Matilda smiled as she looked down at Alred's sleeping face.

Matilda smiled as she looked down at Alred’s sleeping face. She had just come from Dunstan’s bedside, and the boy had proudly explained to her that he wasn’t afraid to go to sleep any more since his father had shown him how he might use his heavy iron candlestick to slay any Spackbear that found its way into his room. It was just like Alred to solve an imaginary problem by taking it seriously.

He rolled over onto his side with a grunt as she climbed into bed, and she cuddled up next to him.

'That you, Matilda?'

“That you, Matilda?” he mumbled, half-​​waking.

“No, it’s a Spackbear!” she said wickedly and pinched him.

“Mmmhmm, you had better stay away from my boy if you value your life,” he said, limply slapping at the arm she had thrown over him before drifting back to sleep.

But a few hours later he was awake again, his body shaking with his effort to quiet the coughing that was trying to tear his chest wide open. He must not wake Matilda. He would just catch his breath enough to walk quietly out of the room, and once outside he would allow himself to cough.

No, his hands were completely wet – he would have to get up.

He tried to slide his legs out from under the blankets without using his hands.

He held his breath to stop the coughing and tried to slide his legs out from under the blankets without using his hands. He must not wake Matilda. 

Once he was sitting, he found the tunic he had dropped on the floor next to the bed and wiped his hands and mouth.

But then he went off in another fit of silent coughing that shook Matilda awake.

What is it, dear?

“What is it, dear? Are you ill?”

“No,” he choked. “Couldn’t sleep. Still not used to sleeping without that Sigefrith’s damned snoring. You go back to sleep, Matilda. Just going to take a stroll and make sure there aren’t any Spackbears around.” 

He stood and looked back at her.

He stood and looked back at her.

Damn! The pillow!

He smiled at her – tried to make it look a sleepy grin. 

Her eyelids fluttered. “Don’t catch cold,” she murmured.

“I won’t.” He watched her until her eyes were well shut, and then he moved for the pillow.

He moved for the pillow.

“What are you doing, Alred?” she mumbled, her eyes opening again.

“Nothing. Just thought I would take the pillow and nap somewhere else, so I don’t wake you again coming back to bed. Go back to sleep.”

'Now wait a moment.'

“Now wait a moment,” she said, sitting up. “I don’t like you sleeping somewhere else. Are you certain you’re not ill?”

“I’m fine, Matilda. Please, don’t let me wake you.”

She sat on the edge of the bed.

“I’m already awake.” She sat on the edge of the bed. “Were you coughing just now?”

“Only a little, nothing to worry about.”

“Won’t you light the candle, dear?”

Damn! If he could just flip the pillow over while she wasn’t looking… His hands fumbled as he tried to light the candle, and already Matilda was coming around the bed. As the flame sprang up, he turned and grabbed her.

He turned and grabbed her.

“Oh, Alred!” she gasped, laughing breathlessly, when he let go of her. “Remind me to stay in bed next time. You truly are awake.”

“I tried to warn you!” he said, following closely after her as she stumbled backwards, trying to steer her away from the bed.

'I tried to warn you!'

“I think I bit your lip,” she said. “I tasted blood.”

“Do that again,” he said, pushing her towards the wall, and kissed her.

'Do that again.'

“I cry quarter!” she begged, laughing, when she squirmed away from him at last. “Perhaps now you’ll come back to bed with me?”

She squirmed away from him at last.

“No, let’s not. Come with me! Let’s go hunting Spackbears.”

“I think I saw a Spackbear between the sheets,” she said, pulling at his arm.

“No Spackbears in there!” he said, pulling back. 

'No Spackbears in there!'

“Come, Matilda – I bet they’re all in the kitchen, where they can find something to eat. I’m as hungry as a Spackbear myself!”

Matilda’s giggling ceased abruptly as her eyes fell at last on the pillow.

“What’s that?” she asked, pushing past him.

'What's that?'

“It looks like blood!” she cried. “Alred, did you hurt yourself?”

“Hmm, maybe cut myself shaving,” he mumbled. “Never mind that, let’s go get something to eat.”

“Now, wait a moment,” she said, returning to him and studying his face. “It looks serious. Let me see what you did to yourself.”

She began inspecting his face and head.

Alred tried to distract her by kissing her, but she pulled away and began inspecting his face and head.

“I don’t see anything wrong with you.”

“Perhaps it’s old?” he tried.

'It's fresh.'

“It’s fresh.” Her eyes narrowed as she began to suspect, and filled with tears as she began to understand. “Alred!” she wailed, reaching blindly for him.

He pulled her close and held her head against his own. 

He pulled her close and held her head against his own.

“Hush, hush, Matilda,” he whispered. “It’s nothing. It happens sometimes – has been happening for months, but I’m always fine the next day, so you see? It’s nothing. Hush!”

“You always say it’s nothing,” she sobbed, “every time I learn it’s worse than I thought.”

“Hush, Matilda! You once told me you wouldn’t believe I was sick until I was dead. So did you lie to me then?”

“How could I have been so cruel?” she cried.

“Hush,” he whispered. “It was a joke. I shall not die, silly woman. Do you think I could last one day in paradise without you? Now, stop your sniffling and come back to bed with me. I shall take your pillow, and you may simply lay your head on my heart.”

You may simply lay your head on my heart.