The next days continued difficult for Ælfwine. But each night she took him to her bed. She no longer gave commands in bed, instead he saw to her pleasure, and the chance to in this one way be a true husband to her washed away the worst of his strain. Still, it built in him, each time he lied to his friends. Each time he knelt to her. Each time he had to defer a decision that should be his to make, because he did not know what she would want.
Until the night she turned him away from her bed. Her monthly time had come, and she would not permit his touch. She was also more disappointed than he expected that she was not with child.
“We have time, my lady. The king has acknowledged my holding here, we face no immediate threats. Waiting a year or more for an heir is not a bad thing. And childbirth can be dangerous. Are you so eager for that risk?”
“What is the worst that can happen? That you will hold here alone? Surely that is not so distasteful to you.”
Did she think so little of him? Truly? “By your leave, my lady.” He bowed and, not waiting to hear her response, left her rooms.
The next morning she sought him out to apologize. It was her pain and fears speaking, she said,and that she truly did feel better knowing that if anything happened to her, in child birth or otherwise, he would be here to take care of her people. She reached out to him, running her hand over his hair. Once again petting him, as one would a dog. He found himself leaning into it, eager for this small touch which was all he was permitted until her time had passed.
He accepted her apology and assured himself that her moodiness and his banishment were only for a few days.
But his soul shriveled in shame, how low had he fallen that he would be happy to be treated as a dog?
He through himself into his duties and training. What else did he have? But he found himself avoiding his friends, unable to hide how badly he was doing and unable to continue facing them with lies on his lips.
Mildþryð had ample opportunity to regret her poorly chosen words. The day or two of her flow she tended to impulse, both in word and action. She had learned to speak little and make no important decisions during that brief window. But Ælfwine had surprised her and the words slipped out before she realized how they must sound to him.
It had created a strain between them that she didn’t know how to fix. Especially when he continued to hide his feelings behind that damn Nornish mask.
She was on the tower walk, brooding, when a throat cleared behind her. She turned to find Sir Hereweald waiting at the top of the stairs.
“Pardon the interruption, my lady. I was hoping to find Lord Ælfwine with you.”
“No pardon needed, Sir Hereweald.” And she would not shun the opportunity. “I’m afraid I don’t know what his plans for this afternoon were.
“But tell me, have you spent time with Lord Ælfwine recently?”
“No, milady. My lord has been… very busy of late.”
“Ah. I have been… concerned. As you say he has been… very busy. If you do find him…”
The knight gave a courtly bow. “Shall I let him know you wish to speak with him?”
“I… Yes, that may be best.”
Ælfwine wearily climbed the stairs to end his day by reporting to his lady wife. He had always counted himself a strong man, but he was being sorely tested. Like a man who stood sentry too long, he was losing his edge, getting worn down from the constant strain. And now to have his friends carrying orders from his lady-wife… friends who would scorn him if they knew the truth.
He opened the door and slipped inside. Lady Mildþryð was going through correspondence—letters he had received—that she could read and he could not made it no less galling.
“How went your day, my lord?”
She couldn't even bother to look at him.
“Don't call me that!” he snapped.
He cursed himself as she looked up. Seeming more confused than angry. “What?”
He grabbed hold of his temper, but with temper restrained he had no mask for his pain.
“Please, my lady,” he cringed as his voice broke, as it hadn't since he was a stripling. “In public, we must play our roles, but here?” the words poured out past his ability to stop. “We both know I am no lord to you. Of your mercy lady, do not mock me so. Better to say I am your servant. Or your dog.” He ended on a bitter whisper, shamed past bearing by his loss of control.
He turned to flee, but before he could open the door her voice rang out. “Stop.”
Almost he kept going. But he held to honor by a thread.
Mildþryð stood and walked over to her husband. For once, he wore an actual expression. For once, he told her what he was thinking, what he was feeling. And she had not the first clue what to do.
His face was turned away, his hand still gripping the door handle until his knuckles turned white. As if he was still on the edge of running. How had she broken him this badly, brought him to the point of abandoning his honor, and not known it? She laid a hand on his shoulder and found he was shaking.
“Ælfwine, I swear by the Ancestors, I intend no mockery.”
Slowly, he turned to look at her, tears gathered in his eyes, though not yet falling.
“By the dark, I wish you would do this more often. Then maybe I'd have some idea what was going on.”
He laughed harshly. “Do it please you for me to shame myself, my lady?”
“No. It pleases me for you to express yourself. To tell me what you are thinking and feeling. I have no idea what is going on right now except that you are upset. You are my husband, lord to my lady. How is this mockery? Servant, yes, if you wish to see it so. I forced that oath on you. But dog? What have I done that you would think such a thing?”
“I come at your call, sit at your feet, speak on your command. When you are pleased with me you even pat my head. In what way am I not your dog?”
“Ælfwine...” She reached for him, but he stepped away.
“Don’t. Of your mercy lady, don’t.”
She stopped. Bewildered. “Is this why you have been avoiding me? Avoiding your friends?”
For a long moment, he said nothing, then he laughed again. “You will have the last bit of me, then. Destroy even the dregs…
“Yes, my lady this is why I avoid them. I cannot stand to lie to them and cannot face how they would scorn me if they knew the truth.”
“Scorn you?” There was something here. Like when her mother forced them to confront each other those weeks ago, something that she was missing. And perhaps something he was missing as well. She could feel it there, the edges of it. But not understand it.
Picking her words with care she started with what seemed to her to be obvious. “Ælfwine, whatever else may be between us, you are my husband. Any who would scorn you, for any reason, has no place in this keep.
“Send for your friends. I think they will prove true friends to you, but if not? Then best you know sooner.”
“Send for them, husband. This, at least, we can solve tonight.”
He bowed and stepped into her solar, her maid waited there, and presumably he would ask her to find the knights.
He took longer than she expected returning. “My lady… what did you mean… that you wish I would express myself more?”
She took a startled breath, wondering if she was not the only one groping in the dark for understanding.
“Do you remember when my mother forced us to speak on the tower walk?”
“I will not soon forget, my lady. Neither that conversation, nor what came after.” Her heart lifted to see a faint smile on his face.
“You seem to have some… Nornish belief that it is shameful to show your feelings. You do not tell me when something bothers you. You seem to wear a mask, always calm, always polite.
“I know this was not the marriage either of us expected. But I’ve come to care for you. I want you to be happy with me. How can I help, how can I provide for you as I swore to, if I don’t know when something is wrong?”
He blinked. “I… had not thought of it that way. I am used to court, where manipulation and intrigue make it dangerous to show your true face. I have, indeed, masked myself for most of my life. I don’t know if I can stop. But… I will try.
“I have come to care for you also, my lady.”