Hwitsands, Cumbria

'Scared you, did I?'

“Scared you, did I?” Eadred laughed. “I didn’t think anyone was in here.”

“No.” Finn leaned across the bed and laid his knife back on the tray. “I was just making a precaution.”

“I had the key,” Eadred pointed out. He held it up to flash in the candlelight before dropping it onto the tray beside Finn’s.

'That does not mean.'

“That does not mean,” Finn said. “It could be the innkeeper coming in to rob our things.”

“Ah no, Gis wouldn’t do a thing like that to an old friend,” Eadred chuckled. “Ow!” He froze with a hand lifted halfway to his shoulder.

“Sore?” Finn asked – smugly, since he was not.

“If I have one, it hurts!” Eadred grimaced. “Mother of Pearl!” He gingerly lifted his hand the rest of the way to the back of his neck. “Thank God we are done riding,” he muttered.

'Thank God we are done riding!'

“Now it is your turn to be seasick,” Finn said brightly.

He laughed and ducked as Eadred’s creaking body abruptly came unstuck and a graceful arm swatted at his head.

“We’ll see who’s laughing tomorrow noon!” Eadred threatened, grinning wickedly. “Usually I like to give the boys a few pointers before their first time, but you can just make a fool of yourself!”


Eadred winked at him and looked down to unbuckle his belt. The leather was shiny and new, and his hands had not yet learned the habit of the fine silver buckle. Even so, Finn thought his fingers lingered caressingly over it a moment longer than necessary, whether out of pride or from simple surprise to have found it there.

Then his hands sprang to life again, and the trailing end of the belt whipped through the buckle.

The trailing end of the belt whipped through the buckle.

“Speaking of first times,” Eadred intoned, “what are you doing in here? You’re in a seaport for Christ’s sake. If you can think of it, there’s a girl here you can pay to do it. And none the wiser.”

Finn wrinkled his nose, but Eadred was too occupied with the careful folding of his belt to notice. He wandered off to the chest to put it away.

“I thought I should get some sleep,” Finn mumbled. “Who knows what will happen tomorrow?”

“You’re right there,” Eadred admitted idly as he undressed.

Downstairs in the tavern Finn had said much the same thing to Brede, who had asked him much the same question. Finn would not have minded talking it out with Brede, but he could not bring himself to admit that he had a sweetheart before his father. He did not think he could say it to Eadred either, though not for the same reason.

He did not think he could say it to Eadred either.

“What about you?” Finn asked.

“Oh, not me!” Eadred groaned. “I practically fell off my horse getting down! Don’t think I could climb up onto a woman.

“I don’t mean that. I mean, I thought you wanted to see your old town and your friends.”

“Oh! I did. That I did…” Eadred shuffled back to the bedside in his bare feet. He cast his eyes down again, though there remained little to admire aside from his freckles.

“What happened?” Finn asked. “Is your old house gone?”

'Is your old house gone?'

“Oh!” Eadred chuckled. “I knew the house was long gone. The shore’s not like the land, Finn. After fifteen years it’s not the same shore.”

He picked up Finn’s knife and turned the flashing blade before the flames.

“Not the same town neither,” he added softly.

“It’s the same inn, at least,” Finn said, hoping to console him.

Eadred smiled wryly at him. “And Gis looks so much like his father I kept looking around to see where Gis was so we could go play. I don’t mean that, though. I mean, the streets are the same…”

He looked down, occupying his attention with the knife. He gently scraped the blade up the back of his arm, standing the coppery hair on end to glow in the candlelight without quite shearing it away.

“The feeling’s not the same. The people are worried and nervous and poor. You can feel it when people stop caring for others and start worrying just about themselves.” He glanced over at Finn and added, “At least when you’re a guard and spend your time looking for trouble before it happens, I guess.”

'What happened to them?'

“What happened to them?”

Eadred cocked his head and studied the profile of the knife, as though the answer were written along the thin edge of the blade.

“I saw my old friend Wil tonight,” he said, seeming to ignore the question. “His da was a cooper. Did good business too. You go through a lot of barrels in a seaport,” he explained to Finn in an aside. “Wil was all set. And you know what he’s doing now? He’s carrying water for pennies a day. Because he lost his hand.”

'Because he lost his hand.'

Eadred waved his free hand between their faces. The hand with the knife he kept tucked safely in the crook of his arm.

“They cut off his hand for stealing. A barrel of salt fish. That’s the kind of lord they have here now. Wil had a lot of stories like that. I just didn’t want to hear any more.”

He frowned and scratched his two days’ stubble with the fingernails of the knife hand. His tired, harshly shadowed face scarcely resembled Finn’s jolly friend Eadred at all.

“They cut off hands in Lothere, too,” Finn protested.

“In Lothere they cut off the hands of thieves,” Eadred corrected him. His very voice was harsh and not his own. “Not people who steal.”

'In Lothere they cut off the hands of thieves.'

“What’s the difference?”

“The difference is in the justice. Maybe you don’t see it yet, but thank God we have a king who does.”

A fidget ran down the length of his body, from a twitch of his head to an awkward twist of his knee and shuffle of his bare feet. His face turned pink and its shadows softened, and with that he looked like Eadred again. With both hands he carefully laid the knife back on the tray.

“I know you’re… mad at Sigefrith for what he did to you,” he blurted. “But I just want you to know he did the best he could for everybody.”

'I just want you to know he did the best he could for everybody.'

Finn had spent the last two days being angry at Sigefrith for what he had done to his father, but before that moment it had not occurred to him that Sigefrith might have “done something” to him.

Unnerved by Finn’s silence, Eadred stepped brusquely away to sit on the other bed. He froze halfway down, grimacing so broadly that the tendons stood out on either side of his neck.

“Oh God!” he whimpered. “You think it’s possible to lie down without sitting down first?”

“What did he do to me?” Finn asked.

'What did he do to me?'

Eadred stiffened and roughly flung himself back onto the bed, landing with a groan. Finn lifted his chin and stared, waiting.

“I mean – dragging you in there and – making you choose in front of everybody like that,” Eadred panted as he settled himself against the headboard. “And humiliating your da in front of you like that. And in front of your friend.”

'I mean--dragging you in there.'

Finn snorted and slid his hips down to lie back on the bed himself. It had been cruel. He had not thought of it before. He crossed one ankle neatly across the other and stared down his pale body to the fire.

He crossed one ankle neatly across the other.

“He did the best he could, Finn. You’ll see it someday. This way he can say he punished your father, but it also gives your da a chance to redeem himself. It’s better than doing nothing and letting things fester. There’s a lot of people wouldn’t forgive him for that.”

Finn wondered who those people were. He wanted their names. He wanted to know where they lived.

“I know you probably don’t care about that either,” Eadred added softly, “but it means a powerful lot to your da that you were willing to come with him like this.”

'It means a powerful lot to your da that you were willing to come with him like this.'

Finn rolled his eyes without moving his head.

“Especially since you thought it was forever.”

“How could I say no?” Finn muttered.

“Well, he gave you a chance to say no. He told you not to come.”

Finn wagged his foot impatiently and watched the fire flashing between his toes.

“Well,” Eadred sighed after a while, “I think it was a fine thing. You should be proud.”

Finn’s foot stopped. “I didn’t do it to – to be a hero!”

'I didn't do it to--to be a hero!'

Eadred grinned at him. “It usually doesn’t work if you try. But some people are likely to think you are, anyway.” He sat back, chuckling to himself. “Some people.”

Finn grunted. He wanted to know who those people were, too. He wanted to punch them, too.

After they had lain quiet long enough for their thoughts to diverge, Eadred asked meekly, “Can I ask you something?”

Finn glanced over at him through his hair. “Yes.”

“When we were leaving the castle and you were saying goodbye to Cubby… and you said, ‘Tell Connie she’s free if she wants to be’… Well, what did you mean by that?”

'What did you mean by that?'

Finn hesitated. He felt guilty, as if he done Eadred wrong… and yet the problem had been precisely that Condal was afraid of being kissed by grown men… and yet Eadred had not attended that fateful supper, and he might not have been among the grown men she meant…

“I mean…” Eadred faltered. “Well, what I mean is – have you promised to marry her?”

Finn bellowed, “No!” His body jolted straight, and then his head thunked back against the headboard, stunning him a second time.

Eadred chuckled, “Oh…”

“I mean, we never talked about marrying at all. We are only sweethearts since… three nights, and I did not even see her for two nights, so in fact only one.”

'We are only sweethearts since... three nights.'

“Oh.” Eadred scooted himself painfully down to lay his head on his pillow, but the last sight Finn had of his face was of a smile.

“And… perhaps she already changed her mind. Girls can change their mind, can’t they?”

Eadred said gravely, “A girl can change her mind up to the very last second, and you have to listen to her.”

“She can?” Finn rolled over onto his elbow. 

'She can?'

“Girls can get carried away too. But sometimes they come back to their senses right in the middle of things.”

“I wager that was what happened! She got carried away!”

Eadred sat up. At some point his eyebrows had come together in a worried frown. “Just what did you two do?”

'Just what did you do?'

“I kissed her! What happened is, Cubby told Connie there was mistletoe in the hall, and she was afraid someone would try to kiss her – Cearball or Young Aed or someone. And so, I don’t know why, we decided to kiss. And once we started, we did not want to stop. Just like getting carried away!”

Eadred’s brows still frowned, but he smiled slightly and said, “Sounds like it.”

“And then I asked her, did she want to be my sweetheart, because I thought she wanted me to ask. But perhaps she was only carried away!”

“Well, did you talk to her after she, err… after you two cooled down?”

“No! Because she sat at another table, and there was no dancing after. Or yes, but only a little at breakfast. And she did not try to kiss me again.”

Eadred snorted. “Sounds like you’re the one who got a little carried away, Finn.”

Finn flopped back onto his pillow. “That’s what it was!” he whispered.

'That's what it was.'

“Don’t you love her that way?” Eadred asked.

“I do like her as my cousin. And as a nice girl. And a friend. And I don’t not love her…”

“Clear as mud, what,” Eadred smiled.

“That’s how it happened! Connie said she wanted her first kiss to be with a boy she didn’t not like – and that was me!”

'And that was me!'

Eadred chuckled softly and shook his head, staring off over Finn’s feet towards the dark window. “Her first kiss, now. That’s something special. Even if it was just getting carried away.” He bit his bottom lip for a moment and added, “I hope you won’t spoil that for her, now, Finn. Even if you two decide you got carried away with the sweetheart bit. Don’t tell her her first kiss was just getting carried away.

“I won’t,” Finn promised. “She said it was good, though.”

Eadred laughed aloud. Finn sat up and grinned at him. He felt better about the whole affair than he had in days. He did not know why he had not asked Eadred before – and then he remembered why.

“But I think she doesn’t love me, too. Because Gwynn told me she knows whom Connie does love, and it wasn’t me, and it wasn’t Balls, but she wouldn’t tell me whom. And I can’t figure out whom.”

'And I can't figure out whom.'

“Maybe she has a sweetheart back home.”


Finn waited to hear further theories, but Eadred’s gaze drifted all the way up to the ceiling, until the only expression Finn could see on his face was a faint smile.

“May I ask you something?”

“It isn’t me!” Eadred laughed. “I can promise you that!”

“No, that isn’t it. Listen. May I?”

Eadred chuckled his way back into calm. “Go ahead,” he smiled. “I guess I owe you one.”

“What I want to ask is, what did you talk to my father about when you came last week?”

'What did you talk to my father about?'

“Oh!” Eadred took a slow breath and sighed. “Well, in point of fact it was about Connie.”

“About what?”

“Well… I guess I asked him if I could call on her. She asked me to ask him before I did.”

“But what did he say?”


Eadred laced his fingers over his stomach and sighed again. His hands rose and fell.

'I guess I'll tell you.'

“I guess I’ll tell you, because it was good advice for you and for me. He told me to give her time before doing anything… permanent. I meant marriage, but it goes for anything else too. She’s still young. And he told me it would be cruel to marry her and march straight off to war, as I thought to do. Because she might be made a widow.” He turned his head and looked thoughtfully at Finn. “And so I guess you did the right thing yesterday.”

“But did you tell Connie any of that?” Finn asked, hastening to turn the subject from himself.

“No no. Your da told me to wait till the fall before asking him again, and not to say anything to Connie at all. But it doesn’t matter – she doesn’t care for me anyway. As you’ve proven,” he added with a rueful smile.

“How do you know?” Finn demanded. “I think she likes you.”

'I think she likes you.'

“She doesn’t.”

“But how do you know?”

Eadred shrugged his hands over his belly. “Because she told me.”

“She – she did?”

She has no interest in furthering our acquaintance, now or at any time,” he recited.

“What?” Finn squawked. “Connie said that?”

'Connie said that?'

Eadred laughed softly. “Well, not to my face. She sent a message down when I called on her.”

Connie said that? Furthering your acquaintance? Connie doesn’t even know any words that big. I was talking about evidence and she thought I meant evergreen.”

“Well, I guess the maid must have elaborated a little. They all talk fancy at Nothelm – even the maids,” Eadred laughed.

“It still doesn’t sound like Connie,” Finn grumbled. “Connie, she is more likely to marry a man she doesn’t love because she is too shy to tell him No.”

'It still doesn't sound like Connie.'

“Guess you’re wrong there.”

“It still doesn’t sound like Connie,” Finn repeated stubbornly. “She would not be so rude. I shall have a talk with her when we get home.”


Finn turned his head in alarm at a sudden rustling on the mattress of the other bed, but Eadred was only sitting up.

Eadred was only sitting up.

“Don’t you say a thing to her. And don’t you be mad at her. I’ll tell you what I think happened. I think she told me to talk to your da because she was sure he would tell me to stay away from her. That way she wouldn’t have to tell me she didn’t like me, which she is too bashful to do, like you said. But your da didn’t say No. Or worse, he did and I went to call on her anyway. And so she did the only thing she knew how to do, and that was send a message. So I don’t blame her, and I won’t let you be mad at her.”

Finn muttered, “At least she could have been polite about it.” He lifted his nose and simpered, “Furthering our acquaintance…

His body froze in mid-​​gesture, like Eadred’s, though he felt no pain in his limbs. In his mind, however, a new idea was being born, and in his heart a new rage.

In his mind, however, a new idea was being born.

“She was too,” Eadred prattled on. “She told me she was flattered, which was real kind of her since she wasn’t. Who would be?” he laughed, fluffing his orange curls.

Ordinarily Finn might have defended his friend against the shallowness of ladies who did not appreciate freckles and orange hair, but now he only managed a grunt.

“But just think about it how it must be for her,” Eadred pleaded. “A frightened young girl like that, only fourteen – ” He stopped still for a moment, as if he had moved the wrong muscle and awoken another pain. “Only turning fourteen today…”

'Only turning fourteen today...'

Eadred had remembered it, and Finn had forgotten: his own sweetheart’s birthday. But somehow dates had ceased to matter as soon as they had left the valley. There was only yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

“With no father,” Eadred resumed, “and no big brothers to watch over her. And, begging your pardon, Finn, but your father may have known how to defend her from honorable men such as yours truly, but he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the other kind. And he doesn’t seem like the kind of man a young girl can– Woah!” Eadred sat up and laughed shrilly.

The candle flames danced and guttered. From far beyond the little pool of light they cast, a deep voice inquired, “Scared you?” It was Finn’s father.

'Scared you?'

“I thought you were – some kind of thief or something!” Eadred tittered.

“What kind of inn did you bring us to?” his father asked wryly. He closed the door as silently as he had opened it.

His steps were slow but steady, and the squeaking of the boards beneath his weight was louder than the slight scuffing of his boot soles. His presence was a bewildering amalgam of dark formlessness and shadowy silhouette, of ghostlike silence and creaking bulk, until he stepped into the light and solidified into the man he was. Finn pressed himself back into his pillows and tried to still even the rise and fall of his breathing.

“Aw, ol’ Gis wouldn’t run that kind of house,” Eadred grinned.

“I’m startin’ to wonder about ol’ Gis and his house. And what kind of girls he has in it.”

'I'm startin' to wonder about ol' Gis and his house.'

“Oh, is that where Brede is, then?” Eadred laughed. “Ol’ Gis always was a – howd’ye say – enterprisin’ sort.”

Both men had fallen into the broad, coarse, careless speech they had abruptly begun affecting with each other in the past day and a half, as if to remind themselves or each other from what peasant stock they both had come. For a few weeks Finn had been fascinated by the accent of the common folk, but he found it revoltingly vulgar now.

“Is that the smell of enterprise on my shirt, then?” his father asked, delicately fluttering the cloth away from his chest. “I thought it was cheap perfume.”

'I thought it was cheap perfume.'

Eadred laughed. Finn was disgusted. His father began unlacing his collar.

“Err… drunk, was he?” Eadred asked.

His father interrupted his unlacing to unstrap a small pouch from his belt and drop it on the table. The keys and knife clinked against the metal tray when it landed, and another muffled clink could be heard inside the leather. Eadred laughed appreciatively.

Eadred laughed appreciatively.

“I left ‘im a few pieces,” his father said. “Enough to pay the young lady, or to satisfy ‘er if she’s looking to fleece him.”

He pulled off his vest and shirt together with a shrug of his broad shoulders. Finn smelled no cheap perfume at all but only the animal odor of a big man who has traveled two days in the same clothes.

His father passed before the fire as he undressed, chilling the soles of Finn’s feet.

'What about you, Finnie?'

“What about you, Finnie?” he slurred. There was a foul taint of dark ale in his words, as there must have been on his breath. “What’re you doing in here with us old men? Ain’t you supposed to be out tomcattin’?”

Finn whacked his fists down on the taut blankets and lifted his head. “Why does everyone think, because I am in a sea town, all I want, is to go out and do disgusting things with disgusting girls?”

His father was shocked into a stillness like the paralysis of Eadred’s pain. There stood a pillar of dark stone at the foot of Finn’s bed.

“And do not call me Finnie! Only my friends call me that!” A spasm of guilt clenched his heart, forcing him to mutter, “My friends my age,” lest his father think he was denying him as a friend.

'My friends my age.'

His father said, “Sorry, Finn. I was only teasing about the girls.”

Finn snorted. By some miracle his father had rediscovered the faculty of good diction and the use of his own slow, deep voice.

“It wasn’t all that funny, I concede.”

He crept around the bedside, rubbing his big hands together, silent now but for the song his weight sang in the boards.

Finn did not want to be touched by him. He did not want to be near him. He rolled over once like a log and stopped on the far pillow, as if he supposed his father had only come nigh to take that side of the bed.

His father sat on the bed as if he had.

'His father sat on the bed as if he had.'

“You’re right, too. If you’re wise you won’t want anything to do with that sort of girl.”

Finn closed his eyes. He did not want to talk to him. He did not want to explain why. More than anything he did not want the thought of frightened, abandoned little Condal entering into his father’s dark mind. He supposed that by now the thought of his father had entered into hers, and he wondered who was comforting her tonight.

“When I married your mother,” his father murmured, too low for Eadred to hear, “I wished I could have lain down with her as pure as she did with me. I had my fun when I was a lad, but I robbed myself of a gift I should have kept for her.”

Finn muttered, “Don’t talk to me about my mother.”

'Don't talk to me about my mother.'