Eadred woke with a sloppy snort.

Eadred woke with a sloppy snort. “My lord!” he gasped reflexively, and then, as he heaved himself to his feet and smoothed the wrinkles out of his tunic, he added, “Dunstan!”

“I hope you weren’t guarding that door, Captain,” Dunstan said with mock sternness – or at least Finn supposed it was mock.

Eadred laughed uneasily, doubting it himself. “No, my lord! You can go right on in! Or – if you’re expected, that is…”

'You can go right in!'

Dunstan smiled and slapped Eadred on the shoulder as he passed. “Wait here,” he said to Finn. “I shall call you when he’s ready.”

“You might remind His Majesty that I’m waiting here too?” Eadred asked sweetly. But behind Dunstan’s back he winked at Finn and quickly lifted his hands to his cheek in a pantomime of falling asleep.

“Certainly,” Dunstan murmured.


Nevertheless Eadred and Finn both were discreetly silent as Dunstan knocked, was answered, and went in alone. Even through the heavy oaken door it was apparent that the King was not in a merry mood.

Finn did not know what Eadred had to be nervous about, but to Finn himself his presence was a relief. If Eadred too had been summoned, it seemed he was not about to be forcibly married. Unless Condal had kissed the Captain as well…

Eadred jerked his head and pointed at the bench with his chin. “That’s what I get for staying up so late last night,” he confided. “I was trying to get set for my watch in the chapel tonight, but an afternoon nap was supposed to be part of my plan.”

'An afternoon nap was <i>supposed</i> to be part of my plan.'

“Looks like you got one!”

“I guess I did at that!” Eadred laughed. He waved Finn to the bench and moved to sit. “Best have a seat and catch a wink yourself – if he makes you wait as long as he did me…”

“I can’t.” Finn drew back on the hilt of his sword and tapped the scabbard against his leg.

“What the!” Eadred leaned down halfway to hip-​​level to be certain his eyes were not deceiving him. “How’d you get up here with a sword? Who’s in the gate? Arcil? Damn him! I’m still Captain for a few more hours…”

He started for the stairs, grumbling ominously, but Finn caught his sleeve.

“It’s Arcil, but he said I was supposed to bring my sword and boots and everything I had with me. You don’t think it is because I must fight a duel?”

'You don't think it is because I must fight a duel?'

He laughed foolishly as if the idea were patently absurd – and as if he had not been thinking it all the way up the stairs.

Eadred grinned and jangled the empty buckle of his own sword belt. “I hope it’s not with me, if you are. Say!” He leaned closer. “You don’t know what this is about, do you?”

Finn shook his head. “Don’t you?”

“No.” He leaned still closer and whispered, “Looks like we’re in this together. Can you keep a secret?”

Finn nodded eagerly.

“Tell me something… Did they tell you to bring a kilt?”

'Did they tell you to bring a kilt?'

Finn drew back his head. “A kilt? I don’t even have a kilt.”

“Neither did I. Until now.

He pointed at the floor behind Finn’s ankles. Finn glanced back and saw a leather satchel slouched against the bench, dark and gleaming with age, but Eadred tapped his arm and turned his attention back around.

“All I know is, Sigefrith called me in there this morning just before dinner and told me to go buy a kilt from this one silversmith.”

“Shirtless K?” Finn whispered.

'Shirtless K?'

Eadred hooked his thumbs over his belt and reared back his head and shoulders in a scowling imitation of the formidable Shirtless himself. “He certainly was!” he intoned.

Finn squirmed with silent giggles, and the Captain quickly collapsed into his far less formidable self.

“Tell me something else. Does my lip look fat or anything? More than as per usual.”

'Does my lip look fat or anything?'

“What?” Finn laughed dazedly. “No.”

“Good! So we’ll just tell Sigefrith the transaction was successful.” He nodded in satisfaction and cracked his knuckles, but the corners of his eyes were crinkled with fun.

“What truly happened?” Finn whispered. “Did you have to fight him for it?”

“What do I look like?” Eadred huffed. “A mugger?” He squatted down to Finn’s height and confessed, “The thing was, his English is so bad, he thought I was trying to give him money to take off his kilt that he was wearing right there.

Finn burst out laughing. “So he punched you!”

'So he punched you!'

“Wouldn’t you? I’m just grateful he didn’t kick me in the peaches!” He laid a hand on Finn’s shoulder and pushed himself back to full height. “He’s a jolly fellow, though, once you come to an understanding. I like a man who can laugh at himself.”

He said it admiringly, as though unaware he was even then laughing at himself with an ease that Finn envied.

“But if Saeward ever finds out about this,” Eadred added, “I’m sunk! And I’ll know who told him, young barnacle, so beware! I sure doubt K will be spreading the tale. What’s K short for, anyway? He wouldn’t tell me.”

'What's K short for, anyway?'

Finn might have replied with his own theories, but they were both suddenly aware of an ominous silence behind the door. They were merely coughing and straightening their sleeves by the time it opened and Dunstan stepped through.

“His Majesty will see you, Finn.”

His Majesty. Matters were clearly grim.

'I first?'

“I first?” Finn quavered. His face was white with dread, and mottled red with shame at his cowardice before these two men.

“You may come in, too,” Dunstan said to the Captain. “He’ll want you in a moment.”

Eadred clapped Finn on the shoulder, giving him just enough courage to start for the door. “I’ve got your back, man. Just don’t forget you’ve got the sword,” he chuckled.

Finn stepped around the heavy door and stopped.

His father.

His father.

He turned to run, but as promised the Captain was at his back. Dunstan was at his shoulder. They were both still walking, coming up behind him, and neither understood that he had stopped, that he could not go in. Simply could not.

Then, somehow, he was in, squeezed through the doorway with the awkward suddenty of a colt being born.

The Duke stepped out of the shadow of the King and stared down the room at him, framed between the squared shoulders of Sigefrith and Malcolm. His lips were taut and his face was pale as skimmed milk, but the heights of his cheekbones glowed starkly red with outraged anger.

The Duke stepped out of the shadow of the King.

Condal must have told Gwynn. Gwynn must have told her father. The Duke must have summoned Finn’s father out of his own indignity to make Finn face the consequences. His father was so ashamed of him he could not even lift his head to look him in the eyes.

Finn staggered in, awkward as a newborn foal, and dropped to one knee. The tip of his scabbard hit the floor like a forgotten fifth limb and skidded off to the side.

Finn staggered in, awkward as a newborn foal, and dropped to one knee.

“Runt.” The King greeted him with a nod. “You may rise.”

With one hand on his knee and the other on his pommel to quiet his sword, Finn clambered back to his feet.

“My lord.” He bowed at the waist to the Duke and bowed his head to Malcolm and to Sir Brede in the corner. “Sirs.”

There remained only his father. He waited for his father to look at him. His father did not. Time ran out before Finn could speak.

“Tell me, how old are you, runt?” the King asked. His voice was hearty and even friendly, but Finn was not fooled.

'How old are you, runt?'

“Fourteen years old, sire.”

“Hmm!” Sigefrith rubbed his beard until it bristled. “Old enough to make up your own mind about things, I suppose you reckon.”

Finn caressed his left hand in the right, savoring his last minutes of ringlessness – assuming a worse fate did not await him.

“I do not know about that,” he admitted, “but I am old enough, if I do a wrong thing, I will take responsibility and do the right thing after.”

This pronouncement caused a slight stir in the room. Sigefrith looked at Malcolm, the Duke lifted his eyebrows, and Finn’s fine ears heard the floorboards crack beneath the feet of men shifting their weight. He risked a glance at his father, but his father’s eyes were squeezed shut, and his forehead was so furrowed that his black brows almost met above his nose.

'I shall keep that in mind against your inevitable future misdeeds.'

“Well,” the King said gruffly, “I shall keep that in mind against your inevitable future misdeeds. However, I simply wanted to ask you whether you wish to accompany your father abroad.”

Finn cried, “Abroad?” In his head he added, “With my father?” For the first time that afternoon he considered the possibility that this summons had nothing to do with Condal at all.


“You know… out of the country?” the King prompted, waggling two dangling fingers in a weak pantomime of a walking man.

“To where?”

Sigefrith stood taller and smiled slightly, pleased Finn had asked the question, or pleased that he would be allowed to answer.

I shan't tell you.

“I shan’t tell you.”

Finn looked farther afield for assistance – to Brede, to Malcolm, and all the way around to Eadred. He gained only a faint smile of befuddled encouragement from the Captain. Dunstan looked pained.

Then Finn thought he understood. His next question he addressed directly to his father.

“Are you exiled?”

'Are you exiled?'

His father began to move, unfolding, coming unstuck like a creaking gate thick with brambles and webs. He lowered his head and lifted his eyes to Finn out of the shadows of his heavy brows. His speech was only a sibilance laid over a low hum. “It’s not – ”

The King barked, “Silence!”

“No, no, let him speak,” Alred said.

'No, no, let him speak.'

Sigefrith sighed in impatience, but Finn’s father’s eyes were already closed, and his black hair hung before his face, casting a shadow over the crags it did not cover. He did not speak.

“Your eldest son just asked you a question, sir,” Alred insisted. His voice was hard and shrill as stones smacking together. “You owe him an answer. Are you exiled?”

Finn watched his father’s beard widen as his jaw fell slowly open beneath it, and then his lips parted, and he rasped, “Aye.”

Sigefrith snorted in satisfaction. “I gave him the choice between staying here and being tried for capital crimes, or admitting to lesser crimes and being banished instead.” Sensing Finn’s confusion, he added, “Ah… capital means punishable by death.”

Finn gasped. Alred pressed his hand over his mouth so tightly that his fingers on his cheeks warped whatever look was in his eyes. No one would look at Finn except for the Captain, whose freckled face squinted up in helpless compassion. He tinkled the loose buckle of his sword belt to remind Finn that only he was armed.

He tinkled the loose buckle of his sword belt to remind Finn that only he was armed.

“‘The Wanderer’ is your favorite poem, is it not?” the King mused. “‘Bereft of homeland, far from noble kinsmen, et cetera?’ How does it go, Alred?”

From across the room Finn heard the deep breath Alred drew, but it was not meant to fuel a recitation. He held it, or let it out so slowly that Finn did not hear.

“Make up your mind,” Sigefrith said roughly. “He’ll be gone within the half hour, so say your goodbyes or go stand at his side.”

Finn clasped his right hand in his left to stop its shaking. A half hour was not enough time to begin to say goodbye to a father he had scarcely begun to know.

'A half hour?'

“A half hour?” he squeaked.

Sigefrith smacked his fist into his palm. “Less, by God! It’s already past noon!” He turned and stalked as far as he could – as far as the toes of Alred’s unflinching feet – and turned again and stomped back, yanking at his hair with one hand.

“Do you want me to go with you?” Finn asked his father. He had to hope he was listening and paying attention – he could not speak the name. Simply could not.

But his father unfolded his arms again and slowly lifted his head. Finn was aware of the least movement of the great body; his father seemed more like an ancient mechanism than a man. His very voice was creaking and rusty.

'Stay here, Finn.'

“Stay here, Finn,” he pleaded. “I want to know you’re safe and happy.”

Finn had not been thinking about himself. “But what about you?”

“Finn, Finn…” his father whispered, chanting to himself, his hair swaying in time. He seemed to want to fill the half hour as full of the name as he could. “Finn, that’s the only happiness I can have now.”

'Finn, that's the only happiness I can have now.'

Finn thought of his father going off alone forever, with no comfort but the memory of children he could only hope were faring well. Alred’s old poem seemed like a tragic prophecy: “How cruel is sorrow as a companion…”

Finn wondered how he had ever read it with such relish before – how he had longed to make it the poem of himself, and go abroad, and see the fallow waves, the sea birds bathe…

He decided he must have been too young then. Now he was beginning to grow old. Now that he was about to go.

He stepped into the empty space between Brede and his father and turned smartly, careful not to knock any legs with his sword. He stationed himself behind the range of fond or grateful glances, and out of the reach of embracing arms.

His father drew himself back up into a hunch.

His father drew himself back up into a hunch, but Finn could see his breast rising and falling rapidly beneath the shadows of his stiff collar.

“Well?” Sigefrith demanded.

“I go.”

“You have to the count of three to change your mind, runt. Once I start talking to the Captain, you’re going, if I have to brain you with a broom handle and toss your limp body over the back of mule.”

“I go.”

“Excellent. Then you will be pleased to know that you are going to Ramsaa with Brede and the Captain, under the voluminous cover of your father’s bad reputation, for it behooves me to hide the undertaking of this expedition from the attention of Young Aed.”

'It behooves me to hide the undertaking of this expedition from the attention of Young Aed.'

Finn endeavored to hide his astonishment and confusion, but the Captain freely squawked, “What?”

“You and Brede will be escorting this prisoner and his loyal son to the edge of my kingdom, whereupon he will most treacherously turn on you and rob you of all that you carry. You will then be obliged to pursue him as far as the coast, where he will have joined forces with the dread pirate Njal Bareballs. Said pirate will likely kidnap you and deliver you to Ramsaa to be held for ransom, et cetera, or I know not what other infamy you four will dream up on your way. I cannot think of everything, you know,” he concluded wearily.

Eadred finally put his gaping mouth to use and laughed aloud, making Brede and Dunstan chuckle and Malcolm hide a smile behind his hand. Even Finn began to feel an interest in the journey blooming out in the midst of his sickened shame.

But his father turned to him suddenly, startling him with the silent grace and rapidity of his movements. His father was not a rusting anything but a living man.

'It's a ruse, Finn.'

“It’s a ruse, Finn,” he whispered. “Aed’s son Diarmait has taken Ramsaa, but he’ll never hold it without help. Sigefrith wants to send Brede and me and the Captain, but he needed an excuse to sneak three knights out of here without catching Young Aed’s attention, so he had me arrested…”

“I understood that,” Finn muttered. He leaned to the side, trying to see past his father’s shoulder to the King and the Captain. He thought he had heard something about “field of battle” and “knighthood”.

His father grabbed his arm.

“It isn’t real, Finn,” he said, softly pleading. “I had nothing to do with that murder.”

Finn winced at the word. He felt his forehead wrinkle between his brows, and he hurriedly smoothed his face blank, unwilling to resemble his father in any way.

He hurriedly smoothed his face blank.

“Sigefrith knows that… Alred knows that…” his father whispered. “The truth will come out before we come home. My name will be cleared of all of that before we come home.”

“All of that?” Finn demanded.

His father’s arms dropped, and he leaned heavily against the wall. “I had nothing to do with anything Maire did that night,” he murmured. He said nothing about the things he was supposed to have done to Maire on other nights.

“Shh. I can’t hear.”

His father slumped back against the wall, and Finn saw past him to the scene being enacted in the center of the room.

“Have you eaten anything?” the King was asking.

'Have you eaten anything?'

Eadred said proudly, “Not since breakfast!”

“Hmm…” Sigefrith pinched his beard in pretend worry. “That’s not a full day and night. Are you very, very hungry, at least?”

“Yes, sire!” Eadred laughed.

“And have you confessed your many grievous sins, O reprobate?”

“Well, I may have made an indecent proposal or two on my way to the church,” Eadred said slyly for the benefit of Finn, “but I confessed all that and much, much more!”

'I may have made an indecent proposal or two on my way to the church.'

“Excellent! Now, let’s hurry, gentlemen, ere he sins again. Who sponsors this man to be a knight of our kingdom?”

Malcolm’s eyes looked into Brede’s. Together they said, “We do.”

“It’s the least you could do,” Eadred laughed. “As many times as I failed to notice you two sneaking out of the castle at night!”

He turned to grin at Brede, and Finn saw that his face was a uniform pink beneath his coppery freckles. Brede went laughing into the next room to get the new sword.

“Dreadfully sorry you won’t have your ceremony tomorrow, Captain,” Sigefrith sighed. “No showing off before your friends, no winking at the pretty girls…”

Osh will wink twice as fast to make up for him.

“Osh will wink twice as fast to make up for him, I’m certain,” Alred said.

“He can thank me when he sees me again,” Eadred laughed. His laughter was high-​​pitched and reminded Finn of a whinny. The back of his neck was pink beneath his hair.

Brede returned with the sword. He smiled down at Finn as he walked by. Brede was going too, Finn reminded himself, and he smiled broadly back up at him.

He smiled down at Finn as he walked by.

“Certain you’re up to this?” Sigefrith asked Eadred. “You know, a knight is on duty at all times, day in and day out, until in utter weariness he dies.”

“Aye,” Malcolm pointed out, “but a knight is permitted to sleep on duty.”

“And eat,” Alred said.

Brede stepped up to Sigefrith with the sword. “And ride fine horses and fine women alike!”

Alred smacked his thigh. “Jupiter! What’s come over me? That was my line!”

'That was my line!'

Sigefrith arched his back and gave his own stomach a companionable pat. “Belly grown out too far for you to see your dong anymore, eh, old man?”


“Ah, youth!” Sigefrith sighed. He took the naked sword from Brede and walked chuckling past Alred to his desk. He tipped back his head and breathed deeply for a moment. Then he turned.

A faint smile still softened the dignity of his face, but there was no humor in it now. Every man lifted his head and straightened his shoulders in recognition of what he had become. He was no longer simply Sigefrith, but a King who shared with God alone the power to consecrate men.

He took the naked sword from Brede.

He had the power to execute them too. Finn’s gaze slid darkly down the shining length of the new blade.


Alred and Dunstan stepped back, and Brede and Malcolm walked around Eadred to flank them. Their bodies turned sideways, their hands on the hilts of their swords, they were a formidable line of grim profiles, elbows, and muscled legs. The Captain stood so starkly at attention before them that he appeared to tremble from the strain.

The Captain stood so starkly at attention before them.

“Present arms.”

The knights moved smoothly together like a perfectly-​​crafted mechanism, sliding their swords out of their scabbards and swinging them up in the narrow space between them. They held their blades high in a dimly gleaming row, then lowered them to their sides, at the ready though in repose.

They lowered them to their sides.

Finn let out his breath in a sigh. For weeks he had been looking forward to the formal ceremony tomorrow, but he thought he liked this hasty “field of battle” knighting even better – men amongst men, working together in an hour of crisis. This was no mere pageant. At that moment he made up his mind that he would be knighted this way.

Then he chanced to glance up at his father, and all his flush of eager excitement bled away.

Then he chanced to glance up at his father.

His father was a knight. Why had his father not stepped up beside the others? Why had he not drawn his sword?

Finn’s shame returned in a throbbing pink blush, but then he chanced to glance down at his father’s hips and saw neither sword nor sword belt. His father was simply unarmed.

The King was bidding Eadred to kneel. It was about to happen – the King would lead Eadred in his vow, and then the other knights would swear their own again, binding them all in that brotherhood that only grew tighter the larger it grew.

The King was bidding Eadred to kneel.

Finn hurriedly drew his sword and pressed it into his father’s hand. His father gasped and clutched one fist in the other, as if he had never held a sword before.

Sigefrith stopped in mid-​​phrase and stared at the tip of the blade that had suddenly reared up quivering and bobbing in front of him.

Sigefrith stopped in mid-phrase and stared at the tip of the blade.

Finn tugged at his father’s sleeve to remind him to lower the sword, but the mighty arms were rigid, rusted fast.

His father and Sigefrith were both hypnotized by the apparition, and Eadred still stared dutifully at the floor, perhaps unaware of what was transpiring above his head. But four pairs of grim eyes were turned on Finn’s father. The knights of Lothere were lined up against him.

The knights of Lothere were lined up against him.

Finn understood then that he had done a foolish thing. Surely his father was a knight no longer. By doing injury to a helpless woman he had broken his vow.

If Finn had been a man such as Eadred admired, he might have made them laugh their way to an understanding. Instead he felt very stupid and afraid. 

And so he did the only thing he ever had the courage to do on such occasions. He could not help the color of his cheeks and ears, but he set his jaw square, lifted his brows, and stared the defiance of four men right back at them.

He set his jaw square.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw his father’s elbow creak open and the wavering tip of his sword sink to the floor. He saw the King’s head turn as at last he looked away.

Sigefrith prompted softly, “Alred?”

None but Sigefrith and Finn himself looked into Alred’s face, and none but they saw the seething anger of his stare. He spoke only a short phrase, but his every syllable clanged and sparked like iron striking stone.

'Your son does you honor, sir.'

“Your son does you honor, sir.”

Finn looked up. His father’s eyes were tightly closed, and his lashes jutted thick and black from their wrinkled creases. Nevertheless there were tears tracing the furrows of his face, sparkling in its deepest clefts and shadows.

Finn turned his head resolutely aside and pretended he had not seen. Beside him the knights of Lothere stepped back into line.

The knights of Lothere stepped back into line.