“Praise God!” Alred cried. “You found a survivor!”
Caedwulf laughed gleefully. “I’m the only one left!”
“Not for long, if you don’t tell me in which dungeon you hid my family.”
“Let’s see… Hetty and the babies are in Egelric’s dungeon for a visit, and the Old Man is in Sigefrith’s dungeon with Haakon and Heaf, and I think the girls are in Edris’s dungeon.”
Alred had already learned from the servants the fate of his family on this bright summer day, but he laughed anyway.
“And I personally locked up Dunstan with Brit, and left Emmie as jailer and protector of proprieties. Oh, pater!” Caedwulf swung around to Sigefrith and then back to Alred. “Oh…”
Alred said gleefully, “You will be pleased to know we returned with nearly as many souls in our keeping as when we left, minus one, though we exchanged a few for prettier versions…”
Sigefrith punched his arm.
“Good Lord!” Caedwulf cried. “Who got prettier? I want to see! I always thought Brede would be a beauty in a skirt.”
“You don’t even want to know whom we left behind?” Sigefrith gasped.
“Whom? Oh, but, pater! The things you’ve missed! Name of God!”
“We stayed with Baldwin last night, runt,” Sigefrith said. “We already heard the ‘things we’ve missed’, though I am looking forward to hearing your overenthusiastic version of the tale later on.”
“Good God!” Caedwulf gasped. “How could I be overenthusiastic! A miracle! And a murder! Two murders! Wait… And kidnapping and rape!”
“Keep it up,” Alred said, “and it will be the last time your father ever leaves you in charge of things.”
“So it is, until I die!” Sigefrith cried. “God help me! I’m sick of traveling. Next time you’re going in my place, runt, and Godspeed!”
“And good riddance!” Caedwulf cackled and nearly knocked his father over in another puppylike display of affection. Sigefrith laughed and pounded on his son’s back in agreement.
Alred watched them, happy to see them happy, though he knew he could not expect similar raptures from seventeen-year-old Dunstan.
But neither had he had them from fifteen-year-old Yware. It was odd—and heartbreaking, though he would only ever admit it to Hetty—that a father’s feelings could change so little over the years and a son’s change so much. But perhaps it was because the father had changed so little and the son so much. Yware was now tall enough to look his father in the eyes—and he had.
“Who came with you?” Caedwulf asked. “Yware?”
“We left behind Britmar,” Sigefrith said pointedly. “I am certain he will be pleased to learn you were so concerned about his welfare.”
“Brit!” Caedwulf wailed. “Why? Where?”
“Robert of Flanders left on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem after our little meeting, and Britmar decided to accom—”
“Your meeting!” Caedwulf gasped. “What happened? Is it war? Are we going?”
“Next year,” Sigefrith sighed, “if it is to happen. It will be Canute’s war, but Olaf has promised sixty ships.”
“Sixty!” Caedwulf crowed. “Excellent! May I go?”
“Next year!” Sigefrith groaned. “Leave your old man time to recover before he has to think about sending his son off to war, and with whom and with what.”
Caedwulf’s mind was as quick as Sigefrith’s to return to its original course after a detour.
“What is Britmar thinking?” he wailed. “Going to Jerusalem! That will take years! We have miracles here! And—” He clung to Alred’s arm as if to prevent himself from fainting. “The most beautiful young elven lady ever born. Name of God! Alred, you will never write another poem again, once you have seen how futile any attempts to describe her beauty may be.”
“Ah, but the ladies do like us to try,” Alred smiled.
“I hope you haven’t promised this ‘most beautiful young elven lady’ more than you have to offer,” Sigefrith frowned.
“Or given it,” Alred said.
“Nooo…” Caedwulf said. “Mind, she is a duke’s daughter…”
“Oh, is that so?” Sigefrith asked.
“But of course I leave such decisions up to you and your boundless wisdom, O my father.” Caedwulf bowed grandly, but at the lowest point he gave a cough that sounded suspiciously like the words “duke’s daughter”.
“I’m glad to hear it, runt. As a matter of fact…”
“Oh, but, pater—” Caedwulf interrupted himself again and glanced at Alred.
“If Your Majesty and Your Highness will excuse me…” Alred bowed, but he could not resist coughing “count’s daughter” at the lowest point.
“No, wait.” Caedwulf laid a hand on Alred’s arm. “I might as well tell you both since you will both have to be told. Something Baldwin doesn’t know.”
Alred and Sigefrith exchanged an uneasy glance. Such self-important gravity on the part of a fifteen-year-old male could bode no good.
“It’s about Brit.”
“…amund?” Sigefrith guessed.
“Uh—yes. My sister. She has been…”
Sigefrith paled. “Ill?”
Sigefrith blinked rapidly.
“At the end of March I found the two of them together in Selwyn’s room, on the bench—”
“The two of whom?” Sigefrith cried. “Selwyn was with me!”
“Uh—sorry. With Brinstan, I mean.”
Sigefrith’s eyes went wide, his nostrils flared, and his mouth clamped shut into an ugly line. Alred rapidly began calculating how best to calm him.
“They were on the bench, still dressed and so on, but he was lying on top of her and kissing her. And of course if I hadn’t come along just then…”
Sigefrith did not unclench his teeth, but he hissed, “Brinstan!”
“They say they’re in love, of course. Appears it was going on for a while. Coded letters and so forth.”
“Letters!” Sigefrith snarled. “God curse the day I ever thought to teach her to read! My father was right! Name of God! Teaching a woman to read is like giving her a second bite of the apple!”
“Old man…” Alred began.
Caedwulf seemed startled by this reaction, which proved just how smug and self-important his gravity had been.
“She took his letters from my hand!” Sigefrith howled. “And kissed me! Judas!”
“Old man,” Alred said, “you may be certain that this is one of the many situations that is not as terrible as it first appears. You will admit that it could have been introduced more adroitly, first of all.”
He sent an “I hope this will be a lesson to you” glance Caedwulf’s way.
While Caedwulf might have been wise enough to take it to heart, he still had a fifteen-year-old’s natural resistance to being told he had done wrong.
“I was only telling the plain truth!” he cried. “I shan’t pretty it up with fancy words! ‘They were reclining together in a tender embrace!’” he sneered.
Alred scowled at him.
“And you had better watch out yourself!” Caedwulf warned. “You have young daughters too!”
Alred’s own defensiveness had been roused. “My daughters are…”
“Better than mine?” Sigefrith challenged.
Caedwulf rolled his eyes. “One of them is so innocent she’ll likely fall into the hands of the first man who reaches out for her, and one of them is so wise she’ll likely be the one to do the plucking.”
“I beg your pardon if that was not introduced as adroitly as it might have been,” Caedwulf bowed.
“Where is she?” Sigefrith cried.
“She’s with Dunstan. I told her she had better be. He doesn’t know yet. I shall leave it up to you to tell him adroitly.”
Alred scarcely heard this jab. He was thinking of Gwynn. He was thinking of Margaret. He had been away for months. They were only little girls! But hadn’t he expected Yware to be a little boy still?
“I want to talk to her,” Sigefrith growled.
“She’ll only tell you she’s in love,” Caedwulf sighed. “And when that doesn’t work she’ll whine about being betrothed to some man she didn’t choose.”
Alred heard that much. He let his head and shoulders fall back against the wall in misery.
Sigefrith was furious as Alred had rarely seen him, though it was true that it was not the first time Theobald and his family had made him so.
“‘Some man’ is a finer man on his worst days than that rat-faced, red-headed beanpole will ever be!” he panted.
Caedwulf shrugged in helpless agreement.
“What are you smirking at, boy?” Sigefrith growled, as if he had only just noticed his son’s presence.
“God damn! We shall see whether you can keep it up when you see what your father has brought home for you! In my boundless wisdom! Name of God!”