Matilda looked stronger than he had seen her in many months. Sadder and stronger. He saw that she had admitted it too.
“I’m so happy you could come, Egelric,” she said in her low voice. “He’s been asking to see you.”
“And Baby too?”
“Of course, Baby too. We all – ” Her voice broke, and she swallowed. “Take good care of her, Egelric,” she said abruptly, laying a hand on his arm, her voice sinking into tears. “Love her as hard as you can,” she said with her love that was overflowing just then.
Matilda turned away and held her hands over her eyes. “Go in to him,” she whispered.
Iylaine stared up at her with wide eyes. Egelric did not like her watching this. “Come along, Baby,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder.
Alred lay in his bed, as still as could be, but the sound of each breath as it dragged through his chest proved that he lived.
“He’s sleeping, Da,” Iylaine whispered, clinging to his hand. “He’s only sleeping.”
“I know, Baby,” he whispered back. He wondered whether it had been wise to bring her. Alred had wanted to see her, but he didn’t know whether he wanted Baby to see this.
Suddenly Alred turned his head and opened his eyes. “What are you two conspirators plotting?” he wheezed. He hadn’t lost his smile.
“Kidnap,” Egelric said, smiling back.
“I hope you don’t plan to demand ransom. I would not value my miserable hide dear.”
Egelric feared that he was going to be like Matilda and break down in tears and be terribly sentimental. But Baby put a stop to that.
“You can’t die,” she said matter-of-factly. “We need you.”
“Baby!” Egelric scolded in a whisper.
“Now then, Egelric, just a moment,” Alred said. “It’s about time someone came in here and talked some sense.” He lost his breath after every fourth or fifth word, and it was painful to listen to him try to speak.
“You listen to me,” Baby continued. “You just get better. None of your nonsense!”
Alred shook with suppressed laughter. “Gunnie Hogge taught you to talk like that,” he said. “Down to the look on your blessed face.”
“Baby, hush.” Egelric cautioned, laying a hand on her shoulder. She must not make him laugh.
“Egelric,” Alred said, looking back up at him.
Egelric leaned closer.
“Take care of my wife,” he said slowly. “Sometimes she forgets she isn’t a man.”
Egelric swallowed. Alred was admitting it.
“I asked Sigefrith to take care of my children, but I want you to take care of my wife,” he said wearily. “And, Baby, you take care of your Da. Man needs a good woman…” he mumbled.
Alred seemed to be slipping back into sleep. Would Egelric ever hear his voice again? “Is that all, my lord?” he asked softly.
“That’s all… my brother.”
For a while the only sound in the room was his breathing.
Iylaine turned to her father and whispered, “You’re crying, Da.”
“Hush, don’t tell.”
Iylaine looked down at Alred, her little brow furrowed with worry.
“We should go, Baby,” Egelric whispered when it was clear that Alred was sleeping.
Iylaine turned to the candles on the chest near the bed and studied them intently, as if it were this the sole reason she had come into the room.
“Not yet,” she said, her voice strange. Egelric saw that there were tears on her soft cheeks, and he realized that it was perhaps the first time that she cried not as a selfish baby, who saw the world only as it pleased and displeased her, but as a loving child who cared for others. And he did not want to interrupt these tears.
She stared a long while at the twin flames, biting her pretty lip as if to hold back a sob.
Finally she turned and raised her arms to him.
“We can go now,” she said in her voice that was weary and wise.