'Holy mother Juno.'

“Holy mother Juno,” Alred groaned.

Britamund did not say anything, but her heart sank at the sight.

“Saying it is worse than I feared would be understating it,” Alred said. “I could not conceive of such horrors on my own. Aylmer!”

The old steward walked placidly across the tiles, as if he could not conceive of such horrors even when they lay beneath his own feet. “Your Highness,” he bowed, “and Your Grace.”

'Your Highness.'

“Aylmer, what in the name of all that is horizontal happened here?”

“I told Your Grace,” Aylmer shrugged.

“You told me you thought it a little odd.”

“And so it is.”

“Aylmer! You did not tell me that my boy took the Tawdry Fairy by the feet and dragged her face-​​down across the floor until she spewed forth this – this – ”


“Catastrophe,” Britamund murmured.


“I didn’t see that, if his lordship did it,” Aylmer said. “I’ll just go put some wood on the fire, if Her Highness means to stay a while.”

'I'll just go put some wood on the fire.'

“If I am cruel enough to so impose upon her eyes,” Alred muttered.

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Britamund said.

“My dear,” Alred said gently, “if ever life gives you the choice, always, always laugh. There will be days when you will only know how to cry.”

Britamund had not meant her comment as earnestly as he meant his reply, but she smiled at him in gratitude. She thought it had cost him to make it.

'There will be days when you will only know how to cry.'

She had been seeing a new side of her future father-​​in-​​law in the past months. She did not know whether it was that she was growing more perceptive or whether he was allowing her to see something he had always kept hidden. She was coming to realize that the laughing, joking man everyone loved was only the coffer in which he kept the real man. She loved the real man more.

“You don’t suppose they’re meant to fade as they age?” Alred asked Aylmer.

“I’m sure they’ll be real faint and hard to see by the time a century or two has passed,” Aylmer replied.

“Praise God,” Alred sighed.

'I'm sure they'll be real faint and hard to see by the time a century or two has passed.'

He had taken Britamund out to Dunellen that day on the pretense that all of his children were busy and that he wanted company on the ride. Britamund did not think his reason was as selfish as that.

Caedwulf was always with her father, and Drage was always with his mother these days, but the Princesses had been left very much to themselves after the baby’s death. However, Edris had soon taken Emma under her wing, and Britamund had a standing invitation at Nothelm to sit with the Duchess and sew or read. But her favorite moments were spent with the Duke. Hetty was clever and kind, but Alred made her forget the quiet despair she would be going home to in the evening.

Today she would have him to herself all the afternoon.

Today she would have him to herself all the afternoon. There had been the delightful hour-​​long ride through the autumn-​​brown and golden meadows, and then, while the Duke went over business with Aylmer, she would be free a while to explore the castle and courts, and this was agreeable too. Afterwards there would be a light meal with him to fortify themselves for another delightful ride home.

Britamund had been dimly aware that the tile-​​work at the castle had been completed without ever having been told it had started, and though she was hurt that her opinion had not been consulted, she had been curious to see what Dunstan had come up with on his own.

She had some vague hope that he had worked in secrecy because he had wanted to surprise her in some way. It seemed like something a shy, romantic boy like Dunstan would do. However, she had to admit to herself that she could not think of anything one could conceivably do with tiles that would have special meaning to her or to the two of them. She had no totem animal, and her name meant nothing that could easily be represented.

She had some vague hope that he had worked in secrecy because he had wanted to surprise her in some way.

Certainly the result represented nothing but the catastrophe of which she had warned him and Bertie several months before. The tile-​​maker seemed to have used every color of paint in his workshop, and a goodly number of incompatible designs, which had all been arranged with no particular regard for harmony or restraint. There was an enormous, garish rosette in the center of the floor; strange curlicues in the corners; and in between and all around were hundreds of small, colorful tiles that seemed to have been painted at random and laid by chance.

“Now I know what happened to Yware’s bestiary that he had from Magnus,” Alred said and scuffed the toe of his boot over one of the small tiles, as if he hoped that it could so easily be erased.

Once Britamund’s eyes had consented to focus on one of them, she realized that each featured a different animal. Taken individually they were cunningly done, and a half-​​dozen of them would have been charming in a little boy’s room. But a hall full of such tiles was a nightmare’s menagerie.

'I shall thank the boy for teaching me an advantage of books that I had never guessed.'

“I shall thank the boy for teaching me an advantage of books that I had never guessed,” Alred said.

“What?” Britamund asked.

“In the book, one is never confronted with more than two or three of these creatures at a time, and one has to turn the page to see another. I believe that the entire contents of the tome spilled out onto the floor nearly suffices to overwhelm the human mind.”

“Perhaps it is meant as a defensive feature of the castle,” Britamund said.

'Perhaps it is meant as a defensive feature of the castle.'

Alred laughed. “That is what I call giving the boy the benefit of the doubt.”

“But this had to be intentional. This must be what he wanted.”

“I am not certain he intended quite this effect.” He shook his head and sighed. “I asked him to request a lady’s assistance, and I had naturally intended him to ask your discerning self.”

“I thought perhaps he meant to surprise me,” she admitted.

'I thought perhaps he meant to surprise me.'

Alred smiled a pained little smile that made Britamund feel he was hurting for her sake.

“Did your father tell you what I meant to do with this place?” he asked her.

“He said you meant to put Dunstan in it next year, so he can learn about managing a household and some land.”

“That is correct. And I had planned to leave him here until I need him at home, which, God willing, will not be for many years, or until his brother returns to claim his castle, which I fear will be never. And that means that this will very likely be your first home.”

'And that means that this will very likely be your first home.'

Britamund could not help but look at the floor in despair.

“Perhaps I should have told him so,” Alred said. “Then he might have realized not only the sagacity but also the necessity of involving you in its furnishing.”

Britamund did not have the heart to tell him that she had already told Dunstan so.

“It’s no matter,” she said. “We may either cry about it or laugh about it, and I think we shall soon learn to laugh about it.”

'I think we shall soon learn to laugh about it.'

Alred smiled at her.

“This isn’t merely bad enough to be an annoyance,” she said. “This is bad enough to be a legend. People will come from all around to see the Hall of Horrors at Dunellen.”

Now Alred laughed.

Now Alred laughed.

“And, you know,” she said, “I think that children will simply love it.”

“They’re short enough that they don’t have to take it all in at once,” he nodded.

“And I’m certain they will enjoy crawling around and looking at each of the animals.”

'And I'm certain they will enjoy crawling around and looking at each of the animals.'

“We shall bring some youngsters out here to test your theory at the first available opportunity. Do you know, Brit? You’re a true optimist. You are your father’s daughter.”

Britamund did not think her father was feeling particularly optimistic at the moment, and the look on Alred’s face an instant after he said the words showed that he did not think so either.

“However,” he said quickly, “I’ve been thinking that I ought to advance my plans a little and get Dunstan out here as soon as possible. Before the winter. It wouldn’t do to set him down here suddenly in the middle of spring planting.”

'It wouldn't do to set him down here suddenly in the middle of spring planting.'


“I think it would do him some good to get away from home for a while.”


“Of course, there will be much visiting and receiving of visits,” he assured her. “It’s only an hour’s ride from Nothelm. Too long to be practical for every day, of course, but unless it snows, it’s not too long to be pleasant. Egelric has a ride of about the same distance, and he usually makes it once a week or so.”

'He usually makes it once a week or so.'

“Of course.”

“And when Dunstan comes – or when we come here – I think we shall have the wisdom to make the best use of our time together.”

“Of course.”

'Of course.'

“We might even see more of him then than we do now. Don’t you think?”

“It’s possible.”

“But I insist that you help him finish what he started here. I realize it’s too late to make the place quite attractive, but I think you will know how to minimize the casualties.”

“I shall leave the Tawdry Fairy out of the consultations.”

'And I hereby promise you every deerskin I acquire this winter.'

“And I hereby promise you every deerskin I acquire this winter, for the purpose of, shall we say, ‘protecting’ lo these many tiles, so that even a century or two will not suffice to diminish their…”

“Charm,” Britamund supplied.


Alred laughed. “It was not the word I was seeking, my beauty, but I shall let it stand. I consider you more qualified than anyone I know to hold forth on matters of charm.”

'I consider you more qualified than anyone I know to hold forth on matters of charm.'