Ethelwyn was careful to take the stairs slowly.

The night was so cold that its darkness shone: the stars were winter-​​bright, and the frost over the windlaid grass made the hillslopes seem the glossy flanks of a dark beast.

Ethelwyn had hurried home, almost jogging at the end, but he was careful to take the stairs slowly. He was cold, solitary, and thoughtful by nature, and just as a man had to lower himself by stages into cold water, Ethelwyn needed the gradual rise through the chill and the shadows of the empty hallway before he could face the warmth and light of his bedroom, and the love of his family.

He was cold, solitary, and thoughtful by nature.

But there was a window at the top of his stairs, and as he climbed high enough to see to the horizon, he came upon the same moon that had hung over his house all the way down. It was nothing so unlucky as a full moon – it was only a narrow slip of light, sharp as a claw and bright as a blade – but he was annoyed to find himself face-​​to-​​face with the night again when he had nearly reached his room.

There was a window at the top of the stairs.

He was careful to watch his feet the rest of the way.

There was no window opposite his bedroom door, fortunately, but a mirror. Mouse liked to joke that he had put it there so that he would be “the first person he saw” when he came home, and she was not entirely wrong.

There was no window opposite his bedroom door, but a mirror.

There was always his concern over his curls, but it was not his vanity that made him stop and stare – not usually, and certainly not tonight. He did not know what a mirror might have meant to him years ago, but as a man without memory – as a cold, solitary, and thoughtful man – he sometimes still required this proof that he existed outside of his mind.

Here was his body, in its context, in his room. He was more than the sum of other men’s cares that occupied his mind all day. He was a husband and father. He was home.

He was a husband and father.

He closed the door silently so as not to wake the baby, but he crept past the cradle without a glance and went straight to the bedside. He had no instincts to guide him in such matters, but Wynflaed had told him that a new mother could feel forgotten once all attention had turned from her to her child. Thus Ethelwyn was careful to ensure that Mouse was “the first person he saw” when he came home.

He went straight to the bedside.

So it would be, at least, until his little son was old enough to come running to greet him. Though he loved his wife and was nearly always glad to see her, Ethelwyn thought that day could not come soon enough.

He was always amazed at how fearlessly Mouse woke, never gasping or starting, as if even in the confusion of sleep, when she could scarcely know where or who she was, she knew that she was perfectly safe, and that all was well.

“Oh, Wyn,” she mumbled. She opened her eyes wide to pretend that she was awake, but it was apparent they were not quite focused on his face. “Are you home late?”

'Are you home late?'

He did not know the hour, but he could tell by the flush of her cheeks and the dampness of her hair that she had been sleeping for some time. “Not very,” he lied.

“How is everybody?”

He sighed. All the way down the hill, he had been thinking of what he would tell Mouse. Now he no longer wanted to tell her anything. Now he wanted to undress, kiss his son, and crawl into bed beside her, leaving other men’s problems to other men, at least until the morning.

But even his silence was enough to trouble her. She pushed back the blankets and began to sit up.

She pushed back the blankets and began to sit up.

Ethelwyn laid his hands on her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “Stay there, Mousie. I shall be with you in a moment, and we shall talk.”

“But what happened?” When he did not immediately reply, she began to fuss with the blankets again.

He hurriedly said, “Egelric asked Alred and Hetty to take the baby.”

Mouse fell back against the pillow. “So he was right,” she murmured. “Only a day late.”

“If you had seen his face!” Ethelwyn made such a grimace that Mouse might have had some idea of what she had missed. “He’s living it all over again through Egelric, step by step… like stations of the Cross: the nightmare about laying her beneath the floor instead of in the earth… shutting himself up with his oldest son and leaving the little ones with friends…”

“Now sending the baby away…” Mouse continued.

“And he wanted to wager with me that Egelric won’t last till Candlemas without going to Scotland or somewhere… anywhere… I’ve a mind to tell Egelric to do something unexpected just so Alred will come back to his senses.”

'I've a mind to tell Egelric to do something unexpected.'

Mouse picked uneasily at the fuzz of one of the woolen blankets. “Couldn’t you simply tell Alred himself?”

“To say what?” he snapped, though he immediately cringed in shame when he remembered the baby. Fortunately Cynemaer did not stir. “Shall I remind him that Matilda is six years dead?” he whispered.


Ethelwyn jammed his fingers into his shirt and hung his arm from his collarbone. “But someone must talk to him. He’s blind to everything but his own pain.”

“But he hasn’t lost a wife…”

“He will if he’s not careful. Do you know what he did? Egelric asked him – as a favor – whether he could name the baby Alred.”

Mouse’s mouth fell open in expectation of something unfortunate, but even so she was unprepared for what he told her next.

You know how it is… how it’s asked ‘as a favor’, but it’s never refused, and the man says, ‘On the contrary, it’s an honor’, and so forth.”



“And not only did he refuse, but he shouted at him and told him he wouldn’t have people saying that ‘Alred killed Lili’!”

It was, in a way, grimly satisfying to see the effect he produced on her, though they both looked uneasily at the cradle after her little shriek.

“And poor Hetty kept trying to smooth things over,” he said softly. “My heart aches for her more than anyone – even more than Egelric, I think. She’s lost her sister, and I’m not certain the thought has even occurred to Alred yet. And Egelric tried to give Hetty Lili’s harp, and Alred said he didn’t want it!”

Mouse gasped, and Ethelwyn snorted in self-​​important outrage. She did not let it last long, however.

“You must talk to him, Wyn,” she whispered. “Tomorrow, before he goes. You must make him see that he’s not the only one who is hurting.”

Ethelwyn winced. “That’s… not my place, Mouse.”

Ethelwyn winced.

“Certainly it is,” she scoffed as she smoothed out the blankets over her body. “You’re his friend, and Hetty’s friend, and Egelric’s friend. You must try. I am certain you will know just what to say.”

Ethelwyn was not at all certain he would. This was a task for a sensitive, caring, compassionate man – a man like Alred, when his own aching heart was not involved.

'It's not his fault.'

“It’s not his fault.” Mouse patted the blankets, as if the entire affair were just so tidy. “He must simply be made to see. It’s like animals: when they’re hurt, sometimes they scarcely know what they’re doing, and they scratch or bite. But they don’t mean harm.”

Ethelwyn looked over at the cradle, wishing the baby had awoken and distracted them before he had found himself committed to such a difficult duty. He knew his duty, however, and he would do it. In the morning.

He knew his duty, however, and he would do it.

“Well, I shall try,” he muttered as he crept over the cradle to say goodnight.

“That’s a good man. But don’t wake that baby,” she warned him. “I had a devil of a time getting him to sleep.”

He heard her tucking herself snug beneath the quilts, as she liked to do. When he looked down upon his son’s bare chest and arms above the tousled blanket, a towering wave of love and pride surged up in him: the little boy resembled his father in this, too.

He looked down upon his son's bare chest and arms.

The wave rose and rose as he reached out to pull the blanket up, and then it stopped – the wave stopped, his hand stopped, his heart stopped. His mouth formed the word “No”, but it made no sound, for his breath had stopped.

Then it all came down. The wave crashed over him, with all the weight of his love and pride, dashing him down to grind him against jagged rocks the water had never revealed. His heart swelled and dropped precipitously, squeezing into his stomach, and his breath emptied out of him in a gush.

Only his hand descended slowly, drifting down light as a snowflake, but warmer than the stone-​​still body on which it fell.

Ethelwyn hurriedly scooped the body up, and for an instant it seemed to come to life. It jerked wildly, as if the baby were having a fit, but Ethelwyn soon saw that it was only his own trembling magnified by the slack limbs.

It was only his own trembling magnified by the slack limbs.

He had always held his baby with great care, feeling rather like a brute before such a fragile creature, but he saw now that he had underestimated the strength and vitality of the little body – now that it was limp, now that the head hung sickeningly heavy from the thin neck, now that the arms splayed wide and loose, bending suddenly at the elbow as their weight shifted, and then snapping suddenly, painfully straight. It was not a human thing now that it was dead.

It was not a human thing.

“Oh, Wyn, don’t wake him,” Mouse groaned wearily.

Ethelwyn lifted the body to his shoulder, awkward as he had never been, for even in the hour after his birth, his living, squirming son had not been such a confusing sprawl of dangling limbs and lolling head.

“Wyn!” Mouse whined at his stubborn refusal to answer.

So long as he did not turn around, it was not real.

So long as he did not turn around, it was not real; it was all in his mind. He was a cold and solitary and thoughtful man, and so he would stay forever, he decided, his face turned forever to a blank wall.

He could not look around. Behind him was his wife, who would never again wake without fear. Behind him was his mirror, with its proof of his being and his body. Behind him was the window, and peering into his warm room was the darkest night he had ever known, and its white winter moon, sharp and bright as a fang.

Behind him was the window.