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He Could Be Worse.



There he sits, across the table. Everything she'd loved, everything she hates. He could be worse, she tells herself. He could be Hibald. It is telling, when the only person worse than him is her father.

Hilda wants to slap the condescending smirk from his face. She wants to scratch the arrogance from his eyes--the first and only battle wound he'd ever receive. She wants to tell his wife the truth, loud, and clear, and vengeful. But the feel of his gaze keeps her silent, and the memory of his touch makes her guilt rise like bile in the back of her throat.
 

He is smug. After nine months, he is still proud of the fact that he slipped past her defenses. Her, Ealhild, daughter of Ealuthryth and the worthless Hibald; cold, guarded, heartless: mansbane. And why shouldn't he be smug? Him, in his cunning and intelligence. Him, in his undeniable superiority. He had tamed a wild shrew. He had caught her in a net of festivity and copious amounts of mead, and kept her until he grew tired of her. He had stolen her and discarded her as he saw fit. Why, then, should he not watch her with pride?

Hilda wipes the smirk from his lips with a laugh and a polite remark to his wife. "That would be lovely Burga! Although you know me. Once I get some ale in me I have trouble keeping my mouth shut."

The smirk returns. Her lips aren't the only things that part with the influence of ale, he remembers. Her threat is thinly veiled, and he opts to avoid antagonizing her for half a moment. The less shaken he is, the more frustrated she grows. He can see it in the burn of her gaze, and the flush of her cheeks. How funny, the way she can go from threats to humiliation in mere seconds. How funny, the way she thinks herself above him. 

 

She cannot stand being in this house. She hates Burga for her sweetness, for her innocence, for her oblivious trust in her husband. The ceiling falls an inch every time he looks at her. The air is blocked from her lungs every time she tries to speak. She longs to win. Even more, she longs for an excuse. She wishes she could say he took advantage of her, that he got her drunk on mead and honeyed words to the point of no rejection, but she can't. Intoxicated as they had been, she was more than willing. And that was only the first time... She wishes she had cause for revenge.

"Your silence matters more than mine," he had said, that first night in the closet in the mead hall. He was not wrong. His words are never wrong. But this--this clawing in her stomach, this desire, that is wrong. Her anger and her pain are wrong; misplaced and misdirected. She was no better than him, and it made her lungs burn, and her head broil. She had given in. Twelve long months ago, when the air was heavy and thick with summer warmth and scent of sweat and honey, she had given into him without a single protest. Nine short months ago he had cast her aside like a broken toy. She would show him what broken truly means. She would, but she can't.

When she looks at Burga, she sees her mother. She sees plates crashing, and flashes of anger, fierce as thunder. She sees solitude, and tears, and a moonlit departure. Hilda does not wish such a fate on her. It is not Burga's fault that men are liars. It is not Burga's fault that men are cruel.   
 

The others distract her with talk of drinks and future plans, but he does not miss her mention of "mistakes," or her commentary on warriors as paramount. Nothing Hilda says can shake him. Anyone with a sound mind can see the superiority of lawyers and law-speakers, versus those who kill without question. Then again, he has never accused Hilda of intelligence. Her jabs are endearing, like a hound when it begs at the feet of its master. She is foolish and desperate for attention. She always did make for good entertainment, but the threat of honesty lurks behind her words, and it makes his skin crawl. She is unwise, and without wisdom she holds more power than him. Without wisdom, she has dragged him into chaos, and kept him confined. 

Her smiles, her sharp gazes, her pointed words: she is only rubbing salt in the wounds she has opened, never to let them heal in full. Does she derive some sick pleasure from threatening to topple his marriage? From feeding Burga's growing suspicions without a second thought? His knuckles itch to hit something. She has no right to insult him beneath his own roof. She has no right to anger.
 

Barduwulf stands, and speaks. His voice is level, but it's sharp edge is not lost on her. "Hilda, I think I picked up a cloak of yours from the tavern. A pale peach-coloured thing. Come upstairs and see with me if it’s yours."

Her heart drops into her stomach as she rises, and thanks him. The spark returns to her eye when she looks at his wife.

"You are lucky to have such an honest husband."
 

She follows him up the stairs, into the room he shares with Burga. He is not a noble man. He is neither brave nor loyal. He will not dare lay a hand on her--the most he can manage is words, and she welcomes them. He leans down, opening the chest at the foot of the bed.

"Do not forget," he intones, as if speaking to a child,  "You have a reputation to uphold. Your brother understands better than you: do not thrust your hand into fire or you will be burned."

 

Hilda clenches her jaw stubbornly, and crosses her arms as a hot blush once more travels up to her cheeks. "I am simply carrying on conversation with your lovely wife," she says, her innocence marred by the distinct weight of her bitterness. "My words are not yours to choose. I am not beholden to you; you've made that painfully clear. My reputation matters far less than yours." It is a weak reply, but Hilda smirks regardless. In her mind, she dares him to get angry. It doesn't work.

"Then tell her now," he laughs. The bastard laughs. He grins and paces towards her, and her stomach churns. She forgot how he had always towered over her. He had the height of a bear, but the venom of a serpent. "Show her, show Seaxa, show Aude, show Eadfrith, show your mother--show them all that you're no better than the whore that stole your father away."

For a moment, she pauses, and her mind shrieks in anger. You made me this way, she wants to scream. She wants to throw herself at him, with teeth, and claws, and hurt. You defiled me. You made a whore of me, and when you had your fill you discarded me like bones beneath a table. But she doesn't scream. She barely speaks at all.

"You have no right." The words escape her in a hiss, her righteousness deflating. Her pulse drowns out her anger. "A man as devoid of honor as you has no right to speak to me in such a way," her voice rises slightly, and stays trembling in the air even after the words fall from it. Her hands curl into fists around the fabric of her skirts.

"You say that like you have honour yourself. At the very least I have fame. You know, Seaxa spent nine years in Beaconwatch. He met your father and his mistress--wife, now. Did you know they were married? From his telling, you two sound much alike. But at least somebody loved her." His eyes drift down to the fists at her sides. "Do not think I mean to say you were pretty, by any means. You're growing into an old maid with a horrid personality. I pitied you. I still pity you."

 

Before she can think, Hilda strikes him. The blow lands on his face, hard--as hard as she can manage. It is the only way she can keep from crying. He recoils at the blow, dropping the cloak on the floor. His nostrils flare in anger and he steps over it, slapping her back. His hand is lighter than it could have been, more of a threat than a true attempt at harm. "I am not a warrior," the lawyer hisses, "but I am still a man."

Hilda spits at him. Her eyes sting, almost as much as her cheek, and she blinks hard to keep from crying. "You are pathetic," her voice does not waver this time, and it revives her courage. "You are a worthless man with nothing to cling to but undeserved renown," she hisses. "You are lucky to have an imbecile for a wife."

He wipes Hilda's spit from his face, smirking at her again. He whispers, "I have renown for a reason. The only fame in store for you is infamy. You are nothing more than a cunt and a mouth and the next cup of mead in Éomer's hall. Worse than a whore. For all the coin you seek in other endeavors, even whores get paid."

 

She wants to curl in on herself. She wants to shrink, to run, to hide from him. To stop feeling the sharp pain of Bearda sticking knives into each and every weakness. She wants to stab him back. He is older, smarter, and respected--Hilda is only a girl.

"How does it feel?" she asks, breaking her own silence. "How does it feel knowing you dishonored your bride, and defiled your vows, with someone who wasn't worth ten copper?" She sets her jaw, the spark returning to her gaze. She could work with this. "How does it feel, hearing your wife profess her devotion, when you valued a worthless 'cunt' over her beauty, and wit, and dedication?" she steps forward, into him. "If I were so disposable, so low, you would not have looked twice at me whilst wedded to a woman like Burga."

"I don't feel a thing, Hilda. My wife still loves me. I love her. You were just a fuck in a closet, and a free one too. You were a fool to ever think I valued you more. " He laughs, stroking Hilda's head. "I looked at you because you were disposable. A low-hanging apple on a bough. Once the flesh is eaten, the core is so easily tossed aside."

 

Hilda bristles at the tenderness of his touch, more so than at the cruelty of his words. She has heard him say such things before, but something inside her chest rattles when she breathes. She is not foolish. She is not a child. And yet every word she speaks, every thought that crosses her mind is twisted by him...

"Are you truly so broken," she murmurs, "that you cannot feel remorse?" 

He shoves the cloak into Hilda's arms. His gentle smile returns and he says pleasantly, "You dropped your cloak, Hilda. We should return downstairs before the others begin to worry. Wipe your eyes first." 

 

Hilda leaves without a word, without even a glance toward Aud and Seaxa and Burga, where they obliviously sit, eating and laughing in the warmly lit room. The peach cloak does not belong to her, but she wears it anyway--it wards off the evening chill, along with the heat of angry tears. The sky is dark and her hair is light; she passes by her family home and wanders off in search of loneliness. She does not crave attention. She does not crave affection. She wants nothing from him but remorse. Some sign of regret. Some sign of guilt. An apology.

She hikes up her skirts and wades into the pool above the waterfall, as if the stream can assuage her guilt. As if the water can cleanse her of the memories.

She falls asleep beneath the stars, and awakens covered in wet, cold morning dew. The sky is red, and her hair is light, and her anger recedes back into her heart, securely trapped. Caged as her affections are meant to be. But the locks have rusted over, and she can still feel the impact of his knuckles against her cheek. Her anger may be trapped, but it is within a weakened prison.
 

When she returns home, her mother fusses and washes her hair. She wraps herself in a blanket by the fire and does not speak. There is nothing wrong. There is nothing the matter. The stakes are high, she knows that. Hilda lacks her father's cruelty. She sits by the fire and watches it dance, crackling like summer thunder. Red and hot like her pulse. She does not speak. Her words are worth less than her body, that much is clear.

 

He could be worse...