Matilda lay as still as sleep.
Alred’s hand was heavy on her hip, but she could tell he did not sleep either, for his fingers still stroked small circles on her skin from time to time.
She was frightened. Just then she was not afraid that he would learn about Leofric. That was an eventuality. In the immediate she was afraid of him – for him – for them.
He had come home that afternoon, laughing and exuberant for the benefit of his shy new squire and of his children, but she who knew him so well could see the anguish in him as clearly as if he had come home with a hole gaping in the wall of his chest and his aching heart shivering and exposed.
Sigefrith had referred obliquely to scenes he would rather forget, and he had sworn he would not go raiding with the Scots again, even if it meant he would have enemies in the kings both to the north and south of him.
Both he and Alred had laughed about it that evening at supper, as men will do. But she who knew them both so well saw that neither had come home unscathed, though neither had a mark on his body.
Sigefrith would have Eadgith, but Alred only had her. For the first time, she thought she would understand if he went to another woman. If her chest were opened, one would find only a heart burned to ash. She could only turn away from his need.
A bell rang outside, sounding louder and clearer in this tower than it ever had in the room where she had met Leofric, for that room faced onto the inner court.
“Damn,” Alred swore in a whisper a moment later.
“What?” She was dimly troubled by the idea that he would be disturbed by the bell – he, who might lie all night with her, and all day, and all night again!
“Are you awake, too, my beauty?” She could hear him smile. “It can’t be dawn already, can it? I have the feeling I haven’t slept at all.”
“It isn’t dawn, for heaven’s sake!” she said, and she rolled onto her back so that she could turn her head and look at him. “It’s only midnight. That was Matins. Father Aelfden rings all the vigils of the night now.”
“How does he manage that?”
“Didn’t Sigefrith tell you? He has been staying at the chapel ever since he frightened Estrid with his horrors.”
“Hmm. It’s a shame for Estrid,” he said, “but I like the idea of hearing the bell at night. Do you remember? At Winchester? How often we two heard all the hours of the night ring?”
“Oh, yes,” she sighed. “That was so long ago. But it was not so often. You were always away.”
He slid an arm beneath her shoulders and lifted her up to lie against him. He was a strong man. One did not need to say “for his size.”
“I was a fool then to leave you, and a fool now. Next time, if Leofric wants to go to fight in my place, he shall go and Godspeed! I hereby declare myself unfit for battle.”
He squeezed her and sighed. His breath blew hot across her forehead.
“But my lady will be ashamed of me,” he whispered.
“If Sigefrith says you will go, you will go,” she said. “You always do.”
“But I shan’t want to.”
“You never have.”
“That’s so. I forget I have no secrets from you.”
He ran a hand down her side, but when it reached her hip it curved back up over her belly, and he hugged her tightly with the other arm that held her. She knew he had just remembered what she had told him earlier.
She suddenly felt as if she were very far away. She had left behind only her body and the child inside of it – but that was all that was left of her. She had let her soul bleed dry. She had let her heart burn out.
She was almost certain she was already dead. Perhaps he would not even notice it until she began to stink. Or perhaps her little, doll-like body would go on a long while without her. Her heart – her soul – her true, living self was far away.
She had let her heart run empty because she had not thought she would ever need it again. She had thought everything would come to an end. She had not known how to explain this to Leofric, and now it would not matter if she did.
Her husband lifted her up and laid her down on her back again as gently as if she herself were a baby. His body lay over hers like a shadow. Her doll self lifted its arms to him. Her living self was already far away.