Halsfield, Wessex, England

Gunnora had crept halfway down the stairs.

Gunnora had crept halfway down the stairs when a knock thundered at the old tower door.

She gasped and gripped the banister like any child surprised sneaking out of its room, ready to turn and scamper back to safety even as she floundered for an excuse. Then the mind of the grown woman reared up and imposed order like a fist slamming down.

She gasped and gripped the banister.

Ever since the west hall had been added, visitors great and lowly came up the paved path to the arched double door. The tower door was still used for ceremonial occasions, but then servants were stationed at the ready to open it. No one knocked at the tower door.

But there was one man who might.

There was one man who might.

The one man so pompous and so pretentious that his vanity could not fit through any door less than fifteen feet high. The one man who could show up uninvited, expecting a fawning welcome, after stamping off with his nose in the air only days before. The one man so utterly convinced of his geniality that he could interpret the sternest, stoniest refusals as coy flirtation and come back for more.

The one man: Sir Albert.

Gunnora no longer minded about the petty crime.

Gunnora no longer minded the petty crime of sneaking out of her room. She could not lose this opportunity to meet Sir Albert alone. She would tell him what she thought of him in such lurid terms that his pride would prevent him from repeating to her stepfather the exact words. She would be punished, yes, but she would get her punishment’s worth.

As she stepped onto the old tiles she was startled by a pair of maids coming in from the back of the house. The maids seemed just as startled to find her there.

The maids seemed just as startled to find her there.

For a moment they stared at one another. For a moment it looked as if Gunnora’s glowering dignity would suffice to convince them she had every right to be out of her room.

Then the visitor outside pounded at the door. No one moved.

Alors ?” Gunnora said low. “Pourquoi n’allez-vous pas ouvrir ?

That was her mistake. One of the maids had seemed at the point of going to open, but orders in the house were strict: no one was to serve Gunnora in anything, nor speak to her, nor even look at her. Gunnora was commonly agreed to have ceased to exist.

Answering that door might have been interpreted as responding to Gunnora’s request. Therefore the maids struck off together towards the stair she had just descended, grinning with malicious glee, and loudly continuing an imaginary conversation they had not truly interrupted a moment before.

Therefore the maids struck off together.

Gunnora forgot Sir Albert in the wake of this new outrage.

“Get back here! You heard me! Bitches!”

The maids kept walking, and Gunnora followed them to the foot of the stairs.

The maids kept walking.

“You heard me! You heard that door!” She grabbed the banister and swung herself up onto the first step. “Bitches! You’ll take notice when I slap your fat faces! Get back here!”

Gunnora jumped off the stair and stomped back into the center of the room, where her rising voice would best ring off the old arches like a bell clanging in its steeple.

Salopes !


The women laughed aloud.

Ah ! Salopes !” Gunnora cried. “Ça, les putasses, ça, vous entendez ! Très bien ! Salopes ! Salopes ! Sa—lopes !

The maids tramped up the stairs, laughing as loudly as they dared considering that there was commonly agreed to be no one in the hall below. Gunnora shuffled backwards towards the door, tense and shaking with rage, still screeching “Sa—lopes !” until she had seen the two dim white scarfs disappear from the balcony above.

Gunnora shuffled backwards towards the door.

By now her wrath had swelled so high she was glad Sir Albert was there for it to break upon. It was all his fault—all the fault of that one man: every outrage she endured on the part of her sister, of her stepfather, of the servants—her burnt dinners and her scalded fingers, her bread-​and-​cheese suppers—her loneliness and boredom—her dirty gown and unwashed hair.

At that moment she hated him so passionately she might have married him after all: nothing short of making the rest of his life a living Hell would do.

At that moment she hated him so passionately.

She hurled back the bolt and leaned her shoulder against the door, straining like a dray horse to get the massive load underway. Once moving, it got away from her and swung wide enough to thud against the wall. Gunnora skidded and stumbled out behind it, just as a dark cloud of ravens scattered crawing from the trees.

Gunnora lifted her elbow and whirled around to face Sir Albert, as vicious in defense of her dignity as a dunked cat.

But it was not Sir Albert—spindly, potbellied, sallow-​faced, saggy Sir Albert. Gunnora let her arm drop.

But it was not Sir Albert.

It was a big animal of a man, bull-​necked and broad-​shouldered, with a dense black beard and hair so unruly that it seemed a force of nature unto itself. He rumbled with wicked laughter at her entrance, but the crinkles around his pale eyes were almost wistful, and his wringing hands were almost prayerful, almost shy.

He reached past her.

He reached past her with one of them and caught the door just as it rebounded, and he gave it a gentle push precisely calculated to stop it soundlessly against the wall. Gunnora thought blankly that this was the sort of man for whom one constructed doors fifteen feet high.

“Hallo, Baby,” he said to her in perfect English. “You don’t remember me. I’m your uncle.”

'I'm your uncle.'