April 2nd, 1809
A farm north of York, Occupied Norselaw
Edouard breathed a sigh of relief as he ducked under the overhanging branches to enter the clearing. He’d been afraid that Gunhild might not be there, in which case he’d have marched out tomorrow without a word, or at most with some quick scrawled note left with a messenger boy who could be trusted not to give it to her father. But she was sitting in her usual spot on the stump of a tree, wearing her good go-to-church gown, although long experience with meeting her here convinced him it did not conceal the amount of underwear she’d worn to church. She saw him and smiled, making his heart leap in automatic response before he remembered his news.
“Gunhild,” he began, “there is bad news.”
She nodded tranquilly. “Your legion has been reassigned overseas, and you with them. So we’ll meet no more in the forest.”
He gaped at her. Two questions were trying to make their way out his throat, and blocking each other; so he did not ask either how she had known, or how she could take it so bloody calmly, but instead stood goggling like a new-caught slave seeing the walls of Sus for the first time.
She rose, smiling. “You’re surprised that I knew? But dear Edouard, you are hardly our only pipeline into the affairs of the XIV Legion. Only the most useful one. And the sweetest. Really, I’ll miss you quite a bit. Where did you say you were going, again? Perhaps I might write.”
“Egypt,” he choked out, “to fight the Georgians.” His thoughts were clearing as he began to understand that she had betrayed him; thinking like an officer was a relief when the lover could only grieve. Belatedly it struck him that she might not have known where they were headed, and that he had handed her valuable information – but then, Norway was, after all, an ally of Brittany, in this year 1809. An untrusted ally, certainly, and it was not unreasonable that they would be untrusting as well, and keep an eye on the Legions stationed to garrison their old lands. Not a killing matter, then; not aiding an enemy in time of war. With that thought, the officer ducked down again, leaving the lover – no! The man who had kept a mistress! He had his pride, after all.
“Ah, good,” he said coolly, trying for indifference – he had only come as a courtesy to a mistress, a servant almost, not – certainly not! – in a bid to carry a local girl with him to Egypt, as his wife. “You know. Then there is nothing I need say about the matter. I shall bid you adieu, my dear, with a small token of my gratitude.” He was amazed at his ability to keep his voice steady, when he wanted mainly to cry; but she needn’t see that. He reached into his pouch for some golden crowns; he couldn’t really afford any such extravagance, but the need to hurt her back was strong in him, and giving her money – as though he had only hired her, or thought of her as a whore! – was the best he could do.
Or was it? He thought for a moment of a secluded forest glade, which had held cries of passion and ringing laughter without anyone hearing. Perhaps nobody would hear a murderous shout or a dying scream, either. His hand went from pouch to sword and his lips drew back from his teeth. He was moving slowly, though, his mind not quite made up to the deed – it is hard to decide to kill a recent lover – and Gunhild moved like lightning. The pistol she drew from between her breasts was small, but its barrel looked like a cannon’s mouth.
“Your first thought was smarter, Edouard. If it makes you feel better, I’m actually sorry to hurt you like this. But after all, you’re an officer of the army occupying my homeland. Think of it this way” – her teeth were bared, but you couldn’t call it a smile – “you’re just one more way for Brittany to fuck Norway, eh? So this time we got some of our own back. Just information, that’s all. So sure, drop your coins at my feet, salvage your pride. Call me a whore if you like; what do I care? I’ve been well paid, after all.” Her face softened. “And, fair’s fair, you were not an unpleasant trick. I really am sorry to see you go, Edouard. Were you going to ask me to marry you?”
Numb, he nodded, trying to recapture murderous anger. It had felt a lot better than this emptiness. She smiled wryly. “You are a sweetheart. Not many officers marry their local girls. But no. Not while Breton legions stand on Norwegian soil. There are some who forget that, even among the Ynglings. But not me, nor any of mine. My family came here four hundred years ago, in the land-taking after the Scots war, did you know? There are eleven generations of my ancestors lying in our graveyard. The first settler was my namesake, Gunhild, daughter of Helga. There were not many men in the land then, and she took the title in the female line and held it against storm and bandits; when my mother dies it comes to me.”
She bent down carefully, still keeping the pistol pointed at him, and took a handful of the bare earth, pine needles stuck in it. “Here. I give you this; I seize you lawfully of this earth of the Norse Law. Keep it, in my memory. When it is all that Brittany holds of Norway… come again and see me, if you live, and if the Egyptian maids can’t soothe your heart. Perhaps your suit might prosper. But not today.”
He took her hand, numbly, and the earth in it. He might have taken her pistol then, and killed her even so, for she darted in, nimble as ever, to kiss him on the lips, fleetingly. Then she was gone, leaping like a doe through the early-summer twilight. And there was nothing to do, except begin the long march to Egypt.