She was alert enough to wake when she heard Ethelmund come in through the front door.

Gunnilda had already had the time to fall asleep, but she was alert enough to wake when she heard Ethelmund come in through the front door. She waited as the creaking floorboards betrayed his wanderings downstairs, and she waited as his slow tread brought him up the steps. She pulled the blankets up and closed her eyes to pretend to sleep… but he turned the other way and went down the hallway.

She thought he must have been going to Colburga’s room to tell her the news. He had gone out that evening to speak to Alfred’s father and formalize the marriage arrangements that until then had only been a tacit agreement between the two families.

Gunnilda did not suppose there had been any unpleasant surprises. It was what everybody wanted. Ethelmund would gain his finest apprentice as a son-​​in-​​law, and thereby retain the loyalty of what would have been his top competitor in the business of making furnishings for the nobility. Alfred’s parents would have married their youngest son, to whom they could have offered little, to a gentleman’s daughter, and he would be assured an excellent livelihood besides.

Colburga was happy, as any strong-​​willed, independent-​​minded sixteen-​​year-​​old girl would be if offered an opportunity to escape from her father’s household. And as for Alfred… Colburga wore an air of ennui that hinted at something naughty hidden beneath it, and the young men seemed to find it fascinating. Once she had understood that she would be marrying Alfred and had turned her complicit smiles on him, the poor boy was smitten. Alfred would be marrying the girl he wanted.

Gunnilda was secretly relieved that Colburga would no longer be in her charge.

Gunnilda was secretly relieved that Colburga would no longer be in her charge. Alfred was a perfectly respectable young man, but she did not know on how many others Colburga’s smile had shone. Her one painful attempt to “have a talk” with Colburga had been cut short by Colburga’s sudden recall of how Bertie had come to be. Gunnilda did not know how to sermonize except from the moral higher ground.

She was grateful that her sweet, demure Wynna was not like her stepsister. Wynna was what she had been at that age. Wynna understood her, and if Wynna also understood that Bertie had not been conceived in his parents’ bridal bed, at least she took it not as an excuse for misbehavior but as a reason not to misbehave.

At last Ethelmund came into the bedroom, and though Gunnilda had almost fallen asleep again, she was instantly awake. Still, she kept her eyes closed and did not move.

At last Ethelmund came into the bedroom.

“Gunnie? Are you awake?” he asked softly.

And then, as if it didn’t matter either way, he went and lit the candle beside her pillow.


Gunnilda decided it would appear suspicious if she seemed to sleep through all of this. She squinted her eyes against the light. “You’re home?”

'You're home?'

“I’m home!” He bent to kiss her and then walked around the bed. “Everything’s settled. Everyone’s happy. I can’t believe my little girl is getting married,” he sighed, though it was a sigh of contentment rather than of disbelief.

“That’s fine.”

“Of course they can’t do much for him, but he can do for himself. And they’re giving him two of their this year’s black heifers.”

'And they're giving him two of their this year's black heifers.'

“That will be a little money for them every year. Everyone wants those black calves.”

“And I shall give them the house, of course, and the north farm. And Alfred will continue working for me for now. At least until Eadgard is older.”

“But when will it be?” Gunnilda was beginning to realize that there was a wedding to prepare and a household to make ready, and the thought of working for that through a pregnancy seemed overwhelming.

“Well, Githa always said not before she’s sixteen, and her birthday’s during Christmas, so we shall wait until after then. End of January.”

'End of January.'

Gunnilda was expecting her baby for mid-​​March. She supposed it could have been worse.

“Well, I’m that happy for everyone,” she said, “if everyone’s happy.”

“And just think, Gunnie,” Ethelmund said. “Next year this time, perhaps we’ll be looking forward to a grandchild!”

“That’s how you can be so happy about giving up your daughter!” Gunnilda laughed.

“Or perhaps we’ll have him already,” he said eagerly. “Could we?”

“I think we had better hope not. That would be cutting it a bit close, whether for the child’s health or for the mother’s virtue.”

'That would be cutting it a bit close.'

“Gunnilda!” Ethelmund laughed. “But by Christmas of next year, perhaps?”

“Yes, Ethelmund, I suppose so. But you know that newborns don’t care for toys. Though I know that won’t stop you!”

“Babies like soft toys. I shall have to ask you for help with that.”

“Never you worry,” she smiled.

“I can’t wait!” he sighed happily and stretched himself out on the bed.

'You had better.'

“You had better,” Gunnilda cackled. “You had better take your time to live, Ethelmund, for you will surely want to take your time to die.”

Ethelmund grinned at her. “How did so much wisdom ever get packed into a little thing like you?”

Just then he seemed so happy and harmless that Gunnilda was tempted to give him the pleasure of learning that, regardless of grandchildren, he would already have something to look forward to before Easter. But the next thing he said quashed any such desire.

'Just then he seemed so happy and harmless.'

“And what about Wynna?” he asked.

“Wynna?” Gunnilda gasped.

“She’ll be sixteen in the spring.”

“A girl is not an old maid if she’s not married by sixteen!”

“I know that…”

“Alwy never said he wanted them married by this age or that, but I know he wanted her to take her time about growing up. I don’t think Wynna is ready for that.”

“I’m not saying she should be married by sixteen, Gunnie, but she’s old enough to start thinking about it. And she’s old enough for us to start thinking about it, which is more to the point.”

'She's old enough to start thinking about it.'

“I don’t know,” Gunnilda muttered. Beneath her sullen stillness she was all in a panic. She had always managed to deflect discussions about Wynna’s future, but with Colburga’s marriage looming, the idea would be constantly on her husband’s mind.

“Now, I’m that proud of Alfred,” Ethelmund said, “and I’m very happy to get him for Colburga. But I think we can do a little better for Wynnie, don’t you? Her own brother will be a knight in a year or two, with a manor and farms. And Alwy will never have more than the two daughters to dower, and I shall do something for her as well, so she’ll be quite the prize.”

'This is not a contest, Ethelmund.'

“This is not a contest, Ethelmund.”

“Isn’t it?” he laughed. “I think there will be more than one young gentleman competing for her hand. Did Alwy have anyone in mind for her?”

“No. I think poor Alwy wanted to keep her to himself as long as he could.”

“Well, and I don’t blame him, but I think Wynnie will soon be wanting a house of her own, especially now that Colburga will be having one. I was thinking of the Birch Hill Farm for her, over beyond the church, but that boy out there doesn’t have a father or mother over him, so he’ll probably pick whatever pretty girl catches his eye. But I think we should ask Bertie to mention it to Sir Sigefrith.”

“But, Ethelmund…”

'But, Ethelmund...'

“And, do you know what else? I was thinking we should ask Bertie whether that squire of the Duke’s has any plans.”

“Eadwyn?” she gasped.

“He seemed like a fine young man those times he came by with Bertie or His Grace.”

“But he’s the Baron’s cousin! And the Baronesses’s brother!”

“And? He’s Bertie’s good friend, and his father is only a knight. And he’s only a second son. I don’t think he’s too fine for Wynnie. I hope you don’t.”

'I hope you don't.'


“Those are simply my best two ideas. We should start there, unless you can think of something better.”

“Well, no…”

“And anyway, that Anson boy has been riding a little too often through the crossroads these days, if you ask me.”

“Don’t call him ‘that Anson boy,’” Gunnilda snapped. “And of course he has to ride through the crossroads! He has to teach the horses not to be frightened of traffic.”

Ethelmund grunted. “And Wynnie can’t help but live near the crossroads,” he said sarcastically. “I don’t know what you and she ever saw in him. I don’t like him, and you know perfectly well Alwy didn’t like him either.”

'You know perfectly well Alwy didn't like him either.'

“Oh, Alwy never forgave him for picking on Iylaine. They were just kids then. But Alwy never grew up, and so he never realized other boys can.”

“Bad boys grow up into bad men, Gunnilda. You can believe me.”

Gunnilda flushed guiltily, and she peeked over at her husband to see whether he meant more by his words than a criticism of Anson.

She too knew that Anson wasn’t the best match for her timid daughter, but as much as she tried to dislike him, he always knew how to win her over: just what to say to her, just how to smile at her.

He always knew how to win her over.

She had never said it – to Ethelmund least of all – but she secretly thought that Anson resembled no one so much as a young Egelric Wodehead. All the boys feared his fists, and all the girls feared him as well, as if he were a wild animal let loose in their midst. But to young women, fear is fascination, and they were never more at his mercy than when he deigned to lay off his grim determination for a moment and smile at them.

Ethelmund did not seem to be thinking of Egelric. By now she thought she knew when he was thinking of Egelric by the way he looked at her when he did.

“Anyway, it’s off between those two,” Gunnilda muttered. “He hasn’t come to the house in months. I think it’s over for good this time.”

'I think it's over for good this time.'

“I think he stopped coming to the house because he knows I don’t like him.”

“Oh, what’s not to like in him, for you?” she snapped. “Did he burn down your barn? Did he steal something from you?”

For the young Egelric Wodehead had not been above torching barns and stealing anything that caught his fancy, and in this Anson was clearly his better.

“He didn’t do anything to me. As long as he didn’t ‘steal’ anything from Wynna, I haven’t a grudge against him. But he’s not fit for your daughter or mine. Son of a stable hand!”

“His father is not a stable hand! His father is a groom, just as he is, and rides his lord’s horses. And Anson has the training of them. And Sir Baldwin has spoken of taking him on as head groom when his stable is built.”

“Then his father will be very proud. But I would not be proud to have such a son-​​in-​​law. A head groom is still a groom.”

'A head groom is still a groom.'

“I think he will make something of himself some day, that boy,” Gunnilda said defiantly.

“A criminal, maybe,” Ethelmund muttered. “Why are we arguing over Anson anyway? If it’s off for good?”

“I don’t know,” she said. And then she remembered something he had said, which only made her angrier. She sat up in the bed and cried, “‘Steal something’ from Wynna! What a thing to say!”

'What a thing to say!'

He sat up and glared at her. “At least I did not say she ‘gave something’!

Gunnilda knew that look. He was no longer talking to her; he was only baiting her. He would say things he didn’t mean only to make her angry. He would apologize for them in the morning, or even later that night, but for now he only wanted to infuriate her.

For now he only wanted to infuriate her.

Then she would not lie so still beneath him and wait for him to finish. Then she would smack him with her hands and struggle with him and try to squirm away, and he would have to hold her down. And he liked it, which only infuriated her more, which only meant he liked it more. But there was some relief for her in fighting with him. At least she did not have to submit and endure.

“Women in my family do not ‘give’ anything!” she growled.

“Then you oblige the men to steal it!” he cried, and pushed her easily down onto the bed.

'Then you oblige the men to steal it!'