Hilde stood at her post, watching the night move over the snow laden fields of her farm. Where those who had taken up the duty of guarding their little community from harm, they did not expect Hilde to spend a time in watch. It was near time for the next assigned watchman to come but Hilde found herself wishing it wasn't. Things between her and her husband had become difficult after she finally remembered herself. A part of her yearned to go to Gunther and ask him to forgive her curtness. Another part of her was filled with anger at how she had yoked herself together with him, feeling that she accepted him too quickly. The conflict within her turned into conflict with him. Gunther was happy to fight, joyous even. This only angered her more, to the point where she had not spoken to him in three days and refused to lie in their bed. Now, she regretted her refusal even as her anger over her husband's unbridled joy in their argument roiled within her.
The sky had taken on the shades of deep blue that came with the stars. Hilde shook her head at the distant lights of the town across the valley glowing orange on that hill. Footsteps sounded behind her. Hilde said nothing as she silently argued with herself. The wind shifted and she smelled Gunther's scent on it. "You hate me even as you love me," he said, "You lust for me even as you revile me. Gone is the woman who gladly sank into my arms at night. But I am happy for our parting because you have come into my life again." Hilde closed her eyes against the emotions that rose up in her, against the pleasure that came with the sound of his quiet, solemn voice.
"Go away, Gunnar," she said, unable to keep the exhaustion out of her voice. The facade of maintaining the image of doting adoration since the day that she returned to her senses was making her weary. Gunther moved closer. She heard the sound of fabric being moved. Then he set his cloak about her shoulders. Warmth was caught in that fabric and Hilde found herself feeling thankful for the small comfort it gave her against the night's cold. Then she forced the feeling aside.
Gunther's arms settled about her waist with the familiarity of their five years of marriage. Hilde stiffened, though she wanted to lean back against him. His voice was low and sounded almost soothing as he spoke to her with his lips nearly against her left ear. "Hearth-warder mine," he said, "What can I give to make you look on me with favor?" Hilde trembled for a moment. She wasn't sure if it was the chill night air, her internal chaos, or pleasure that she struggled to will away.
"Nothing," Hilde answered, her tone sharper than she intended. The part of her that wanted to turn and bury her face against his neck was pained and wanted to take back her words. Gunther reached up and pulled the cloak tighter about Hilde's shoulders as the wind picked up. "What do you want?" she asked quietly.
"You," he answered, "Only you. I would leave Avalon to follow you through the nine worlds and beyond. Either to hunt you or to be at your side." He stepped around in front of her. Hilde opened her eyes and looked up into his face. An awful stillness was in his expression as he gazed at her. "You are angry," he said, "with me?" A sharp word was on Hilde's lips until she realized what he was asking. "I will lay Doombringer between us," he continued in that careful tone, "We shall lay chaste as children. For as long as you will it."
"You're hurt by this," Hilde answered him. Gunther said nothing, merely looking at her. "I'm not angry with you," she said after a moment, looking away from him. Gunther started to reach to lay a hand against her cheek and then he halted, his hand just barely away from her skin. He started to pull his hand away when Hilde leaned her head against his hand. Hilde's eyes closed as she rubbed her cheek against his palm. An unintentional look of bliss crossed over her face.
Gunther's right hand settled against her left cheek and he turned her face towards his again. His mouth brushed lightly against hers, more of a mingling of breath than a kiss. His unexpected gentleness shook something deep within her. Tears began to roll down her cheeks as she closed her eyes tighter. "Why do you fight this?" he asked as he brushed them away with his thumbs.
"It is in my nature to fight," Hilde answered, doing her best to keep her tone neutral. There was the slightest quaver in her voice. If Gunther had not been paying close attention to his wife, he would have missed it. But now, he was keenly aware of how her breath caught before she spoke and the faint tremor of tension that ran through her. "This is not how it should be," Hilde said and again regretted the words as they left her mouth. Gunther saw the small expression of pain flicker over her face. Concern for her erased the pain that came from her words in his heart.
"How should it be then, my love?" he asked. Hilde opened her eyes. She looked up at him, her expression turning to miserable anguish. "What is it that thou hast wished for in the depths of thine heart, bride of mine?" he said as his tone turned both more formal and yearning.
"Go," she said in a small voice, "let me be." Hilde closed her eyes again and brought a hand up to cover her face. A small sob shook her. Gunther let his hands fall to his sides. Thinking he was about to walk away, Hilde turned and sank to her knees as her tears burned their way down her wind chilled cheeks. "I shouldn't be like this," she gasped, "I shouldn't feel this way. Ah, gods, why? He has weakened me." Her face covered with both hands, Hilde wept at Gunther's feet, too caught in the force of her conflicted grief to notice he was there.
"Brynhildr Jordsdottir is one of the strongest and most courageous knights I have ever known," Gunther answered, "The only one who can truly harm her, who can break her, is herself. Which I fear she is doing now."
"Go away!" she shrieked, her head whipping up and her face turning towards him, "Don't look at me like this." Gunther knelt beside Hilde. She closed her eyes and turned her face away from his look of loving compassion. Another sob struck her and Hilde hit the ground with all of her strength. Slowly, carefully, Gunther gathered her into his arms. Hilde, who had begun to weep again, let him. "I am undone," she said with a choking sob, "all by you." "All by you," she repeated weakly.
"Shall I leave then?" he asked. Hilde's reply was lost in her sobs but she threw her arms around him in a desperate effort to keep him by her side. "What is wrong?" he asked.
"I need you," she said in a tone thick with self loathing, "I need no man. But I need you. If you are gone, then I am nothing. What good am I? I am a weak, worthless woman. Ruled by my fickle heart rather than my head. I am tolerated, nothing more." Gunther smiled and held her close.
"Is that what the problem is?" he said, unable to help his amusement. Hilde moved to shove him away. "Be still," he commanded, amusement replaced with something sharper. Hilde hid her face behind her hands, shaking with tears that she hated. "It seems that Hilde's heart remains," Gunther said fondly, "As does her pride. But, perhaps that tender heart has always been there, guarded by your anger." Gunther laid his cheek against the top of Hilde's head. He sighed, relishing the feel of her in his arms and the way the scent of her shampoo mingled with the bitter notes of wormwood and rue that hung about her like perfume. "It is good that tender heart is there," Gunther said slowly, "It is the most charming thing about her."
"It makes me a liability," Hilde answered bitterly.
"No," he said, "It is your hidden strength. Others underestimate you on account of it and they are fools for doing so. Only your supple, gentle heart, kept our daughter alive and McManus's family. Only the anger evoked in that heart at the injustices of the world could reform countless lives through the Daly project, and the grief of his death." Gunther placed a kiss on her head before leaning back. His hands settled to either side of her face and turned her head until she was looking directly at him. "I shall woo you, Brynhildr," he said, "With all the fierce determination that has lead me to chase you through the ages. I shall show you that your heart is a thing of beauty, like a knife's edge in moonlight."
"We are married," Hilde replied flatly.
"I am wedded to Hilde, but Brynhildr's heart is not entirely mine," he answered in a tone of mild reproach, "I would have all of you, Green Maiden. And show you the strength you fail to see. I may be a monster, but I am civilized. I wear the mask of a man very, very well. So you have told me. I know that you are drawn to the monster within me. You watch me with hunger because of it. Only a woman of incredible strength can stand me. I have broken others. You, however, do not break. You thole your wounds but you do not break. You do not understand this. I shall show you through your bleeding wounds."
"I bear no wounds, Gunnar," Hilde responded warily.
Gunther smiled. "Oh, but you do, my love," he answered, "great ones pouring heart's blood. I shall drink that blood even as I help you bind them. You have loved me for my cruelty and hated me for my kindness. You do not realize, it is all cruelty. To deprive the masochist of the blow they ache for is greater torment than whipping." Gunther kissed Hilde slowly and gently, but with force that would have been irresistible to someone who didn't have the strength of Avalon in their veins. Hilde gave herself over to the kiss despite herself, unable to push aside the desire for comfort that came with his kiss.
When he broke the kiss, Gunther stood. He looked down at Hilde, kneeling in the snow, and he smiled wider. "You are such a pretty sight," he said. Hilde's expression morphed from something vulnerable to one of annoyance. Gunther laughed and Hilde's annoyance deepened. He held out his hand to her. "Come, hearth-warder mine," he said, "The night is cold and I offer you a warm place to lay your pretty head. We shall lay chaste as children, if you wish, but it is my right as your husband to lay with you. I know you have no desire to be foresworn." Anger flickered in Hilde's eyes as she looked up at him. "Ah," he said contentedly, "My joy is complete." Hilde rolled her eyes and started to her feet on her own. Gunther stooped slightly and abruptly swept Hilde off her feet. "And the bride groom shall carry his new wife over the threshold so that she might not stumble and bring ill luck upon their house," Gunther continued.
Hilde found herself on the verge of arguing with him but decided that it was more effort than what she wished to engage in. As Gunther carried her lightly down the lane back to the longhouse, the man who was to relieve Hilde at her watch stepped to the side as they passed by. They soon came to the doors and found them opening as they reached them. Gunther's demeanor was merry as he walked the length of the hall to their sleeping chamber. Hilde's expression of irritation was ignored by her husband when he paused to speak with the man who was their chamberlain. Gunther's hold on Hilde tightened impercetibly before the farmer's eyes, but Hilde was aware of the silent message. She set her head on Gunther's shoulder and sighed with exasperation.