Dunfermline, Scotland

The King of Scotland proved to be a very big man.

The King of Scotland proved to be a very big man. A Highland bull brought to graze on lush pastures, his whopping frame was packed with muscle and sleeked over with fat. He looked the part of a legend – of a man whose name, like the secret names of fairies, was rarely pronounced above a whisper in Colban’s clan.

This was the man who had whacked off King Macbeth’s head with a single stroke of his sword and strangled King Lulach in the crook of his beefy arm. And worse: this was the man who had ordered Old Aed’s father beheaded before the eyes of his son, the lords of Scotland, and the clergy; and walked out spinning the bloody crown of Strathclyde around his hand like a toy.

As Colban kneeled behind his father, King Malcolm snorted his red forelock aside and lowered his bullish head to stare at Colban out of his broad-​​set eyes. Rarely had Colban felt so very small.

Rarely had Colban felt so very small.

The Queen intoned, “Malcolm, son of Colban, of the clan of Colin, my lord.” Still more stiffly, as if she had to force the words through the sieve of her teeth, she announced, “And Colban, his son.

The King burst into laughter. “Well well well! I wouldn’t have believed it from any but your saintly lips, Mother! Malcolm! So you finally brought the lad! What were you doing – waiting for your fry to grow too big to be eaten?”

'So you finally brought the lad!'

Colban’s father bounded to his feet. He was still graceful as a cat so long as he did not take a step and reveal the mismatched length of his legs. Colban rose slowly behind him, trying to fit himself into his father’s shadow.

His father said, “Only waiting for him to grow big enough to venture out of the den and join me in the hunt.”

The back of Colban’s neck prickled at all the attention. His nervous smile broadened, revealing his sharp canine teeth.

His nervous smile broadened.

“Well, bring him here, Malcolm!” the King commanded. “If I was in a child-​​eating mood this morning I would have already gobbled up these plaguey creatures to get them out of my hair!”

He waved vaguely at the three identically-​​dressed boys lined up behind him, two of whom looked sourly offended. The third, whose face seemed brighter than the others on account of his darker hair and eyes, instead waited until his father’s back was turned, and then pretended to chomp at his arm.

He pretended to chomp at his father's arm.

“Come on, lad,” Malcolm said gently to Colban. “I’ve been asking to make your acquaintance for as long as I’ve known there was such a thing as you. ’Twould have been a shame for a man such as your father to have no son.”

Colban did not know what he meant by the remark, but gentle or not, he knew a royal command when he heard one. He padded across the bearskin rug as far as his father’s elbow.

“Well well well,” the King said reverently.

He stroked Colban’s hair, and Colban’s shoulders went rigid. His father laid his hand on his arm, as if to counteract the King’s touch. Colban could not stop smiling his taut, terrible smile.

Colban could not stop smiling his taut, terrible smile.

“You couldn’t have denied him if you wanted to, Malcolm. But who would want to?”

The sole of the Queen’s shoe hissed across the floorboard, and her heels cracked together. Colban knew she had stood up straighter, and he imagined her towering like a giantess, looking down on him and his father from regal heights.

“But don’t try to convince me you were ever this pretty!” the King warned.

“It’s the eyes,” his father said. “The eyes of his mother is he having. I couldn’t have denied them if I’d wanted to.” He winked at the King. “But who would have wanted to?”

Malcolm burst into raucous laughter again, until he chanced to look past Colban’s father’s shoulder and see the Queen. He coughed and dropped his hand from Colban’s head to turn and look behind him.

“All right, all right, let’s make some legroom in here! Boys! Get over here and line up for me.”

The boys trooped around him and attempted to squeeze by. Colban stepped back to give them room, and then stepped awkwardly forward again, wondering whether he was supposed to join the line.

“Not you,” the King said, pulling Colban aside. Colban felt his father’s arm brush his shoulder again.

“You three!” Malcolm shouted to his sons. “Line up over here on the rug. By age! Come on now! Hup hup hup!”

The boys stomped and shuffled and bumped into line. The tallest and the shortest looked mistrustful, but the middle boy peered up through his dark auburn hair with a wry expression that he turned briefly on Colban.

The middle boy peered up through his dark auburn hair.

“Etmond, Ethelred, and Etgair,” the King pointed out to Colban. “Etbard is away hunting, and by the time we got to Alasdair we were out of E-​​names, but anyway I figured one of these three ought to be about your size. Which one is it?” He reached over Colban and tapped his hand down the row of heads, counting, “Eena, meena, mackeracka…” 

He stopped and moved his hand back to the middle boy’s head. The other he planted atop Colban’s. This time Colban’s father did not touch him. The boy smiled at Colban with one corner of his mouth and sent an ironic glance up at his father’s wrist.

After carefully comparing their heights the King said, “Looks like you’re It, Red.”

He grabbed Colban by the collar and Ethelred by the arm, and pulled them both behind him. The two boys left standing were beginning to look hostile. Colban smiled sheepishly. He was glad the middle boy had “won.”

Colban smiled sheepishly.

“All right,” the King said, “you’re out, you other two. Go on with your mother. You have lessons to do.”

Both boys whined, but Malcolm grabbed the sleeve of the taller one and shuffled him along towards the door, driving his little brother before him.

“Out out out! Quit your groaning! Colban might be more boring than your tutor, for all you know.”

Colban’s father laughed, and the King grinned at him. “Don’t spoil their afternoon, Malcolm,” he pretended to whisper.

The Queen turned sharply and marched. Her two boys followed her out through the door, stomping their feet in protest. Colban’s father cocked his hip and glanced back over his shoulder at the Queen as she left, but he came no closer to a bow. Since Colban did not know what he was supposed to do, he did nothing, and felt stupid for it.

He did nothing, and felt stupid for it.

After the door closed, the King clapped his hands. “Well well well! Let’s stuff some cake into these boys to shut ’em up and slow ’em down, and then we’ll have our chat. Shall we?”

“Cake?” Ethelred asked dubiously.

“Eh… Don’t tell your mother.”

Ethelred gave Colban a slyly triumphant grin. Colban looked around for his father. Was he supposed to eat cake if it was offered, or was it more politic to refuse? Would there be napkins or plates, or would he simply have to eat out of his hand? Would it be sticky cake or clean? Was it even safe? Was it poison?

Was it poison?

Colban’s father answered most of his questions by reaching over Colban’s shoulder and pinching the corner off a slab of spice cake on the tray beside him. He stood up again and stuffed it in his mouth whole.

“When you’re doing wrong, laddie,” he mumbled to Ethelred as he chewed, “it’s wise to make accomplices of your witnesses.”

Malcolm let loose another thunderclap of laughter. “Good God, Malcolm, not a quarter hour here and you’re already trying to teach my boy to be you.

Colban’s father shrugged and swallowed. “Somebody has to undo the damage.” His hand fluttered over the tray before he selected a dried plum and popped it in his mouth.

King Malcolm pinched off a mouthful of cake for himself. “Go on boys! Help yourself. We all hang together!”

'We all hang together!'

He shoved the cake into his mouth and turned mumbling away to address the pitcher of wine that stood on the table.

Ethelred sneaked in next to Colban and picked up a knife. “Will you have some cake, Colban?”

Colban opened his mouth, unsure of what to answer. He did like cake, but what he truly wanted was to creep into a corner and silently observe the proceedings until he had regained his bearings. Fumbling with cake did not tend to make a boy inconspicuous.

In the event, Ethelred decided for him, announcing, “We all hang together!” He bent over the cake until a cascade of chestnut hair hid his face, and sawed away with the dull knife like a boy who clearly had little experience cutting cake. Colban felt a twinge of compassion, but he was wise enough not to embarrass him further by offering to help.

“That one’s for me,” Ethelred mumbled as the first crumbling slice folded itself in half and flopped onto the tray.

“That’s all right.” Colban darted out his hand out to steal the bits away. “I’m not very hungry.”

Ethelred laughed awkwardly. “I’m not supposed to eat cake at all on Fridays.”

“Oh.” Colban forgot his manners in his embarrassment and ate a bit of cake while his host was still cutting.

The King pulled out a chair with a loud scrape. “What the hell do you want, Malcolm?” he asked. “Why don’t you ever come when I could have use of you?”

“They don’t call me The Cat for my whiskers,” Colban’s father replied.

Malcolm laughed. Then the knife clanged onto the platter and Ethelred’s head popped up beside Colban’s, all pink-​​cheeked and startled-​​looking.

“Shall we sit?” he asked. Without waiting for a reply he slipped past Colban and led him to the bench at the foot of the King’s bed.

Colban cradled his cake against his chest and looked up and all around at that piece of furniture: a monument on a scale of the man who slept in it, he thought, fashioned from oaks felled in Birnam Wood. His father had said it was a great honor to be received in King Malcolm’s bedchamber, but the room seemed calculated to impress.

The room seemed calculated to impress.

Sigefrith never received any but closest family in his bedchamber. That, Colban’s father had said, was because he shared it with the Queen. It would seem that kings rarely did.

Colban sat on the edge of the bench beside Ethelred, careful not to spill any crumbs. His father and Malcolm were already seated, already talking, and Colban had missed a part of their conversation. Now he wanted to listen; from the King’s repeated glances, it seemed they were talking about him.

But behind him Ethelred asked, “How old are you?”

'How old are you?'

Colban peeked over his shoulder at him. “Twelve.”

“Oh, I too!”


Colban’s father was laughing. “Isn’t that reason enough?” he asked.

Ethelred said, “I was wondering, for we’re almost the same height. I think I’m a little taller. They say I shall be tall. But your father is tall, too.”

Colban looked around at him. “My friend Cedric is a little taller than I, even though my father is taller than his. And we’re exactly the same age. Born on exactly the same day.”

'Born on exactly the same day.'

“Truly? What day?”

“The third day of June.”

Ethelred looked disappointed. “Oh. I was born on the fifteenth of November.”

Colban murmured a polite, “Aye?” and looked back to the men.

The King pounded on the table and damned his father to Hell, a sentiment somewhat softened by the wicked grin that bristled his eyebrows and beard. Colban wondered desperately what he had missed.

“That makes me younger,” Ethelred added softly.

'That makes me younger.'

Colban turned to him. The boy’s head bowed over the cake he cupped in his palm, and his other hand darted about like a little bird, picking up crumbs and pecking them into his mouth. His hands looked older than the rest of him, slender and pale and long: more like a grown woman’s hands than a boy’s or a man’s. Indeed, it seemed likely he would be very tall, but tall like a stag rather than like a bull.

“It’s good cake,” Colban said.

Ethelred looked up. “Aye?”

“My compliments to Her Majesty’s cook.”

Ethelred grinned. His smile was startlingly wide.

The King grumbled, “Brittany, then, I suppose. I can always – ”

“Ach, no!” Colban’s father cried. “Last time I was there I nearly broke the other leg, falling on the rocks.”

'Ach, no!'

Colban stopped chewing to better listen. This was it – they were deciding where he and his father were to go.

He was a little sorry it would not be Brittany – even a little hurt. His father spoke of Brittany with a voice he used for no other foreign country. It was almost like his voice on those achingly rare occasions when he mentioned Colban’s mother. It made Brittany seem a special place that his father did not want to share with him.

“Ach! Denmark, then?” Malcolm proposed wearily.

“Nor neither,” Colban’s father said. “I’ve had my fill of the sea for a time.”

Suddenly Colban realized Ethelred had just asked him a question.

“Beg pardon? What?”

“I said, What did you think of my mother?”

“Ahh…” Colban shrank back and flailed about in his mind for something polite to say. “Very regal.”

'Very regal.'

“She doesn’t like your father,” Ethelred whispered.

“Ahh… I was noticing that…”

“Do you know why?”

Colban shook his head and then bowed it over his hand to lip the bits of cake from his sweaty palm. He did not much want to talk, and on this particular subject not at all.

“I don’t know either,” Ethelred whispered. “I just… I wanted to tell you it isn’t because he brought you. She has never liked him.”

Colban sat up and squinted at him. “Why would she not like him because he brought me?”

'Why would she not like him because he brought me?'

Ethelred’s face turned pink, but it was plain he was trying to speak unashamedly. “Because you’re a bastard.”

Colban stared.

“Not – I mean–I don’t think badly of you for it…”

“Why should you? ’Tisn’t any fault of mine.”

By now blotches of red marred the even pink of Ethelred’s face. “Uh… That’s right. That’s why I don’t.”

“France!” the King bellowed. “Oh, God, no!”

Colban’s father laughed. This time both boys turned to listen.

“The last time I sent you to France, I almost got my legs broken!”

'I almost got my legs broken!'

“Ach, the devil! There was never any danger to you! I got you what you wanted, didn’t I?”

“After helping yourself to what you wanted! Pff! And you’re wanting to take this poor innocent child to Paris, are you? Straight from the cradle to the stews?”

“Nothing of the kind! The devil! I’ve had enough of that for the time, too.”

The King laughed. “Tsk tsk tsk, Malcolm! What did you break in Brittany? Do you take me for a fool?”

Colban’s father threw up his hand and fidgeted in his chair. Colban leaned forward, wishing he could have seen his face.

Ethelred whispered, “I’m sorry if I offended you.”

'I'm sorry if I offended you.'

Colban sat up. “You didn’t.”

“Sorry anyway.” Ethelred finished his cake and brushed the crumbs from his lap. “So, would you like to go do something? Would you like to visit the castle?”

“No, thank you. I’ve seen castles before.”


The next thing Colban understood from the men was his father’s laughing plea, “Ach, never! Paris is the only city in the world where the noble ladies have more lice than the whores!”

Ethelred asked, “Your mother was a queen, too, wasn’t she?”

Colban gasped, “What?”


“I was only thinking… we were born on different days, but we both have fathers named Malcolm… and we’re both the sons of queens…”

“You don’t have many friends, do you?”

Ethelred replied at once: “Only my brothers.” Only then did he look hurt. Colban was sorry he had been snappish.

“No offense meant, Your Highness,” he said. “But it’s no wonder if you don’t. You’re going about it all wrong – reminding a lad he’s a bastard, and asking him about his mother, and telling him your mother doesn’t like his father…”

Ethelred picked at invisible crumbs on his lap. “Sorry.”

“Eh… never mind, lad. I know you aren’t meaning to offend. You’re likely crazy, but you’re harmless-​​crazy.”

'You're likely crazy, but you're harmless-crazy.'

Ethelred peeked up at Colban through his hair, his face pinched and pink and frightened, but he smiled at the sight of Colban’s friendly smile.

“Anyway,” Colban said, “it’s kind of you to try to make friends. You’re probably wishing you’d been a little taller or a little shorter and been sent off to do your lessons.”

“Ach, no! I’m glad I’m It. I’ve been curious about you, ever since I heard you were here. I wondered how much you would resemble your father.”

At that moment, Colban’s father shouted, “Not when your cock comes out smelling like roses and itching like nettles!”

'Not when your cock comes out smelling like roses and itching like nettles!'

Colban winced. “Hopefully not that much.”

Ethelred laughed and laughed without making a sound. His mouth grew positively enormous, stretching from ear to ear like a toad’s. It was difficult not to laugh before such an example of laughter.

Colban pointed back at his father with his thumb. “He’s harmless-​​crazy, too,” he confided.

'He's harmless-crazy, too.'

Ethelred bent double, laughing until he squeaked. Colban finally broke down and joined him in wicked giggles.

Ethelred whispered, “That’s probably the one thing we have in common!”

“Eh? You and my father?”

Colban sat back and looked Ethelred up and down. Nothing immediately came to mind.

Then he looked over at his father. The men’s heads were bowed together, and they seemed to be speaking seriously at last, too softly for Colban to understand.

The men's heads were bowed together.

Only a few names broke loose and drifted back to him, as familiar names will do: Philippe, Robert, Ogive, Guillaume. France it would be, then, or Normandy or Flanders.

“Well,” Colban said, turning back to Ethelred, “I’ll admit you’re little enough alike. Unless you’ve some of your harmless-​​crazy business in common… such as: Did the mothers of you both conceive you dog-​​fashion, on their hands and knees beneath the light of a full moon?”

Ethelred’s broad mouth narrowed into a tall O.

Colban sighed and shook his head. “That’s my point, son. If you’re wanting to get to know a body, and learn what you’ve the twain of you in common, you cannot be asking him awkward questions about his mother, do you see?”

'You cannot be asking him awkward questions about his mother.'

Ethelred closed his mouth and nodded, but his lips soon spread into a sheepish smile.

“You want to ask a fellow: What sorts of sports does he like? Or mayhap does he prefer books and studies to sports and things? Or, has he ever been to Dunfermline? Does he have any sisters or brothers? That sort of thing. And if you must ask something harmless-​​crazy, then make it something such as won’t make a fellow want to sock you in the nose. Such as, for instance, can you roll your tongue?”

“Roll my tongue?”

“You know.” Colban stuck out his tongue and curled it into a tidy round between his lips. “Like thith.”

Ethelred laughed his silent laugh again, squeaking like a panting dog enjoying a nice scratch behind the ears. He stuck out his tongue between giggles, but he only managed to flop it around.

“Like thith! Like thith!” Colban taunted him. Cedric could not roll his tongue either, but Colban liked to mock him when he tried.

At last Ethelred burst into audible laughter. It was warm and infectious, but louder than Colban expected after so much silent squirming. He peeked over at the men, fearing he and the Prince were not being inconspicuous enough. The King only glanced up from his quiet conversation and smiled.

“I shall practice before a mirror,” Ethelred announced.

“Ach! It was a joke, son. If tongue-​​rolling is the best thing you can come up with when a lad is asking you what you like to do for fun…”

'Ach!  It was a joke, son.'

“Well, what do you like to do for fun?”

“Ach! I don’t know. Lots of things. I suppose I like horses more than anything.”

“You do?”

“Ach, aye. I’ve a way with horses, everyone says. My father does, too.”

Colban nearly spoke aloud his private creed that for a certain sort of man – a solitary, shiftless sort of man – a man’s horse was a man’s best friend. Instead he blurted something stranger.

“We had to sell my horse at Tynemouth, so we could take the ship. A big, fine bay with a snip of a blaze on his nose.”

“You did?”

'You did?'

Colban froze. Why had he said that? And why – since it seemed such a banal thing to say – did he so wish he hadn’t? 

He still remembered that horse’s eyes when he had said goodbye: huge, dark eyes that reflected a broad swath of cloudy sky and windswept horizon, and a little figure of a boy shrinking into a speck as he retreated.

He wondered how many hours or days had passed before the horse had realized he was never coming back. Colban supposed he should be grateful he had not had to see him running up and down the paddock fence, the way that dog had frantically followed their ship up the beach. He had to hope his horse would get a good master. He had to hope that dog had not drowned.

“What was his name?” Ethelred asked.

'What was his name?'

“Ah… Caspar.” Colban put on a grin and managed a tinny laugh. “Ach! I’d only had him since Christmas anyway. ’Twas a pity, but I’d much rather go abroad. It’s best not to get too attached anyway.”

“Would you like to go see our stable?”

Colban looked automatically to his father. His father leaned heavily over the table, murmuring with the King in dark tones, and running a restive hand over his tightly-​​bound hair. Below the tabletop his leg bounced with impatience to be gone across the sea.

The King looked up and gave Colban another kindly smile, but his own father seemed to have forgotten he was there.

Colban turned his back to them.

'Aye, Your Highness, I would like that very much.'

“Aye, Your Highness, I would like that very much.”

Ethelred smiled another of his broad smiles. “Call me Red.”

“Call me Cub.”

'Call me Cub.'