When they had arrived at the castle, Leofric and Eadgith had found the King away at Nothelm. Leofric had chosen to ride on to meet him, since, Eadgith thought, he did not want to meet his first wife, and he could have had little to say to her brother, with whom he was still on terms of the coldest politeness.

But Eadgith certainly did not want to be seen riding off to meet the King while leaving her brother behind. Indeed, she had scarcely any reason to expect to meet the King at all, except that she was his cousin, and he would no doubt come to pay her his respects at some point in the next day or two.

It was a delight to see her brother again.

Anyway, it was a delight to see her brother again. And he was a knight now! It was fun to call him Sir and see him laugh. It was fun to do anything and see him laugh. He had not been so merry when he had come home to their little farm and seen how his mother and sister had to work in exchange for his chance to make a name for himself with the Norsemen.

But his way was clear now that his name was appended with Sir, and his mother and sister were well and comfortable and close by. He was a happy, hopeful, optimistic man, she thought. She wondered how that must feel.

She wondered how that must feel.

And now he was telling her that the large, bright room on the other side of the tower would be hers at the new house. Hilda had told her she would have the narrow room in the back, with its one small window that looked out onto the blank wall that surrounded the court.

Sigefrith laughed at the idea. “I should never put a lady into such a room,” he said. “That will do for Eirik. The smaller the window, the less likely he will be to climb out of it at night. He won’t spend any time in there anyway except to sleep, whereas you–” He leaned forward to pinch her arm as her father did when he teased her. “You will be half the time in your room, braiding your hair or practicing your pout or performing whatever mysterious rites you ladies do when you are alone in your chambers.”

He leaned forward to pinch her arm.

“I wonder that you don’t put Mother in that room. It’s the nicest, after yours.”

“She will be across the stairs from you, and you may wave at one another through the windows, but you needn’t hear her griping unless you come across to find her, or let her into your room. Mother wants to be near the babies, and I doubt you want to be.” His face turned pink at once.

His face turned pink at once.

“What babies?” Eadgith laughed.

“Good Lord, Hilda will have my hide! Don’t tell her I told you, Eadie. Only Mother knows, and I gave her orders not to tell… and the first time I open my mouth…” He threw back his head and laughed, and Eadgith was startled at the similarity of the gesture to that of her father.

He threw back his head and laughed.

“Oh, listen to that,” he said, turning his head at the sound of sudden rain pelting the roof and windows.

The blue twilight of her room had deepened into night since they had come up into the tower, and the wind had begun to howl, but she had not expected rain. Perhaps the King would not return at all tonight. She had to admit herself disappointed, despite having told herself that she shouldn’t want and couldn’t expect to meet him.

“I hope you will come and stay with us,” Sigefrith said. “Mother said you might prefer to stay with our father.”

“Is that why you offer me the finest room?” she teased.

'Is that why you offer me the finest room?'

“No, you would have that anyway. I simply don’t like you staying with him.”

“Don’t be like Mother now,” she said, bristling. “You are all supposed to leave me out of your quarrels.”

“It’s not a quarrel, Eadie. I don’t want you to be hurt.”

“He would never hurt me.”

“I don’t trust him not to.”

“Please don’t say so to me.”

'Please don't say so to me.'

He sighed. “Allow me to begin again. I hope you will stay with us anyway, and you shall have the finest room anyway, because I like to see you. Isn’t that reason enough?”

She relaxed and smiled at him.

“We have been too long apart, and soon you will be leaving us. I want to enjoy my sister while I may.”

“Why should I leave?” she asked, confused.

“I don’t suppose you will want to live with your brother forever. Perhaps you would like to have your own baby – or babies – someday.”

'Perhaps you would like to have your own baby--or babies--someday.'

“Oh, that…”

“And given the dearth of young gentlemen around here, if you marry, you may have to go far, I fear. Unless you have already found a local sweetheart while I was away?” he teased.

“Oh, no!” she cried.

“Good,” he laughed. “The King will be pleased to hear it.”

“He will?” she asked, feeling suddenly ill. What did her brother know about… that?

'He will?'

“What is that blush?” he asked eagerly. “I have lost sight of your freckles, Eadie. I don’t think you’re telling me everything.” He stopped laughing suddenly as a new thought occurred to him. “Our father hasn’t been making plans for you, has he?”

“I don’t think so,” she said weakly.

“Don’t let him. I don’t care that he is your father – he can’t disappear from your life for ten years and then come back and tell you what to do with the rest of it.”

“He hasn’t said anything.”

“That’s fine. I shall – ”

He was interrupted by a brisk knock at the door.

“Oh, good Lord,” Sigefrith said softly. “I hope it isn’t he.”

'I hope it isn't he.'

“Who is it?” Eadgith called.

“It is only the old, ugly dragon, come up to see about his dinner.”

“Oh!” Her heart bucked in panic.

“What is it with you two and dragons?” her brother called loudly and laughed.

The door opened, and the King peeked inside. “Honey,” he said mournfully, “this is where you are supposed to tell me I am not ugly.”

“Oh, but you’re not!” she gushed in her astonishment.

'Oh, but you're not!'

“Excellent.” He came inside and closed the door. “But I wasn’t expecting to find a young, ugly dragon in here with you. What say you, runt?”

“I was only trying to find out whether she has found herself a young, handsome dragon while we were away, but it appears the way is clear.”

“Most excellent! How do you find her? Fit to eat?”

'How do you find her?'

“I believe we ought to fatten her up for a few more years at least.”

“Years? But I am so hungry,” he growled plaintively. “Might I at least have a taste?” He took her hand in one of his and bent his head nearly to it, looking up at her to await her permission. His hazel eyes seemed bluer than hers in the dim light.

Eadgith scarcely knew what she was about. She nodded mutely, and he kissed her hand.

“Does a knight sit when his king lacks a chair?” he scolded her brother, dropping her hand at once.

'Does a knight sit when his king lacks a chair?'

“I beg Your Majesty’s pardon,” Sigefrith blushed, jumping up.

“He’s too accustomed to lording it over me before his Norsemen,” he explained to Eadgith. “Never mind, runt. You can always sit in my lap. Don’t believe your sister if she tells you I bite.”

“I believe I shall take the bed,” her brother said.

“He doesn’t trust me alone with you, honey. These young dragons, they believe we old dragons don’t know how to share.”

'He doesn't trust me alone with you, honey.'

“I don’t trust you with me in your lap, that’s all.”

“That’s odd. Your sister doesn’t either.”

Her brother laughed. “You had better get this flirtation out of your system before my father is around to hear you.”

“You have a point, runt. Your father is the oldest and ugliest dragon there is. Now, Eadgith, I have been here just long enough to catch my breath after climbing all of those stairs, and if I know my young ladies, it means that at this very moment you are beginning to ask yourself what sort of presents I have brought you.”

“Oh, no!” she gasped. “Never!”

'Oh, no!  Never!'

“Oh, yes, certainly!”

“You had better accept them, Eadie,” Sigefrith warned. “He gave us no end of misery with his quest after dragons. One time we had to talk him out of offering to buy a lady’s purse right off of her because there was a dragon on the buckle.”

“Shut up, you muttonhead! Don’t tell her of all of the things I might have brought her, or she won’t appreciate the things I did.”

'Shut up, you muttonhead!'

“You briefly considered bringing her a sword because of the dragon on the pommel,” Sigefrith laughed. “I’m certain she will eat her heart out over it.”

“I only considered it for an instant,” the King protested. “Then I thought it wasn’t quite the thing for a young lady.”

“He was tolerable at first,” her brother told her, “but once he got Caedwulf and Yware playing the game, we had no peace. ‘Papa, here’s a dragon! Papa, is that a dragon?’ ‘No, runt, that’s a griffon.’ On and on…”

'He was tolerable at first.'

“They had fun with it, and so did I. You and Eirik were no better: ‘There’s a pretty girl, here’s a pretty girl…’ On and on…”

“You will get me in trouble with my wife.”

“You will get me in trouble with mine if you tell her how I spent my trip looking for dragons to bring home to this pretty girl.”

An uneasy silence fell over them as they thought, as Eadgith did, that the Queen would be unlikely to understand even if someone did tell her.

“But more to the point,” the King said briskly, “we should show her what I did bring her.”

“You shouldn’t have brought me anything,” she said, blushing.

“You haven’t even seen them yet. You may refuse them scornfully if you don’t like them, but I must at least have the pleasure of offering them to you.”

'You may refuse them scornfully if you don't like them, but I must at least have the pleasure of offering them to you.'

“Oh, but I have something for you too,” she said without thinking. “Only – it isn’t finished yet,” she added weakly.

“I hope it is at least begun,” he winked.

“It’s almost finished. It’s – oh…”


“It will be worth the wait, I am sure of it. Meanwhile, here,” he said, handing her a small bundle wrapped in coarse cloth. He sat back and folded his arms and began bantering with Sigefrith while she unwrapped it, but she thought he kept one eye on her, and she dared not look up at him.

Inside the coarse cloth was a fine casket of carved bone – “Whale bone,” he noted briefly before turning back to her brother. She did not think it was an accident, either, for his family’s manor and lands were named for the cliff from which his grandfather had seen whales passing, and indeed his family’s name was derived from the nickname the same grandfather had acquired thereafter: Eadwin the Whale.

Of course, the casket itself was carved over not with whales but with twining dragons, and the dragons on the top had garnets for eyes. There was something about garnets that chilled and fascinated her – as a child she had thought they looked as dried blood ought to look, or were perhaps some kind of divine blood – or dragon’s blood. These dragons stared up at her with dark and sparkling eyes, warning her or inviting her to open the casket, and finally she did, for she thought she felt the muffled weight of something inside.

She thought she felt the muffled weight of something inside.

Inside there was a red silk purse with a pair of dragons of yellow silk on the front, richly embroidered with dark red silk and couched gold threads. The needlework was like nothing she had ever seen, and the dragons themselves were strange – they had four legs instead of two, and in place of wings they had long tufts of fur or feathers on each shoulder and haunch. “You might ask Leila whether she recognizes it,” he said, interrupting Sigefrith. “No one knew from whence it came.”

Inside the purse there was a small hinged case of silver with, of course, a dragon spiraling over the round cover, and inside the case she found a gold ring. The ring was small and slender-​​hooped, and in the center of the round bezel was a jaunty little dragon who would have looked very much like a lion had he not wings in the place of his forepaws.

Eadgith could only stare at his tiny dragon face and his tiny dragon eye that seemed to wink at her. It was unbelievable.

She had believed he hadn’t thought of her once since he left, and apparently he had thought of her frequently, for he had been on the lookout for dragons through the entire trip. Just then she felt something very much like elation, and it troubled her, for she knew it meant she was casting in doubt all of the excellent resolutions she had made over the past days.

Just then she felt something very much like elation.

“And what’s inside of the ring?” her brother asked playfully from the bed. He too had probably been watching her out of the corner of his eye the entire time. “Don’t tell me the fun ends there.”

“I hope that there will very soon be a young lady inside of the ring,” the King said. “You might put it on, honey.”

'I hope that there will very soon be a young lady inside of the ring.'

She tried it on, but found it would only fit on her middle finger.

“You do have small hands,” he said softly. “I had feared it would be too small.”

“Now, what’s inside of the young lady?” Sigefrith asked.

'Now, what's inside of the young lady?'

“A tongue,” the King laughed. “Show him!”

Eadgith giggled and stuck out her tongue at her brother.

“I was thinking of something more like roast beef and bread,” Sigefrith said. “What did you have for dinner today, Eadie?”

“I didn’t have any,” she admitted. “We left before and arrived here after.”

“Didn’t have any dinner?” the King cried, leaping to his feet. “Is that any way to fatten up a young lady for her dragons? We shall get you to the kitchen immediately, lest you perish before supper. Anyway, I wanted to take you down to give you one last gift.”

'We shall get you to the kitchen immediately.'

“Oh, that!” Sigefrith laughed ruefully. “Don’t let him, Eadie.”

“What? Did you tell her already?”

“Not I.”

“Oh, no more,” she murmured. “I haven’t even begun to thank you for these.”

“You will think them mere trifles once you have seen what I have waiting for you below.”

“What is it?” she asked uneasily.

“Have mercy and tell her,” her brother said. “She will die of embarrassment if you don’t warn her.”

“But that’s half the fun for me,” the King pouted.

“Tell her, or I shall, and then you won’t have any fun at all.”

'Tell her, or I shall, and then you won't have any fun at all.'

“Oh, very well, since your brother is a kinder dragon than I am. Waiting for you downstairs is a young and handsome dragon of the Danish race, who has the same good luck as you and I in counting himself among the many descendents of old Forkbeard, and who requires only your approbation to count himself the most fortune-​​favored dragon of his generation.”

“I don’t understand,” she said softly.

'I don't understand.'

“What he means, Eadie,” her brother sighed, “is that he has a new squire, namely his cousin Brede, and he has promised this squire that the most beautiful young woman in all Christendom lives in his castle, and if he has not formally promised him your hand, he has certainly hinted at it.”

“You truly do make me sound like an old dragon,” the King said awkwardly.

“You are an old dragon, the way you went on about poor Eadie with Brede. You’re only lucky she is as pretty as you said she was.”

“Now, now, I was only joking about that – except for where I told him how pretty you were – and Brede knows it. Besides, your father will put a stop to any such ideas once he gets wind of the boy’s existence, if he hasn’t eaten him alive already, as a precaution.”

'Besides, your father will put a stop to any such ideas once he gets wind of the boy's existence.'

“He is a fine young man, Eadie,” her brother said. “I think you should try to like him despite this old dragon’s meddling. I should never say the same about Eirik, but I would trust Brede to treat you honorably.”

“As would I, or I should never have brought him anywhere near you, much less promised you to him. If you like him despite me, I shall be just as pleased as if you like him because of me. A young lady ought to at least have a young man on whom to practice her wiles.”

“My sister doesn’t have wiles,” Sigefrith protested.

“She will catch them from your wife before long if you aren’t careful.”

“Is there a cure?”

'Is there a cure?'

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Eadie, don’t look like that,” Sigefrith said suddenly, noticing her pale face at last. “Nobody promised you to anybody. You handled that very poorly, Sigefrith,” he said frankly to the King.

“I have indeed, Sigefrith,” the King agreed. “I had thought that any young lady in a court full of old, ugly dragons would be delighted to be presented with a sweetheart of her very own, but it would seem that I have erred.”

'It would seem that I have erred.'

“Now she will be too shy to speak to him, and you will have ruined any chance you had of playing matchmaker.”

“I should leave that game to the womenfolk.”

“That is precisely what Alred told you. Certainly leave my sister out of it in the future. Look at her little face,” he said, and he climbed out of the bed to stand beside her chair and hug her head against his hip.

“I should go down and apologize to Brede for ruining his chance at happiness,” the King sighed. “I hope you will forgive him, honey, for it’s entirely my own fault. And then I shall go lock myself up in my dungeon, where I belong, if you two will excuse me.” He moved towards the door.

Eadgith stood. “Oh, but don’t,” she faltered, feeling as if she needed to apologize for something. For misunderstanding everything, perhaps. But of course she could never admit to that.

'Eadgith stood.'

“I shan’t embarrass you any longer, dear. If your little dragons don’t remind you too much of my despicable self, I hope that they will serve as a small token of my contrition, at least until I work up a coherent apology.” He laid his hand on the knob.

“But no…” She rose and tottered after him, one hand outstretched.

She realized she wanted to apologize for her reaction. She would certainly have been embarrassed to find her mother or some other had been plotting to find a sweetheart for her, but it would not have been met with the same blank shock that she had shown when she had learned that he had. Her moment of elation had been brief, and he had witnessed its abrupt end, that was all. He could not understand.

But of course she could never admit to that.

He smiled sadly at her and, with a slight flourish, took the hand she held out in one of his. “Just a taste?”

'Just a taste?'

She didn’t know whether she nodded or whether she merely gaped at him, but he kissed her hand, precisely on the knuckle above the little gold ring with its winking dragon. Then he went out before she could say a word.

Her brother threw himself back down on the bed. “Good Lord, what a looby!” he sighed.

'Good Lord, what a looby!'