Matilda lay on the couch Ethelmund had made for her.

Matilda lay on the couch Ethelmund had made for her and which Egelric knew well, but he was not prepared for the rest of the room. It had the mark of Ethelmund everywhere – which was to say that it had the mark of Leila. She had shown the man how rooms were furnished in her country so that he might make her own castle a little more like home. But Egelric had never expected to find Matilda in a Saracen den.

“Oh, Egelric,” she smiled as she noticed him in the doorway. “What took you so long? How do you like my bedroom?”

'How do you like my bedroom?'

“It is not often I hear a lady ask me that question,” he chuckled.

“They know you don’t come to see the furniture,” she teased.

“It looks as though Ethelmund has been busy these past weeks.”

“He and Sir Leila. And Alred of course, cackling over it all behind my back.”

Egelric was again surprised – this time to hear her refer to Leila by her husband’s nickname for her.

“Now I know why he had the stairs built last,” she giggled. “I thought he was only being a blockhead, but now I know he didn’t want me climbing up here to ruin the surprise.” She sat up and patted the couch to invite him over.

She sat up and patted the couch to invite him over.

“Then how do you like your bedroom?”

“Oh, I adore it,” she sighed. “We’ve been sleeping in that drafty old wooden room for as long as we’ve been here, and every time Alred meant to build a tower for me, we had a child needing a room. But now it’s my turn, and I say it was worth the wait. It is so warm, and so large, and so lovely… I only wish that he would stop referring to it as his harem.”

'I only wish that he would stop referring to it as his harem.'

Egelric laughed aloud, and she laughed with him.

“Oh, Egelric,” she sighed after a time, with a cautious hand on her belly, “it hurts to laugh, but it still does me good. I think this baby is nothing but sharp corners. He is always poking me somewhere.”

“They’re all different, aren’t they?”

“Oh, every time. Dunstan had hiccups all the time, Yware was so quiet, and Gwynn was a kicker. It’s funny how they don’t turn out to be as they were before they were born.”

“Then this baby will be smooth and round as a stream-​​polished stone.”

'Then this baby will be smooth and round as a stream-polished stone.'

“I hope he has at least a few bumps on him. Especially if it’s a boy.”

Egelric laughed again.

“It does you good, too, doesn’t it? To laugh.”

“You’re right, it does. I’ve been a bear these past weeks.”

“Alred says you’re living like a hermit out there. Perhaps it isn’t good for you.”

“The society of the men – and especially the women – out there isn’t good for me, either.”

“Why don’t you come home more often? It isn’t so far.”

'Why don't you come home more often?'

He sighed.

“We all miss you. I’m a bit angry at you, in fact. My poor husband has to deal with Sigefrith’s problems, and Eadgith’s problems, and Sir Leila’s problems, and Cenwulf’s problems, and my problems. He needs you to cheer him up a little.”

“I? Cheering anybody up?”

“You always make him laugh.”

“Then if I do not come, it is perhaps because I know I cannot just now. I don’t like to burden him with my own problems on top of everyone else’s.”

“What are your problems, Egelric?”

He leaned his head against the back of the couch and sighed.

“I know, you don’t trust me any longer.”

“I’ve forgiven you for that.”

'I've forgiven you for that.'

“But you won’t trust me with your secrets any longer.”

“Don’t take it personally. I don’t trust anyone with my secrets.”

“Not anyone?”

“No, not anyone.”

“Oh, but Egelric, you can trust me now. Perhaps I shan’t be around long enough to repeat them in any case.”

He sat up again. “Don’t say such things. If I thought it would guarantee that you would be repeating them six months from now, I would tell you all of my secrets at once.”

'I would tell you all of my secrets at once.'

“That is very generous of you, Egelric.”

“I would do more than that, but that is the first thing that came to mind.”

“What would you do for me?”


“Except tell me your secrets.”

“I would tell you my secrets if I thought it would do you any good.”

“It might do you good.”

'It might do you good.'

He shook his head slowly.

“Oh, I shan’t pester you any longer. Otherwise I know you will stop coming to see me.”

“You show remarkable discretion for a woman.”

She laughed. “You don’t like women much, do you?”

“Only a few of them.”

“Am I one of the few?”


“What’s so special about me?”

He thought she was angling for compliments, but he decided to answer seriously. “There are a few good and virtuous women, and the rest of them are vile.”

'There are a few good and virtuous women, and the rest of them are vile.'


“I speak from experience.”

“It is a dreadful thing to say. You have been among the wrong sorts of women, if you think so.”

“Fortunately there are a few good women around to remind me of that, and not let me go too far astray.”

'Fortunately there are a few good women around to remind me of that.'

He could feel her eyes on him, but he did not look up from the fire.

“Why the devil are you asking me about that, anyway?” he asked. “Has Baby been talking to you?”

'Why the devil are you asking me about that, anyway?'

“What? Baby? I wasn’t talking about it, anyway, you were. I believe.”

“Perhaps,” he sighed. “Never mind.”

“What is it about Baby?”

“Never mind.”

“Now, Egelric, if you won’t tell me your problems, you ought to at least tell me hers. I must serve as mother to her for a while, as best I can, which is not very well, I’m afraid. I can handle boys, but I’m frightened of what my girls will become with me.”

“His Grace will see to the refinement of their sensibilities.”

'His Grace will see to the refinement of their sensibilities.'

She snorted. “Nice try, Egelric, but I asked you a question. What is Baby’s problem?”

“I would tell you if I knew. I trust you with my secrets more than she trusts me with hers.”

She did not reply – perhaps intimidated, he thought, by the bitterness in his voice.

“Did Your Grace wish to see me about something? Or was it only to chat?”

“You wouldn’t mind if I only wanted to chat, would you?”

“Not at all. It is quite refreshing after my life as a hermit.”

'It is quite refreshing after my life as a hermit.'

“I am pleased to hear that. I did want to ask you something, however.”

“Anything, as I have said.”

“Look at me, Egelric.”

“That is an easy request to fulfill,” he said. “Is that all?”

“No. I want to ask you to be this baby’s godfather.”

“I?” he laughed, bitterly again. “I know nothing of God, and I know nothing of being a father.”

“You say such dreadful things today,” she said sadly.

'You say such dreadful things today.'

“I’m sorry, but I believe you have the wrong man.”

“I thought you said you would do anything for me.”

“I am refusing for your own good, and your child’s.”

“You are very hard on yourself today.”

“Very, dreadfully hard. I grew accustomed to such treatment as a child, and since no one is willing to dispense it to me now, I must take matters into my own hands.”

'I must take matters into my own hands.'

She looked at him for a moment, but she did not reply to that. Instead she asked, “Would you do this for me if it were the last thing I ever asked you to do?”

“Now you’re the one saying dreadful things.”

“Would you?”

He sighed.

“We can argue about whether or not I have the right man after the baby comes. But if I am not there to argue, you must simply assume I was right, and do as I ask. Would you?”

'Would you?'

He did not like the quaver in her voice. “I don’t mind saying I would, because I am not at all afraid that I shall be called upon to keep my promise.”

“But you are afraid,” she said. “I can tell you are when you look at me. More so when you look at Alred. Everyone is afraid. Everyone is looking at me as if I were already dead.”

'Everyone is looking at me as if I were already dead.'

“Now wait a moment – ”

“This morning I overheard two of my maids discussing which of my dresses each was to get. And the way Dunstan looks at me! Oh, Egelric, I am so frightened!” she said, growing hysterical. “Don’t tell Alred! Oh, I pestered and pestered him for another child, but I was so busy pestering him that I didn’t think of what it means!

“His Grace knew what it meant.”

“That’s just it!” she said, rising awkwardly. “It will break his heart, and yet he will blame himself! And it was my fault!”

'And it was my fault!'

“Don’t say ‘will, will, will,’” Egelric said, going to her. “And it isn’t the fault of anyone. Or you can always blame God; that’s what I do.”

“I don’t want to die,” she said, beginning to sob. “I want to live – I haven’t finished!”

He laid an awkward arm over her shoulder.

“Of course you shall,” he said, and he laid an awkward arm over her shoulder, but he was greatly disturbed. He had seen Matilda scoffing at Alred’s constant concern for her health and comfort – he had assumed she wasn’t frightened. He had even taken heart in the idea that she, of all people, was most likely to know her own danger. But perhaps that had all been for Alred’s benefit.

Fortunately for him – for he did not know what to do or say – the door opened just then and Alred himself came in.

Alred himself came in.

“Unhand my wife, you brute,” he said in a low voice, but the sound of a joke was still apparent. “I see I shall need to hire me a few eunuchs to guard my harem. Do you volunteer, Squire? What has this scoundrel been doing to you now, my beauty?”

'What has this scoundrel been doing to you now, my beauty?'

“Helping me,” she sniffed.

“Very well – I shall know he is hurting you when I hear you laughing in here,” he said as came to stand before her and laid his hands on her waist.

“Why don’t you come hurt me a little?” she said, trying to laugh.

“Excuse me,” Egelric said as he turned to go out.

“Thank you Egelric,” she called over Alred’s shoulder. “Don’t go too far astray, and remember what you promised me.”

“Aye,” he said. For her.

For her.