Egelric was going to return, I expect he would have done so already.”

“You gave Ethelwyn until Easter, I heard.”

“I did.”

“Then Domnall and I would like to stay away until Low Sunday,” Aengus said solemnly.

'Then Domnall and I would like to stay away until Low Sunday.'

Sigefrith folded his arms and stuffed his fists into his armpits, and then he tried ruffling up his hair. Of course none of that helped. His mind swarmed with competing ideas as he tried to turn this annoying situation to his profit. Aengus, wise for once, waited in patient silence.

“If I let you go,” Sigefrith said, “I expect you to swear that you’ll stay away from Egelric if he returns. You’ll be bound not only by law, but by your word!”

Rather than burst into fawning exclamations of gratitude, as Sigefrith expected, Aengus drew his knife and grimly held it out to Sigefrith by the blade. Sigefrith stifled a sigh of impatience and clasped the hilt.

“By the Cross I do swear,” Aengus said. He bent to kiss the steel.

Sigefrith noticed Domnall sitting up and looking interested, and he considered making the runt get up and swear the same. But behind Domnall’s head the window was filling with light. Sigefrith’s precious Monday morning was slipping away.

“Fine then! Fine!” Sigefrith said once Aengus had reclaimed his knife. “Go! Go away! Go to Dunfermline or go to perdition, but return by Low Sunday!”

'Go to Dunfermline or go to perdition, but return by Low Sunday!'

Aengus laughed and almost bounded into Sigefrith’s arms, and Lasrua brightened into blooming loveliness.

“But I never saw you!” Sigefrith warned them, backing away from their gratitude. “By God, it will be some consolation if I can spend the next three weeks abusing you for your perfidy!”

“I’ll be looking forward to hearing the latest insults and epithets when we return,” Aengus said, grinning.

'I'll be looking forward to hearing the latest insults and epithets when we return.'

“And, meatwit, this young lady is in your care. I’ll expect you to vouch for her honor—one way or another! I’ll hold you to it, by God’s name!”

Aengus stopped. His grin softened, and the pallid, hungover hue of his face warmed to a pink glow. Lasrua, suddenly shy, dropped her dark lashes.

Sigefrith snorted. Oh, after all these years, there would be some satisfaction in abetting Aengus in his elopement with Malcolm’s sometime bride—again! He would have accomplished something this Monday morning.

“Thank you, man,” Aengus said humbly.

“I don’t know what you’re thanking me for,” Sigefrith grumbled, waving him off. “A lady’s honor is one hell of a responsibility. And I have to warn you—I don’t like the look of those handmaidens!”

'I don't like the look of those handmaidens!'