The inner court of the Baron's fort was almost empty at this sleepy hour of the afternoon.

The inner court of the Baron’s fort was almost empty at this sleepy hour of the afternoon, and Sigefrith—never one for after-​dinner naps—had made it all of halfway from one tower to another before a voice boomed down from on high: “Oh, lord! Lord!”

Sigefrith stopped in mid-stride.

Sigefrith stopped in mid-​stride. He looked up. Far above, on the rickety gallery overlooking the court—and farther still, above a pair of long legs and a towering body—an incandescently red-​haired man was looking down.

“Well,” Sigefrith said, “that’s a phrase I often shout up at the heavens, but it’s not one the heavens often shout down!”

'That's a phrase I often shout up at the heavens.'

He heard a snicker from the only other person in the court—a woman crouched over the kindling she was just getting lighted for cooking supper—but the man overhead gave him a blank look.

Sigefrith said, “Err… you were speaking to me and not to the gentleman up there, weren’t you?” He pointed at the cloudless sky, and the man recovered his wits.

“Oh, no, lord! I was talking to you—I mean, hoping to have a chance to talk with you. If you would be so kind, lord.”

Sigefrith opened out his arms. “I would be delighted. But won’t you come down? I should hate to go on shouting over this good woman’s head.”

“Oh!” The man disappeared, clacking a door on the gallery on his way out.

The woman shook her head and stirred her snapping kindling.

“That wasn’t some sort of angel, was it?” Sigefrith asked her. “Just making certain.”

'That wasn't some sort of angel, was it?'

“No, lord, that was the Baron’s third son Theobald. His mother’s baby, bless her.”

Sigefrith was aware there were three sons, but he’d scarcely heard so much as the name of the third one, so little did he seem to figure in the affairs of the family. Sigefrith’s curiosity was roused—not that it was given to napping, either.

“What does he do?” Sigefrith asked the woman.

“Not much, lord. Just goes where his Da sends him and does as he’s told. Doesn’t even get into trouble.”

“Hmm. I wonder,” Sigefrith mused while he waited, “is there a word for the virtue consisting of the mere absence of vice?”

He had just made up his mind to ask Alred later when the woman responded, “There’s virginity, lord.”

It was at that very moment that the Baron’s son appeared at the foot of the tower stairs, and Sigefrith feared that forevermore he would be unable to look at the poor man and not see some sort of patron saint of uninspired chastity.

It was just at that moment that the man appeared at the foot of the tower stairs.

He was a well-​built fellow for all that, impressively tall, and he had a self-​assured walk as he came to join Sigefrith beside the fire pit. But even that self-​assurance seemed unconscious, for as soon as he stopped before Sigefrith, it collapsed under the sudden weight of fidgety irresolution.

'Theobald, is it?'

“Theobald, is it?” Sigefrith asked him, saving him from the awkward first words. “We finally have the pleasure of meeting! I’ve heard a few things about you.”

“Ah… aye, lord,” Theobald said, laughing nervously. “Good things, I hope?”

“Nothing bad, in any event!”

'Nothing bad, in any event!'

The woman snickered over her fire.

“You’ve been away?” Sigefrith asked. “Where have they been hiding you?”

Theobald hastened to say, “I’ve been staying with family in Dyrnemoras, lord. I’d never even heard of you before last night. I stopped to visit my uncle on my way home yesterday evening, and he told me… he told me about you,” he concluded shakily.

Sigefrith grinned at him. “Good things, I hope?”

“Oh, aye, lord. That is… I thought they were good. He told me you’re taking men down to settle in the valley.”

“So I am. And you thought this was a good thing! I applaud your sense of adventure, Theobald. That, or your fondness for madmen.”

Sigefrith kept smiling, but Theobald seemed to take it all with an earnest seriousness.

Theobald seemed to take it all with an earnest seriousness.

“It has always fascinated me, lord,” he said. “The stories about that valley. I could see it from my window, as a boy.” He pointed vaguely upward at one of the towers. “All that land…”


Sigefrith allowed himself a slight frown of consideration while he looked the tall man up and down. Theobald never once averted his gaze, as a truly meek man would, yet that gaze was almost wistful.

The third son of a baron, he was, like Cenwulf. Probably not accustomed to receiving more than his brothers’ hand-​me-​downs. And not a scrap of land.

“You’re likely a better judge of the land than I am,” Sigefrith said, “for I’ve only seen it in one season. And we’re settling where the old forts are, and not necessarily where the land looks best, but I expect men settled the best land in olden days as well and built their forts there. Have you ever gone into the valley? To the west, there, near the lakes.”

“I’ve been a few times, lord,” Theobald said quietly, “but never that far.”

“And what did you think of the land you did see? You’re a steward, you said?”

'You're a steward, you said?'

“Oh, no, lord, I’m not anything. I do what I can for my father, but… I was supposed to be a priest, but I haven’t made up my mind to do that.”

“Not enough scope for sin, eh?” Sigefrith asked.

He sent a stern glance down at the woman on her stool, which only made her stifle her giggles in her fist.

“Not sin, lord,” Theobald replied solemnly. “I wanted to marry and raise a family. I still do.”

He waited, as if he’d asked a question and expected an answer. Sigefrith decided to dig a little deeper first.

He said, “I’ve known a few married and almost-​married priests, with handsome families.”

Theobald blinked at him, and the woman twisted her head around to frankly gawk.

Sigefrith shrugged. “At least in the south, where I was born.”

The woman twisted her head around to frankly gawk.

Theobald asked, “How do they live?”

“With a thrifty wife, two can live as cheaply as one! Find yourself a cuddly little dairy farmer’s daughter who will bring a few cows with her. Add to that your priest’s income, and she’ll think she married a prince.”

Theobald had looked almost thoughtful for a moment, but in the end he despaired. “I don’t want a dairy farmer’s daughter, lord. I would marry my cousin, Githa.”

Ah, that explained it.

“And your cousin Githa,” Sigefrith said, “would only marry a princely fortune.”

'Your cousin Githa would only marry a princely fortune.'

“Oh, no, lord! She would marry me if I asked. I’ve loved her all my life. But her father…”

“Ah, fathers.”

“He won’t let me ask. Not until I can support her and a family. And nor would I,” Theobald added gravely, “unless I could.”

He waited again. Sigefrith looked him over and wondered how a man his own age—if not older—could love a woman “all his life” and not find some way to win her, or die trying.

Still, Sigefrith knew better than to use his own standards as a yardstick to measure other men.

He decided it was time to stop leading Theobald on and speak frankly.

“I have more land than men to farm it, Theobald, but I am looking for farmers, not lords’ sons to watch other men work.”

Theobald hastened to say, “I could be a farmer, lord. I could work.”

'I could work.'

“Could you?”

“I could. I want to.”

He opened out his arms—spanning wider than Sigefrith’s by far—and Sigefrith had to admit that he was a man built for labor: either naturally as well-​muscled as a young bull, or else already doing hard work unbefitting a baron’s son on the sly.

“I want to plow my own fields,” Theobald said, “and sow and reap my own wheat. And I want to take it to my own mill, and see it ground into flour, and take it home to Githa to bake into bread for our children. And I want to watch them eat it.”

'And I want to watch them eat it.'

These days Sigefrith’s mind was tuned to just that chord, and Theobald’s hushed earnestness struck him as it might never have before and might never again. He, too, lately dreamed of putting all his brains, blood, sweat, and sinew into building something he could offer to Maud and to Maud’s sons and daughters. He dreamed of sitting at the head of a dinner table and looking down along two rows of children to his beautiful queen.

He wanted a kingdom.

He wanted a kingdom, and Theobald simply wanted a farm, but they were two men in love; and Theobald’s love—unlike Alred’s passion and poetry or Cenwulf’s dour amusement at his wife’s antics—was one Sigefrith could understand.

“There is a meadow,” Sigefrith said, “a half-​mile east of the Earl’s fort, bounded by deep forest, southward-​sloping, with a stream running through it. The finest piece of farmland we’ve found, I believe, and I wasn’t certain what to do with it. It’s rather far back from the road…”

“I wouldn’t mind, lord. I like the quiet.”

“…and rather run-​over by saplings and brush, here and there…”

“That’s easily cleared, lord.”

“…and what is your father going to say, Theobald?”

Theobald hung his head. “I don’t know, lord. I haven’t seen him yet.”

Theobald hung his head.

Sigefrith sighed. The old Baron’s strident unwillingness to have anything to do with the valley seemed almost a sign of madness, especially considering that so few of the settlers had made much ado about the curse. And one could never guess what a madman would do or say. Sigefrith was not overfond of the race.

Still, he would be glad for an opportunity to forge such a link to the ruling family here in the hills. He had no use for Gifmund, and the middle brother was politely bland at best and even a little dull-​witted. Theobald the Irresolute was, in fact, the likeliest-​looking of the three.

“You’ll need to ask him,” Sigefrith said. He spoke more sternly than was his wont, but he expected Theobald needed an extra dose of stern. “You’ll need his accord. I won’t have strife with your family.”

'I won't have strife with your family.'

“No, lord,” Theobald agreed. “Nor would I like to be the cause.”

“And there’s still the matter of your cousin’s father. Say! He isn’t the uncle who told you all those ‘good things’ about me, is he?”

Theobald winced.

Theobald winced. “No, he is, lord.”

Sigefrith laughed and clapped the tall man on the shoulder.

“Then I hope he shares your taste for adventure. Or at least your fondness for madmen.”

'Then I hope he shares your taste for adventure.'