Alred's greeting was cut off abruptly as he bounced into the hall.

“Good morning, you beau—” Alred’s greeting was cut off abruptly as he bounced into the hall and saw the circle of faces staring back at him. “—tiful people…” he finished in a mumble.

Matilda grabbed his arm. There was a woman and a child she didn’t recognize—an eerily dark-​skinned woman and child. But there was also a man’s face that called up a dim feeling of lost happiness in the first instant—and that was what made her clutch at her husband’s arm—followed by a rush of memories. And that made her cry out, “Leofric!”

This was the surprise that Sigefrith had said was worth skipping their breakfast and rushing to the castle at daybreak! But it was utterly impossible! Sigefrith and Cenwulf had both seen Leofric fall at Hastings.

“You son of a serpent!” Alred cried, throwing himself at the man.

Alred threw himself at the man.


“Jupiter, you must be the son of the original serpent himself, ‘more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made’! In what grass have you been hiding all this time, old man? And I mean ‘old’—look at all that gray hair!”

“I’ve been hiding in the desert sand—but look at you! What a sight for lonely eyes you are!”

Matilda stood behind her husband and smiled.

Matilda stood behind her husband and smiled, trying to understand. Even in dreams such things did not happen.

The dark lady beside her bounced her little child and cast shy glances at Matilda. She was pretty enough in an exotic way. Matilda had seen slaves like her when she had been in exile on the continent with Earl Godwin and her father, although those had been men. And she looked a good ten or fifteen years younger than she herself, and possibly twenty years younger than Leofric. She was scarcely more than a girl.

But the child, she realized suddenly, was clearly Leofric’s. What of Eadgith?

“Matilda!” Leofric had stopped chatting with Alred and was looking to her now.

Leofric was looking to her now.

“I find it hard to believe,” he said, taking her hand, “but to look at you, I would say that this jester behind me has been making you happy all these years.”

“Oh, he has been making me laugh all this time,” she smiled.

“I hear you are a mother now,” Leofric said, bending to kiss her fingers. “Ah, Matilda, Matilda,” he sighed. “Sigefrith told me he had the most beautiful wife in the world, but I find it impossible to decide between the three of you,” he said, smiling at Maud and at the lady beside them as well. “But when you smile at me like that, my dear…”

'Ah, Matilda, Matilda.'

“Have you quite finished wooing my wife?” Alred said. “I should like a turn at yours.”

“Yes, yes, Alred! Put the baby down, habibi, and come meet my friends.”

The dark girl sat the child on the rug and came around shyly on Leofric’s arm to stand before Alred.

“This is Sir Alred—no, wait!” he laughed. “This is His Grace, the Duke of—what’s it again?”

“Nothelm,” Sigefrith supplied.

“Simply Alred,” Alred said to the lady, whose gaze wavered shyly between the floor and his face even as he took her hand. “Or your humble servant, if you prefer.”

'Simply Alred.'

“This is my wife, Leila,” Leofric said.

His wife! What of Eadgith? Had she died? Matilda looked at Sigefrith for a clue, but he was only smiling fondly at Leofric, Alred, and this Leila girl.

“Utterly enchanted to meet you, Leila,” Alred said, kissing her brown hand.

“You, who take yourself for a poet, will be all the more enchanted to know that her name means ‘night,’” Leofric said.

“Ah, I beg your pardon then,” Alred said, his eyes laughing. “Utterly enchanted to meet you, Sir Leila.”

'Utterly enchanted to meet you, Sir Leila.'

“Not ‘knight’, you ninny! ‘Night’! You know, that black thing with all the stars?”

“I was only just thinking the same thing of Sir Leila’s eyes,” Alred sighed dramatically.

“What is she, Sigefrith?” Matilda whispered.

“She’s a Moor.”

“A Moor! You mean a Saracen? Is she a slave?”

“She’s no slave,” Sigefrith chuckled. “Leofric was her father’s slave. I shall tell you about it later,” he whispered as Leofric brought Leila to her to be introduced.

'I shall tell you about it later.'

She smiled and curtseyed politely, as did the girl.

“Doesn’t she speak our language, Leofric?” she asked.

“She does a little,” Leofric said. “Give her some time. I have dragged her across all of Europe, and she has picked up some Italian and some Saxon and some Danish and some Gaelic and some Norse along the way. She doesn’t always know the difference. And I’m afraid I speak to her too much in her own language. We shall have to start speaking English now, shan’t we, habibi?”

“Yiss, Inglish,” the girl smiled.

Matilda smiled again and turned away, looking for something to which she could honestly turn her attention. Poor Eadgith!

“Maud!” she cried, spotting the Queen before the fire. “Good morning!”

Maud lifted her brows in surprise.

Maud lifted her brows in surprise.

“Good morning, little Prince,” Matilda said to young Colban, who was twisting himself around in his mother’s arms trying to watch his brother and young Malcolm as they dashed around the room.

Colban stopped twisting and turned his head to stare at her as intently as Matilda stared at him. It was the first time she had had an opportunity to study his face since Colburga had told her of her suspicions. It was all nonsense, of course, but he was a tawny little boy, wasn’t he? His brown paw certainly stood out against Maud’s white breast. And that nose! It could be said to resemble Egelric’s…

“Whatever is the matter, Matilda?” Maud asked.

“Oh, nothing! Why do you ask?”

“You look a little green today. Perhaps you are feeling a bit old and out of style this morning, next to two young women such as Leila and I?”

Matilda only smiled. It was no use even trying with her. But if what Colburga said was true, she wasn’t worth it anyway.

Matilda only smiled.