Near Halsfield, Wessex, England

Leofric's boot slammed onto the frozen road.

Leofric’s boot slammed onto the frozen road, and Gunnora’s gabbling abruptly ceased. Into their silence the horse’s tack creaked and jangled, and the frosty fir trees clattered in the wind like fairy echoes.

Leofric’s heart was still pumping from the fright his niece had given him, and his fear made him growl.

What — in God’s holy name — are you doing here?”

Gunnora perked up. “I’m running away with you!”

'I'm running away with you!'

Oh no, oh no, you are not, little mistress. How did you — ”

The impossibility of the situation struck him in mid-​phrase, and he grabbed the horse’s reins and scanned the road for further unpleasant surprises.

In twenty years the familiar forest had become a wilderness. Shadowy trunks leaned over the road, clawing out into the void. Overhead their branches almost met, and the stars winked through their dark filigree, their constellations shattered.

How in God’s name did you get here, girl? We’re halfway to Wareham!”

The night’s vastness made him speak in a hush, like a frightened child, but Gunnora’s merry voice would not be repressed.

I walked!”

You walked? You walked? Girl, I just rode here, and I didn’t dilly-​dally! When did you leave?”

While you were at supper!”

While we were — ”

'While we were--'

Leofric slid his hand up the reins and clenched his fist just below the bit. The startled horse attempted to toss its head and pulled up short. The white of its eye flashed like a crescent moon.

While we were eating?” Leofric said. “Are you telling me that the entire time we were sitting there in the hall — you were already gone? When I went upstairs and said goodbye to you at your door — ”

He grabbed the end of her scarf in his other hand, since she wore no bridle, and clenched it beneath her chin.

He grabbed the end of her scarf.

 — telling you your old uncle loved you, and crying big fat tears into my beard and carrying on — while your sister was right there watching and wouldn’t open the lock and let me in! All that time you were already gone?

Gunnora smiled sheepishly.

And here I thought you were so angry at me you wouldn’t even say goodbye!”

His voice broke, maddening him. He was about to start blubbering into his beard again.

Gunnora patted the fist that clenched her scarf. “Poor Uncle — ”

'Poor Uncle--'

Leofric let go of the scarf and jerked away from her. The horse obligingly danced a few steps in retreat and shook its jangling head.

I take it all back! Every word!”

Gunnora gasped, but she still smiled, as if she did not believe it.

And now I’m taking you back, fool woman!”

Gunnora’s mouth fell open. This time she believed he meant it. “You can’t! Think of what they’ll do to me!”

'Think of what they'll do to me!'

You should have thought of that! What did you think? I’d be obliged to take you if you made it this far?”

I thought you would be glad to take me! You wanted to take me — I know you did! But you couldn’t think of a way to sneak me out of there — so I snuck me out for you!” She grinned and clasped her hands.

I — had — no such intention!”

But you did! You did! I know you did! Or else you don’t love me at all! Tell me you didn’t at least think of it! Tell me you didn’t at least imagine running away with me, in your wildest dreams!”

She slid her arm through his, pressed herself against his side, and flung back her defiant head, making herself the very personification of wild dreams. For a moment, Leofric could scarcely breathe for his awed dread of her. Then he shook her off and took shelter beside the thick neck of his horse.

Son of a serpent! I came all this way precisely to avoid the temptation to run away with a woman! And now you want me to run away with you!”

'And now you want me to run away with you!'

Gunnora perked up again. “What woman?”

That is none of your affair!”

She tipped her head thoughtfully for a moment, then tipped it the other way, rolling the idea back into a corner of her mind for future consideration.

Well,” she said, “I think you ought to run away with me now. That ought to cure you of your temptation.”

'I think you ought to run away with me now.'

Leofric took a breath to shout at her, but a quick thrill ran over him and cut it short. The girl had a point. There could be no better cure for his fantasies than the harsh reality of fleeing for his life with a young woman in his care. This one at least belonged to him.

Gunnora must have seen him hesitate. She grinned suddenly and said, “I shall just go get my bag!”


She darted towards the road bank, and Leofric snatched vainly at her sleeve, unintentionally giving the reins a vicious yank as he leapt after her. The horse stamped and balked, and Leofric was forced to turn his attention to calming it.

It was a big, broad-​backed horse, powerful enough to carry a knight of Leofric’s size in full armor with all of his gear. Disgustingly hospitable to the end, Seyert had loaned him one of his best steeds for the four-​mile trip to Wareham. The man could no more be grasped than a snake — all slithering courtesies and irreproachable conduct — and like a snake he awoke in Leofric a primal desire to crush his head beneath his boot heel.

Once the horse had settled, Leofric looked Gunnora over.

Once the horse had settled, Leofric looked Gunnora over, weighing her in his mind, while she wrestled her sack out of the clinging brambles. She was a tall girl, but if anything too thin and pale. If he carried her off it would serve Seyert right, for loaning him a horse capable of bearing an unarmored knight, a simple sack of clothes, and a lady.

You probably think,” she panted as she jogged back to him, “only because I am a woman, that I have stuffed my bag full of silks and slippers and trinkets. But I am a very sensible woman, Uncle, and I only brought one change of clothes, and scissors and bandages, and a flint and steel and charcoal cloth, and other useful things. And I brought some food, too!”

She dropped her bag on the road before his feet. It made an unappetizing clink.

'Let me guess: mostly sweets.'

Leofric sighed. “Let me guess: mostly sweets.”

She laughed.

She often tipped back her head when she laughed. Leofric could almost hear the crazy ideas clinking around in there like marbles. When he got her going, she laughed without feminine propriety: a hearty, open-​mouthed laughter, so like her cousin Sigefrith’s that Leofric always expected her to conclude with a grinning, “Good Lord!”

But there was nothing boyish about the sound. If a Gunnora-​bird were ever to make a nest in the tree outside his window, he would leave the shutters open in spite of the wind, and lean his elbows on the sill to listen to her song.

And to think her family intended to put her in a cage… nay, even to feed her to a snake.



She cocked her head towards the saddle. “Shall I go before or behind? Don’t worry: I can ride astride. I’ve done it before.”

Leofric sank his chin into his collar and sighed. “Why am I not surprised?”

Gunnora giggled.

He took her hands and pressed them together between his palms. “Listen, Baby, I wish I could take you tonight. I hope to come back with your brother just as soon as ever I can — ”

No! Now!”

'No!  Now!'

The whites of her eyes flashed out of the shadows, and he felt her body tense and prepare to spring, like a skittish horse.


You can’t make me go back now!”

He held her trembling hands between his. “If you can only hold out for a few more weeks… Father Edgar promised me he won’t marry you if you’re not fully consenting — ”

She jerked out of his grasp and stamped her foot down onto the frosty road. “Father Edgar! Is Father Edgar everywhere? Suppose Sir Robert decides to take the family on a little trip to Winchester, and Sir Albert just happens to be there? Is Father Edgar there?”

Leofric reached for her again, and she danced away.

Leofric reached for her again, and she danced away.

Supposing they feed me on bread and water until I consent? Supposing they whip me until I consent? Will you let Sir Robert sell your brother’s daughter to build himself more moats and walls? Will you let your niece be whored out like Pharaoh’s daughter to buy stones for her stepfather’s tomb?”


What if it were Eadie? What if you were dead, and my father were alive, and I were Eadie? Would you want him to go away and let Eadie be married to that repulsive man? Would you have him leave Eadie to be carried kicking and screaming to his bed? He’s horrid! I wish you had seen him so you could understand! He’s thin and knobby as a bean stem, and his stomach is round as an egg, and he smells bad, and he’s so old! He’s practically fifty! He will probably have to make me suck his cock just to make it stand!”

'He's practically fifty!'

Gunnora!” Leofric was so horrified that all his accumulated rebuttals to her arguments crumbled and vanished. He only choked out, “I am fifty, please it you to wit!”

Gunnora patted his arm, instantly all tenderness. “Of course I did not mean all men of fifty have need of it, dear Uncle. I am certain you do not have such trouble. But if you ever saw Sir Albert, you would see at once that he must.

Leofric was not certain that he would. Some things the old priest had said had given him a different idea from the merely pompous, limp-​dicked courtier that Gunnora held in such horror. Sir Albert was a very wealthy man, accustomed to obtaining without effort anything money could buy. Gunnora’s affection, they all knew, was not for sale. For such a man, Leofric feared, the taming of a rebellious young beauty would be a very amusing, very erotic sort of game.

It was well for Sir Albert that they had not met. The very name lit Leofric through with an outrage that he could barely contain.

It was well for Sir Albert that they had not met.

Sage, perhaps, at last, Gunnora merely stood with her hand on his arm, gently anchoring him to earth while he mulled thunderbolts in his head.

The wind seemed to have been awaiting their silence to pick up again. The trees reared and plunged overhead, tinkling their frozen branches in the silvery air. The horse mouthed his bit and made it chime. Even the animal was frost-​colored: a grizzled gray like sable dusted with snow.

The February night was cold and vast and pitiless, reminding Leofric he was small and alone. He stood a mere two miles from the place where he had been born, and yet he felt so far from home.

He looked nervously back up the empty road. “Baby, we can’t do this. You don’t realize — it would be kidnap… it’s against the law…”

Not if I consent to go!”

'Not if I consent to go!'

But you cannot consent, that’s the problem, Baby. You cannot go where you will.”

Well, just let them try to catch us! They won’t even notice I’m gone till breakfast.”

What if they check on you before? What if they already have?” He clapped his hand over his forehead and groaned. “Oh, Gunnora! There’s only the one road! Even if we have a night’s head-​start it’s not enough! If I didn’t take you, it wasn’t only because I didn’t know how to sneak you out of your room!”

'Oh, Gunnora!'

So let’s travel through the hills and on the back roads!”

He smiled tragically and shook his head. She was game, God bless her, but she was utterly naive. At fifty, in February, he would not have risked it, even alone.

He looked miserably up the road towards Wareham. He had found an old friend there in one of the ferrymen. Perhaps, with his help, they could be in Poole before dawn, and then…

Then he would have to think of something, and then something else, and so on for days and days of desperate travel. He did not know whether he had it in him. Nevertheless he thought he would like to know.

He looked down into her face.

He looked down into her face — into the only bright, warm, welcoming thing left him in the world on this dire February night. By starlight he could barely see the crimson of her cloak, but the jewel-​like beauty of her face sparkled even in the dark. She saw him looking at her, and she smiled at him, sweet and trusting as a child.

At that a roiling fury burst out in him. Frightened of himself, haunted by memories of swinging fists, he turned to storm off and leave her there to find her own way home over the frost. He realized just as he was about to roar that he was only angry because he had given in.

Name of God! You are just as pig-​headed as your father!”

'You are just as pig-headed as your father!'

She threw back her head and laughed.

He whipped around and grabbed her elbow. “Listen here, little mistress! Here are the rules! And if you disobey me even for an instant, I shall give you such a whipping that you won’t be riding astride for a week — you’ll be slung over the saddle on your belly!”

Gunnora pressed her fingers over her mouth to hide her giggles.

When I tell you to come, you come! When I tell you to be quiet, you be quiet! When I tell you to run, you run! Is that clear?”

Yes, Uncle.”

'Yes, Uncle.'

And I don’t want to hear you complain about anything! I don’t want to hear you’re tired or cold, I don’t want to hear you’re hungry, I don’t want to hear you’re sore. I shall do the best I can by you, but it’s likely to be hard going, and my best will have to suffice you. Is that clear?”

She giggled. “Yes, Uncle.”

Son of a serpent! I must have lost my God damned mind!”

Gunnora hefted her bag and leaned confidingly on his arm. For once she sounded sober as a woman her age ought — a widow and bereaved mother.

You are saving my life, dear Uncle. Time will prove you wise.”

Leofric humphed and left her to check the saddle. “Inch’allah!”


Gunnora slung her sack over her shoulder and grinned at him, her glittering self again. “Inch’allah? What does that mean? You keep saying that when you’re skeptical.”

When I’m skeptical, hmm?” he muttered. “That’s what you think? I suppose it means ‘I’m a dead man.’”

Gunnora slowly tipped her head to the side. In the darkness he could not be certain, but he thought he saw a gleam of fear pass behind her eyes.

He thought he saw a gleam of fear pass behind her eyes.

He had the unsettling notion that he had just said a blasphemous thing and caused the Lord to turn his face away from them both. Naive as she was, she had felt the chill of its absence in her marrow.

No, not truly,” he mumbled. “It’s a Saracen expression. It means ‘If God wills it,’ that’s all. I mean it’s all in the Lord’s hands, Baby.”

Oh, then it will surely come right.” Gunnora smiled and sighed contentedly, as though the Almighty owed her a favor. “I prayed for the Lord to save me from Sir Albert. And, do you see? The Lord sent you.”

'The Lord sent you.'