Bound by His Oath, Part 5

 Up til here, we aren't missing anything. Here's where scenes start getting cut short or skipped entirely because I don't know yet what goes there.

Her mother was in the stables yard lunging her horse. As always since Mildþryð's father died, she wore the intricately braided hairstyle and brightly embroided clothing of her Dragma kin.  

She scowled when she saw Mildþryð' face. “Tell me you bloodied the nit.”

“Hello Mother,” Mildþryð said. “I delegated.”

Lady Valdis sighed.  

They stood silently for a time, watching the horse exercise. “I'm sorry we can't go on our rides any more.”

Her mother shrugged. “It is what it is. The time will come when we can ride again without worrying about these nits.

“You are a good daughter, and honor to your grandfather and your father, little though he deserves it. You will find your way.

“The men may rule, most of the time, for they are stronger and the Ancestors perfect world died ages past. But these Nornes are fools to think that men can rule all the time, for we women have our own strength and you will teach them that.”

Now Mildþryð echoed her mother's earlier sigh. “What would you have done?”

“I?” The older woman snorted. “I would have been saddled and gone before your father was cold in the grave. Your uncle would welcome me back, and you as well if you wished, and I could help raise the nieces and nephews, make good cheese, and listen to the Singer tell the old tales and sagas of when the world was new and the Ancestors believed they could make a new paradise in this cursed realm. And live in a proper, round building without all these cursed corners!

“But you are too Anglish. Stubborn as Dragma, but soft spoken and happy with your sharp corners and dark chapels. You would not be happy making cheese and listening to the Singers.”

Her mother had taken her once, much against her father's wishes but before the conquerer came he dared not disrespect his father in law, to visit her Dragma relatives. There were many things she envied them, but she could never remember the great round building they all lived in without a shudder. It wasn't the lack of corners, exactly, but there were no walls. It was one great room that everyone… well it was big enough it wasn't actually crowded, but it felt that way, with no quiet space away from it all unless you went outside in the cold.

Lady Valdis laughed. “Yes? I see that face. So my solution will not work for you and you will find your own way. And I will stay in this place of corners because I love you more than a proper home and proper cheese and all the songs of the Singers.”

Mildþryð took the lunge line from her mother, handed it to a nearby groom, and threw herself into Lady Valdis' arms. Valdis, the only person in her life who was demostrative than she was, hugged her back, than picked her up and swung her around, proving that she hadn't lost her strength as she aged.

“It will be well daughter. Now what is it you came here to tell me, for surely you did not come to ask my advice!”

Mildþryð buried her face in her mother's neck. “Will you trust me, mother? No matter what?”

Valdis pulled Mildþryð away and lifted her chin to study her face. “You have found your path. And it isn't a straightforward Dragma path, but a twisty, cornered Anglish path.”

Mildþryð nodded and dropped her eyes, afraid of what she would see in her mother's face.

-----------

Ælfwine was roused from sleep by the sound of keys rattling outside his cell door. A few minutes later, the door opened and the same warrior gestured for him to come.

He obeyed, and once more the warrior escorted him up onto the tower walk. The walk was empty, of the lady or anyone else.

When the warrior made no move to stop him, Ælfwine walked to the wall and looked out over the valley. The sun was well into the sky, but not yet passed into the west. It was morning, though what morning he could only guess at. His stomach growled, reminding him he had not eaten since speaking with the lady… yesterday?

Footsteps on the stairs. He turned, expecting the lady. Instead it was a maid carrying a mug and loaf end topped with a slice of cheese. She offered them to him, saying “Milady was delayed and says for you to break your fast while you wait.”

“My thanks to the lady.” He took the mug and bread and began to eat, taking time to savory the warm break and salty cheese instead of bolting it all as his hunger demanded.

She arrived shortly after he finished. “I would dislike hanging you and your men from my walls, Sir Ælfwine. It would be wasteful, and I prefer not to offend the Ancestors. But continuing to feed you and your men to no purpose would be more wasteful, especially when, for some reason, our food stores will be lower than expected this year.”

He stiffled the urge to swallow. “Is it the Anglish way to talk endlessly about possibilities and never take action? If so, no wonder we conquered you so easily.”

She laughed. “No. My mother would say it is the Dragma was to talk endlessly about possibilities and then strike like lightning when the time is right.

“I have a proposal for you, Sir Ælfwine. I doubt it will be to your liking, but you might find it has it’s merits.”

“I am, of course, at your service, Lady Mildþryð.”

To his surprise she laughed again. “Yes, precisely.” She turned for the first time to meet his gaze, all laughter gone. “You will take oath as my liegeman.”  

It was the shock that snapped his control as much as the insult. He turned on her, snarling. His hand reaching, instinctively, for the sword he no longer had.

The guard stepped forward, but she held up her hand, stopping him.

“I suggest you control yourself, sirrah.”

Ælfwine forced himself to step back, to uncurl his firsts. Slowly, he regained the control in which had been drilled since childhood.

She continued as if nothing had happened. “For the time being, I would keep this oath private. None shall know of this except we two.” She paused, but he had himself under control again and said nothing. “Once you have given your oath, I will wed you, making you lord of Elfhome. You will rule all here. I will rule you.”

Only the iron control he was holding prevent him from reacting to that shock. It took him a moment to under, but when he did was near shocked by the woman’s cunning and ruthlessness.

In one stroke she satisfied the king, kept her freedom and power, and turned a burden—he and his men—into an asset. He himself got almost everything he had come here to get.

But to get it, he would need to become what many would consider only half a man. Ruled, shamefully, by his wife, with no power over her or her actions. Some might say that death would be better.

She examined him as he did her, her face displaying a range emotion, flickering between hope, fear, need, and what might have been… desire?

He didn’t think she intended insult. She had found a solution to her problem, and if the solution was such that had another warrior even hinted at such a thing he would have called them out, what was it to her? She had her honor and her duty, and the honor of a prisoner who had sought to conquer her was not her concern.

But, oh, how he burned at the thought of it. To unman himself and bend knee to a woman-- a woman who would be his wife, no less!

He opened his mouth to reject her… proposal. To tell her that he would throw himself from this tower before he would so dishonor himself…

But he couldn’t. To many of the men who had followed him here had died already. Those who remained would live or die on his decision here.

“My men--?”

“Will have whatever place here you find for them. I will not see my people displaced, but I believe there is room here for the men who are sworn to you.”

He nodded and resisted the urge to lick his lips. “Do you require an answer now, lady, or may I have time to think on this?”

She seemed confusd but didn’t hesitate. “I am not in such straits I cannot wait a day for your response, Sir Ælfwine.” She stepped away, clearly done with the conversation.

The warrior cleared his throat and gestured for Ælfwine to come. Ælfwine obeyed, and the warrior escorted him off back into the tower.

The sudden shadow as they passed through the doorway echoed the darkness of Ælfwine’s thoughts.

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