Alred glowed with pride that morning as his little son ran up to say goodbye. The young Sir Alred that was had never cared about titles or territories except as something he was bound by honor to serve in battle, as his father and ancestors had always done. A knight never expects to live long. But the sight of that little boy trotting up to him reminded him, as it always did, of the urgency of building something that would live beyond him, and even beyond his son. Ah, he would make sure his great-grandsons would talk of him around the fire: the legendary first Duke of Nothelm, and the legacy he had left them.
Alred whistled merrily as he went down the stairs. He avoided Matilda that morning – this second baby had left her cross and anxious, and he preferred to let her rest. But then she had never been a gentle woman, this haughty daughter of the old kings of Wessex – indeed, he often thought it too bad she had not been born a man. She herself said that had she been, the bastard William would not be sitting so easily on his London throne. If Colburga was a battle axe, Matilda was a poison-tipped dagger. Alred thought himself lucky that she was on his side.
But Githa awaited him, that adorable clawless kitten of a woman. Theobald Selle must have the easiest life in the world. She never brooded, never snapped, and there was something so innocent and kissable about her bright blue eyes and her look of surprise…
Ah, there was Alwy Hogge feeding the pigs. Alred waved, but Alwy didn’t notice him. That Bertie Hogge was almost as clever as Dunstan, he thought as he went by, his pride spilling over onto the families that lived within his domain. He would make sure that Bertie got a chance to be something better than a pig farmer.
Past the crossroads he saw poor Elfleda outside talking to Githa Ashdown. He bowed gallantly to the ladies, and was surprised to see that Elfleda responded by snickering at him. She really wasn’t normal, that woman.
He began to sing gaily as he approached the Selle farm, hoping that Githa would hear him and peer out the window. How he loved to see her little face appear, like a wee squirrel poking its nose out from behind a tree. Ah! There she was. A quick glance around showed him that Theobald was nowhere in sight, and he walked up to the door and began to knock just as she opened it.
Alred was full of jokes that morning as he undressed. How he loved to make Githa blush – and how little it took! Ah, but that was the fun in it. Matilda didn’t blush – indeed, she had learned to talk at the knee of the old Earl of Wessex, and if there was an oath that was not in her vocabulary, it was not in his either to know it.
Alred had grown more at ease with Githa over the weeks. Here was a woman he could understand and predict, could master even, had he been in a position to. What a delight it must be to possess such a creature – not that there were not a thousand advantages in having a woman like Matilda, not the least of which being that he needn’t be the master if he was feeling too lazy to impose his will. But imposing one’s will – gently, of course – upon so gentle a lady as Githa must be enchanting, or so he thought until she began to spread the foul-smelling stuff over his back.
Ah, here was the only flaw. There was no doubt the ointment reeked, and man and beast alike wrinkled their noses at his approach for the better part of the day. His bay stallion was mortified about having to wear the stuff himself as a decoy, even if Alred confined it to his rear fetlocks and apologized profusely with carrots. Still, it seemed to be working. He had had only one attack since he had begun using it, and that was the day after Yware was born, when he had not been wearing it.
He sighed deeply as Githa worked across his shoulders. After all, she had told him that part of the treatment was breathing the fumes, so breathe he did. Jupiter, what hands the woman had! Alred didn’t consider all the work to which these hands were daily turned, and from which Matilda’s were exempt. The hands that knead the bread every evening can make short work of a man’s shoulders.
Recently Alred had convinced her to apply the ointment to his chest as well. He didn’t remember exactly how he had managed it, so skillfully had he asked, so easy had it been. But Githa never complained.
He always closed his eyes and ceased his chatter when she came around the front of him, as it was slightly unnerving to see this tall blonde lady where only the dark Matilda had been, and there was something – ah, how could he say it? – more personal about this part of the work.
Still, sometimes he opened one eye slightly for just a peek. Her pale brow would be furrowed and her little mouth pursed in some mixture of concentration and discomfort as she spread the salve in broad circles across his chest and ribs. She worked quickly, but she left no spot undone, the poor, honest thing. Towards the end she would work up as far as his neck, and twice bring her open hand up against his throat: right hand, then left hand, with just enough pressure to block his windpipe for the merest second – Good God, he thought, what a way to die!
“All done!” she said.
He opened his eyes, stretched luxuriously, and grinned broadly at her. Githa blushed and looked away, as always. This too was part of the fun.
“Now run along, sir, I have so much work to do,” she said as she washed her hands and he dressed.
“Farewell, Githa,” he called as he walked out the door. He would go back to his stable, heading up through the woods behind the Hogge farm instead of going through the keep. There he would slap some of the ointment on poor Jupiter’s hocks before taking him out for a long gallop, his shirt thrown open, letting the wind carry off the worst of the smell.