Hetty had loved few enough people in her cloistered life to have had little experience with losing them.

Hetty had loved few enough people in her cloistered life to have had little experience with losing them. Her mother had died when she was quite small, she had scarcely known her father, and she had mourned her first husband out of duty only. It seemed hard that she should be called to learn the language of lifelong grief over the body of her best-​​beloved.

It was not as people said; she did not wake into a few happy moments of forgetfulness, when Lili would briefly live again. She remembered. She knew. Waking to Lili’s absence was like waking to sunlight blazing through an open curtain: she already sensed the glare through her closed eyelids. The sunlight even seared into her dreams.

The night was still dark when she opened her eyes.

The night was still dark when she opened her eyes, but there was firelight enough to see that her maid was not there. Gentle Hetty would never complain, but she was wounded to the heart by such treachery on this night of great need.

When she sat up, however, she spied a dark head on the other side of the screen, and she understood that Alred had returned and sent Hattie away.

She spied a dark head on the other side of the screen.

Such cool relief spilled over her that it was almost a respite from her burning pain. Faithful Hattie was no traitor, and Alred was home. She had soldiered on until long after midnight had sounded, refusing all but the barest physical attentions of hot wine and a warm robe, but now she could lay her burden of grief in the lap of another and find some peace in her loving husband’s arms.

She peeped, “Alred?” for the sheer delight of hearing him reply.

He did not turn his head, but he said gravely, “I am here, my beauty.”

She rose and padded out into the warm front of the room, at last letting her back slouch and her belly protrude as she had not dared all evening, for fear of frightening her family with this reminder that she would soon be risking the same peril that had taken Lili’s life.

She rose and padded out into the warm front of the room.

“You are home,” she said, quite unnecessarily, for the delight of hearing him reply.

He did not.

He slumped on the couch in an abandon of limbs, his legs sprawling out before him, his bare feet splayed at an unsettling, lifeless angle, like the legs of a corpse being dragged away. Whether out of pride or a desire to make the most of his meager height, Alred rarely sat so low.

Hetty sat carefully beside him, her back straight, for she knew from experience that slouching while sitting so crowded her baby that she often kicked in protest.

'How is...'

“How is…” she began timidly.

Alred turned his head, though not as far as her face. “The baby is well,” he said thoughtfully after a moment. “He is the only one who doesn’t understand what has happened.”

Tonight his voice was as deep as Leofric’s, but his was gravelly where Leofric’s was resonant. She knew then that he had been crying – not a few tears stealing out here and there, but long sobbing. She had never seen him so, but there had been times when he had gone away from her and returned hours later with such a voice.

Tonight his voice was as deep as Leofric's.

She knew also by the way he slurred his words that he had been drinking, and not a few sips of wine stolen here and there.

Perhaps she would not get the comfort she craved after all. She shouldered her burden again, nodded at his nearly-​​naked body, and asked, “Why did you not come to bed?”

Then he looked up at her. “I did not want to wake you, my dear.”

It was the sign her tears had been awaiting. She had been wanting his gentleness, his concern, his protection.

'I did not want to wake you, my dear.'

He reached up and wiped the first tears away. Even drunk, he was an expert at the maneuver, for they had often practiced it together: his fingertips on her temple, his thumb brushing wetly across her cheek.

All of the things she had ever cried over seemed hopelessly vain now. She wished there were something more than tears. It seemed a shame that she had wasted that grand gesture on trivialities.

“I wanted to let you sleep as long as you could,” he murmured. “If you can sleep, you are very fortunate.”

Hetty was pricked by an odd desire to defend herself, as if her sleep had proven her grief shallow. “I was… so tired…” she mumbled.

He patted her cheek with a clumsy hand. “I am certain you were.”

'I am certain you were.'

His voice was gentle, but his eyes appeared unable to decide on which of the two or three wavering images of her face they should focus.

“I think it a mercy if you can sleep,” he slurred. “God knows I never could.”

Again she felt the urge to defend herself, but she bit it back as unworthy.

Again she felt the urge to defend herself.

“Should sleep ‘slong as you can… get to the other side of it. But I wonder…” His eyes gave up focusing on anything. “Does it help?” he asked an invisible third party. “If one sleeps for three months, does one wake with the worst behind one? Or does’t start up where it left off? I wonder…”

He looked so suddenly, so piercingly at Hetty that she felt obliged to answer.

“I don’t know…” she whimpered.

“I think not,” he declared. “The only way out of it is never to wake. So say I.”

'So say I.'

He let his head fall back against the wooden frame of the couch. He winced at the impact to his skull, but he did not bother lifting his head again.

Hetty looked down and tried to occupy herself in smoothing her nightgown over her lap and belly. She and Lili had made such plans for their babies when Hetty had learned she was expecting one of her own… How Lili would have a boy and Hetty a girl… How they would dress them in matching dresses and make them matching dolls with cat faces… How their children would be the best of friends, and how Lili’s boy would defend Hetty’s girl from all perils, and how she would weave for him crowns of daisies which he would pretend to hate, and how they would always harbor a sweet, secret love for one another even if they might never marry…

Of course, they might still do all of those things, but Hetty would make the dresses and the cat-​​faced dolls alone. Hetty would laugh and sigh over their babies alone. Hetty would be alone.

She looked up at Alred, but he was still staring at nothing. He must have noticed the movement of her head, however.

He was still staring at nothing.

“I know precisely how he feels,” he muttered. He was thinking not of Lili but of Egelric. “I know precisely how he feels, and one would think it’d mean I could help him better than anyone, but I can’t do–anything,” he said bitterly. “I’m worthless over there.”

“I am certain you are not,” Hetty quavered.

Alred all but ignored her. “And to think!” he groaned. “If he knew! He would kill me! And God knows I feel wretched enough I wouldn’t defend myself, either.”

'I am certain you are not.'

Hetty was horrified. Her husband was so drunk he was not even making sense. “He would not…” she breathed.

“I never wanted her dead!” he pleaded with the invisible third party. He rolled his head back and laughed strangely. “How she terrified me! How careful I was not to make her angry at me! She was worse than a conscience! I always feared she would tell you about that poem. And look! Now! I don’t even care!” He laughed again. “Come back, Lili! And tell her a thousand times!”

Hetty was not familiar enough with loss.

Hetty was not familiar enough with loss to know what “going mad from grief” truly meant. She had supposed it involved much shrieking and rending of garments. She had not thought of raving. She was grateful Alred had drunk enough wine to reek of it; if it did not prove he was not mad, it at least provided a second explanation for his behavior for a few hours.

“Alred, dear,” she said soothingly, “perhaps we should go to bed together now and try to sleep.”

'Perhaps we should go to bed together now and try to sleep.'

He patted her cheek again. “Poor Hetty,” he cooed. “Poor little Hetty. It was an honest mistake you made. And you were right in the end. It was Lili who was wrong – she lost it – mislaid it – because she thought so little of it.”

His eyes narrowed as he finally seemed to notice her incomprehension. For a moment his voice was his own again, gentle and soft.

“That poem I wrote – that first poem, I mean. I wrote it for Lili, on her birthday. Like every other male who ever met her, I believed myself madly in love with her for a while.” He sat back and smiled as if at a fond memory. “Married to my man, and I still couldn’t stop thinking of her. Mayhap it was my punishment for not forgiving Leofric.”

'Mayhap it was my punishment for not forgiving Leofric.'

Hetty shook her head, hoping he would be silent and let her think. It had been on Lili’s birthday that she had found her dear poem…

She bit her lips together to keep from crying out. She had been surprised then that any man could write such a poem for her – she should have known none had!

“And every time you went to visit her, I was always praying: dear Lord, don’t let this be the time she tells her the truth. It made me sick to leave you half an hour alone with her. And now! She wanted me to tell you at once, and a coward I was. A coward…”

'A coward...'

Hetty’s baby kicked and jerked inside of her, as if to distract her, and her hands came up automatically to fold themselves over her belly. Still, for the first time, after weeks of reveling in the baby’s every twitch, she scarcely noticed her. If anything, Hetty was surprised that the baby had not spontaneously vanished at this news, like another illusion, like a dream dispersed by the light of the sun.

“I should have listened to her,” Alred said wistfully. “I was afraid she would tell you, and make you feel that no man ever could write such a poem for you. I thought she would be jealous. But I wronged her. Forgive me, O luminary Lili,” he said, praying to the ceiling. “You never did tell her. You never would’ve told her. You loved her too much.”

'Forgive me, O luminary Lili.'

At last his eyes seemed to focus so firmly on something that Hetty herself lifted her eyes to look. There was no Lili in the air. There was nothing.

“And so I have not loved you enough, my beauty,” Alred said with a wretched gentleness. “It is I who tell you, in the end. And perhaps it is the worst possible time. I was a coward then, and a fool now.”

He patted her hand, but his own was clumsy and heavy as Alred’s hand rarely was, and it was no comfort.

He patted her hand.

“Forgive me, gentle Hedwige,” he said, almost too grandly to be believed, as if he were reading a story to Gwynn. “Forgive me if at times I have failed to see my little moon in her sister’s light. And now that it is dark…”

He withdrew his hand and slumped back against the cushion. His brow wrinkled into a look of intense concentration for a moment, and his eyes almost succeeded in focusing on the fire.

Then he closed them and sighed. “Forgive me. There is nothing more terrifying to mortal men than an eclipse of the sun.”

'There is nothing more terrifying to mortal men than an eclipse of the sun.'

For the first time, gentle Hedwige regretted marrying a man who believed that life was poetry – for the first time, perhaps, because with that first poem he had made her believe it too.

Now she would have been grateful merely for the physical attention of a warm hug.

“Let us go to bed, Alred,” she pleaded.

'Let us go to bed, Alred.'

Once they lay close together in the bed, she thought, no matter how distant his thoughts, no matter how remote his heart, she could always creep into his arms. Gentle Hetty dared ask no more. Perhaps she would never have more. Perhaps she had never had as much.

“You may go, my beauty,” he said dully. “Sleep, if you can. You are fortunate, if you can.”

'Sleep, if you can.'