Sir Malcolm seemed to stumble in surprise as he hurried into the hall.

Sir Malcolm seemed to stumble in surprise as he hurried into the hall.

“Captain!” he whispered. “What are you doing here?”

Eadred forced a quick smile and shrugged.

He did not know himself.

He did not know himself, and if Malcolm did not know either, then he thought it had to be for something strange – and not likely for something pleasant. He met personally with the King every second Friday, and if there were any matters on which he had to speak on behalf of the guards, they were handled then.

He met personally with the King every second Friday.

Some representative of their number was expected to attend these monthly royal audiences, but Eadred usually reserved this tedious duty as a sort of mild punishment for a man who had misbehaved. If one of them was requested by name to attend, it meant one of the King’s subjects had a grievance against a particular guard.

But as the afternoon passed, and as peasant came after baker came after miller, and still no one spoke his name, Eadred’s worry began to fade into weariness.

Eadred's worry began to fade into weariness.

He was well-​​accustomed to spending hours on his feet, and he knew how to keep himself alert with little mental games, but he was now well past the age of thirty, and in the last months it seemed to him that something inside of him had changed.

One afternoon, after a lifetime spent scoffing at lazy men who shirked their work to sleep, Eadred had discovered just how fine a thing an after-​​dinner nap could be. Since then his body had been constantly reminding him – and today his dinner had been so large, and last night he had stayed up so late…

“Captain!” Malcolm whispered from behind his pillar.


Eadred looked around in a panic. Aside from Malcolm, it seemed that no one was staring at him. No one had called his name.

Malcolm laid his folded hands against his cheek and cocked his head, pretending to sleep.

Eadred smiled sheepishly at him. Perhaps he had been nodding off even then. In spite of his little mental games he did not even remember seeing the arrival of the farmer who was presently speaking.

Unless Malcolm had heard about what had happened last Sunday…

He did not even remember seeing the arrival of the farmer who was presently speaking.

“You’re in trou-​​ble…” Malcolm taunted in a whispered sing-​​song.

Eadred glanced worriedly up at the King. For an instant the keen hazel eyes seemed to be staring deeply into his own, all the way down into his guilty, sleepy soul. But the King looked abruptly back at the peasant, and he went on listening to the young farmer’s petition with that expression of wry goodwill that so endeared him to his subjects.

The King looked abruptly back at the peasant.

Eadred looked over at Malcolm in time to see him lift a pretend knife to his neck and pretend to slit his throat. “Trou-​​ble!” he whispered.

Eadred turned his blushing face away and cringed back against the doorframe. Only the young Princess and her friend Lady Margaret had seen him sleeping that day, slumped into a corner before the door he was supposed to have been guarding – and they had promised not to tell!

But could one trust a promise given by young ladies while giggling?

Could one trust a promise given by young ladies while giggling?

The back of Eadred’s head banged against the doorframe, waking him to a sickening feeling of disorientation. Everyone was still approximately where he had last seen them, excepting the complete absence of peasants of any kind.

The king clapped his big hands together and cried, “Name of God! Are we done? It’s thirsty work, being so agreeable! How do you ever do it, my dear?” he asked Lady Ogive.

Her ladyship snorted and rolled her eyes.

'Let's go kick some widows and rob some orphan puppies!'

“Let’s go kick some widows and rob some orphan puppies!” the King suggested as he rose. “Who’s with me?”

“That is not all, sire,” his steward interrupted.

The King dropped back into his throne again with a wail of dismay.

“We have notice of grievance against the Captain of the Royal Guard,” Ralf added.

'We have notice of grievance against the Captain of the Royal Guard.'

The little page giggled.

“Who dares hold a grievance against the Captain of My Majesty’s Guard?” the King demanded angrily.

“Your Majesty dares,” Ralf replied calmly.

The King suddenly grinned. “Oh! In that case, I have no objection.” Just as suddenly he threw up his arms and stared down the hall at Eadred.

Suddenly he threw up his arms and stared down the hall at Eadred.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” he barked. “Get up here so I can give you grief!”

Eadred peeled himself away from the wall and tottered forward.

Eadered peeled himself away from the wall and tottered forward.

Malcolm whispered, “Nice knowing you!” as he passed. The assembled stewards exchanged knowing looks, the royal reeve smirked, and the little page tried to hide a squeaking laugh behind his cupped hand. The King himself did his best to scowl with his lips, but his hidden smile crinkled the corners of his eyes.

Eadred simply could not decide whether they were all prepared to laugh with him or at him. Only the King’s thoughtful squire looked truly grave – indeed, he looked miserable – and Eadred thought this a bad sign.

He looked miserable--and Eadred thought this a bad sign.

“Gentlemen!” the King thundered. “And lady,” he added gently, with a nod to Lady Ogive, who sat in the Crown Prince’s chair.

Ogive smiled primly and nodded back.

“I have observed that, as King, while I am often required to endure long hours of tedium, I am also permitted to sit on my – ” He pretended to cough and nodded at Ogive again. “–behind–throughout.”

'I am also permitted to sit on my--'

Aering giggled and helpfully whispered, “He almost said a bad word!” up at the new reeve.

“Runt!” the King whispered down at him.

Eadred nervously smiled.

Eadred nervously smiled.

“Therefore,” the King continued loudly, “as King, I am myself ill-​​experienced to say whether a man, as he ages, finds it increasingly difficult to – shall we say–keep his wits about him through long periods of boredom.”

As King, I am myself ill-experienced.

He stared keenly down at Eadred until Eadred’s smile weakened into a sickened grimace. The young ladies had told. At best he would be humiliated before these noblemen and his friends. At worst…

They were not at war, and he would not lose his head. But at worst he might lose his post – and his post was all he had. He had come to the King a penniless orphan, and he would leave a man with no more than a sword and a small sack of coin – too old to fight his way to a place in the world, and too poor to buy more than a cottage.

At best he would be humiliated before these noblemen and his friends.

“He means not fall asleep!” Aering whispered.

“Runt!” the King bellowed. “I’m about to have a grievance with your behind!”

Aering covered his mouth with one hand and his behind with the other.

The King snorted and turned back to Eadred. “How old are you, Captain?” he asked softly.

“Thirty-​​one, sire,” Eadred answered, thankful his next birthday had not quite yet arrived.

“Hmm. It would seem that thirty-​​one is not too young to fall asleep at one’s post. Is it?”

'It would seem that thirty-one is not too young to fall asleep at one's post.'

“No, sire.” Eadred lifted his eyes and stared into the King’s, bold now that the truth was out. “But it isn’t too old to learn one’s lesson and not do it again.”

“Hmm,” the King nodded. “That’s just what I was wondering. Was it an accident? Result of a sleepless night, perhaps?” he mused. “Or is a thirty-​​one-​​year-​​old man constitutionally unable to stand watch?”

“It was an accident, sire,” Eadred replied. “It won’t happen again.”

“I see. And do you then suppose thirty-​​one is not too old to watch, say, all through the night?”

“No, sire. I’ll do it gladly.”

'No, sire.  I'll do it gladly.'

“After fasting for an entire day?” the King asked.

“Of course, sire,” Eadred bowed.

“Hmm.” The King sat back on his throne and scratched his chin. “How difficult can we make this? What if you had to watch all night, hungry and on your knees?

Eadred hesitated. This was beginning to sound more like penance than punishment, but he was willing to do nearly anything. He had everything to lose if he did not.

“I could do that, too,” he said softly.

'I could do that, too.'

“Damn! What if we… what if we dressed you up in a long, white gown first?”

Eadred looked up at him in dismay.

The King laughed and smacked his hand down on his thigh. “I think we got him!”

“I’ll do that, too!” Eadred blurted.

The men all laughed. Eadred blushed in embarrassment, but he was beginning to feel relieved. This strange punishment was sounding no worse than the sorts of initiation generally inflicted upon new guards.

“Name of God!” the King wailed. “What more can we do to the man?”

Malcolm said grimly, “I think we can’t keep him as Captain.”

'I think we can't keep him as Captain.'

Eadred gasped and squeezed his eyes shut at this shock. He knew he should have been grateful he was allowed to stay among the guards at all… but Sir Malcolm… On how many of young Malcolm’s nighttime expeditions had the Captain turned a blind eye? Was this how he was to be repaid?

“Damn!” the King cried. “What shall we call him, then?”

Malcolm snuck up behind him and roughly pinched his cheek.

“I’ve always thought Sir Eadred would sound cute.”

'I always thought 'Sir Eadred' would sound cute.'

A few men tittered softly, but everyone waited for Eadred’s reaction.

Eadred hurriedly went over his proposed punishment – the fasting, the watch through the night, the kneeling in prayer, the novice’s long, white robe…

When Aering could bear the suspense no longer he whispered in explanation, “He means to make you a knight!”


Then everyone laughed – even Eadred himself, as much out of disbelief as joy or relief. But it was very like his King.

It was very like his King.

“Well! I give up!” the King cried in exasperation. “Some men just can’t be beaten! But do not think,” he said warningly to Eadred, “that this has anything to do with your thirty-​​one years of accumulated sleepiness, but rather fifteen years of faithful service.”

'This has nothing to do with your thirty-one years of sleepiness.'

“No, sire,” Eadred said shakily.

“Good!” He clapped his hands and stood. “Let’s get out of here! I spy me one freckle-​​faced orphan pup I want to get drunk with. Who’s with me?”

“Wait!” Aering squealed. “We’re not done yet!”

'We're not done yet!'

“Name of God!” the King groaned and fell back onto his throne.

“There’s one more, uh, petitioner, Your Majesty.”

“No, runt, you may not have a new pony,” the King said briskly. “May we go?”

“No no!” Aering cried, waving his hands desperately. “It’s not me! It’s my sister! I mean – it’s Her Majesty the Queen!”

'I mean--it's Her Majesty the Queen!'