'Is this your idea of a funny joke?'

“Ced – ”

“Nice joke! Very funny!” Cedric snapped.

His father finished his name as a grunt.

“Calling me up here – and the reeve to make me think I’m under arrest – and just to laugh at me!”

“To laugh – ” his father gasped. “Ced – ”

This time his father did not finish his name at all. Cedric watched uneasily as the creases of his father’s grin slowly smoothed out of his cheeks and the startled arch of his brows lowered into a scowl. Suddenly his left hand shot up and clutched a handful of Cedric’s collar.

“What, in God’s name, do you have on your conscience to make you think you’re under arrest if you find yourself in the same damned room as the reeve?”

'What in God's name do you have on your conscience?'

Cedric’s jaw slowly fell open like a hinge coming unglued. Would he be in trouble after all? Would he have to explain?

“Don’t you know what happened last night?” he whispered.

“Of course I know what happened last night! I saw your uncle this morning!”

His father released his collar and brushed his tunic smooth with rough gentleness. Strangely, Cedric’s disappointment welled up in him like another sort of tears. He would not be allowed to explain.

He would not be allowed to explain.

His father laughed dazedly. “Arrested for kissing a girl!” he proclaimed to the ceiling.

“What about Gwynn?” Cedric demanded.

“Were you kissing Gwynn too?” his father smirked.

“No! Kraaia tripped her and made her fall!”

His father laughed again and pounded Cedric’s shoulder with the flat of his hand. “Son of a serpent! If we arrested boys and girls for pushing each other down, you and your sisters would have spent every second afternoon in the stocks!”

His father laughed again.

“It’s not the same!” Cedric wailed.

“And for kissing girls – why, Sigefrith and I would be locked up to this day!” He laughed aloud.

“It’s not funny!” Cedric shrieked.

The big hand came down again in a last blow and remained, clamped over the triangular band of muscle that had mysteriously grown up over Cedric’s neck and shoulder since the spring, without any particular effort on his part. He glared unblinking at his father and panted heavily through his open mouth – anything to prevent himself from breaking into babyish tears.

“Runt,” his father said gravely, “Saeward was here for nothing more ominous than to tell me how the roads and towns are, since he just came up that way. And I am here to say goodbye to you all.” He chuckled softly to himself in fond amusement. “Son of a serpent! None of that matters, Cedric. Odds are you won’t even remember last night ten years from now. Six months from now!”

Cedric bit his lip and hung his head, indignant that he would not be allowed his shame.

“But first I wanted to have a little talk with you alone,” his father said softly.

Cedric’s head snapped up. “About last night?”

'About last night?'

The hand slid off Cedric’s shoulder and flopped heavily to his father’s side. Cedric winced, remembering it was the wounded right.

“I may never see the runt again,” his father muttered to the ceiling, “and he wants to talk about last night. Very well!” he cried.

He pressed his hands upon his thighs and sat on the edge of the chest with such seeming weariness that Cedric heard the creaking of the wood like the creaking of aged bones.

His father fixed his keen hazel gaze steadfastly into Cedric’s and said, “Let’s talk about last night.”

'Let's talk about last night.'

Abruptly Cedric found he could not. A hot blush swelled up in his cheeks – he knew he had done wrong – but he had the sudden stupidness of a three-​​year-​​old.

“What happened?” his father asked.

Cedric mumbled, “I don’t know…”

His father sighed through his nose and sent a brief, ominous glance up at the ceiling. Then his booted foot shot out and dragged the King’s chair up by one of its legs.

“Sit down, Cedric, and tell me what happened. You ought to know, since I imagine you haven’t thought of anything else since.” He grunted, and his sarcastic frown softened. He batted at Cedric’s limply hanging hand like a bored cat. “Sleep any?”

'Sleep any?'

“A little…” Cedric whispered. He had fallen asleep in the chapel. For some reason he did not like to say so to his father.

“So, in summary, Kraaia tripped Gwynn, and you kissed Kraaia.”

“No!” Cedric cried indignantly. “It wasn’t like that!”

His father sat back and sighed. “Then how was it?

“I don’t know! I simply asked Gwynn to dance, since no one else did. After I already danced with Kraaia. But that’s not good enough!” he whined. “I can’t dance with anyone else. Ever! And she hates Gwynn. Because’s she so pretty and – perfect…”

'Because's she so pretty and--perfect...'

Cedric wondered nervously whether his father could see the difference between a boy’s blush of shame and indignation and a young man’s blush of embarrassment. He turned away to hide it and to pull up the chair.

His father only nodded and said, “So Kraaia got jealous and tripped Gwynn. And to thank her, you kissed her.”

Cedric grasped the edge of his chair and stomped his angry feet.

'And to thank her, you kissed her.'

No!” he groaned. “It wasn’t like that! Kraaia ran away, and I followed her, and I – I caught her,” he whispered, struck breathless by his memory of that moment when he had first laid his hands on a girl and thrown her against the unyielding stone of a wall.

Cedric did not know what color his face had turned, but his father seemed to see the change. No grumbling nor sarcastic reply met this confession, but only a wide open silence of the sort that waited patiently to be filled.

No grumbling nor sarcastic reply met this confession.

“I was – just so angry at her!” Cedric was forced to hiss his words through his teeth, for even that remembered rage was enough to clench his jaws together and curl his hands into fists. “I was so sick of her, always hanging on me, always following me, never letting me talk to anyone else – and everyone always making fun of me – ”

'And everyone always making fun of me--'

His father sighed. “Runt…”

Cedric remembered too late what his father thought of boys who were bothered by boys “making fun”, and in his haste to change the subject he blurted, “And I remembered what Cubby told me to do about a girl like that – ”

He stopped, horror-​​struck. His father sat back and lifted an eyebrow.

“What did Cubby tell you to do about that?”

'What did Cubby tell you to do about that?'

“Ah…” Cedric squeaked. “He said… one should give her everything she wants, and then more. So perhaps… she won’t… want it any more?”

He hunched his head into his shoulders and tried to put on his most innocent expression, but the bulk of his shoulders framed his head strangely, and his features seemed to have grown too big for his innocent face – that, or the snagging, snarling monster tore through it.

He clapped his hand over the tatters and choked on a sob.

He clapped his hand over his face and choked on a sob.

“That’s why I kissed her!” he blubbered. “So she would leave me alone! So I had to kiss her so she wouldn’t like it – so I kissed her hard! And I was so…” He sniffled and stumbled over the words: “I think I tried to hurt her!”

“Runt…” His father tried to pull his hand away from his face, but Cedric batted the big hand away with his other.

“And I think I liked it!” he sobbed. “The more I hurt her, the more I liked it! The more she cried, the more I liked it!”


“The more she fought me, the more I liked it!”

'The more she fought me, the more I liked it!'

At last Cedric lost his breath to shivering, gulping sobs. He clamped his teeth together, remembering how it felt to make a girl scream so that he could shove his tongue into her mouth. He clamped his knees together, remembering how it felt to force his knees between a girl’s – how her feet had shuffled on the floor as she struggled to keep her balance, and how the taut muscles of her inner thighs had clamped around his legs, and how with his hips he had pinned her hips mercilessly against the unyielding stone.

Cedric feared it had branded his soul.

The memory was still hot and vivid like glowing iron, and Cedric had relived it so many times he feared it had branded his soul.

Suddenly his father’s coarse handkerchief was rasping wetly over his face like the tongue of an enormous cat, drying the tears on his cheeks and wiping away the snot that dripped from his nose. When Cedric peeped out through his swollen eyelids, he saw his father looking ominously grave.

He saw his father looking ominously grave.

“There’s something wrong with me,” he mumbled. His stuffy nose made his voice sound like a little boy’s. He liked the sound, so he said it again: “There’s something wrong with me, Papa.”

His father shook his head and sighed.

“I think I should become a eunuch,” he added.

He watched fearfully for his father's reaction to this idea.

He watched fearfully for his father’s reaction to this idea. Last night it had seemed his sole hope.

His father only consulted the ceiling again. “A eunuch!”

He passed his wounded hand over his eyes and let it fall into his lap.

“Cedric,” he said dryly, “the Lord knows I never thought I would have to say these words, but No: you do not and never shall have my permission to become a eunuch.

He gave Cedric’s face a last swipe with the handkerchief, and folded it and tucked it away.

“And there is nothing wrong with you, either, runt.”

“But – what I just said!” Cedric protested.

'And there is nothing wrong with you, either, runt.'

“Cedric,” his father repeated, “there is nothing wrong with you.”

Cedric took another breath, but his father cut him short.


His father folded his hands together, the good nestled into the bad, and fell silent. Cedric waited, thinking it a silence that did not expect to be filled.

Cedric waited.

“You know Hraef,” his father said after a while.

Cedric frowned.

“How when he gets angry – he has to throw himself down, and kick and scream, and beat everything in range of his fists, and bite and carry on?”

Cedric nodded dubiously.

Cedric nodded dubiously.

“Well, you remember how Aefen and Aeri were the same way, don’t you? Except for the biting,” he added wearily under his breath.

“But they’re not – ”

“And they’re not now,” his father said. “And soon Hraef won’t be either. Inch’allah!” he remarked to the ceiling.


“But that – ”

“Listen to me, runt. All little boys are like that when they’re two and three, but when they get older they learn how to control themselves, so they don’t pitch a fit every time they don’t get their way.”

“Leia still does,” Cedric protested.

'Leia still does.'

His father chuckled and shook his finger beneath Cedric’s nose. “Girls are special, runt. Kindly disregard them for now. What I’m trying to say is that learning how to control one’s passions is part of growing from a baby into a boy. And the bad news is that one must learn it all over again when one grows from a boy into a man, and twice as much, because now there’s lust in there with the wrath. But the good news is that most men manage it rather well.”

'But the good news is that most men manage it rather well.'

He stopped, and they stared at each other, hazel eyes into hazel eyes, identical almost to the last fleck of dirty brown in the blue. Cedric was considering the objection that his father had not managed it so very well, and his father considering that he knew.

Cedric was considering the objection that his father had not managed it so very well.

“Mayhap you’ve an extra dollop of the old man in you, runt,” his father said roughly. “But the Lord in His wisdom sees to it that every serpent bears the antidote to his own poison. You simply have to learn discipline, and for what that doesn’t cover, learn what puts you in a passion and avoid it. That’s all the advice I can give you, but that’s all you’ll need.”

'That's all the advice I can give you, but that's all you'll need.'

Cedric blinked at him, though he had tilted his face so close to his father’s that his tears of disappointment trickled down the back of his throat rather than his cheeks.

If there was nothing extraordinary about his problems, there would be no extraordinary solutions available to him. And it seemed he would be faced with the same obstacles his father had so often failed to overcome.

'That's what Father Matthew told me.'

“That’s what Father Matthew told me,” he whispered. “Discipline.” The word was as cold and comfortless on his own voice as the priest’s.

His father snorted. “There’s a man who could afford to be a little less disciplined once in his life and get himself laid. Runt, never trust a man who tells you not to do something he’s never tried. And especially not one who tells you to do something he hasn’t tried! Even if it’s Cubby!” he added with a wicked smile.

'Even if it's Cubby!'

He laughed softly to himself a last time, but at the sight of Cedric’s unwavering expression of horrified dismay, he sighed and gave Cedric’s arm a tug.

“Come sit on my lap, runt. The Lord knows it’s probably the last time you ever will.”

Cedric yelped at the impact of this new horror. He sobbed “No!” and leapt up to flop himself into his father’s lap, heedless of old bones. “Don’t go!”

His father laughed and squeezed him until his young bones seemed likely to crack. “Son of a serpent! I’m not intending to die on the way, young fool! I simply make the observation that you’re growing into too big a boy to sit on old Papa’s lap.”

'I simply make the observation that you're growing into too big a boy to sit on old Papa's lap.'


His father chuckled at the ceiling and rocked his body slightly against the wall, swaying Cedric’s with it like a little boat on the sea. Cedric could hear the soft laughter rumbling in his father’s chest, just as when he had been a little boy and fallen asleep against it.

“Take me with you,” he mumbled sloppily into his father’s tunic. His voice was so muffled as to seem a tiny boy’s. He so liked the sound he said it again: “Take me with you, Papa.”

“I wish I could, runt,” his father said wistfully, “but you’re not just my boy any longer. And besides.” He leaned Cedric far enough away that Cedric could look up into his face, just as when he had been a little baby and lain in those arms. “Why should I take you with me when you take me with you everywhere you go?” He patted Cedric’s chest. “Didn’t I tell you you had a fat dollop of the old man in you?”

'Didn't I tell you you had a fat dollop of the old man in you?'

Cedric stared dubiously up at him. He did not find this remark as comforting as his father seemed to mean it.

His father sighed and hefted him up to snuggle against his chest again. “You’ll understand someday.”

There were few words that irritated Cedric’s spirit more than these, but at that moment they came as a balm. If he was so like his father, he would at least understand all the mysteries his father knew.

The soft hissing of breath through his father’s deep lungs seemed a whispery purr to Cedric’s ear. Their silence was the most comfortable kind: one that could be filled or not filled. Drowsily Cedric decided to ask, “What did you want to talk to me about?”

'What did you want to talk to me about?'

His father chuckled softly and squeezed him. “It doesn’t matter either, Cedric. Some nonsense about how proud I am of you, and how you must behave for Sigefrith and take care of your sisters and so on. But that doesn’t matter. This is all that matters.” His father squeezed him again, and they rocked together like a boat riding out a tall wave.

“Family?” Cedric guessed.

“That, and… the rest,” he said thoughtfully. “Love, I suppose I mean. Listen here.”

His father pulled him upright, but he held him too close for Cedric to look up into his face. He felt his father’s words blowing warmly over his hair.

He felt his father's words blowing warmly over his hair.

“Now, I’ve lived fifty years upon this earth, and I died once and was certain I was about to die another time, so I know a few things even Cubby doesn’t know.”

Cedric giggled.

“And I’m telling you, runt, the only thing that matters is love. That’s the only thing you can take with you when you die. Not your body, not your gold, not your cattle, not your country. Love is the only thing. And not the love you get, but the love you give in this life. It’s strange how that is, but it’s true. It doesn’t matter whether you’re loved in return – if you love, that love is yours. On earth as it is in Heaven.”

Cedric closed his eyes and shivered. His father’s body was warm all around him, but some part of him was cold, in the remotest regions of his own Inside.

“Don’t go, Papa,” he whispered.

“I’m bound to go someday, runt,” his father grumbled, “and not just to Winchester. But that doesn’t matter, because you have me inside of you.”

'But I shall miss you.'

“But I shall miss you,” Cedric whimpered. Like a cat he rubbed his face against the scratchy wool of his father’s tunic, letting the tears soak in. It was a deliciously melancholy luxury, missing his father before his father was even gone.

“So here’s what you shall do on those days,” his father said. “You shall take your own favorite runt onto your lap like this, and squeeze him till he squeaks, and tell him what I just told you.”

“Young Leofric,” Cedric sighed dreamily.

“Young Leofric,” his father chuckled. “Tell Young Leofric what matters, and tell him not to worry so much about what doesn’t. And tell him to do the same thing to his own runts, and so on forever. And if you do that, by God’s name, wherever I am – in Heaven or in Hell as I am on earth – I shall be the happiest soul there.”

'I shall be the happiest soul there.'