Ethelmund Ashdown had not intended to take a midmorning nap.

Ethelmund Ashdown had not intended to take a midmorning nap. He’d only meant to lie down a moment and revel in the freedom to do just that. But he had not expected his wife would return home today, either.

“Githa! You’re home early!” he said, stupidly blurting the guiltiest possible thing in his surprise.

“And you’re just where I expected to find you,” she snapped. “If not here, then at the fishing hole.”

'And you're just where I expected to find you.'

She hefted her bag and stomped into the corner. Through the open windows, Ethelmund heard birdsong, the shout of a farmer in a far-​off field, and the clop-​clop of a saddle horse trotting away over the gravel: Githa’s brother, surely, having escorted her home. He hadn’t even bothered coming inside.

Ethelmund sat up. “How was your trip?”

'How was your trip?'


Nevertheless Githa looked clean and composed as she always did. It was a mystery to Ethelmund. He didn’t understand how she did much of what she did, but he admired her for it—in between his moments of feeling guilty for not doing more things himself.

“I found some mushrooms,” he offered.

Githa loved mushrooms fried in butter, and he’d been delighted to find them, thinking of how delighted she would be. He gestured at the basket by the opposite window, though Githa wasn’t watching him to see.

“A whole grove of them,” he said. “I can get some more.”

“I notice you didn’t fix the cart as I asked.”

“Well, I know, but I was meaning to get to that today. I didn’t expect you home early.”

Githa said nothing. She bent to rummage in her bag, and Ethelmund scooted closer to the foot of the bed to keep her in sight. The fabric of her dress stretched tight over her behind.

She bent to rummage in her bag.

“Want me to help you unpack?” he asked.

“No need,” she muttered. “I’m not unpacking.”

That was an odd statement. Githa was a tidy woman—liked everything in its place, and she was always following after Ethelmund, picking up his dirty laundry, shutting cupboard doors in his wake, and putting away everything he left lying around. It wasn’t like her to leave a saddle bag packed for even an hour after coming home.

Ethelmund got up. From above, he could see that Githa wasn’t perfectly tidy, perfectly composed. A few strands of chestnut hair had escaped from her snood and in the heat they clung to her neck in fine curls.

Ethelmund got up.

She looked just mussed enough that he wouldn’t worry about mussing her with his touch. But her thin, bowed shoulders looked forbidding. And she had come home, but she wasn’t unpacking.

She stood, and Ethelmund put out a hand. His fingers grazed her arm, but she turned her back to him and walked briskly across the room. A cold blade of fear speared between Ethelmund’s ribs. She was leaving him. That’s why she wasn’t looking at him. That’s why she wasn’t unpacking.

She was leaving him.

Githa stopped and slipped her hand beneath her hair to rub the back of her neck. She sighed wearily as she looked around the room.

Ethelmund despaired. She’d only been away four days, but he’d left it in a sorry state: the bed unmade, dirty clothes on the floor, things piled upon other things. Even he was rumpled and unwashed.

Too late he regretted his four days of reveling in laziness and filth. It hadn’t been as enjoyable as he’d anticipated. And it meant Githa had come home to this.

Too late he regretted his four days of reveling in laziness and filth.

“I’ll just go bring in some water,” he said. “You can wash your face and put up your feet, and I’ll make up a snack for you. And then I’ll get right to fixing the cart.”

Githa seemed not even to hear most of that pronouncement. She turned her profile to him and groaned, “Don’t tell me you didn’t even carry in the water.”

“Of course I did, but I thought you might like some cool and fresh. It’s a hot one today.”

“Oh, I don’t care,” she huffed.

She brushed past him and went to stand at the other window. Through the trees, she might have seen her brother wending his way home.

She brushed past him and went to stand at the other window.

She asked, “Did you ever find the key to the big chest?”

Ethelmund had forgotten he was even supposed to be looking for the key to the big chest. If only he had found it. If he only he had done that one thing right. If only he had been able to say to her, “Yes, dear, I did exactly what you asked.”

Instead he could only say, “No. I’m sorry.”

She lifted her hands to her temples. “Never mind,” she said, her voice shaking with frustration. “You’ll just have to break it open for me.”

The blade of fear twisted, splintering ribs. And Ethelmund stared at his wife’s back, at the snug waist of her dress, at the sinuous curve of her cocked hip, and four days of missing her and wanting her struck him all at once. All the last weeks, too, of hardly having five words to say to one another throughout the day, and sleeping on separate sides of the bed. His arms ached with the need to wrap themselves around her, and pull her thin shoulders back against his broad chest, and nestle her little behind against his groin, and make her wiggle and laugh as he’d used to do when they were first married. How happy she’d seemed, to have him then. But it was too late: if she wanted to open her dowry chest, then she was surely leaving him.

'How are your cousins?'

“How are your cousins?” he croaked. If he could just keep her talking about other things, she would never say the words.

“I don’t know. I didn’t see my cousins.”

Ethelmund blinked. “But didn’t you—”

She turned. “I didn’t see my cousins! I didn’t visit my cousins!”

'I didn't visit my cousins!'

“But what—”

A bolt of rage slammed through Ethelmund’s body. There was another man. She’d spent four days with another man. Surely the earth had just split open and hellfire was streaming through, but Githa carried on snapping at him as she always did.

“I was in the valley! That’s what! We rode down into the valley, and I picked out a farm!”

“With who?”

'With who?'

“With my brother, who else? And he’s buying this one! It’s all settled already, so don’t bother trying to talk me out of it!”

Ethelmund cried, “You are selling the farm?” Was she not only leaving him, but taking everything, too?

“I reckon I can, since it was my father who gave it to us!”

“You are selling the farm and moving into the valley? With who?”

“With you, you niddy-​noddy!”

“With me?”

'With me?'

She wasn’t leaving him. She was leaving, but she was taking him, too.

“Yes, you.”

She walked past him again. Ethelmund lifted a tentative hand, but she squeezed her trim figure between his body and the bed. Only her skirt grazed his ankle.

“And things are going to be different down there, that’s what. It’s a big farm—bigger than my father’s ever was. You’ll be working dawn to dark the next three years to get that under plow.”

'You'll be working dawn to dark the next three years to get that under plow.'

Ethelmund felt oddly undaunted by this suggestion of work. Still, he asked, “Aren’t you taking the hands?”

Githa sorted through a pile of clean but tousled laundry, folding things as she went. “Of course we are,” she said, “but I wouldn’t count on them. The king down there is giving land to anyone who wants it, and only a fool would farm for some other man when he can farm for himself. And I fancy I do not hire fools.”

“No, you do not.”

'No, you do not.'

Ethelmund waited for her to grumble that she was known to marry them, but she didn’t.

“First thing we’re going to do,” she said, “before they get the notion to run off, is put up a house and byre. For now, there’s a camp down there, and we’re going to be living in it. I mean to waste no time farming up here for my brother’s profit.”

Ethelmund stumped over to lean against the door. It was tiring him just watching his wife move briskly from place to place, straightening up while she informed him how much more work he had in his future.

Ethelmund stumped over to lean against the door.

Tiring, but strangely satisfying, too. She wasn’t leaving him. She was still his: a trim little whirlwind zipping through his life and leaving a trail of tidiness behind her.

“It’s a fine spot,” she was saying, “south-​facing, and right at a crossroads. Of course the roads aren’t much to look at yet, but neither is the farm. And don’t get any ideas, Ethelmund Ashdown! There isn’t a fishing hole close by—I checked—and our closest neighbors will be an Earl and Alwy Hogge, that simple fellow, so I don’t expect you’ll be associating with either of them. You’ll have nothing to do but work, and if you don’t, we’ll just starve, that’s what.”

“I will never let you go hungry, Githa.”

'I will never let you go hungry, Githa.'

Githa stood and Ethelmund caught a glimpse of a flushed and flustered-​looking face. “I’ll remember you said that!” she announced before she stomped over to the bedside chests and stooped down. “At least this one is unlocked,” she grumbled.

'At least this one is unlocked.'

Ethelmund watched the fabric draw tight over her back and her round rump, and if he hadn’t been so lazy—and hadn’t feared her reaction—he would have crossed the room and run his hands down her sides.

Five years married, Githa still had the same figure she’d had as a bride, for the Lord hadn’t seen fit to bless their house with children. Ethelmund’s friends sometimes asked him why he didn’t leave her on account of her barrenness. He leave her! He never knew what to say aside from a slow shake of his head. Any man who could ask the question would never understand Ethelmund’s answer.

No, the question was why she hadn’t left him. She was from a wealthier family than his by far; the farm and the house were in her name. And he was a useless lout, always getting in the way of her brisk, businesslike efficiency. He sometimes fixed things. Sometimes carried things. Sometimes did her favors, though he had to be asked several times.

No, the question was why she hadn't left him.

Yet she was still here. She was taking him with her. The spearpoint of fear eased itself free of his ribs, leaving a creaking ache behind. It felt like a God-​given second chance, and he was going to get it right this time.

Githa stood abruptly. “Well?” she said. Her breath seemed a little rapid. “What? Are you angry?”

'Are you angry?'

“I’m not angry.”

“You’re not saying much.”

Ethelmund shrugged. He put out a hand, and to his surprise, Githa came closer and meekly put her hand into it.

A lump came to his throat, and he looked around the room to hide the need to blink back tears. Five years they’d slept in this room: dressed and undressed together, laughed and argued, bumped past each other in the narrow spaces between the furniture, slept and sported on the bed.

Ethelmund gave her hand the gentlest of tugs, and she walked right up to him. At last he was able to wrap his arms around her. Her breasts just brushed his chest.

At last he was able to wrap his arms around her.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not angry. But we’ve had some happy times in this house. Don’t you remember?”

She nodded, but—suddenly, endearingly childlike—she said, “We could have happy times somewhere else, too. Down there.”

“I could be happy anywhere, so long as you’re there.”

She sucked in her breath.

She sucked in her breath, as if startled he had said such a thing so boldly. She blinked and peeked up at him through her lashes. They looked wet with tears.

“How about you?” he asked her.

She hesistated, but soon made up her mind and nodded briskly. Then, businesslike, she pulled his head closer and kissed him.

She pulled his head closer and kissed him.