Alred looked up. Lili’s voice came down on him from above, as befitted an angel’s greeting.

“Lady Lili!”

He had been telling himself that he did not want to see her this morning. Nevertheless he had been disappointed to find that she was not in the hall. He had only just managed to convince himself that it was all for the best when she appeared on the gallery, and then he had to admit that he was dying to see her.

“Just a moment!” she laughed. “It takes me a while on the stairs.”

'Don't come down for my sake!'

“Don’t come down for my sake!” he said.

“Of course I shall!”

Of course she would. But he had done his duty and protested. He had tried to keep her away.

“But why are you sitting here all alone?” she scolded when she had come down.

He tried to help her sit on the couch.

He tried to help her sit on the couch, but she slipped away, and he had to settle for helping her to sit on the chair.

“Where’s Egelric?” she asked.

“It seems he means to keep me waiting for as long as the groom keeps him waiting for his horse. Which is to say I believe he’s downstairs talking to Ethelwyn.”

“Are you going out?”

'Are you going out?'

“We’re taking a quick jog out to Dunellen and then we’re going directly home for the wedding.”

“The wedding?”

“A couple of friends of ours are getting married today. The man who made the chair in which you are sitting, and Gunnilda, the woman who nursed Gwynn.”

“He didn’t tell me about a wedding,” she murmured, suddenly subdued.

'Perhaps he thought you would be sorry you couldn't attend.'

“Perhaps he thought you would be sorry you couldn’t attend. But they’re only gentle folk, after all. It’s just a bit of fun for the two of us. None of your friends, Lili. Shall I send Sigefrith or Aengus or someone out to keep you ladies company?”

“No, we shall have a quiet day alone, I think.”

“If the boys allow it.”

“Oh, they’re very good.”

Alred watched as her smile and all the gaiety of her face quivered, and shrank, and slowly collapsed, like a scrap of bark in a low fire.

Alred watched as her smile and all the gaiety of her face quivered, and shrank, and slowly collapsed.


“Yes?” He began to have what Gunnilda would have called a “bad feeling” at the sound of her voice.

She leaned closer to him and asked softly, “Is this the same Gunnilda that you told me about? Whom Egelric cared for?”

Alred cringed. “Did I tell you that?” he laughed awkwardly.

'Did I tell you that?'

“It’s all right. You told me before we were married. And I think we were drinking.”

“Even so, it wasn’t very gentlemanly of me, was it?”

“You didn’t know. And I know he didn’t marry me out of love.”

No, Alred thought, he had married her out of lust.

Nevertheless it had not been gentlemanly of him.

Nevertheless it had not been gentlemanly of him. He remembered the occasion. He had been drinking, but what had driven him to do it was his frustration that Lili had generally seemed to prefer trying to elicit more than a grunt out of Egelric to Alred’s own brilliant conversation. It had, in fact, been a treacherous and craven act, and it so shamed him that he had nearly wiped it from his mind.

“But I thought she was married?” she asked.

“Her husband was killed during the harvest season last year. By lightning.”

She sat up and swallowed. Alred had never seen her so pale. “Before I ever came.”

'Before I ever came.'

“Well, I suppose so…”

“You did not tell me this.”

Alred’s first, treacherous thought was that he should have told her then. By all appearances it might have affected the choices she had made. If nothing else, it seemed to come as a shock to her now, and she was in no condition to be shocked.

“And he has been so good to me,” she murmured. “For eight months he has never made me believe he was angry at me for what I did. And yet he might have won the woman he… loved…”

“Now, Lili…”

'Now, Lili...'

“You are right,” she said firmly and lifted her little head. “He is a very honorable man. He does more than honor demands. He makes me think that he… he likes me very much.”

“But I believe he does like you very much,” Alred said weakly.

“That is to his credit as well, considering what I have done to him. And now he will go to the wedding of this woman, and I am certain he will wish her happiness. And I am certain he will mean it, too.”

'And I am certain he will mean it, too.'

“Of course.”

“And I think he wants me to be happy, too.”

“I’m certain he does.”

'I'm certain he does.'

“I always knew he was a good man,” she said. “Very good. But I was so vain and selfish that I never asked myself whether he was not too good for me. I only hope he can forgive me. I hope he will remember that I was only a girl, and frightened, and – ” She stopped and took a few sharp breaths, as if trying not to cry.

She stopped and took a few sharp breaths, as if trying not to cry.

Alred’s own bitterness shrank away and collapsed in the face of her distress. All that mattered was that Lili not be hurt.

He would tell her that Egelric thought that he was the one at fault and hoped she would forgive him, and that he constantly fretted that she was too good for him.

He would even tell her that Egelric was wise enough to wish for everyone’s happiness rather than brooding over a chance at happiness that he had lost, and that he would come to forget Gunnilda over time. This, even though Alred was not certain it was true. This, even though Alred did not know whether such a thing was possible.

He began to speak, but he only spoke as far as her name.

He began to speak, but he only spoke as far as her name, because Lili planted her hands on the arms of her chair and pushed herself to her feet. In the moment before he remembered that he too should stand, she stood before him with her belly at the level of his eyes.

All the bitterness came shuddering over him again. Here was the proof that, whatever Egelric felt for Gunnilda, his lust was alive and well.

“I hope you will excuse me, Alred,” Lili said. “I’m feeling a little ill.”

'I hope you will excuse me, Alred.'

“Of course. I hope you will lie down and get some rest. Have a quiet day, as you said.”

“Yes, that’s right,” she murmured. “Will you kindly tell Egelric that I am resting? And he needn’t come to say goodbye. And of course he may spend the night with you.”

“As you wish.”

She gave him her hand to kiss, but her eyes would not meet his when he looked to her afterwards.

She gave him her hand to kiss, but her eyes would not meet his when he looked to her afterwards.

After the door had closed behind her, he sat again, exhausted. He always felt worse after seeing Lili. If their conversation went poorly, as this had, he felt worse because of the wasted opportunity. If their conversation was pleasant, he felt worse because he knew it was all he would ever have of her.

He hadn’t long to brood.

'Are you ready to go?'

“Are you ready to go?” Egelric called as he came in. “What? No Lili? I thought she would have found you here by now.”

“No,” Alred said. “No Lili. I’m ready to go.”

“I shall just go take my leave of her…”

'I shall just go take my leave of her...'

“That is, I saw Lili, but only for a moment. She went to lie down, and she said you needn’t bother coming to her.”

Egelric smiled. “What nonsense! She’s always afraid of being a bother. I shall only be a moment.” He turned again and started for the stairs.

“That is!” Alred called. “That is, I think she didn’t want to be disturbed.”

Then Egelric only looked worried. “Is she unwell?”

'Is she unwell?'

“No, no, I don’t think so. Perhaps she only wanted to sleep.”

“What does she think?” he smiled again. “That I shall wake her? Mind you, if the poor girl knew how often I peek in for a moment only to watch her sleep, she might take to locking her door, if only out of modesty. I shan’t be long.”

He went away, chuckling to himself, and this time Alred let him go. Short of telling him that Luitgarde did not wish to see him, he did not know how to stop him.

This time Alred let him go.

Still, if he could be certain that she would not tell Egelric the truth later, he thought he might have said it. If he could not be happy with Lili, he could not bear to see another man happy with her. If it was true that Egelric would wish Gunnilda happiness this afternoon and mean it, then truly Egelric was a better man than he.

And yet it seemed to him that he had once been a better man. This stunted love was growing into something unlovely, or perhaps it was rather that something that had once been fine in him was withering away. Perhaps it was simply his honor, he thought, that was trembling, shrinking, and slowly collapsing, like a bit of bark in jealousy’s low fire.

Something that had once been fine in him was withering away.