It begins, like many things between them of late, as a matter of convenience. The pages are busy with other work at Chester (there are many preparations to make), so the task of helping her put on her armor falls to Aldhelm.
He eases the mail over her head, then begins to tighten the leather breastplate she wears while she adjusts her sword belt.
“This may be our greatest battle yet,” he says, shifting her braid so he can tighten the straps that lay across her shoulder.
She nods, drawing in a deep breath. “Today we must win a decisive victory for Mercia. We will not settle for anything less. ”
He cannot see her face fully but he knows that her brow is knit and her mouth drawn in a hard line. “The men are ready to fight for you, Lady.” He cannot carry her burden for her, but he can reassure her that she does not carry it alone.
They would follow her into certain death, though he knows she would never lead them there. It weighs on him that she must have counted how many men have died on her behalf. He suspects it is part of why she rides out with them at every chance, to do penance for the lives lost. She is brave, braver than he had known, but there is a streak of danger in her—not a danger to others, but to herself. The task to protect her from that streak falls to him. There is no one else to whom it can fall.
“We will defeat our enemy,” she says, her tone low but steady. “We will reclaim this land for Mercia.”
She cannot know the outcome in advance, but the confidence in her tone is nearly enough to convince him she’s dabbled in some type of pagan magic.
His hands linger on her shoulders as he asks, “Would you have me leave you?”
She turns to face him, and her hands catch his briefly.
“No, Aldhelm. I would have you stay.” She kneels then, looking up at him. “I mean to pray before this battle, will you wait with me?”
In answer, he kneels beside her. She smiles softly, then bows her head in a gesture of reverence and begins to move her lips gently in silent petition.
He does not pray but marvels at her calm. She is fierce in battle, yes, but she exudes such peace at times like these. He thinks this may be a more impressive type of strength.
The next time, at Tettenhall, she asks for his help again, and they refine their strategy while he secures the straps of her armor. Uhtred is busy with last-minute preparations of his own, and Aldhelm finds himself wondering if the task he is engaged in will ever fall to another. Unless Aldhelm should meet his end he suspects not, and that thought is comforting.
He does wonder if he will meet his end that day. They will be outmanned here, if not outmatched. It is not certain death they face, but something close to it.
“You ought not worry about Wessex, you know,” she says, as he’s finishing. “Edward will come to our aid.”
She’s in his thoughts, of course. An endearing and impressive habit she’s picked up along with many others.
“I do not worry, Lady. I merely contemplate our options should the unforeseen arise.” He pauses, and she turns to face him, making what he has to say next more difficult. “My lady, if they take you—“ His voice wavers here. He should not be so affected by the thought, but he allows himself one moment of tenderness while they are alone.
“They will not take me, Aldhelm.” She knows what she faces, yet she looks up at him with clear eyes, and her voice does not tremble. “If I am in danger of being taken, you must not allow it.”
He’s not sure he understands, but when her hand drifts to the knife at his waist her meaning is clear.
Aldhelm meets her hand on the hilt and nods. She exhales a shaky breath, her facade faltering for two beats of his heart, and then she’s raising her chin.
“Thank you, Aldhelm.”
He is not a particularly pious man, but that day with his blade pressed against her throat a desperate plea occupies his mind. Do not make me take her life, I should sooner take my own.
They are saved by the arrow of the king, and Aldhelm finds a moment amidst the turmoil that follows to wonder if his prayer had been heard.
Later that day, when the smoke and dust have begun to settle, she thanks him again. It is a strange thing to be thanked for not killing the one he loves. “I probably wasn’t the man for that task,” he says, foolishly, as she walks to meet her brother, but she smiles.
By the time she is queen in her own right he knows she ought to have someone conscripted for the task of helping her with her armor, but she does not, so he does not mention it. Their pre-battle routine has become one of his most treasured times with her.
This battle will be hard fought, but their odds are good. Better than he would think by looking at her face alone. She’s the one who worries today, and tries to mask it with a joke.
“You do not seem to have gotten any quicker at this, Aldhelm.”
“It is a task I do not take lightly, my lady.” His tone is more rebuke than jest, and he wishes he could find it within him to help bring levity to this moment.
One of his vambraces has come slightly loose, and she catches his forearm between her hands and turns it over, securing the troublesome strap.
Their eyes meet, and the heaviness behind hers disappears for a moment as she says, “I am glad to be able to return the favor finally.”
You have saved my life in ways I cannot express, he thinks, then stunned by the dramatic nature of that reflection he merely raises an eyebrow and stutters, “The debt is paid.”
The way she smiles back will be forever etched in his memory.
Her face grows serious then, and he wonders if they will speak of the coming battle, but instead she says, “Aldhelm, you do know—“
Then she stops, words catching in her throat, tears pricking at her eyes. He cannot bear to see her this way, and so he gently strokes her hand and murmurs, “Yes.”
She would love him, if she could. Perhaps she does. Perhaps she will. Perhaps…
None of that matters, not now. It pains him to watch her glance away, blinking back the tears, forcing her breath to remain even.
It has been a long day already, and she had taken leave of Aelfwynn only that morning. Their parting was always most difficult the first day, and it did not seem to grow easier with the years.
He kneels first this time, and she follows, hands still clasped in his.
She begins to pray, quietly, steadily, and he feels her strength return.
He remains fixed on her. He does not pray. This is his only ritual.