It’s the eyes that I notice first.
Of course it’s the eyes. It’s always been the eyes.
They shine outward, still somehow fiery despite having eaten up their fuel almost to ash. When he speaks I see them first in my mind, bright as the day I first met them. It’s jarring, then, when I turn and find them diminished, nearly extinguished. My heart drops into my stomach, and something pulls in my chest.
For a split second, I feel myself tense, ready to fight. But when I meet those eyes I know I am safe.
He spits words at me that I know he does not mean.
It’s his stance I notice second. He walks toward me with admirable control but he is shaking; every part of him is trembling with the extreme effort of keeping himself whole.
He speaks, and his voice sounds far away, and in my heart I know he has reached his end. I hold my face still, with the same trembling effort with which he walks. Somewhere, in a dark corner of my mind, I hope that he will kill me, if only to prove once again that he is alive.
He calls me brave. He calls me insolent.
I keep my mask. Here is a man who knows me better, perhaps, than even Ragnar. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Alfred understands me. Or, he is one of the few men who have shown me true, unyielding respect. I know he has shown me the kind of respect that is not tainted with fear -- nor reverence. Alfred’s respect for me is the kind that can only emerge between two equals.
Sometimes I have felt that we’ve been locked in a never-ending battle, the kind of battle that my people would have sung about; the kind of battle that the elders would use to explain the coming of each morning, and the falling shroud of each night. Ours has been a battle that feeds both our lives; we are both too stubborn to lose and to die. So long as the other rushes on, each of us must continue.
And now I am to continue without him.
The thought strikes a heavy blow in my gut. Alfred’s illness has long been the state of things; I have known him to be dying for several years. And dying is not so bad. It is, after all, an aspect of living.
But now, looking upon him, I realize that Alfred’s death, that final event after which he will be no more, is looming near. It exists as a physical presence in the room. I can smell it, warm and rotting, in every corner.
Without Alfred I, too, will be dying. I will not be living as I always have been.
He asks me to sit with him. I pour the wine. I offer no resistance.
He sees me, as I am. An outlaw, yes, but also a friend.
More than that.
I sip the wine so that the thought does not show itself in a twitch of my lips. Alfred’s own are chapped and blue, so unlike their once vital pink. He’s always been an elegant man; even on his deathbed -- no, don’t use that word. Even now, he moves with a certain restrained grace. At one point I’d imagined it an affectation, a sort of regal bearing adopted to convince the naysayers that he was indeed the rightful king.
But he needed no affectation to prove that.
I came here expecting a fight, but all the fight has gone out of me. As he speaks -- of the future, of uniting the kingdoms, of England -- I find the wine becomes harder to swallow. My throat feels constricted and dry, and I feel a distinct burning at the corners of my eyes.
I keep my mask.
He does the same.
It’s his hands I notice third. They’re cold to the touch, and when he lays them on mine I feel some distant urge to grasp them in my own callused fingers and give him my warmth. But I do not. The Lady Aelswith lurks near like a shadow over us.
Looking at him across that small table, some old feeling flashes through me, dredged up through years of built-up dust and ash; filtered memories of women I have known and loved; of graves I have sat beside. Alfred’s face, as it was when it was young and healthy, looms somewhere in the middle distance of my memory. It’s gone, yet somehow it is still here. Close enough to touch, but I cannot bring myself to do it. Now is not the right time, and now is the last chance I’ll get.
The edges of my vision blur. Alfred pulls his hand away from mine and I feel bereft.
I have threatened to kill this man, as he has done to me in turn. And yet, here we are again, sharing a cup of wine at his table, for what I now know will be the last time. I love this man, of that I am certain, though what form that love may have taken is now an unseeable blackness, lost to paths I did not take, forever out of reach.
He tells me say nothing, though I know, once again, I will give him my word.
Destiny is all.