'You should have been told that I did not wish to see you.'

“You should have been told that I did not wish to see you,” Matilda said coldly. She threw back her head and stared at him, and despite the difference in their heights – and although she was seated and he stood – she seemed to be looking down on him.

“So I was,” Leofric said. “I presumed upon nearly twenty years of friendship and came anyway.” Leofric was not one to be unsettled by her stare.

“We are no longer friends.”

“That is very foolish of us, then. May I sit down?”



“Then I shall again presume and sit anyway.”

“Shall I call for a guard?”

“And tell him what?” he snapped. He sat as far away from her as the small couch allowed. “Don’t make this harder on us, Matilda. I don’t want to be here either.”

“Then why are you?”

“I promised Alred I would speak to you the next time I came.”

“You have spoken.” She turned her face away.

'You have spoken.'

“No, I haven’t. As long as I have you before me, nearly twenty years of friendship impel me to ask you what is happening here?”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Don’t play stupid, Matilda. I haven’t time for women’s games. What I mean is that Alred tells me you haven’t been so poorly in fifteen years of marriage.”

“That is not your affair.”

'That is not your affair.'

“Perhaps it isn’t. I should simply like to know how much of that is due to me.”

“To you?” She laughed scornfully.

“Son of a serpent!”

He clutched the arm of the couch as an alternative to slapping her. When she chose to behave like a woman, Matilda was more provoking than worst of them.

When he had calmed himself, he said, “I don’t know what’s going on in your head. I haven’t spoken to you alone since – that day. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what you want or expect to hear.”

'I don't know what you want or expect to hear.'

“From you, nothing.”

“Matilda!” he cried through clenched teeth. He leaned his head back against the couch and stared up at the ceiling for a moment. “I am perfectly willing to forget this and pretend that nothing happened.”

“I already have.”

'I already have.'

“No.” He sat up and glared at her. “If you had, you would receive me, and you would not tell me that we are no longer friends.”

“How can you believe that we might still be friends?” she gasped, finally losing her composure.

“Precisely because we were friends.”

“But it’s… wrong!”

“The wrong has already been done. Refusing to see me now will not redeem it. Unless you afraid it will be done again?”

'The wrong has already been done.'

“Certainly not!” she cried.

“Very well. Then we shall be as we were.”

“But how – but to see you before Alred, as if nothing had happened – !”

“Need I repeat myself? Refusing to see me will not help you, and it only hurts him. One way or another you must bear the consequences of what you have done, either by seeing me for his sake and forgetting, or, if that is too much for you, then by telling him the truth and letting him decide what is to be done. This cringing and sulking is not an answer, nor does it become you.”

“What I have done?” she gasped, as if it had been all she had heard.

'What I have done?'

“I, you, we: whatever you like to hear. I say you because we must bear them separately.”

“Oh! What consequences do you bear?” She laughed harshly. “It is nothing new to you.”

“It is, because your husband is one of my dearest friends, and my wife is one of yours. Don’t suppose it’s been easy for me, because it hasn’t! Son of a serpent! Don’t be such a coward, Matilda! Are you Godwin’s niece, or are you not? You make me feel as if I had snuffed the very life out of you.”

“It wasn’t you, Leofric,” she said wearily.

'It wasn't you, Leofric.'

“What, then?”

“I simply feel so old,” she sighed.

“How old are you?”


“My dear child!” he laughed. “I shall be forty-​​three the day after tomorrow.”

“But you’re a man.”

“So you had noticed!”

'So you had noticed.'

“Don’t laugh at me,” she muttered.

“I am not laughing at you. Would you be twenty again, if you could? You would not have known Godwin at all. We would not have had the times we had at Winchester and at London. You would have been a little girl when Harold was killed. You would have been nine years old at Dunstan’s birth, which means he would not have been born at all.”

“I know all that. I should only like to feel again as I did then.”

“That’s asking rather too much of these our mortal bodies, though yours is still far from overripe. I, for one, should like to retrieve the years I lost to the quarries, and I liked my back better without the stripes. However – and again I presume – I believe that your life has been worth living so far. We cannot be, and yet have been.”

'We cannot be, and yet have been.'

“I had not thought to look to you for words of wisdom, nor to set my heart at ease,” she grumbled, but without bitterness.

“And why not? You know I’m not the idiot I act. And few men love you as I do. You know that, too.”

“You should take care in what you say about that.”

“I don’t care who knows it. I have always told Alred that he was lucky I was already married to Eadgith when I met you.”

'I don't care who knows it.'

“Harold would never have allowed that.”

“You might have taken matters into your own capable hands, as you did with Alred.”

“For you?” she said thoughtfully. And then she could not resist saying, “Hilda says that it’s lucky I didn’t. She said a great big man like you would have simply split me up the middle.”

'She said a great big man like you would have simply split me up the middle.'

Leofric roared with laughter. “Son of serpent! The shameless hussy!”

Matilda laughed with him. “It’s lucky I didn’t let you try.”

“It would have been a shame,” he agreed and wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “Well then! If you can make vulgar jokes and laugh with me, then I suppose things are indeed just as they were before, aren’t they? Are we friends again?”

“Friends still.” She put out her hand frankly as if she meant to shake his.

His broad paw so dwarfed hers that it seemed absurd to him that they thus be plighted, as a man to a man. He took the hand she offered and kissed it instead. Her hand trembled at his touch, but her gaze was steady, and he held them both for longer than he had intended.

He held them both for longer than he had intended.