'Uh oh, what have I interrupted here?'

“Uh oh, what have I interrupted here?” Alred asked as a giggling Gunnilda let him into her kitchen. “Some sort of babies’ coven?”

Githa Ashdown was there with baby Cenwulf on her shoulder, and Gunnilda’s maid Aelfie blushed and bowed in the corner with her baby girl in her arms – a girl he greatly appreciated, as she bore the name Matilda.

Gunnilda, of course, had little Angnes.

Gunnilda, of course, had little Angnes, and Alred thought the pair of them quite the prettiest in the room, but he was too polite to say so before the others, and contented himself with smiling especially fondly on them.

“We’re simply getting in a good gossip while they’re casting their little spells,” Githa cackled.

“I thought my ears were burning!” Alred said. “I hope you ladies were saying something nice about me, at least.”

“Just like a man!” Githa cried. “Assumes we’re talking about him.”

“I know Aelfie was. I can see by the way she’s blushing. Weren’t you, love?”

Aelfie only giggled.

Aelfie only giggled.

“What about this Matilda?” Alred asked as he went over to smile at the baby. “I know you always blush when you see me, Aelfie, but I didn’t know Matilda had taken up the habit.”

“I told you that baby was looking flushed, Aelfie,” Githa scolded.

“Oh, no!” Aelfie cried.

“She is looking a little pink,” Alred agreed.

“She isn’t hot, is she?” Gunnilda asked.

Aelfie laid a hand over the girl’s forehead. “I don’t think so.”

'Don't use your hand.'

“Don’t use your hand,” Githa said. “Use your lips. You can never tell with your hand. Let me see.” Githa leaned in and kissed the baby’s head. “She’s warm, Aelfie.”

Aelfie kissed her daughter’s head and then wailed, “Oh, no!”

“Well,” Gunnilda said, “I don’t know but I guess she’s just flushed from the fire. But maybe you can take her home and put her down for a while, Aelfie.”

'I don't know but I guess she's just flushed from the fire.'

“But what about the washing up?”

“You let me do the washing up today, or we’ll get His Grace here to do it. You go take your babies home and have a holiday.”

“Well, thank you,” Aelfie said, but she was too worried to smile.

'Well, thank you.'

“I suppose I shall get me home as well,” Githa sighed. “We shall leave these two to do the ‘washing up,’ if that’s what they call it nowadays,” she said with a wink to the Duke.

“It’s funny,” Alred said. “I’ve heard it called many variations of ‘dirty’ before, but have never heard it called ‘washing up.’”

'It's funny.'

“Leave it to Gunnilda!” Githa said. “Everything’s speck and span in her kitchen, even the dirty things.”

“Oh, pish! Go on with you!” Gunnilda laughed.

“We’re going, we’re going. Come along, Aelfie. We shall walk with you.”

After Githa and Aelfie had gone and Gunnilda had left Angnes with her older sister, she asked Alred, “Where’s my lady today?”

'Where's my lady today?'

“My lady is at home playing with Gwynn and Baby. I came alone because I should like to have a talk with you. Perhaps while we wash up?”

“Oh, pish! Fancy me asking a Duke to wash my pots!”

“I would do it for you,” he grinned.

“What wouldn’t you?” she laughed.

“An excellent question, to which I have no answer – or perhaps the answer is simply nothing. You’re in fine spirits today, my dear.”

“Oh, I don’t know but I guess it’s the gossiping,” she said as they sat at the table. “It’s a bit lonely up here after living down at the crossroads.”

'Oh, I don't know but I guess it's the gossiping.'

“You wouldn’t go back, would you?”

“Oh, no. But it’s quiet here all the same.”

“Perhaps you will wish I had left you to your quiet,” he sighed. “I hope that in some ways I have made your life easier, because every once in a while I show up to have conversations that you must find quite difficult.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said, but her spirits seemed no longer so fine.

“I suppose you are the dearest woman friend I have – the only woman with whom I may speak about certain things, and the only person thereby.”

'I suppose you are the dearest woman friend I have.'

“I’m… real honored you would think so.”

“As I said, it may be more of a burden than an honor, but I hope I make it up to you in other ways.”

“Oh, you do, you do.”

“It’s about my wife…”


He could see her relax a little, and he realized that she had feared he would talk to her about Egelric. That was a conversation that would have to wait for another day.

“You know that she lost a baby last month.”

'You know that she lost a baby last month.'

“You told me.”

“Indeed, so… well, it hasn’t happened to her before, as far as I know. And I don’t believe she is taking it very well. It may seem odd, and I hope you won’t think her hard, but I believe she was less… how can I say it? She was terribly grieved, of course, when our first daughter died seven years ago, but I believe she was less troubled in her mind. Do you understand?”

“I suppose I do.”

“There, that was difficult to explain,” he said, and he gave his nose a vigorous rub. “And quite impossible for me to understand. Suddenly she is almost… gloomy, I would say. She seems to have swallowed a great dose of my lord Earl all of a sudden.”

“I suppose I understand that,” Gunnilda sighed, and he saw that a certain gloominess had returned to rest over her as well. “For a while I wished I would die.”

He saw that a certain gloominess had returned to rest over her as well.

“Don’t say that,” he whispered.

“Oh, I had lost my little boy, too, mind,” she said. “And you can never tell how it will be. Some women get right over it, and some women do die. My sister did, but she never had a baby live to be born, and her husband was that mean. So who can say?” she mused.

Alred stared at her. These were not the sorts of things he had hoped to hear, and, moreover, she seemed to be drifting away from even an awareness of his presence.

“But I had to go on living because of those kids,” she continued after a moment, “and because of Alwy too. Who would take care of Alwy if I wasn’t here?”

“And who would take care of me if Matilda weren’t?”

“So you see? She knows it. But you know, going on living isn’t enough. You can go on living for years and years, but it isn’t a life. I’ll tell you what helped me. I can’t say it will help Her Grace, but it’s all I know.”

“Please tell me, if you can. It is what I hoped.”

'Well, the first thing was my little ones.'

“Well, the first thing was my little ones. And Alwy too, I guess. Bertie would bring me flowers, and Wynnie would do all the work she could before I ever got up, and even Beddy would try to be quiet when he played, to let me rest. And Alwy was just – poor Alwy!” she sighed. “Never did the Lord put so much to say and so few words in the same man. But he has a way of looking at you, like a good dog does, that says a lot with his eyes.”

She laid a hand over her own eyes and sat quietly for a while.

“I guess it was different,” she said when she could speak again, “because they all missed Wick, too. And only Her Grace ever knew and loved this baby. But even so, I guess your kids are all hurting to see their mama hurting, aren’t they?”

“In their ways.”

'In their ways.'

“And look at you, with the eyes on you!” she said as she reached out to lay a hand on his arm. “You’re about to break my heart with them.”

“You should see your own,” he said softly.

“Oh! That’s just tears. And what else? Another thing that helped was just plain old time, I guess. Even just cutting yourself takes days for the pain to go away sometimes. If you can just go on living that long. But I guess the big thing that made the difference was Angnes.”

Alred sighed. “I was afraid you would say that.”

“Well, I’m not saying it’s the thing for you. And I didn’t want her when she was coming, because I didn’t want to love another person I might lose, and I didn’t even want her when she came, at first, which you can guess by her name. But after a while, when she started knowing me and loving me, I started thinking that this poor baby didn’t have anything to do with that. She wasn’t even thought of when my boy died. She wasn’t looking backward – she was only looking forward. And somehow that got me looking forward again.”

'And somehow that got me looking forward again.'

“You realize I have been trying my hardest over the past four or five years to not have any more children?”

“You haven’t been very successful.”

“Matilda has been praying against me. The Lord must be very fond of her – not that I blame Him. Indeed, I am quite thankful, now. Otherwise I would not have had my lady Margaret nor the old man. But if I had lost Matilda, I would have – ”

He stopped. Even poets had no words for such things.

“I’m not saying it’s the thing for you,” Gunnilda repeated softly. “I’m only saying what helped me. But… I don’t know, but I guess it would be real hard if this was her last baby, don’t you think? And what else! You know, the people hereabouts believe that the babies that die before their time, or even the small children that die, their little souls come back to be born again. That’s why you see them name their children for a child that died.”

“That’s so…”

'That's so...'

“So you just have to think that you don’t lose a baby at all, you just have to wait a little longer for him to come.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. I wonder if it’s so?”

“Only the Lord knows. But I know it helps us here on earth to think so.”

“Would it help Matilda?”

Gunnilda shrugged.

Gunnilda shrugged.

“I shall think about it,” he sighed. “You’ve helped a lot, Gunnilda, although I suppose I don’t look properly grateful at the moment.”

“I’m sure it’s real hard on you, too, even though you never saw that baby.”

“I suppose it is, if I allow myself to think about it. But all that really matters is Matilda. Matilda, and Matilda’s children… but Matilda at the heart of everything. She’s my heart, anyway.”

'She's my heart, anyway.'

“It must be something to be loved like that,” Gunnilda sighed.

“I believe you are.”

She glanced up at Alwy's old cloak.

She glanced up at Alwy’s old cloak, where it hung on a peg next to an even older, heavier plaid wool cloak that Alred had never seen him wear, and the children’s little cloaks and shawls behind.

“I guess I am,” she agreed. “But then, it must be something to love like that.”

“It is,” Alred said.

'It is.'