Cedric knew his friends were up to trouble as soon as he opened the door.

Cedric knew his friends were up to trouble as soon as he opened the door. Olaf squealed, Conrad hunched his shoulders over something he held in his lap, and Finn turned his head and grinned as wickedly as Finn could grin.

Cedric stepped into the shadows and unbuckled his sword. “What are you boys doing?”

'What are you boys doing?'

Colban said, “Doing our Latin!”

Finn laughed. “Our Latin!”

“Gentlemen,” Conrad intoned, “how would you translate ‘more canino’?”

Colban said, “‘In the manner of dogs!’” He growled and barked until his own giggles prevented him from carrying on.

Finn asked, “How does that compare to ‘with dogs’?”

Cedric stopped with his belt half-​unbuckled. “What are you talking about?”

'What are you talking about?'

“Forty days if in the dog’s manner,” Conrad said. “If with a dog… Is a dog a clean or unclean beast?”

Colban groaned. “Any beast is an unclean beast that thinks rabbit turds make a fine breakfast!”

Conrad scratched the back of his head. “Fornication with an unclean beast was twenty years, wasn’t it?”

Cedric flung down his belt and stomped around the bed. “What is this about?”

'We found a penitential in my brother's room.'

“We found a penitential in my brother’s room,” Colban said. “We’re simply doing our own Latin,” he added slyly, “since the Abbot was unwell.”

“You took a book out of Caedwulf’s room? You stole a penitential?”

Colban snorted. “I don’t know what my brother is doing with a penitential anyway. It isn’t as if he meant to be a priest.”

Conrad gasped and chuckled wickedly to himself over something he had found in the book. Cedric lifted his head out of range of temptation and leaned his body back against the bedpost.

Cedric lifted his head carefully out of range of temptation.'

Finn grinned. “Your brother can only be trying to learn how bad he has been.”

Conrad whistled. “Or how bad he can be! Forget the unclean beasts, boys—this entire chapter is devoted to things a man can do with his lawful wife and still be in sin—in case you needed some ideas!” he laughed.

Olaf sat forward. “Like what things?”

Cedric leaned over Conrad’s shoulder, sick with nervousness…

Cedric leaned over Conrad's shoulder.'

But there were no pictures.

He stood up and clenched his shaking hands into fists, gouging his nails into his palms to punish himself. Of course there would be no pictures! It was a penitential—not a book of instruction.

Nevertheless his voice was weak and high when he tried to scold them. “I don’t think you should be reading this…”

Conrad ignored him entirely. He looked around at the other boys, glowering out from beneath his brows like the Abbot. “Gentlemen, how would you translate ‘mulier super virum’?”

'Gentlemen, how would you translate.'

Olaf laughed. “The woman atop the man! How many days’ fasting is that?”

“Same as for dog fashion—forty days.”

Colban snorted. “Aye, now I know what my brother wants with such a book! For the same penance, a man might as well be choosing the most agreeable sin.”

Cedric was shocked.

Cedric was shocked enough to call his friend by his Christian name—“Colban!”

Finn smirked across the rug at Colban. “Which is it then?”

Colban replied without hesitation. “Dog fashion.”

'Dog fashion.''

Cedric was stunned. So far as he knew, his friend had never done more than kiss a girl, and then only to annoy her. Had he done more than Cedric realized, to speak of it with such self-​assurance? Had they all, to speak of it with such nonchalance?

Then Colban added, just as coolly, “Everyone says.”

Finn chuckled. “Your father says.”

'Your father says.'

“Never asked him! But your father ought to know.”

“Your sister ought to know.”

“Oh!” Colban whipped a knife out of his belt and held it up to the firelight.

Cedric whined, “Boys…”—though he thought they were behaving disconcertingly like grown men.

Olaf asked, “How many days for the girl? Forty also?”

Colban sheathed his knife, but the smile he had from his father was nearly as sharp.

The smile he had from his father was nearly as sharp.

“Nine months penance. Though it must be without fasting, for they surely do get fat.”

Conrad frowned and flipped a few pages. “It doesn’t say. It’s always about the man.”

Olaf whined, “That isn’t fair! Don’t the girls have no penalty?”

'Don't the girls have no penalty?'

Colban said, “Nine months penance, I’m telling you. But if the babies were only coming when they were wanted, there wouldn’t be half so many people in the world now.”

Finn waved the back of his hand. “There would not be a man on earth if every rule in that book were followed.”

“Nothing but pagans before long.” Colban laughed. “So, I suppose it’s not very Christian to live by that book! Better to have our sport and see that our bastards are baptized—”

Cedric shouted, “You’ll go to Hell!”

'You'll go to Hell!'

This time no one ignored him. They all looked up, stunned and open-​mouthed. Cedric shook and sweated and panted, as if he had been holding it back all the while.

Conrad was first to look away, but he hung his head over the book, and Cedric could not know whether he was shame-​faced or stubbornly reading.

Finn sneered, “You’re the one to talk, aren’t you? We’re simply reading about the sins—you’re the one sinning.”

'You're the one to talk, aren't you?'

Cedric gasped. “What? I defy you—”

“Kraaia?” Finn asked. “Ever heard of her?”

“Never!” Cedric smacked his fist back against the bedpost, since he could not smash it into Finn’s enormous nose from where he stood. “Get up and say it again, I dare you!”

Colban snorted in disgust and waved the back of his hand at Finn. “Leave him be, cousin. He never touched her. He’s never so much as seen a girl naked in all his life.”

'He's never so much as seen a girl naked in all his life.'

Olaf asked, “Have you?”

“Have I? The devil I have! Haven’t you?”

Olaf dipped his chin. “Only my sister. My big one,” he added hastily, lest anyone think he had only seen an eight-​year-​old girl. “I saw her once, I mean.”

'I saw her once, I mean.'

“The devil! Your own sister!” Colban laughed. “Well, lad, as Finn’s father says: ‘Lord, but I guess I’d rather see that than be blind!’”

They all laughed—even Cedric, half-​heartedly.

They all laughed--even Cedric, half-heartedly.

But to his horror it was his own laughter that seemed the loudest, for his was only the high-​pitched laughter of a boy mocking another for walking in on his own sister’s bath.

The four others—as if by some signal Cedric had not heard—laughed low and wickedly, like men crudely congratulating one another for contriving to see a woman unclothed.

The four others laughed low and wickedly

Colban said, “You might have seen some real girls if it had been summertime when you came home with me. The girls go swimming in the nude in my country.” He sounded as proud as if it had been his own idea.

'The girls go swimming in the nude in my country.'

Olaf asked, “And the boys with them?”

“Of course! I’ve even seen Cousin Connie.” Colban stared past Olaf at Finn’s impassive profile.

Finn sat up and folded his long legs beneath him, with the gesture but little of the grace of an elf. “The elves do as much. I’ve seen Rua.”

This revelation was met with the same wide eyes and gaping mouths as Cedric’s outburst of a moment before, but this time no one looked ashamed—and more importantly, no one looked at Cedric. His shaking limbs seemed to be growing heavy and molten, and he let them drag him down to sit on the floor in Conrad’s bulky shadow.

He let them drag him down to sit on the floor.

Within seconds the other boys had composed themselves, and Conrad turned back to his book and asked, “How does she look?” with a nonchalance that awed Cedric.

Finn snorted. “Haven’t you ever seen a girl before?”

“Of course I have! But not an elf-​girl.

“Hmm!” Finn tapped his chin. “Imagine the prettiest girl you ever saw. Now imagine her prettier. Now imagine her naked. Now…” He grinned. “Imagine her wet.

'Now, imagine her wet.'

Conrad groaned and pretended to flip through the pages of his book. “Nom de Dieu! There must be a special sixty-​year penance just for imagining that!

Cedric smiled with the others—smiled so they would not notice he was different—smiled to be invisible—smiled to fit in.

Cedric smiled with the others.

Inside, however, he was sickened to think he had been imagining precisely that. Of course, there was a fog across her chest, and a dim blur where her legs came together…

But perhaps that was his problem. Never having seen, he was left with a mind so hungry for explicit details that he seemed to spend all his waking hours trying to invent them.

When the boys who knew them were free to think of sport or war or horses, he was left dwelling on shadows he had seen when lightly-​draped young bodies had bent over, or lifted their arms, or stood against a whipping wind. He was left trying to imagine how it would be to hold a girl close, knowing nothing more than how it felt to push a girl away.

He was left trying to imagine.

Perhaps it was as his father had said when Cedric had confided that he had been waking from wicked dreams: the only way to stop dreaming about having a girl was to have one.

Perhaps the only way to stop thinking about sin was to sin.

Perhaps the only way to stop thinking about sin was to sin.