“Fah,” Aethelstan said. “Source of disc...discus…”
“Fe, dear,” Hild said, taking care to over-emphasize the Saesen accent, so the courtiers wouldn’t mock her son for the Cornish accent she still had. “Fe / source of discord.” She folded her hands over her belly as the child within her kicked. Another set of feet seemed to be stepping on her bladder. Either she was carrying a horse, or Modthryth was right, and she was carrying twins.
“Among kings--among kinsmen,” Aethelstan continued, his high piping voice and the familiar rhyme almost lulling her to sleep. “And the fire of the sea / and path of the serpent.”
“From the beginning,” Hild said. “You need to do this perfectly, every time. After all, you’ll be king one day, and a king must know his letters--runes, Roman script...your Yiayia, Watcher rest her soul, she had me learn the Greek alphabet backwards and forwards when I was three.”
“Magister says I don’t need to know Greek,” Aethelstan said. His jaw jutted out, and for a moment, she saw his father writ small. Watcher forbid that her son end up like his father, a feckless king ruling a kingdom that grew ever weaker. Nobody had ever cared to ensure Wulfstan read properly, or knew not to pick his teeth at the table...
“Magister is an idiot,” Hild said, wincing as a tiny foot kicked at her rib with all the force of a battering ram. “How do you know you’ll never have to do business with the kings in Byzantium?”
“Mamaaa,” he whined.
“Don’t ‘Mamaaa’ me,” Hild retorted. “Recite again, from the beginning.”
“Fe / source of discord among kingsmen / and fire of the sea / and path of the serpent,” Aethelstan said, only slightly sullen.
“Good,” she replied. “Give me the next two verses, then I’m going to go lie down. Your brother is wearying me.”
“Ur / lamb-in-tent…”
“Ur / lamentation of the clouds / and ruin of the hay-hay--”
“Hay-harvest. Is your magister not drilling you on pronunciation?”
“He says my teeth are a problem,” Aethelstan said, grinning to show the gap in his teeth. Hild’s heart did a strange flutter. Already she had a son who was losing his milk-teeth!
“Old tooth, new tooth,” Hild said under her breath. “Pray the Watcher sends you a new tooth tonight. ‘Ur,’ from the beginning.”
“Ur / la-men-tat-ion of the clouds / and ruin of the hay-harvest / and…” he took a deep breath. “Abomination of the shepherd.”
“Thurs / torture of women / and cliff-dweller / and husband of a giantess!” Wulfstan crowed as he entered the room and planted a very performative kiss on her forehead, patting her belly as emphasis to the end of the verse. Aethelflaed was clinging to his ankle, grinning up happily at her father.
“It’s not wise, husband, to call a pregnant woman a giantess,” Hild said. “I thought Fleda was with her nursemaid?”
“Oh, she cried, and she loves her papa so much she wouldn’t cease wailing until I held her,” Wulfstan said. “Aethelstan, you’re done with your recitation for the day. Go play with your little sister, Mother and Father need to have an adult conversation.”
He escorted her into the hall, which was curiously empty. “So, what news, Wulfstan, that meant you had to send our children out of the room?”
“Well, I’ve found a husband for Sunngifu,” he said, grinning.
“You have?” she said, wondering why she suddenly felt a wave of nausea. “Well, it’s past time. Who is she to wed, and when?”
“Godgifu arranged the matters,” Wulfstan said. “She’s to marry Jarl Eydis’ son Aki at the beginning of winter, and those Danish simpletons will be paying us Ilcastra for her bride-price.”
Hild had to grab the chair in front of her for stability--the hall was spinning ferociously. “Watcher’s wounds, husband, do you mean to scare me into early labor?! Be serious.”
“I am serious,” he pouted.
“The Danes?” Hild hissed. “Do you know how this will look to our allies, bartering your bastard sister’s maidenhead for only one port?”
“They won’t be laughing when Fencastra is the richest kingdom in the Heptarchy,” Wulfstan said, gesturing with his stump as if he was counting. “They won’t be laughing when that blasted she-wolf Eydis gives me tribute. They won’t be laughing when I control--when Aethelstan controls, when our grandsons and their grandsons control the biggest river port on the Castra. So I think we’ll look damn good once the bride-price is paid.”