'Here's a handsome surprise for you ladies.'

Eadgith’s father threw open the door with a draft that fluttered her hair.

“Here’s a handsome surprise for you ladies!” he announced.

Eadgith and Leila looked up from the small dresses they was sewing—Eadgith’s for her brother’s baby and Leila’s for her own.

Eadgith and Leila each looked up from the small dress she was sewing.

Eadgith had returned to Raegiming with her father after his short visit with the King and the Duke. She had used the excuse that her brother’s new house was in the last stages of being furnished, and soon she would be moving and would not have the time to visit her father before the winter weather set in.

In truth, her last days at the castle had been miserable. In the first place there had been Brede, who had not shown any of the mortified awkwardness she had felt when they were introduced, and who seemed blissfully unaware of her great desire to be left alone. She could only be certain of being spared his presence if she hid in her tower room, which her mother did not often allow. The best she could do was remain with the other ladies, so he could at least not get her alone, and better yet to ensure that Estrid was in the room, for she thoroughly monopolized him.

More awkward still was the presence of the King, who did in fact leave her alone, although she occasionally caught him looking mournfully at her. He must have thought her dreadfully angry at him, and she had to allow him to think so, for she couldn’t explain the true cause of her distress.

And while she might have managed to plot a safe course between the one and the other, there was always Hilda and her taunting to send her astray. She had wanted to wear the little gold ring the King had given her, so that he might see that she had not utterly turned her back on him, but Hilda had taken one look at the little winking dragon and scolded Eadgith for wearing it on the wrong finger of the wrong hand—and this had been before her mother, the Countess, and the Queen.

Eadgith could not risk another such a comment, and so she had put the ring away inside the little silver case, inside the red silk purse, inside the whalebone casket, and hidden them all in the big chest in her room—along with the unfinished cushion, which now lacked only its stuffing.

And she had left the castle as soon as she could.

“A surprise, perhaps,” the Duke said as he came in behind her father. “But handsome? The ladies are about to be disappointed. Ah! Sir Leila!” he cried. “I was about to apologize for not visiting you more often, but I am reminded upon seeing you that even everlasting attendance upon your beautiful self would not pay you sufficient homage.”

“And I am reminded upon hearing you,” Leila said with her low laugh, “that it is fortunate that my skin is too dark to show a blush.” She laid her little dress aside and pushed herself to her feet with the aid of Eadgith’s hand.

“And I am reminded upon seeing you that there are soon to be two of you. Let us praise God and pray that it be another girl, for if she possesses one hundredth part of her mother’s loveliness, she will repay the debt her father owes mankind for hoarding you to himself.”

He took the hand Leila offered in both of his and bowed deeply to kiss it.

He took the hand Leila offered in both of his and bowed deeply to kiss it. Eadgith was reminded that she had once meant to ask him what that meant—and now she thought she didn’t want to know.

“Have you finished?” her father grumbled.

Have you finished?

“For now,” Alred said, still holding Leila’s hand and still smiling up at her. “But I admit that despite having the courage to approach this mortal beauty, I do not know whether I dare speak to the exquisite angel who is sitting behind her.”

Eadgith’s father laughed. “You should rather fear the ugly old devil who is standing behind you!”

“O most old, most ugly, and most jealous devil,” Alred said, though he looked at Eadgith as he spoke, “might I briefly borrow this thy magnificent daughter?”

“Borrow my daughter?” her father asked, no longer laughing. “Wherefore?”

“It is her I come to see, though I might have been forgiven had Sir Leila’s beauty caused me to forget what I was about.”

“Me?” Eadgith asked weakly, setting her sewing aside.


“Son of a serpent!” her father cried. “It’s not enough that you will woo my wife all through dinner, you mean to seduce my daughter before we have even sat down to eat? What do you want with her?”

“I should like to talk with her.”

Eadgith rose awkwardly and brushed the stray threads from her dress. She blushed and wondered how it was that Leila hadn’t any on hers.

“Watch that you don’t turn her head, Alred,” her father warned. “I don’t want her taking your honey-​mouth for granted. Few men are so equipped.”

“You flatter me.”

“See that you don’t flatter her.”

“May I speak with you alone?” Alred asked with a slight bow, addressing Eadgith for the first time.

“Have the courtesy to choose a room without a bed in it,” her father said.

“Jupiter, Leofric! You are jealous! A meek, harmless little man such as I? You do flatter me.”

“We might go into the chapel, Father,” Eadgith said.

'We might go into the chapel, Father.'

“An excellent idea,” Alred said.

Her father only grunted, but he stood aside as Alred took her out on his arm.

They went out onto the gallery overlooking the nave. The tall window of ruby glass that her father had only recently added filled the room with sinister light.

“Your father has asked me not to flatter you,” Alred said after they had sat, “so lacking my usual means of communication, I must resort to getting directly to the point.”

'Your father has asked me not to flatter you.'

Eadgith paled. The Duke was not normally an intimidating man—perhaps it was his usual flattery that made him easy to approach—but just then he had an uncharacteristically serious look on his face that she did not like, despite the softness of his voice.

“You left behind you not a few people in distress,” he said. “Did you know?”

She shook her head slowly.

“I understand you left rather unexpectedly, from their point of view at least, and the presence of your father prevented some of them from making inquiry or protest at the time.”

“Might I not visit my father?” she asked weakly.

He leaned back in the bench and briskly rubbed his nose. “I’m not accustomed to feeling like an ogre around ladies,” he apologized, “but I don’t know how to talk to them if I may not flatter them. I didn’t come to scold or frighten you, Eadgith. Of course you may visit your father, but I for one would feel more at ease if I knew you were coming here to be with your father and Sir Leila, and not simply to be far away from someone else. Or some several else.”

“It does sound as if you are scolding me.”

'It does sound as if you are scolding me.'

“Not at all. I should merely like to know which of the dragons in that castle has been bothering you, so that I might promptly slay him. Or her.”

Eadgith looked away, out over the empty chapel, at the mention of the word dragon.

“However, I believe most of them are sorry if they have frightened you away. I can’t speak for all of them, but I can speak on behalf of the King, who sent me.”

“He sent you?” she asked the nave.

'He sent you?'

“He has talked to the rest of them, but I believe he has come away with the impression that it’s him you are fleeing.”

Eadgith said nothing, so he went on.

“For his part, Brede has been asked to be a little less conspicuous, and your mother and brother are under strict orders to stop speaking of your father with you, and they aren’t to bother you about coming to live with them if you would prefer to stay here. Hilda and Estrid have been asked to respect your desire for solitude, to which I can relate. Nor do I think such girls are the sort of friends you require. But to get back to opinions which are not necessarily my own, once all of these injunctions were delivered, Sigefrith still had a nagging feeling that he is the person making life at the castle uncomfortable for you. Isn’t it so?”

'Isn't it so?'

He paused, but she could not agree. Nor, she found, could she deny it. Thus she said nothing.

“What he said about you to Brede was within the domain of things that men say to men. About women they admire and respect, mind you,” he corrected suddenly. “If you have ever had the misfortune to overhear what we might say about women of the other kind, I should hate to think that you believe Sigefrith said such things about you. If he had, I should have cut out his tongue on the spot, if your brother hadn’t already achieved the same end by cutting off his head.”

He laughed softly, and a little uncomfortably, she thought. She looked back at him, and he jumped slightly, as if startled. “You should warn a man before turning those eyes on him, Eadgith. Even in this underearthly light they are as bright and blue as a glimpse of sky.”

She looked away again. She did not like to be reminded that her eyes were bright and not dark. Even though that was stupid of her.

'She looked away again.'

“What was I saying? Ah yes, I was trying to excuse Sigefrith for having been such a cad. Jupiter! what wouldn’t I do for the man? What I meant to say was that such things are fine and good on a ship, between men, but the joke should have ended once we rode back through that gate. It was most unseemly of Sigefrith to offer Brede up as a gift to you, or you as a gift to Brede, and I have told him so. If I had had any idea that he meant to make such a joke, I would have forbad it. There are women who might find it cute, but I would have thought it obvious that you are not one of them—to your honor.”

After another silence he prompted, “You are very quiet, my dear.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I should only like to be certain you are listening.”

“I am.”

'I am.'

“Very good. Sigefrith would like you to know that he knows he has done wrong, and he is terribly sorry to have offended you, and he hopes that you will not be obliged to avoid your mother and brother until they move merely because of him.”

“It isn’t merely because of him,” she said at last.

“Who then? May I ask?”

She looked up at him again. His eyes had grown as soft as his voice, and the look he gave was to her like sunlight after a long storm. Eadgith was not accustomed to being looked upon with compassion.

'His eyes had grown as soft as his voice.'

“I don’t understand why everyone seems to care so much about me,” she blurted, and then she clapped a hand over her reckless mouth and turned away again, mortified.

But he didn’t laugh, nor even shift in his chair. “It is odd that you should say so,” he said after a while. “I could very easily answer your question for you, but what intrigues me is that I often ask myself the same thing. I suddenly wonder whether the same answer would apply in my case?”

“What is the answer?” Slowly she turned her head towards him again. Her embarrassment receded before his calm.

“We love you,” he said, “because you are worthy of it.”

You are,” she corrected.

'You are.'

“Don’t you believe you are?”

“I don’t know.”

He sat up and twisted towards her, making the bench squeak beneath his shifting weight. His placid expression darkened into a slight frown.

“Permit me to be indiscreet for a moment, my dear, that I may give you a bit of advice. Notwithstanding your apparent antipathy for Brede, which he may not even have earned, poor boy, I should like to warn you against falling in love with the first young man who ever pays you any attention. You seem so surprised to learn that people love you that you might think the first young lout who smiles at you is the only one who ever will.”

'You might think the first young lout who smiles at you is the only one who ever will.'

She nodded.

“Indeed, as long as I am being indiscreet,” he said a little bitterly, “I should probably tell you that you should avoid falling in love entirely, as I fear your father does not intend to let you marry where you will, and you would be best served by waiting to fall in love with your husband. However, the words are as gall and wormwood in my mouth, who married the only woman—the only woman…” He trailed off and rubbed his hand wearily over his face. “You may take those two pieces of advice from an old man,” he sighed, “or not, as you will. One from the heart and one from duty.”

“I… will consider them.”

“That is good of you. Now, Sigefrith certainly didn’t send me here to tell you all of that. He merely wanted me to, first, apologize, second, beg your forgiveness, and third, promise that henceforth he and Brede will both be as inconspicuous as two such bumbling lunkheads can be.”

“He said he was a bumbling lunkhead?”

'He said he was a bumbling lunkhead?'

“I believe the expression he used was ‘meek as mice,’ but I saw fit to paraphrase. Don’t tell him.”

Eadgith giggled. “I won’t.”

“That’s already better, if you smile at me. Now, I believe I have said everything I was asked to say, and much more besides. Is there anything you would like me to tell him? Or your mother, brother, or various other relations? I’m afraid I have to ride home again after dinner, and we may not get another chance to talk if your father gets too jealous.”

“You came all this way only to tell me this?”

“Ah, what sacrifice would I not be willing to make for that man? Half the day in the presence of two beautiful ladies, and a properly-​cooked dinner. But you must give me a word or two to take back to him, lest my sacrifice have been for naught.”

“Oh, please tell him I’m not angry at him. Tell all of them I’m not angry at them. I only want—I only like to be alone, sometimes. My father allows it.”

“You are a shy one, aren’t you? No wonder Sigefrith is so fond of you. He always picked the shy girls.”

'You are a shy one, aren't you?'

Eadgith’s blush felt like a bloom on her cheeks. She knew she ought to turn away to hide it, but she wanted him to talk on and on and on.

“You would think he would know how to treat them by now,” Alred continued, “but he is an awkward sort of lout, isn’t he? A bumbling lunkhead I should say. I still believe that what you need is the right kind of young lady for a friend, but I don’t know where she might be found. We are too few here. However, I suspect that if I hint to Sigefrith that you would like a little solitude, he could make the rest of your family understand, for all his bumbling. Would that suit you?”

“Yes, I thank you.”

“In any event he will be happy to know you aren’t angry at him. Lately he reminds me of nothing so much as Dunstan, once, when he came crying to me because he had tried to love a butterfly and had crushed its wings thereby. Don’t tell either of those two I told you that,” he smiled. “Dunstan would deny it, and Sigefrith wouldn’t even understand, the poor, unpoetic fellow. But you do, don’t you, my dear? I have often thought it a shame that you never learned to read. One could profitably write poetry in your honor.”

'I don't know.'

Eadgith smiled. “I don’t know about that.”

“Your father would be furious to hear me say so, although I believe I have behaved admirably in not flattering you overmuch. I shall make up for it over dinner, where at least he may stand guard over you. Shall we go? Cook didn’t tell me this morning whether she had planned to burn the meat to cinders or leave it dripping blood today, but either way I believe I shall eat better here, and my belly is looking forward to it most vocally.”

“I hadn’t heard.”

“Bless you, child, for your discretion or your faulty ears.”

'Bless you, child, for your discretion or your faulty ears.'