My husband is a con man who is always working a scheme. Hal buys and sells bits and pieces, usually at a loss. We have a house full of junk and a storage shed stuffed to the rafters with more. He was sweet and charming when we first met. He used to make me laugh. Then we married, and it all went downhill from there.
He travels a lot, trading and bartering all over the land. I barely see him, which is a blessing, for whenever he is home, I wish he wasn’t here.
I know my thoughts are wicked, and I imagine that the Goddess surely looks down with a frown. But when I wedded him for better or worse, I didn’t know it would always be worse. I live on scraps, mostly. Today, I’ve called on our meager stores and a few root vegetables from the garden to prepare a stew, which might last us a few days if I keep the portions small. With the help of herbs and spices, I have added a little flavor. I sew, and I weave, and that brings in a small amount of coin or supplies. This week I’ve gotten half a dozen duck eggs, a sack of oatmeal, and enough coin to buy flour to make the bread that will supplement tonight’s meal. Hopefully, Hal has something from his latest travels that our local lord might want. He returned yesterday morning from parts unknown with a laden cart, and then went off to peddle his wares, promising that we would be eating the best beef for supper.
If anything is bought, it will be out of a sense of charity. The lord’s men have taken to warding Hal off afore he even gets near, so I don’t hold my breath. If Hal sells naught, he will be in a bad mood and waste whatever coin he has supping beer at the local tavern all night.
Maybe he will leave again tomorrow.
If he leaves, I can stretch the stew for a couple more days.
When he enters the cottage, however, I already know it has not gone well for Hal or me. He is drunk, and bemoaning our lord as a bastard. Our lord is a fair man who takes no nonsense. He also stepped in last year when Bessy lost her husband to the pox, taking both her sons as apprentices to work his land and gifting the widow enough supplies so she could get through the winter.
As Hal takes a seat at the table, I feel shame for my situation and that we have come to this. His cheeks are ruddy from the drink, and his speech is slurred as he orders, “Get me some dinner, wife!”
I get him a bowl of the stew and put the fresh bread on the board before him.
He scoops a spoonful of stew up, only to spit it back out. “What is this filth?” He tosses the bowl to the floor and rises from the seat. “Where is the beef I bought?”
I stare at the rolling bowl for long moments before I can find words. “Husband, you brought no beef.”
He seems confused, staring around the room before he storms out of the house. “Going to make some fucking money,” he calls. “One of us has to.”
Then he is gone, and the door slams behind him.
“Money? What money? When have you done anything but leach what little I can scrape from our vegetable patch and the two scrawny chickens?” No one answers, for there is no one here but me.
I heave a breath, eyes lowering to the mess he has made on the floor.
I want to cry.
I want to cry that he’s wasted food.
I want to cry that I picked him.
I want to cry that I have been a fool.
Instead, I swallow my tears. I pick up the bowl and clean up the mess. That is one less meal that either of us might have. Hal will go back on the road. Perhaps, even now, late in the afternoon, he readies his cart to depart.
I pray that he does. Worse, I know that, when I take to my cold bed tonight, I will pray that he may never come back.
My problem is that he always does. Sometimes he is drunk, like tonight, and sometimes he has a cart full of junk that he claims he will sell for a profit but never manages to. I dash a few errant tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand and tell myself not to linger in self-pity.
I will get through this, somehow. Maybe I can talk to Hal once he sobers up. Maybe if I make him a cup of his favorite tea, with the last of the honey, I can sit him down and explain to him how desperate our situation is and that there are some alternatives. He could get work, laboring for the local farmer. It is heavy work, but it at least will earn a few coins each week. Or he could try his hand with the miller who has been looking for an assistant. And our lord, whose estate is only a few miles from our home, is seeking a woodsman. I heard his wife say they were putting requests out to the neighboring village as they couldn’t find someone local. None of these are glamorous jobs, but they will all put food on the table. I would love an honest, hardworking husband who did a day’s work and came home to me. Maybe, were he home more, I might get with child. Maybe, then, we might have the family that I have long craved.
Once, I’d had girlish dreams of a pretty cottage with a white picket fence, flowers blooming against the front porch, and brats running around up to mischief. I’d wanted a brood of them, half a dozen at least. My mother had always laughed, saying I should have one or two and then see how I felt.
I close my eyes and tell myself to stop these foolish dreams. Such thoughts only ever bring me sadness now, for I know that if there were to be babes, that would simply mean more mouths to feed. And what life would this be for any child?
My eyes snap open again when I hear a ruckus that seems to be coming from the laneway outside my old cottage. I shake my head when I recognize the sound of Hal’s voice, because it simply makes clear to me that the loving family I long for, with brats running amok and evening meals with a husband who is a partner, will never be for me. My husband will never change his wandering ways or give up his flawed schemes for getting rich.
The roaring is getting louder, and now I hear other raised voices besides that of my husband.
I sigh. There is no hope for it. I must see what this is about. Wiping my hands off on my apron, I open the door and step outside.
My fingers go to my throat in horror.
Two huge men have my husband cornered beside his storage shed. One of them has him by the throat, pinned up against the door.
“The fuck did you sell us?!”
My breath catches in my throat. They are huge, burly males wearing naught but hide pants. I cannot see their faces, for they are turned away from me, but I see enough to know that they are furious… and rightfully so, I’ve no doubt.
Barbarians. My husband has wronged two barbarians.
Goddess help us both!
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hal wheezes. “The man I bought that potion from swore it was the best thing. Cure any animal of any ailment. That’s what he said to me.”
I glance heavenward, beseeching the Goddess to save his wretched soul even as I question whether I actually want her to intervene. Mayhap these two alphas will beat some sense into Hal, and he will finally change his ways.
“We gave you ten chickens. We want them back!” the second barbarian demands. His hair is sun-streaked and lighter than that of the other. He’s not quite as brawny as the one who has my husband by the throat. However, he is every bit as tall and no less intimidating.
“Well, I don’t have the ten chickens anymore,” my husband says.
No, of course he doesn’t. If he did, we might have had chicken in our stew!
“No matter if you sold them,” the one holding him snarls. “We’ll take the coin instead.”
“I don’t have the coin anymore,” Hal stammers, gasping for breath. His feet dangle from the ground. I feel a terrible and highly inappropriate urge to laugh. “I bought... I bought something better with them!”
“What?” the blond one says. “What the fuck did you buy with them, thief?”
This is going downhill swiftly. Should I go and get help to break it up? Except, on reflection, I don’t think there would be many willing to help. I’m fairly certain he owes coin to the tavern keeper… and he has definitely pissed off more than half the men of the village at one time or another.
“Let go of me, and I’ll show you,” Hal says, full of belligerent self-belief.
I groan. I cannot imagine what manner of junk my husband has bought with ten chickens, but it will assuredly be worthless.
The barbarian drops him. My husband rubs his throat. He is purple-faced, and his clothing and hair are askew. Everything about him is comically flustered, and I clamp my hand over my mouth lest I laugh.
Hal’s eyes shoot toward me. The look he gives me is nasty and speaks of retribution yet to come.
“Yes, husband,” I say, my amusement now displaced by righteous anger, and, as a result, I am even uncaring about the two burly barbarians. I will take the broom to Hal myself for bringing this trouble to our door. “What did you buy with the ten chickens?”
At the sound of my voice, the two alphas turn.
They are huge, powerful males, possessing a sinful kind of masculinity that makes my stomach perform a slow dip. My eyes feast, trailing slowly up from the serviceable dusty boots, the hide pants that cling lovingly to muscular thighs, to their wide, powerful chests, and broad, meaty shoulders that my fingers itch to roam. The darker one on the right is broader than his fellow, and his chest is covered in a thick mat of hair. His blond companion has only a fine smattering of golden hair on his chest, and his leaner musculature boasts impressive definition. The man on the right stares back at me, with raised brows, as I complete my catalogue of their assets, while the blond bestows a lazy smirk on me that makes my toes curl.
I rouse myself with a jolt, blushing. I’m a married woman, despite the fact that my husband is a foolish, wayward man. I should not be ogling the barbarians, even if they are prime alpha flesh.
I lower my lashes, even as I’m struck by a sudden thought. When was the last time I felt like this?
Hearing a grunt, I look up again to see the darker one boot my husband up the ass.
“Go and get it, then,” he growls. “It better be fucking good.”
“We made a fair trade,” my husband blusters. The alpha kicks him up the ass again.
“My horse is fucking dead. You took ten chickens. We expect recompense.”
Now I feel a little faint. Horses are very expensive. If the horse is dead by some mischief of my husband’s, we shall spend our lives in debt.
Hal scurries off to hunt through his shed, sending me another glare as he goes. I can tell that I’m going to be sorry later when these barbarians are done with him, yet I cannot find the will to care. I’ve had enough. I resolve that I will beseech the lord that I might find a job as a servant in his home. Or I will work for the miller myself and sleep in his damn barn. Either way, this is over. Hal will get himself killed, or me with him. I thank the heavens that I’m not with child lest I should bring an innocent into this sorry mess. In my heart, I know I can no longer pretend that anything will change.
Only, before I can begin again, I must get through this night, and I fear what the alphas will do. I know that it is unlikely they will be satisfied, for they could take every item in his storage shed and still be lucky to get even a single chicken in exchange. It is all junk: worthless things that may once have been fancy but are now broken or so old and pointless that no one would care either way. Hal suffers from the delusion that he is clever, and lives forever on the cusp of an elusive richness that never manifests. When we first met, his father kept his wanderlust in check. No sooner was the old man in the ground than Hal had commandeered his cart and donkey in order to go traveling in search of riches.
I wring my hands.
Maybe there will be something of worth in the back, among all the rubbish?
Hal returns with a triumphant grin… and a violin.
“The fuck is that?” the darker barbarian demands, with a scowl.
“It’s a violin,” my husband says unnecessarily, for I’m sure it was a rhetorical question from the man who is seeking something that might be traded for ten chickens. “This is quality, used by one the bard masters in the city.” He plucks a couple of the strings. One of them snaps. “It needs a bit of work, that’s all. Worth ten horses, never mind ten chickens!”
The blond barbarian emits a deep guffaw that has a disbelieving edge. “Hey, Drew. What do you reckon? Think we can trade this for ten horses at the next market?” He nudges the darker one.
“No, Liam,” the darker barbarian says. “I don’t reckon we could get a bowl of stew with that piece of shit.” He fists my husband by the collar and cuffs him up the side of the head. My husband is dropped to the floor, from where the barbarian gets him moving with another boot to his butt. “I told you—I want something that’s worth ten fucking chickens.”
When my husband only bewails his lot, the blond one, Liam, picks him up and tosses him back into the shed. “Find something better, or don’t come back fucking out.”
Hal scurries off again, full of surly indignation that is sure to get him beaten bloody, not just a clip up the head, if he keeps it going.
No one is laughing anymore, and I feel the tension rise with every passing moment. I take a cautious step back, feeling strongly that I should remove myself from the situation. This is not going to end well. We are apart from the village by a small distance, and I feel our isolation keenly. I concede that these barbarians do not seem like monsters. Lesser men would have already put a beating on Hal and ransacked our home for tradeable goods. But, still, there is danger here.
“Don’t reckon there’s anything better in there,” Liam says, “Look at all this fucking junk.”
“Aye,” Drew says, nodding in agreement. Then he stills, and glances back over his shoulder at me. I freeze, already poised to bolt for the village. “Got himself a pretty little lass, though. Happen she’s worth more than ten chickens.”
As he says this, my husband appears in the doorway, holding a tailor’s dummy. “You can have her if you want,” he says, sending me a nasty look.
Both barbarians turn and look at me. This is no longer a passing glance but an outright, up and down assessment. Drew rubs his jaw as though in deep thought.
“Husband, what are you doing?” I stammer, taking an unsteady step back.
“You don’t look so smug now, wife. I told you—uff!”
Drew cuffs him, only it is a little more forceful than the last time, and my husband is sent sprawling back against the shed door. “What kind of a sick fuck are you? To talk of selling off your woman to cover your debts?”
“Is there something wrong with her?” Liam asks Hal, as though considering this proposal seriously. “Does she have the pox hiding under her skirts?”
“I do not have the pox,” I say, outraged that they are discussing me thus.
“Quiet, woman,” Liam says. “We are talking with your husband. We’ll let you know if we need your opinion.”
The nerve of the man!
Now the blond barbarian is smirking and nods approvingly at me. “She’s still got a bit of fire in her. Looks fit to bust my balls.”
“Aye,” Drew agrees, chuckling. “Pretty too.”
I shake my head slowly, wide-eyed. No, Hal cannot be considering giving me to these men. Surely, he is merely taunting me because I dared to look amused.
“She keeps a good home. Only moans a bit,” my husband says, building up a sales pitch, which he is well practiced at. “Couple of strapping alphas like yourselves should have no problem keeping her in her place.
“Oh, I’m sure we could,” Drew says. “What say you, Liam?”
Liam shrugs. “She is comely. I do not like the fucking dress, though. I have never seen such a cheerless sack.”
My eyebrows rise at the insult.
Drew smirks. “Me neither, Liam. And she got all feisty when you asked about the pox, so I’m inclined to believe she does not have it.” He turns to my husband. “Does she have any other diseases lurking up her skirts?”
“Megan has nothing interesting lurking up her skirts,” my husband says bitterly. Then remembers himself, and the fact that he is trying to sell me off, and stammers on, “All the womanly bits are in order.”
“Good,” Drew says decisively. “Then we’ll think on the matter.”
Taking my husband by the throat, he tosses him in the direction of the lane. “Go on. Fuck off. Come back in the morning, and we’ll let you know.” My husband scrambles to his feet and takes off running toward the village.
The blood drains from my face.
I take an unsteady step back.
What has Hal just done?
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