Eadred caught Natanleod’s eye as he swung around the corner, but he surprised everyone else with his cry, “Don’t tell me you started without me!”
For a stunned second conversations stopped, chairs creaked, and bodies twisted around to gawp at him, but then Eadred had the pleasure of being greeted by a cheer.
It was grand, coming in out of the night to this. This felt more like home than his own raw-beamed new house out at Eight Mile.
For sixteen years he’d eaten nearly every meal at this table—not to mention diced on it, danced on it, backhanded misbehaving boy-guards to send them sprawling across it, and even tossed willing females on their backs atop it to do things that he preferred not to think about when he was eating.
And these men were just as banged-up, scarred, and unseemly as the table, but they were the only family Eadred had, and he loved them all. He hadn’t been away long enough for any new boys to show up yet. Arcil and Beorhtsige were the only tads at the table, and Eadred had personally raised them up from big-pawed puppies to the almost-presentable young lunkheads they were now.
Still, a few things had changed. For every man who forgot himself and shouted, “Captain!” there was another who remembered to call him only “Eadred!”
Aethelnoth, the young husband-to-be, was seated in the place of honor for tonight, but the new Captain had the second-best spot, beside the keg of ale, and he would take his rightful chair in the morning.
And poor, misguided Arcil had started growing a mustache.
“How do, men?” Eadred beamed. “Arcil, you might want to trim those nose hairs,” he advised as he passed behind the boy. Then, looking over the remains of the roast in the middle of the table, he said, “Looks like you started and finished without me!”
Beorhtsige said, “We left some meat for you, Captain. On the ass end.”
“That’s Sir Captain to you, boy,” Eadred said, squeezing behind Beorhtsige’s chair. “Leave it to you to know your way around the ass end of a pig.”
He smacked Alfwold on the shoulder in passing and stopped at the head of the table before a very red-faced, tipsy, and sheepish-looking Aethelnoth.
The boy looked like a cat caught up to its furry elbow in the cream, and this even though the cream was lawfully betrothed to him and expected to wed him on the morrow. Eadred figured he had missed several hours of the sort of teasing heaped upon young bridegrooms by their bachelor friends. Eight Mile House was eight miles too damned far away.
“Captain!” Aethelnoth grinned. “Glad you could make it.”
Eadred put up his fists. “Let’s get one thing straight. If you’re going to call me Captain, you’re going to get your ass end up out of my God damned chair.”
“And if I ain’t?” Aethelnoth taunted.
“Then you’re going to get your ass up anyway and c’mere.”
Eadred grabbed the lad’s wrist and pulled him up into a chokingly ale-scented hug.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said.
“Nah, I’m just glad you could come.”
“You kidding me? I wouldn’t miss this for ten knighthoods.”
He held Aethelnoth away and looked him over. The boy managed to stagger while standing perfectly still.
“You’re looking pasty,” Eadred said. “How are you feeling?”
Aethelnoth snorted. “Mostly like I want to puke.”
“Mmhmm, mmhmm, that sounds about right.” He slung an arm around Aethelnoth’s neck and turned to the table. “Nat, you put him on watch today?”
“He begged me to!” Natanleod protested.
Eadred laughed and let Aethelnoth go, giving him a pat on the rump as the boy wobbled back to his chair.
“They all do,” he said. “They know it’s the last time in their lives they’re going to get paid for standing around doing fuck all. Starting day after tomorrow, lad, you shall earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.”
Eadred theatrically wiped his forehead on his sleeve, then swung a chair out of the corner to thunk it down between Aethelnoth’s and Natanleod’s. Natanleod found an empty mug and stooped over to fill it.
“Whelp,” Eadred said as he sat. “How many of these do I have to knock back to catch up with you lot?”
Natanleod passed him the cup. “Who’s counting?” he asked.
“I like that answer.”
Eadred tapped his mug against the mugs of everyone he could reach, drank a good half of it, and sat back with a sigh.
It felt so good to be back that it hurt already, knowing he would be heading back to Eight Mile by tomorrow evening. The knowledge that it would be as part of Aethelnoth’s wedding party only helped a little. Henceforth Aethelnoth would be his nearest neighbor, but for the next little while the boy would be busy setting up house with his new bride. There were plenty more lonely evenings in Eadred’s immediate future, and he had not yet learned how to look further ahead than that.
He had been home from Ramsaa for a month and a half, but if he recollected rightly, he’d only eaten two meals total at this banged-up old table. He hardly saw his friends even on the more frequent occasions when he was in and out in the space of a day.
A few things had changed in the months of his absence, but—except for Arcil’s mustache, the existence of which could be borne by no civilized human being—the things that had changed irked him less than the things that hadn’t. The sad fact was, life went on without him. For everyone but him.
He turned to Natanleod and asked, “How’ve the boys been treating you?”
Natanleod grunted. “Up to their usual stunts. They’re not a bad lot, so long as you stay upwind of them.”
Eadred cocked a thumb at Aethelnoth beside him. “Found a replacement for our bridegroom here?”
Natanleod rubbed his stubbled chin. Drink had slurred his usual slow, gravelly speech into a growl. “Nah. Found a likely one, but turned out he was married. I’m in no rush. The best ones are the ones that find you.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
Eadred was surprised by a tightening in his throat, and he took a drink of ale to give himself an excuse to swallow. He looked at the faces gathered around the table. There were a couple of smiths and a pair of grooms, but the rest were guards, and Eadred had hired them all. The best ones found him. All he had to do was make sure they didn’t get away.
“How ’bout you?” Natanleod asked. “What’s new?” He buried his face in his mug, but he peered at Eadred over the rim while he drank.
“Whelp, I’ll just say that, contrary to your misconceptions, being a landowner is nothing like getting paid for standing around doing fuck all.”
Natanleod gave him a taunting smile.
“I’ve never been so busy in my life. And I once had a job shoveling horse shit for a penny a day, and I had to fill a lot of barrows to make that penny. At least back in those days I knew what was shit and what wasn’t, and where the shit was supposed to land. Do you think maybe Sigefrith did this as a sort of joke on me?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him.” Natanleod’s smile changed, growing sharper, stretching his skin over the stark angles of his skull. “I wouldn’t put anything past him these days.” He paused, feral-eyed, waiting for Eadred to catch his meaning.
Eadred blinked at him. “Who? Sigefrith?”
Eadred had a sickening thought: Was Natanleod envious that Sigefrith had made Eadred a knight and made him a mere Captain of the Guard? Eadred had thought it was good news for both of them.
But Natanleod’s expression, weaselly as it was, still seemed complicit, as if he had a malicious secret he was hoping to share. Aethelnoth slid his elbows closer to the two of them, and even Alfwold turned away from another conversation and leaned over the table to listen.
“Aye, Sig’frith,” Natanleod slurred. “Heard the latest one? The latest whim of our beloved Royal Reeve which Sigefrith promptly indulged?”
Eadred’s stomach sank. He already knew he wasn’t going to like what came next, if it involved the new reeve and put such an unholy light in Natanleod’s eyes.
Eadred didn’t like Saeward, but he could act like a grown-up and be reasonably polite if forced to work with him. Natanleod, however, waged an outright vendetta against the man, and he led the guards in making a misery of his every waking hour. That was one thing that had changed since Eadred had left the castle.
“What now?” Eadred asked, resigned.
“He adopted a kid. A little girl.”
Natanleod raised an eyebrow and took a drink, watching for Eadred’s reaction. Eadred looked at Aethelnoth and Alfwold, hoping to find a clue telling him how he ought to react.
“Stein brought back this little six-year-old orphan girl from Ramsaa,” Natanleod explained. “This pretty little blonde thing. He was going to take her home with him and look for someone to take her in. But Saeward saw her leaving and decided he had to have her. Stein and Sophie were having none of it, so the Queen called Sigefrith over, and Sigefrith went off alone with Saeward for a few minutes, and when they came out of there, Sigefrith had already signed her over.”
“Saeward… adopted… a little girl,” Eadred repeated, unsure he’d understood.
“That’s right. She stays in his room at night and everything. And I didn’t tell you the best part.”
Eadred feared he didn’t want to know “the best part,” but he also rather wanted to get this over with.
“What’s the best part?”
“The best part is, she can’t talk. She fell in the river and it messed up her head, and she hasn’t said a word in months. To anybody. Saeward claims she said a few words to him, out of the blue, but of course, conveniently there weren’t any witnesses. And anyway, it’s bullshit, because she can’t understand English.”
Eadred wrinkled his nose. Was it possible Saeward had unsuspected depths of compassion? There had to be more to it if Natanleod could be so fired up about it.
“That is just… bizarre,” he finally said.
“Ain’t it?” Natanleod said. “But you know what we think?”
Aethelnoth slid his arm back across the table a bit, withdrawing slightly from the “we.”
Natanleod said, “Think about it. Nobody ever saw him take a woman into that room. Nobody ever saw him take a man into that room, even. But he takes a six-year-old little girl into that room and keeps her there every night. A six-year-old little girl who can’t even talk. Who can’t even tell people what he’s doing to her in there.”
Eadred put down his mug and sat back, thoroughly sickened.
“Shit, Nat,” he said, shaking his head. “You better be careful even saying shit like that out loud. He busted my face for suggesting he must like boys. And I didn’t mean six-year-olds, either. You don’t even say shit like that unless you have proof it’s true.”
“What if it’s true?”
“What if it ain’t?”
“Why else would he want to adopt a kid like that?”
“I don’t know! He adopted those kittens, didn’t he? Maybe he’s working his way up to liking adult humans. Just be careful, Nat. He may look harmless with his beard and whatnot, but I swear to God, I never saw that punch coming. He was just standing there, and then my face exploded, and then he was just standing there like he hadn’t even moved. None of us saw it.”
“So what? I’m supposed to let him mess with that little girl ’cause I’m afraid of a black eye?”
“No! I’m only saying, don’t say shit like that unless you have proof.”
“We’re watching him. Aren’t we?”
He looked around. Alfwold appeared uncomfortable, but he nodded over the table. Aethelnoth simply contrived to look skittish and nauseated at the same time. Probably glad he would be moving out tomorrow.
Natanleod looked to his left, and as if on cue, Cenn Faelad leaned over the table to peer around him at Eadred. His head swayed unsteadily over his folded arms, and he was bleary-eyed with drink.
“Tell him why you knifed your Daddy,” Natanleod prompted.
Eadred blanched. “I know,” he mouthed, but Cenn Faelad had lowered his gaze and was already telling.
“He was messing with my baby sister,” Cenn Faelad mumbled, inspecting his knuckles with such scrutiny that Eadred wondered whether his knife hadn’t finished some business his fists had started.
“See now?” Natanleod said, turning back to Eadred. “He had it coming to him. And Saeward thought he found himself a little girl without any brothers, but he was wrong about that. She has a lot of ’em now. Big ones.”
He paused to look down the table at the other men. They were rowdy with drink and laughter, oblivious to the conversation taking place at the head of the table. But Eadred wondered how many were in on it.
“I can’t see through his door,” Natanleod muttered, “but I swear on the Cross, if we ever hear that kid crying out at night in pain or fear, we are busting it down. And Cenn Faelad here will be first in line to have a word with our beloved reeve. There’s a few things he didn’t have a chance to say to his Daddy.”
Eadred sighed and shook his head. “You are getting into some deep shit, Nat. Two-penny-a-day shit by the wagonload. If you think something is going on, you should tell Sigefrith. He’s the one who gave her to him.”
“That’s just it!” Natanleod said, flushing dangerously red. “Why the hell did Sigefrith ever give her to him? It makes no God damned sense! What did they talk about alone in that room for five minutes that made Sigefrith give in to him? Who in the hell is that man and why does he have so much power in this kingdom? You know what I think?”
“You think he’s Sigefrith’s bastard,” Eadred said wearily.
“No, I changed my mind about that. You don’t know what else he did. Eohric told me he stood up in a meeting and tore into Sigefrith over some legal bullshit, and Sigefrith just sat there and took it for the longest time before he finally figured he better put a stop to it. If Caedwulf tried that, Sigefrith would knock him on his ass before he finished his first sentence. No man puts up with that treatment from his own son, bastard or otherwise. No, you know what I think it is? I think it’s blackmail.”
Eadred picked up his mug, shaking his head again. He needed a drink after all.
“I think he knows something Sigefrith is terrified about letting out,” Natanleod said. “Or maybe he’s just threatening to turn him in to authorities in London. He’s still an outlaw, after all.”
“Nat, every Norman on both sides of the Channel knows exactly where Sigefrith the Outlaw can be found. He’s way past being arrested and hanged. It’s politics now. It’s war or nothing. And Sigefrith has powerful allies.”
“Doesn’t mean he doesn’t have secrets he wants kept at any price.” Natanleod clapped his hand flat on the table. “Look, what do we know about this man? He shows up last winter, looking friendly as a feral hog, asking to see Sigefrith. Nobody knows him from Adam’s off mule, but Sigefrith drops everything and says, ‘Send him right up.’ They’re locked up alone together for a few hours, and when they come down, how now! we have a new reeve. What in the hell did they talk about up there? Even Malcolm doesn’t know who he is, and if Malcolm doesn’t trust him, I don’t trust him. And if you ask me, Sigefrith is listening to Malcolm less and less and Saeward more and more these days.”
“You don’t think Sigefrith knows best?”
“I think Saeward has him by the balls. Simple as that. Sigefrith puts up with shit from him that he wouldn’t put up with from his own son, or from Malcolm. Or even from Hingwar. That’s just not normal. You know, I’m all for saving little girls, but what I really want to do is save us all from Saeward. I don’t want to get that little girl out of his room, I want to get him out of it. And you know what else? The Queen has been visiting him in there at night.”
Eadred sat back and let out a crack of laughter. “See, Nat? This is what happens when you lose count of how much you have to drink. Your own story isn’t making any bloody sense. He’s messing with a little girl, and by the way, the Queen’s coming down to watch. You’re drunk, and I’m going to just pretend I never heard that.”
Natanleod turned savagely to Aethelnoth. “Ain’t it the truth?”
“They keep the door open,” Aethelnoth said. “And it’s not night, it’s evening. I think she’s just taken a liking to the kid. Doing her hair or something.”
“Still,” Natanleod said. “For all we know, he’s blackmailing her, too. Or blackmailing Sigefrith into looking the other way while his wife is—”
Eadred slammed his fist on the table. That silenced everyone, from Natanleod on down. Every pair of eyes widened; every face turned to him, blanched with dread. Some of these men had gotten it through their thick skulls that Eadred was henceforth to be called by his Christian name, but he had not been away so long that his authority had lost its grip on their guts.
Eadred turned his fist over to examine the underside and looked up, grinning. “Got it!” he said.
Then he pretended to wipe the squashed remains on Aethelnoth’s tunic. The boy was either drunk, dull-witted, or conniving enough to squawk over it, too, and fruitlessly search his tunic for the mess.
Everyone at the far end laughed and returned to their antics. And Eadred turned back to Natanleod.
“You’re piss-drunk,” he said in a low voice. “Let’s just stick with that story, all right? I don’t know if there’s a law against accusing the Queen of adultery, but if there is, you can be sure Saeward is going to find it, and charge you with it, and then he’s going to hang you for it by your own entrails.”
Natanleod’s flushed face was turning purple with fury. Eadred slapped his old friend’s arm and squeezed his shoulder.
“Listen, Nat,” he said more gently, “I’m on your side. I don’t like him either. But if he’s crafty enough to get hold of Sigefrith by the balls, and even Malcolm can’t detach him, you and your merry men are out of your depths.”
Natanleod did not appear much mollified, but he didn’t jerk away from Eadred’s hand. At least he was listening.
“We’ve got one advantage though,” Eadred said, careful to say We. “There’s a lot of you merry men, and you’re guards. Your entire bloody job consists of standing around and keeping an eye on shady characters. So keep an eye on him. If you see him hurting that girl, or anyone else, you move in. Otherwise, keep your eyes open. And—”
Eadred hesitated, reluctant to lend any credibility to this unlikely story. But Natanleod was growing calm beneath his hand, and he was looking to him—looking to him as a leader, as the commander he had been only months before. It felt too good to pass up.
“—keep me posted,” he said. “Let me know what he’s up to. And let’s hope Malcolm hurries home so he can help us make sense of this mess. Or even Hingwar. Saeward’s hands aren’t big enough for Hingwar’s balls, anyway.”
Natanleod snorted and pulled his shoulder away from Eadred’s grip, but he nodded.
“And, Nat? Promise me two things.” He lifted Natanleod’s mug and set it down again. “First thing, if you lose count, it means it’s time to stop for a while. Or at least put a sock in it till you sober up. Else you’re going to hang yourself with your own tongue. Second thing, try not to let your imagination run away with you, eh? It’s a known risk in our line of work. Look at Arcil over there. He’s got himself imagining he looks handsome in that thing.”
Natanleod was working on his best sullen look and tried not to smile, but a small corner of his mouth got away from him.
“Mental discipline,” Eadred advised.
He tapped his temple in demonstration, well aware of the contrast his orange curls and goofy face created with his grave words. The important thing was that Natanleod was biting his lips together and furrowing his brow, trying not to smile.
“It’s your only hope, Captain, when you’re getting paid for standing around all day doing fuck all.”