November came in with a drizzle of rain, and as the days passed the drizzle continued until the river was turbid and the lower fields were covered by shallow lakes. It had become a delight for Egelric to come home in the evening, dripping and muddy, to find his immaculate wife and daughter radiantly happy in the warm firelight.

It had become a delight for Egelric to come home.

Elfleda had become something of her old self again since the baby came. She spoke and behaved quite normally, as long as one did not contest her firm belief that the child was her own baby, and had always been her own baby. She still showed her husband no particular affection, but she conversed with him pleasantly enough, and for the first time in years she seemed to take an interest in what he had seen and done and thought that day.

She seemed to take an interest.

As for the child herself, Egelric was smitten. It had been the easiest thing in the world to fall in love with her once he had permitted himself. She was as fond and as trusting with him as with Elfleda, which both surprised and charmed him. His favorite moment of the day was when he came in through the door in the evening: as soon as the baby saw him coming she lifted her arms to him and squealed to be picked up and kissed. Even Elfleda would smile tenderly at him then.

She lifted her arms to him and squealed to be picked up and kissed.

But on this night he was too preoccupied to play properly, and the child fussed until he put her down.

On this night he was too preoccupied to play properly.

The temperature had dropped as the day wore on, and towards evening the rain had begun freezing as it touched the earth. The animals were all safe in the barns, but the ice had been building up on the trees, and for the last hour or more he had heard the cracking and shrieking of branches as they gave way under the weight. This would be very bad for the fruit trees, both those they had trimmed back and saved from the ancient orchards and those they had planted in the last years. Would there be apples next fall? This had been a dreadful year on the farms. He thanked God it was almost over.

He sat up reading long after Elfleda had gone to bed, listening to the rain and to the crashing of branches outside, all around the rim of the forest. Finally he snapped his book shut and stood up. It was too depressing, and furthermore each crash meant a branch that would have to be cleared in the coming days. He had better get some sleep.

He banked the fire and went into the bedroom. As he undressed, he watched Elfleda sleep. She was exquisite in the candlelight. 

She was exquisite in the candlelight.

The happiness that her elf child had brought her had taken so much of the anger and sorrow out of her face – she looked more like the young maid he had danced with than the bitter woman he had lived with.

But as he climbed into bed with her, thinking he might dare touch her lovely face, she rolled over and turned her back to him, as she always did, without so much as opening her eyes.

She rolled over and turned her back to him.

Egelric felt a surge of anger rise up in him. What right had she to turn her back on him? He fed her, clothed her, gave her a home and a name, and let her keep and care for that elf child she had found. 

He had never refused her anything, not even when it meant making a fool of himself for her, not even when she thanked him by mocking him, not even when she had so humiliated him that he preferred to sleep in the barn. 

Nor had he ever forced her to do anything, allowing her to come and go as she pleased, take and do and say what she pleased, even unto curling himself up into a meek and harmless ball on his side of the bed when, night after night, she rolled over and turned her back to him without so much as opening her eyes.

What more did she want from him? Damn her, she had forgotten that she was his wife. He had had enough of curling himself into a ball. He moved closer to her and laid a hand on her hip.

He moved closer to her and laid a hand on her hip.

She didn’t move. He slid his hand down, looking for the edge of her shift, and then slid it back up her bare leg. She awoke, startled, and looked around.

She awoke, startled.

He gripped her firmly and pulled her against him. She cried out once, but then she closed her eyes, turned her face to the wall, and fell limp as if she had gone back to sleep.

Aye, very clever, he thought: she had found the one insult she could use against him in this situation. No, she hadn’t changed. He almost hoped he was hurting her.

She fell limp as if she had gone back to sleep.

He had been thinking to fall asleep still holding her, so that she would not so soon forget who was her master, but when he closed his eyes he found he couldn’t bear to touch her – at the thought that she couldn’t bear to be touched by him.

He rolled over, turning his back to her back, wondering at what he had done.

He rolled over, wondering at what he had done.

There was nothing he could give her that she did not already have. She didn’t love him – and would never love him now. He wondered whether she would be pleased or disappointed to know that he hated himself more than even she did.

He hated himself more than even she did.