Her own deathbed was a favorite fantasy of Gwynn's, her father knew.

Her own deathbed had always been a favorite fantasy of Gwynn’s, her father knew, even when she had been so small that “Prince” Britamund had been a satisfactory hero for her pretendings.

Her body was burdened with her father's sickly soul.

Of course the hero, whether Britamund or imaginary, always arrived in time to save her with a kiss, but Alred knew that it was Death she truly flirted with—Death the fascinating, forbidden Lover—Death who would surely win her in the end. He knew. Gwynn had her mother’s radiant beauty, but her body was burdened with her father’s sickly soul.

He knew Sigefrith and Dunstan only meant to protect her, but he wished Gwynn were there now. She had never seen a bed occupied by any but the living or the dead. He would have had her see the dying. There was no poetry in a deathbed. He would have had her know.

He knew Sigefrith and Dunstan only meant to protect her.

Alred had wanted to die in an instant. He had wanted to die like his father, who had suddenly arisen to stand at attention before Death the General, and then collapsed face-​first, dead before he hit the ground.

He had wanted to die like a man: leaping from the highest cliff, pitching himself into Death the Irrevocable, diving into Death the Dark Sea.

But he would die miserably, like a dog. He would not plunge at once into the dark water; instead it would fall like filthy rain onto the upturned face of a drunk in a ditch, rising up slowly around him until, unconscious, he drowned.

Already Death was pooling in the hollows of his eyes and lips.

Already Death was pooling in the hollows of his eyes and lips. Already Death had trickled down into his throat, gurgling faintly when he breathed.

“You couldn’t even do that right, you worthless, sniveling brat,” he growled at himself, as his father would have done.

'You couldn't even do that right, you worthless, sniveling brat.'

A cool voice blew up from behind him, not like water but wind. “Alred, don’t say such sad things to yourself.”

It was the first time that voice had not called up a shiver or a throb in his body. He could not feel his body at all. But his soul thrilled as it always had.



It was a bitter thing not to feel his heart beat faster; not to feel the ache in his hands that longed to reach out for her hands, nor the ache in his arms that longed to wrap themselves around her, nor the ache in his body that longed to press itself against hers.

He felt nothing, now, after aching for six years. He felt not only light-​headed but light-​bodied, as if he had fainted and yet not lost consciousness. Then he understood.

It was a frightening thing not to feel his heart beat faster.

“Then… I am dead…”

It was not the relief he thought it would be. It was no more satisfying than sleep to the thirsty or great beauty to the blind.

“Not yet,” she said.

A faint, rattling breath from the bed confirmed her words.

He spoke her name and reached out for her, beginning to ache in his soul, if not his hands.

But she leapt away. “Don’t touch me!”

'Don't touch me!'

“Why not?” he whispered, stung.

“Because I don’t want you to cling to me and come away with me. I want you to stay here.”

“But Matilda…” he whimpered. He turned to look in despair at the gray body on the bed, and when he turned back to her, she was smiling.

“I caught you sneaking out of here without leave, young Sir Alred,” she scolded. “Right under the King’s hairy nose.”

'I caught you sneaking out of here without permission, young sir.'

They both glanced at Sigefrith. To Alred’s surprise, Sigefrith lifted his head and looked up at them.

“Jupiter! Can you see me, old man? What’s going on in here? I thought I was dead!”

'What's going on in here?'

Sigefrith continued staring, but he seemed not to see.

“You’re not dead,” Matilda said.

“But I am naked!” Alred wailed. “Holy Mother Juno, what’s going on?”

Matilda smiled.

“What does this mean?” he demanded. “Must a man go as naked out of this world as he came in? Don’t angels get robes, or togas, or something?”

'What does this mean?'

“Oh, no,” she smiled and sighed dreamily. “You may wear what you like. I wore my prettiest nightgown when my daddy came for me.”

“Matilda…” he murmured, stricken wistful by the memory of her death.

But Matilda’s sentimentality had already passed, replaced with a wicked smile. “This was my idea,” she said, waving the back of her hand vaguely at his midsection.

'This was my idea.'

“Matilda!” he laughed. “You haven’t changed!”

Still, his laughter was hollow and brimming with despair. He did not feel his body respond to her teasing, or even to her appreciative gaze. He did not feel his body at all.

But she had not changed. She had even unchanged: she was the beauty she had been when he had first known her. She was scarcely older than Gwynn.

It was his daughter's very face.

The upper lip was perhaps a little thinner, but it was his daughter’s very face. It was her mother’s own dauntless soul.

“Matilda,” he whispered. “Have you seen Gwynn? Have you seen our children? Dunstan!” He turned and cried aloud, pleading, “Dunstan! Look! Your mother!”

Dunstan did not flinch.

Dunstan did not flinch. Even Sigefrith had returned to staring at the body.

“Oh dear God! I’m dead!”

“You are not dead,” Matilda sighed.

'Oh my God!  I'm dead!'

“What am I?”

“You are dying. And I don’t want you to die.”

Then it all came back to him, the present finally overflooding the past. He could not live. He could never look another man in the face again, nor any woman, any child—and least of all his own. He had done the irrevocable, whether he lived or died.

He still felt the old pain twisting like a sword in his side, as he had ached and burned and suffered all his life. When he had not—as in the last few weeks, until this fateful night—it had only been at his moments of deepest affliction, when he had felt nothing at all—not love, not sorrow, not anger, not life.

Now, even in the twilit borderlands of death, he still was not free. Despair, he knew now, was not a curse of the body: it was an abiding torment of the soul.

'You don't know what happened, Matilda.'

“You don’t know what happened, Matilda,” he muttered.

“I do know.”

“Again,” he added softly, to himself. She did not seem to hear.

“Alred, listen to me. You were supposed to die years ago. Somehow you did not.”

“What do you mean: supposed to die?”

'What do you mean?'

So many times he had spun knives between his fingers, or knotted and unknotted nooses, or pressed the cold tip of his sword against the hollow of his throat until the steel grew as warm as the blood he feared to shed.

So many times his courage had failed him. Had he been too weak and worthless even to kill himself at the appointed time?

“I don’t know,” she said feebly. “Your life is like a book, with a story everyone knows, but the last page is missing, and there are only a good many more blank pages at the end. So now you may pick up your pen and write the ending you like.”

'So now you may pick up your pen and write the ending you like.'

He snorted. “That is just like you.”

It was like her to think that Destiny was something one could shape and bend by force of will. It was like her to try to guide his hand, to live and act through him as she could not herself—then as a woman, and now as a ghost. It was like her to prefer life.

But he only made a joke, pretending to scold, “Writing in your books!

'Writing in your books!'

And with that, the sword twisted again—not in his side, but in his heart. Bodiless, he still felt love, and the soul’s pure, uncarnate longing. Now she was so near.

He sobbed, “Matilda!” and leapt at her.

Before he had moved, she had already hopped away. “That is so!” she said eagerly, as she always had when she saw she was winning an argument. “And who will give Gwynn my book if you are gone? Who will tell her?”

'Who will tell her?'

“Dunstan will tell her. Matilda…”

“And they will both shake their heads and say they wish they knew how it was. No! Alred! You must live for our children! Wouldn’t you do anything for them? Even live?”

“Matilda…” he sighed.

“You must live for our granddaughter, Alred. Think of that! You must.”

“Our… granddaughter…”

'Our... granddaughter...'

“Dunstan and Britamund will be having a little daughter in the summer.” She smiled a strange smile he had never seen on her—but then they had never spoken of this new little person before.

He looked past her to Dunstan. “Our son will have a daughter…”

“But she will need so much love, Alred.” She turned her back to him to stare down at Dunstan’s cowering figure. “And I don’t know anyone who loves better than you.”

'I don't know anyone who loves better than you.'

Even from behind her beauty was breathtaking—even to a man whose body was taking its last ragged, rattling breaths. He was still afraid to speak of love with her, still afraid she would find him a fool, even now, even though it might have been the last chance he would ever have.

“Do you already know it’s a girl?” he asked.

“Yes. Remarkably pretty, of course.” He could hear the dreamy smile on her lips. “She will need a scary old grandfather to protect her from her surfeit of suitors.”

He snorted and nodded at Sigefrith. “I think we have that covered.”

'I said 'scary', not 'hairy'.'

She snorted back. “I said ‘scary’, not ‘hairy’.”

He glanced down at his chest, which had not been so full nor so free of gray hairs in many years. “For that matter, I can be both.”

'I can do both.'

“Very good! So you must stay!”

“Matilda…” he sighed.

“Alred, I was not supposed to die at all,” she mumbled through pouting lips. “You must live for me.”

Alred’s hands clenched on nothing. He could not even feel them clench. He could not feel his teeth grinding against his teeth. He only felt a burning in his heart.

He only felt a burning in his heart.

“I was supposed to die before you?” he asked. The burning was flaring into anger. “I was supposed to die happy?”

“You were supposed to die. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

“To live?” he cried. “Without you?”

“I am always with you.”

“That isn’t good enough! That isn’t—”

He was abruptly silenced as his son began to stir, as he had often been silenced long ago when his son was new and every sound strange to the young father’s ears—and as Dunstan soon would be.

'What's he doing?'

“What’s that sound he’s making?” Dunstan asked weakly. “Snoring?”

“Oh, God…” Alred whispered.

Sigefrith sighed. “Son…”

“He has never heard it before,” Matilda said. “He has only seen the living and the dead.”

'He has never heard it before.'

“I didn’t want him to see this…” Alred whimpered. He was suddenly very glad Gwynn would not.

Sigefrith wiped his palms on his pants and shifted his weight to the edge of his chair, preparing to stand. “If you want your brother and sisters to have a chance to say goodbye…”

Alred sobbed, “No! Not the girls! Not the Old Man! Not Hetty!”

Sigefrith looked up at him.

Sigefrith looked up at him, but then Dunstan bolted out of his own chair.

“No! We must do something!”

Sigefrith caught him. “Dunstan…”

“Send for Paul! Send for Vash!”

'Send for Paul!  Send for Vash!'


As if it knew there was no longer any use pretending, the body took a long, slow breath. Its ominous rattle must have been audible even behind the door.

“I don’t want him to see this,” Alred pleaded. He was certain he was crying, but he could no longer feel tears.

'I don't want him to see this.'

Matilda sighed in exasperation. “Then don’t die! Get back in there and fight!” she commanded, imperious as a little general.

“Matilda, I can’t!”

“Think of how proud he will feel when he is able to lay his daughter in your arms. Don’t deny him that joy, Alred.”



“Live for me. Didn’t you always say you lived for me?” she asked.

With you! Matilda!”

“I am always with you,” she murmured.

'I am always with you.'

He leaned in, trying to look at her face, but she took advantage of his stoop to grab him and yank him past her. Though he could feel neither her hands on his arm nor even his arm, she managed to sling him around her small body and shove him towards the bed.

He wailed, “Matilda!” for the last time. He had imagined their reunion at least once a day for six years of days, and he had often moved himself to tears, but there was no poetry in this.

There was much Matilda in it, however.

'You're dying, you stupid ass!'

“Hurry!” she cried. “You’re dying, you stupid ass!”

He stumbled into Sigefrith, but to his surprise he passed straight through, only briefly slowed, like a limb moving through water before coming into air again.

Sigefrith squawked, but Alred was already distracted by the sight of his own gray body dying on the bed.

Alred was already distracted by the sight of his own gray body dying on the bed.

“What do I do now?” he pleaded.

“Only touch yourself,” she said. “You’ll see.”

Out of the unpoetic ruins of everything, a little joke grew up like a lone flower. He plucked it and offered it to her. “Couldn’t you touch me for me?” he asked slyly.

“Alred!” she laughed. “You haven’t changed!”

'You haven't changed!'

He wanted to turn his head to smile at her, but he had already touched his body. He had passed through Sigefrith’s like a stone through water, but to his own he was the water, filling up his hollows and trickling into himself.

The last thing he heard over Matilda’s laughter and Dunstan’s sobs was Sigefrith’s startled whimper: “Alred?”