Gunnilda dropped her towel and bent to hug him.

“Mama!” Bertie cried as he came into Gunnilda’s kitchen.

Gunnilda dropped her towel and bent to hug him.

“Mama Gunnie!” Lady Gwynn called as she trotted in after him, followed by her father, who held the little Lady Margaret.

Her father held the little Lady Margaret.

Gunnilda kissed the girls, and stood smiling at the Duke.

“No kiss for me, beautiful?” Alred grinned.

“No, but I got some cake for you if you want.”

“Surely not as sweet as a kiss,” he sighed. “But on close reflection, I believe I shall indeed have some cake. I may not be seeing much cake in the coming days.”

'I may not be seeing much cake in the coming days.'

“What, your cook gone off to sulk again?” she asked as she went to cut him a piece.

“Alas! If only her cakes were as tender as her sensibilities. But I’m afraid she’s presently in her mood where she likes to punish me with her cooking. It’s almost a relief when she punishes me through starvation, especially if I contrive to get myself invited to dinner up on your hill. But that isn’t what I mean. Bertie, would you take the girls back to play with your brothers? I should like to have a few words with your mother.”

“Are you trying to get an invitation to dinner today, or what? I don’t mind.”

“I have a date with the King, unfortunately. May I send my squire in my place?”

'May I send my squire in my place?'

“He knows he can come any time he likes.”

“Sometimes he needs a hint.”

“Well, tell him he may come, and tell him to bring Baby. Where are you hiding that girl? I swear I see Bertie more than I see her these days.”

“I lack a woman’s intuition about such things, my love, but I believe that Baby thinks herself the only baby that has the right to exist. And you have babies crawling all over the place up here.”

Gunnilda shook her head as she set his cake before him. “Do you think she’s jealous of the new baby?”

“It’s more that there’s nothing for her to do here, now that Mama Wynn is playing with real babies instead of dolls. Baby doesn’t care for babies all that much.”

“She will someday.”

'She will someday.'

“That’s what everyone tells her. It makes her furious, the poor thing. Perhaps she won’t, you know. She would rather play with the boys.”

“Heaven help us!”

“Heaven always does. Now, dearest, I came to talk with you, because I need someone to talk some sense into me before I go throw myself from the mill bridge.”

“What now?” she asked with a weary sigh.

'What now?'

“That’s the sort of thing I need to hear!” he grinned. “Listen up, my lady love – my dear Matilda has just informed me that she plans to give me a baby for Christmas. What do you think of that?”

“Why, that’s fine news! Why do you want to go throw yourself off a bridge then?”

He stopped eating and stared at his plate. “Because I should rather drown than die of a broken heart, I suppose,” he said quietly.

'Because I should rather drown than die of a broken heart, I suppose.'

“Oh, pish! You’re the only man I know what gets himself tied in knots from the day he puts the baby in his wife’s belly. Most of ‘em wait till it’s just about to come out of there.”

Alred smiled ruefully. “What a pearl you are, Gunnilda.”

“Now, you listen up, my lordly love – your wife has had four babies already, and she – ”

“Five,” he corrected gently.


“Five, you’re right. I’m sorry. Five babies already, and she ought to know how it’s done by now. Your problem is that the two of you little runts keep coming up with these enormous pups. And a lot of good it does you, too! His young lordship is older than Wynn or Baby and they’re both taller than he is. And I can still fit my lady Margaret in my little washtub for her baths, and Beddy and Wick were too big for that before they were fairly crawling.”

“If that were all I shouldn’t be so worried, you know. I have faith in you, dear, for when the baby is ready to come. I am thinking of how ill she has been in the past. She needs to make it that far.”

'She needs to make it that far.'

“Well, and? Elfleda’s mother said last time she shouldn’t eat any sweets, and when she stopped I guess she did feel better, didn’t she? Say, that’s why you wanted some cake!” she laughed. “And this time, she can just stop eating such things right away, and perhaps she’ll never be sick at all. And as for you, you can just come and eat cake with old Gunnilda whenever you like, and bring them sweet babies with you.”

“Oh, you,” he sighed. “You’re a pearl.”

'You're a pearl.'

“Well, I don’t know but I guess I’m more like a pebble with a bit of a polish to it, but I guess I’ll take the compliment. Now eat your cake and don’t pick at it.”

He looked up and gave her a sickly smile.

She laid a hand on his.

“Now then, this is serious, if you can’t even make a joke.” She laid a hand on his and softened her voice. “You listen – I know Her Grace must be just that pleased about this baby. She looks so hungry when she holds little Gytha that I’m half afraid she’s going to eat her, or steal her. Now, she don’t need to see you fretting about it. You just have to be happy about it for her, and act like you aren’t scared at all, or you may just scare her. Hear? And if you ever want to be scared or what have you, then you just come up my hill and have some cake and a good cry, that’s what. Our secret.”

'Our secret.'

“You make me wish I were a little boy again, Mama Gunnie,” he said, pushing his plate away and hiding his face in his hands.

“You are, too! Any man worth anything is still an eight-​​year-​​old inside. Too big to cry, but too little not to want to.”

“How did a young thing like you ever get so wise?”

“I’m old enough to have a real eight-​​year-​​old, that’s how, and I learn from watching. Now eat your cake.”

'Now eat your cake.'