Alred swore as they stepped out into the night air.

“Damn them!” Alred swore as he and Egelric stepped out into the night air. “They’ve buried me already. Did you see that? Do I look sick to you?”

“You’ve grown thinner since I left,” Egelric admitted. “But you have fine color.”

“Ha! You see? Did you ride or walk?”

“I rode.”

“Good. Let’s go back across the downs. I could use a run.”

“There’s no moon, you know.”

“Damn you, too! Are you my mother? I know the way.”

'I know the way.'

“I’m not your mother,” Egelric said, “but I’m your squire.”

“Jupiter! I’d almost forgotten. I don’t know why I didn’t make you so ages ago. Because I’m a lazy bastard, most likely. Also because I needed you here more than I did following along behind me carrying my shield. And now our roles are reversed! What say you to that? I’m staying home and minding the farm while you’re going out to win glory on the battlefield. We are both going to make asses of ourselves.”

“I don’t mind that. I only hope I don’t get myself killed.”

“Oh, you won’t. That would be glorious. I tell you, if there’s any justice on earth, you’re going to make an ass of yourself. You’ll probably fall on your head like Sigefrith predicted, and the enemy will pass you right by thinking you’re dead. And you’ll wake up the next morning, the only one left alive, and claim victory. Say, that would be glorious, too.”

Egelric snorted and risked a smile in the dark. “You aren’t terribly reassuring, lord.”

“You don’t still take me seriously, do you? I thought you knew me better than that.”

Egelric grinned.

Egelric grinned.

“Say, now that you know me—why don’t you tell me what you thought of me the first time you met me?”

Egelric’s smile faded. “Now, that’s a delicate question.”

“Nonsense! I don’t take myself seriously either. Let’s hear it. I should like to hear the first impressions of a sage man like yourself, who recognized Edgar for the puppet that he is. Saddle our horses, boy,” he called to a hand as they entered the stables.

“I believe,” Egelric said, “that my first thought was, ‘How can such a small man be a knight?’”

'How can such a small man be a knight?'

Alred laughed. “Thank God I learned to laugh about my height years ago. But it may have saved my life a few times.”

Egelric chuckled, and Alred protested, “Don’t laugh! My enemy was too busy asking himself the same question you did, and in the meantime I ran him through with my sword.”

Egelric’s chuckling died off as the chill of that thought spread through his bones. Egelric was a bigger man than most.

“Did you kill many men?” he asked, serious now.

“Certainly I did. That’s what one does. Those who don’t are the ones who get killed.”

'That's what one does.'

“Is it… difficult?”

Alred cocked his head and considered the question.

“The most difficult part,” he said, “is discovering how easy it is. That is, how fragile a man is. Because that’s how fragile you are. There’s no reason why you don’t die yourself, except that… you don’t. You can’t think about that, because if you do then, in a way, it’s as if you’re killing yourself every time. You can’t think about them as men. Anyway—you won’t. Believe me, you won’t. But Sigefrith won’t send you in to fight.”

“He may not have the choice.”

'He may not have the choice.'

Alred shrugged. “Then you fight. Most of the men out there are farmers like yourself. Don’t think about that either. Odds are you won’t come across a knight. You just see that Sigefrith doesn’t either. He had no business fighting at Ely, but he was right in there. We need him alive, and if two or three knights go unslain because Sigefrith is sitting behind the lines on a horse, why, that’s just fine.”

“You want me to stop him?”

'Now you listen.'

“Yes, I do. Now you listen: Sigefrith may be a pompous ass, but he’s the best friend I ever had, and the best man I ever knew. You bring him home again, or I shall never forgive you.”

Egelric nodded grimly.

“Mind you, I shall say precisely the same thing to him about you. Except I think I shall call you a… a wooden-​headed mule instead of a pompous ass. But the sentiments are the same. You come home or I shall never forgive you.”

'You come home or I shall never forgive you.'

Moved, Egelric opened his mouth to speak, but Alred interrupted with, “At last!” as their horses were led in. “Stay behind me, Squire. I know the way.”