Alfric sat scowling at his wife.

Alfric sat scowling at his wife, who continued her darning as little perturbed as if he had been a scowling fly on the wall. It was not to be borne: she expected him to stay home of an evening, but all the entertainment he got out of it was watching her work and listening to the children’s whining. Now that they were abed, he had not even that much.

A man who worked hard all day in the sun had need of an hour or two of relaxation with his friends, and God knew he needed a cup or two of something to wet his dusty throat. But not in this house! In this house one removed all fun at the door, just as one removed one’s cloak.

Suddenly a knock came to that very door, as if called up by his thoughts. Alfric jumped from his chair in surprise. “Who the hell at this hour?”

Alfric jumped from his chair in surprise.

“It don’t matter who it is, you’re not going out now, Alfric! You’re working tomorrow. And watch your blas’mous tongue!” She never even looked up from her stitching.

He lifted a hand as if he would have liked to strike her, and then – only then! – her little rat-​​like eyes squinted up at him, and he dropped his hand, abashed.

Her little rat-like eyes squinted up at him.

He stomped out into the little front room just as another knock came. He yanked open the door, expecting he would find one of his friends come to tempt him with an invitation to some revels in which he could not take part – but the man on the step was a stranger, and stood blinking at him in surprise.

The man on the step was a stranger.

“Yes?” Alfric asked gruffly.

The man had a fine face and did not look a peasant in either gesture or dress. “I beg your pardon,” the stranger said with a soft voice that bore a trace of some unidentifiable accent. “I am looking for my – for Egelric Wodehead. Is this not his house?”

“Who is it, Alfric?” his wife shrieked from inside the house.

“That’ll be the Squire,” Alfric said to the man, ignoring her. “It’s his house, to be sure, but he don’t live in it no longer. I’m his man. He live up to the castle now.”

“The castle?”

'The castle?'

“That’ll be Nothelm keep up behind you,” Alfric said, pointing up to where the towers could be seen silhouetted against the sky, just above the trees on the hill.

When the stranger turned to look up at the castle and Alfric saw his own silhouette, he realized the man bore a sharp resemblance to the Squire himself.

The man bore a sharp resemblance to the Squire himself.

“You’ll be some cousin of him?”

“Alfric?” she cried again. “You’re not going out!”

“I am often asked that,” the man said. “One other question, if I may. Is there a young man here, named Sigefrith, who would be a cousin of your king?”

“Oh, that’ll be Sir Sigefrith. He live up on the hill behind the church. Just you go up the King’s Road, before the castle, and don’t turn at the church, but just keep going up the path.”

'Oh, that'll be Sir Sigefrith.'

“Thank you. I apologize for disturbing you so late. And my compliments to your wife,” he said with a thin smile.

Alfric grinned at him. “Good night, stranger.”

“Good night, Alfric,” the man said, and he turned to walk off into the woods on the hill, moving with the awkward grace of a cat with a slight limp.

Alfric grinned at him.