Alred picked up his Pentateuch and frowned at the cover.

Alred picked up his Pentateuch and frowned at the cover. He had been looking at it often recently, in search of clever jokes involving God and My God.

Today he was not in the mood for joking.

In fact, he didn’t know why he had picked it up. He should have taken the Psalms or the Gospels—something poetic or prayerful. Now that he had the book of laws in his hands, he would be bound to look up the punishment for adultery.

He read aloud.

“Morte moriantur et moechus et adultera,” he read aloud.

At the moment, putting them to death almost seemed like the right idea. Young men had always been young men, from the time of Moses unto today, and women what they were—but Sigefrith was his friend. Sigefrith was his brother. And they had made a fool of him.

The worst was that they had no shame. Alred could imagine forgiving them if they had realized how gravely they had sinned and—well, he didn’t know what they should have done. He still didn’t think Sigefrith should be told. But what they had done was unspeakably wicked. Maud had convinced Sigefrith to invite her lover back to court—and he had come!

At the moment Alred didn’t trust himself to go back to the castle, although Sigefrith had sent for him. He had sent Egelric along in his place… damn! he was a scoundrel to send Egelric when Baby was so sick upstairs, but he knew that if he got too close to Malcolm he wouldn’t be able to restrain himself. But he could trust in the self-​possession of his squire.

Still, they would have to think of something. Last night he and Egelric had managed no more than agreeing that Sigefrith should not be told, before they had been obliged to go stumbling off to bed. They still needed to decide what to do about Maud, Malcolm, and the rest of them.

He looked up as the door opened suddenly.

He looked up as the door opened suddenly, without a knock.

“Good morning, Colburga.”

“What are you doing with your Bible—looking for jokes?” she snapped.

'What are you doing with your Bible?'

“Not quite,” he said as he rose and laid the book on the table. “I’m not in the mood for jokes today.”

“That’s fine—nor am I!”

“Well, I see someone tied her ponytail too tightly today!”

“I thought you weren’t in the mood for jokes?”

'I thought you weren't in the mood for jokes?'

He smiled. “You’re right—I suppose I always am.”

“Take that smile off your face, Alred. I want to talk to you.”

“I didn’t do it!” he laughed. “Is Cenwulf at the castle today, that you have to come and hector me? I already have a wife for that.”

“Your wife! I want to talk to you about your wife! I’ve just been to see her!”

'I want to talk to you about your wife!'

“When I heard you were here I had been planning to tell you that I was happy you were out visiting again, but now I am not sure I am. What sort of dreadful things has she been telling you about me? That I came to bed drunk last night?”

“Oh!” Colburga stamped her foot. “Damn you and your drink! I went in there and she was dancing around like a girl—”

“That’s what happens when I come to bed drunk!” he interrupted her, laughing. “I am helpless against her wiles!”

He interrupted her, laughing.

“Shut up, Alred and let me speak! This is not funny!”

Colburga did look furious. Alred decided it would be best to take her seriously for a few minutes. He cleared his throat and dutifully attempted to take the smile off his face, as she had requested.

“So I ask her what she was so giddy about,” Colburga began, gesturing wildly with her arms and her long sleeves.

So I asked her what she was so giddy about.

“‘Me? Giddy? Ha ha ha ha!’” she mocked in an absurdly high-​pitched voice. “‘I’m just happy!’ she titters.”

Alred tried not to smile. That Matilda! And that Colburga!

“‘Oh, Colburga, don’t tell Alred,’” she squeaked. “‘He’s worried about something. Ha ha ha! But I’m soooooooo happy I want to tell you, darling!’”

“Matilda did not call you darling!” Alred protested, laughing.

'Never mind that!'

“Never mind that! Maybe she said dear. No matter! You listen to what she did say: That poor girl up there is pregnant!”

Alred nodded stupidly. Something didn’t make sense here. One of the maids had misbehaved? She wouldn’t be the first. At least it wasn’t Malcolm this time!

Alred nodded stupidly.

“Are you listening to me?”

“Who is pregnant?” he asked. More to the point, why was Matilda so happy about it?

“Matilda! Who else?”

Alred gasped.

Alred gasped.


“It’s not the first time! You big baby! Haven’t you figured out how it’s done yet?”

“But we were careful…” he protested.

'But we were careful.'

“What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Careful’ is leaving that poor lamb alone! ‘Careful’ is cutting it off and putting it in a locked box! What’s your idea of careful? ‘Oh, Colburga,’” she squeaked, mocking Matilda again. “‘Ha ha ha! You know, sometimes we just have—tee hee hee!—too much to drink, and you know—ha ha ha!’ Damn you and damn your drink! You may have just killed your wife!”

Alred groaned into his hands.

Alred groaned into his hands. This was not supposed to happen. Matilda had been unhappy about renouncing the children she might have had, but the women had been unanimous—the next baby would very likely kill her. Even Matilda had agreed it was not worth the risk. And their idea of ‘careful’ was not so harsh—Matilda was as adventurous and enterprising as her pirate grandfather had been, in her own way. But it was true they had a little too much to drink some evenings, and then did they… were they careful?

“I don’t remember,” he whimpered.

'You may be as careful as you want now, Alred.'

“Well, you may be as ‘careful’ as you want now, Alred, for the next few months,” she said gruffly, seeing how he was affected. “You can’t do any more harm. But if she lives—I warn you now—I’m coming over here and I’m cutting it off!”

If she lives! Alred stumbled across the room and leaned against the door, blinded by tears.

Alred stumbled across the room and leaned against the door, blinded by tears.

Who cared about Sigefrith? Who cared about anything? How was it that Maud lived and prospered with Malcolm’s bastard while his wife…his child…?

“Now, Alred,” Colburga said gently after a time. “You know I have a temper. She has had four babies already. She may very well manage a fifth. You don’t deserve it, but she does.”

'I thought you said another would be sure to kill her.'

“But I thought you said another would be sure to kill her,” he said hopefully.

“I don’t know. Perhaps. But there are women who have a terrible time with one baby and then the next one comes as quietly as you please. Remember how bad she was with Yware, and then how easy it was with the little girl that followed?”

“But Gwynn…”

“I know! Gwynn. But remember she was sick with worry over you, too, at that time.”

“That’s so,” he said, smiling.

'That's so.'

“So, I am certain she will do well,” Colburga said matter-​of-​factly, in complete and contented contradiction to everything she had shrieked before. “Now you need to take care of her. And most especially don’t let her see you the way I just saw you now. It’s too late for the wailing and the gnashing of teeth. Don’t worry her—let her be happy, it’s the best thing for her. Now go up and see her—but remember, if she lives, I’m cutting it off and putting it in a locked box!”

'Now go up and see her.'