Alred sat on the floor with Emmie on his lap.

Alred sat on the floor with Emmie on his lap, and with Britamund on the left of him, Colban on the right, and Caedwulf before him. Brit and Caedwulf could be made to laugh through jokes, and Colban through tickles, and while Emmie didn’t laugh much these days, she was happy as long as she was being hugged.

The guard at the door announced the Earl, and Alred looked around in surprise. “Well, what are you doing here tonight, old man?”

“I?” he asked. “I could ask you what you are doing here with all the wrong children.”

“I thought my babies looked a little odd tonight,” he admitted. “Especially Yware here,” he said, caressing Britamund’s cheek, which immediately curved into a dimple.

“Where’s Sigefrith?”

'Where's Sigefrith?'

“I sent him to bed early, and I shall have the honor of saying goodnight to his various progeny.”

“Have you earned it?”

“I suppose I have! In any case I am godfather to this fair lady, so I believe myself permitted anything with her, at least, including a spanking. Isn’t it so?” he asked Britamund gravely.

Britamund giggled sheepishly.

Britamund giggled sheepishly.

“You spanked me and you’re not my godfather,” Caedwulf pointed out.

“Would you rather have this behemoth behind me doing his duty?”

“No,” Caedwulf grinned.


“What has he done?” Caedwulf’s godfather asked.

“He has already been punished for it, so there’s no need to go over it a second time,” Alred said with a wink to the boy. “Now, my lord Earl Scaryface, you still haven’t answered my question. What are you doing here, tonight of all nights?”


“Just a moment. Here, Emmie, let’s get down. I’m not used to balancing such a big girl on my old knees. My Margaret is small enough to pass through the eye of a needle.”

“Does that mean she can get to heaven?” Caedwulf asked.

Alred laughed. “I believe that it was camels who get there through that sort of door. We men must take the strait way and the narrow gate, and few there be that find it. However, you seem to be reading your Bible, which should improve your chances, and for which I commend you.”

“Father Brandt makes me.”

“For which I commend him. Excuse me a moment, children,” he said as he rose, and he laid a hand on Cenwulf’s shoulder and led him to the fire. “I am quite accustomed to speaking up at you as from the bottom of a wall, O behemoth, but my pride does not permit me such an undignified position as sitting on the floor before anyone who is not shorter than I.”

'My pride does not permit me such an undignified position.'

“I have seen you in far less dignified positions than this.”

“You haven’t been peeking in my bedroom windows again, old man?” Alred tittered.

“Oh, good Lord,” Cenwulf sighed.

'Oh, good Lord.'

“Speaking of which, I repeat: what are you doing here?”

“What? I was about to observe that it is not yet the new moon, but I fail to see what that has to do with your bedroom windows.”

“I was thinking of yours.”

“What? I – Oh…”

“The day did seem rather short today,” Alred said. “One might even say it was the shortest day of the year.”

“Oh, God. Do you think she remembered?”

“I do not doubt it, Cenwulf. Women like anniversaries, and woe betide the men who forget them.”

“I am such a fool,” he said miserably. “Every day it is something else. How she must detest me.”

'I am such a fool.'

“Detest you? On the contrary. She is quite in love with you.”

“What? What do you know about it?”

“A little bird, who sleeps on the pillow next to mine, told me.”

Cenwulf considered this for a moment. “Then it must be all the harder for her. But I told her I could not love her.”

“What?” Alred gasped.

“Before we married. I told her I could not. Of course I can not! Alred!”

“That is the most grotesque a priori I have heard in some time. How could you say such a thing? What the hell did you know about it then?”

'How could you say such a thing?'

“How can you say such a thing? After Colburga?”

“After Colburga indeed. They are two entirely different ladies, but I do not think that Edris pales in comparison. She is quite worthy of being loved.”

“Worthy, certainly, but she should not have been sent to me, who cannot.”

“Have you even tried?”


“You might be surprised.”

“What do you know about it? Do you suppose you would be eager to love another woman if you lost Matilda?”

“Ah, I knew that was coming. But I shan’t fall for it. I needn’t have experienced what you have to counsel you. Look, being alive certainly hasn’t stopped Father Brandt from lecturing us about heaven and hell.”

'Being alive certainly hasn't stopped Father Brandt from lecturing us about heaven and hell.'

“You are without a doubt the person least qualified to counsel me in this. I should rather speak to Sigefrith.”

“Oh, Sigefrith! You shan’t go asking advice of a man who lost his wife one week ago! He is less qualified than I, under the circumstances. Listen, old man, I am pleased that we are finally having this conversation, because there are a few things that I have been meaning to say to you. First, you need to stop pretending that Edris doesn’t exist – or forgetting that she does, which is worse.”


“Every time her name comes up in a conversation, you change the subject, as if you were ashamed of her, and – ”

“Certainly not! I am not in the least ashamed.”

'Certainly not!'

“I said ‘as if.’ You never interrupt a conversation about Colburga, I might also note.”

“I should like to know – ”

“I haven’t finished! You also need to put a stop to these bizarre ritual incantations you use to communicate with her. Leave the flattery to me, who have a talent for it. Stop holding her hand and put an arm around her instead; stop asking her whether she’s cold and start asking her what’s on her mind; and stop speaking to her in compliments, as if you were a diplomat and she some foreign queen.”

“I should like to know how I dishonor her thus!”

'I should like to know how I dishonor her thus!'

“You dishonor her by treating her as a graven idol and not as a living woman. I should like to know how you ever expect to fall in love with her if you keep her at such a distance.”

“But I don’t want to fall in love with her!” Cenwulf cried in exasperation.



Cenwulf looked at the fire with dazed eyes, as if he had just shocked himself.

Alred glanced back at the children. Only Britamund seemed to be listening, and he shrugged at her.

He wondered suddenly whether there were not something to what Cenwulf was saying. He was not certain he would ever need to have the same conversation with Sigefrith, and yet he could not imagine himself listening patiently to such advice if he were in the same situation, God forbid. But then, it was not only “a situation.” There was Edris.

“I should go home,” Cenwulf murmured.

“An excellent idea. And if Edris looks cold to you, don’t ask her – simply warm her up. It isn’t a sin to love one’s wife. Preferably well and often.”

'Preferably well and often.'

“Good night,” Cenwulf muttered as he went to the door.

“Make it so,” Alred replied, and he went back to the children.

He went back to the children.

“Are you angry at him?” Britamund asked.

“Not any longer. What you have just witnessed is a grown man being given a talking-​​to.”

“You’ve been ‘talking-​​to’ a lot of people today,” Caedwulf grumbled.

“But they have all been so naughty!” Alred protested.

“Then why didn’t you spank him?”

“I never spank a man who is bigger than I unless my stick is longer than his arms and I am certain I can outrun him.”

'I never spank a man who is bigger than I unless my stick is longer than his arms and I am certain I can outrun him.'