There was no explaining away the presence of the reeve.

Cedric saw at once just what sort of trouble he was in. His father had been summoned, it seemed, and even if he had only chanced to come by at that moment, there was no explaining away the presence of the reeve.

He would be arrested. He would be locked up in the pillory; he would be pelted with rotten turnips and dog shit and stones. Perhaps the Duke’s daughter – whom all the people loved – was more gravely hurt than he knew. Perhaps he would be whipped.

He would be arrested.

Or perhaps Lady Gwynn had died of a swelling or a fever in the night. For a sickening moment Cedric imagined her head on her pillow: the pink cheeks white; the red lips white. If he pulled down the sheets to bare her body, he would find it white and cold.

Perhaps he would be hanged.

The King leaned forward and drawled with painful slowness as he rose: “Squire!


Cedric fell to his knees. “Yes, sire.”

“How are you with sums? I need to make a calculation.”

Cedric croaked, “My lord?”

Jots and tittles, runt!” the King thundered. “You may rise,” he added with a gracious nod.

At last Cedric’s frightened confusion overcame his shame, and he looked up into his father’s face. His father was chuckling nervously and did not see.

His father was chuckling nervously.

Sigefrith saw, and he pretended to swat his father’s face with the back of his hand. “I said tittles, not titties, you old lecher! Name of God! You see whence he gets it,” he said to wearily to the reeve.

Saeward stared down his nose at Cedric and snorted. Cedric clambered to his feet.

Cedric clambered to his feet.

“How old are you, runt?” Sigefrith asked him.

“Twelve years old, my lord,” Cedric replied without hesitation.

Oh, he could recite rote facts and figures, rattle out his times-​​elevens and times-​​twelves, even decline any Latin noun he knew – gladly! all the morning! But instead he would be called to answer for his crime.

“Twelve years and how many pennies?” Sigefrith demanded.

'Twelve years and how many pennies?'

Cedric glanced uneasily up at his father.

“Sigefrith…” his father sighed.

“Twelve years, and six months, and… seven days,” Cedric said dutifully.

Sigefrith’s shoulders slumped, and he sighed as if defeated. His father laughed.

Sigefrith's shoulders slumped, and he sighed as if defeated.

Cedric’s heart began to pound with a wild hope: perhaps there was a minimum age for corporal or capital punishment that he had not yet reached. Oh, perhaps he was still young enough to get clear with no more than a spanking!

And nevertheless he had seen boys of eight or nine locked up in the stocks for no greater crime than stealing a loaf of bread.

He had seen boys of eight or nine locked up in the stocks.

“Exactly how old was I?” Sigefrith asked mournfully.

“I don’t know how many jots and titties,” his father cackled, “but you were so close to thirteen you were getting ready to pay for it so you could say you beat me!

“I didn’t have to, though, in the end,” Sigefrith said with sudden gaiety. “And the runt hasn’t precisely beaten me yet! Unless there have been other meetings that went uninterrupted?”

'Unless there have been other meetings?'

“He had better be interrupting them!” Cedric’s father cried. “I don’t want him beating his brother in the matter of giving me grandrunts!”

Cedric was beginning to understand. “What?

Sigefrith laughed and leaned back to throw his arm over the reeve’s shoulders. “What about you, young Cockchafer? How old were you?”

“I never had any meetings!” Cedric protested. No one seemed to hear.

'I never had any meetings.'

Saeward rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “I don’t recall…”

“With a female, I mean,” Sigefrith added.

Cedric clenched his teeth into a scowl and his hands into fists, torn between humiliation at being teased, and anger at being falsely accused, and relief at seeing the King lead the reeve harmlessly away.

'In that case I shall tell you if I ever do.'

“Oh!” Saeward chuckled breezily as he passed, “in that case I shall tell you if I ever do.”

Cedric bit his upper lip and stared determinedly through his tears at the window. There were some private humiliations worse than the pillory, he thought. These men made a vulgar joke of his young life’s ugliest sin.

These men made a vulgar joke of his young life's ugliest sin.

The door closed, and Sigefrith’s loud laughter faded down the stairs – and only then did it occur to Cedric that Sigefrith had deliberately left him and his father alone.

Perhaps he was growing up, or perhaps he had simply lived too long away, but he had forgotten the gut-​​twisting, blood-​​curdling terror behind those chilling words: “Wait until your father gets home.

Cedric knew then what sort of trouble he was in. The wrath of his father would make him wish for the reeve.

Torn between relief at this proof of the enduring order of things, and fear of his father’s fury, and sickening shame of himself, he lifted his eyes–

–and saw his father beaming down on him with love and pride.

He saw his father beaming down on him with love and pride.