'Alwy, where have you been?'

“Alwy, where have you been?” Gunnilda scolded. “I slept and woke up and you still wasn’t here.” When Alwy didn’t answer she asked, “What’s the matter – are you sick?”

Alwy shook his head slowly.

Gunnilda reached up to touch his face in the few dim rays of firelight that crept in from the front room.

Gunnilda reached up to touch his face in the darkness.

“Alwy – you’re crying! You tell me what this is about. Did one of your animals get killed?”

Alwy bent his head and touched his forehead to hers, but still he would not speak.

“Alwy!” she cried, growing frightened. “Why are you looking at me like that? My babies!”

'Why are you looking at me like that?'

“Your babies is sleeping, Gunnie, don’t you worry. I been over to Egelric’s.” 

Egelric! Gunnilda’s heart raced and staggered like a wounded animal.

“It’s Elfleda, Gunnie. Elfleda’s dead.”

Elfleda. Gunnilda stared, her mouth open but unable to form the least question.

“She killed herself,” he continued with difficulty. “In the barn. Egelric found her.”

'We found her.'

“Oh, Alwy…” she breathed.

“I got her down and carried her into the house and put her in her bed. That’s all anybody could do for her, and I done it.” He lifted his wife off the pillows and held her against him, whispering into her hair, “Don’t you never do that, Gunnie. I would die.”

Gunnilda was too stunned to scold or make a joke, and so she only promised, “I won’t.” But what about Egelric?

“Poor Elfleda,” he whimpered. “She was so unhappy, and nobody could ever help her. You tell me if you get unhappy like that, Gunnie. I’ll do anything to make you happy again.”

“I’m not unhappy, Alwy,” she assured him. “Where’s Egelric?”

“Father Brandt is there with him, and old Mother Wulfa to sit up with Elfleda. I brought Baby home and put her to sleep with Wynnie.”

“That was good thinking, Alwy,” she murmured. Her head was spinning. All she wanted was to go to him, but how could she? And what would she say?

“Baby knows – she saw me carry her Mama in. Poor Baby!” The thought of the little motherless girl overwhelmed Alwy and he began to sob.

Gunnilda tried to calm him while her mind raced elsewhere. What had happened? Why? What was Egelric doing now? She prayed they wouldn’t leave him alone this night.

After a time, having promised repeatedly that she would never do such a thing, she soothed Alwy to silence. Numb with shock, she lay across his chest as he smoothed her long hair down her back and stared up at the ceiling with his red eyes.

But Gunnilda sat up when she heard whispering coming from the other room. “That boy’s awake. I better go see.”

“He’s a real good boy,” Alwy said wistfully as she rose.

Still too wrought up for sarcasm, Gunnilda agreed.

“Ma, what’s Baby doing here already?” Bertie asked as she came into the room.

“Why did you get this baby out of her bed?” she scolded in a whisper, bending to smooth the wee girl’s hair.

“She was awake, Ma! She woke me up. Ma, how come you’re crying?”

“Oh!” Gunnilda huffed. She stood and looked down at her dark-​​eyed son. He would have to be told.

She looked down at her dark-eyed son.

“Well, Bertie, Baby came to stay with us for a while because her Mama died this night.”

Bertie solemnly absorbed this knowledge and then asked her the question she feared and expected. “How did she die?”

He would have to be told this too. He would hear soon enough from the other children, and God only knew what nonsense they would tell. She glanced over at Iylaine, who sat quietly on the floor, watching them acutely.

Gunnilda bent her head and whispered to Bertie, “She killed her own self. Don’t you tell that Baby.”

Gunnilda bent her head and whispered.

“I won’t, Ma.” After a moment he whispered, “How did she kill her own self? With a knife?”

“No, Bertie, she tied a rope around her neck until she stopped to breathe. And don’t you even think about trying that!”

“I won’t, Ma. But you better not neither, Ma.”

Gunnilda let out a sharp cry and bent to embrace him.

Gunnilda let out a sharp cry and bent to embrace him. “Never,” she promised.

Bertie then turned to the little girl on the floor. “I’m sorry about your Ma, Baby.”

Iylaine smiled and stared off into the dancing fire. “We don’t need her,” she said softly.

'What's Baby doing here already?'