'We are honored that you should pay us a visit unbidden, Squire.'

“We are honored that you should pay us a visit unbidden, Squire,” Maud said with a soft smile.

Egelric had been shown up to the nursery, where Maud sat with her two youngest children.

“I thought Your Majesty might be expecting a visit from me very soon. Is that not so?”

“You’re looking every inch the savage Scot today,” she drawled. “If you had your kilt, I believe I should be quite terrified of you.”

'I believe I should be quite terrified of you.'

Emma twisted her head around to get a good look at the visitor. She knew that face. It was a nice man who had a ticklish beard like Papa’s. He wasn’t as nice as Papa, but she had been growing bored lazing around in Mama’s arms, so he might serve as entertainment. She stretched out her arms to him and said, “Ooooh!”

“Her Royal Highness commands you to hold her, Squire,” Maud said.

“Then it is my duty to obey.”

Maud passed him the baby and called to Colban, “Won’t you come and say hello to the Squire, dear?”

Colban grunted, and remained seated with his back to the room.

“He’s pouting. He was banging his Mama with his wooden sword, and so Mama took his wooden sword away. I have never seen a child of his age sulk the way he does. He has tremendous patience when it comes to sulking, and none whatsoever for anything else. I wonder whether his father was that way?”

“It would not surprise me,” Egelric grumbled.

'It would not surprise me.'

“I believe it is a family trait,” she smiled. “I believe you have it, too.”

“I am growing a patient man in my old age.”

“That’s true, you are. But you do know how to sulk for months on end.”

“I did not come to discuss myself.”

“No. I suppose I know wherefore you came.”

“This, perhaps?” he said, taking out the ring.

“Give that to me!” she said, snatching at it.

“Oh, no!” he said, whipping it away. “I believe you have a tale to tell me first.”

“I owe you no explanations.”

“Perhaps you owe Malcolm one.”

'Perhaps you owe Malcolm one.'

“There is nothing I need to explain to Malcolm. Certainly nothing I should explain through your intermediary.”

“I should like to know how you came by this ring.”

“How I came by this ring? Malcolm gave it to me.”

“He gave you this ring? Do you know what it is?”

“It was his father’s ring,” she shrugged.

“This is not a bauble for a lady’s finger. This is the ring his father gave him, the ring his grandfather gave his father. This is the tie of blood.”

“Oh, you Scots! Giving one another sacred rings and swearing on your knives like pagans!”

“They are good Christians, but it is a savage country. Little things like fidelity and honor – empty words to civilized ladies like you,” he sneered, “are matters of life and death to them.”

“In any case, he did not give it me for my finger,” she scowled. “It is for Colban.”

“A man does not give such a ring to his bastard.”

Egelric took a step back as she took a sudden breath, her nostrils flaring and her hand raised, he thought, to strike him – but she turned abruptly away and began to cough.

He waited until she had finished, and then he said, “Malcolm told me he lost it – to his great dishonor! Is that what he thinks?”

“I told you, he gave it to me.”

“Are you certain?”

'Are you certain?'

“Are you calling me a liar?”

“No, I shall not go that far. But his ring belongs to his first son with Maire.”

“Is that her name?” she murmured. “I didn’t know.”

Egelric sighed in frustration, shifting the fidgeting little Emma to his shoulder.

Maud shook her head to dispel the idea of that other woman. “If you must know, he gave it to me so that I might find my way to him if I were ever in danger. But when he learned he had a son, he told me to keep it for him.”

'He told me to keep it for him.'

“He gave it to you before your son was born?”

“He did.”

“He’s completely mad!” Or, he thought, Malcolm loved her more than he had realized.

“That may be. We are all completely mad at least once in our lives, over at least one thing. Now, I believe you have something of mine.”

“Will you leave it again where your husband will find it?”

“I don’t know how it came to be behind the chest. I am not so careless.”

“Apparently you were. I recommend you be not so careless again. Your husband thought it was a joke the first time, but the second time I think he will take it more seriously. I should not like to pay for your and Malcolm’s sins. Indeed, I shall not. If he finds this ring a second time, I shall tell him the truth. Remember that.”

'Remember that.'

“Do you threaten me?”

“I warn you. Now take your ring. I think that Malcolm is either mad, or a fool, or both, but it is not for me to decide what becomes of it. Keep it for his son, if that is what he desires.”

“Thank you,” she said, slipping the ring onto her thumb and walking pensively over to the fire. “I think that you are a more sympathetic man than you are willing to admit.”

Egelric grunted and bounced Emma.

“We are all unhappy,” she said. “Remember that.”

'We are all unhappy.'