Egelric didn't need elf ears to know everyone was talking about him.

Egelric didn’t need elf ears to know everyone was talking about his return. He and Ethelwyn had taken the back way to the keep, along cattle paths and across the downs, but even so he’d seen farmers stop their harrows in the fields and shield their eyes against the sun to stare after him. He’d seen a woman shooing her children into her house and closing the door.

At the keep it was worse, because he knew everyone here, and he could look into every pair of eyes. He saw double-​takes and frank stares, heard the hitches in conversations as people spotted him and the excited murmurings that followed.

At the keep it was worse, because he knew everyone here.

Egelric had never liked to be the center of attention at the best of times. Now, he wouldn’t have come within staring distance of this castle for anyone besides Hetty and Jehanne.

Just as he was thinking it, bitterly, for the tenth time, Hetty herself leaned out of a window overhead and flailed her arm, calling, “Wyn! Egelric! Welcome home!”

Egelric broke into a grin that tugged at the scar on his cheek.

Egelric broke into a grin.

“Why, Hetty!” he shouted, feigning shock. “Hanging out a window and hollering like a baker’s wife trying to get quit of her stale buns!”


Hetty popped back through the window, and Egelric laughed. His voice rang over the stone walls, alerting anyone in the keep who wasn’t yet aware he’d arrived, but it had been worth it. He didn’t care what anyone else thought.

Ethelwyn scolded, “She’ll never get over you shouting about her stale buns in front of everyone.”

“I’ll tell her she has but to toast them over a fire for a bit. Good as new.”

They climbed the short stairs and stepped onto the columned walkway between the two towers. They were out of Hetty’s sight again, and Egelric felt it like a cloud covering the sun. He still had stairs to climb and corridors to walk. Familiar servants to meet in the halls. If only Hetty could have traveled, he would have stayed at Iylaine’s and asked her to meet him there.

“Sneaking into Osric’s room, too, to greet us,” he said to Ethelwyn, remembering her wave. “She must be beside herself with glee.”

“That isn’t Osric’s room any more,” Ethelwyn said. “Didn’t I mention it? Alred had it made over into a sitting room for Hetty. He and Osric are sleeping in the southern tower.”

“Ach! Right.”

Maybe Ethelwyn had mentioned it. Egelric did remember Alred was sleeping in the tower. But Ethelwyn had a way of rattling off the changes in Lothere like a Quarter Day listing of accounts. He was already used to them all. Egelric would have needed an hour to ponder each, one by one.

“It’s quite cozy,” Ethelwyn said as if trying to distract him from the pair of goggle-​eyed maids who pressed themselves into an alcove as they passed. “Sir Osh painted a moon and some trees on one of the walls. And she enjoys looking out the window at the people passing through the court.”

“Enjoys looking out,” Egelric muttered, “or wishes she could go down and receive them as she used to?”

Ethelwyn sniffed. “Well, it’s better than it was when she was confined to her bedchamber. And it’s decorated to Hetty’s tastes. You know she has to sleep in a room that hasn’t altered since Her Grace the first Duchess died.”

Hetty’s new decor was wasted on Egelric, however, for he had eyes for Hetty alone when she let them in to her little bower.

By God, he hadn’t dreamt her. There she was, delicate and lily-​scented, with her head wrapped in a dark veil and her little white face shining out of it like the gentlest of spring moons. If anything, she was sweeter than he remembered. There were still good and gracious ladies in this rough world.

There she was, delicate and small.

But behind her, her handmaiden Hattie looked Egelric up and down but once and turned her face away, visibly repulsed. It surprised and pained him, for Hattie had once lived in his household—even, he might have said, been part of his family.

Hattie had always been shy of Egelric, as modest young ladies generally were, but he hadn’t expected such a reception. He hadn’t hardened his heart enough, after all. He’d pruned back his affections as far as he could bear, but it seemed there was still rotten wood.

“There he is,” Ethelwyn said to Hetty. “I kept my word.”

Hetty could manage no more than a shaky “Ach!” She wiped tears from her cheeks with both hands—her small, dear hands with their long nails. Egelric had often thought of them in his exile.

“Just look at him,” he said gruffly, hoping to stave off the growing mistiness in Ethelwyn’s eyes, at least. “So proud you’d think he’d sired me.”

“That’s nothing to be proud of,” Ethelwyn retorted.

'That's nothing to be proud of.'

“Ach! You’re right there. I was so ugly a wee lad, my Da used to take me everywhere with him just so he wouldn’t have to kiss me goodbye.”

Finally Hetty laughed and clapped her hands. “What nonsense! You know he adored you! Now, come here and let me kiss you ‘welcome home’!”

She took his bearded cheeks between her hands and gazed at him a while, and Egelric smiled at her until his jaw ached. Her eyes filled again, and Egelric felt his own growing alarmingly wet. He had longed for these cool hands on his face when he’d burned with fever. He’d punished himself with the thought that he would never see Hetty—or any good woman—again.

Hetty stood on her tiptoes and kissed him, then moved one hand to Ethelwyn’s clean-​shaven cheek and tilted their heads together.

“What a happy day it is! My brothers are home! For I think of you both as my brothers, you know.”

“The ugly one and the stuck-​up one,” Egelric said.

“Ach! Stop it! He is as bad as ever, is he not?” she said delightedly to Ethelwyn.

'He is as bad as ever, is he not?'

“Insufferable,” Ethelwyn agreed.

“Ach, so! Then allow me to take him off your hands.”

She took one of Ethelwyn’s hands between hers and patted it, quite as if she pitied it for what it had endured.

“For I saw you only this morning, dear,” she explained, “and I have not seen Egelric in many months. Perhaps you will be so kind as to take Hattie for a walk behind the castle. She is always shut up with me and must live the restricted life of a new mother.”

“It would be a pleasure,” Ethelwyn assured her.

'It would be a pleasure.'

Hattie roused herself and headed for the door without a word. Egelric tried to step out of her way, just as Hattie tried to squeeze past without touching him. But he bumped into a table, and his kilt brushed her leg, and even that sufficed to make her bolt as if he’d snatched at her.

Egelric folded himself up into an even smaller space, mortified. Was this how it was going to be? It was one thing to tell himself he was a brute, unworthy of the company of gentle women. It was quite another to see a gentle woman cringing away from him, her face white as chalk.

“I don’t think Hattie was too glad to see me,” he said after Ethelwyn and the girl had gone.

“Ach, Egelric, dear!” Hetty lamented, her pale face stricken. “I am sorry about Hattie. I did not know she would feel this way. She never tells me any longer—sometimes I think—” Hetty helplessly flapped her arms against her sides. “I have been so lonely!” she whimpered as her eyes spilled over again.

'I have been so lonely!'

Egelric reached out to her, and Hetty stepped into his arms. He crushed her to his heart, because it was easier than saying, “I, too.”

Hetty wrapped her arms around his shoulders at first and held on tight, sniffling daintily against the shirt he’d borrowed from the trunk of an absent Malcolm. But abruptly she stiffened and held her arms away. She whispered, “Does it hurt you, if I touch your back?”

Egelric tipped back his head and sighed. He would be getting a lot of this.

'It only hurts if you mention it.'

He said, “It only hurts if you mention it.”

At that, Hetty squeezed him so hard she lifted her little feet off the floor.

“Then I will never, never mention it again!” she quavered, and finally she sobbed.

Egelric rocked her, comforting her and yet taking comfort from her as he’d used to do with Jehanne in the weeks after Lili’s death. It was a rare gift the two of them shared, niece and aunt. And he would need it, for he would have to help others bear their burdens in the months to come, taking them onto his own scarred back.

“I’m home, dear,” he soothed her. And because home meant Hetty, it soothed him, too.

“And that is all that matters!” she said, sniffling. She stepped back, wiped her cheeks, and smiled valiantly. “We will not think of those dark times in the past. We shall look forward to good times ahead.”

'We shall look forward to good times ahead.'

Egelric bowed his head in agreement, though he had more modest hopes for now. Perhaps a few breaks of sun through the clouds.

“How are you?” she asked briskly, brushing the damp spots she had left on his shirt. “Do not tell Wyn I told you, but he said you were better than he had feared.”

Egelric gave her a lazy smile as she fussed around him. “Is that so? I’m sorry to hear it, for I always try to be much worse than Wyn’s fears.”

Hetty laughed like a girl. “How glad I am to have both of you back! You must visit me together as often as you can. It is so funny watching you tease poor Wyn.”

“Now, Hetty! How unkind you are to ‘poor Wyn’!”

“It is not unkind! Do not tell him I told you, but he secretly likes it.”

Egelric smiled at her, wondering whether the little dear realized how many of “poor Wyn’s” secrets she was revealing as she chattered away.

Egelric smiled at her.

“He was heartbroken, you know,” Hetty added more softly. “He thinks of you as a brother, too.”

Embarrassed, Egelric hung his head and tried to think of a way to change the subject. Just then a yawp sounded out of a pile of blankets in the cradle against the wall.

Hetty’s face lit up. “Ach! She is awake! I am so glad! I had hoped you would come before her nap, but she was so tired…”

Egelric whispered, “She’s in here?” He wasn’t ready.

Hetty leaned over the cradle and fussed with the blankets, and her voice fell into the caressing sing-​song of a mother’s love.

“Lili! Lili! Wake up, Liebling. Your Uncle Egelric is here.”

Lili! There it was. The name had reentered the world of the living.

Once again Lili would do things and say things, and he would have to hear all about it. For how many weeks would his heart still throb in pained confusion before he remembered the name now belonged to another?

Hetty lifted the baby from the cradle and nestled her in the crook of her arm.

“Now, he is a terrible tease,” she warned her daughter. “He likes to scare little girls with his beard. But it is quite soft, and will not hurt you. He will let you pet it if you are nice.”

'Now, he is a terrible tease.'

Egelric laughed. “You should have warned Maud. She took one look at me and howled.”

Hetty looked up from the baby’s face. “She disapproved,” she corrected, smiling. “But Lili is a very approving baby. Aren’t you, Liebling?” she asked the child. “Here, now, go to Uncle Egelric and tell him what you think of his beard.”

'Here, now, go to Uncle Egelric and tell him what you think of his beard.'

How tiny she was! Egelric had lost the habit of handling babies, and a single day with his granddaughter hadn’t prepared him for a newborn. Maud was nine months old and crawling everywhere, and when she stopped to sit, she held her big head held high on its skinny neck and stared all around. She had such round cheeks and such a frown that she already bore a startling resemblance to the wee blonde-​haired toddler Egelric had adopted fifteen years before.

Lili was just a tiny, solemn-​mouthed, velvet-​headed thing with a floppy neck and eyes that still stared out of slits. She did not resemble her namesake in the least.

“She’s beautiful, Hetty,” he said gruffly, though he was scarcely seeing her.

“She looks like Alred, do you not think? Alred says she looks just like Meggie when she was a baby.”

“He would know,” Egelric said. “He used to take baby Margaret everywhere with him. And not because she was too ugly to kiss goodbye.”

Hetty laughed fondly. “That is what I am told. And do you know, dear, the loveliest thing? Now it is Meggie who takes her baby sister everywhere with her. She dotes on her.”


“Margaret?” Egelric asked, disbelieving.

“Yes, Margaret! Nurse is quite distracted. Every time she turns around, Lili has disappeared again!”

Lili has disappeared again… Egelric’s bewildered heart took a moment to recover. The little Lili in his arms yawned, opening her mouth in an tall oval before concluding with a sigh.

Hetty watched them together for a while before declaring, “How glad I am you are home! I feared you would not return in time for the christening.”

'How glad I am you are home!'

Egelric lifted his head, suddenly on the alert. Hetty saw it, and her eyes began to sparkle with a mist of tears.

“Will you, dear?” she asked softly. “It would please me so much.”

Egelric nearly groaned, imagining society’s reaction.

“Ach, Hetty! Ask Wyn, I beg you. You don’t want me as the godfather of a Christian infant. I’m already Bruni’s, and look at what a scamp she’s turning into.”

'You don't want me as the godfather of a Christian infant.'

Hetty’s eyes spilled over again. “Yes, but this is Lili. I so wanted you.

Egelric’s exasperation simmered down into dread. Father Matthew would turn to him and say, “What is the name of this infant?” And he would have to speak the name.

“Alred will never allow it,” he grumbled.

“He will. He said I could choose whomever I wish.”

“The devil! If he did, it’s because he never believed you would dare ask me!”

“Then that is his mistake.”

'Then that is his mistake.'

The chill in her voice silenced him. After an awkward moment, Hetty smiled and gave the swaddled baby a last pat before sitting on the couch.

“It is funny, because she is the girl, and Baby-​Flann is the boy, but she is so much bigger and fatter than he was at this age. Alred says: ‘Her rolls have rolls!’”

Egelric grunted and studied the baby. With the taut bands of swaddling, it was hard telling. Her cheeks were certainly plump, and the pads of fat beneath her eyes made folds in her skin. But Baby-​Flann too had still had his squished-​up newborn features when Egelric had last seen him. He’d scarcely been a month old.

“He was just about this size when I left,” Egelric finally said. “I won’t even recognize my own son.”

“Ach, no, dear! Certainly you will. He has not changed. Only grown long and straight, and he smiles and laughs ever so often.”

“Hmph! Just like his namesake, then. I hope you haven’t been putting up with him coming home drunk as ten lords and singing ‘The Road to Carham’ at the top of his lungs.”

Hetty giggled. “I do not think he knows that song. You must teach him, dear.”

'You must teach him, dear.'

Egelric laughed at the image of his drunken, swaggering, oath-​swearing baby. But he wished the bawdy old gentleman had lived long enough to teach the boy in person.

With that, he realized that he too had named a child after a fondly remembered relation, and he had no right to begrudge Lili’s name to the little mite in his arms. But he felt like something treasured had been ripped away from him and given to another. He didn’t know how he would bring himself to say the child’s name.

Meanwhile the baby had screwed up her face and begun to fret. Egelric jiggled her. He hadn’t felt so awkward with a baby since he’d had his first, and it felt like the baby knew it.

He hadn't felt so awkward with a baby since he'd had his first.

“He may cry, though, a little, when he first sees you, dear,” Hetty said gently. “He is learning to fear strangers, and…” She trailed off, embarrassed.

“And I am a stranger to him,” Egelric concluded with a sigh, his thoughts returning to his son. “I’ll probably be surprised to see how small he is, after all. I feel as if I’ve been away five years. Even Jehanne probably won’t recognize me.”

“That is not so!” Hetty said with surprising vehemence. “She will know you at once, as anyone would. She misses you and asks for you. And—I hope you will not be angry at me, dear—I told her last night her Da would come see her soon. Perhaps I should not have told her right away. But I thought you would be certain to come soon. She was so excited she woke up three times in the night, but I wanted to see her so happy.”

Egelric’s throat ached with the strain of holding his emotions in check. The baby fussed and grizzled, and he was almost grateful to be holding her, for shushing her against his shoulder would be some distraction.

Shushing her against his shoulder would be some distraction.

“And Duncan must have recognized you, did he not?” Hetty asked. She wore a brave smile, but she nervously twisted her ring around her finger. “And he is only a few months older than Jehanne.”

“Ach, aye,” Egelric said with a weary chuckle. “I think he realized it was me before Iylaine did.”

Last night, between Iylaine’s sobs and Duncan’s whoops of glee, he’d broken down in tears himself. Poor Finn had hung off to the side, looking inscrutable but slightly pained, like a cat embarrassed by the emotional excesses of mankind. And like a cat he’d gone slinking off before dawn and hadn’t yet returned.

“How do you find Iylaine?” Hetty asked timidly. “It is so distressing. Gwynn says she and Malcolm quarreled.”

'How do you find Iylaine?'

Egelric sighed. “Aye, there’s that,” he admitted.

“Ach! The poor dears. They were so young. I try to be a friend to her, but I see her so rarely, and she does not confide in me. I fear I am too old and too young at the same time.”

Hetty paused, nervous and blushing. Meanwhile the baby had calmed a little. Though drool was already soaking through Malcolm’s clean shirt, her fussing had settled into the small, squeaky breathing of a newborn.

“Keep trying,” Egelric finally said. “She’s going to need friends in the coming months, and I’m afraid she’s going to lose some. She’s in more trouble than you know.”

'Keep trying.'

Hetty gasped and pressed her fingertips to her lips. By the changing color of her cheeks Egelric could see her guessing, and reassuring herself, and returning to her original guess.

“We can always hope Malcolm will claim it’s his,” Egelric said. “Maybe he’ll even believe it. But that wouldn’t be the Malcolm I know.”

“Ach, du lieber!” Hetty whispered. “Vash?”

'Ach, du lieber!'

“Have you heard anything about it?”

“No, dear, but… who else?”

Egelric grunted in agreement. “Don’t tell her I told you,” he said, thinking back ruefully to Hetty’s unintentional spilling of Ethelwyn’s little secrets. “But be a friend to her if you can.”

“I will do anything. Poor girl! How lucky we are to have you back. She must have needed her Da so!”

Egelric leaned his bearded cheek against the baby’s swaddling and heaved a sigh. Iylaine’s tearful, half-​coherent explanations had so exhausted him that for the first time in months he’d slept straight through the night.

Egelric leaned his bearded cheek against the baby's swaddling.

For the first time in months he had real problems to solve, real burdens to carry, and not merely past horrors and heartaches to live over and over. He didn’t know where he would find the strength.

Without thinking, he stroked the baby’s silky black hair and shushed her, though her breathing was quiet and calm. Her head rested cozily on his shoulder, pillowed upon her fat cheek. Her skin smelled sweet, her body was warm, and Egelric swayed from side to side, rocking her.

“Is she sleeping?” Hetty asked softly, smiling up at the two of them.

'Is she sleeping?'

Egelric’s head was too close to the baby’s to take a peek.

“Eh, now, my wee hen?” he whispered.

Baby Lili was quiet, but Egelric patted her swaddled behind and rocked her all the same. Perhaps she had inherited the gift of her mother after all. The comfort he gave to her was coming back as a comfort to him.

Baby Lili was quiet.