'I hope I didn't call you away from anything--or anyone--too important.'

“I hope I didn’t call you away from anything—or anyone—too important,” Alred said as Sigefrith came in.

“Only Cenwulf. I could use a joke or two after sitting all afternoon with that grim prophet.”

“His predictions may not be that far off this time, if we don’t get some rain,” Alred sighed.

“Haven’t we had seven fat years since the last catastrophe? When was that?”

'When was that?'

“That storm? That was in ’70, I believe.”

“Only six then. That’s quite unfair.”

“‘And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread.’” Alred quoted.

“And what will Pharaoh tell them?”

“Man shall not live by bread alone?”

'Man shall not live by bread alone?'

“Good God, Alred, you’re worse than Cenwulf.”

“I think the men will have enough to eat, but perhaps not the beasts.”

“Then the men will be eating the beasts.”

“For example.”

Sigefrith sighed and sat down. “Don’t you have any jokes for me today?”

Sigefrith sighed and sat down.

“I only have Egelric, who does not seem to be in a laughing mood.”

“Did he find out what happened to his daughter?”

“I believe so, but he wanted you here to tell it.”

“Must be serious.”

“I believe it is. Moreover he says he wanted to tell us a few things he should have told us a while ago, but he didn’t, because we would think he was mad.”

“There is nothing I am not capable of believing after the things I have seen in these past ten years.”

“That’s what I told him, but apparently he himself had difficulty believing a few of them.”

'That's what I told him, but apparently he himself had difficulty believing a few of them.'

“What about Bertie?”

“He got the story from Bertie. Iylaine still isn’t talking about it.”

“Where is he?”

“Egelric? He was sitting with Baby. She doesn’t want to talk about it, but she does want to be held.”

“Poor girl. What happened out there?”

'What happened out there?'

“Shall I send for him?”


Alred went to send a servant for Egelric and then asked, “How is your young cousin? How’s this for a joke: have you quite realized that Leofric is to be your father-​in-​law?”

Sigefrith laughed. “Not quite, but I shan’t call him Father. Why don’t you join us for supper tonight? She comes every evening with her mother.”

“I should be delighted, although I must confess that I am no longer so critical of Cook’s cooking now that I have seen how they eat in Gog’s country.”

“I told you!” Sigefrith laughed.

'I told you!'

“I admit, I have learned that man can live by bread alone, for at least a month.”

“Their ale is good.”

“I shall grant them that. And their music is magnificent. And I shall—Oh, here’s Egelric.”

Egelric bowed silently and sat down before them.

“How’s Baby?” Alred asked.

“Quiet,” Egelric said.


“Alred told me you wanted to tell us a few things that we should find difficult to believe?” Sigefrith said.

“Aye. There are times when I wonder whether I am not mad.”

“We’re all a little mad here,” Alred said, “else we would not be here at all.”

“Do you know what happened to your daughter?” Sigefrith asked.

“I would rather tell these things in the order in which they happened,” Egelric said.

“Very well,” Sigefrith shrugged.

“Wine, gentlemen?” Alred asked.

“An excellent idea.”

Egelric sat with his head in his hands while Alred went to pour the wine.

“I am looking forward,” Sigefrith said, “to hearing of these wonders that even I shall not be able to believe.”

'I am looking forward to hearing of these wonders.'

“Does Your Majesty believe in dragons?” Egelric muttered.

“As a matter of fact I do!” Sigefrith laughed. “Sometimes I believe I am one. Thank you, Alred.”

“You’re not a dragon, Sigefrith,” Alred sighed as he sat. “I keep telling you: you’re only a fire-​breathing ass.”

'I keep telling you: you're only a fire-breathing ass.'

“And you’re only a cross-​eyed old monkey with a rash on his behind, but I don’t feel obliged to constantly remind you of the fact.”

“Gentlemen?” Egelric said.

“Our apologies, old man,” Alred said. “I missed this hairy old goat.”

“Likewise,” Sigefrith said, lifting his cup to Alred. “Let us hear what you mean to tell us. If your face is any indication, we shall soon be sober enough.”

Egelric took a drink of wine and then a deep breath before he began. “First, I suppose it was the Dark Lady.”

“The Dark Lady!” Alred cried. “Jupiter! Next it will be Spackbears!”

'Jupiter!  Next it will be Spackbears!'

Egelric looked wearily up at him.

“Go ahead,” he said sheepishly.

“I met her in the woods, coming home on the night of the new moon. It was the summer after we captured the elf Midra using the water that Baby gave me.”

“So, will you tell me now how you know her name?” Alred asked.

“You don’t miss anything.”

“My crossed monkey eyes notwithstanding.”

“The Dark Lady told me. The Dark Lady: that is what she called herself. She was like an elf—tall, and with pointed ears, but the points on her ears were so long that they seemed like horns. I don’t know—I didn’t see her very well. Her skin was as black as night, and it was so dark.”

'Her skin was as black as night, and it was so dark.'

“Did you talk to her?”

“She told me she wanted to warn me. She said that it was forbidden to hurt me, but it was also forbidden to help me—and someone had helped me by giving me that water. She wanted me to warn that person too. But it was Baby who gave it to me—of course I didn’t say anything to Baby.”

“But you don’t know who gave her that water.”

“That is true. But then I can’t warn him, can I?”

Alred shrugged.

“She also told me she had known Elfleda. That it was Elfleda and the elves who called her the Dark Lady.”

“It makes sense then. It was your wife who told Baby about the Dark Lady, and Baby who told my children.”

“What did she want?” Sigefrith asked.

“Nothing else. Only to warn me. She had the flask,” Egelric said to Alred. “That is why we couldn’t find it later.”

“Have you seen her since?” Alred asked.


“What did she know about Druze and Midra?”

'What did she know about Druze and Midra?'

“I don’t know. She only told me that—that Midra would not have carried that water. Presumably because it was dangerous to her. That’s all. It was only a warning to me. But I have had no reason to follow it, so far.” He stopped and sighed. “The next thing was last year, in the winter, when I disappeared and then returned ill.”

“Oh?” Alred said. “So you do remember what you did in those days?”

“I suppose so. I believe that some of it was dream, but some of it was real. However, I am not certain where the dream ends and the reality begins. And I was… I was not supposed to tell. But I can’t bear it any longer. If I tell you both, you won’t tell anyone else?”

“Oh, dear,” Sigefrith sighed. “I suppose I have responsibilities to others than you, Egelric. If it meant putting the safety of any of these people in danger…”

'Oh, dear.'

“I understand. But provided it doesn’t?”

“Then you have my word. Alred’s too, I presume?”

Alred nodded.

“Very well.” Egelric took a swallow of wine and began again. “On the night I disappeared, I believe I walked out onto the ice. I suppose I believed that I… I don’t know. No matter what explanation I find for it, I can only conclude I was half-​mad that night. The next thing I knew, I was waking in a cave, and there was a… a young elf with me. A boy of about twelve.”

“Alive?” Alred asked.

“Oh, aye. He wasn’t like the other two. He was… simply an impudent boy.” Egelric smiled to himself and shook his head. “He claimed I fell through the ice, and he saved me and brought me to the cave. I can’t believe he did it unaided, but he was the only one I saw. He made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone I had seen him—I wasn’t to tell the men and I wasn’t to tell the elves. And in exchange he told me about my son.”

He paused for a moment, and Sigefrith and Alred waited in silence.

“I hope this is not a betrayal.”

'I hope this is not a betrayal.'

“We shan’t tell,” Alred said, with a glance at Sigefrith’s thoughtful face.

“My son is alive. He is well. That isn’t important. He…” He stopped again and took a drink of wine. “I was already in a fever by that time, and after that one conversation, I don’t remember anything except that he was there and took care of me. I suppose I was there for days. When I woke up the next time, he had gone out, and I fled the cave and returned to the castle. Then I was ill.”

“That’s a rather mild way of putting it.”

“Perhaps I should have died. But one night, I believe he came to me.”

“The elf?”

“Aye. He came and sat me up in bed and laid his hands on me, and suddenly a great gush of water came out of my mouth, and I could breathe again.”

“He came into the castle? Are you sure of this?” Sigefrith asked.

'Are you sure of this?'

“No,” Egelric admitted.

“You did recover rather suddenly,” Alred said, “but I had thought it was because—”

Egelric waited a moment for him to finish and then asked, “Because of what?”

“I… don’t know. Never mind. Go ahead.”

Egelric eyed him narrowly, and Alred reminded himself that Egelric did not miss much either—and he didn’t have crossed monkey eyes.

“The next thing,” Egelric continued, “was my knives. The elf boy had taken my knives when we were in the caves, presumably so that I would not kill him, as I probably would have. And of course I fled without them. But after I was well enough to return to the lake, I awoke one morning to find my knives outside my door, wrapped up in a piece of leather. And also this.” He produced a small silk purse and pulled a lock of dark hair out of it.

Alred leaned in to look at it. “The boy’s?”

“No—I believe it is my son’s.”

'No--I believe it is my son's.'

“Ah!” Alred sat back in his chair. “That is rather a sinister gift, is it not?”

“I don’t find it so. I don’t believe he meant it so. I believe… he seemed genuinely sorry that I could not see him grow up. This has meant a lot to me,” he said, returning the hair to the purse. “It helps me believe.”

“I understand,” Sigefrith said. “It helps me believe, too. Your story, that is.”

“Aye, but you may find the next part more difficult. I haven’t any evidence.”

“Try me.”

“It’s the dragon.”

“Ah! I’ve been looking forward to the dragon.”

“Do you recall the night last January when the moon went dark?”

“Oh, indeed,” Alred said. “Dunstan and I sat and watched it for hours.”

“Do you recall how the men at the lake said they heard a great crash?”

“Yes. Was it your dragon?”

“I woke up shortly after I went to bed and came outside to look at the moon. Soon afterwards I saw what I thought was a great owl flying overhead, but when it came to land before me, I found that—You’ll think me mad,” he said, laughing softly to himself. “It is stranger then dead elves that do not die.”

“Tell us anyway,” Sigefrith said.

“I can only call it a dragon, although it didn’t look much like the funny little lion-​serpent you have on your pretty pillow.”

'It didn't look much like the funny little lion-serpent you have on your pretty pillow.'

Sigefrith laughed. “Poor girl. She meant well!”

“Sigefrith, hush. Egelric, are you serious?” Alred asked softly. “Do you mean a dragon, like ‘a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads’?”

“He only had one head. But he was… he was so enormous, I believe I could have laid myself down on his tongue. His head alone was as large as a bull, and he had teeth like… teeth like…” He shook his head. “His wings were wider than the clearing in which I built my little house. I have never dreamed that anything living could be so huge,” he mused.

Alred and Sigefrith stared at one another for a moment, and Alred was moved to cross himself. Both were wondering whether it could have been that dragon? Appearing before Egelric? Surely it was better to believe that Egelric was simply mad.

“I thought he would swallow me, but instead he only looked at me, and then he flew up into the air again, over the lake, and suddenly folded his wings against his sides and dropped like a stone into the water. That was the crash they heard.”

Alred said, “They told me it must have been a rock falling somewhere.”

'They told me it must have been a rock falling somewhere.'

“I told them I didn’t hear a thing, so they thought that it must have been a smaller crash than they had imagined, but closer to the castle. Would you have had me tell them that it was a great red dragon that had gone for a swim?”

“Jupiter! I suppose not. Whether or not it was true.”

“What then?” Sigefrith asked.

“Then, I don’t know,” Egelric said. “I went inside and closed the door. It was many hours and the moon was bright before I slept, but I heard nothing else.”

All three sat quietly for a moment, drinking their wine and staring off into three different corners of the room.

“Do you suppose it’s an ordinary dragon that lives in the valley? Perhaps in the lake?” Alred asked.

“An ordinary dragon?” Sigefrith laughed.

'An ordinary dragon?'

“I mean, not the great dragon, but one of the dragons that are supposed to live in places where none except the compilers of bestiaries have ever gone? Or the dragons that saints such as Margaret have defeated?”

“Do we have a saint to hand?” Egelric muttered.

“I have one,” Sigefrith sighed happily.

“You care to send her out to defeat the beast?” Alred asked.

“Certainly not. I suppose that’s my duty and my privilege.”

“Saint Sigefrith? I like the sound of that.”

'Saint Sigefrith?  I like the sound of that.'

“I don’t!” Sigefrith laughed. “I suppose one must be dead to be a saint.”

“Gentlemen?” Egelric interrupted.

“Sorry, old man,” Alred giggled. “This one is too besotted to take anything seriously, and I never do.”

Sigefrith asked, “Could it be because you are still as besotted as I, after lo these fifteen years?”

“Not yet fourteen, but the fact remains. However, I don’t make an ass out of myself over Matilda any longer.”

“Don’t you?” Sigefrith laughed. “Perhaps not a fire-​breathing ass, but the fact remains!”



“Our apologies, Egelric,” Sigefrith said. “Go ahead.”

Egelric sighed. “The next story I have to tell happened last summer, but it did not happen to me, which is why I have saved it until now. It involves Malcolm, Dunstan, and Bertie, and it was Bertie who told it to me.”

“Dunstan?” Alred cried. “What could happen to that poor boy that he wouldn’t have told his Mama already? Was it Spackbears this time?”

“No, it wasn’t Spackbears,” Egelric snapped, “and you may wish to keep a closer eye on your son now, for he seems to have passed the age where he must tell his Mama everything.”



“Indeed, you will probably wish to tan his hide after I have finished talking to you, and that goes for Malcolm too, and if I dared tell Alwy this story, Bertie as well.”

“I suppose I can tan Bertie’s while I am at it,” Alred offered.

“One night last summer the three of them stole the key to the catacombs under the church and went exploring.”

“Oh, dear,” Sigefrith said, and smiled softly to himself.

'Oh, dear.'

“Oh,” Alred chuckled, “you know how young boys are with death and decay and bodily functions and most everything that their elders would prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.”

“Makes you laugh, does it?” Egelric asked.

“Were you always an old man, old man?” Alred asked.

“No, but my grandfather beat me like a hired mule for every similar adventure of mine, and now that I am an old man, I begin to understand why.”

“I’m not saying I shan’t punish him. Nor am I saying I wouldn’t have done the same at his age and in his situation.”

Egelric sighed. “Allow me to finish my story, and you may reconsider the gravity of his situation.”

'Allow me to finish my story, and you may reconsider the gravity of his situation.'


“The boys—being young boys, as you astutely noted—decided they wanted to look at a few dead people, so they opened a few coffins. The first was a simple wooden coffin and held only a skeleton. The second was a very fine coffin that they thought must have belonged to a nobleman. But when they tried to open it, they found that the thing began to open itself, and they claim that there was a living woman inside who pushed open the lid herself.”

“What?” Alred laughed, unbelieving.

“Come, Egelric,” Sigefrith said. “I can’t tell you how many times Cenwulf and I scared ourselves half to death with the things we imagined we saw when we went into the cemetery at night, or into the old barn we imagined was haunted, and so forth.”

'I can't tell you how many times Cenwulf and I scared ourselves half to death.'

“I wouldn’t disagree with you,” Egelric said, “except for what happened last month.”

“What happened last month? You mean with Bertie and your daughter?”


Egelric stopped and stared at the table for a moment, and Alred refilled his cup.

“It was Bertie who told me the story. Baby won’t tell me about it, even when I ask her whether what Bertie told me was true. So Bertie doesn’t know what Baby meant to do. When he found her, she had run nearly to the edge of the fire in Selwood. But when he found her, she was screaming and struggling with a woman. Bertie says it was the same woman he had seen in the coffin.”

“Now, Egelric…” Alred sighed.

“Listen a moment, please. I am not certain that is the worst part. This woman, whoever she was, was trying to hold my daughter, and my daughter was terrified and screaming, and so Bertie took his knife and stabbed the woman in the side.”

Alred whistled. “That’s serious. Jupiter!” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I shall have to talk to the boy.”

“I’ve not finished. The woman let go of Baby, and Baby ran into the fire.

Into the fire?” Sigefrith asked.

“Directly into the fire.”

'Directly into the fire.'

Sigefrith laughed. “The whole story is absurd.”

“That’s what happened to her clothes,” Egelric said. “Listen. Bertie told me that the woman smacked him and knocked him to the ground, and he hit his head. When he woke up, Baby was standing over him, without her clothes, trying to wake him, because the fire was getting closer to him. He gave her his tunic, and asked her what had happened, and she said that the fire can’t hurt her because she is an elf, but the fire can burn her clothes.”

“What—the fire can’t hurt her? Hasn’t she ever been burned?” Alred asked.

“I don’t believe she has,” Egelric admitted. “I can’t remember a time, despite her fascination with fire.”

“Wait—when the elf woman—Midra—burned your barn, didn’t the groom say she had stood in the fire and not been burned?”

“That’s true, he did,” Egelric mused.

“Didn’t he also say she started the fires with her hands?” Sigefrith asked.

'Didn't he also say she started the fires with her hands?'

“That’s so,” Alred said. “Baby hasn’t ever…?”

“Not that I have seen!” Egelric said. “Good God!”

“It’s quite a job to raise an elf child, isn’t it?” Alred said.

“And I’ve left her with you for so long…”

“Luckily she hasn’t burned the place down around us,” he laughed. “She’s a good girl, Egelric. What did the woman want with her? Did she tell Bertie? Say—was the woman an elf?”

“Bertie didn’t say that she was an elf. Iylaine only told him that she was bad and that she wanted to kill elves, so I suppose she wasn’t one herself.”

“Why can’t we arrange for her and Druze and Midra to fight it out between them?” Alred sighed.

'Why can't we arrange for her and Druze and Midra to fight it out between them?'

“Perhaps that is what the elves meant when they released the two of them,” Sigefrith suggested. “It would explain why they haven’t been killing the men since then.”

“Perhaps she already killed the two of them,” Egelric said.

“If they can die,” Alred grunted.

“So, do you both believe me mad now?” Egelric asked after draining his cup.

“I don’t,” Alred said. “I believe the only one of us who is mad is Sigefrith here, who brought us all to this valley ten years ago and scoffed at the notion of a curse. We have living, fire-​proof elves among us, dead elves who kill the people, a dead woman who kills the elves, a mysterious Dark Lady, and to crown it all, an enormous dragon living in my lake.”

“And a fire-​breathing ass for a king,” Sigefrith said.

“God save our fire-​breathing ass!” Alred laughed, lifting his cup to him.

'And a fire-breathing ass for a king.'