'Good morning, Alred!'

“Good morning, Alred!” Sigefrith called, almost cheerily.

“Good morning, Sigefrith.” But Alred did not sound cheery at all.

“We don’t often see signs of life out of you until later in the morning.”

“I have been wanting to speak with you about something,” Alred said gravely, “and I decided that today would be the day. And thereupon I decided it could not wait another hour.”

“Take a seat, then, and speak to me. But first, how’s the old man?”

Alred sat and sighed. “Sigefrith, I meant to be angry with you this morning and you start by asking about my boy.”

“Well, and how is he?” Sigefrith chuckled.

“Oh, much better,” Alred said, brightening. “Gunnilda has been bringing up a sort of custard for him, and he’s simply lapping it up.”

'Oh, much better.'

“Gunnilda is? Didn’t she lose her baby not long ago?”

“She did. Her little girl.”

“That’s very kind of her, then.”

“She’s a very kind lady.”

“I shall have to stop and see them one of these days.”

“She would like that.”

“Emmie has been eating too. Soups, though. I didn’t think of custard.”

'Emmie has been eating too.'

“You should try it. The difference is that I suppose your cooks can make it properly.”

“Alred, really… isn’t it time you found a replacement for that Gorgon?”

“She makes good gravy,” he said automatically, and then he smacked his forehead as he remembered why he had come. “Damn you! I need to be angry at you if I am to make it through this!”

Sigefrith laughed. “Take a stab at it anyway. Perhaps the anger will return as you go.”

“It should have come as I was talking about gravy and custard.”

“Why? I’m not your cook!”

“Jupiter, Sigefrith! Listen here. It’s serious.”

“What it is then?” Sigefrith asked, trying to adopt an expression of gravity.

“It’s about the tithe barns.”


“Don’t ‘ah’ me, old man.”

'Don't 'ah' me, old man.'

“All right. Then I shall simply remind you that they do not belong to me.”

“No, but their contents should! Half of them anyway!”

“Alred,” Sigefrith sighed, “you and I and Cenwulf have had this conversation a thousand times.”

“And still you don’t listen! Listen now, Sigefrith,” Alred said, jumping up from his chair in his irritation. “It’s one thing to lament the loss of riches, but we are losing lives now. The people are hungry. The people are not only hungry, they are starving.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?” Sigefrith snapped.

“You know that, but you don’t seem to realize that there is food enough in the valley to feed them.”

'You know that, but you don't seem to realize that there is food enough in the valley to feed them.'

“I told you, it isn’t mine!” Sigefrith rose to his feet at last.

“Half of it should be! It’s bad enough that you’re paying double tithes to the abbey, but you’re not even getting any help with our own church here! You give the abbot a fifth of all you produce, and on top of that we have the church, and my chapel, and Brandt, and Leofric’s chapel and his priest, and every once in a while the abbey gifts us with a – with a vestment or something! I should like to know whom or what we are tithing if we never see the benefit of it! Is the abbey feeding our poor? Is the abbey burying our dead?”

“Have you finished?”

“Yes! Now it’s your turn.”

'Yes!  Now it's your turn.'

“I have nothing to say, except that I gave my word ten years ago.”

“Your word! Sigefrith – do you realize to what you swore?”

“I do.”

“Do you really? You swore to give a fifth of all you produce to the abbey, in exchange for a girl. Do you realize that?”

“Alred…” Sigefrith warned.

“It is not so much to your dishonor as it is to the abbot’s.”

“There was no dishonor done.”

“Sigefrith, such a bargain would better suit the devil than an abbot. He sold his niece for – ”

“That will do!”

'That will do!'

“On second thought, I’m not finished! I wonder whether your bargain included the condition that you would stop paying upon her death?”

“Alred, if you are not, I, at least, am growing angry,” Sigefrith growled.

“I don’t care. I’ve watched my people eat all the food they had, and then I watched them eat the oats meant for the beasts, and now I am watching them eat nothing. And meanwhile, every day I ride out past that hideous black tithe barn that is simply groaning with grain, and the greatest insult is that you have men guarding it. Not the abbot, but you have sent men to guard what he has stolen from us. It isn’t enough that he – ”

'It isn't enough that he--'

“Enough! That is enough! That grain belongs to the church. You may go insult the abbot to his face if you want it. I can do nothing.”

“You can remove the guards.”

“And then what?”

“Then I do not doubt the people will steal it.”

“I cannot allow that.”

“But you can allow your people to die of hunger.”

“What can I do, Alred? Do you think I do not spend my every waking minute wondering what I can do?”

'What can I do, Alred?'

“I’m telling you what you can do.”

“I can’t do that! I gave my word!”

“I believe you cling to your oath all the more because you are ashamed you ever made it.”

“Ashamed? Never. I could not have dreamt that we would still be here ten years from that day, nor that we would be so prosperous, nor that this winter would be so hard.”

“It was foolish and rash of you, Sigefrith. You have always been thus whenever a pretty woman was involved. If the people knew that it was for her that they were starving…”

“Enough! Out of here!” Sigefrith howled, pointing to the door.

'Out of here!'

“Would you expect a man to abide by a pledge that the other had made in bad faith?” Alred yelled back at him, ignoring the command.

“What? What is this now?”

“Sigefrith…” Alred stopped for a moment, his head in his hands. “Sit down,” he finally sighed.

“Certainly not. I am in no mood to sit. What do you mean to say?”

“I had hoped it wouldn’t be necessary…”

“Now it’s too late!”

“I know. Sigefrith, listen… it’s this: I believe that the abbot knew that Maud was – or would be – mad. It is why he hadn’t found a husband for her before you ever saw her. Didn’t you find that odd?”

'Didn't you find that odd?'

Sigefrith sank into his chair after all. “How can you say such a thing?” he asked.

Alred sat before him. “It is Egelric who told me.”



“His wife’s mother cared for her – I mean – ” Alred stopped and rubbed his forehead in confusion. He hated to lie… but the truth was almost more than he could bear to tell.

“What? Egelric’s wife knew Maud?”

“No, his wife’s mother,” he sighed. “She was a sort of healer at Thorhold. They say her mother’s grandmother was an elf. Anyway she had the care of – of Maud’s mother, when she was at the abbey.”

'No, his wife's mother.'

“Maud’s mother?

“She didn’t die when Maud was a little girl. She went mad, and her brother locked her up in the abbey with him for years.”

Sigefrith sat quietly, his face so blank that Alred had the impression that the only thing he was doing just then was breathing.

Sigefrith sat quietly.

“I believe,” Alred continued, “that the abbot knew that Maud was likely to have her mother’s disease. Egelric’s wife’s mother found her a strange girl already. And so he did not intend to allow her to marry. But perhaps you made him an offer he could not refuse.”

“It is for this that you say the abbot acted in bad faith?” Sigefrith asked softly.

“He should have told you what he knew.”

'He should have told you what he knew.'

Sigefrith stared out the window, and Alred allowed him to think.

As for himself, he was beginning to wonder whether it had been wise to tell Sigefrith at all. It was by no means certain that Sigefrith would take back the grain the abbot had earned in bad faith, but it was clear that he would never be able to think of his wife in the same way again. On the one hand, it might help him to know that he had not been responsible for what she had become. On the other, Alred could only pray that Sigefrith would not extend this line of reasoning and think of–

“My children!” Sigefrith whispered.

'My children!'

Alred closed his eyes for a moment to spare himself the sight of his friend’s face.

Matilda had been right. Matilda had told him not to meddle with this. Matilda! Telling him not to meddle! But she had been right. He had given Sigefrith a new worry that he would bear all the rest of his days. It had been rash and foolish of him… but his people were hungry!

“I don’t know, old man,” Alred said, suddenly contrite. “Perhaps it was Elfleda’s mother who was mad. Perhaps she made the whole story up when she learned about Maud’s… problems. Perhaps – ”

“I shall ask the abbot,” Sigefrith murmured as if dazed. “It is simple enough.”

“Don’t be angry at me for insisting,” Alred said softly, “but I hope you will also ask him about the grain.”

'Don't be angry at me for insisting.'

“I shall,” Sigefrith said. “Please leave me now.”

Alred stood and began to shuffle hesitantly towards the door. It seemed that to Sigefrith he was already gone.

“Listen, Sigefrith – ”

“Go!” he croaked.

Alred knew he didn’t want him to see him cry.