'Punch me!  Punch me!'

“Punch me! Punch me!” Cynewulf cried as he ran into the new hall.

Alred laughed, though he could not begin to guess what had possessed the Old Man to make such a demand until he had rounded the corner himself and seen Sigefrith and Caedwulf sparring before a low fire.

“You’ll live to regret that, runt,” Sigefrith said.

'You'll live to regret that, runt.'

“So will you, if you don’t die first,” Cynewulf countered. “I shan’t be a runt forever. I mean to be big and tall!”

“And I shall be too old by then to defend myself.”

“I shan’t!” the Prince cried and leapt at the little boy.

'I shan't!'

“Why don’t you two take it outside, where there won’t be any witnesses,” Sigefrith suggested.

“I want witnesses in case I beat him!” Cynewulf said.

“Well, then take it outside where it won’t be such a bother cleaning up the blood and body parts.”

'Take it outside where it won't be such a bother cleaning up the blood and body parts.'

“Very well,” Cynewulf said. “But you don’t mean to talk about me when I’m gone, and make fun of me, and tell each other how cute I am, do you?”

“Tired of that, are you?”

“I don’t mind if Hetty does it, or ladies do it, but I don’t want you men doing it.”

'I don't want you doing it.'

“I give you my word that the subject of your cuteness will not be on the table, especially since it goes without saying, and I haven’t time to waste on self-​evident truths.”

Cynewulf seemed unable to decide whether this was acceptable, but Caedwulf distracted him by saying, “Come on, runt. Let’s go out and see who can push whom into the moat.”

“I can swim, you know,” Cynewulf warned him as they went out.

'I can swim, you know.'

“He is without peer, Alred.” Sigefrith smiled.

“That doesn’t prevent me from trying to match him,” Alred said.

“That’s right,” Sigefrith laughed. “How is Hetty?”

'How is Hetty?'

“Better. She’s not sick any longer, though I should like to fatten her up a little now that she can eat again. I don’t know how she ever hid little Bruni from Raedwald for so long, if she was even half as sick as she has been this time.”

“Perhaps it’s only that your runts are particularly nauseating.”

“That doesn’t prevent the ladies from wishing they could eat them up,” Alred joked, but in fact Sigefrith had stumbled across one of his private fears.

'That doesn't prevent the ladies from wishing they could eat them up.'

Hetty pretended to feel better than she felt, but Lili had assured him that her sister had not been nearly so ill with Brunhilde. Perhaps there was something strangely toxic about his babies. Perhaps it was not that Matilda had been ill but that his children had made her ill.

Then he always remembered that Leofric’s child had been enough to kill her, and it was nearly more than he could bear.

“But in the case of the Old Man,” he continued, “it may be that he is simply sickeningly sweet.”

“It’s the curls, Alred. All the ladies love the Old Man, but it’s the curls that make them want to eat his poor head.”

“You promised him that we weren’t planning to discuss how cute he is, and here we are!” Alred laughed.

'Damn!  I owe the Old Man now.'

“Damn! I owe the Old Man now. And it was about my own runt that I wanted to talk to you. I suppose it shows how relatively cute the poor boy is.”

“Which one?”

“That gangling monkey who just took the finest fruit of your loins out for a dunking.”

“Sigefrith, you have finally come up with a single, coherent metaphor that would be worthy of a poet. Of horror.”

'You have finally come up with a single, coherent metaphor that would be worthy of a poet.'

“Did I?”

“The monkey… the fruit… Never mind. Continue.”

“Now that you mention it, it makes me want to cross my legs just thinking about it.”

'It makes me want to cross my legs just thinking about it.'

“Precisely. The subjects of my son’s cuteness and my loins are hereby off the table. Continue, please.”

“Fortunately I don’t believe either subject will prove to be germane. I wanted to talk to you about Caedwulf and Gwynn.”

Alred opened his mouth to protest and then closed it again.

“Cenwulf and I were talking about Emmie and Baldwin this morning, and—”

“But they’re only nine. Baldwin not even yet.”

“But that’s the point! I have Brit settled already, and I’m already thinking about Emmie, but we still haven’t done anything for Gwynn and the gangling monkey.”

Alred lifted his head and sighed.

Alred lifted his head and sighed.

“I’m beginning to believe that if we haven’t settled anything yet, it’s because you don’t want to,” Sigefrith grumbled.

“I wouldn’t say that…”

“Then say what you would say. I should like to hear it. I’m not getting younger,” he said bitterly, “and God knows whether I shall have any other sons. I want to see a few grand-​runts before I die.”

'I want to see a few grand-runts before I die.'

“Gwynn is all of eleven, and unless I have not been kept informed, she is not yet capable of providing you with any. And the boy is only fourteen.”

“I don’t want them to marry yet. I want to have things settled, so that even if I were to die, I would know that my heir won’t be marrying any chambermaids or cotter’s daughters.”


“What’s the matter? Is my son not good enough for your daughter? I remind you I gave you mine for your son.”

“That’s not it at all.”

'That's not it at all.'

“If anyone is likely to have Maud’s illness, it will be one of the girls, don’t you think?” he snarled.

“Sigefrith, calm yourself. I don’t believe any of them show any signs of Maud’s illness. We don’t know anything about Maud’s parents, but I know you. And if any of your children are capable of having a flight of fancy that even lifts both of their little heels from the ground, it will prove you a more whimsical man than I have ever imagined.”

Sigefrith snorted.

Sigefrith snorted.

“I simply do not share your haste,” Alred said. “In the first place, I am not certain that a long betrothal is the kindest thing for either the young man or the young lady. Remember that neither you nor I know what it is like.”

“Cenwulf does, and he doesn’t seem to find it shocking to discuss his plans for Baldwin.”

“Cenwulf lived hundreds of miles from his betrothed. I think it makes a difference.”

'I think it makes a difference.'

“Why? Wouldn’t it be easier if they were able to see one another occasionally?”

“I am not certain it is,” Alred said. But he did not wish to discuss this particular subject with Sigefrith at the moment, so he rushed into another, though it too pained him to mention. “The other reason is simply that I once made a promise to Matilda that I do not wish to break.”

“Matilda? Why? Did she have someone in mind for Gwynn already?”

'Did she have someone in mind for Gwynn already?'

“No. But she once asked me to tell Gwynn to wait until she had found someone who loved her as I loved her mother.”

Sigefrith sighed. “What sort of argument am I supposed to raise against that?”

“I don’t believe there is any argument that can stand against that,” Alred murmured.

'I don't believe there is any argument that can stand against that.'

“Damn you! Alred! Will you let the girl marry a cotter, then?”

“If he loves her as I loved her mother. And if she loves him.”

“Alred.” Sigefrith shook his head. “How can I say this? That won’t work. This is real life we’re discussing. You live in poems, but the rest of us don’t. And I have a son who is a prince, and who needs a wife. And you have a daughter who is a duke’s daughter, and the granddaughter of a princess, and the cousin of a mighty king.”

“She’s Matilda’s daughter. And Matilda wanted that poetry for her.”



This request of Matilda’s was perhaps his finest proof that she had loved him once: Matilda had loved him enough to want a love like his for her beloved daughter. He would cling to that idea until the day he died. Indeed, that idea was the spar to which he clung whenever despair began to drag him down to death.

“If she were here, we could ask her,” Alred said softly. “She is not, and so I must keep my word to her.”

“Are you telling me that you refuse my son for Gwynn? Did I not tell you that Old Aed has offered his own daughter for him?”

“I am not refusing him. If he wants her and wins her, he may have her, with my blessing.”

'I am not refusing him.'

“He will never write poetry for her, Alred.”

“Poetry is vanity and not worth the breath spent upon it. He only has to love her.”

“I shall not wait for the two of them to fall in love. I warn you.”

Alred shrugged. “Matilda’s advice to her was this: ‘Until you find a man who loves you so, wait.’ You may wait or not, as you like. You are king here. But Gwynn is my daughter, and Matilda’s daughter, and I shall tell her what her mother asked me to tell her.”

'Why did you not tell me this before?'

“Why did you not tell me this before?” Sigefrith sighed. “I have been thinking it evident that Gwynn was for Caedwulf.”

“It has not been easy for me to tell it to you now.”

“Even now?” Sigefrith asked gently.

“Even now.”

'Even now.'