Saint Swithun’s Priory, Westminster, Wessex, England

Lord Hingwar slid back his stool and stood.

Lord Hingwar slid back his stool and stood as Eadwyn and Ethelmer hurried in out of the rain. Eadwyn, who had come in first, lifted his brows and gave Leofric a look he meant for weary relief. But Leofric stared past him and solemnly bowed, as if some great noble had just stepped in.

Eadwyn skittered aside, mortified. The mud, the dashes between eaves through the downpour, the wrong turns, the asking of directions, the squabble over the price—all had conspired to make the outing seem a tiresome act of commerce on a foul-​weathered market day. In the bustle he had all but forgotten why they had gone.

Leofric had not forgotten. Nor had Ethelmer, who had carried back the last relic of his father the Baron beneath his arm.

He carried it in now and set the casket on the corner of the battered desk. Then he looked up at Leofric with a plea in his eyes: a child’s expectation that a grown-​up would know what to do next.

He looked up at Leofric with a plea in his eyes.

Leofric knew. He nudged his stool aside and stepped nearer the desk to lay his hand flat upon the painted lid, disregarding the beads of rain that sparkled on its surface. He bowed his head, and Eadwyn and Ethelmer did the same.

Eadwyn was too overwrought to pray, but his mind sank into somber thoughts. These last few days had taught him he had not always loved his own father well enough, and to be grateful it was not too late. Watching Theobald letting go of his son had shown him what a grave responsibility fatherhood truly was.

He was itching to be home.

He was itching to be home, anxious as a dog pacing behind a closed kennel door. He had a few things to say to his father, first. Then he wanted a few weeks alone with his wife to prepare himself to meet his coming child. If not for the others, he would have left at once, in spite of rain and mud and the falling light.

A glimpse of movement recalled him to the present company, and he looked up to see Leofric crossing himself with the hand he had rested on the casket. His palm sparkled as if he anointed himself with holy water. Eadwyn watched to see whether Leofric could casually wipe his hand on his tunic afterwards, as if it were only ordinary rain.

Eadwyn watched to see whether Leofric could casually wipe his hand.

Leofric did not. With his left hand he pulled Ethelmer close, and with his wet right hand stroked the boy’s dripping hair, smoothing rain into rain.

Ethelmer threw his arms around him and sobbed something into Leofric’s chest.

“There, now,” Leofric soothed. “We’re all together again.”

Eadwyn decided it was a good moment to go behind the curtain.

Eadwyn decided it was a good moment to go behind the curtain and take off his scarf.

He waited in the windowless room until he heard Ethelmer’s voice unmuffled and more calm. Leofric looked up when Eadwyn stepped back through the curtain, and for a moment Eadwyn saw the raw compassion that Leofric had exposed to the boy. Then Leofric’s face rearranged itself into the knowing expression that adults wore when discussing matters over children’s heads.

Then his face rearranged itself.

He looked back at Ethelmer and laid his hands on the boy’s shoulders, straightening him up. “Now, I want to have a word with Eadwyn, so you’re going to take a candle and go back in there and get these wet clothes off you, towel off your head, and blow your nose. If you don’t, I’ll come back there and do it for you, and I warn you, runt: you don’t want me blowing your nose.”

Ethelmer’s shoulders shook with a slight laugh.

“And lie down till supper time,” Leofric commanded, “whether you like it or not, because I know you didn’t get enough sleep last night. We’ll be out here.”

Ethelmer sniffled and nodded bravely, but the trembling corners of his mouth hinted that he would be grateful to have a chance to cry a bit in solitude. He had been biting back tears all day. Leofric, twenty-​five years a father, doubtlessly knew it, too.

Ethelmer sniffled and nodded bravely.

Leofric folded his arms and stared at the curtain long after it had stopped fluttering. Scuffs and shuffles could be heard as the boy undressed.

Eadwyn began to feel awkward, but he was supposed to be a grown-​up and could not allow himself to look to Leofric for a hint of what to do. He went to the table by the window and stared out at the rain instead. Water dripped from the bare branches of elms and splashed into footprint-​shaped puddles in the yard.

He stared out at the rain instead.

Behind the curtain Ethelmer blew his nose, and then they heard a thump and a rustle that meant an eleven-​year-​old body flopping down onto a bed. Afterwards all that could be heard was the storm. A gust of wind blew the rain into white sheets across the yard, and springy stems of weeds bowed before it and threw off a glittering spray when they rose.

Eadwyn stared so long he was startled to hear a deep voice in the room behind him.

“I meant it when I said I wanted to talk to you, runt,” Leofric said.

“Y-​y-​y-​you did?”

Eadwyn turned.

Eadwyn turned, expecting to enter into planning for their departure. He hoped they would leave in the morning, no matter the weather, but he was too intimidated by Leofric’s judgment to suggest it.

But Leofric said, “I was just about to write a letter when you came in.”

On the desk a clean, small sheet of parchment lay beside a borrowed flask of ink and a quill.

On the desk a clean, small sheet of parchment lay.

Eadwyn asked, “To whom?”

“To Sigefrith. The King, I mean.”

“S-​s-​s-​s— W-​w-​w-​w—” Eadwyn could not guess why Leofric would write a letter to Sigefrith when they were about to turn around and go back to him in person.

“Because I’m thinking of going on,” Leofric said. “To the south, I mean.” He paused again, then eased into what seemed a rehearsed explanation. “We’re not fifty miles from Halsfield, runt. Less if I were a bird, by God. I’ve not been this close to home in twenty years. And the Lord knows I hope I shall live to see Sigefrith return to Hwaelnaess in glory, but I cannot count on ever standing so close to home again. I’m getting old.”

'I'm getting old.'

He turned away from the candles, and storm-​colored shadows ran like water into the creases of his face. His thick lower lip quivered like a stubborn drop of rain. Eadwyn did not know what to do besides shrug. Leofric scarcely seemed to notice that, as he went on without turning his head.

“I had been thinking, if it got to look as though Theobald would be convalescing here a while, I could take five days or a week and go on down alone. That was not to be. But I got my old heart set on it, I suppose.”

He turned to Eadwyn and gave him a watery smile.

Five days or a week!

Five days or a week! Already Candlemas was less than a week away.

Leofric must have seen the panic on Eadwyn’s face, for his voice went from gravelly wistfulness to a grave, low rumble that warned Eadwyn he touched the bedrock of the lord.

“Theobald told me I ought to go in any case,” Leofric said. “I wouldn’t even have mentioned it if Theobald hadn’t given his blessing for me to entrust you with his son. And I won’t go if the runt doesn’t want to leave without me, nor if you don’t think you can handle taking him back alone.”

“You want me to t-​t-​t-​t— You want us to start back without you?”

'You want us to start back without you?'

Leofric glanced at the casket on the desk and the curtain beyond. “Both of them will be better off at home. The sooner the better. And you’ll make good time. You know the road now, and in a single day you’ll pass through two or three or even four of the towns we slept in. You’ll do fine. It can be done in a week, if the roads dry up.”

They both looked to the window and to the streaming world beyond, distorted by rain.

Leofric muttered, “Better say ten days.”

“Better say two weeks.”

'Better say two weeks.'

Leofric humphed.

But even two weeks would get him home in time, Eadwyn thought. Even if Ana could no longer be moved from her sister’s house—even if they could not be alone together—at least they would be together. There might even be advantages to having an experienced father at hand in Baldwin.

There might even be advantages to having an experienced father at hand.

Leofric’s deep voice startled him out of his reverie again, but Leofric seemed to want to pull him into a wistful reverie of his own.

“I don’t know what it is, runt. Perhaps it’s the color of the light here, or the color of the roads and the hills. Or sometimes, when the wind blows up from the south, there’s something… something like…”

'I don't know what it is, runt.'

He made helpless grasping gestures with his big hands, like a tremendous baby, unconsciously groping the air.

“I can almost smell the sea, and wet chalk, and… I don’t know what it is.” He sighed and scratched his hair. “I wish I had a lick of poetry in me. I could tell you what I mean. Perhaps you’ll understand when you see your own hills rising up before you again.”

“I understand.”

'I understand.'

Leofric shook his head and sighed. “It’s been twenty years since I stood beside my parents’ tomb. Twenty years. Brit and Baldwin say they’ve been treated with respect… But, by God, one last time before I die, I want to brush the dust from their names with my own fingers. My mother, she… she deserves to hear the name ‘Mother’ one more time…”

Leofric’s voice broke entirely, and he pinched his brow, gouging his fingers deep into the squinting sockets of his eyes. His fat lip quivered.

Eadwyn tried to spare him, but he only managed to stutter, “Y-​y-​y-​y—” before Leofric interrupted his attempt at an interruption.

“I know she can’t hear!” Leofric said, choking out a weak laugh. “Or—she can hear everywhere…” He waved vaguely at the painted casket on the desk. “But it’s not the same.” He shook his head. “One more time before I die I want to return to the place where I was born.”

'One more time before I die I want to return to the place where I was born.'

“Y-​y-​y-​you don’t have to c-​c-​convince me,” Eadwyn finally blurted. He sighed in relief.

“That’s fine, runt, but I need you to convince Eadgith.”

Eadwyn gasped, too stunned to stutter even a first syllable.

“I’m going to write to Sigefrith, but I can’t simply write to Eadgith. I need you to tell her what I just told you. And tell her I’m thinking of her. She won’t believe it if it’s written on parchment. She’ll need to see it in your eyes.”

'She'll need to see it in your eyes.'

Eadwyn grimaced in despair. Whatever Lady Eadgith could read in his eyes was likely to be all she would ever get out of him. Orally delivering awkward news to an imposing lady he scarcely knew was the most difficult quest he could imagine for himself.

“B-​b-​b-​but why do I need to convince her if you’re c-​c-​c-​coming five or ten days later?” he pleaded. “Won’t you be?”

Leofric folded his arms and sighed.

“Is it d-​d-​d-​dangerous?”

Leofric snorted. “I’m not an outlaw like Sigefrith and Alred, runt. I’m legally dead. And Alix died less than two years ago, and her family’s still there. I doubt they’ll kill the fatted calf for me, but they won’t kill me. What am I, anyway?” He held up his injured hand. “I’m no vanguard of an invading army. I’m only a shade, haunting the halls of Halsfield for the last time.”

'I'm only a shade.'

“But you’ll be coming back straightaway after?” Eadwyn asked. “May I tell her that? F-​f-​f-​five or ten days?”

He dearly hoped the message he carried would not be too distressing to her. Even the recitation of good news would leave him a shivering, stuttering mess.

Leofric sighed. “Runt, Leila’s people, in their holy book, they have a law which says: ‘Never say you shall do such or such thing tomorrow, unless you say also Inch’allah.Inch’allah: if the Lord wills it. Tell her five or ten days, inch’allah. She will understand.”

'She will understand.'