Dunfermline, Scotland

The sun had risen on Colban's last morning in Dunfermline.

The sun had risen on Colban’s last morning in Dunfermline. Colban had seen it come up. He had hardly slept in days.

He woke at the slightest sound: at the barest rustle of blankets over his father’s body in the bed beside him, at the merest creak that might have meant a sneaking foot on a floorboard. From the moment he had stepped into the old cottage he had known no peace; not from the moment the elderly housekeeper had tousled his hair and crooned her quavering endearments over the both of them.

Colban had never feared that his father would abandon him at any of the camps or inns they had slept at on the way, but this snug cottage and this old grandmother seemed almost an invitation to leave a lad behind.

This snug cottage and this old grandmother seemed almost an invitation to leave a lad behind.

“He’ll be safer here than with me,” his father would say to the woman, who would grin and nod as she did at anything, for the old hen was stone-​​deaf. Perhaps his father would leave a note praying King Malcolm to kindly look after his boy. Or perhaps he would simply sneak off and trust that Colban would be cared for, or that he was old enough to take care of himself.

But the sun was up on their last day in Dunfermline, and Colban had won.

He guarded the door to the end.

Now, guarding the door to the end, he leaned his head against the plaster and kicked his foot in time to his father’s whistling in the house. The tune faltered and faded by moments as his father jerked on a boot or splashed water on his face, but Colban thought the whistling a good sign. His father was glad to be gone.

The sun had not yet crested the cottages across the road, but the mist was already burning off the fields behind them. The pristine, prismatic beauty of Colban’s dawn had given way to the gritty smoke of breakfast fires. His solitude was spoiled ever more often by the old woman stumping out to hang her laundry and the men of the neighboring houses leaving for the fields.

After a week of mornings, their distrustful stares had simmered into stiff nods, and already some scarcely seemed to notice him and his father at all.

But not so the girl.

Not so the girl.

Colban notched his heel against the rim of the barrel and slowly slid his shoulders up the wall, preparing to hop down and flee into the house if she came too close.

Every day, after the girl had taken her family’s stew pot to the baker’s to roast until noon, she would dawdle her way back up the road, apparently lost in contemplation of every stone, rut, and weed, but she flashed frequent glances at the cottage.

It was Colban’s father’s house, and had been for years, but not even his godfather knew it existed. His father had not mentioned it to Colban until they were walking up its very path – and then he had sworn Colban to secrecy.

It was Colban's father's house.

At last Colban truly understood what before he had simply known: his father had two lives, and until this past week Colban had only belonged to one of them. He loathed the house, the yard, the old woman, and everything that belonged to the other. And he was beginning to feel a real hatred for that girl.

She was dark-​​haired, about his own age, and seemed tall. She walked with a familiar feline slink. And she had an absurd interest in his father’s cottage, and looked almost longingly at the door – as if she hoped someone would step outside and recognize her.

On this morning, she went so far as to stop and shout over the wall.

“Looks like it’s going to be a fair day! Good day for laundry!” She laughed.

Colban sat up. She was almost near enough for him to see the size and shape of her nose, but her face was disfigured by the dawn’s hard light.

Colban sat up.

“You sure do wake up early!” she called. “I see you out here every morning!”

Colban croaked out, “Aye.”

She stepped up onto the bank and laid a hand atop the wall. “My name’s Ablach!”

'My name's Ablach!'

Ablach was not a common name in Colban’s family. Of course, men did not always have a say in the naming of their bastard children. But she did have a paler skin than most girls of his clan…

“What’s yours?” she asked.

“Uh… Colban.”

“What’s that?”


“Oh!” She broke into a grin. “So, Colban, do you ever get down off that barrel, or do you just sit there all morning?”

'So, Colban, do you ever get down off that barrel?'


Struck by a strange idea, Colban looked over his shoulder at the door. He was sitting almost in front of it, at least from the angle of someone coming up the road.

Could it be? Was it him the girl was so absurdly interested in? Was he being flirted with?

Was he being flirted with?

And what was he supposed to do now?

The girl broke her blinky-​​eyed stare long enough to look worriedly back the way she had come. Colban too heard a rumbling of hoofbeats. His father’s house was on a quiet road at some hike from High Street, but the royal town of Dunfermline was busy enough that a distant sound of hurrying horses was common. Still, these seemed to be cantering closer.

The girl sidled towards the gate. “What barrel do you sit on in the evenings?” she called. “I never see you here!”

The girl sidled towards the gate.

“Uh…” Then Colban had a brilliant thought. “I’m not going to be here tonight anyway!”

The girl trotted a few steps and passed the gate. The horses were definitely coming nearer, cantering down this very road.

“What about tomorrow morning?” she asked.

“Nor tomorrow either!”

She flapped her skirts and glanced up the road. “Oh, bother! Don’t tell me you’re leaving!”

Colban sat forward and tried to peer past the neighboring house, more interested in the horses than the girl.

“I better go!” the girl cried. “Bye, Colban! See you sometime!”

Colban glanced at her as she ran up the road, jerking her arms and legs like a girl. Out of politeness he called, “Goodbye!”

He hopped off the barrel just in time to see the lead horse round the corner of the neighbor’s wall. The animal’s body curved beautifully into the tight turn for the last few beats of his canter, and then he dropped into a bouncy trot as the other two jogged up behind him.

A chestnut, a bay, and a gray, all tall and sleek and confident – Colban knew them at sight.

“Hallo!” He waved with both arms and ran down the path. “Hallo!”


“Good morning, Colban!” Etgair said as he passed the gate. He slowed his horse to a walk, but he went on.

Etmond trotted past Ethelred’s horse with a gruff greeting for Colban and drew even with Etgair on his chestnut.

Colban realized then that the princes were only passing by. He felt stupid for running out to meet them. He felt stupid for being glad. Last night he had folded, tied, and packed away his little bundle of regret over leaving Dunfermline, and now it had all burst open and tumbled out in tangles around him – all for nothing.

He did not even want to look up into Ethelred’s face, if it was for no more than a glimpse as he trotted by. Last night Ethelred had looked at least somewhat regretful himself.

But Ethelred shouted such a jovial, “Hallo, Cub!” that he could not help but look. His friend’s warm smile looked more like a welcome than a goodbye.

His friend's warm smile looked more like a welcome than a goodbye.

Ethelred was even then settling his reins over the pommel and preparing to dismount. Colban opened the gate just wide enough to slip through and hurried out into the road.

“Morning, Red! You lads are out early today!”

Ethelred thumped onto the road beside him. “We went out straightaway after prayers. We didn’t want to miss you!”

Colban grinned. They had ridden this way to see him after all!

But Etmond pulled up his his horse and groaned, “Come on! We’re not stopping!”

'Come on!  We're not stopping!'

Colban felt stupid again.

“Only a moment!” Ethelred shouted. “I shall catch up with you!”

“Come on! I don’t want to wait!” Etmond’s gray lashed his tail in displeasure at his rider’s impatient jerking on the reins.

Ethelred said, “I shall be right there!”

Etgair finally decided the matter by trotting off without a word or a backwards glance. Etmond groaned and followed him.

Ethelred shrugged and peeked at Colban through his ruffled hair. “Sorry about them.”

'Sorry about them.'

“It’s all right. You’re the only one I like to see, anyway.”

Ethelred’s sheepish smile spread into one of his face-​​splitting grins, though it did not lose quite all of its sheepishness.

Colban felt the need to temper his remark with a touch of formality, and he folded his hands into a polite ball.

He folded his hands into a polite ball.

“It was kind of you to come and say goodbye again.”

Ethelred lifted his head and laughed. “I’m not come to say goodbye – I’m come to call you back!”

Colban smiled in confusion. Last night he had already had some difficulty in gently refusing Ethelred’s invitation to stay behind in Dunfermline. He had reasons to want to stay and reasons to want to go, but he could not bring himself to admit any of them. He had settled on an unconvincing declaration of his longing to see France. He did not want to go over that awkward ground again.

Ethelred’s horse saved him by stretching out his neck and whinnying after his companions.

Ethelred's horse saved him by stretching out his neck and whinnying.

“Ach!” Colban lamented. “Why is everyone in such a devil of a hurry to be clear of me this morning!”

“I beg your pardon?” Ethelred said.

Cricket seemed to remember his manners and stepped up to Colban to bump him with his nose and whiffle into his pockets for signs of treats. Colban laughed and threw an arm over the horse’s neck while he dug into his purse for the apple or bits of carrot he always kept stashed away.

Once the horse was munching, Colban hugged his big head and launched into a murmuring monologue of fond insults and endearments. He scratched behind Cricket’s ears and stroked his whiskery muzzle, and the enamored gelding thanked him by whuffling over his face with his sweet, hay-​​scented breath.

For a moment Colban was at peace. Cricket was a beautiful, big bay: tall enough for the man Ethelred would grow into, tall enough that he and his master need never part. He and Caspar would have made such a handsome pair.

Ethelred stepped nearer to stroke his horse’s neck. “Lumpy old traitor!” he scolded. “You already love Colban more than you ever loved me!”

'Lumpy old traitor!'

Cricket snorted in apparent agreement.

Ethelred laughed. “No, sir, you cannot keep him! Not even if he follows us home! Which, I believe, he is about to do.”

Ach, aye! Colban had almost forgotten that.

“I cannot go home with you, Red. We’re about to go. My father was just shaving.”

“You must come back to the castle for at least an hour!” Ethelred said triumphantly. “There’s a letter for your father there, from his brother. It arrived late last night. I don’t know what it says, but I’m supposed to tell him, ‘She’s alive!’”

'She's alive!'

Lasrua was alive. It had to be she – Maire was stone-​​cold dead. Sigefrith must have written all the way to Scotland, and Lord Colban had sent to Dunfermline. Perhaps Lord Colban knew more about his father’s second life than his father had realized. But why write?

Ethelred laughed after Colban failed to react. “Who is ‘she?’ May I ask? It must be dreadfully important – his brother has only written him here twice before, and both times because he feared he was dead.”

Colban absently patted Cricket’s neck, but the silky black mane beneath his palm gave him an idea.

“Uh… it’s only a mare he was worried about.” Colban’s cheeks throbbed with warmth. He was lying to his friend. He did not even know why.

'Uh... it's only a mare he was worried about.'

“Must be quite a valuable mare!”

“She is… to the man she belongs to, that is.”

Who would that be? Osh? It was not quite a lie, so long as one substituted “Lasrua” for “mare.”

“She’s not my father’s,” Colban added. “It wasn’t even his fault she was injured – it was an accident.”

'It was an accident.'

His father had explained it all to him the night they had spent in Leol. He had only wanted to ask her how her necklace had followed him to Brittany – he had even showed it to Colban, for proof – and Paul had misunderstood his intentions and tried to kill him. Lasrua had stepped between them. It had been a horrible accident. That was all.

For her family’s sake Colban was glad Lasrua had survived. But to his own family her fate could be of little importance. His godfather must simply have meant to ease his father’s guilt over the affair. Colban did not believe his father ought to have felt any in the first place.

Ethelred asked hopefully, “I don’t suppose he only wanted to go to France because he was so grieved over that mare?”

Colban forced out a laugh. “Even my father doesn’t love horses that much.”

Colban forced out a laugh.

He certainly did not love Lasrua that much. He had not mentioned her again. If his father had seemed distracted at times on their journey, it was surely due to his shock over Maire’s death. He had already seemed greatly upset when he had come out of the chapel, and at that moment he had not even seen Lasrua yet, much less feared for her life.

Cricket jerked his head out from under Colban’s hand and whinnied up the road. From a few houses down came an answering whicker.

Ethelred sighed. “Ach! My brothers!”

'Ach!  My brothers!'

Colban risked a glance up at the cottage while Ethelred stared. His father had kept his face clean-​​shaven these last days, and he was not likely to be long shaving it now. Colban could not risk him hearing the message from Ethelred – even if it could not possibly matter.

“I suppose you should go,” Colban said.

He could smile, but a brigand ache tightened around his throat, and he knew it would hold him hostage until it had been paid off with a few tears. Keeping up a lie was like keeping a pact with the Devil, and there was no sacrifice the Devil would not demand. Even an unhoped-​​for visit with a friend. Even a man’s promises to his son. Colban was beginning to understand some things about his father that before he had only known.

“I suppose so,” Ethelred said. “But I shall see you one more time at the castle! We’re only riding out to Eastgate and back up High Street to home. You’ll never beat us on foot.”

“Ach, you might be surprised,” Colban said. “I shall take my leave of you just in case.”

'I shall take my leave of you just in case.'

Ethelred paused with his boot in the stirrup.

“It was very kind of you to come give us the message,” Colban said. “I hope to see you again soon. I imagine we shall come back to Dunfermline on our way home from France in a few months.” 

Surely by that time the lie would have expired.

Ethelred pulled himself up into the saddle, and after he had settled himself and brushed his hair out of his eyes, he smiled down on Colban. “I shall see you at the castle in just a little while, in any event.”

“But we should still say goodbye. One never knows.”

'But we should still say goodbye.'

Ethelred laughed. “I’m not saying goodbye now! I shall see you again in an hour, perhaps less!”

One of his brothers shouted, “Come on!” His distant voice was scarcely louder than its own echoes, but Cricket took a mincing step towards it. Ethelred was on his way.

“Please,” Colban said. “It doesn’t hurt to say it more often than necessary – ”

“Certainly it hurts!”

'Certainly it hurts!'

Colban stopped, startled and confused. Ethelred’s voice was sharp, but his smile was as broad as ever. One of the two was not right.

Cricket pranced sideways with his back feet and swung his hindquarters around until Colban had to step out of the way. Ethelred clucked and dug in his heel, and Cricket slashed at him with his tail. The horse knew what was not right. Colban stroked his neck to calm him.

Colban stroked his neck to calm him.

“Easy, old goat!” he scolded. He kept his eyes on the horse, but went on talking to Ethelred. “You know what I mean. One should always say goodbye. One should always say goodbye as if it were the last time, for one day it will be.”

When Colban looked up again he saw that he had at last broken through the broad smile. He had erased his friend’s expression entirely.

At last Colban had broken through the broad smile.

The wind lifted Ethelred’s collar and ruffled his hair, but his face was stone-​​still. The dawn’s hard shadows revealed angles that in gentler light were still cloaked in softness. For a moment the veil of childhood was lifted, and Colban was permitted to see his friend as a man. Ethelred of Scotland was destined to be tall, and the Lord in His wisdom had fashioned him a face best seen from below. He would have to grow into his beauty, as he would his feet and hands.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you do say the most sorrowful things.”

Colban gasped in outrage. “I do not! What did I ever say?”

'What did I ever say?'

Panicked, he tried to recall all their conversations of the last four days. He, sorrowful? He had certainly never indulged in Gwynn-​​like fits of pathos. He did not think he had even once laid his chin upon his hand and sighed. In fact, the two of them had spent most of their time together in stitches.

Ethelred grinned as if he had made up his mind to grin. Cricket danced beneath him. “What about ‘Goodbye’ all the time?”

“Well, and?” Colban demanded, still cross. “I’m leaving, you know!”

“Not before I’ve seen you at the castle.”

Colban flapped his arms against his sides. “The Devil take you! I’m saying goodbye to you now, and you cannot stop me!”

“And I am not saying goodbye, and you cannot make me!”

“Red! Say it!”

Cricket pranced so far ahead that Ethelred had to swing him around to keep grinning at Colban. “See you in an hour!”

“Say it!”

Ethelred turned Cricket’s head back up the road, and he clucked and leaned over the horse’s neck. Cricket stomped and reared slightly, and then he bolted.

He bolted.

Colban did not like to see good horses urged into such bad habits. He was angry enough to kick a clod of dirt. He was angry enough to yank the gate open and slam it shut with a steely clang.

He had not even made it back to his barrel when the door swung open and let a shaft of the dawn’s hard light into the cottage to illuminate the half-​​dressed body of his father. His father was whistling as if nothing were the matter. His father was glad to be gone.

He gave his cheek a last swipe and tossed his towel back into the house as he stepped outside. “Did I hear horses?”

'Did I hear horses?'

Colban thought that even the deaf old housekeeper could have heard horses at that moment. All three of them were just then galloping around the far bend.

His father stepped into the yard and looked up the road after them. His face and shoulders were still wet, and the hot water steamed in the cold air like the drying fields. A fat droplet rolled down his cheek, glowing with refracted light. Colban watched it until it fell and shattered against his father’s collarbone.

“It was only the princes,” he said. “Etmond and Etgair and Red. They only wanted to say goodbye.”

'It was only the princes.'