Dunfermline, Scotland

Ethelred scrambled up to stick it on the shelf.

Ethelred clapped his book shut and scrambled up to stick it on the shelf, only to lumber helplessly in place like a trained bear as his feet became mired in the cushions. Caught in flagrante delicto.

The curtain flapped shut behind his father, closing them into Ethelred’s little alcove.

His father sighed and shook his head.

Why, Father!” his father squeaked, attempting to make his booming voice sound like a boy’s, “We weren’t thinking you would get home tonight!”

Ethelred hung his head and hopped down onto the floor. “Why, Father,” he repeated resignedly. “We weren’t thinking you would get home tonight.” He bowed and kissed his father’s hand.

His father snorted and finally shook his head in amusement. “Well, Red, if you’re determined to stay up past your bedtime making yourself go blind, I suppose I’d rather you do it by reading than by the other thing.”

'I suppose I'd rather you do it by reading than by the other thing.'

Ethelred giggled and tried to hide his face behind his hair. It would be like his rotten luck to be caught in the act of that one day, too.

His father plucked the book from his hand and squinted at its cover. The title was not written on it, but his father could no more have read it if it were.

What is it? One of them Greek things, where the fellow accidentally pokes his mother or some such?” He tipped the book sideways and studied the spine.

Seneca,” Ethelred said. “Nobody pokes anybody.”

'Nobody pokes anybody.'

His father grunted as if he thought it a shame, and turned to slide the book atop one of the stacks. He was tall enough to reach the shelf without climbing on the bench.

Sit down, lad,” he said, all amusement drained from his voice. “I want to have a talk with you.”

Sick with dread, Ethelred climbed back onto the bench, dragging one leg up after the other and taking his time arranging the scattered pillows around him. He had not done anything wrong, exactly, but that was hardly reassuring. Anything that displeased his father was ipso facto a crime.

His father sat on the edge of a cushion and propped his fat hands on his knees. “Red—”

How was your trip?”

'How was your trip?'

His father’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, but alone among his brothers Ethelred did have the habit of asking his father how his day had gone. His father decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and answered.

His father's eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Tedious, that’s how. I’m glad to be home again, where I can sprawl.” He clapped his hands on his knees and rocked stiffly on the cushion. “The only fun left for me in these visits is pretending nothing suits me, and watching them scramble to find something better. And that’s a mean trick to play on the lady of the house, and Ferchar’s wife is a poor young thing.”

He shook his head and finally laughed.

He shook his head and finally laughed.

So I pretended to fancy a nut cake she made with her own hands—with pink frosting!—and by the Cross I swear I had to eat nut cake with pink frosting with every meal after that!”

Ethelred laughed aloud at the image of his burly father facing down plate after plate of pink-​frosted dainties. “Serves you right!”

'Serves you right!'

Ach, but I’ll be pleased to see my nice plain bowl of porridge in the morning! It’s glad I am to be home!”

He swiped his hand over Ethelred’s hair and chuckled a moment longer, but his eyes narrowed again as they had at the start of the interruption.

Ethelred sat back and awaited his reckoning. His father’s thoughts were weighty, and his mind had its grooves. Once his father had an idea, a lad could labor all he liked; no matter how far aside he pushed it, it would always roll back down.

But what do you suppose?” his father asked. “I found a surprise when I got here. What do you think it was?”

'What do you think it was?'

Ethelred looked at his hands. “I would rather not guess, my lord.”

Why not? Is there more than one?”

No, my lord. Only one.”

Well? What is it?”

A horse, my lord.”

His father humphed and rubbed his beard. “Aye, a horse. A big fat fine one. And so I said to Tomas, ‘Ooh, goody!’ said I. ‘For me? Why, Tomas! You shouldn’t have!’”

'Ooh, goody!'

Ethelred bit his lips together, fearing he would smile.

And what did Tomas say to me? ‘Why, no, my lord,’ said he, ‘’tis Ethelred’s new horse, which he bought while you were away.’ Well! Fancy my disappointment.”

He paused. Ethelred peeked up at him through his hair. His father nocked his finger beneath Ethelred’s chin and tipped his face up into the light.

So,” his father continued, no longer jesting, “I asked Tomas where you ever found such a fine horse. And he told me you sent Red Cuan to Tynemouth to find him and buy him for you. Sight unseen, eh?”

I knew he was supposed to be a good horse.”

'I knew he was supposed to be a good horse.'

You knew, eh? Had the opinion of a good judge of horses, did you?”

Aye, my lord.”

Hmph!” His father twitched his pants over his knees and shifted uncomfortably on the cushion. “How much did he cost you?”

That’s between me and Cuan, my lord, if you please. I shall pay it all back.”

His father sat up in surprise. “All of it? Didn’t you have enough, then?” He patted around his waist for his coin purse. “How much do you owe him?”

Please, my lord! I want to pay it all myself.”

His father sighed. “You want to do it all yourself! You always did, didn’t you? Ever since you were wee.” He shook his head. “Well, Red, I hope you’ll get your money’s worth out of him. He’s a fine horse, in any event. What’s the name of him?”

'What's the name of him?'


Hmph. What are you going to do? Make a gift of him or sell him back to the lad?”

Tomas had surely told his father all he knew, but even Tomas did not know why Ethelred had wanted the horse. His shrewd father had simply guessed.

A gift, my lord.”

Hmph! Good luck with that, laddie. He’ll want to buy him back. He won’t want to be beholden to you. By God, that’ll be the one thing—the one thing—he won’t stand.”

I won’t mind. Colban will be glad to have him back either way.”

His father snorted. “Not if you paid too much for him, he won’t.”

'Not if you paid too much for him, he won't.'

Ethelred shrugged. To a certain sort of boy, he knew, a horse’s worth was not reckoned in money. He did not think his father could understand.

His father sighed and rubbed Ethelred’s knee. “Well, Red, I hope it will be enough for you to make him glad. You mustn’t expect gratitude from him. That lad’s affection is not for sale.”

A sharp pain bit into Ethelred’s throat like a snare snapping tight. Even his voice had to be squeezed through a narrower space.

I am not trying to buy his affection!”

'I am not trying to buy his affection!'

His father winced and made a mournful frown. “I know that, son. That didn’t come out right. I meant…” He rubbed his hand over his face and sighed. “I meant, I’m glad to see you making a friend of your own age. I only wish it hadn’t been that friend. He’s a fine lad—a fine lad to know. A fine friend to have in reserve. But you mustn’t get too fond of him. You mustn’t count on him, is what I mean.”

But you don’t even know him!”

Aye, but I know his father. Ach! Do I know his father?”

'Do I know his father?'

He clapped his hands down on his thighs and rocked back on the cushions, smiling to himself, more at ease.

Does anyone know his father? I’ve known Malcolm since before you were ever thought of, laddie. And there’s no getting to know him, ever. He’s a stray cat—a wary old Tom with busted whiskers and patchy fur, but ach! does he scratch when a body tries to hold him! You may put a plate out for him, outside your door, and he’ll come and eat sometimes, and maybe even rub himself against your ankles. But he’ll never let you hold him. He’ll never let you pet him but once or twice.”

He stared off at some distant point behind the curtains and chuckled fondly, perhaps remembering some incident of whatever counted as stray-​cat-​petting in his metaphorical world. Ethelred’s throat burned.

Ethelred's throat burned.

Begging your pardon, my lord, we were speaking of Colban and not his father.”

Ach! They’re as like as one egg to another! Colban is Malcolm at twelve, down to the last hair!”

They’re not alike in the eyes.”

Ach! And the eyes make all the difference, do they?”

His father grinned down at him in amusement. By now Ethelred’s eyes were watering, and his lips bid fair to start quivering if he did not take care to press them flat.

His father's expression softened.

His father’s expression softened, and he stroked a thumb over Ethelred’s broad cheekbone, just below his eye.

Ach, mayhap they do,” he said gently. “You’ve your mother’s own eyes, laddie. Hungarian eyes. I wonder what old Attila would say to that?”

His father chuckled, and Ethelred tried gamely to smile.

Mayhap you see things with them that I cannot, Red. Though your mother can see no good in Malcolm, and no more in his bastard will she see.”

But you see good in Malcolm, don’t you?”

'But you see good in Malcolm, don't you?'

Ach, good!” His father wrapped his arms around his big belly and rocked himself, frowning vaguely at the curtains. “Good isn’t quite the word for him.”

But do you wish you’d never known him? Would you forget you’d ever met him if you could?”

His father thought for a moment, and finally sighed. “Ach, no, I cannot say I would. It’s a poorer man I’d be if I did.”

So why would you want to prevent me from knowing Colban? Even if he is just like his father, which I’m not believing he is?”

'So why would you want to prevent me from knowing Colban?'

I’m not trying to prevent you, laddie. Ach! Make a friend of him if you can. I only want to prevent you from being hurt. Don’t get too attached to him, is all I mean. I do not want you thinking on a lad who never thinks on you while he’s away. It makes the old heart of me ache to see you doing the lad a kindness, when I know how I’ve been repaid for all the kindnesses I’ve ever done his sire. Look at what it’s done to the brother of him! Eating his heart away like the sea nibbling at the strand.” He shook his head sadly. “His own brother, and he would not even bide an hour to have a letter from him.”

'His own brother.'

Like a Sisyphean stone his father had slipped right back into speaking about Malcolm again. Ethelred dared not protest, however. He was haunted by the fear that he carried his own share of guilt in Malcolm’s failure to return.

Ach, Red, do not be grieving, now.” His father brushed Ethelred’s hair back from his eyes and tipped up his head. “Mayhap as he’s a good lad after all. I hope he is, and I hope he appreciates as he ought what you’ve done for him. I’m only your poor old father, trying to keep you safe by keeping you locked in your crib, as I always did. Eh?”

'I'm only your poor old father.'

Ethelred managed a small smile.

His father humphed and scratched himself to hide his embarrassment. He stood halfway from the bench and slid Ethelred’s book down off the top of the pile.

So what sort of adventures did this Seneca fellow have?” He flipped through the pages with a studious air. “Did he at least save some princesses from foul beasties, even if he didn’t get to poke them as a reward?”

Ethelred smiled. “’Tisn’t a storybook, Father. Seneca was a Roman philosopher.”

A philosophy book?”

'A philosophy book?'

His father lifted his hand from the pages and rubbed his fingertips together as if he feared they had been sullied by philosophy dust.

That’s what you do when your old father is away? Where’s the fun in that?”

’Tisn’t for fun. I’m trying to learn how to be a good man, since I doubt I shall ever be a great one.”

His father clapped the book shut and looked at him with wide eyes. “By God, you are an unaccountable critter, Red.”

Ethelred's face burned.

Ethelred’s face burned, but he valiantly met his father’s stare. Colban had observed that a body had no hope of becoming a good man if he was ashamed to admit he wanted to be one. Colban—who had never once read a book cover-to-cover—seemed to toss off epigrams and nubs of wisdom like nutshells as he munched his way through life. Ethelred would have been content to scurry along behind him and sweep them up.

His father blinked at him. “I’m afraid to know what sort of man Seneca is telling you your poor old father is.” He sounded not sarcastic, but afraid.

Ethelred lifted the book from his father’s lap and gently laid it aside on a cushion. Then he stood up on his knees and flopped forward to take its place.

He flopped forward to take its place.

His father laughed and tickled him until he had bent Ethelred into such a position that he could give his behind a solid smack.

Ach, Red! How did you ever turn out as you did, when your brothers are all selfish rascals and your father is a crusty old turd?”

Ethelred reached around his father’s broad body until he grabbed his wrist on the far side, and he hugged him with all his might.

I don’t know,” he mumbled into his father’s shoulder, “but I like you just as you are.”

'I like you just as you are.'