“No, you may not have a new dress,” Sigefrith announced as the Queen came in.
The men laughed, and Eadgith smiled nervously, as timid people smiled at jokes they did not understand.
Ogive sent a scolding look over her shoulder at the King, and though he did not acknowledge it, his voice and face softened.
“Forgive me, honey. That’s just our little joke here. You wouldn’t believe how many times I have to tell these gentlemen they shall have no new gowns until Easter.”
“Aww!” Malcolm whined. “You promised!”
“Your green silk is hardly worn, Mistress Malcolm!” Sigefrith bellowed. “Do you see what I mean?” he asked Eadgith with a foolish smile.
Eadgith smiled awkwardly again, and her feet faltered as she approached the steps.
Sigefrith began to rise to help her take her customary place beside him, but Eadgith surprised him by stopping short and sinking down gracefully into the soft folds of her skirts, until her very knee must have touched the step. She kneeled not at his feet, but below them.
Sigefrith hesitated, hovering just above his throne. His gaze darted from man to man in search of a clue, ending with a study of Ogive’s thoughtful face.
“We are come to ask a boon of Your Majesty’s mercy,” the Queen announced.
She so rarely spoke of herself in the royal plural that Ogive wondered briefly whom else she meant, and she so rarely raised her voice to fill a hall that Ogive found it unfamiliar. Eadgith the Queen sounded strangely like her older brother.
Sigefrith chuckled uneasily and settled back onto his chair. He looked over his shoulder at his squire and said, “Funny she should say that, runt. For some reason I feel as if I’m the one in trouble.”
Cedric smiled like a boy trying bravely to hide a very queasy stomach.
Eadgith too looked ill. After her announcement she had clamped her lips together so tightly that they were growing pale and bloodless. Except for the freckles on her cheeks, her face was all the same waxen shade.
“What is it, honey?” Sigefrith prompted with a fond gentleness he rarely showed in public.
Though she disapproved of noble ladies making such spectacles of themselves, Ogive could not help thinking it would be sweet to know one could call forth such evidence of love from a man as prosaic and crudely jocular as a Sigefrith of the Hwalas – particularly if one knew one also had his respect.
For her part, Eadgith simply looked relieved that Sigefrith had at last stopped improvising and had spoken a phrase that would allow her to repeat her carefully-learned lines.
She fixed her gaze on the toes of her husband’s boots and blurted, “We beg Your Majesty’s clemency in the matter of the condemned man Tidraed the carpenter, of our father’s domain. We humbly ask that he be freed, as the Church wishes, and… m-m-mutilated, if Your Majesty requires, that he may repent of his crime and redeem himself on earth.”
No one laughed. Already Malcolm had unfolded his arms and stood straighter, and the new reeve looked worriedly around at the other men’s faces, as if wondering whether this were common procedure.
At last Eadgith took a ragged breath and looked up at the King with panicked eyes. She only bore his stare for an instant before she turned her gaze aside – to her brother – to Father Brandt away back in the shadows – and at last to Ogive, the only other woman in the room.
Ogive was astounded, and her look of shock seemed to send the Queen into despair. Eadgith looked no more for aid, but turned down her eyes, below even the toes of her husband’s boots.
The case of the carpenter Tidraed had been brought up earlier that afternoon, but as little more than a formality, so that it might be entered into the assizes. Ogive knew nothing about it, except that the details of the injury had been sufficiently gruesome that the reeve had recounted them privately to the secretary in order to spare her feminine ears.
Still less did she know why she or the Queen should care.
At last the King said, “You are very brave to come here and make this request before us and all our men.”
The words alone might have seemed a compliment, but his voice had gone achingly deep, gentle only like thunder caressing distant hills.
Eadgith’s head drooped still lower. From the height of his throne Sigefrith could have seen little more than her hair.
Ogive saw that Sir Malcolm had settled his weight evenly between his feet and straightened his shoulders, ready for anything. Meanwhile Cedric was twisting himself up like a wick.
Something was about to happen. Ogive imagined herself rising and going to the Queen’s aid, taking her graciously by the arm, murmuring some delicate excuse that would soothe the King and save everyone’s pride and good humor…
But Ogive was not a gracious or a delicate lady. She scarcely knew how to make herself agreeable. She could never smooth over anything sufficiently unpleasant to perturb a Sigefrith of the Hwalas. She did not stir, and the moment passed.
“Then I wonder…” Sigefrith growled.
He rose from his throne slowly, almost imperceptibly, like a cat closing the distance it needed to pounce.
“…how it can be… that you have such a sneaking – craven – dog for a brother!”
He kicked his boot back against his empty throne as he stood up, knocking the heavy oaken chair against the wall with a bang that startled everyone in the room as well as if he had kicked each of them all at once. Only Malcolm did not move.
“It was my idea!” Eadgith sobbed.
“By God’s wounds!” Sigefrith howled at the ceiling. “Then the brat should have stopped you!”
“No, sire, it was my idea,” Cedric said shakily.
Sigefrith spun around, grabbed the collar of Cedric’s tunic in one of his big hands, and dragged him violently out of the corner.
Ogive cringed as Cedric stumbled by. Her heart was pounding and her own body shaking as if she herself were in danger. She had the idea she was seeing precisely the sort of murderous rage that had been the doom of Tidraed the carpenter.
“Then you shouldn’t have brought your sister into this!” Sigefrith snarled at him. “What did you think? You ask me yesterday, and I say no, so you ask your sister to ask me today, and perhaps I shall say yes? Is that how your retarded four-year-old’s logic works?”
Cedric only made a whining sound, and Sigefrith grabbed him by the collar again and shook him.
“And do it in front of everyone, so I cannot refuse? Is that it?”
“No,” Cedric squeaked.
Eadgith pleaded, “Sigefrith! Sigefrith! The Queen’s mercy for him!”
“The Queen’s mercy!” Sigefrith howled. “Save your mercy for a man who merits it! Save it for a man who kills his daughter’s rapist! Save it for a man who steals to feed his family! Not for this scoundrel! Where is his family to plead for him? Where are his friends? No one wants to see him live but this young idiot!”
He shoved Cedric roughly with one hand, and Cedric swayed like a boy about to pitch over in a faint.
“And he only to spare his guilty conscience! Selfish brat! There are laws in this country! I won’t teach men to break them and go begging mercy from you and your soft-hearted sister!”
“But, Sigefrith,” Eadgith whimpered. “He may yet repent…”
“He shall have plenty of time to repent in Hades!”
Suddenly Sigefrith’s waving arms fell limp at his sides, and he stared warily down at his wife.
“The Queen’s mercy,” he said darkly. “Never have I heard you offer it to a murderer before.”
Eadgith sucked her lower lip.
Ogive gathered all her will together to try to project silence onto the anxious Queen. If she said nothing, Ogive thought, the moment would pass, rolling over them and away like a storm.
But Eadgith spoke, Queen again, with this strange voice that was rich and deep and almost like a gentle man’s.
“Thus Your Majesty may know that it is truly offered – that no man in this kingdom may believe himself utterly unloved.”
Ogive winced, crinkling her nose into freckled pleats.
True, she thought it a noble sentiment, worthy of stories – of the old poetic sagas, perhaps, in which Christian queens, through their gracious examples, made Christian kings of their pagan husbands.
But this was the eleventh century of Our Lord, and Sigefrith of the Hwalas was no magnificent savage waiting to be tamed. On the contrary, he was a very modern, very prosaic, very pragmatic man, and such sentiments fell upon him and his men like seeds of charity sown upon a rock.
After a moment’s stony stillness, he licked his thumb and pointed his finger at his secretary. “Aldwin,” he said with a voice that growled like thunder approaching, “write. Ralf, witness.”
Aldwin and Ralf exchanged a nervous glance, but Aldwin took up his pen.
“Let the sentence stand in the assizes,” Sigefrith ordered. “I want a separate writ.”
Sigefrith waited until the rustling of parchment had settled, and the excruciating silence had fallen again.
“Sigefrith!” he bellowed, filling the hall with his voice. “By Grace of God, et cetera,” he mumbled, waving his hand impatiently at his scribbling secretary. “To our royal reeve and warden of our prison,” he began, loudly again, “and to all others whom it may concern, greeting!”
He nodded smartly at his reeve while he waited for Aldwin to catch up. The reeve, who was not a timid man, bowed his head without the barest smile.
“Whereas Tidraed the carpenter on this the… whatever day it is!” he snapped at Aldwin. “…was convicted of the offense of murder, and whereas a man can offer no atonement for such crime save judgment upon his body, was sentenced to be hanged.”
He stopped and folded his arms. He had spoken the last words with such finality that it seemed he intended to make a writ consisting of nothing more than a preamble repeating what everyone already knew. Nevertheless he rocked himself impatiently back and forth on his feet, from heel to toe to heel again, as if he had more to say.
For the first time Eadgith dared lift her eyes to her brother’s. From where she sat, Ogive could not read the brief glance they exchanged.
“Now know ye!” Sigefrith thundered, startling Eadgith into looking at the hem of her skirt again. “That in consideration of a favor humbly asked of us… and whereas our beloved Queen is graciously pleased… to extend her grace and mercy unto the said Tidraed…”
Except for the furiously scribbling Aldwin, the reeve and stewards and secretaries all looked from face to face, sometimes exchanging faint and anxious smiles, as though before Sigefrith the King they all became timid men. Only Malcolm’s face looked stony and grim, and if his golden eyes moved, Ogive could not see where he looked from where she sat.
“We will and command…”
Eadgith looked hopefully up at Sigefrith again as Aldwin wrote – but Eadgith could not see Malcolm from where she stood. Even from this distance Ogive could see Malcolm’s golden eyes fall slowly shut and his broad mouth press itself into a tight, straight line.
“…that the sentence of death imposed upon him as aforesaid…”
Coming in such short phrases, the King’s voice boomed like peal after peal of thunder. Nevertheless Eadgith looked up at him with hope and faith, as she might lift her face to the gentlest of spring rains.
But Sigefrith looked out over her head and did not see.
“…be delivered by the axe!”
He did not see Eadgith’s face twitch. He did not see how with the slightest alterations in curve, angle, or wrinkle, all her lovely, noble features rearranged themselves into a grimace of pain.
“And be his head and corpse buried together without display!” Sigefrith concluded quickly. He threw up his arms and cried, “So do it in our name!”
Even as Aldwin hurried to write, Sigefrith stepped down onto the stairs, down the narrow path left open between his wife and his squire. Cedric panted and gasped, trying bravely not to sob, and Eadgith’s face crumpled into silent tears like a towel being wrung dry.
Sigefrith looked at neither of them as he passed.
“Malcolm!” he barked. “Come with me!”
He and Malcolm left without another word. There were the sounds of timid coughs and scuffing boots, and Aldwin and Ralf made much show of occupying themselves with their pens and papers, but even after the King had left no man seemed willing to be the first to speak.
Not one man offered an arm to the stunned Queen. Not one man dared commit himself even so much as by looking at her. Ogive had the sickening impression that she was seeing a ghost – that womankind had become invisible to all but womankind.
Ogive kicked her skirts straight and rose from her chair, all the more grandly since no man hastened to offer her a hand. She descended the stairs unaided, and took the Queen’s opposite elbow to turn her about as she passed. The little page slipped his grateful hand into hers and let himself be towed away.
Ogive led them both down the center of the hall, cloaking them with her cold dignity, since she lacked the grace wherewith to offer comfort.
Every man’s throat seemed to need clearing. Every man seemed to find something worth inspecting on the toe of his boot or the back of his sleeve.
It was not until she reached the reeve that she came up against an unflinching obstacle.
He did not quite bar the passage, but the three of them could not pass abreast if he did not step out of the way.
This problem did not seem to occur to him. Ogive suspected that every tensely twisted fibre of his male brain was too busy sneering at the folly of allowing women to attend to such matters as these.
“Thank you,” Ogive said chillingly, “but we are not in need of assistance.”
The reeve was not a timid man, and Ogive knew his slight smile was due less to nervousness than to amusement or even insolence. Nevertheless he stepped to the side.
“Gentlemen!” Ogive did not shout, and her voice was not shrill, but it pealed all the way back into the dark corner where the priest sat with the young Earl. “You are dismissed!”