'Wake uuuuup!'

The gentlemen seemed to have started up the stairs as soon as the ladies had reached the hall. Britamund had not even had the time to find a position she might hope to hold all through the excruciating wait while her husband was undressed by his men.

“Wake uuuuup!” Eadwyn crooned from somewhere shockingly close to her bedside.

“So much for anticipation,” Caedwulf laughed.

“Leave her be,” Dunstan said. “She’s tired.”

“We can’t let her sleep through her wedding night!” Eadwyn said.

“We shan’t!” Malcolm cried. “We shall be out on the balcony serenading you.”

'We shall be out on the balcony serenading you.'

“And relaying you, if you need us,” Bertie said.

“You shall do neither.” She heard a frantic clinking and recognized it as the sound of a belt buckle flapping at the end of a loosened belt.

“She’s not sleeping,” Eadwyn announced. “She just peeked.”

She felt her face turning red, red, red, proving she was awake if there had ever truly been any doubt. She had not even peeked. The last thing she wanted to see was a row of men leering over her bed.

“You’re too quick for us, Your Highness,” Malcolm said. “Give us just a minute more.”

'You're too quick for us, Your Highness.'

“Ahhh… Isn’t that what the girls always say to Caedwulf?” Bertie asked.

She heard their sudden squabble, and in their moment of inattention she turned her face away into the pillow and tried to draw her legs up. She feared that one of them would fling one of the others onto the bed.

“Oh! Watch the candle!” Dunstan’s voice came from the foot of the bed, but towards the other side. Had he already undressed? Was he already coming in with her? Now she wished she could cringe away in the other direction.

Now she wished she could cringe away in the other direction.

“Why?” Caedwulf was laughing hysterically, drunkenly, as were the others.

Britamund was grateful for the presence of the Abbot. There were three other maidens downstairs, who had perhaps drunk a little too much themselves.

“Because I don’t want you to burn down the castle,” Dunstan snapped.

“Oh! Right!” Caedwulf said. “I thought you simply needed the light.”

“He does, as a favor to his lady,” Eadwyn said.

'He does, as a favor to his lady.'

“Can’t she find it in the dark?” Malcolm asked.

“Not if she doesn’t know what she’s looking for,” Bertie snickered.

“I meant for when she peeks,” Eadwyn said. “Watch her. He’s over there now, Your Highness.”

“Leave her alone!” Dunstan groaned.

“Give him just a minute more!” Malcolm said. “He’s almost ready.”

She could hear him undressing, rapidly it seemed, but she had no experience that could allow her to identify the stages of a man’s undressing merely by the sound. She thought she heard something like the whisper of a bare foot sliding over the floorboards.

“Name of God!” Caedwulf cried. “You are one hairy bastard.”

'You are one hairy bastard.'

“With my father, that makes two,” Dunstan grumbled.

Britamund heard something that sounded like a garment thrown against a man, but she could not guess who was throwing what at whom.

“He’s over here now!” Eadwyn said. “Quickly!”

“Turn around, you ninny!” Malcolm laughed. “That’s not what she wants to see.”

“That’s all I want to see of you!” Dunstan said.

“Dunstan!” Bertie cooed. “I never knew you cared.”

“The backs of you! All of you! As you’re leaving! Now get out!”

She heard another scuffle, and, thoughtlessly, she cracked open her eyelids – she peeked.

'The backs of you!'

Only for an instant – she had somehow not expected that. The only naked males she had ever seen, even from behind, were related to her by blood and under the age of six. She had not quite realized that a man became no narrower when he removed his clothing. Dunstan was shorter than she, but solid and compact like his father.

The thought made her grimace in despair.

She realized at that moment that she would never again be able to face her father-​​in-​​law without supposing she knew how he looked naked, and the thought made her grimace in despair.

“Just a moment now!” Malcolm protested. “You are not to be seeing us to the door. We are here to see that you make it into your bed.”

'We are here to see that you make it into your bed.'

“I assure you, I shall not fail.”

“Then you won’t mind if we stick around to verify the fact,” Bertie said.

“Indeed I would mind! You have harassed my wife enough already. Out!”

Their tussle passed through the curtain and into the small entry by the doors. That part of the ritual no longer concerned her. No eyes were upon her.

She opened her own and stared up at the ceiling, waiting, unblinking though her eyes were full of tears, until her husband slammed the door on a lot of drunken male merriment in the corridor. Her husband.

At last they were alone.

At last they were alone.