Paderborn, Saxony

'God damn it!'

“God damn it!” Gunnora stooped and blew sharp puffs on the guttering candle.

“Don’t blaspheme, Baby,” her uncle said wearily behind her.

“Well, I—”

The candle went out with a last wink of red at the tip of its wick.

The candle went out.

“Oh! Vain Dieu! There it goes again!”

“Don’t blaspheme in French, either.”

“I must relieve my feelings in some language! Is this a candle, or is it a block of soap with a string in it?”

“I am sorry,” her uncle grumbled, “that I am not able to keep you in the style to which you are accustomed.”

Gunnora stiffened.

Gunnora stiffened. She was fairly certain she heard a note of amusement in that growly voice, but perhaps he really was sorry. She had been getting careless lately with her resolution never to complain.

She picked up her wet sponge to dab her face in the dark. She was finding that water from a gravestone was not as effective a remedy for freckles as cowslip ointment, but at least it was free.

“Well, if it’s not a candle,” she said gaily, “at least we have soap! Which is more than I can say for some of the inns we’ve stayed at. But you know, Uncle, I am getting quite accustomed to this style. Better soap on a string with you than wax candles with Sir Albert!”

She plunked her sponge back onto the chipped plate and turned towards the bed. A swath of moonlight fell over the coarse woolen blankets, making every slub and snarl stand out in high relief. And—was one of them moving? No, she would not look.

She took a running start and vaulted over the foot of the bed.

She took a running start and vaulted over the foot of the bed.

She landed with a thump on the straw mattress, followed by her uncle’s groan.

“Son of a serpent!”

Gunnora giggled and flopped belly-​first onto the blankets. She kicked up her feet, taking them out of range of anything that bit or crawled.

She kicked up her feet.

“‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is,’” she quoted, “‘than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.’ Though I’ve always had my doubts about a dinner of herbs. I like a little parsley or mint on my dinner, but I don’t suppose one could live on herbs for very long. Could one?”

The mattress began to rustle as her uncle indulged in silent chuckling. Relieved, Gunnora wriggled more comfortably into the straw beside him.

“Unless they meant salad,” she added. “I think I could live on salad and love for at least a few days.”

Her uncle made a laugh that was half moan. “What a monstrous, misbegotten child of all that is sacred and unholy you are! Yes, I think Solomon meant salad.”

Gunnora laid down her head on her folded arms. “Oh, well, so long as I may have dressing.”

Even that she regretted as soon as it left her mouth. Her uncle did better by her than dinners of herbs, but every day his purse was lighter by a few coins, and a girl did not need to be clever with sums to realize the present situation could not last indefinitely.

He made her eat three square meals every day—bought them for her whether she claimed to be hungry or not—and he insisted on a private room for the two of them in every inn. She already did without everything he didn’t notice she lacked, and she claimed to prefer going afoot “like real pilgrims” rather than hiring a horse to ride. She did not know how she could be made less expensive than she already was.

“Whence do you get it?” he asked softly, interrupting her worries.

“Get what?”

“Your… you. I can’t figure it out. Your mother might have quoted a Biblical proverb at me word-​for-​word, but she certainly wouldn’t have followed it up with a lot of nonsense about parsley and mint.”

'Your mother might have quoted a Biblical proverb at me.'

Gunnora snorted.

“Baldwin could talk your ear off about the many excellent dishes he has enjoyed with parsley, but he wouldn’t have thought of the proverb in the first place. And Britmar would have found the proverb, but never stopped like you did to say, ‘Wait you just one moment, Solomon. Parsley for dinner?’ That’s what I mean. Poetry and nonsense, and the wisdom to mix the two.”

She did not much follow her uncle’s conversation when he got philosophical, as he called it, but she was flattered to know he thought her special among her family. She’d always been told she was the stupid, disappointing one.

“I don’t know,” she mumbled against her arm. “Perhaps it skips a generation. From whom did you get it?”

“I? There’s not a lick of poetry in me. And I don’t talk nonsense. And any wisdom I have was earned the hard way, not inherited from anybody.”

“I’m certain I got my wisdom the same way, if I have some,” she said. “And didn’t you write a poem for Hetty?”

He sniffed and shrugged his shoulders, rustling the straw. “That wasn’t poetry. That was nonsense.”

“There you are. We’re just nonsense and worldly wisdom, you and I. I never wrote any poetry either. It isn’t as if I wrote the Bible. I just repeated something somebody said to me once.”

Gunnora kicked her leg drowsily in the moonlight.

Gunnora kicked her leg drowsily in the moonlight. The muscles of her calves still twitched at intervals from habit of walking. They had covered twenty miles that day from Erwitte. In the morning they would make a “pilgrimage” to the tomb of her uncle’s friend Cenwulf. Afterwards she did not know where they would go. She found it ominous that her uncle had not mentioned their next shrine.


Gunnora stopped kicking. She was so stunned it took her a moment to remember what they had been discussing. She hardly spoke of Gilbert, not even with her uncle.

She whispered, “How did you know?”

“The way you said ‘somebody.’”

That would teach her. Gunnora had guessed the Lotherian lady her uncle loved by listening to the way he spoke the names of his friends. She had thought herself quite clever, but this beat all.

“That and the fact that he’d been raised to be a priest,” her uncle grumbled. “Seemed to me the sort of shady fellow who’d seduce a young girl with Bible verses. Begging your pardon for talking like a growly old guard-​uncle, Baby.”

Gunnora did not answer, but she secretly liked her growly old guard-​uncle as he was.

“Seemed to me,” he continued more gently, “you don’t talk much about him, but when you do…”

Gunnora rolled over onto her side and let her head flop into the crevasse between two pillows.

Gunnora rolled over onto her side.

“I simply wonder sometimes,” he said, “whether my Baby has ever been in love.”

“Oh, I was in love with Guillaume.”

“Now, were you truly?”

“I don’t know. I suppose it can’t be love if you don’t know a person. I thought he was handsome and dashing.”

The pillows were covered in coarse cloth that smelled of old sweat, with perhaps a hint of vomit. Gunnora propped her head up on her hand.

“If I ever have daughters,” she said, “I shall tell them: If a man doesn’t want you, never try to get him anyway.”

“That’s wise.”

“See? I learned that the hard way.”

“I see. But do you know, Baby, I asked you about Gilbert. And next thing I know we’re talking about Guillaume again.”

'But do you know, Baby, I asked you about Gilbert.'

Gunnora hadn’t noticed. She wasn’t surprised her uncle had—he rarely surprised her, for she believed him capable of almost any feat—but she found it troubling. Most nights, her uncle begged her to be quiet and let him get to sleep. It was quite unlike him to coax her into a conversation she was unintentionally avoiding.

“I didn’t mean to change the subject,” she protested softly.

“No. But you always do.”

Gunnora shrugged. She hadn’t noticed.

“You needn’t talk about him if you don’t like,” he assured her in his growly old dear-​uncle voice. He folded his hands over the blanket and let his head rest against the headboard. “I only wondered whether you’ve known what love is. I pray you will learn someday, if you haven’t, or find it again if you have.”

Now, why would he wonder that? Did he want her advice about his own love affairs? Would she need to understand love in order to understand what he meant to do next?

Now, why would he wonder that?

“Well,” she said, giving it serious thought, “I suppose I like to keep Gilbert as a pleasant memory. Every girl needs a lover she remembers fondly. But I don’t think I did love him, very much. I was only a little sad when I learned he had gotten married. But you were right. He did teach me ‘Better is a dinner of herbs,’ although I didn’t notice about the parsley right away, or I would have asked what he thought about that, since he was almost a priest and probably learned all about it. He wanted me to run away to Normandy with him to be married, but he wasn’t of age yet, so all he had in his own name was a little farm he’d inherited. So we would have been quite poor for almost two years. But I don’t think I must have loved him very much, must I? For if I had, I wouldn’t have hesitated to run away with him.”

Her uncle thought about all that for a while. Gunnora wondered whether she had unintentionally given him some advice about Hetty, and if so, whether it was bad or good.

But in the end he only said, “You? Hesitate to run away?”

Gunnora laughed. “I was young and foolish then! Now that I am wise, I shall tell my daughters: If you ever find a man who does want you, and who is very nice and at least a teeny bit handsome, you should definitely run away with him if he asks.”

“Or even if he doesn’t ask!”

Gunnora caught his meaning and giggled. “Yes! But you’re very handsome, so there’s a different rule for that scenario: Get hold of him and don’t let go!”

'Get hold of him and don't let go!'

She grabbed his arm with her free hand, clenching her fingers squarely around his biceps.

Her uncle had gotten lean over the last month of walking and carrying his own pack. He had lost none of his bulk, but his skin had tightened until the muscles stood in high relief, casting shadows in the moonlight. Even in repose she could feel the knot of strength beneath her hand.

Her memories of her brothers had devolved into images of rawboned, gawky yearlings. The handsome, dashing Guillaume had become a scarecrow. This was a man.

Her uncle laughed at her “different rule,” but slyly extracted his arm from her grip. Gunnora squirmed away and flopped back into the straw, warm and queasy with embarrassment as she was whenever her uncle seemed to think she meant something by a little touch. She did not. She knew perfectly well what it was to want a man. She was only frustrated by an unquenchable urge to cuddle close with him. She wanted to get hold of him and never let go.

She was only frustrated by an unquenchable urge to cuddle close with him.

She hastened to think of a way to return to the original subject and get off this one.

“I shall tell them,” she said, thinking of her hypothetical, vague, and mysteriously fatherless daughters, “that it’s always better to regret a thing you’ve done than a thing you feared to do!”

Her uncle sighed. “You know, Baby, that’s not always true. My biggest regrets are all things I’ve done and wished I hadn’t.”

Well, that was already something, if his biggest regret wasn’t having failed to run away with Hetty. Gunnora stored the thought away for later, when she would have leisure to make something of it. Meanwhile she looked back over her uncle’s history and thought she saw his point.

“Such as Matilda?” she asked.

'Such as Matilda?'

He snorted. “Funny you should think of that one. It’s hard for me to regret that, for I should have to wish Leia away.”

“That’s just how I feel about Hubert,” she said. “I can almost forgive Guillaume everything because he gave me Hubert.”

Now her uncle laid his hand on her arm, and Gunnora did not draw it away. If God had let her keep her little baby, she thought she could have lived all her life on love and parsley, and even traded places with the ox and been content to live in a stall.

Now her uncle laid his hand on her arm, and Gunnora did not draw it away.

Her uncle stroked her arm and talked to her while her big lump of sadness melted back down.

“Then you understand what I mean, Baby. But you had far more to forgive Guillaume than I did Matilda. I was thinking of the pain I caused her family. And mine too, for that matter. I cannot say that Matilda ever wronged me. Though, looking back, she had a damnable way of making a man feel like a particularly lifelike dildo.”

Gunnora snorted tearfully and tugged the hem of her shift down over her hips. Her arm was necessarily pulled away from her uncle’s stroking fingers, but when she laid it back down she snuggled it up against his arm.

“What’s a dildo?” she asked, struck by a sudden idea.

'What's a dildo?'

Her uncle shouted, “Oh, good Lord!”

Gunnora giggled. “What?”

He pulled his arm away to clap his hand over his face. “Forget I said it! Son of a serpent! I’ve done it again!”

Gunnora laughed. Her idea had borne fruit. “What is a dildo? Tell me, or I shall ask the first Englishman I meet. The first English priest!

“I cannot believe you never heard the word.”

“I have! I forgot all about it. My brothers used to call each other that. But I always thought it meant a stupid person.”

“Oh!” he said innocently. “So you did know!”

Gunnora gave him a shove. “Nice try! What is it?”

'What is it?'

“Well, Baby, it’s a… it’s a wooden…” He held up his hands, a good ten inches apart.

“A wooden cucumber!” she cried. “For when cucumbers aren’t in season!”

He laughed, and she laughed, and they laughed together until he had to wipe tears from his eyes.

“Son of a serpent!” he sighed. “One of these days I’ll learn.”

“None too soon, I hope!”

Gunnora pulled her feet up and the blankets down, and slid her legs beneath the covers. Bits of straw poked through the coarsely-​woven cloth of the mattress to scratch her skin. But she thought she would rather sleep in a hayrick beside her uncle than in fine linen sheets beside Sir Albert. Or even in fine linen sheets anywhere but here with him.

“And don’t go mentioning that word to any English priests, now that I told you,” he warned her. “And, please, don’t say it within earshot of your Aunt Eadgith!”

Et puis merde!” she shouted.

They were both startled by the violence of her reaction, and lay silent for a moment, side-​by-​side beneath the blankets. Gunnora realized she had better explain.

Gunnora realized she had better explain.

“Uncle, if you ever want me to behave myself with Aunt Eadgith, you had better stop telling me what I must and must not do in front of her, as if her good opinion of me is of mortal importance. I am developing an absolute horror of her! And I never liked her as it was!”


“Well, I never did, and neither did Mother! Perhaps she’s grown kinder in her old age, but she was always the most disagreeable woman I’d ever met. Nothing would satisfy her! If Mother gave her cloth to make a decent dress for poor Eadie, you could be sure my aunt would say the thread was coarse or the colors bled! If Mother gave her so much as a wheel of cheese, she’d be bound to say it tasted of onions! And she called me a rag-​mannered little vixen!”

“Oho, that’s it, is it? And I daresay you were, too!”

'And I daresay you were, too!'

“Perhaps I was, but my brothers were much badder than I, and my aunt only laughed at their tricks! Do you know what I think? I think my aunt simply doesn’t like little girls. Because she always gave Sigefrith everything he wanted, and made Eadie go in rags.”


“Well, not rags precisely, but the dowdiest things you can imagine. And yet she always turned up her nose when Mother tried to give her Ogive’s old things, even though I’m certain poor Eadie would have liked to have a pretty dress for once.”

“I have never before heard you expend so much breath in defense of ‘poor Eadie,’ child, but it will please you to wit that ‘poor Eadie’ is a queen now, and wears such pretty dresses she scarcely dares sit down in them!”

“And I’m certain my aunt crows over them as if she were queen herself, too!”

'And I'm certain my aunt crows over them as if she were queen herself, too!'

Her uncle thwacked his hand down on the blankets between them. “Well, you rag-​mannered little vixen! Let me just remind you of something! Your aunt was once a great lady, just like your mother. She used to have pretty dresses for herself and her children. And she had jewels and horses and hawks and servants and fancy things to eat. And then I was killed, and the Normans came and took everything she had, and she had to go to your mother for charity. And if ever there was one for telling other people what to do and not to do, and sitting in judgment, it is neither I nor your aunt, but your mother! So you may think about how it felt for a proud, grand lady like your aunt to have to go begging to your mother, and endure your mother’s so-​called generosity. The one thing your aunt had left after the Normans came—aside from Sigefrith and Eadie, by God’s grace—was her pride! And I don’t blame her for hanging onto that any way she could. The one advantage your aunt still held over your mother was that she refused to marry a Norman merely to keep up the sort of lifestyle to which she was accustomed, and that despite several very comfortable offers! She chose poverty and want over marriage to a man she despised, and if anyone can understand and appreciate her decision, I should have thought it would be you, Baby! I should have thought it would be you!”

'I should have thought it would be you!'

A tear rolled down Gunnora’s temple and into her hair, but fortunately it fell from her left eye, and he could not have seen. She said, “I understand perfectly!”

“No, I think you do not! You do not understand eight years of humiliation and privation with no end in sight, merely because your sister sometimes sent you to bed without your supper, and I’ve dragged you over half the Continent for the last month and treated you to a pilgrim’s fare.”

“I do understand! I do understand! I thought about nothing else for weeks! My family threatened to turn me out just like that if I wouldn’t marry Sir Albert, and I thought and thought about how it would be! ‘Better is a dinner of herbs,’ Uncle! I thought of nothing else for weeks! But they lied! I told them I’d decided I would go earn my bread rather than get married, and did they let me? They never meant to turn me out! They never meant to send me to live on a farm. But I showed them! My cousin Robert gave me a farm, and if you think I am a rag-​mannered little vixen then I wish you would take me there and leave me there, because—because—”

'I wish you would take me there and leave me there!'

She hiccuped on a sob, and her uncle rolled over onto his side, chuckling warmly.

“Don’t laugh at me!” she wailed.

“I’m not laughing at you, Baby. I’m wondering what dreadful thing you’re about to say I am.”

“I think you’re a—a dildo! And by that I mean a very stupid person!”

Her uncle laughed, and finally, in spite of her best efforts to stay angry, she did too.

Her uncle laughed, and finally, in spite of her best efforts to stay angry, she did too.

It was such a comfortable thing to know that they could rant and carry on and still be just as fond of one another when they were done. She loved him even when he exasperated her. And it was so nice to be always able to say what one thought. But she knew it would not be that way in Lothere.

Later, after she had yawned, sniffled, and wiped her eyes, Gunnora asked very softly, “Uncle?”

Her uncle grunted. He seemed to be a in a thoughtful, contented, warm and drowsy mood; and she seemed to be back in his good graces. She thought there might not be a better time than now.

“Were you thinking of heading home after tomorrow?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Is that why you haven’t said where we’re going next?”

“I haven’t said where we’re going next because I haven’t decided where we’re going next.”

“You haven’t?” Gunnora sniffled again and snuggled down into her pillow. This was promising. “Did you have other ideas?”


'Were you thinking of Paris?'

“Were you thinking of Paris?” she asked.

“Oh! Were you?”

“We might see Malcolm and Cubby again.”

“You didn’t let one of those rascals walk off with your heart, now, did you?”

She smiled. “No. They are rather nice, both of them. And a teeny bit handsome, in spite of the nose. But they seem to require a lot of work.”

He chuckled, and she asked, “Where were you thinking of going? To Denmark?”

“No, I was thinking of going to Trier.”

“Where’s that? In Saxony?”

“No, it’s on the other side of the Rhine. Up the Moselle River, in the hills.”

“Oh, that sounds pretty! And it’s coming on spring, too. And could we cross the Rhine at Cologne again? Do the people speak German there?”

“We might cross at Coblence, which is very pretty, too. And yes, they do.”

'And yes, they do.'

“Oh!” Gunnora sighed in relief and settled in to dream about sailing upriver through rolling hills, about tramping along mountain paths lined with flowers… Perhaps she would find cowslips to make her own freckle ointment! Cologne was at least a week away, Coblence would be farther; they might still be on the Continent for Eastertide.

“The Apostle Matthias is interred there,” her uncle said.

“That will be a handsome badge for your collection,” Gunnora said, yawning in contentment.

“A very religious town, I believe. There’s a convent there. Saint Mary by the Riverside. Hetty and Lili were girls in it.”

Gunnora did not open her eyes, but she was suddenly quite awake. Her uncle’s muttering speech made him sound almost bored with the idea, but his long pause made him seem to await with great interest a remark from her.

“That,” she said, “sounds like a different sort of pilgrimage entirely.”

He sighed. “Baby, you remember that big key I’m carrying around?”

She made a wicked gasp. “Does it open a secret door in the convent?”

'Does it open a secret door in the convent?'

“No! What sort of scoundrel do you take me for? But it is the Virgin Mary on the key.”

“Is the door it opens in Trier?”

“Yes, it is. Or it opened it at one time, anyway. They might have changed the lock. That key is the lord’s key of Schloss Mariahof—the Manor of Mary’s Court in English. And Hetty is its lady. And if she isn’t, by God, she should be.”

His weary, wistful voice hardened with anger at the end. Gunnora lay very still, thinking.

“Friedrich left that key behind when he abandoned her, and I think it might have been intentional. He wanted her and her baby to have Mariahof to go back to, if he died. Which he soon did. And all his own lands should have gone to Bruni, for here a daughter may inherit and be mistress of her lands. But I do not believe Alred has ever bestirred himself to secure them for her. Nor even Hetty’s lands for her. I do not think it would appeal to him to have a wife who is not utterly beholden to him.”

A number of thoughts—some weeks old but unforgotten—clicked together in Gunnora’s mind.

'Uncle, did you mean to run away with Hetty and bring her to Mary's Court?'

“Uncle, did you mean to run away with Hetty and bring her to Mary’s Court?”

He was silent for a long while, and she thought that would have to be his answer. But finally he answered.

“I had thought of it.”

“And you want to see how things stand there.”

Her uncle made a frowning pout with his full lower lip and picked at a snarl of yarn on the blanket.

Gunnora realized that it was as she had foretold: her uncle had run away with her to cure himself of his desire to run away with Hetty—or else to practice running away with a woman. Their peregrinations across the Continent had nothing to do with sacred things, nor even the unholy pleasure of her company. Her uncle was avoiding Trier. Or else working up the courage to go.

“Do you still want to do that?” she asked.

He looked over at her, intent on her face.

“Does she want to do that?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Baby,” he said weakly. “What do you think?”

“How should I know? I never met her!”

'I never met her!'

“I know, but you’re the same age. And you wanted to run away with me.”

“That’s not much in common. My husband and my baby are dead. And, I’m sorry if it hurts your feelings, but I wouldn’t have left Hubert for you.”

“No, of course you wouldn’t. You’re right.” He tried to pat her arm, tried to comfort her as he always did when she spoke of her son, but he had to draw back his hand to cover his face. He made a gulping, sniffling sound behind it. Her uncle was going to cry.

“Do you love her so very much?” she asked softly. “You mustn’t ask me to advise you. I don’t think I ever was in love.”

“I don’t even know!”

“Oh. I perfectly know how that feels, then.”

He lowered his hand. “I thought I did. Now I don’t know. I don’t even remember how I felt when I thought I did. I haven’t seen her face in four months. I can’t even be sure the face I remember is her face.”

'I can't even be sure the face I remember is her face.'

“Now, that is just what happened to me when Gilbert went back to Normandy. Do you know how it is when you go to your room to cry? Well, I daresay you don’t, because you’re a man, and men are always trying not to cry. But what happens is this: One goes to one’s room determined to cry and cry with all one’s might and main, and one starts out handsomely, but before long one’s sobs start to wear thin, and soon one is left trying to cry—trying to work oneself up into such a state again. But there’s nothing for it. After a quarter hour or so, one simply lies there all sticky and woozy, and one cannot even keep one’s mind on the thing that made one cry in the first place. It’s exasperating! But love is like that, I find.”

“Oh, Baby.”

She looked up at him, and he lifted a finger to stroke her cheeks in the moonlight. She found it odd that he would do so when the tears were on his face, not on hers; but it had been years since a man had touched her face like that, and she lay still, and said nothing.

“I hope you will find love someday,” he said.

“If I find a man just like you, I shall.”

He sniffed and drew back his hand. “I don’t wish that on you. You cannot conceive how I made your aunt suffer. I was worse than Guillaume, you know.”

'I was worse than Guillaume, you know.'

Gunnora could not believe it. She had not told her uncle everything, after all. But then again, neither had he. And her aunt had been too proud.

“I still am,” he added mournfully. “Look at me now. I told your aunt I would be home before the baby was walking, and here I am in Saxony, in bed with a rag-​mannered little vixen half my age.”

“How old is the baby again?”

“He’ll turn one in July.”

“There’s still time to make it home,” she said. “Unless he’s some sort of prodigy?”

“He is.”

“Oh, well.”

Gunnora almost let her head roll back onto her pillow, but a change on her uncle’s face arrested her attention. The hollows beneath his eyes still shone, and more tears threatened to spill over, in fact; but his expression softened as he stared up at the window that illuminated it, and all the creases of his tanned face arranged themselves into a smile.

All the creases of his tanned face arranged themselves into a smile.

She understood perfectly. Love and pride for an infant son. The one true love of her life.

He had many children, but somehow she—who’d had only the one, and not for long—knew that he did not have to divide his love between them, but rather that his love was multiplied.

But she was no child of his. This fulgurant glimpse reminded her that once back in Lothere, she would have only the leftovers of his love—the castoffs; the coarse, bleeding stuff; the taste of onions.

At least there would be fine linen, wax candles, and cowslip ointment. She would have her stalled ox without hatred. But she would rather have had straw mattresses and salad and love.

“If we hurry back?” she asked softly.

“If we hurry back?” He scratched beneath his chin. “We might make it. Inch’allah.”

'We might make it.  Inch'allah.'