Just then he was staring out to the south.

Alred was supposedly heading to the King’s castle across the downs, but he would not soon arrive at the rate he was going. He was working on a poem, and that always slowed him down in his walk. Even then, he was rarely very poetic so early in the morning, and his busy mind was rather outward-​looking and easily distracted.

Just then he was staring out to the south, where the sheep had gathered at the edge of the long slope down to the riverside. They were restless, and the flock drifted slowly towards the morning like clouds driven by a westerly wind.

But the wind today was coming from the northwest, and it pushed heavy banks of rain clouds along before it. He reminded himself that he would have to hurry if he wanted to arrive at the castle in a state approaching presentable. He had not even brought a cloak.

He walked on, taking a shortcut through a beech coppice.

He walked on, taking a shortcut through a beech grove as he could not do when he was mounted, and he tried to turn his mind back to his alliteration.

“‘Grove,’” he murmured. “What can one do with ‘grove’? Certainly something with ‘grave’… but what?”

And why did his mind always turn to something melancholy like “grave” whenever he sought a word or a rhyme?

“Alred,” he said sternly to himself, “you are to be married in a few weeks to an unspeakably delightful woman. You should be thinking of something happy, such as… grrrrr…apes? Grrrrreat? Damn!”


“Grief?” a familiar voice called behind him, from the edge of the grove he had just left.

“Damn!” he cried again in surprise, and then, “Jupiter!” when he realized who it was. “Don’t do that to me again, unless you want to see a man jump out of his skin.”

'Don't do that to me again, unless you want to see a man jump out of his skin.'

“I think I would rather like to see that, if it could be arranged,” Vash said with a wavering smile.

“Do you want to be responsible for putting me back into it again?”


“Didn’t think so. I’m glad to see you, young man—elf. Care to tell me whether it will rain before I reach the castle?”

“If you go as slowly as you have been, I can make no promises.”

“Have you been following me?”

“For a while.”

“Have I embarrassed myself by talking out loud to no one at all?”

“You should not be embarrassed.”

'You should not be embarrassed.'

“You take everything very easily, don’t you?” Alred sighed.

“The easy things, I do.”

Alred shrugged. “That is a sort of wisdom. I take everything hard.”

“That is where poetry comes from.”

“You romanticize my foolishness, old man—elf. That is simply where gray hairs come from.”

Vash shrugged.

“Can you walk a while with me?” Alred asked him.

“No, I can’t. I simply wanted to ask you—” He stopped short.

'She's getting better.'

“She’s getting better. Her health is, I mean. Her hand has healed well. And she is getting stronger and a little fatter, I think. I never had much luck getting her to eat, but the Warty Mother must have some trick.”

“The Warty Mother?” Vash smiled wistfully.

“That’s the old woman they have cooking and cleaning for them. She was married to a man named Curran about two hundred years ago, so everyone calls her Mother Curran. But she has a few unfortunate warts, and so most everyone calls her Warty Mother, or Warty for short. Except for Malcolm and Iylaine, who are as polite with her as if she were a houseguest and not a servant.”

Alred saw at once that even a casual mention of Malcolm would not be kind.

“Does she…” Vash began.

'Does she...'

“Does she what?” Alred prompted after a moment.

“I don’t know.”

“You may ask me what you like, Vash. I don’t mind telling you. I don’t believe you will do anything to hurt her or to dishonor yourself.”

“You can’t tell me the things I want to know,” Vash sighed.

“Such as?”

“Why? How? How is it possible? What would you think if April came, and the spring did not? That is how astounded I am, and how helpless.”

'That is how astounded I am, and how helpless.'

“I would think that God had turned His back on the world.”

“I have not even that explanation. And a man! A man! How is it possible? I may ask as the shepherd-​singer Damon did: ‘What may not then we lovers look for? soon shall we see mate Griffins with mares, and in the coming age shy deer and hounds together come to drink.’”

“Ah, Damon again. I wish you had taken up a story that did not end so tragically.”

“I must turn to the stories of men. No elf has ever suffered what I suffer now.”

“No elf has ever lost his love to another?”

“Never! Or… in ancient times, perhaps. But we no longer tell such stories, if they were ever told.”

“You are an unusual people. And I think your stories must be very dull. Though, as I recently said to my daughter, it is rarely pleasant to live a story-​worthy life. But, Vash, I think I can tell you why and how.”

“Tell me!”

'Tell me!'

“It is simple. Malcolm offered her everything she has always wanted: everything she lacked as a child. She longed for a home of her very own, and a stable life, and freedom, and solitude, and a man who would be there for her every single day. And a man who loved her more than he loved any other creature. Mind you, I do think Egelric loves her more than she realizes, though he has certainly had moments of astounding stupidity and extreme selfishness over the years. But perhaps if he had given her those other things, she might have looked for something else in her marriage. Something more abstract. Such as love.”

'Something more abstract.  Such as love.'

“But I love her,” Vash said dazedly. “I love her. More than any other creature. I don’t understand how she could not know it. To an elf it should be evident. She is bound to me. It should be as evident as recognizing oneself in a mirror.”

“She has been raised among men, Vash, and she is a young girl besides. I think it likely she did not believe that anyone who saw her but once a year could have any particular feelings for her. She must have told herself that you could have seen her more often if you had truly wanted to.”

'It was forbidden.'

“It was forbidden.”

“But you did it anyway, sometimes. You should have done it more often, Vash. Or you should have told her how you felt. To my dying day I shall not forget her voice when she said to you: ‘You never told me once.’ It is as good as a poem. The entire tragedy is told in those five words.”

'The entire tragedy is told in those five words.'

Vash turned his face away, and his entire body swayed as he breathed, as if he had only strength enough left to hold himself upright but unstable.

“I am sorry,” Alred said.

“But I would have given her all of those things,” Vash whispered. “Everything she wanted.”

Alred shrugged helplessly. “You never told her once. And Malcolm did give her all of those things, and he does most definitely love her above all other creatures.”

Vash swallowed.

'It is probably cruel of me to say these things to you.'

“It is probably cruel of me to say these things to you,” Alred sighed. “It may seem I am taking this too easily, but I have just told you I never do take things easily, and moreover I understand only too well how you feel. I hope it will be a lesson to you. Not to you, I mean—I understand you were only seven at the time. I don’t know why your elves did this thing, and I don’t suppose you will tell me, but I hope they will gain some wisdom and some humility from the knowledge that their ‘forbiddens’ have broken your heart. And, I daresay, though I hope not, Iylaine’s as well.”

“Does she love me?”

“I can’t tell you that. But, Vash, as you said, it should be as evident as recognizing oneself in a mirror.”

“If April came and the spring did not, one might have grounds for doubting one’s own reflection.”

'One might have grounds for doubting one's own reflection.'

“Granted. But you ought to know whether or not you love her, and if you do, I can tell you that I think the kindest thing you can do for her is to leave her alone for now. She may be happy with Malcolm after all, and that is the most important thing, is it not?”

“I have left her alone, and it is what I intend to do.”

“And do endeavor not to follow Damon’s example, and not ‘from the tall peak of yon aerial rock to headlong plunge into the billows.’”

“No elf has ever done such a thing.”

'No elf has ever done such a thing.'

“You elves show exceptional wisdom in that matter at least. Go on living, Vash. Spring will eventually come.”

“Not for me,” he said, and there was no poetic grandeur in his voice, but only a despair that Alred knew well. “There is still hope that it will come for the elves, but it will never come for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t tell you.”

Alred shrugged. “You know where ‘I can’t tell you’ has put you so far.”

'You know where 'I can't tell you' has put you so far.'

“Even so,” he muttered, and then he shook his head firmly enough that Alred briefly saw the half of his face that was always hidden behind his hair. “You should be on your way if you wish to arrive at the castle before it rains.”

Alred bowed. “I am very glad to have had the opportunity to speak to you alone.”

“I also.”

'I also.'

“If you ever wish to speak to someone who understands, as I suppose your fellow elves do not, I am at your disposition.”

The elf bowed in his turn. “The peace of God on you, Alred,” he said.

“That is Egelric’s farewell,” Alred smiled. “It is kind of you, however.”

'What do you say?'

“What do you say?”

“I don’t know. God be with you. What do the elves say?”

“It depends. Under the circumstances I shall say: May the rain fall softly upon your face.”

“That is kind indeed!” Alred laughed and looked up at the clouds. “Under the circumstances.”

'That is kind indeed!'

The elf smiled and bowed his head, and suddenly he turned and walked away. Alred watched him until he had reentered the grove, and he saw him disappear into a shadow. But he never saw him step out of it, though he stared a while.

Finally a gust of wind reminded him of the urgency of his walk, and he turned his face back to the east, which was rapidly filling with clouds that sought to cover the sun.

“My mistake,” he announced to himself as he began to walk, “was in starting with ‘grove.’ I should have been putting ‘grave’ with ‘grief’ in the first place. Though I hope, Vash, if you can still hear me, that we shall keep those words separate outside of poetry.”

'We shall keep those words separate outside of poetry.'