Hunith rarely, if ever, made impractical decisions. The eldest of four children in a poor peasant family, her parents raised her to be hardworking, practical, and shrewd. She remembered their lessons well. She kept a constant correspondence with her siblings. Her sister Mairwen still lived in their home village in Camelot, and her brother worked as a physician in the king’s own household. Her youngest sister Sefa died in childbirth at only age twenty.
Her first practical decision was to marry William, a farmer out in Ealdor. He often came to her village to trade with farmers there. Ealdor was perhaps twenty miles away from the Essetir-Camelot border. While she was reluctant to leave her family and country behind, William—or Liam, as she called him—was kind and could offer her a safe future. So when he asked for her hand in marriage at age twenty-one, she agreed. It was practical, after all. Her parents were overjoyed; their daughter had found a decent match, and they had one less mouth to feed.
After getting married in her home village, she made the fifty-mile journey with Liam to Ealdor. It was the same as home—surrounded by forest, derelict hovels, and fields. Liam’s father, also named William, had a bit of land he farmed. Liam did most of the farming, as his father suffered from terrible arthritis. Hunith, Liam, and William settled into a fine routine. Hunith cooked breakfast, and she and Liam worked in the fields all day. William brought them lunch and did whatever chores he could manage. At night, Liam tended to the livestock, cut firewood, and fished. Hunith cooked dinner, weaved, and did the cleaning.
After seven months, Hunith told Liam she was about four months with child. He was overjoyed, and they prayed for a son to help them in the fields. Hunith secretly wanted a daughter, but decided she could wait. A son was more practical, after all.
Her birth was long and hard, but she bore a son. The midwife and several neighbors helped her through it. The midwife had a bit of magic, and she cast a spell to relieve Hunith’s pain. Just a year later, King Uther of Camelot would outlaw magic in his kingdom and the midwife would run away into the night. Anyway, when the women allowed Liam into the bedchamber, he held his son in his arms and his eyes glistened with tears. The babe was an ugly, squalling creature covered in womb-water and other grime, but he had an endearing quality about him. Hunith fell in love on sight.
They named him William, after his father. He came to be called Will. Hunith did not want for every other person in the household to have all the same name, but she kept her mouth shut. All firstborn sons in Liam’s family had that name, so it was only practical. The babe grew to be strong, with brown hair and hazel eyes like his father. Hunith wanted the next child to have blue eyes, like her.
Grandda William died unexpectedly ten months after the birth of little Will. Liam and Hunith were devastated. Hunith had grown to love William as much as she did her own father. They spent a good deal of their savings to buy him a nice headstone in the village graveyard. That was a little impractical, but they felt they owed it to the man they both had loved so much.
Just before Will turned one, soldiers came through the village. They were looking for men to fight in a war against the Saxons. They took a dozen men, including Liam. Hunith begged and begged for the soldiers not to take him—she was unable to tend the fields by herself, and she feared her husband would never come back.
The soldiers laughed at her. “Your son can help in the fields,” the commanding officer said, pointing at the baby in Hunith’s arms.
They at least let the men have one last night with their families before they left. As soon as they walked into their shack, Liam gave her a long, passionate kiss before he cupped his hand against her face. “If I don’t come back—“
“Liam, don’t say that!” Hunith cried. “You will come back. You must.”
“Listen to me, my love. Gilanders has seven sons. I have spoken to him; the second and third eldest will help you in the fields. You will house and feed them. They are fine young men—you know this. If I don’t come back, you must remarry, for your sake and our son’s. Do you promise?”
Tears streaming down her face, Hunith nodded. “I promise, Liam. I love you.”
He tried to smile, and failed. “I love you, too, darling. Make your husband happy before he goes off to war, now.”
So they put Will in his cradle and shared one last night together as husband and wife. That seemed practical—they might never see each other again.
Liam’s fears came true. Matthew, another man pressed into the army alongside Liam, came back bearing a battered sword and chain mail. Solemn and missing two fingers on his left hand, he offered the sword to a heavily-pregnant Hunith. “He went down fighting,” he said. “It—it was a good death.”
She sobbed in the middle of the town green. Gilanders’s wife Lani stayed with her for a week. Hunith did not know what to do. She could not run a farm by herself until Will came of age, and employing farmhands was not a long-term solution. She remembered her promise to Liam, and cried all the harder.
Lani first suggested that Hunith sell the farm and return to her home village and her parents. “Surely you can find help there,” she said.
“My family can barely feed themselves, much less support me and two children,” Hunith hiccupped, red-eyed and exhausted.
“You could rent out the land to my son Young Gil and his wife, until Will is old enough to inherit the land. You could come and work for us, as a field hand.”
Hunith felt that was the most practical option, and agreed. She worked in the fields alongside Lani, Gilanders, and their fourteen children. One of their daughters minded her little siblings and Will during the day. It was a sound arrangement. The midwife-witch had already left, so the experienced Lani and her eldest daughter Arwen coached her through the birth. Selfishly, Hunith prayed for a daughter with blue eyes. Out of her womb came a son with green eyes like his paternal grandfather. Sons were more practical, she reminded herself.
She named her son Gilanders, after the man who had showed her so much kindness. Gilanders was honored. Will, nearly three, was fascinated by his little brother. He called him Gilli, and the nickname stuck. Gilli was adored and spoiled by Gilanders’ family and his own.
She received word from her village that her sister Sefa had passed away, which devastated her. She could not attend the funeral, as harvest season was in full swing and every able-bodied person was needed to bring the crop in. She mourned on her own, in private. Just a week later, she got a letter from her brother Gaius:
I am sure Ma and Da have sent word of poor Sefa’s death. She lost her child, too. How is it that the baby of the family was the first to leave us? Poor Norm is devastated. I was so sorry to hear about your husband William’s passing; he was a fine fellow, husband, and father. Death seems omnipresent, these days. I hope William the Younger is doing well. In Camelot, Uther slaughters magic users like animals. He burns them at the stake; I cannot escape the scent of burnt flesh. I have a friend called Balinor who needs a safe place to stay. I believe Ealdor is remote enough that Uther cannot find him, so I am sending him your way. He can work as a field hand, for free if necessary. So sorry if this is inconvenient.
Your loving brother,
Hunith was enraged by her brother’s tactless letter. He mentioned Liam’s death only in passing, and did not even know she had borne a second child. She could barely provide for herself and her children. How did Gaius expect for her to take in a man she did not even know? Life in the city had clearly made him forget what village life was like. She wrote him back:
My dearest brother Gaius,
Mairwen sent a letter explaining the details of Sefa’s passing. I am still mourning our darling sister’s death, and that of my husband. I now work as a field hand for generous friends who have become like family. Their eldest son and his wife will rent my farm until my sons come of age. That is right, my sons. Before
Liam my husband William left for war, I was pregnant. I now have two sons—William the Younger and Gilanders. You assume much by sending this Balinor to me for charity and help. However, the situation in Camelot sounds terrifying, so I will arrange for him to work as a field hand for my tenants. I can only pra he knows his way around a farm.
Your loving sister,
Balinor arrived two weeks after she sent her reply. He was a hulking man, with a strong nose and long black hair. When Lani discovered he had nits, she cut it very short with a pair of sheep shears. He looked almost handsome after that. He stayed with Young Gil and his wife, at Hunith’s farm. He did his work efficiently and kept to himself for the most part. Sometimes he came to Gilanders’ for dinner. Dinner was always chaotic, as they had so many mouths to feed. They barely noticed Balinor’s presence sometimes. He was quiet and his eyes were haunted.
Eventually, he opened up a bit. He knew a few magic tricks, he said, which had made him a target of King Uther’s witch-hunt. He refused to perform any magic, no matter how much little Will begged him. The child became extremely fond of the man, sometimes sneaking over to his mother’s farm to follow him around in the fields. Hunith eventually agreed to let Will accompany Balinor to work for a few hours a day. At three, he was old enough to scare birds away from the fields.
Soon Balinor came to dinner every night. Will hung onto his every word, but Hunith kept her distance. She knew her son needed a father figure, but she would have preferred Gilanders taking Liam’s place in Will’s life. One morning, Balinor and Hunith both happened to get water from the well at the same time. Hunith had Gilli strapped to her chest with a sling. The infant slept soundly.
“Gilanders is a lovely child,” Balinor commented as he filled his buckets. Despite Hunith’s protests, he filled hers up as well. “Reminds me a bit of Gaius.”
“He’s much cuter than Gaius was as a baby,” Hunith said.
Balinor laughed, and Hunith realized with a jolt it was the first time she had heard him do so. “So, Balinor, how do you know my brother? You never said.”
“I saved his life one day, when he was traveling at night through the city. A group of four or five jumped him, since they thought he was a rich doctor type. I drove them off. We’ve been friends ever since.”
“You drove off five men?” Hunith’s eyes widened. “Did you use your magic?”
Balinor immediately tensed. “I may have used…alternative means. Do not mention that word, Hunith; talk like that can get you killed.”
“This is Essetir, not Camelot.”
“Cenred does not care if Uther’s men stray into his lands and kill a few sorcerers. He’s ruthless, and he doesn’t care if Essetirian peasants live or die. You would know. He sent your husband to be slaughtered like cattle, didn’t he?”
Hunith felt a surge of fury at his mention of Liam. “Don’t mention him, or act like you understand what he went through. You have no right to, not with the son he never got to meet in my arms.”
Taken aback, Balinor held up his hands. “I apologize if I caused any offense. You’ve been very generous to me.”
“Just don’t talk about Liam. That’s all I ask.”
Balinor bowed, as if she were a lady. “I will not discuss him. I have much I would rather not talk about myself.”
Their early morning well meetings continued almost daily after that, and he started coming to dinner every night. Balinor was a fantastic story teller, and very educated. He did not speak like a peasant or act like one, but he had callused hands and worked hard. Hunith suspected he had served as a servant in the king’s or another noble’s household. They were often better educated.
Balinor and Hunith started spending more and more time together. He learned how run a farm efficiently from Young Gil. Hunith suspeted he used magic to help the crops grow, as Ealdor had one of its more bountiful harvests ever that year.
After Balinor had been in Ealdor for a little over a year and a half, Lani started hinting to Hunith that it might be time to consider marriage. She and Balinor were very close, and her children adored him. They spent almost all their evenings together, and Balinor had started to reveal more bits of his past to her. The stories he told her broke her heart.
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” Hunith admitted to Lani one day, as she nursed Gilli.
“You promised Liam you would remarry. I know you did,” the much older woman reminded her.
“It’s been just over two years! I’m not ready, and I don’t need a husband. I get by just fine, and have two sons to support me when I grow old.”
“I know you’ve always wanted a daughter, Hunith. You watch my seven girls with such longing in your eyes. You have the same look in your eyes when you are with Balinor.”
“Lani, you’ve been so good to me. Why?”
“Your husband was a dear friend of ours growing up, and you became a dear friend as well. If I had been widowed young, I would have wanted someone to help me and my children out. So, will you marry him?”
“If he asks, I will say yes.”
It was probably no coincidence that Balinor asked for her hand in marriage on a walk through the woods a week later. It was very romantic, and she cried and said yes. It reminded her of when Liam proposed to her. Balinor had no money for a ring, but he presented her with a beautifully carved wooden dragon.
They got married after a five-month betrothal, as was the Essetirian custom. Young Gil, his wife, and two daughters moved back in to Gilanders’ home to help them tend the fields. Hunith and Balinor took control of the farm again. Young Gil had kept it in excellent condition. With the wooden dragon placed on their mantle and Liam’s armor and sword on display, the little one-room hut felt like a home again. On the night they got married, Will and Gilli stayed at Gilanders’.
About six months into their marriage, Hunith conceived. She was extremely excited, and Balinor looked troubled for a moment before grinning widely. Will and Gilli were excited to have a new sibling. “I want a bruver, Ma!” Will exclaimed when he heard the news.
“You could have a sister, too, Will,” Balinor said. “Wouldn’t you like that?”
“I want a bruver more,” Will decided after a long time. “I want another Gilli to play with.”