"It's no good. I really can't stand it here," Dido said later, in the library, to Father Sam. She looked sadly out of the window and across Saint James's Park, where Simon was reviewing the Household Artillery.
Father Sam sighed. He too was homesick for his quiet little grotto in the Wetlands. But as he had been appointed archbishop of Canterbury, he had been obliged to give up his career as a hermit, remove himself to London, and take up residence in the Archbishop's palace at Lambeth.
"It may be better after the coronation," he suggested. "When we have all settled down."
Dido was startled.
"The coronation? But Simon's been coronated! Hasn't he? When poor old King Dick took and died, and you put that copper hoopla on Simon's head?"
"That was only an off-the-cuff occasion, child. It was not clinching. It was not binding. Now there must be a proper formal ceremony in Saint Paul's Cathedral. Don't you remember when King Richard was crowned? Were you not one of the train bearers?"
"Holy spikes! Yes, I was. D'you mean to say poor Simon's got to go through all that palaver?"
Father Sam sighed again. "It will take months to organize. I daresay it cannot possibly take place until July or August. There will be all the arrangements to make--invitations to send to foreign kings and queens." He paused, then said, "Some kings--William the Ninth was one, John the Second was another--have waited to be crowned until they had married a queen who could be crowned at the same time."
"Well, Simon did ask me if I'd give it a go," said Dido. "But I said no. I couldn't ever be queen. Couldn't stand the weight of that thing on my head."
Father Sam shook his head, agreeing. "Who's to blame ye? I understand the king and queen of Finland and their daughter Princess Jocandra are coming to visit next week. Perhaps . . ."
Dido gave him a very sharp look.
"You think Simon ud ask this Princess Jokey just so as to marry her and get the coronating business over and done with? Well, I don't! Maybe he won't ever marry. He's not one to rush at things all in a hugger-mugger."
"No--there I agree with you. I believe that Simon will make a very hardworking and conscientious monarch--but I'm afraid his heart is not in the business. If he had any chance at all to decline the honor--and the responsibility--I think he would seize it."
"That he would," agreed Dido. "You'd not see his heels for dust, he'd be back at his painting. But what chance does he have? Seems there's nobody else a-hanging around waiting to take on the job."
"There is just one other possibility--"
"There is?" Now Dido's look was even keener. "Who's that, then?"
"A Saxon descendant of King Aelfred the Great and King Malcolm of Caledonia. I believe his name is Aelfric--or Aelfred--"
"Where does he live, this cove? In Saxony?"
"Nobody seems clear. That is the problem. The Lady Titania--King Richard's aunt, who looked after him in his last illness--was in communication with Aelfric--or so Simon believed. Letters came for her occasionally by pigeon mail from the north of England."
"Ay, I mind Simon saying summat about her. She was a fly old gel, by all accounts. Played both ends against the middle. But she's dead, ain't she?"
"Alas, yes. Came to an untimely end."
"Knocked off by the werewolf joker. But didn't she leave no address where this Saxon feller hangs up his hat--no message, no letter, nothing?"
"Nothing that could be found. You may recall that Darkwater Manor, where His Majesty was residing during his last illness, was flooded up to the second story, and any papers and writing materials left there were drenched and completely rotted--eaten by fish--illegible--"
"You'd think," said Dido, pondering, "that if this Alf cove has a claim, he'd a heard of poor old King Dick's death and would be here, a-banging on the door and making hisself known?"
"Well," said Father Sam, "I understood from Simon--who had it from Lady Titania--that Aelfred resided somewhere up in the North country. As you know, communications between London and those regions are somewhat meager--unreliable--"
"Maybe a messenger could be sent up to those parts?"
"The Scottish land is a very sizeable area--"
"And the inhabitants are warlike and contentious. There are frequent battles between Picts and Scots, and the Wends invade from across the North Sea; also these factions sometimes combine to attack the southern regions."
Father Sam sounded so dubious and dispirited that Dido became a trifle impatient.
"There must be somebody up around those north lands who'd know about a cove that maybe had a right to call hisself King of England?"
"Well," said Father Sam doubtfully, "I do have a correspondent--a cousin, in actual fact--who may possibly have such knowledge--"
"Famous! What's his moniker? Where does he live?"
"It is a woman. Her name is Malise. She lives by Loch Grieve. (The Caledonains call their lakes lochs.)"
"So--can't you write a note to this Malise dame, ask if she might know where Alf the Saxon is putting up now?"
"Our communications are very infrequent--once every ten years--or so--"
"Then don't you reckon it's time you sent her a billy-doo? What does she do for a living?"
"She's a witch," said Father Sam rather hesitantly. "In a town called Clatteringshaws."
"Croopus! Ain't that rum? How come you have a witch for your cousin?"
"We were at theological college together," Father Sam explained.
"That seems rum too! Well, go on! How come you turned into a parson while she turned into a hellhag?"
Dido was so interested that Father Sam found himself telling her far more than he had ever revealed to any other person.
"We were great friends in our teens and did everything together--helped each other with our school assignments. Malise was a very promising student. At our academy, the Seminary of the Three Secrets, she won an award as Student of the Year."
"Go on! What were the Three Secrets?"
"There were two, and one to come. The seminary had been founded in memory of three saints, or rather, two--Saint Ardust and Saint Arfish--and one candidate for sainthood--Saint Arling. The secrets were their dying words, words of great power and importance, not to be revealed--or not immediately . . ."
"Fancy!" Dido was impressed. "So what happened?"
Father Sam became distressed.
"Oh, we did a dreadful thing. Malise and I--we betrayed our trust--"
"The college was in the town of Clarion Wells, where our beloved Governor lay dying--had lain for weeks--"
"We were left in a position of responsibility--and we grievously failed--"
He looked so upset that Dido felt she had to leave the subject. She tried to comfort him.
"I daresay it wasn't so bad as you reckoned. You were only young--anyone can see how sorry you are."
"I went off to my hermitage to atone--Malise was sent back to the North Country."
Just at that moment the library door opened and two people came in. Dido recognized the voices of Sir Angus MacGrind and Sir Fosby Killick, two court characters whom she particularly disliked.
Dido and Father Sam were out of view in an alcove containing works on church history, and the two newcomers did not realize that anybody else was in the library.
"As for that young person who calls herself Dido Twite," Sir Fosby was saying, "I regard her as a most undesirable influence on His Majesty. The sooner she can be evicted from the palace in some permanent way, the better it will be--"
"Comes from a family of pickpockets, I've no doubt," agreed Sir Angus. "We can soon deal with her. Ah, here is last week's Spectator, that is what I was looking for . . ."
Their steps receded, their voices faded.
Dido turned to Father Sam and found that he was wiping a tear from his eye.
"I bet you'd rather be back in your hermitage, too, wouldn't you?" she said. "Tell you what, Father Sam--I'm a-going to the North Country to hunt for this Aelfred fellow. . . ."
Copyright © 2005 by Joan Aiken. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.