'It is so cold here!'

As soon as Leofric stopped rushing Hetty along ahead of him, her spirit collapsed like sails.

“It is so cold here!” she blubbered. It was also dark; it was also silent; it was also still. He had taken her to a place where her straining senses could latch onto nothing more than the chill of the air and his looming presence.

“We shan’t be long,” he whispered.

He was moving closer to her, backing her into the corner with the terrifying breadth of his body. He did not intend to rescue her, and no one else would.

It was a sordid, ugly thing.

It was a sordid, ugly thing—rotten and wormy like everything else. The vulgarity of his very words nauseated her—what man under what circumstances would promise it would not take long? She wondered what he meant to do to her: pin her up against the wall? tip her back onto the table?

“Someone will come!” she squeaked, a tiny mouse threatening an ox. “Someone will come!”

He stopped and sighed heavily through his nose. Hetty would not have been more surprised to see a charging bull stop inches sort of its apparent target and lazily flick at a fly with its tail.

'I can take care of my big self, Hetty.'

“I can take care of my big self, Hetty,” he grumbled. “What I want to know is who is taking care of you?

Her wide blue eyes shone in the moonlight like moons.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“What?” she gasped.

“Not ten days have passed since I told you—”

He stopped abruptly and sucked in his breath. He held it so long that Hetty began to gulp for air, trying to breathe for him, as she tried to help and do and be for everyone, until he became aware of it and turned away.

He turned away.

“It was the last thing I wanted to do to you,” he muttered. “Now I am grateful it was I. I know that someone in the past ten days has spent at least two minutes comforting you.”

He stubbornly faced the window, but the dark form of his body seemed as solid and strong as a tree whose roots gripped bedrock. It was a silhouette she knew not by eye, but by limb.

If she remounted her pain to its source, she found it there: in those first two minutes she had clung to it. He had held her safe, and though all those torrents of pain had crashed around her, they had only flowed over her, and on without her. He had not let go of her—he would not have let her go. Something had ripped her away.

“Why aren’t you at home in bed?” he growled. “Why aren’t you resting?”

'Why aren't you at home in bed?'

“It is… the Old Man’s birthday…” she whispered, stunned to be scolded so for her self-​sacrifice and her generosity.

“I know what day it is, and I know why we’re all here. I want to know why you are. Eadie did this so you could rest. Is there not one person in that castle of yours who has noticed you’re hurting?”

“But… I am well enough…”


Hetty gasped in shock. In “that castle of hers”, gentlemen did not speak so to ladies.

“God damn him!” he snarled, pacing from halfway to the window to halfway to the door. “I got more sympathy out of him when my arrogant ass of a brother died than you’ve had for poor Lili!”

'God damn him!'


“Does he do anything for you? The last I saw him, instead of spending the evening with you, he was shut up in his study, drinking and writing poetry for your dead sister!”

Hetty squealed and slapped her hands over her face. He had touched her hidden wound at its festering core, there where the worms had already eaten through the flesh and replaced its mass with their vile bodies.

She could talk and smile and go about at parties, but the lightest touch to that sensitive spot radiated as agony to all her being. She dug her fingernails into her cheeks, writhing with a far greater pain, until he caught her wrists in his big hands and yanked her arms wide.


“Hetty!” he gasped.

“He loves her!” she sobbed. “He loved her, he always did love her!”

“Hetty, no…”

He stroked the backs of his fingers over her cheek with such gentleness that it soothed the gouges of her fingernails, where her own tears stung.

He stroked the backs of his fingers over her cheek.

“It is true!” she squealed. She was sickening herself; it was ugly and vile, like opening a wound to let the pus gush out, but she needed that relief. She needed Leofric to know and to believe. “That poem—that poem—my poor little poem I thought he hid for me—he wrote it for her! She lost it! And I thought it was for me!”


She clutched his tunic in both hands and shook it, though her frail arms could not hope to move his heavy body. “He wrote it for her! For her!” she babbled. “And all that time…! And so not to tell me my mistake, he married me! It was a lie! He told me so!”

He was holding his breath again.

He was holding his breath again, but now she could also feel the trembling in his body. Unlike the trembling in hers, it was not weakness but tightly bound, passionate strength.

“I was so happy!” she sobbed. “I thought—one man! One man loves me better than Lili. I only wanted one!”

“You have one.” His voice was low, but she had never dreamt how it would rumble in his chest until she pressed her face against it.

“No!” she wailed, rubbing one cheek and the other over the smooth cloth. “No! He loved Lili too—like all, all…”

He slid his arm up between their bodies and laid his hand on her chin. Now it was she who stopped, who held her breath, terrified of nothing she could name.

He slid his arm up between their bodies and laid his hand on her chin.

Then she remembered: It was one of her earliest memories, so old that she could no longer recall what had upset her, but she remembered she had crawled into her father’s lap to bury her face in his tunic and cry. He had even awkwardly patted her back at first—until he heard her sniffle.

He had taken her tiny chin in his hand and tipped back her head, and when he had seen her runny nose lifted away from his fine tunic, he had tumbled her off onto the couch and smacked her: once on the cheek, once on the ear, and once on the back of the neck as she had rolled away and tried to protect her face.

But Leofric did not even tip back her head; he simply held her childlike face in his big hand, with the tip of his broad thumb nestling in the hollow beneath her lower lip, and his fingers slowly stroking her neck and chin.

“You have your one man, Hetty,” he whispered.

'You have your one man, Hetty.'

There was no rumbling in his chest when he whispered, but a sound like a sigh. She held her breath and listened to him breathe for her until he lifted his hand away and laid it on her arm.

“Now, I want you to be brave a few minutes more, and dry your eyes, and go back in there and take your leave, and tell them you are going to bed. And then I want you to come to me.”

She choked, “No! Leofric!”

'No!  Leofric!'

“And you shall tell me everything you’ve wanted to say for the last ten days, when no one would listen to you, and no one cared. Only to talk, Hetty,” he murmured soothingly, though his lips were near enough to her cheek that she could sometimes feel his beard brush her skin. “That is all. For tonight.” He laid a hand on the small of her back: a hand broad enough with its open fingers to reach from hip to hip.

“I cannot!” she gasped. In her shock she could only offer a practical objection: “We cannot leave the party together!”

He snorted. “Has anyone seen me since supper? I got Sigefrith good and angry at me this morning so he would think I was avoiding him for the rest of the day.”

Innocent Hetty could find no reply to such cunning.

He stepped away from her and stroked both hands down her cheeks.

He stepped away from her and stroked both hands down her cheeks. “Dry your eyes now, Hetty. You shall cry all you like in a little while.”

“I cannot, Leofric, I cannot,” she whimpered.

He stepped towards the door, but he turned back to her and pulled her near enough to him that her head came to rest against his, and his breath blew over her face like a warm wind fluttering sails.

He pulled her near enough to him that her head came to rest against his.

“You shall do as I say,” he growled softly. “You shall go back there and take your leave of everyone and tell them you are going to bed. Then you may come to my room if you like—for you can. And if you do not like, then you shall go to bed as you claimed, and rest. And if you cry, you will at least know that your ‘one man’ is thinking of you, and you are not alone.”

He did not wait for a reply. He had issued his command. The door opened obediently before his hand and closed behind him with scarcely a sound.

Hetty did not dry her eyes, but her tears dried themselves after a time.

Hetty did not dry her eyes, but her tears dried themselves after a time.