Gunnilda had lingered a long while at Gytha's bedside.

Gunnilda had lingered at Gytha’s bedside, listening to the girl chatter on about her day’s adventures with the neighboring children. Eight-​year-​old Gytha was a playful, popular girl such as Gunnilda had never been, and Gunnilda had high hopes for her. Gytha would grow up without all the work and worry her mother had known, and with a wealthy stepfather and a brother who would soon be a knight, Gunnilda thought she would marry very well. She meant for Gytha to have everything she had not, though she did not know enough about what other, luckier women had to formulate what that “everything” might be.

But she had not lingered long enough. If she could not get safely dressed in her nightgown and tucked into the bed before Ethelmund came up to the bedroom, then she usually tried to stay up late with the children. Often she would find him asleep when she came in, for he worked hard all day and was growing old besides.

Tonight, though, he was still awake.

Tonight, though, he was still awake, and two candles still burned: one by his bedside and one by the mirror, for her. He meant to watch her undress, and furthermore he had not bothered to put on his nightshirt, and she knew what that meant.

She briefly considered telling him her secret so that he would see that it was no longer necessary. But she knew it would not have made a difference to him. He enjoyed her too much for her to think he only cared about having more children.

But anyway, she thought, it didn’t matter now. Now that she knew her fear was upon her, it didn’t matter what he did to her. It was not much to endure: he was never cruel or rough with her.

'It wasn't one of the boys trying to stay up past his bedtime, was it?'

“It wasn’t one of the boys trying to stay up past his bedtime, was it?” he asked.

“No, no, I was only talking with Gytha.”

“Oh, that’s all right then.”

Gunnilda began taking the pins out of her hair. She knew he was watching her. He liked to watch her take her hair down. He liked that he was the only man who ever saw it loose. Alwy used to lift the ends of it and admire it shyly, but Ethelmund was not shy about it: he would take the whole heavy sheaf of it and run it through his hands like a rope, and wrap it around his neck, or he would spread it out like a cool blanket across his chest and face and belly when he held her head over his body.

“I heard Egelric was here today,” he said.

'I heard Egelric was here today.'

Gunnilda gasped. It seemed she had been trying very hard not to think of Egelric, but at the mention of his name, the memories burst through: Egelric, when they were young, teasing because her hair stuck up at the back like a rooster’s tail… Egelric, when they were young, telling her he liked her hair better down… Egelric, when they were very young, who had laughed at her because she liked to play with his own hair, which had been short like a peasant’s then.

How long had she stood gaping at her reflection like that? Suddenly she was frightened. What would Ethelmund think?

“That’s true, he was,” she said weakly.

“Oh? What did he want?”

'Well, he came to ask about Iylaine.'

“Well, he came to ask about Iylaine. She’s finally admitting she’s expecting a baby, and none too soon, since Egelric says she already has a bit of a belly on her.”

“Haven’t you seen her lately?”

“I’ll have to try to get out there in the morning. She never seems to be there in the afternoons when I get a chance to go. I knock, but no one answers.”

Ethelmund grunted. “So what did Egelric want?”

“He wants me to talk to her about babies and things. How to take care of herself, and what she has to look forward to. Seems the poor girl thought she was dying because she was tired all the time and sick to her stomach!”

“Oh! Poor girl!” he laughed. “I was wondering what he wanted.”

'Oh!  Poor girl!'

“Yes, I noticed that,” Gunnilda snapped.

“Because sometimes I wonder,” he added.

“Sometimes you wonder… what?” Gunnilda growled in spite of herself.

“Well,” he said, laughing weakly, “sometimes Githa used to say she thought there was something up between you two.”

“Me and Egelric?” Gunnilda gasped.

“She didn’t say anything had happened, of course…”

“Because nothing ever did!” Gunnilda cried. “The gall of her!”

“Now, Gunnie…”

“I don’t know but I guess maybe you don’t know that your wife was a bit of a gossip, Ethelmund! And if she said things like that, I don’t know but I guess maybe she wasn’t above making things up now and again!”

'I don't know but I guess maybe she wasn't above making things up now and again!'

“Gunnilda! I’m not accusing you of anything!”

“I don’t know but I guess you are!” she huffed and jerked her gown off, too furious even to turn her back to him.

“I’m not saying you ever did anything you shouldn’t. But that Egelric’s not the most virtuous character, you know. I don’t think he’s above trying to seduce a married woman.”

“You don’t know anything about him!”

“I know him rather well, Gunnilda. I’m a man, and with men he doesn’t try to hide his true nature. And I like him very well, man to man, but frankly I do not quite trust him with my wife or my daughters.”

“You may be certain he will not try to seduce me!” she cried. “He’s not the least bit interested in me!”

Ethelmund leapt from the bed and caught her as she moved to take a nightgown from the wardrobe.

“I’m not certain of any such thing, when I look at you.” He pressed her naked body all against his. “Any man who saw you as I have seen you would want you.”

'I'm not certain of any such thing, when I look at you.'

“I’m certain Egelric never saw me like this!” she gasped.

“I’m certain he hasn’t, or he would have stolen you away. You don’t think highly enough of yourself, Gunnie, if you think that man wouldn’t be interested in you. He’s been ‘interested’ in a good many women far less deserving of it than you. And yet I know he thinks too highly of himself to believe any woman out of his reach.”

'And yet I know he thinks too highly of himself to believe any woman out of his reach.'

As he spoke, he went stumbling across the floor with her to the mirror, and he held her against him with one arm while he licked the fingers of his opposite hand and pinched the first candle into darkness.

“You may be certain he wanted you, Gunnie.” He ran his hand up and down her back over the slick carpet of her hair. “Perhaps that was what Githa saw, and what made her say the things she did.”

Gunnilda trembled with shock and anger. He was not attempting to soothe her. He was not attempting to excuse his first wife’s gossip. He was delighting in the fact that another man had wanted her. The very idea seemed to excite him.

“Don’t worry, Gunnie. I’m not angry at you. I know you would never do anything like that, even if he would try. I’m certain nothing ever happened between you two, or he never would have let you go. No man would. And now you’re mine…”

'And now you're mine...'

He bent her over backwards so that he could lean over the second candle, and with a sharp puff of breath he blew it and them into darkness.

Gunnilda was transfixed by a sudden passion that he had never inspired in her before now, whether for good or ill. Nor had poor, placid Alwy brought it out of her. She had only ever felt anything like it for one man, and this, it seemed to her, was the opposite thing. This was a passion like hate.

This was a passion like hate.

And yet it felt much the same to her: the same flush of heat, the same sweat, the same pounding of her heart that was like an ache in her throat. There was the same roiling fire in her belly, and his touch burned her in the same way, though she had never before felt such a touch all up and down her naked body. Her limbs quivered and seemed ready to snap, as if her seared flesh were shrinking away from her bones.

She thought she hated him, and she thought she wanted to hurt him.

“Something did happen,” she said.

“Wha?” he choked. Ethelmund was a very tall, very strong man, but at that moment Gunnilda in her little naked body was the stronger of the two.

“He kissed me once!” she cried as if it were a victory to her. “In my bedroom! When Alwy wasn’t home!”

'He kissed me once!'

Ethelmund was speechless, and she charged on over him.

“It was six years ago, before Angnes died. He was trying to tell me he was a bad man, and I said I didn’t believe him, so he decided to show me! He decided to teach me a lesson.”

“Gunnilda…” he breathed.

“And I fought him! But he was too strong.”

“What did he do?”

“He only kissed me. But he could have done anything, and I couldn’t have stopped him.” She said it as if it were the pride of her heart.

“What did he do?” he whispered again.

'He caught me off-balance like this!'

“He caught me off-​balance like this!”

She threw the weight of her little body at him. He was startled enough that she knocked him back into the tall wardrobe, and she fell heavily against him.

She twisted one hand in his long hair and hissed, “And he grabbed my hair in one hand, and held me with the other. And I pounded and pounded on him with my fists, and I don’t think he even noticed. And he kissed me. Hard!”


She was too small to reach his mouth unless he bent his head to her, so she buried her face in his chest, and savagely kissed his neck, and scraped her tongue and her teeth over his collarbone.

She was too tiny to reach his mouth unless he bent his head to her, so she buried her face in his chest.

He had sucked in his breath in a gasp at the first, and then he held it, as if he feared to breathe. She could feel his heart pounding beneath her face, but otherwise he was petrified.

How she hated him! How he frightened her by wanting her, and knowing what he wanted to do with her, and doing it, and liking it! And he always thought that she would come to like it, too, but she would not!

It only lasted as long as a man could hold his breath. He breathed out again in a long sigh, and then it was his hand twined in her hair, and her fists beating on his ribs, but now she was only a small, naked woman. His arms alone were strong enough to lift the entire weight of her body, and he picked her up and carried her over to the bed. He could do anything, and she couldn’t stop him.

He picked her up and carried her over to the bed.