Leofric stared at the toe of his boot. “Can’t sleep?”
“No, but… there’s been a messenger…”
Leofric’s head snapped up. “The King?”
“Here.” Britmar nodded and held out the letter, but his uncle did not move to take it.
“Do you know what I was just thinking, runt?”
He paused as if expecting a reply, so Britmar murmured, “No.”
“I was just thinking that this has been one of the most dismal Christmases I’ve spent since I got the God damned braying of the muezzin out of my ears.”
Britmar let his arm drop.
“Judith is gone. Eadgith and Cedric are away. The babies are ill. None of my grandrunts are here. Does anyone feel like making merry?”
He paused again, but this time Britmar did not answer.
“And now you bring me this.” He threw up his hands and smacked them down on his thighs. “A letter from Sigefrith, so late in the evening. Do you know, runt – so long as I don’t open that letter, my daughter is alive. Afterwards… I don’t know.”
“Leaving this letter unopened will no more save her than opening it will kill her.”
His uncle squinted up at him with a strange wistfulness in his hazel eyes. “What do we know of that, runt? What is cause and what effect? What is chance? What is circumstance? What is, beyond what we know?”
Leofric had not had much to drink that evening, which made him rather more philosophical than not. Britmar could never quite keep up with him them.
“Never mind,” Leofric sighed. “What you can’t deny is that opening this letter might kill me. Give it here.”
Leofric took the letter, but he did no more than break the seal and hand it back again.
“The deed is done by my hand,” he said. “Now do your uncle’s aged eyes a favor and read it to me.”
Britmar took the parchment to the candle and unfolded it carefully. He had written such a letter only two weeks before. Judith’s parents would not receive it for months, and during all those weeks they would believe her alive. And if they never learned?
Conversely, his own family had believed Leofric dead for years, and he had been alive. But if he had never returned? It was more philosophy than Britmar could bear.
“Sigefrith, by grace of God King of Lothere,” he read aloud. “To our well-beloved father, greetings in Christ.”
He saw Leofric put up his hand, and he stopped.
“God damn the royal ‘we’,” Leofric growled. “Go on.”
“Please it you to wit that, blessed be God, our beloved wife fares well, and is in no peril of death.”
Britmar paused of his own accord in order to glance up at his uncle. Leofric sat with his aged eyes tightly closed, his shoulders hunched up as if to protect his neck from blows. He did not give the appearance of relief that Britmar had been expecting.
Britmar quickly scanned the remainder of the letter, horrified at the thought of being the man who might speak the dreaded word before his uncanny, unpredictable uncle. But it was with some relief of his own that he read the rest aloud.
“She was delivered this evening of a son, who was christened Stephan. We pray you this tidings her cousin may know, and shall send you others when we may, with God’s grace, who preserve you. Written at Lotheresburh, on this night of Stephanmas.”
He looked up at Leofric, who had not moved. “Congratulations.”
“Read it again.”
Britmar read the letter through once more, confidently now. This time he folded it up when he had finished. Then he lifted his head and watched Leofric, who himself only sat and watched the fire.
“My son-in-law is a diplomat,” Leofric muttered after a long silence. At last he looked up at his nephew. “Every word counts for two.”
Unable to bear his eyes, Britmar nervously unfolded a corner of the letter and peered down into the shadowed rows of words, as if this observation should have doubled their number.
“When he wrote that letter, my grandson was dying. You realize that Sigefrith hurried to get that chapel finished so that the baby could be baptized in it. If he has already been ‘christened’ Stephan, then I think it likely that he is already dead.” Leofric suddenly turned his face away and crossed himself, whimpering, “God bless his little soul.”
Britmar stared at the back of the letter. This was too much subtlety for him, and it seemed a cruel sort. Sigefrith had left Leofric to puzzle out the fates of his daughter and grandchild. But Britmar himself knew how cruel such words were to write.
Leofric was biting his upper lip, perhaps to prevent himself from crying, but it only made his lower lip appear fuller than ever. His pouting mouth was grotesquely childlike on his bearded, sun-tanned face.
“Will you go to them?” Britmar asked when he could bear the silence no longer.
Leofric wiped his far eye with the heel of his hand. He had been crying after all. “So long as I stay here, he’s still alive.”
“On the contrary, since you seem to believe he is already gone, the wisest thing to do is go, on the chance he is not.”
Leofric turned on him a gaze that was at once admiring and amused. “Or the circumstance.”
Britmar shrugged one shoulder. “Shall I come with you?”
Leofric sighed. “If you think you’re in any condition to prop up this old colossus if he starts to lean.”
“I have never more resembled a pillar of stone in my life than I have these past two weeks,” Britmar said, with both a gravity and a hint of poetry that he had not possessed until recently.
“God bless you, runt. But I meant what I said. Praise God you don’t know what it is to lose a child. And Eadie’s heart is already broken. If that baby dies, it will kill her. If she dies, it will kill me.”
He stood and patted Britmar on the arm.
“Prop me up if you can,” he murmured, staring off at the wall, “but if I start to fall, you tell everyone to get out of the way.”