Ælfwine stared out the window and listened to Lady Mildþryð pace. He recognized her pacing as a sign that she was thinking deeply. And that opened up the understanding of why she was so frustrated with his mask. Why his hardwon control as doing him more harm than good with his lady wife. It was time to relax that control.
A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. “Come,” Mildþryð said. Hereweald entered, followed by John and Damian.
“My lord,” John, as he frequetly did, spoke for them. “Is something wrong?”
Of course they worried, he had never before brought them into these private rooms, always going to them and keeping a distance between them and Mildþryð.
“No,” made himself say. He glanced at Lady Mildþryð, but she simply nodded, leaving the conversation to him. “Everything is alright... For now, at least.” He took a breath. “I have something I need to tell you, but it must not go beyond this room.”
The three exchanged glances, “Is it the king?”
“Of course, if you wish it kept private.” The other’s murmured agreement.
Ælfine shook his head. “Your oaths. That even if you choose to… leave my service you will never speak of this.”
That stopped them. John clenching his sword hilt, probably angry at the implied insult. Hereweald even blander than usual. Damian simply wide eyed in shock.
Mildþryð stopped her pacing and came to rest a hand on his shoulder, as she had earlier during his… episode. “You should know,” she said, “That it was my wish to keep this matter hidden. I fear the… king’s reaction should he learn of it. But it has weighed on Lord Ælfwine to keep it from you, and as he trusts you, I will trust you.”
She stepped back and seated herself, picking at her embroidery, giving them the illusion of privacy, if not it’s reality.
Hereweald came and knelt before him. “Lord, I swear by the Ancestors I will keep your secrets unto my death.”
A moment later the others were beside him, swearing likewise.
“Thank you, my friends.”
For a moment, no one moved.
Damian popped to his feet and smacked his shoulder. “And now that you’ve scared us all half to death—oh, and insult’ed John’s ever-fragile honor—tell us what by the dark is going on. What could possibly shake you so?”
He licked his lips and decided that sometimes the suicidal charge had it’s virtues.
“I do not rule here. Before our wedding, I swore oath to Lady Mildþryð as my liege and I renewed that oath after we were wed.” He turned away, unable to bear watching their shock turn to disgust. “I bend knee every day to my wife.”
Almost before he stopped speaking, John yelled, “Witch!”
He whirled around to see John, with his blade out, advancing on Lady Mildþryð.
“No!” He threw himself at John, knocking his friend to the ground and the sword from his hand. Terrified of what he would need to do, Ælfwine drew his own sword. By the time John found his feet, Ælfwine’s sword was at his throat. “Stand down, Sir John.”
“She’s bewitched you, Ælfwine, can’t you see?”
“By the Ancestors and your oath, stand down.”
Hereweald came up beside John and for a moment Ælfwine feared he would need to face down both of them, but the big man took the sword from John’s hand and tossed it to Damian.
For a moment, he couldn’t make himself speak, couldn’t do what came next. “John. Damn it John,” he whispered. “Sir John of ________,” when he spoke again his voice was harsh and weary, “I place you under arrest for--”
“Lord Ælfhame.” Mildþryð interrupted him.
He closed his eyes and slowly sheathed his sword. What now? Why now? Was his darkness not deep enough? “Yes, my lady?”
“Come here, husband.”
He turn and walk toward her, each step seeming to echo endlessly. They would see now. They would see and despise, as he despised, and he could nothing but obey for though he was close, so very close to breaking, he was not broken yet.
He knelt before her. Displaying his degradation for those he loved best to see and understand. “What is your wish, my lady?”
She was as calm and poised as if a warrior twice her size hadn’t just threatened her life, and she smiled warmly at him. “I’m afraid I became absorbed in my embroidery.” Her voice was oddly loud as if… as if she weren’t speaking just to him. “I’m afraid I missed part of your conversation with these good knights. Of your courtesy, did you discuss anything of import which I should know?”
He stared, unable to believe what she seemed to be telling him. But she raised her eyebrows and almost he thought he saw her wink. “Nothing.” He whispered it, barely daring to hope.
She gave the faintest nod and smiled.
He cleared his throat and spoke as loud as he could. “Nothing, my lady. You missed nothing.”
She smiled more broadly and placed a hand again on his shoulder.
Relief flooded him, taking away his strength. He bowed, until his forehead nearly touched his knee. “Thank you, my lady,” he choked out.
He heard, as if from a dream, Lady Mildþryð speak again. “I hope you will forgive my inattention, sir knights. I fear it has been a long day. If you will excuse me a minute, I will summon refreshments for us. I doubt I am the only one that needs them.”
She dropped her embroidery and walked out of the room. The embroidery hoop fell within his view and he stared for a minute. “Absorbed” indeed. He was no expert in embroidery but if she had made more than half a dozen random stitches he would eat his armor.
Slowly he stood and turned back to his friends.
“I warned you once before John, against raising a hand to my wife. Believe me bewitched if you will. Scorn me as unmanned and unworthy if you will, but do not doubt how serious I am. It would break my heart to kill you, but I would shatter my heart before I betray my oath.”
For the third time, he was met with stunned silence. But this time he held firm and did not look away.
John shook his head, “Unmanned? Unworthy? You were the best of us, how could you even think--”
Ælfwine laughed bitterly. “Yes, I was the best of you. What am I now? Do you think I don’t feel the shame of it? That I go out there,” he swept a hand towards the door, “where I am ‘my lorded’ and deferred to and know it is all a sham? Do you think it doesn’t pain me every time I kneel to her? There are jokes about men who are ruled by their wives, and I’ve heard each of you make them. Just as I have made them.”
He barely noticed the tears dripped down his cheeks, his mask shattered beyond repair. “How could I not think you would despise what I have become? Darkness knows, I despise myself enough for all of you.”
“Why?” Damian blurted out. “If you hate it this much, why would you do such a thing?”
He closed his eyes and again dropped his head. “I told John that she was in a position to set demands upon our marriage, and knew it… I just… never told any of you what her greatest demand was.
“If it was just myself, I might have refused and hoped for ransom. I don’t know. But I couldn’t risk your lives on the chance of my father’s generosity.”
He shook his head. “The why doesn’t matter. This is my life now, and if you continued to serve me, then your service, ultimately will be to her.”
John was turning purple. “You thought…” he finally took his sword back from Damian and resheathed it. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so insulted in my life.”
It hurt, even more than Ælfwine expected, but he stood firm. “If the insult is too great for you to bear, then I will release you from my service and you need not concern yourself with me further.”
“You benighted fool.” Suddenly, John was upon him, pulling him into a great hug. “You think I care about that? I can’t believe you thought we would abandon you. Especially after you tell us something like this!”
Another hand on his shoulder and Hereweald said, “John’s right. You are our lord and we’ve worked and waited years to serve you as such. And to endure this for our sakes? You are more a man, more a lord, than anyone I have ever known.”
Damian said nothing, but his hand rested on Ælfwine’s other shoulder.
For the first time in his memory, he broke down and wept like a child. But with these men, his men, it was okay.