'That is not Leofric.'

“That is not Leofric,” Malcolm said gravely after a moment’s consideration. “If he took the stairs that quickly, you would have heard him coming from farther off than that.”

“Old man’s not so light in the boots any longer at fifty, eh, runt?” Sigefrith teased Cedric. “Damn him! If he doesn’t show up till after midnight so he can forbid me to wish him a happy birthday…!”

'If he doesn't show up till after midnight so he can forbid me to wish him a happy birthday...!'

“He only wants to keep Aeri as long as he can,” Cedric shrugged. “You remember how late he was bringing me. Eadie gave up and went to bed.”

“It isn’t as if he’ll never see the little ankle-​​nipper again. He’ll be moping around this castle for weeks, until Eadie herself gets sick of him and sends him packing. And – damn him anyway! I’m hungry! Whoever that is – if it’s not your father – I’m eating him!”

“Swear it!” Cedric laughed.

Fortunately Sigefrith did not have time to swear it before the door opened: it was a poor Papa Lion who ate his own cubs.

You’re not my father!” Cedric accused.

'You're not my father!'

Caedwulf laughed. “Now that is a phrase I’m not hearing often enough these days!”

Sigefrith only grunted. His son made such light of his supposed bastards that Sigefrith suspected they were not nearly as numerous as Caedwulf claimed. Nevertheless, he could only suppose that he was already a grandfather several times over. Caedwulf had not even settled himself enough to pick a single girl and believe himself in love. It was certainly too much to hope that he would soon fall in love with the chaste and dowdy daughter of the Count of Flanders.

“Where have you been?” Sigefrith asked him gruffly.

'Where have you been?'

I was simply out retaining the services of a squire!” Caedwulf cried, beaming as he waited for the inevitable questions to follow.

Sigefrith was annoyed enough by Leofric’s tardiness and Caedwulf’s self-​​importance that he was not inclined to indulge him. However, he thought it likely that this supposed squire was actually young Aefen, or even Aering himself, and he was in a hurry to get to the end of the joke and the start of his supper.

“You shall not be besquiring that runt before I’ve even bepaged him!” he warned Caedwulf.

'You shall not be besquiring that runt before I've even bepaged him!'

“Not Aeri!” Caedwulf groaned. “Good Lord! A squire who can’t even tie his own boots, much less my own!”

“He can so!” loyal Cedric protested.

“Then you can make him your squire. I need me one tall enough I won’t accidentally step on him.”

“Who then?” Sigefrith frowned, for a new suspicion was dawning on him given Leofric’s imminent and long-​​announced arrival. “What are you up to now, grinning like a sackful of skulls?”

'What are you up to now, grinning like a sackful of skulls?'

“Guess!” Caedwulf smirked.

“God preserve us – it’s not a girl in breeches, is it? Tell me Kraaia didn’t run away again!”


Cedric gasped loudly enough to be heard over the laughter of Malcolm and Ralf. Sigefrith groaned.

“Only joking!” Caedwulf laughed gleefully. “I just wanted to see that runt piss himself.”

'Only joking!'

“And your father?” Sigefrith grumbled.

“That’s why you have a squire, sire: to clean up your puddles.”

They dueled briefly with their elbows before Caedwulf stepped back and announced, “No, gentlemen, I am afraid Kraaia would not have me even if I asked, so I have procured me the next best thing to a girl in breeches: to wit, a boy in a skirt!”

'I have procured me the next best thing to a girl in breeches.'

Sigefrith returned his elbows to his sides and stood up straight. Another suspicion had stolen upon him, to tug at his heartstrings this time instead of the corners of his mouth. He did not think he would be so indulgent with Caedwulf if this too was only a joke.

But it was no joke.

'This is not a skirt!'

The door whipped open and slammed shut again, leaving an outraged boy behind.

“This is not a skirt! This is a kilt!”




Colban leapt up as if he meant to jump halfway across the room into Sigefrith’s arms, but in mid-​​flight he remembered his manners and landed gracefully on one knee.

“You may rise,” Sigefrith smiled. He could not have stopped smiling, unless it were to cry. He had scarcely seen Colban the last time; there had been such a stir surrounding his young cousin Eithne.

'You may rise.'

“What are you doing back here, runt? Forget your dolly last time?”

To Sigefrith’s surprise, he did not react with outrage at this accusation of childishness. “No,” he said with a strange solemnity. “I came with my cousin Comgeall and my cousin Egelric.”

“Comgeall’s here, that rascal!” Sigefrith laughed. “Hide the good tablecloths and bolt down the chairs!”

'Hide the good tablecloths and bolt down the chairs!'

“Because Man-​​Flann died,” Colban continued, smiling only sadly. “And we brought my cousin Connie here to stay with the sisters of her.”

Malcolm coughed and crossed himself. Sigefrith stood straight again, torn between his joy at the sight of Colban and his sorrow for the savage, funny man he had called his friend.

Caedwulf was not so affected. “Your cousin Connie, eh?” he smiled. “How old is she again?”

'Your cousin Connie, eh?'

Even twelve-​​year-​​old Colban saw the poor taste in this remark and pointedly ignored it.

“Well,” Sigefrith said gruffly and rubbed Colban’s hair out of his face. “I hope you can stay for supper, runt. Leofric should be coming tonight if he doesn’t want to answer to my wrath tomorrow morning, and he’s bringing the twins with him. And today is the birthday of all three of them, and three birthdays add up to a lot of cake. You like cake, don’t you?” he asked thoughtfully, pretending to have forgotten.

'You like cake, don't you?'

“I can stay for longer than that!”

“For breakfast?”


“For dinner?”


“For Christmas?” Sigefrith grinned. It was a childish sort of conversation, he knew, but he could never resist trying to recapture some of those lost years when Colban was near.

Colban surprised him with his earnest answer. “Perhaps!”



“My father says I might stay with you while he’s away!”


“He was coming with us,” Colban said, smiling a little too brightly, “but when we crossed out of the hill country, he remembered he had to go to Stirling!”

Sigefrith rocked back onto his heels and nodded. “I see.”

'I see.'

He knew Malcolm had a habit of “remembering he had to go to Stirling” at moments convenient to him. Perhaps the man had finally grown tired of chaperoning young boys and girls back and forth across the border and had left the work to Egelric and Comgeall.

“And how long does he mean to be away?” Sigefrith asked.

“I don’t know,” Colban shrugged, still smiling. “He woke up Comgeall and told him in the night, but Comgeall thought he meant to leave in the morning and didn’t ask him. But he told him I could stay here with you!”

'But he told him I could stay here with you!'

Maud had given Colban her eyes, but it was Malcolm – with his carelessness and his selfishness – who had put into them the same look he had put into hers.

Malcolm’s clannish kin were careful not to criticize him in Sigefrith’s presence, but Sigefrith had formed his own understanding over the years out of bits of things unsaid. Now he understood that if it was Comgeall who had been told that Colban might stay in Lothere, then it meant that Malcolm had not even said goodbye to his son.

Sigefrith had formed his own understanding.

“So, may I be Caedwulf’s squire?” Colban asked eagerly.

“His squire?” Sigefrith scoffed. “The runt’s not yet a knight, I remind you!”

“I know, but we can pretend! And then I can ride out with you and him and Cedric every day, instead of staying here to play with the children!”

“Hmmph,” Sigefrith said. “If your only alternative pastime is playing moving target to Drage’s fists and feet, then I can’t blame you for asking.”

“May I?”

“Wellll,” Sigefrith drawled, pretending to hesitate. “It’s a serious business, is squiring. You will have to ask my most excellent squire here to explain to you the finer points of tying laces and mopping up puddles.”

“Will you?” Colban asked Cedric. “I already know how to fight with swords better than he, though,” he added.

'Will you?'

“Ah, but the puddles, the puddles…” Sigefrith fretted.

“There is more to it than puddles,” Cedric grumbled. “One must carry one’s lord’s sword and shield to him, and must help him put on his armor. And one must serve him his wine, and carve the joint at his table.”

Sigefrith slipped behind Cedric as he held forth on the grave duties of a squire, and after bowing left and bowing right, began a ludicrous imitation of his own squire’s every gesture.

He began a ludicrous imitation of his own squire's every gesture.

“It is a serious job,” declared an uncharacteristically pompous Cedric. “You may find it too much work. One must rise very early around here. His Majesty and His Highness are awake before dawn most days.”

Sigefrith planted one hand on his hip and waggled the other in the air, like Cedric, but absurdly more so. Colban finally could not stifle a giggle.

Colban finally could not stifle a giggle.

“One must be awake before one’s lord to be dressed and ready for him. And I believe that the Prince often retires late, and you will be expected to be available to serve him then if need be. You will see that one does not have the luxury to practice at swords all the day.”

“I see,” Colban smiled and nodded.

'You may be surprised...'

“But you will find that I have been practicing a bit since we last fought, and you may be surprised…”


“But I’m certain you will have some advice for me,” Cedric hurried to add with his characteristic generosity, “since you have had so much practice in the Scottish style of fighting.”

Sigefrith finally went into spasms behind him.

Sigefrith finally went into spasms behind him.

Colban choked and snorted, but he managed to keep his calm long enough to say, “I do have some advice for you right now.”

“You do?”

“I think a good squire is careful to always keep an eye on his lord.”

It was a childish sort of joke, Sigefrith knew, but his cub was laughing, and already some of the wounded look had left his eyes.

He did not know how long he would have before Malcolm would return, his head as high as the most righteous among men. But he meant to keep the boy laughing until then, and make up for some of those lost years.

It was a childish sort of joke, Sigefrith knew.