“Eirik!” Sigefrith cried with joy.

“Raedwald!” Cenwulf groaned.

“Three people I don’t know!” Alred added gleefully.

The three men had been having an unpleasant discussion about how to last the winter on the little food they had, and Alred was more than happy to have had it interrupted by news of Eirik’s arrival. But he had not expected the additional fun of three strangers, two of which were young ladies.

He had not expected the additional fun of three strangers, two of which were young ladies.

Even Sir Raedwald was supposed to be a smart, spirited man when not brought into contact with his brother-​in-​law. Alred had only ever seen him sullen, as indeed he looked now, but he hoped that he would brighten once he had seen how happy his sister was in her new life.

Eirik embraced the King, Alred, and even a stunned and therefore docile Cenwulf.

“I bring you your cousin for Christmas,” Eirik said to Sigefrith, “but I leave her at home with her brother. I don’t ride one more step with that Olaf.”

“Sigi here?” Sigefrith cried.

“With her brother, I said. You go see her if you want, or you tell Brede to bring them here, but I don’t carry him any more. She say: you tell Brede this and you tell Synne that, till I tell her: so, you come with me and tell them yourself. But you carry that boy yourself, I said, and who carry him anyway? I do.”

'Who carry him anyway?  I do.'

“That’s married life, runt,” Sigefrith said sympathetically.

“And who carried my brother-​in-​law?” Cenwulf muttered.

Eirik laughed. “Good news for you, sir!” he said to Raedwald. “He don’t deny you. I tell him,” he explained to Cenwulf, “if he is lying to me and you don’t know him, I sell him to the Moors in exchange for a pony for my boy. But you may have him instead. I rather spend an hour with Olaf than with this fellow.”

“I have never met your son, but I would be inclined to agree,” Cenwulf said.

'I have never met your son, but I would be inclined to agree.'

“You could still trade him for a pony,” Eirik said.

Cenwulf grunted.

Eirik turned then to the three strangers with Raedwald, the littlest of whom, a tiny young woman with long braids, was grinning eagerly. The other woman looked miserable and confused—or miserably confused, Alred thought—and the man on whose arm she hung seemed wary, as if he was prepared to draw his sword at any moment. Indeed, his hand moved with such consciousness of a sword at his side that Alred did not notice until Eirik next spoke that he was not wearing a sword at all; and neither was Sir Raedwald.

He was not wearing a sword at all; and neither was Sir Raedwald.

“These are my hostages,” Eirik said. “I don’t catch them myself, but my friend Olaf he did, and so, he try to ransom them to their family. But then I hear this big red man he say his family is the Baroness whom you go see when I take you to the Rhine,” he said to Cenwulf. “So I say, we see about that. And Olaf he give me his hostages, but so, I must give them back if they are not yours. But if they are yours, you may have them. Here is Raedwald and Friedrich and Hetty and Lili,” he said, pointing them out from tall to small. “But I keep Lili for myself.”

'But I keep Lili for myself.'

“You shall not!” the small lady laughed.

“So I shall! Sigefrith will give me a cup, and I put you in and put my hand over, so! Then you don’t come out, like a spider, and I take you with me.”

“This is Sir Friedrich von Forbach,” Raedwald growled savagely. “Previously my squire. And his wife, Lady Hedwige, and her sister, Luitgarde von Mariahof.”

'Like I say: Friedrich, Hetty, and Lili.'

“Like I say: Friedrich, Hetty, and Lili. Previously my hostages. But Lili I keep.”

The girl laughed again.

“I put you in my pocket so my wife she don’t see.”

“I shall bite you through your clothes like a spider!”

'I shall bite you through your clothes like a spider!'

“You may bite me when you like, but I take off my clothes first.”

“Sir!” Raedwald snarled.

Eirik laughed at him. “He like Lili for himself, but Lili she like me better. I make her laugh with my jokes, he only make her laugh by being an ass.”

“If jokes are what she likes, you had better not introduce her to Alred,” Sigefrith recommended.

'If jokes are what she likes, you had better not introduce her to Alred.'

“Damn! I don’t think of that.”

“Which one is Alred?” she asked eagerly.

“You think it is this big ghoulish man here?” he asked of Cenwulf. “He never laugh, but sometimes he say ‘Ha ha’ if it is very funny. Alred is this little man here, but be careful because he will fit in the cup too.”

Alred smiled and bowed, but she held up a warning finger and said to him, “Wait you, first. First I curtsey to your King,” which she did, “and only then to you.”

'Wait you, first.'

Alred laughed and bowed again when his turn came.

“Welcome, all of you,” Sigefrith said. “I was just saying to my wife that it’s unfair that her father has all of the newcomers to himself these days, and we’re muddling along with the same old ugly faces we know. But if you are friends of Sir Raedwald, perhaps we shall allow his sister the Countess to offer her hospitality to you first, though I should love to have you here.”

'I should love to have you here.'

The girl Lili turned to her companions and began what seemed to be an explanation of the important parts of what had been said so far, in a sort of German that was unlike the Saxon dialect Alred knew from Colburga, Edris, and Father Brandt.

“Don’t they speak English?” Sigefrith asked.

“Oh, no,” Eirik said. “Only Lili she do. But Lili she speak many languages. Every time she meet a man who speak a new language, she flirt with him till he teach her everything she want to know.”

'Only Lili she do.'

Lili laughed, but she did not deny this.

“She flirt with my friend Olaf till he teach her Norse. She speak Norse like a German goat, but so. I try to tell her I speak English, but Sigi she tell her that my English is not so good.”

“Like a Norse pig-​dog!” Lili laughed.

'Like a Norse pig-dog!'

“Runt, you have indeed erred by introducing her to Alred,” Sigefrith said. “There is nothing he likes more than languages, except for flirting.”

“Is it so?” she laughed and looked to Alred alone. He thought she had a laugh that was like the pealing of a row of tiny bells. It was the sort of tinkling laugh that he had always found annoying after a while, but in her laugh, it was as if the bells rang out a different tune every time. One would not soon tire of it, he thought.

One would not soon tire of it, he thought.

“It’s so,” Eirik said before Alred had a chance to speak. “He speak more languages than you, I think, and if he don’t, he make some new ones so you flirt with him.”

“We also have a few Gaelic speakers,” Sigefrith said thoughtfully. “And Lady Judith is Flemish, and Sir Godefroy speaks French…”

“I do speak French and Flemish, but not Gaelic!” she said eagerly.

“Don’t let Sir Egelric teach you,” Alred advised her. “He only knows how to swear and fight.”

“Oh, that’s fine!” she grinned.

“Can I put her in a cup and keep her?” he asked Eirik.

'Can I put her in a cup and keep her?'

“You can try,” Eirik shrugged. “Lili she never do sit still.”

“Lady Hedwige, art thou unwell?” Cenwulf asked suddenly in his best Saxon.

'Lady Hedwige, art thou unwell?'

“She is too unwell to be making such a voyage!” Raedwald snapped.

“Nobody told me she starts working on a baby while she’s a hostage!” Eirik cried in exasperation. “Damn! I don’t look at ladies’ stomachs all the time!”

'Damn!  I don't look at ladies' stomachs all the time!'

Alred realized only then that the lady stood with the slanted hips and slouching back of a woman whose baby was beginning to grow heavy inside her. She was pale and pretty, with silky hair one longed to touch. It was a wonder he had scarcely noticed her before.

It was a wonder he had scarcely noticed her before.