The Lady of Mercia was slouched on the large wooden throne at the head of the hall, chin propped on her fist as she stared off into the fire. The crown she’d been wearing had been set aside, her expression pensive. The hall was completely empty other than a pair of guards who nodded in acknowledgement to Aldhelm as he approached and then slipped beyond the doors.
She didn’t notice him at first. He was only a few yards away when she finally looked up, and the way her face brightened when she saw him filled his chest with the particular warmth he missed whenever they were apart.
“You look very serious, Aldhelm. Almost angry. Wishing you had killed me when you had the chance?”
“My lady should not joke about such things.”
His tone belied his words. They’d always been a bit irreverent around each other.
“Has my lady had word from Cookham?”
Aethelflaed’s eyebrow twitched up and she half smirked, half grimaced. “You can say his name, Aldhelm.”
He ducked his head. He should have known better than to attempt to even mildly coddle her.
“The Lord Uhtred.”
Aethelflaed drew herself up a little taller.
“I have not.” She ran a thumb along the arm of her throne. “I do not expect to.”
“I am sure that we will see him in Mercia again before too long.”
He was lying and they both knew it. If it had only been the issue of her duties, he could have convinced himself that Uhtred and Æthelflaed had a future. But with the way things had ended in Winchester, he knew it must be over for good. He had once thought to be happy at that prospect. Now he realized how happiness and cruelty were inseparable in this case. She continued to bear her responsibilities nobly, but he could tell she was lonely. A loneliness they both shared and could not share.
Aldhelm turned and sat on the wide dais on which her throne rested, his head at the level of her waist.
“I have heard that the Lady Aelswith is recovering. I pray she will continue to do so.”
“My mother is strong.”
“Much like her daughter.”
“There was once a time I thought I could never be as stubborn as her.” He could hear a smile in her voice. “That day is long gone.”
“Stubbornness serves you well.”
“I’m not so sure,” Aethelflaed sighed.
He turned back to look up at her. She was gazing towards the ceiling, brow furrowed.
“I do not regret many of the choices I’ve made in my life, but I wonder…,” she began to trail off.
“No, you don’t,” he said gently.
Her gaze fell to focus on him, eyes locked on his.
“You’re very confident that you know my mind.”
“We’re of one mind on this, Lady.”
He looked away and learned forward, resting his forearms on his knees.
“What of you, Aldhelm? Do you regret any of the choices in your own life?”
He considered, choosing to overlook the impertinence of the question—not because she was Lady of Mercia, but because he was grateful for the intimacy they shared which allowed such questions.
“I do not.”
“Not even one?”
“Not even one, Lady. They’ve all led me here, to this moment, beside you. And Mercia has never been stronger. I cannot ask for more than that.”
“You could, I believe.” Her voice dropped a bit lower. “I could. I shan’t…but I want to.”
“He will not be angry forever, lady.”
“He may not, but I won’t be free while I rule Mercia. Not for him, nor any man.”
That last addition piqued Aldhelm’s interest. He could have said many things in response—that she was the ruler his people deserved, that he had never been prouder to be Mercian, that many nobles had found happiness despite never marrying. Instead, he chose to share the silence with her.
The fires that lined the hall had died down to the embers and the room was growing cold, but Æthelflaed showed no signs of leaving. Goaded by a sudden flush of courage, Aldhelm spoke.
“Lord Ecgfrith has recently hinted to me that his daughter is reaching a marriageable age. I believe the other lords would like to see me married off.”
He wasn’t bold enough to look at her while he said it, instead staring toward the heavy wooden doors at the end of the vacant hall.
She didn’t reply at first, though he could hear her fingernails tracing circles on the arms of her chair. Then, when he was sure she would ignore his statement—
“Leofgyd is a lovely girl. I am quite sure she could make any man happy.”
Well, there was his answer. He was both relieved and devastated. It was clearly foolish of him to continue pining for a woman who would never be free to love him, even if she were inclined to.
Then, she spoke again, and her question couldn't have surprised him more.
“Did you mean it, that night when you told me that you loved me?”
He had expected her to ask him sooner, or not at all. They hadn’t spoken of that night again, though of course he’d thought of it a thousand times. Not with regret, nor with hope, just the gentle assurance that she’d known his very heart and still looked at him the same—with the respect he'd earned and the honest affection he’d never dreamed of receiving, but never more than that.
He wet his lips before speaking, and turned to face her, one knee planted on the dais and both hands clasped on the other. The gold flecks in her eyes were just visible in the light of the embers.
“I have never lied to you, Lady. I promise I never will.”
He couldn't quite read her face. She wasn’t amused, or even taken aback. If anything, she looked hurt. He could not wish he’d never confessed, but he did wish she hadn’t asked. To see her in pain of any kind was unbearable.
“And am I still in possession of your heart?”
He could not lie. “Yes.”
She exhaled, shaking her head slightly, as if scolding him for his foolishness.
“You must know how futile that is. To love me is to will yourself only suffering in the end.”
Aldhelm didn’t think she fully believed that. By God, he hoped not.
“We both know, Lady, that love is not simply an act of will. If it were, I suspect it would be far less common.”
Her eyes shone with tears as she reached for him. Her hands were cold, her palms both rough and soft. He stroked the back of her right hand where a thin pink line ran from the base of her thumb to her wrist. He wondered how she’d gotten the scar. He knew it must be one of many.
“That may be,” she breathed, “but it is folly to stay here at my side when you know you deserve more.”
He shook his head and gently reached up to wipe away her tears. Aethelflaed caught his hand, pressing it to her cheek.
“I could never ask for more than I hold in my hands at this moment, Lady.”
Aethelflaed bit her lower lip so hard that a drop of blood appeared. Then, running a hand up his arm until it rested on his shoulder, she pulled him towards her.
Their foreheads met, he could hear her breath growing ragged as she swiped a thumb over his lips. The touch thrilled him, blood flowing fast as his heart pounded in his chest so loud she was sure to hear it.
She kissed him first. He could taste the salt of her tears mingled with the blood drawn when she attempted to restrain her impulse. Still kneeling before her, he twined his fingers through her hair, drinking her in with all his senses. She smelled of honeysuckle blossoms and ash, sweet and sacred. Aethelflaed drew him closer, sliding to the edge of her seat. She pulled up her skirts to wrap her legs round his body and he could feel her pulse match his own.
He’d dreamed of this so many times, both waking and asleep, that it was nearly impossible to believe it was actually happening. Even as she guided his hand to cup her breast he couldn’t help the nagging feeling that he’d wake up from this fantasy at any moment.
She put a hand to his cheek. “I could not forgive myself if I hurt you, Aldhelm. There is too much bitterness in the world already. I can not love you as you deserve to be loved.”
He pulled back just enough to catch her gaze.
“Perhaps, just for tonight, you will allow me to determine what exactly I deserve.”
He swept back the strands of her hair that had fallen forward, watching her mouth pull into a soft smile that for a moment allayed his doubts.
“Just for tonight.”