Aldhelm could not deny he was frustrated.
Aethelflaed had fought so hard for Mercia, for Aelfwynn, to maintain order and balance. She had risked her life in battle countless times to ward off their enemies and protect their lands. It had always been necessary—until now.
But the choice had been made. They would stand by Edward’s side as he hurtled headfirst into chaos, dragging Mercia along with him. Aldhelm had given his advice and it had not made a difference. Edward’s plan was already in motion, so Aldhelm’s input was no longer required. He would of course do his duty, but he could not say how the day would end.
He needed space to think, to be alone. Not entirely sure what irked him so (he was quite used to being overruled), he returned to his tent. A moment of silence was a luxury he was not accustomed to taking.
“Aldhelm, may I speak with you?”
The moment had not lasted long. Aethelflaed was hovering at the tent’s entrance. He could see by her expression that she was none too pleased herself. Her mouth was drawn together in the way that always preceded an unpleasant conversation.
Of course he acquiesced. What else was he to say?
Aethelflaed ducked her head as she slipped through the opening, moving close enough that they could speak without fear of being overhead but no closer. The wisps of hair that framed her face could not serve to soften her expression.
She fixed him in her gaze, hands clasped before her. “You are unhappy with my decision, Aldhelm.”
Not a question, a statement. She had no intention of allowing him to hedge his reply—not that he intended to.
“I am…concerned, Lady.”
“For all of us.”
“We have very little choice in the matter, Aldhelm,” Aethelflaed replied. “We cannot allow Winchester to be destroyed.”
“We will not, Lady. King Edward has spoken and we will obey.”
Aethelflaed drew herself up a little straighter. He could tell that last comment had needled her. The tension between her authority and her brother’s had been on both their minds lately.
Her arms were locked at her sides but he watched the fingers of her right hand flex in that barely perceptible way they would when she was nervous or uncertain.
“My brother is not Lord of Mercia,” she said evenly. “But we must come to the aid of Wessex as Wessex would come to our aid.”
“And therein lies my concern. Just weeks ago your brother posted troops at the gates of Aylesbury as he does here.”
Surely she had known how her last comment rang hollow. But her eyes flashed as she replied. “That is not fair, Aldhelm, and you know it.”
“This is not the first time he has put you, and Mercia, in danger. I warned you when you arrived that your brother was being rash, and still you side with him against your better judgment. ”
It was a bold claim, but if anyone knew her mind it was him.
He stepped forward, leaving no more than a pace between them.
“I believe the Lord Uhtred could end the siege if only we gave him more time—“
“We don’t have time,” she replied, “Our mother is within, Aldhelm. We cannot sit idly by.”
“Not idly,” he insisted. “We know that they cannot outlast a siege. It would be more prudent to allow things to take their course than to push them to a breaking point. Unnecessary lives will be lost, innocent blood shed.”
Aethelflaed clenched her jaw, no answer. She knew how risky the attack was, he was sure of it, but still she defended her brother’s choice.
“I wonder why you do not trust Uhtred to do this, Lady.”
Her nostrils flared and her frown deepened. He’d pushed too far. He should have held his tongue.
Aethelred or Edward would have silenced him or stormed out long ago. Her mouth was set in a hard line, but she lingered.
“It’s not a matter of trust, Aldhelm. It’s a matter of strategy.”
“You don’t worry that his safety will be compromised if we attack?”
She tilted her chin away from him defensively.
“You forget your place, Aldhelm.”
“My place is here, beside you. You have asked my advice, I have given it. Since you cannot take it, we have nothing further to say between us.”
She bit her lip as she looked at him, cheeks flushed in anger.
“I will hold my tongue in future, Lady.”
She exhaled sharply, gazing up at the roof of the tent.
“That is not what I have asked. I thank you for your advice, Aldhelm. I am sorry not to have lived up to your expectations.”
It was his turn to take insult.
“I did not say that,” he replied, attempting to restrain the passion in his voice by keeping his tone low.
Aethelflaed shook her head gently, eyes shining with tears. That stung as much as her assumption had.
“You don’t think that you perhaps have me on too high a pedestal?”
“No higher than the honor of your title. No higher than you yourself deserve.”
She was resting one fist on her hip, the other still clenched at her side. It was clear she remained conflicted about their way forward, and it pained him to watch for he could not alleviate that burden. He had rarely seen her so vulnerable in all their time together.
“I have overstepped, Lady.” He dropped his gaze, allowing her to collect herself. “I apologize.”
“I asked for your opinion, Aldhelm,” she replied quietly, “And I thank you for your continued honesty.”
She spoke as if defeated. He hear the exhaustion in her voice. And this battle was still to be fought.
He could not take back anything that he had said, merely reassure her that they'd fight their way out of this scrape together.
“I admire you, Lady, and I believe in you, as do the rest of your men. We will stand with Wessex proudly as we have so many times before.”
Aethelflaed crossed her arms over her chest, rubbing one shoulder as if to comfort herself.
“You think that I’ve abandoned him.”
Her thoughts had returned to Uhtred, of course. Things had ended between them back in Aylesbury but naturally some feelings would linger.
He hesitated. She seemed intent on picking this fight, so he let her.
“I cannot help but wonder how I would feel in Uhtred’s place, I suppose.”
Aethelflaed took a half step towards him, one hand resting on her sword. “If I did not know better I would think you spoke in envy now, Aldhelm.”
“Not in envy, Lady.”
“Perhaps envy is the wrong word,” she continued coldly. “Perhaps you are merely relieved it is not you who have been the object of my affections. It does not seem to end well for such men. To be loved by me is to be cursed.”
She spoke with a self-loathing so unfamiliar to his ears that he found it difficult to counter at first.
“The Lord Uhtred may yet live. And we cannot choose whom we love or do not.”
“Of course,” she laughed bitterly, gripping the hilt of her weapon till her knuckles turned white, “why else would you remain so devoted to such a woman?”
“My lady, I know you do not believe that.”
“Again, you tell me my own mind.”
He could not tell from her tone if she was incredulous or merely irritated.
“You know that I remain devoted to you, Lady, and to Mercia no matter what affections are in my heart.”
She exhaled shakily.
“It’s more than I deserve, Aldhelm, but I thank you.”
Her gaze had softened. She was calmer now. The storm seemed to have passed.
“Are you planning to use that now?” he asked, gesturing to the sword her hand still gripped.
The corner of her mouth twitched into a smile. “Not on you. Not at the moment, anyway.”
He smiled too.
Her shoulders looked lighter now than when she had entered the tent. She was standing tall again, looking like her usual self.
“I expect we ought to find King Edward.”
“I expect we ought,” she echoed softly, looking at him in that way that made his life both heaven and hell at once. As usual, he had no time to dwell on those feelings.
“We will do everything in our power to bring them to safety, Lady—all of them.”
She nodded, and before he knew what he was doing he’d taken her in his arms. This was an intimacy that was new to him, but if he could provide even a fraction of the comfort she needed he would have set himself on fire to do it.
The leather armor she wore pressed against his own, but he could feel the softness of her hair as he rested his chin on her head.
“If I cared less about your opinion I would be a worse ruler,” she murmured. “Your service is not something I will ever take for granted, despite any disagreement. I care for you dearly, Aldhelm—I do not know what I would do without you.”
That pulled at something deep within him but he suppressed it with a joke as was his way.
“I will do my best to avoid being stabbed again, if that’s your wish.”
His chest muffled her laugh slightly.
“Thank you, Aldhelm.”