It wasn't fair.

It wasn’t fair. What did they expect her to do? Choose?

Eadgith had been locked in her room all evening, ever since she had returned from her father’s castle – for she had returned with her father.

She had been overjoyed to hear that her brother was home and had brought her baby nephew… and she had been a little relieved to have an excuse to go back to the King’s castle sooner than planned. She had enjoyed the freedom her father gave her during the days – she rode and wandered all over the hills near his castle, alone – but at meals and in the evenings he expected her to sit with his family, and that meant sitting with Leila.

Leila hadn’t come with them. There were only she and her father on the long ride over the foothills and through the blooming meadows. At times they had raced each other, and at times they had ridden slowly and talked…

She loved the way her father spoke to her.

She loved the way her father spoke to her, with a combination of affection as for a baby and respect as for a grown woman. If only her father lived alone! She wouldn’t say that she would rather live with him than with her mother, but then at least her visits would be only pleasure, untainted by the awkwardness of dealing with Leila and Leila’s babies.

Still, by the time the castle was in sight, he had nearly charmed her into agreeing to come home with him when he returned and staying out the length of the planned visit. Just then she felt as if she had everything in the world she could possibly want. For a little while she felt quite happy.

But her brother had been waiting for them.

There was something so grotesque about that greeting – something so horribly wrong – that she could only sit on her horse and watch, unbelieving.

She could only sit on her horse and watch, unbelieving.

Her father had dismounted and strode up to Sigefrith, his smile and his arms wide. Her brother had stood tall – he had grown so tall! – and awaited him… waited until their father was too close to react in time, and then he drew his sword and, for all she knew, tried to kill him.

But her father was either more prepared for such a welcome than Sigefrith realized, or else he was a greater swordsman than Eadgith realized, for his sword met her brother’s before she had seen him draw it.

And they had fought, and roared at each other, and had said the most dreadful things, with words whose meanings Eadgith did not know, but only that they were dreadful words.

And they were so ugly – their faces were red and wet and twisted into the hideous snarls of the stocky Norman dogs that were trained to kill, and the sight of the two of them terrified her in the way such dogs did when they bared their teeth at her.

The sight of them terrified her the way such dogs did when they bared their teeth at her.

Nothing made any sense until she had decrypted a few of the words and realized that her mother must have told Sigefrith what her father had done on the night he had left.

Her horse had calmly mouthed his bit, and her father’s had lazily cropped the grass – she had forgotten that both had been trained for battle, and so their insensibility seemed to prove that she was not seeing what she thought she was seeing, and that she could do nothing – only sit a few yards away and watch until her father knocked Sigefrith’s sword away and hurled him to the ground.

Then she screamed.

But her father did not kill him. Her father did not even hurt him, though it seemed that Sigefrith was urging him on. Her father only took a few steps back, passed his sword over to his left hand, and then clutched his left arm. He was hurt.

She dismounted then and stumbled over to them. Sigefrith was lying on the trampled grass, leaning on his elbows, and staring up at their father with such a look of hatred that Eadgith was frightened.

And her father stood panting, his sword hanging at the end of his long and bloody arm, and he stared down at her brother with such a look of scorn that Eadgith could scarcely recognize him.

Eadgith could scarcely recognize him.

Neither of them seemed to notice her until she spoke. “You’re hurt,” she had whimpered, seeing how her father’s sleeve was darkly soaked, and how his hand was smeared with blood.

Her father’s head had tipped back at the sound of her voice, as if he were suddenly weary, but her brother had looked up at her, transferring the same look of hatred to her.

He had said dreadful things to her, too. He had called her a bitch, and other words she did not know. She did not understand then, but she had since realized that he was angry at her for going with her father. He expected her to hate him as much as he did. But it wasn’t fair.

Her father had not long tolerated such treatment of his daughter, and he had passed his sword back into his right hand and threatened Sigefrith with it. And he had told her to get on her horse and go to the castle and send the King to him.

She had done so, and had seen no one since, for she had locked herself in her room at once and sobbed until her throat ached.

She knew that no one had been killed after all, for soon after her mother had tried and failed to gain entry, her father had come to her, and some time later her brother as well. But she had admitted no one, nor did she respond to their calls with anything but shrieks alternating “Go away!” and “Leave me alone!” Finally, in their turn, each of them had.

Now it was quite dark, and she knew supper was over or at least underway. She was beginning to be hungry as well as curious, but she would not go down now. She would only lie on her bed and cry a while. It wasn’t fair. What did they expect her to do?

It wasn't fair.

Another knock.

“Go away!” she shrieked.

“It is only I,” the voice said. It was a man’s voice, but neither deep nor gruff enough to be her father’s.

“Who?” she cried.


It was, however, too deep to be her brother’s. “Which one?” she asked, brightening.

'Which one?'

“The old, ugly one.”

She jumped up and unlocked the door. “You’re not ugly,” she said as he came in.

“But I am old, is that it?” he laughed.

“No,” she blushed.

“Don’t worry, honey. I’m flattered you didn’t leave the ugly and tell me I wasn’t old. May an old man sit and rest his aching knees?”

“Please do,” she said, pulling up the two chairs that stood against the walls.

“Aren’t you hungry? I don’t like keeping fair ladies locked up in my towers without feeding them.”

'Aren't you hungry?'

“But you do like keeping fair ladies locked up in your towers,” she giggled.

“Of course I do, but the dragon in the dungeon is unhappy when his meals aren’t properly fattened up first. However, from the tales I’ve heard today, I was beginning to worry that the dragon had crept up here by himself and was acting as doorman.”

“Oh,” she said, her smile fading.

“Now, now, I’ve scolded three people in your family so far today, and that’s enough. I’m not here to yell at you, honey.”

“Sigefrith already did anyway.”

“Sigefrith has some apologizing to do. You’ve done nothing wrong, and even if you had, that’s no way to talk to a lady. He meant to apologize already, but the dragon chased him away.”

“Why did you scold my mother?”

'Why did you scold my mother?'

Sigefrith sighed. “It will be difficult to explain, honey, but the one thing that most angered me today, in particular, was that she waited until she knew your father was on his way before telling Sigefrith what he did to her last summer. And I understand she took the opportunity to tell him about many other things he did years ago, and which I believe she has also told you, else I should not mention them now.”

Eadgith looked at the floor.

“I’m not saying she was wrong to tell him, only that her timing was suspicious, not to say malicious. If Sigefrith had had more time to think – if I had had the chance to talk to him…” He shook his head.

“Would he have killed my father?”

Sigefrith shrugged.

Sigefrith shrugged. “He’s sixteen. It means he is both capable of doing it, and incapable of doing it. Your father may be both old and ugly but he is still one of the finest swordsmen I know. And I believe that he has such a guilty conscience that he suspects everyone he meets of intending to kill him. He was ready.”

“Sigefrith hurt him, though.”

“He hurt him rather badly, the ungrateful runt. But only because your father was trying very hard not to hurt him, Eadgith. If another man had tried what your brother did, he would neither have hurt your father nor survived himself. If that is any consolation to you,” he chuckled.

“What did my father do to earn a scolding, then?”

“Today? Nothing, I suppose. He has done enough in the past. I simply like to yell at him. I hope he won’t give me new reasons. He has been well-​​behaved in the past weeks, has he not?”

Eadgith shrugged.

“How is he with Leila?”

“What do you mean?”

'What do you mean?'

“Never mind. Listen, honey, I was thinking that you and I have one thing in common, even if you greatly surpass me in both youth and beauty. Your father and your mother are tearing us to pieces between them, aren’t they?”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re not content with having us – each wants to make sure the other doesn’t. Don’t you think?”

She shrugged again.

“It’s difficult, because we love both of them, don’t we? Even if both of them have their faults.”

'Even if both of them have their faults.'

This time she nodded.

“But they don’t have the right to tell us whom to love. Your father has done some terrible things – and I do hope those days are over – but he’s still your father, and he’s still my dearest friend. Your mother is wrong for telling you not to visit your father, and Sigefrith is wrong for everything he said to you today, and your father is wrong if he’s been telling you dreadful things about your mother. I told all three of them to leave you alone, if the dragon didn’t already.”

“Should I tell them to leave you alone?”

'Should I tell them to leave you alone?'

“I wish you would,” he chuckled. “That dragon never listens to me.”

“This dragon does.”

“I’m happy to hear that. Then listen to this: I don’t know what you’ve been thinking up here today, but if you’ve been feeling guilty for loving one or more of these rascals we call our family, I hope you will stop. As a woman and as a Christian, there is nothing you could do that would grant you more favor in the eyes of the Lord than loving rascals. And in my eyes, if that counts for anything,” he winked, and he leaned closer to her, his elbows on his knees.

'And in my eyes, if that counts for anything.'

Eadgith only blushed.

“Your father is staying with Alred tonight, but he would like to see you tomorrow if you would be so gracious. Your brother and your mother are down in the hall, along with a number of Viking invaders who would like to meet you. A very small one in particular was most insistent.”

She nodded.

“If you stop off in the kitchen on the way, you will find that the dragon has arranged for a bit of supper to be saved for you. Now,” he said as he stood, “I shall hie me back down to the rascals and the invaders, and I pray that you not leave me too long alone with them. Only make sure you make the dragon happy first.”

'Thank you for coming.'

“I shall,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”

“Why, I was about to thank you for the pleasure,” he smiled. He took her hand and kissed it – a gesture to which she was not yet accustomed. It was not the first time he had done so, but it was the first time he had taken her hand in both of his own.

He took her hand and kissed it.

“Thank you,” he said afterwards, and then he headed for the door. “Don’t tarry.”

“Watch for dragons in the stairs,” she said.

“I shall send any I find up to you,” he called as he turned the corner.

'I shall send any I find up to you.'

Eadgith closed the door and then examined the hand he had kissed. She knew little yet of courtly ways, and did not know what it meant for a man to take a lady’s hand in both of his before kissing it. Surely it was a rare compliment – they did not do it often. She would ask the Duke what it meant, though of course she would not say why…

Eadgith closed the door and then examined the hand he had kissed.

She sat on the bed – she would only sit a moment and then she would go down. She would only think for a moment over all he had said. It had been very kind of him. He truly was a very kind, quite amazing, most remarkable man. And he was not so old… and he was not ugly at all!

She sat on the bed.