By Elizabeth Chadwick





Ailith, wife of Goldwin the Armourer, swept her gaze around her long hall, inhaled deeply of the rich, forest scent, and sighed out with pleasure. Great swags of Yuletide evergreen garlanded the roof beams and the timbered walls. At spontaneous intervals she had hung kissing bunches of the sacred white mistletoe and blood-berried holly. Above the place of honour near the hearth, a magnificent pair of stag's antlers had been nailed, and the reflected firelight stained the broad edges and polished tips of horn a glossy crimson.

Tomorrow night her brothers had promised to find time from their duties as bodyguards of the great Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, to bring her the traditional Yule log and stay to dine. She was greatly looking forward to the meal, for apart from Goldwin, Aldred and Lyulph were the only family she possessed, and their visits were precious.

A sudden commotion at the door heralded the return of her two serving women from the markets in the heart of the city. Braying in protest at the weight in his laden panniers, the pack ass was led round the side of the house by the younger maid, Sigrid. Wulfhild, puffing and plump, staggered into the long hall, her arms weighted down by two net bags of provisions.

'God save us, Mistress Ailith, I've never seen such crowds!' She dumped the bags on the new, thick floor rushes and pressed her hands into the small of her back. 'An' all the stall holders charging what they like. We got the best bargains we could, but if it weren't Yuletide, you'd say the prices was shameless robbery!'

Ailith's generous lips twitched at her maid's indignation. 'I am sure I would,' she commiserated gravely as Wulfhild handed her a small drawstring pouch. It was considerably lighter than it had been at the outset of the excursion.

'There would be less in it still if Brand the Fishmonger hadn't got a soft spot for Sigrid,' Wulfhild continued to grumble. 'He let us have the pike and salmon you asked for at only half the price he was charging everyone else. And when we got to the onions, you'd ha' thought they was made out o' gold the way…'

'Wulfhild, I believe you!' Ailith said a trifle impatiently. Over the maid's shoulder she saw Goldwin enter the hall. Even in the raw December cold his sleeves were pushed up to his elbows, exposing his brawny forearms. He was wearing a stained leather apron over his old tunic and his face was smutty from the forge. His right fist was closed around the nasal bar of an iron helmet.

'Take those bags to the store and unpack them,' Ailith commanded. 'I'll inspect everything later. And before you do that, bring out some bread and ale for Master Goldwin.'

Wulfhild half-turned, saw Goldwin, and in consternation, picked up the bags and hurried from the hall, dipping the master an awkward curtsey as she passed him.

Goldwin paused to watch her, then looked enquiringly at Ailith. His eyes were a warm reddish-brown set under prominent black brows. Beneath his scrutiny, Ailith felt herself grow warm and begin to melt.

'The markets are expensive today with Yule so close and the King and Court in residence,' she told him. 'The bargains were few and Wulfhild has taken it to heart. You know how she loves to haggle.'

Goldwin took the purse she held up for his inspection. 'I was warned that becoming a married man was expensive,' he observed with mock dismay.

'Would you rather have remained in your bread-and-water bachelor state and amassed a solitary fortune then?' Ailith challenged, jutting her chin at him and setting her hands to her hips. She had large, regular features moulded upon a sturdy bone structure. A healthy mare was the way her father had described her during the marriage negotiations before his death last year; a good worker, strong and buxom. Ailith knew that her father's words stemmed from his pride at how well she had coped with the burden of household duties in the eight years since her mother had died, but it had not blunted the pain of the wounds he had so unintentionally inflicted. If she had not loved Goldwin for anything else, she would have loved him for saying on their wedding night that her statuesque figure and wealth of corn-blonde hair put him not in mind of a mare, but of a wild, fierce Valkyrie.

Goldwin rubbed his jaw and pretended to consider. 'Would I rather have remained in my bread-and-water state?' Without warning he pounced on her and drew her beneath one of the mistletoe kissing bunches. 'What do you think?' he breathed. His lips pressed down on hers. She felt the silkiness of his beard, the forge heat still upon his skin, and tasted salty sweat. Running her hands over his naked forearms and across his broad, blacksmith's shoulders, she buried her fingers in his hair and returned his kiss with enthusiasm. Against her hip she felt the clumsy bump of the helmet he was still holding.

Wulfhild returned from the stores with a pitcher of ale and a loaf of new bread which she placed on the trestle near the hearth. Ailith and Goldwin broke their embrace and looked at each other, making a silent promise for later. Lightly slapping her rump, Goldwin sat down at the trestle and Ailith ladled out two steaming bowls of onion pottage from the cauldron suspended over the hearth.

'You're in a fine good humour.' She put the soup in front of him and sat down at his side. 'Is it because you've finished this?' She lifted the helm off the board and turned it delicately over in her hands. It was a beautiful piece of work, its austere lines tempered by the details of bronze brow ridges and decorated strengthening bands.

Goldwin grunted and spooned pottage into his mouth. 'I'll be in a better humour still when the mail shirt to go with it is done. Earl Harold wants it for the New Year and it's not but two thirds completed yet.'

Ailith was not deceived by his complaint. Goldwin's work was going very well indeed. If he had not been extremely pleased with the helm, he would never have brought it from the forge to show her, feigning nonchalance, but seeking her approval. Looking at his hands as he broke bread and ate soup, she marvelled anew that their rugged ugliness could create a thing of such simple, but intricate beauty. And then she thought of their gentle touch on her body and a little shiver ran through her. She tried the helmet on.

'Do I look like a Valkyrie now?' she asked mischievously, and was amazed at the loudness of her own voice in her ears.

Goldwin chuckled. 'Not unless such women are cross-eyed and wear old homespun kirtles.'

Ailith stuck out her tongue at him and removed the helm. Immediately her focus restored itself to normal. She wondered how men managed to keep a clear vision in battle with a nasal bar between their eyes. She looked at the helm and imagined it gleaming on the leonine head of Harold of Wessex, and again she shivered.

'I'm not really complaining,' Goldwin said as the hot soup and fragrant fresh bread mellowed him. 'I owe your brothers a great debt for putting Earl Harold's custom my way. Without their recommendations I might still be struggling in that poky little workshop at Ethelredshithe.' He gazed with pride at the thick timber walls of the spacious hall, clothed in their festive evergreen.

So did Ailith. It was not every bride could boast a brand-new house, light and roomy by the standards of the wattle and daub dwelling in which she had grown up, and situated within sight of St Peter's and the new palace and abbey on Thorney Island.

Three years ago Goldwin had repaired a dented helm belonging to her brother Aldred. Aldred had been so impressed by the work that he had recommended Goldwin to all his soldier acquaintances and custom had flourished. So had the friendship between the two young men. It had seemed only natural that Goldwin should offer for Ailith when his reputation and fortune had grown to the point where he felt secure enough to support a wife. The match had been made to mutual satisfaction all round. Ailith had always known that she would have no say in the choosing of a husband and had been mightily relieved when her father and brothers had mooted Goldwin.

He was short of stature and slightly bow-legged, his hands permanently darkened from working the steel, but his warm smile and his diligent, amiable nature, made him the most handsome of men in her eyes.

'Aldred and Lyulph are bringing the Yule log tomorrow eve.' Ailith returned her attention to Goldwin, taking pleasure in seeing him enjoy the food. 'I'll have to neck those chickens before dark, I suppose.' She pulled a face. Although she was competent at all domestic tasks, killing the yard fowl was the one she disliked the most. It seemed such a betrayal of trust. You offered the birds corn from your hand day in, day out, talking to them, caring for them. Then you stole their eggs and wrung their necks at the whim of the cooking pot. She could have bought freshly killed poultry from the booths in West Chepe, but to her housewife's conditioning, that was a shocking price to pay for squeamishness.

Goldwin wiped his lips on a napkin, poured himself a mug of ale from the pitcher, and stood up. 'It'll be good to see Aldred and Lyulph again,' he commented. 'Now Earl Harold's almost sitting on the throne, they're in attendance of him all the time.' He took a long drink, topped up his mug, and stifling a replete belch, walked to the door. On the threshold he turned round.