Egelric and his horse both jumped.


Egelric and his horse both jumped, startled by the voice calling out from a shadowy corner of the King’s stable.

“Your Grace! Only let me put my horse away…”

“Give it to a groom. I should like to have a word with you, Squire.”

Egelric handed the bridle to a groom and returned to the corner by the door where Alred had been sitting.

“Wet day out there,” he said nervously.

'Wet day out there.'

“That’s right, it is,” Alred said, shaking out his long hair. Egelric thought his lord looked even more nervous than he, which was a good sign.

“Come to challenge your squire to a duel for the liberties he took with his lady last night?”

“In fact, I am come to offer myself up as a sacrifice in atonement for my lady’s sins – or perhaps scapegoat would be better a better word.”

“So you, at least, agree that she did wrong?” Egelric said, growing angry again himself now that he no longer feared his lord’s anger.

“Ah, Egelric, I do. But I fear she did a greater wrong than you realize.”

“Why? What else did she do?”

'What else did she do?'

“Not what else – what instead. What exactly do you believe she did?”

Egelric frowned. “If you don’t know, I would rather not say. I beg your pardon.”

“Never mind. I shall simply tell you what she did and you can tell me whether it’s what you thought.”

Egelric shrugged.

“She…” Alred began in a whisper. “She, ah, seems to have told Gunnilda that you, and not your cousin, are the father of little Prince Colban.”

“She what?” he cried.

Alred laughed uncomfortably. “It seems she was caught in the middle of a complicated web of misunderstandings…”

“She told her what?”

'She told her what?'

“She told her that you were Colban’s father, and that you are in love with the Queen.”

“She what?” Egelric gaped. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

“She thought it was true. I wish I could say that she meant well, but she didn’t. However, she didn’t intend to lie, if that matters at all. Egelric, she seems to think you told her it was true.”

“Never! I never discussed Malcolm or – or that situation with her!”

“What did you believe you were discussing, then? I had a conversation and a half with her, and never once did we realize we were talking about two different things.”

“Is that all she told her?”

'Is that all she told her?'

“As far as I know.”

“Then that is what Gunnilda meant yesterday?”

“As far as I know. What did you think she meant?”

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or scream. Wait – when did she tell her this?”

“At the dinner last month.”

“Last month! Are you telling me that Gunnilda has believed for the last three weeks that I am – ” He caught himself before he shouted the words before all the King’s grooms. “That I am in love with the Queen? That I am Colban’s father?” he asked in a whisper.

Alred smiled apologetically.

Alred smiled apologetically.

“This is a nightmare! No wonder she didn’t want to see me!”

“What did you think she meant?”

“I have to tell her the truth!” he said, turning to the door.

“I already did, Squire. Slow down! I already told her it wasn’t true. I told her about Malcolm.”

“What did you tell her? What did you tell her about me?”

“Nothing about you, except that it wasn’t you. And that you don’t particularly appreciate the Queen. And now she knows about Malcolm. But of course we can trust her.”

'But of course we can trust her.'

“Can we trust your wife?”

Alred sighed. “If I didn’t put the fear of God and her master into her last night, I don’t know who or what could. She would like to apologize to you when you can stand to see her again.”

Egelric nodded.

“What did you discuss with her?” Alred asked.

'What did you discuss with her?'

Egelric looked up at him warily. “You don’t know?”

“I have no idea. And I did promise Gunnilda I would find out for her what you thought you were discussing yesterday. It did seem you had a guilty conscience about something,” he smiled, wagging a finger at him.

“I would rather not tell. You and Gunnilda may treat me as my grandfather did: he would swat at me whenever I went by and tell me, ‘That’s for whatever you done, though I have no learned yet what it was!’”

'That's for whatever you done.'

Alred laughed. “All right, Egelric. I shall leave you your secrets. I trust it’s nothing so grave as what she thought. You might tell her you have been stealing pies from her pantry.”

“I believe I shall,” Egelric nodded. “I thank you for the idea.”

“So you don’t intend to lead me to the sacrificial altar after all?”

'So you don't intend to lead me to the sacrificial altar after all?'

“I admit I’m too relieved just now to want to slaughter anyone.”

“So what you did was worse than what she thought?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say so. But it was the truth.”

“Ah, Egelric, I sometimes feel as if I scarcely know you at all. Let us go up and see our uncomplicated friend Sigefrith, for a change. I’m certain he’s looking for us by now.”

“Uncomplicated, but also…”

“I know,” Alred sighed. “I know.”

'I know.'