“Little brother!” Malcolm cried.
Egelric, who lounged drunkenly on the couch, looked up at the doorway and grunted a greeting.
“It’s a long way you ride to get drunk of a Saturday evening!” Malcolm said.
“Is that what you’re doing?” Sir Sigefrith asked them.
“I’m getting drunk,” Egelric said, “and Magog’s been roasting his chestnuts by the fire over there.”
“Will you shut up a bit?” Malcolm said. “That joke wasn’t funny the first time you told it, and it isn’t getting better.”
“Sigefrith hasn’t heard it yet,” Egelric observed.
“And you will notice he isn’t laughing! Come along in, little brother, and put a smile on. You may either sit with me on the floor and roast them, or sit on a chair by my cousin and pickle them from the inside out.”
Sigefrith finally managed a laugh. “I believe I shall sit on the floor.”
“Good choice,” Malcolm nodded.
“Ach,” Egelric sighed, “when you get to be my age you will be looking to preserve them.”
“As if a pretty young wife such as you have doesn’t preserve them for you!” Malcolm cried.
“God preserve me from my pretty young wife,” Egelric muttered.
“You are getting old, if you can say that,” Sigefrith smiled.
“Come along down, you too, cousin,” Malcolm said to Egelric. “At least toast them a little before you go in to her bed, to warm them up.”
“I shall tell her whom to thank when she burns her little hand,” Egelric growled, but he crawled painfully down to join them on the floor before the fire.
“She’s clever enough to know she has to blow on them a little to cool them off first,” Malcolm said, winking at Sigefrith. “At least until they quit glowing.”
Sigefrith laughed aloud. He had not thought he would have been capable of laughter this night. He was glad he had decided to come here rather than trying to face an evening with Hilda and his family.
Egelric’s cousin Malcolm had arrived the day before, on his way north from some unmentionable business in Wales. However, to Sigefrith’s regret, he had decided to stay here at Egelric’s castle rather than at Sigefrith’s own manor. Here he would not risk an unexpected meeting with the woman who had once been his wife, nor the man who had taken his wife away, nor the man who had been the husband of the woman he had loved.
Malcolm had promised to dine with the King on Sunday, but Sigefrith could not wait until the morning. Malcolm’s arrival just then, at this greatest crisis of his young life, seemed a sign, or perhaps a gift from God. Malcolm had seen him through his first great crisis, and Sigefrith hoped he would be able to advise him in his second.
“Have a drink,” Egelric offered.
“No, thank you,” Sigefrith said. “I don’t want to drink. I need to think.”
“Think! Why the devil did you come here of a Saturday night if it’s to think? We don’t begin thinking again here until Monday morning. Late Sunday evening, at the earliest.”
“I just… I want to ask Malcolm’s advice about a few things.”
“Ah. Shall I leave you two infants alone?”
“Are they warm enough already?” Malcolm asked him.
“She’s clever enough to know she can warm them up by blowing on them a little.”
Malcolm laughed. “It’s magical breath she has.”
Sigefrith smiled at them, and was again surprised that he could. Life certainly would be easier if there were only men in it, he thought.
“You may stay, if you please,” he said to Egelric. “I should like to have your opinion as well. I should like to ask everyone, but that wouldn’t be much of a secret anymore.”
“Do you need me to think?” Egelric asked warily.
“I suppose not.”
“Then I shall drink. Magog?”
“I shall think and then drink,” Malcolm answered, “and let you do the contrary. What’s your trouble, little brother?”
“Well,” Sigefrith sighed. “On second thought…”
He gulped down the cup Egelric poured him and began again.
“Well, my wife is expecting a baby in a few months.”
“That’s no secret,” Malcolm smiled.
“But it isn’t mine.”
Malcolm coughed. “Certain you want my advice about that?”
“Yes. Because that isn’t all. In the first place, I don’t know whether she has a lover at all. She claims she was very drunk one night, and passed out, and someone came to her in her bed.”
“You don’t believe it?” Sigefrith asked him.
“How does my young cousin say it? ‘A likely story!’” He grinned in an excellent imitation of the younger Malcolm.
“I have no proof at all. Either way.”
“Perhaps the proof is in her belly,” Malcolm suggested. “If the babe has a certain nose, for example.” He reached out and attempted to stroke his cousin’s nose, and had his hand slapped for the trouble.
“Even if I knew the man, I couldn’t tell how he put it there,” Sigefrith said.
“Ah, but if you knew the man, you could ‘ask’ him,” Egelric said. “Let him explain to the point of your sword. The child will not have my nose, by the way, which is why I don’t mind giving you that advice.”
“That isn’t all, though,” Sigefrith muttered.
“Because everything you told us so far isn’t trouble enough?” Egelric asked.
“There’s someone else,” Sigefrith mumbled, suddenly ashamed, now that he was making this confession for the first time to his friends. He had not even told his father. Especially not his father!
“Another woman?” Egelric asked.
“Another woman. A… I love her. As I never loved Hilda. I know what love is now. And today she told me that she will be having a baby too, in the autumn.”
The very thought made him shiver, though it made him feel strangely warm inside. He loved his children for their own sakes, but a child with the woman he loved would be something different, he thought.
“Who is she?” Egelric asked matter-of-factly.
“She… Does it matter?” Sigefrith did not like the idea of speaking of Wynflaed to these two men, who reminded him suddenly of wolves in the flickering light of the fire.
“Of course it matters,” Egelric said. “It’s quite a different story if it’s the girl who scrubs your pig trough or if it’s a girl… if it’s Ana of Thorhold, for example. A lady.”
“Somewhere in between… a farmer’s daughter.”
“What sort of farmer?” Egelric asked at once.
“It’s Brid Oswaldsson’s daughter, whom you know!” Sigefrith snapped.
Egelric pretended to fall over in shock. “The devil it is! Sigefrith!” He laughed.
“Is there something wrong with her?” Sigefrith asked angrily.
Malcolm rose and began poking at the fire in silence.
“Get your hackles down, boy. On the contrary. I only think it is a great irony. Did her mother know?”
“No. What’s so ironic about it?”
“Didn’t she tell you who her family is?”
Egelric whistled. “It must be something in the blood. Young man, your little sweetheart’s mother is the daughter of the Lord of Hamelan that was, Broga, and thus the half-sister of Lord Galan, whom I think you have met. And her mother’s mother was the daughter of the Lord of Windhlith. A fine match! Except that Lord Broga was married at the time. See what I mean?”
“She never told me that…”
“The devil! That is a difficult problem, young Sigefrith. Your girl has excellent blood and a poor name. Just as your child will. Even Hamelan couldn’t claim a king as an ancestor.”
“Does Wynflaed know this?”
“I doubt even Brid could have kept that from her. Everyone knows that story. If you had grown up around here, so would you have.”
“Now I see why she didn’t want her little mother to know…”
“Take a close look at Galan next time you see him. I think you will find he resembles his sister.”
“So your wife is having a baby that isn’t yours,” Malcolm interrupted as he sat and folded his legs before him again. “And your mistress is having a baby that is. Is she good enough to marry?” he asked Egelric.
Sigefrith sighed in relief. He was not mad to have considered marrying her. Malcolm had thought of it too.
Egelric shrugged. “Broga never claimed his child. The young lady was married to the old Baron’s steward’s son, and he claimed the baby was his, though she was born four months later, and he had never set eyes on his bride before their wedding day. I am only a peasant’s son, myself, and I shall not presume to say whom a brother-in-law of a King may marry.”
Sigefrith realized his heart was pounding. Was it possible?
“However,” Egelric reminded Malcolm, “our young man is already married.”
“To an unfaithful wife,” Malcolm replied.
“It may be that her only sin is drunkenness.”
“That’s not the only thing!” Sigefrith cried. “She’s—she’s cruel to me. She insults me, and lies to me, and throws things at me!”
He spoke without thinking. He was ashamed to admit these things before two men. He did not like two real men to know that he was not one of them. But surely these things had to weigh in the balance.
Malcolm and Egelric did indeed look disconcerted.
“What advice did you want, little brother?” Malcolm asked gently.
“What should I do?”
“About which problem?” Egelric asked.
“All of them.”
Egelric and Malcolm exchanged a long glance.
“You’re thinking that a man can repudiate an unfaithful wife,” Malcolm said thoughtfully as he began winding and unwinding a scrap of knobby twine about his long finger.
“Can’t he?” Sigefrith asked.
“Let’s not waste any time talking around the problem like a lot of women,” Egelric sighed. “I’m just about perfectly warm, and I don’t care to waste my wife’s magical breath tonight. You’re thinking that you can cast off Hilda and marry your farmer’s daughter. That’s what you want to do, isn’t it?”
Sigefrith hung his head in shame. “It’s certainly an ugly thing if you say it that way.”
“I’m only a peasant’s son, as I said, and I only speak plainly. So why don’t you do it?”
“Do you think I could?” Sigefrith asked hopefully.
“Probably. Simply ask His Majesty the King.”
“A problem, is it?” Egelric chuckled grimly. “Already know what he’ll say, do you?”
“He’ll tell you to do the honorable thing,” Malcolm interrupted. “I think you already know what that is.”
“That’s why you went to me for advice, and not to him.”
Sigefrith realized that that was probably true. He knew what his godfather would say. It would be precisely what he had been telling himself for many months. But he had not known about Wynflaed’s baby then…
On the other hand, he had been hoping for this baby, and for what it might oblige him to do. This hope was already a dishonorable thing.
Malcolm rose onto one knee and dropped his bit of twine into the fire.
“I shall give you my advice, little brother,” he said. “But you might ask Sigefrith’s as well. You ought to hear both sides.”
“There was a time… there was a time when I had to make a choice between doing the honorable thing and the dishonorable thing, having already done more than the devil’s own share of dishonorable things. I think you know what I mean. I chose to do the honorable thing. I shall regret it until I die.”
Sigefrith nodded again.
“Even though I know she would never have forgiven me for taking her away from her children. Even though I know she would have come to hate me. Even though I know we would have lived unhappily and died young. That was the life I was meant to have, and the day I went away from here without her, I started living another man’s life. Because I was not true to the man I was. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” Sigefrith whispered.
“My advice for you does not consist of telling you what to do. You will have to decide that for yourself, little brother. I can only tell you that you need to learn what sort of man you are, or decide what sort of man you want to be. And then you need to live true to that man. That is all.”