She had to find out what her daughter was up to.

It would likely mean unraveling and redoing the half-​​row of stitches she had abandoned on her needle, but Gunnilda had to find out what her daughter was up to.

If it was a peddler at the door, Gytha should have sent him on his way; a beggar should have been sent to the kitchen; and anyone else should have been invited inside for a cup of cider and a piece of cake. A young gentle lady did not stand around gossiping in doorways, and especially not if, as it seemed, she was gossiping with a young man.

“Gytha…” she began ominously.

“Ma! Look who’s here!”

Gytha grabbed Gunnilda’s arm as soon as she drew near and pulled her full into the afternoon light that glared through the open door. At first her eyes were blinded. Then she was not certain she could trust them.

She thought she was seeing Egelric as a boy.

She thought she was seeing Egelric as a boy, when he had first started skulking around her father’s farm in pursuit of her older sisters. Gunnilda had been too young to be in any danger from him then, and too young to mind.

Now she was old.

Now she was old.

“It’s Egelric’s boy, Finn!” Gytha cried before correcting herself. “Sir Egelric’s son.” She curtsied to the knight’s son in default of the knight.

“And does Sir Egelric’s son not deserve to be invited in?” Gunnilda scolded her.

“Yes! No! I mean! I don’t know what I mean!”

Gytha laughed at her silliness in that breathless, bewildering way that some women had, which made their every flaw seem only an additional attraction to the men. Shy Gunnilda had learned to laugh at herself as she had grown wise and wry, but the most she could do with her faults was incline men to overlook them.

“Good afternoon, Mistress Ashdown,” Finn began, somewhat breathlessly himself. “I…”

'Good afternoon, Mistress Ashdown.'

“Call me Gunnie!” Gunnilda interrupted. “Everyone does ’round here.”

“Oh… I… my father does not.”

“Doesn’t he?” she replied automatically before she was struck mute by the thought that Egelric therefore spoke of her with his son.

“He calls you Gunnilda, I mean.”

“Oh… well, I don’t know but I guess he always did. I guess he always was a gentleman in that way, even when he visited in our little daub house, and me in my old apron with my hair sticking up like a rooster’s tail!”

She laughed at herself.

She laughed at herself, but not breathlessly. Gytha growled, “Ma!” between her teeth.

“I would – like to speak with you – if I might – Miss – Gunn – Gunnilda…” Finn stuttered.

“Gunnilda will do, if you like,” she said. “Since it did for your Da. I’m that glad to meet you! Though you needn’t be polite with me. I was the first woman ever to lay a hand on your bare behind!”

Gytha gasped in horror. “Ma!”

She had only meant to tease her daughter, for she did not like to see such wide-​​eyed interest in a boy on the part of a ten-​​year-​​old girl. But Finn himself had turned the pink of a blistering sunburn, from the tip of his father’s nose to the tops of his mother’s little ears.

He had Elfleda's fair skin.

He had Elfleda’s fair skin, that much was certain. Egelric was too dark to show a blush, though Gunnilda was not certain he could have been made to in any case. It seemed his son was unlike him in this, too.

“Gyth,” she said quickly to spare him further embarrassment, “why don’t you go cut us a few slices of that cake you made.”

“Oh – but I could not…” Finn began.

“Listen here,” Gunnilda scolded him, “it’s cake for you, or I’m tucking you into bed with a hot poultice on your belly. I know plenty about boys your age, and if you can’t eat cake, then I guess you’re that sick.”

“I guess you better go with the cake,” Gytha laughed.

“I guess so,” he smiled foolishly.

'I guess so.'

“So, Gyth,” she said to her daughter, “you go cut us a couple pieces, and then you go up and keep those babies quiet till I come up – ”

“Ma!” Gytha whined.

“March! You can take some cake up there.”

Gytha seemed to take the order literally and went stomping out to the pantry like a warbound little soldier.

Gunnilda took Finn and bid him sit at the long table, which he accomplished with some awkward banging of knees and elbows, like a colt not yet grown into his limbs. She thought of Bertie, and of how endearing the boys were at that age, and silently praised God for allowing Egelric at least that much of his son’s youth.

“Miss–Gunnilda,” he corrected himself sternly. For an instant his heavy brows came down over his eyes as Egelric’s did when he disapproved of something, but then they went up again, and his face was wistful like a boy’s. “I want you to tell me about my mother.”

'I want you to tell me about my mother.'

Gunnilda took a deep breath and held it until she had drained all the strength she could from it. “Well, Finn,” she said shakily, “I don’t know but I guess you should rather ask your Da about that.”

“I did ask him, and he told me a little about her, but he said he never truly knew her. But he thought you might know more, because you were her friend.”

“Well…” She took another breath. It seemed cruel to tell him she had not truly known Elfleda either. She and Egelric were the only surviving people who could be said to have known her at all.

It seemed cruel to tell him she had not truly known Elfleda either.

Finn watched her closely, with eyes that were hungry for more than cake. She did not know much about boys such as he, she realized.

“Well, she was a real fine lady,” Gunnilda began, just as Gytha pranced in with the cake.

Finn sighed and sat back in his chair, looking disappointed, but he quickly mustered a smile and a compliment for Gytha. Gunnilda had spent the last fourteen years cursing the elves who had stolen him, but she had to admit they had raised a gentleman.

She had to admit they had raised a gentleman.

“She was a real fine lady, was what I was saying,” Gunnilda continued when they had tasted their cake. “Always real tidy and dainty, no matter how much work she had to do. Real pretty lady, red hair and blue eyes and pretty skin just like you…”

“I know that,” Finn interrupted. “What was she like? Did you know her when she was a girl?”

'I know that.'

“Well, I don’t know but I guess she was a little too fine for me, and a little older besides,” Gunnilda laughed uneasily. “Her Ma was a widow-​​woman, but she always kept a real neat house, because she was a sort of healer up in the hills in those days. And she kept her daughter real close. And she never did like your Da’s Ma, I remember. Everyone said they both had the second sight, but I guess old Elfrida had the second sight, and Maire the third, because they never could see eye-​​to-​​eye!”

'They never could see eye-to-eye!'

She laughed at her joke, and Finn smiled.

“Your Ma always did keep clear of the boys, and never would dance twice with one on ‘em at a dance. And then one night – I guess I was already looking to my Alwy, then,” she sighed. “One Saint John’s Night your Da decided he was going to dance twice with young Elfleda. And he danced with her once – I don’t know how your Da dances those fine castle dances, except to prance about and make Duncan laugh – but he was a real fine dancer for our country dances. And he danced with her once, and then he went back and asked her a second time, which no man ever did by then, for she would be laughing him to scorn, and they had all learned. Even your Da! But dance with him she did. And I don’t know but I guess she never danced with another one on ‘em again, your Da was that jealous of her. And he kept him to her, after that, too, forsaking all others, until she died.”

Gunnilda was grateful for her cake.

Gunnilda was grateful for her cake. She could rid herself of the lump in her throat by taking a bite and swallowing it down.

“I guess your Ma had a little of the second sight, too,” she said softly, picking at a sticky chunk of apple with the tines of her fork. “I guess she looked at your Da and saw what a fine gentleman he would be someday, and what a fine lady she could be at his side. I guess she just didn’t see through to the end.”

When Gunnilda looked up, she found Finn staring off at the window opposite. She took a dainty bite of her cake and chewed slowly to give him time, but even after she swallowed he still stared. Then – she could not help it – she quietly laid her fork down and stared at him.

She quietly laid her fork down and stared at him.

She had already seen him riding by with Egelric or with some of the noble boys, and Bertie had even met him, but Gunnilda had not had such a look at his face since it had been round and wrinkled and sported a tiny baby button nose.

Now the nose and all the face was Egelric’s. A pretty woman had gone once over it, to be certain, but she had not refined it, only polished it like a stone in a stream. Any woman could have been his mother. Gunnilda could have been his mother. She was seeing the son she had dreamt, almost – the skin was too fair, but in the shadows of his face she saw the son she had once wished for on the shadow of the evening star.

Finn was chewing so hastily.

In spite of his distant gaze, Finn was chewing so hastily that Gunnilda could see his mind was busy enough to distract him even from Gytha’s excellent cake. Fortunately it also meant he had not felt her stare. She picked up her fork again and prepared to take another bite.

Suddenly he blurted through a mouthful of crumbs, “What I want to ask – is – how did she die?”

Gunnilda’s fork clattered back onto her plate. “Don’t you… didn’t your Da tell you anything about that?”

'Didn't your Da tell you anything about that?'

“What I want to know is – did she murder herself?”

His pronunciation was as crisp and clear as a noble boy’s, but his words still rolled with the queer sing-​​song of the elves, curling up at the end with a heavy stress on the last word of a question: die? herself? As if it were not the murder that was in doubt but the victim.

Gunnilda tried to swallow without the help of cake. “I don’t know, Finn,” she quavered, “but I guess we don’t say ‘murder’ in English when we… when someone takes his own life. I guess we call that ‘suicide’.”

“But did she – suicide herself?” he asked with the wide-​​eyed insistence of a toddler and the trembling, unhappy mouth of his father.

'But did she--suicide herself?'

“Why do you think so, dear heart?” she asked.

“Because, whenever I ask, people say I should ask my father, and when I ask again, they think, and tell me she died of a broken heart, because she lost me. And I do not think anyone ever died of a broken heart. Did someone?”

“You’re a clever boy, Finn,” Gunnilda sighed. “I guess no one ever did, or your Da would have died many times.”

'You're a clever boy, Finn.'

Finn picked at his cake and mumbled, “How did she die? I want to know.”

Suddenly he seemed no more than five – no bigger than little Bertie when he had asked her the same question all those years ago – no bigger than tiny Iylaine with her unceasing refrain of “Gunnie, I want to know.” Gunnilda wanted to pick him up and squeeze him – but he was not her son.

“Well, honey,” she said, “she hanged herself. In the old barn.” He stared at her so long that she began to fear he had not understood. “With a rope around her neck.”

“As the King does with the murderers here.”

'With a rope around her neck.'

“Well… yes…” Gunnilda said weakly. “And it was your Da what found her. And my poor Alwy what cut her down,” she sighed. “And I don’t know but I guess that’s maybe why your Da hasn’t told you about it. I hope he doesn’t mind if I told you. I guess it nigh broke his heart right there, finding her like that. I guess he’s never been quite the same since. That, and you being stole.”

Finn took another bite of cake and looked off at the window again. Gunnilda nibbled at her own and left him in silence.

'Finn took another bite of cake and looked off at the window again.'

“I think it is healed now,” he muttered.

“Wh – what is?”

“His heart. He told my cousin Malcolm, now, he has everything he ever wanted. Thus I think he did not miss my mother so much. He married another wife, and she is good enough to replace my mother.”

“Yes, but – Finn!”

'It is not so with the elves.'

“It is not so with the elves,” he said with sullen pride. “One life, one wife.”

“But you can’t judge him as an elf, honey! Your father is a man.”

“My mother was an elf, far down in her blood.”

He stabbed his fork into his cake, and the grim look on his face would have proven he was Egelric’s son, even if he had had Elfleda’s features to the last freckle.

“And so am I.”

'And so am I.'