He went eagerly.

Alred had planned to spend the evening with a hunk of bread, a cup of wine, and his Psalter, but Matilda had sent her maid down to fetch him to her. He went eagerly, for she had slept since before noon, and he had been out all morning.

For all she was pale and weak, her dark eyes shone out from the shadows surrounding them. “I thought you might be lonely,” she smiled.

He kissed her gently and pulled a chair up to the bed. “Achingly,” he said.

He pulled a chair up to the bed.

She looked well-rested—almost serene, he thought. The Baroness had sent a letter with advice from Elfleda Wodehead’s mother, the wise woman of the village: Matilda was to have no sweets, no honey, no wine. She had complained at first, but within days the difference was apparent. She still did not rise, but she no longer thirsted as she had, and she had strength enough to have her children brought in to cuddle a while with her in her great bed.

Alred had new hope.

And the chapel was closed and consecrated; it was still sadly inelegant, but that could come later. He had kept his word, and he thought that the Lord might yet smile on him.

“How do you two feel?” he asked softly, stroking her thin hand.

'How do you two feel?'

“I should like to sleep a while longer, but this little one has other plans for me tonight.”

“What, is he stomping all over you?”

“No, he’s coming.”

“Coming?” he laughed. “How do you know?”

“It’s already started,” she smiled, pushing herself up until she was nearly sitting, leaning against the headboard of the bed.

Alred leapt from his chair. “I must get the women!”

'I must get the women!'

“No, no,” she said, reaching weakly towards him. “There’s still time. I want you to sit with me for a while.”

He sat again, and he took her hand, but his own were suddenly trembling. Still time, she said! Their time was almost out, perhaps!

“Don’t you find it strange,” she asked, “to think that in a few hours, you will finally meet this small person? He will be somebody at last, and not the thousands of possible somebodies he has been.”

We shall finally meet him,” he corrected. “And it could be a girl, remember.”

'We shall finally meet him.'

“Oh, Alred, if it’s a boy, won’t you please name him for my father?”

“You may name him whatever you like, my dear.”

“Yes, but I wanted to tell you now. I wanted to tell you so many things, and now I shan’t remember them all,” she sighed wearily.

“You may tell me tomorrow.”

She only closed her eyes and gripped his hand as a wave of pain passed over her.

“I shall send for the women,” he said softly.

'Not yet.'

“Not yet,” she said through clenched teeth. “I want to tell you first… so many things… what my father said to me: ‘May you have a happy life.’”

“Matilda,” he whispered, struck by fear as by a knife through the heart. “I already have. Let’s not change anything.”

“So have I!” she smiled. “But I worry about you. I don’t want you to make the mistake I did, when my father died, and I swore I would never laugh again. I can’t bear to think of you never laughing.”

He pressed her fingers tightly against his lips, frightened by the change in her. This was not Matilda! She had been nothing like this dreamy-​eyed, wistful girl the other times—she had always called him dreadful names and smacked at him whenever he came within reach and sworn he should never touch her again. Did she know something he did not?

“Damn you, woman,” he whispered, his voice entirely gone. “Why are you talking like this? You will make me cry, and you know how I hate to look like an ass.”

“Oh, I always liked to see you cry,” she said softly. “It helped me so many times when I could not.”

'I always liked to see you cry.'

“Matilda,” he said, and her name was like an ache in his throat, “why do you speak of yourself in the past?”

“I don’t know why,” she said thoughtfully, “but I can’t see myself in the future. Can you?”

“That’s all I see.”

She smiled and then sighed. “I don’t know. I am not afraid.”

'I am not afraid.'

“I am!”

“Is there one more fearless or more foolhardy than Sir Alred Sebright?” she teased, as Harold had years before.


“I know you will manage. I leave you Yware to make you laugh, and Dunstan to watch and worry over you, and Gwynn to love and comfort you, and I don’t know what this child will do well besides kicking, but that’s certainly something you can frequently use.” She laughed gingerly, one arm curled over her belly. “I can’t see what more I can do for you.”

“I need you entire. Your children are only shadows of you—they’re half my humble self, you know. Without you, I’m only a tiny, insignificant speck of a useless knight who laughs because he is afraid and jokes because he is sad and fights like a lion because he is too foolish to know when he has no chance. Even with you, I’m still all of that, but at least I have you.”

'I'm still all of that, but at least I have you.'

She closed her eyes as another pain hit her. “Not yet,” she said, to the baby this time.

Alred held her hand and watched her thin face for a sign that this time was somehow worse than the others. Had she felt a sign he could not see?

“Alred,” she said a few moments later as she relaxed into a dreamy smile, “do you remember all of those poems you wrote for me when you came back from Wales with Sigefrith and Harold and met me for the first time?”

'Do you remember all of those poems you wrote for me?'

“Do I? I remember my poetry was what caused you to break your oath never to laugh again! How dreadful it must have been!”

“Oh, no,” she murmured. “I was so proud and so flattered, though I could never tell you so. And I copied them all down into the blank spaces in my old Psalter that I had from my mother—such a naughty girl I was, writing in my books! But I said to myself: here is my own Song of Songs. You never knew that, did you?” she smiled. “I never let you see that book. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was wrong. It must seem as if I didn’t want you to know how I loved you. Ah, I see I did make you cry, you ass.”

She tried to lift her fingers from his lips to his wet cheeks, but she was too weak even for that, and she sighed. “I have it hidden away in that red leather bag with my father’s knife and the Gospels that Godwin gave him, and which you always said were so ugly it seemed like blasphemy. Do you know where it is?”

'Do you know where it is?'

He nodded.

“Listen: I want Dunstan to have the Gospels, and Yware to have the knife, but most importantly I want you to give the Psalter to Gwynn when she is grown. And I want you to tell her what her mother said, which is this: Until you find a man who loves you this much, wait.”

He stared into her eyes for a long while, until he thought he saw tears of her own. And finally he said, “Then she must die a maid.”

“No, don’t wish that for her,” she said gently. “I hope she will have the happiness I have had.”

“May I borrow your book tonight?”

“Would you like to reread what you wrote so long ago?” she smiled.

'Would you like to reread what you wrote so long ago?'

“I should like to alternate my praises for the Lord with praises for my lady’s eyes.”

“Then you may, if you promise you will do all I asked.”

“I shall not promise a thing until you promise me you intend to fight tonight.”

“Do you expect anything less from the old pirate’s granddaughter?” she asked, feigning insult.

“I did not expect the old pirate’s granddaughter to speak of herself in the past tense.”

“Did I frighten you?”

“Indeed you did.”

'Indeed you did.'

“Then I—then I—” she gripped his hand again and squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh, Alred,” she panted afterwards, “I’m sorry. This baby is in a greater hurry than I thought.”

“Then what am I doing in here, crying over your folly?” he asked, leaping to his feet. “I shall send for Gunnie Hogge, ‘that’s what!’” he said, in perfect imitation of Gunnilda herself. He wagged his finger at his wife and cried, “‘Oh, pish! None of your nonsense! I never been real good with my grammar but I never said: I been, when I meant: I am and long will be! I’ll straighten you out, what!’”

'I'll straighten you out, what!'