Cedric wished he had made more noise when he had climbed out of bed.

Cedric wished he had made more noise when he had climbed out of bed. He shuffled his bare feet and gave his arms a brisk rub against the cold, but Colban went on digging through his bag like a terrier in pursuit of a juicy rat, and the tall man beside him simply studied the silhouette of his hands before the fire. Cedric did not know whether he was being ignored or had simply gone unnoticed.

At last Colban spied him beneath his arm and gave him an upside-​​down grin. “Cedric! My father’s here!”

Cedric smiled and stepped onto the rug. “I see that!”

'I see that!'

“I was going to wake you, I swear! I just wanted to get dressed first!”

Colban shook out a pair of knitted leggings and bent over again, balancing on one foot to pull them on.

Cedric stood back and watched him fumble. “Lest I be treated to the sight of your underpants waving in the air?”

'Instead of treating me to the sight of your underpants waving in the air?'

“Quit looking at my ass, son.”

“That’s what your sister said.”

Colban groaned. Cedric laughed until he remembered Colban’s father.

Of course, Malcolm was not the father of Colban’s sisters… but he had presumably looked at the ass of their mother… which had also been looked at by another man… namely Cedric’s lord… who regularly looked at Cedric’s sister’s ass with open admiration…

“Good evening, sir!”

'Good evening, sir!'

And was it stupid to say “Good evening” in the middle of the night?

Malcolm glanced back, his head so low that his shoulder hid the profile of his nose.

“Good evening, Cedric.” His voice was thick and throaty from illness – a condition readily explained by his rain-​​soaked clothes and dripping hair. “I’m sorry to wake you.”

'I'm sorry to wake you.'

“Oh, that’s all right. My father does the same thing whenever he comes in late. Counting his runts!”

But Cedric’s father did not hustle his runts out of their beds to put on pants and boots.

Riding boots…

Cedric’s smile faded. He whispered, “Are you leaving?”

Colban passed his boot to his other hand and threw his arm over Cedric’s shoulder.

'I was going to wake you, son, I swear.'

“I was going to wake you, son, I swear. I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye to you.”

Cedric slapped Colban’s back. “I know.”

Colban drew his arm tight, pinning Cedric’s throat against his shoulder. He could not have been up long; his skin was still warm from bed.

He whispered, “I have to go with him. He’s my father.”

“I know.”

Colban shoved Cedric away and mussed his hair. “And not on any pilgrimage, if I know my old man.” He winked. “Wish you could come.”

Cedric forced a laugh, and Colban turned back to his boots. The room seemed colder somehow. Cedric stepped up to the fire.

Cedric stepped up to the fire.

“Wet out tonight.”

Malcolm grunted.

“We had a lot of snow around Christmas. We made a fort. But it hasn’t stopped raining in two days. It will probably all be melted by morning.”

Malcolm’s breath whistled overhead, slow and stuffy. Cedric did not like the idea of his friend leaving – in the darkest hours of the night, in the driving rain – with a man who might be prostrate with fever by dawn. But Malcolm was Colban’s father: he had to go.

Cedric asked, “Did you come up from the south? My father is going down that way. He’s on a pilgrimage to Winchester. The road must be a mess.”

Malcolm was Colban's father.

Malcolm inhaled sharply and laid his hand on his belt. Out of squirely habit, Cedric peeked aside to be certain Malcolm had surrendered his sword at the gate.

Then Cedric heard it too, thudding down the long corridor, making the hinges jangle and the windows rattle in their frames: that ground-​​swallowing stride that Cedric could only match with a jog.

The door cost Sigefrith a single beat when he stopped to fling it wide, and then the thundering resumed: three long strides that stopped at the far end of the rug.

Cedric bowed and stood at attention, wishing he had at least thought to pull on a pair of hose.

Cedric bowed.

But Sigefrith made no comment on his squire’s state of dress. He did not acknowledge Cedric at all. He planted his hands on his hips and looked Malcolm up and down, his eyes narrowed and his brow scowling, until Cedric’s curiosity nearly overcame his squirely discipline.

Colban stepped up behind him, jingling all over with buckles he was still buckling.

Sigefrith jerked his chin at Malcolm. “Thought you were going to steal away in the night, did you? You of all people ought to know I retire late. And you must have realized that I would be informed if a bloodstained man was admitted to my castle.”

Cedric’s curiosity triumphed.

Cedric's curiosity triumphed.

Now he saw the bloody handprints on the hip, the bloody smears across the belly, and the broad red stain on the shoulder where blood had soaked and spread. But he could see no rent in the cloth. Had Malcolm seen Maire? Lifted her dead body and held her? Could a dead woman bleed?

Malcolm said, “’Twas not I who spilled it.”

Sigefrith tossed his head. “I know what happened. I had a message from Alred an hour or two ago.”

Colban buckled his last buckle and dropped his arms to his sides. Cedric looked a question at him and even inclined his head, but Colban stared between the two men to the wall.

Colban stared between the two men to the wall.

Sigefrith sucked his teeth and worked his square jaw on its hinges. Cedric would have felt more at ease if he had flexed his arms.

“How is she?”

By the time Cedric looked back to Malcolm, half his body had melted into the shadows.



Cedric gasped. Colban’s face was blank, but Cedric could hear his sharp breaths.

Sigefrith shook his head. “Over you.”

Malcolm’s jaw shivered as he spoke. “The blame is her brother’s.”

The fresh blood, the message from Alred, the brother – it had to be Lasrua. Malcolm and Paul must have fought. Somehow Lasrua had been killed.

Cedric glanced at Colban again. Colban blinked and blinked, but his eyes stared straight ahead.

Sigefrith’s head went on shaking. “And nevertheless, when you stand before your Maker, I daresay you will find her blood upon your hands.”

'I daresay you will find her blood upon your hands.'

Malcolm sprang out of the shadows and flapped his hands at Sigefrith as if shaking them dry. His throaty voice had gone shrill. “Her blood is on my hands! Her blood is on my hands!”

Cedric cringed, expecting droplets of dead girl’s blood to spatter his bare skin. But Sigefrith swung his arm like a hammer and whacked Malcolm’s hands away.

Malcolm fell against the fireplace. The single blow left him hunching his shoulder and panting like a man pushed to the ropes in a market-​​day fistfight. He looked beaten and desperate and dangerous.

Sigefrith clapped his hand back onto his hip. “Save it for your devotees, Malcolm. If there are any men left alive who still find you impressive.”

Cedric felt a chill at his side. Colban had vanished. He turned his head further and spotted him by his bed, pulling up the blankets. Cedric left the men and padded up behind him.

Cedric left the men and padded up behind him.

Sigefrith said, “I’ve half a mind to have you arrested until this has been sorted out.” He sniffed and chuckled. “Why, you haven’t met my new reeve, have you?”

Cedric did not know what to say to his friend. He settled on the stupidest possible thing, as was his way. 

“You don’t have to make your bed. I’ll do it.”

Colban jerked the sheet taut. “Right. And leave here in your debt. Nice try, son.”

Cedric had not heard Malcolm’s muttered reply. He listened for Sigefrith’s.

“Fortunately, the other half of my mind wants to kick you so far out of this valley that you’ll forget the way back!”

He listened for Sigefrith's.

Malcolm planted his elbow on the mantel and shoved himself off from the fireplace. “By God, that won’t be far enough to suit me! Your accursed valley! The cradle of my every sorrow!”

Sigefrith’s tone soured into a sneer. “So said the Serpent of the Garden! I must remember to station a regiment of Cherubim in the east!”

“Don’t be troubling yourself! I shall not enter into this place again! Nor by east, nor west, nor north, nor south, by God’s name I swear!”

Colban spun around and grabbed Cedric with both arms. He squeezed with all his strength, and even clenched Cedric’s shoulder with his chin. Cedric went stiff, in part out of shock, and in part because Colban pinned his arms at his sides.

Cedric went stiff.

Colban whispered, “I have to go, son. But we’ll still be friends. No matter what happens.”

Cedric nodded against Colban’s shoulder. “No matter what.”

“Remember – we were born on the same day. That has to mean something.”

Colban stepped back far enough to look Cedric in the face, but he grabbed Cedric’s arms to prevent him from going any farther.

“And promise me: no matter what happens, on the day we turn eighteen, wherever we are, and whoever we’re with and whatever we’re doing, we’re going to drop everything and start heading towards each other. Nobody can stop us when we’re men.”

'Nobody can stop us when we're men.'

Cedric thought of Sigefrith and his father, of his squirely and someday his knightly duties… of the difficulty of finding someone who had been lost to him for nearly six years… of everything that might happen between now and then…

Colban shook him, making his head bob. Inside of it something rattled into place and stuck.

Cedric nodded firmly. “I promise.”

Colban smiled a thin smile. “I too promise. Farewell, my brother.”

He yanked Cedric close, but instead of another crushing hug, he delivered a kiss to Cedric’s cheek. Before Cedric could react, his head darted back and then kissed the other side.

He kissed only air.

Cedric tried to follow, but he kissed only air.

Colban stepped back, slapped Cedric’s hip, and walked around him.

“I’m ready!”

He made his voice high-​​pitched and childish, but from behind his firm stride and straight back made him appear the man he would be at eighteen. Sigefrith and Malcolm fell silent, watching him.

Colban swung his cloak around his skinny body and cinched it with his sword belt, giving himself the muscular silhouette of a warrior.

He stepped towards the door, but Sigefrith caught him in a hug. Crushed against Sigefrith’s towering form he turned back into a boy – a little boy being ripped away from his Papa again, just as the first delicate roots had begun to grow.

Cedric felt a rising flood of tears and turned away just in time. He did not hear what Sigefrith whispered to Colban, but he heard his concluding command, sealed with a spank: “Make me proud.”

The first tears reached Cedric’s lips, and he sucked them away. He tipped back his head so he would not sniffle.

He tipped back his head so he would not sniffle.

He heard Colban’s sword slide out of the stand, and its leathern thunk as it dropped into his scabbard. The floorboards creaked, and several pairs of boots clip-​​clopped off the rug onto the wood. Cedric realized they would pass beside his bed and see between the curtains to his tears. He turned his face away.

Malcolm’s hoarse voice called, “Farewell, Cedric.”

Colban said, “The peace of God on you, my brother.”

Cedric gasped and turned his head. His friend was leaving – perhaps for years – and he was being a baby worrying about his babyish tears.

Colban had already turned towards the door, but he craned his neck to look back over his shoulder.

Cedric blurted a stupid, ordinary English, “Goodbye!”

Colban smiled, and that was the last Cedric saw of him. He bit his upper lip and barely caught a sob.

When the door closed he had a shuddering moment of relief, but then he heard a slow tap-​​tap that was Sigefrith’s stride when he was thinking. Sigefrith was still inside. Cedric hurriedly wiped his nose on his arm.

Sigefrith wandered around the foot of the bed, rubbing his hands together. “Looks a little lonely over there now, with the one sword, doesn’t it?”

Cedric sniffled.

Cedric sniffled.

Sigefrith walked up behind him. “Remember, when your father left, how we got so drunk we started bawling?” His hand settled on Cedric’s shoulder. “I think we should do that again.”

Cedric felt like being difficult. “He won’t come back any faster.”

“No.” Sigefrith pulled out a handkerchief and passed it to Cedric. “Here, runt. I don’t suppose you keep one of these in your underpants. Or, if you do, I hope that’s not the one you use to wipe your nose.”

Cedric did not feel like laughing. He did blow his nose.

He did blow his nose.

Sigefrith sighed. “Well, Cedric, I reckon we’re short one ugly old man and one ornery young runt, you and I. Now, you’re not as ornery as Cubby and I’m not as ugly as your father, but between the two of us, I suppose we’ll get by.”

Cedric sniffled and swallowed a throatful of snot. “My lord, I made a promise that I should tell you.”



“I promised Cubby that on the day we turn eighteen, we shall both leave whatever we’re doing and go forth and find each other. And I know I shall probably be a knight by then, or soon to be – ”


Cedric’s chin shivered. “Inch’allah. But even though I shall be beholden to you ever after, and follow your orders in everything, I hope you will let me keep this one promise.”

“Cedric.” Sigefrith rested his cheek against Cedric’s head and sighed into his hair. “That shall be your first mission as my knight. Find that ornery runt. And bring him home to me.”

'Find that ornery runt.  And bring him home to me.'