Within her own frail grasp, his skin was soft and brittle, dry as ash and dust. Mottled and smattered with the tattoo of ageing, dark spots in hues of brown and faun, and pierced here and there with the blue lifelines of veins.
Hands which were once so strong, so powerful and able. Hands which had held sword and wielded axe with such graceful ease. Hands, which had whittled many a pretty thing for her, blood pouring from sharp cuts for her delight. Hands which had enveloped her own, and gently taken her face between them. Hands which had cupped her breasts and slipped between her thighs, eager to bring forth sweet gasps from her lips.
Hands which had held aloft their son and firstborn, steady and fiercely protective about his tiny form. Hands which had taught their sons how to do so much and had been so gentle upon their daughters were now hands that trembled and shook, hands which were wizened, sinuous, their bones too large. Held within her own hands, pale hands aged as his. But his no longer held strength.
She brings them to her lips and kisses each digit with a love that still burned at her soul.
Oh how she had loved him, and loved him still, the intensity never lessening as she had been told it would. Oh how she loved his hands, those beautiful hands, which were only an extension of himself. She held one, palm down, to cup her cheek, closing her eyes and remembering how it was when he would hold it there himself, to tip her face upward so he could gaze upon her. Not impassive as they are now, but forceful tools.
Once again she turns her lips to his flesh, but this time a gentle graze across his palm. A kiss, which whispered in its silence how dearly she still held him within her heart and would adore him even when those hands grew stiff in death.
He turns, perhaps he can sense her still?
His face toward hers, though his eyelids rest heavily upon the sunken sockets of his cheeks. His breath rattled from his chest, piercing the silence with its pain. She reaches forth a hand and brushes a strand of hair from his cheek, hair still thick — a mane long and iron grey like his beard.
Not one to turn away from the earthiness of metal, his hair would never turn to white, like the insipid clouds which race overhead, not her warrior! His hair had turned all but overnight, a grey of iron or of steel. A grey of storms which rage themselves in the distance over oceans.
And now she lets her eyes linger over his features. Her sight not as it once was, far from it! Things too far from her blur to nothing, just a haze behind the foreground. But his face is close and she lets her gaze caress the crevices of his skin, exploring the features she had loved for so very long, much as a young lover would spend many an hour watching their loved one when asleep.
‘He is mine, and mine still’ is what she thinks as she traces each undulation of his face.
Broad brow, one that had always spoken of his deep honesty, furrowed now with deep lines. Eyes far set and of such a colour that nobody could ever agree — some said blue, some green, some insisted brown, but what about her? She knew them to be the hue of the ocean and the moorland. Ever changing with his mood and the light, dancing and shifting from one to the other with the shift of his mood and the tide of the day and the ebb of the seasons.
Eyes which crinkled about the corners when he was ever amused, even when the rest of his face stayed as deadpan as granite standing stone. Now, though those eyes were hooded by lids, lashes still dark as they lay upon his cheek. His nose large, masculine, curved; jaw strong, to match his chin and yet the very hint, a mere spectre, of a dimple which would cradle within his cheek as he smiled.
Such a face! Such features that she had in her youth believed all must envy her, must sit in awe of her lover, her husband and look upon their own lovers and husbands as second best! She can still so easily trace those features, features of youth and of vigour.
Beneath her steady scrutiny, it is not hard to see where time has worn and corroded, but where time has also smoothed at the edges, softened a feature and given it the determination of wisdom or erased the pride of impetuosity and replaced it with pride of family and of love.
His eyes flicker now, maybe he dreams? She wonder what he dreams of, of times long past, before her time? Of times long past where they both still held the beauty and bloom of youth? Times where sons were born and daughters, of grandchildren or even great grandchildren, as the tiny limbs clasped about the neck and the chubby cheek pressed with velvety softness against cheek.
Perhaps he dreamed of the far beyond, to a place where peace would claim him and he would step with a light foot amongst the stars, awaiting her? Or maybe he was merely dreaming of what could have been. Of castles never seen and journeys never trod because he had given his freedom to her.
Why must she let the demon of doubt press at her breast? She never knew, but the devil which creeps across the mind, ever telling her he was a god and she a mere mortal had never ceased its cruel taunting.
She waits with a breath baited as her eyes are on his, and they flicker more so that the flicker becomes a blink and his gaze settles upon her face. Her old face, steeped with lines and wrinkles, with deep canyons of time. In this moment she flushes, ashamed in many ways. Ashamed that she can no longer be the flaxen-haired maiden beauty he had met, nor merely the mother, still soft-featured and doe-eyed.
She was the crone, and would that she could bring back her youthful beauty to give him comfort in this time. If he had dreamed of times past how sad he must be, how disappointed to look upon her now! But yet his soft look holds no disgust! Beyond and behind their expression she meets him; he can still see her how she is and how she was once before. His lips curve into a fleeting smile that she is here and at his side.
He wed the maiden, loved the mother and held nothing but adoration for the crone, and at this moment, at this achingly profound and perfect moment, she loves him more than she ever has.
His lips form shapes, as if he were trying to speak and upon them she reads her name. Breath passes them and forces the sound so it is a murmur; her name is spoken in hushed, reverent tones.
“My love…” she whispers to him “My love…” Oh but if only youth knew the deep and fervent love of the old! They would be ashamed to think they held the key to love and would step down to give the crown willingly to their ancients.
His only answer is his smile, sweet and darling and perfect to her. Perhaps only a twist of muscles sliding below skin, but in it she knew that even when his last breath had passed those lips, she would be his and he hers. They were once, are now and would always belong to each other.
And now once again his eyes close, shutting away her face and her form. It is a moment which makes her want to gasp with pain, as if she had glimpsed the stars in all their glory and knew that she would never again glance at them. A pain, which shook her to her core. Yet she will sit vigilant in her care, stalwart in her strength. She will be here for his last and he would never know what it was like to be without her…