It was not yet dawn when Gunnilda slipped out of her house. She had sent the three children piling on top of Alwy in the bed, and the sigh of contentment he had made as he wrapped his arms around them had proven unexpectedly moving; she thought she must have salted with a few tears the porridge she had left simmering on the back of the stove.

But outside was another world – cold, dark, frost-​​laden, and empty. The moon had long since set, and the stars glittered like daggers. Gunnilda ran.

The door was unlocked, and so she let herself in without knocking. She found a cold house, the fire gone out, and a dark room lit by a single candle… and Egelric leaning heavily against the wall, his back to her, staring into an empty corner.

Egelric leaned heavily against the wall.

“Egelric,” she said tentatively, her voice ringing sharply in the silent house. “It’s me – it’s Gunnilda.”

Egelric gave no sign of having heard.

“Baby’s with Alwy. She’s sleeping now.” She waited a while and then said, “I’ve come to sit with Elfleda. I guess Mother Wulfa will like to go home.” When he didn’t answer, she moved towards the bedroom door.

'Don't go in there.'

“Don’t go in there,” Egelric said dully, lifting his head.

Gunnilda stopped and stood quietly, waiting.

“I don’t want you to see her like that,” he continued after a moment. And then, turning his face back to the wall, he explained, “She was always particular about her appearance.”

He turned his face back to the wall.

And then he began to laugh. But it was a horrible, sickening laugh that seemed to rise up from some depths of sneering hatred in him. And Gunnilda was frightened.

Gunnilda was frightened.

She had seen him distraught, seen him perhaps as no one else had seen him, when he had fled for three days into the forest out of despair and had nearly run off again, not to return. She had also seen him when he had come for Alwy that evening last September when Finn was stolen, and seen him more recently since he had stopped even the searching. And each time it seemed as if pieces of him were falling away. But she had not known this person who could laugh so cruelly was inside of him, underneath the rest. She hoped it was not all that remained.

She dared at last step closer to him.

When he had stopped laughing she dared at last step closer to him. “Egelric, dear,” she began hesitantly.

“So you’ve come again to tell me there’s no curse,” he snarled. He turned abruptly to face her, but upon seeing her face his voice softened.

He turned abruptly to face her.

“Even you begin to believe,” he murmured.

Gunnilda shook her head. “I don’t know, Egelric. I just know you been more unhappy than any one man should have to be.”

She found she could not hold his gaze, and so, to have something to do, she knelt before the fire and began coaxing the remaining embers to life. 

Egelric stood silently behind her.

Egelric stood silently behind her – watching her, she knew.

But even after the fire had begun to blaze she still had nothing to say, and so she simply stood beside him and watched it grow.

She stood beside him and watched the fire grow.

The warm light served at least to make him look more alive. She told herself she would not leave unless he asked her to. It wasn’t right for him to be left standing alone in a cold and dark house. What was Father Brandt thinking?

He interrupted her thoughts by saying quietly, “You will think me harsh, Gunnilda, but all through the night I have been telling myself that she has done her worst. She can no longer do anything to hurt me or my daughter.”

'Oh, Egelric.'

“Oh, Egelric,” she whispered. “Baby too?”

'I'll never know.'

“I believe so. But I’ll never know.” After a moment he added softly, “I thank you for loving her.”

Gunnilda gave a laugh that jerked into a sob.

Gunnilda gave a laugh that jerked into a sob. “That’s easy enough!”

'She's all I have left.'

He turned to her and said gravely, “Take good care of her, Gunnilda. A girl needs a mother. But more than that – she’s all I have left.”

Gunnilda nodded and wiped the tears from her cheeks with the backs of her hands.

“Perhaps that is asking too much,” he mused. “‘Be a mother to my daughter.’”

“No, Egelric,” she whispered, “It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever been asked to do.”

'It's the easiest thing.'

“I never would have believed there were women like you in the world if I hadn’t met you,” he said slowly, staring into the fire. “My mother was a rather harsh woman and my wife was… an unhappy woman. And the rest are selfish or silly in their many ways.”

“Egelric, I – ”

'I want to say something to you.'

“Hush. I want to say something to you, and then I would like you to leave me with my wife.” He paused, and Gunnilda waited quietly for him to continue. 

“Whenever I have most despaired,” he said without looking up, “I have always found you standing behind me, in body or in spirit. If I believe in curses, I have also sometimes believed that you were sent to save me.”

He turned to her.

He turned to her. “Tonight I was wondering whether you would come. I was planning to swear at you, and mock you, and ask you what you thought about that curse now. I hated you because you continue to believe that there is good in the world – and that good will come to me. But it’s true – do you see? Because you are good. You carry your own truth inside of you. You are the messenger, and the message.”

'You carry your own truth inside of you.'

Egelric looked back into the fire and murmured, perhaps to himself, “‘And your children shall arise up, and call you blessed, and your husband also, and your own works shall praise you in the gates.’ You make me believe what Father Brandt could not.”

She waited quietly, her heart full and her eyes shining, for a dismissal or for whatever was to follow.

“Now,” Egelric said, his voice growing serious. “Father Brandt says I think too much, and perhaps you did not understand the half of what I said. But I had to say it, because in a few hours I will again be the angry and bitter man who hates you for being good, and I will not be able to say it. I wanted you to know that’s not all I am. Remember this when I hurt you.”

“Oh, Egelric, you won’t – ” she began softly.

But the sound of her voice seemed to awake him from a half-​​dream. He turned his face away from her and commanded, “Leave me with my wife.”

He turned his face away from her.

As she touched the door handle he called out in a trembling voice, “And take care of my daughter.”

“I will,” she promised, and opened the door onto the cold dawn.