Caedwulf was in a bed not his own, alone.

Caedwulf was in a bed not his own, alone. It was such an unlikely occurrence that he was all the more certain he was dreaming the closer he came to waking. Either the unfamiliar, scratchy sheets were a dream, and he was at home in his own bed – in the bed upon which never feminine body had lain since the death of his mother – or there was a girl beside him, albeit a remarkably ethereal, undetectable girl.

But he was not, and there was not.

But he was not, and there was not.

For a few last, blissful seconds he was only confused. Then he remembered. He, Caedwulf, Crown Prince of Lothere, had made a fool of himself before the King of Man, before the daughter of Harald Hardrada, before the assembled sons, captains, soldiers and servants of the twain, and before his own friends.

And he was sleeping alone because he had feared the island girls were only looking to combine their mockery of his diplomatic skills with a mockery of his performance in bed.

He fell back onto his scratchy pillow and groaned, “Wyn!” though he knew his friend was not there to hear.

He fell back onto his scratchy pillow and groaned.

Selwyn had saved his own honor by contriving to give the Manx chieftain Kormak a bloody lip in the course of that brief brawl, and in the way of warriors, the two men had thereby become the best of friends before the end of supper. Selwyn had nothing to fear from the island girls.

“You fat, reeking, goat-​​sucking traitor!” Caedwulf wailed, though he knew no one would hear.

And nevertheless there came a clatter and a thump from somewhere beyond the heavy curtain that closed off his bed.

There came a clatter and a thump from somewhere beyond the heavy curtain.

He was up and out of it before the clatter-​​and-​​thumper had the time to attack or retreat – but there was nothing – no one – and he was on an island swarming with pirates, whatever they claimed to be – and he could not remember where he had left his sword.

There was nothing--no one.

He charged through the outer curtain, his fists raised, though he knew even as he leapt that he was doing a foolish thing – and all out of anger at having been made to seem a fool.

“Wyn,” he bellowed, “you son of a sow, if that’s you – ”

'If that's you--'

It was not Wyn, but even before he had quite realized it was only a girl, he was overswept with a sickening feeling – not nausea, certainly not a hangover, but the sudden, vicious chomping-​​down of a pain that for long years had confined itself to gnawing.

Something terrible was happening – something he dreaded – something he hated. And yet he did not want to be sent away, though he knew he would be.

Something terrible was happening.

The girl whimpered, “N-​​n-​​no! You are not here!”

He was not there. It was a dream. He was seven years old, and his terrified Mama was before him, cringing away from the evil she saw all around her. Sometimes she could play so gently for a while, and suddenly – this.

He was not there.

Supposed to be here,” she corrected pitifully.

She was only a strange girl, he realized as he fought to calm himself, and the loaf and knife, the plates, and the cups she had knocked onto the floor told him that she was simply bringing him his breakfast.

She was simply bringing him his breakfast.

And the evil she saw was Caedwulf himself. He was not the silent, seven-​​year-​​old witness; he was standing in the place of Lucifer, and it was him she feared.

More than ever he hated the man who had molested his fragile mother at the abbey. More than ever he was certain that never – though it was the way of warriors – never – whether in war or in peace, whether as an act of outrage or of revenge – never would he rape a woman. If he did, he could never stand before the tomb of his mother again.

More than ever he hated the man who had molested his fragile mother at the abbey.

He tried to think of a few Norse words he could use to soothe the girl, but his mind was as dull and helpless as it had always been before his mother’s distress. He had entirely forgotten that he used to suck his finger when he was overcome, but his finger had remembered, and now it throbbed.

“I am not a – servant-​​girl – a maid!” she squeaked.

He realized she was not speaking Norse at all, but a quaint English, and the fall of that one obstacle seemed to knock all of the others away with it.

“I knew it!” he cried. “You’re an assassin!”

'You're an assassin!'

She whimpered, “No!” and made a furtive, aborted attempt to slip past him to the door.

Caedwulf lifted his arms as though to herd a shy animal into a corner – and then he saw what he was doing and let them drop.

“I’m only joking,” he laughed awkwardly. “I know you’re not.”

Her hands slowly lowered between them, even as her pale cheeks bloomed into pink.

Her pale cheeks bloomed into pink.

Caedwulf stared at her in wonder. Hers was the fairest, silkiest, un-​​blotchy-​​est face he had seen since the death of his petal-​​cheeked mother.

He was so dazzled as to be slow to realize that her blush was not merely beauty, but also embarrassment. She was embarrassed to have thought he truly believed her an assassin – embarrassed to have taken him seriously. At last someone on this island had taken him seriously! When he had been joking!

“I’m terribly sorry to have frightened you,” he said as gently as he knew how. “With the shouting, and the fists, and the leaping about half-​​naked, and whatnot. However, in my defense,” he smiled, “I did think you were here to kill me.”

'I did think you were here to kill me.'

She gave him a faint smile in return, though her hands lifted again between them to compensate for this slight softening.

“And where am I supposed to be, if not here?” he asked. “Don’t tell me I spent the whole night in the wrong room?”

She pointed hesitantly at the curtain. “In bed,” she quavered. “So, I come early, it is not quite morning.”

“I see nobody warned you I’m an early riser,” he grinned. “Like my father,” he added.

The comment had seemed inconsequential to him, but the mention of his father appeared to remind her who he was himself. Blushing again, she stammered, “Your Highness,” and curtsied low before him, nearly touching her knee to the floor.

'Your Highness.'

The hands were awkward and shaking that clutched at her dress to lift the hem out of her way, but her body was as graceful as a poplar swaying in the wind, and her head and slender neck a nodding flower and its stem.

For an instant he was an arm’s-length away from touching the stiff, glossy folds of his mother’s skirts as they crumpled beneath her – for a blissful instant he could smell the perfume of the long white neck she bent to his father when he came to greet her in the morning…

Then she began to rise.

Then she began to rise.

He gasped, “Stop!”

The girl’s head snapped up, and her face was white again with fear.

The girl's head snapped up.

“Call me Caedwulf, I mean,” he blurted. “Please.”

Some god of glibness must have been watching over him at that moment, for in his dizzy confusion he could not have been the source of such a clever pretext for his folly.

“What’s yours?” he added limply.

'What's yours?'

“Sessot,” she frowned. “Your Highness. I am not that sort of girl.” She hesitated, and as she thought over what she meant, she blushed and fidgeted, crossing her arms defensively over her breast again, allowing him to guess. “I am not a maid,” she mumbled at last, as a euphemism for the other thing.

Still, he could not help but glance at the plates and bread she had brought, in apparent contradiction of her words.

“I am not a maid!” she repeated defiantly. “So, Suki the maid she is supposed to come, but I am speaking English and she not, so they say I must come too. And so, I go to Suki this morning but she – she – there was someone…” She trailed off, twisting her arms in embarrassment.

'There was someone...'

“Suki the maid is that sort of girl, is she?” Caedwulf smiled. “The, ah, someone wasn’t a young man of approximately my age and my height, with auburn hair, was he?”

'The, ah, someone wasn't a young man of approximately my age?'

He laughed at his own joke, but the girl only seemed offended.

“Allow me to get your cups,” he blurted, and thanking the god of distractions for this excuse to hide his own embarrassment, he dropped to his knees and began chasing after the cups that had rolled beneath the table.

She cried, “Ah, no!” and moved to stop him, but her courage fell short of touching him, and she only hopped helplessly about.

'Ah, no!'

In spite of the ugliness of her coarse, clumsy shoes, her toes seemed to tap out the gay rhythm of his mother’s silk-​​shod feet in gladder times, when they had still trusted her enough to leave her alone with her children, and she would declare herself a little girl again, and dance out of sheer loveliness and joy.

“Ah, no!” the girl scolded.

Caedwulf laughed at her loveliness, laughed out of joy, laughed to dislodge the pain that had closed fast around his heart. “We can’t have you grubbing around on the floor, since you aren’t a maid!”

'We can't have you grubbing around on the floor, since you aren't a maid!'

“Ah, no!”

He stood and clapped the two cups down onto the table. “Had your breakfast yet?”

All her fine, funny frustration was immediately replaced with fear. “No, no!” she whimpered.

“Don’t be frightened,” he murmured. “I’m not that sort of young man, you know.”

She shook her head doubtfully and refused even to meet his eyes.

She shook her head doubtfully.

He turned the pitcher around and around, grinding the rough pottery loudly against the wood, until the handle was pointed precisely at himself. He found he could not lift his eyes either.

“Please stay,” he mumbled. “Somehow you remind me of my mother.”

She snorted. “So, I think you say that before,” she muttered.

“I have never said it before. Perhaps not even to my sisters.”

He studied her face, trying to find the words to explain it to himself, so that he could explain it to her.

He studied her face.

Even Britamund and Emma, who could only truly claim her eyes, resembled their mother more than this girl did. There was nothing about her he could name – perhaps only the way her upper lip nestled into the fullness of her lower – perhaps only the way her head sat high on her long neck like a swan’s – perhaps only the way she moved, graceful and gliding between trembling hesitations, like a deer.

There was nothing about her he could name.

“I would never say it if it weren’t true,” he said. He lifted the pitcher and poured himself a cupful of the Manxmen’s bitter ale. “I loved my mother far too much to put her memory to such a use as you imagine, Sessot.”

He held the pitcher over the second cup and looked up at her, demanding a response with his eyes. She was simply looking ashamed for having thought ill of him – as if the shame should have been hers!

“Mind you, I don’t blame you for being nervous,” he said as he poured a second cup. “I imagine in your country the young men at least put on a shirt before introducing themselves to young ladies.”

'I imagine in your country the young men at least put on a shirt before introducing themselves to young ladies.'

She twisted away from him, preventing him from seeing whether she smiled – but perhaps it was meant to hide a smile. “I will cut the bread,” she murmured.

He dropped into the chair opposite the door and took a sip from his cup, watching her uneasily over the rim. Her eyes were studying the bread and cheese, but her body was leaning towards the door, like the trembling body of a deer poised to bolt into the deeper woods.

Her eyes were studying the bread and cheese.

Caedwulf saw that he would have to talk, though he had never felt stupider. He had to keep her near.

“How come you to speak English, Sessot?” he asked. “You speak it very well.”

“My mother was an English woman. She – ” She bent and began furiously sawing at the bread. “Call me Cecily. It is my English name my mother she gave. Only she called me it. Here I am only Sessot.”


“Cecily…” he repeated, gently tasting the name. “Cecilia, in Latin.”

“Cecily or Sessot,” she corrected.

“Of course.” He closed his mouth, but his teeth and tongue practiced the name over and over in silence as he watched her.

From where he sat he could only see her hips. They were neither scrawny and jagged like Ogive’s, nor skinny and boyish like Britamund’s, nor wide and plump like Gwynn’s. They were simply perfect, like his mother’s – just round enough and just firm enough – and as she sliced they rocked slightly like a young tree riding out a storm.

From where he sat he could only see her hips.

He could scarcely imagine himself doing the obscene things to her that the sight of a girl bending over ordinarily put into his mind. He could imagine himself hugging those hips to himself, however, as he had hugged his tall mother’s hips when he had been a little boy and could reach no higher. Now that he was tall he thought he would gladly go onto his knees before this girl if she would let him try.

He thought he would gladly go onto his knees before her if she would let him try.

When she turned to lay a slice of bread on his plate, he thought dreamily that the finest use to which her breast might be put would be as a place to lay his head. He would tell her what an idiot he had been the past night, and like his mother, she would listen closely, and brush and brush and brush back his hair until long after it had given up falling over his eyes, and coo and sigh, and tell him he was her fine, beautiful boy.

'Do you like gardens?'

“Do you like cheese?” Cecily asked, pointing the tip of the knife at the small wheel of ewe cheese on the table.

Caedwulf smiled stupidly. He had forgotten breakfast, and only imagined she was trying to get to know him, as he longed to get to know her. “I like cheese very much. Do you like gardens?”

'Do you like gardens?'

“Gardens?” she repeated warily.

“My mother did. She had a garden below the castle, which she loved more than anything besides her children. And she was so sweet the deer would come to eat from her hand. They would even come when she had nothing to feed them.”

Cecily looked skeptically at the cheese.

Cecily looked skeptically at the cheese.

“And forests?” he asked. “And trees?”

“There are not any trees on the island,” she said.

Caedwulf’s mouth fell open in dismay. At last he managed to see her in her context – on this tiny, rocky, muddy isle, where the only garden could have been the old medicine garden, left to lichen and weeds since the Norsemen had chased the Irish monks away.

At last he managed to see her in her context.

“I did see trees already,” she added hastily and a little defiantly. “So, when I was a girl on the land, before Whitehand he came.”

In his mind Caedwulf soared over the rocky straits to her “land”, the western coast of Man – to the few twisted, creaking thorn trees that squinted full into the fury of the storms of the Irish sea, and whose ankles were constantly gnawed by goats and sheep, and whose knotty wood was fit only for fires.

'I mean a forest, Cecily.'

“I mean a forest, Cecily,” he said. “I mean a quiet place, where the trees grow that are used for making masts – and bigger trees than that, even. In my country, we have trees so tall and straight that the branches don’t even start until far above the height of the tallest mast you’ve ever seen.”

Cecily frowned as if she did not believe it possible. “I never saw such a tree.”

I never saw such a tree.

Caedwulf looked up at her – at her little mouth whose upper lip sat so sweetly upon the lower’s frown, at the proud tilt of her head – and he saw in her his mother, lacking the one important detail. His mother had loved trees. His mother could passionately, joyfully embrace trees, as he had never seen her embrace a man.

'That is possibly the saddest thing I ever heard.'

“That is possibly the saddest thing I ever heard,” he said mournfully.

She tilted her head still higher. “In your country you have not even the sea. That is the saddest thing I ever heard.”

'That is the saddest thing I ever heard.'

“My father says the same,” he sighed. “His childhood home was on a cliff overlooking the sea, and he misses it every day.”

He looked wide-​​eyed up at her, startled by a sudden thought – the thought of winning Hwaelnaess back again, and taking Cecily to see it. She would teach him the love of the sea. He would watch her loving it until he learned.

He looked wide-eyed up at her, startled by a sudden thought.

Cecily was already cutting cheese for his bread. Something about her frown made him fear she would cut none for hers.

“Won’t you stay and eat with me, Cecily?” he pleaded. “I forgot to mention I don’t like cheese if I must eat it alone.”

“That is nonsense,” she muttered.

“I speak nonsense because I would feel even stupider telling the truth,” he said, laughing awkwardly.

'I speak nonsense because I would feel even stupider telling the truth.'

“That also.”

He hastily put down his knife, for a sickening thought had robbed him of his desire to eat any cheese at all. Perhaps, later that morning, after he had gone, she would find Suki the maid and the other girls, and together they would laugh at him, mocking the babyish prince who still cried over his Mama.

Her hips swayed before his face as she shifted her weight from foot to foot in her awkwardness. “Your Highness…”

'Your Highness...'

“Cecily, please stay and talk with me a while,” he blurted. “I have lived more than half my life without my mother, and no one has ever reminded me of her as you have – not even my sisters. She’s not here, but I feel almost as if she were.”

'I feel almost as if she were.'

He heard his voice change and grew childish even before he felt the tears in his eyes. He hastily wiped them away, and then wrapped his fingers around the cup he had meant for hers, since her hand was not near. Perhaps it was the closest he would ever come to holding it.

Perhaps it was the closest he would ever come to holding it.

“And… perhaps I shall never feel this way again,” he added softly.

Cecily tilted her head, but thoughtfully now. Finally she reached out and picked up the cup he had meant for his, and from which he had already drunk. She took a sip and set it beside the other plate. She did not yet sit, but her body seemed to lean towards the chair like a vine.

She said simply, “That is the saddest thing I ever heard.”

'That is the saddest thing I ever heard.'