Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

Aed pulled the door shut behind him and whirled into his friend's room.

Aed pulled the door shut behind him and whirled into his friend’s room on the toes of his boots.

“Thank God Almighty! The rents are paid! The tithes are paid! The servants are hired and dismissed and paid! And I am free to kick—and buck—and dance—and fuck—and I never want to see a pen again!”

He threw wide his arms and spun around and around.

He threw wide his arms and spun around and around and around until he stumbled and swooned, laughing like the carefree little boy he had never truly been.

Gaethine marked his place in his book with his finger and frowned up at him. “You would have been free a week ago if you had started on Quarter Day.”

Aed stumped up to his friend’s chair, giggling over his own dizziness. “I couldn’t have done that, now!” he panted. “I had to show Ireland and Cynan a good time! I might have need of those lads some day.”

'I might have need of those lads some day.'

“You got in your dancing and your whatnot then. There’s no need to be kicking down the stall door now.”

“Sure and certain there’s a need! Come on, Gaeth, I promised Congal and Mael Muad we’d meet them at the wharf if I finished before the dancing was over. And I’m thinking it isn’t too late.”

He folded his arms and whistled himself a tune as he stepped down into the alcove, and he bowed his head through the window when he arrived. The bay glittered with starshine and the light of a low moon in the west. At the wharf, the revelers’ torches streaked the dark water with gold.

“They’re still making merry down there!” he called back to Gaethine. His hot breath made puffs of fog in the frosty air, and it occurred to him that Gaethine ought not to leave the shutters open on nights such as these.

He pulled the shutters closed and latched them, and hummed to himself as he danced a slow step back out of the alcove. He pulled the loose knots out of the curtain ties with seductive slowness, pretending they were the belts of lovely young ladies’ gowns, and amused himself imagining the outcome when the heavy drapes fell over him from both sides.

Gaethine turned a page.

“Come along, Gaeth,” Aed commanded as he pulled the curtains into a maidenly primness before the window. “I promised we’d come. Don’t be making a liar out of me.”

'Come along, Gaeth.'

“You are free to go,” Gaethine said. “And my word was never yours to give.”

“Ach! Come along, man! You needn’t dance if you aren’t liking to. Only come, and get as drunk as you please, and be making faces at the pretty girls and scaring them into my lap!”

Gaethine shook his head.

“Come on! Your book will still be here tomorrow!”

“Ah, but will I?”

There might have been an answer to that. Aed did not know it.

'Fuck you, Gaeth.'

“Fuck you, Gaeth.”

Gaethine grunted approvingly. Perhaps that had been the answer after all.

Aed drew the poker and stubbed it into the faltering fire. “If you’re meaning to be here tomorrow, you might at least close the window and tend your fire.”

“I wasn’t feeling the cold.”

Aed snorted. “Whatever you say.”

He punched a few satisfying holes into the crispy, fire-​eaten logs, and tossed a fresh one atop the pile. He was just prodding it into a toasty position when its bark burst into colorful flame, startling him back. The wood blackened, split, and flared red before his eyes, alight in seconds.

“Damn it, Gaeth! I can set a fire by myself in the middle of a fucking fire!

'Only trying to help.'

“Only trying to help.”

“Only trying to show off!”

Aed clanged the poker back onto its stand. Gaethine said nothing.

“’Tisn’t worth tiring yourself for,” Aed grumbled.

“It tires me no more than it tires you to spit.”

“Whatever you say.”

'Whatever you say.'

Aed hunched his shoulders and stared into the fire. Pale blue flames fluttered around a chink in the log and batted themselves together like lashes. The heart of the wood glowed a passionate red through its seams.

Aed put out his hand. A tongue of yellow fire drew itself up, and Aed turned his knuckles to it, as he would have given his hand to a strange dog to lick. The fire nuzzled the back of his hand, and Aed spread his fingers to comb them through the flame.

Before the bright light his flesh was translucent, as cherry-​red as the embers on the hearth. Aed studied his bones and his own lacy veins, candling himself like an egg.

What was he? And why was he not it more? If he were only better, he sometimes thought, he would know how to reach in and pluck Gaethine from the fire.

“What are you—”

“Aie!” Aed yanked his seared hand out of the fire and cradled it against his belly. “The Devil! The Devil! The Devil!”

“Let me see it.”

“Fuck!” Tears spilled from his clenched eyes, but Aed choked, “It’s fine.”

“Let me see it.”

“It’s fine, I said!”

Now that the sensation of excruciating heat was fading, Aed saw that his hand was fine, after all, though gray with soot. He wiped his eyes with the heel of the other.

“Don’t startle me like that, idiot!”

“Don’t stick your hand in a fire when I’m not watching.”

“All right, then, Da!

Gaethine shook his head and looked back at his book.

Gaethine shook his head and looked back at his book.

Aed wiped his hand on the hem of his shirt and glared at Gaethine from beneath his scowling brows. Gaethine was reading, or pretending to read, and his eyes glittered like fitful stars. Aed wished he had not been so hasty to refuse his sympathy.

“Come along, man. I swear you won’t regret it if you go.”

“I doubt I shall regret it if I stay.”

“Only because you won’t know what you’re missing.” Aed bent so far over him that his head blocked Gaethine’s view of the page. “Are you telling me it’s truly so much fun to sit up half the night with your nose in a book?”

Aed bent so far over him.

He could not see Gaethine’s face, but his friend was ominously still, aside from the rise and fall of his hollow breath. Aed began to fear Gaethine was simply annoyed at his ongoing presence.

Then the book snapped shut and nipped the end of Aed’s nose before he jerked his head away. Aed clapped his hand over his face and stared.

At last Gaethine gave him a proper grin. “That’s the closest you’ll ever come to knowing.”

'That's the closest you'll ever come to knowing.'

“I didn’t mean as a bookmark!”

Gaethine chuckled gingerly and cracked the book open again to search for his place, still smiling.

Aed laughed and whirled across the room to leap onto the bed. He came down with a thud.

“Aie! I’m always forgetting that!” he whimpered.

'I'm always forgetting that!'

Gaethine snorted and shook his head.

Gaethine’s bed was no more than a straw pallet atop a wooden bench, but the careless rumples of his thick woolen blankets made it look like a cozy nest. Aed’s chambermaid, meanwhile, tucked his blankets tight as a drum, but beneath them were layers of feather beds.

“I think I just broke my tailbone.”

“Look before you leap, young tadpole.”

Aed bunched up a blanket beneath his hips as a cushion. “No wonder you’re always sleeping alone, Gaeth. This bed was made for penance, not for sin.”

'No wonder you're always sleeping alone, Gaeth.'


Gaethine found his place again, but he settled the open book on his lap as if his thin arms were tired of holding it, and he tipped back his head to sigh. His Adam’s apple jutted sharp as a blade beneath his skin, and a scattering of dark, carelessly shaven hairs stuck out from his neck as if they had burst through. His body looked prickly, withered, and dry: a hair shirt for the soul. Perhaps it was no wonder he did not feel like making merry.

“What are you reading, then,” Aed asked him, “that’s so much more entertaining than a dance down at the wharf?”

Gaethine lifted his head and his book. “On Time and Untruths of the Mind. By Aelfden of Lothere.”

'On Time and Untruths of the Mind.'

“Ach!” Aed grimaced as if he had bit into something sour.

“The Abbot learned I had wanted to see him, and he sent me a copy of his book. Kind of him, was it not? After the fit you threw before the King.”

“Ach, not that again!”

“No, not that again. I don’t care to talk about it either. I am conscious of the favor, however. It is quite an interesting little book. Think of it, Aed: what if life is a dream—and dreams are a dream, too, inside a dream—and truth is out there—just beyond.” His hand shot out and snatched at an invisible moth. “We need only wake to grasp it.”

“Die, in other words.”

'Die, in other words.'

“No! Wake to a deeper life. Like moving between sleep and waking. The journey between cradle and grave is an illusion. The journey between sleeping and waking and deeper waking is the one we ought to be making. Think about this. You’re a worm inching along a branch. To you, there is forwards, and there is backwards, and that is all. The worm never realizes he can let go of the branch and fall, or sprout wings and fly. Worse—the worm never looks up. He does not even know of ‘up.’ And meanwhile, all that space above and below and around—the air and the thousands of branches, and the roots, and the earth, and all—the Lord sees it all. But the worm only sees forwards and backwards: past and future. That is lowly us, believing there is nothing but Time: a branch we are obliged to march along.”

'That is lowly us.'

“Until a bird gobbles us up.”

Gaethine cocked an eyebrow. “I haven’t read that far yet.”

Aed hitched up the hem of his shirt and eased himself down onto his back, careful not to bruise his shoulder on Gaethine’s hard bed. He could tolerate a certain amount of Gaethine’s philosophy, but anything more made him restless. He was more interested in politics.

'I wonder whether the book is meant for a peace offering?'

“I wonder whether the book is meant for a peace offering? Sigefrith is the Abbot’s cousin, after all. Perhaps the gesture was meant as much for me.”

Gaethine snorted in annoyance, and Aed regretted having snapped up a part of Gaethine’s pleasure for himself. He knew of no gracious way to give it back.

“I doubt that,” Gaethine said. “If anyone ought to be sending peace offerings, it’s your own self, after the tantrum you pitched.”

“Ach! What was I supposed to do? The sleek bastard! He tricked me! With a smile!”

'What was I supposed to do?'

“He tricked you, aye, and the only honorable action left you was to salute him for it, and thank him for the lesson. You’re getting too accustomed to dealing with men stupider than yourself.”

“I do not deal with men who make a fool out of me. Or at least not send them peace offerings. All a-​smiling at me over breakfast while his men are on their way to Ramsaa. Fie!”

You made a fool out of yourself. Sigefrith just stood back and watched.”

Aed snorted. He did privately admit to a certain amount of embarrassment at his behavior in Lothere, but he was far from admitting it to Gaethine, and farther still from admitting it to Sigefrith. He hoped Sigefrith would need him before he needed Sigefrith.

Aed swished his hand at a towel that hung beside the bed.

Aed swished his hand at a towel that hung beside the bed, idly at first, and then checking it for spots of blood. It was clean, but Aed did not know whether it was because Gaethine had stopped coughing up blood at night, or rather that it had simply been laundered.

“Did he send a letter?” he asked.

“Who? Sigefrith?”

“The Abbot. With the book.”

“Only a note, telling me he had learned I had desired to see him. And offering the book, since I could not.” He added softly, “And he said he prayed for me.”

Aed flicked the towel away from the wall, revealing a flashing glimpse of the wooden crucifix that hung over the bed. Aed could tolerate a certain amount of religious ardor, too, so long as it was the comfortable, everyday kind; but Gaethine’s hushed passion gave him chills. Still, if the miracle-​working Abbot of Lothere could pray for Gaethine the way Gaethine understood the word, Aed had to hope that he would.

“A book is not a trifling thing,” he said, bringing the subject back into the material world. “I do not suppose it is an honor he pays any old pilgrim he doesn’t get a chance to see.”

'A book is not a trifling thing.'

Gaethine clapped his book down in his lap. “What do you want me to say? Do you want me to say that it was for you? It was all for you?”

Aed sat up. “No!”

“Do you want it?” Gaethine held out the book. “Here! Take your peace offering!”

“No! Christ! That wasn’t what I meant!”

“I don’t know why he sent it! Mayhap he thought I had need of it. But I cannot believe it’s because Sigefrith is wooing you! Even if you had not offended him with your outburst, you’ve proven yourself childish and temperamental, and I doubt he has much use for the likes of you!”

“And what was I supposed to do? Stand there and take it with a smile? ‘Well played, old man,’ and whatnot?”

'And what was I supposed to do?'

“’Twould have been preferable to what you did do.”

“It’s your fault, then! If I’d only had a quarter hour to think about all that! Coming in, and taking me into a corner, and telling me all that, right when Sigefrith and the Duke are standing in the room!”

“Ach! The Duke!” Gaethine sneered. “What was I supposed to do? Wait until a more convenient time?”

“Aye! For one!”

“Fie! Then I wish I had! Then the doctor might have had time to finish his examination.”

'Then the doctor might have had time to finish his examination.'

Aed’s heart skipped a beat. “The doctor?”

“Aye, the doctor! ’Twas the doctor told me about Ramsaa. He was just coming back with the news when I met him.”

“The Saracen doctor? You saw him?”


“Christ, Gaeth.” Aed’s heart beat steadily again, but his voice was growing shaky. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

'Why didn't you tell me?'

Gaethine flipped a page in his book. Aed could not believe he was truly reading. “Because you were too busy pitching a fit.”

“Aye, but… You could have said something after. We didn’t have to leave right then.”

“You certainly seemed to think we did right then.

“I know, but… What did he say? Did he have a look at you?”

Gaethine grunted.

“And? Could he help you?”

'Could he help you?'

“Aye. If I had stayed.”

“If—Christ!” Aed leaned his arm on his knee and jammed the heel of his hand against his mouth. His eyes stung with tears.

Gaethine muttered, “Forget I mentioned it.”

“Fuck you, Gaeth! You never said a word! And now you’re just sitting here—with your nose in a fucking book! Why don’t you write to him?”

“Certainly not.”

“Why not? He must remember you! He can at least suggest a treatment!”

Gaethine lifted his head and slightly smiled. “Far be it from me to deal with men who make a fool of you.”

Gaethine lifted his head and slightly smiled.

“Fuck you! I shall write to him myself. I shall write to Sigefrith and beg him the favor.”

“I forbid it. I have my pride, if you do not.”

“You’re meaning to let yourself die to save your pride?”

“God’s will be done. Forget I mentioned it, Aed.”

“Forget it? How can I be forgetting it? Every time I look at you—”

Aed choked and stopped himself in time.

Aed choked and stopped himself in time to ward off another tide of prickling tears. Now he saw the utter childishness, the utter folly of his tirade before Sigefrith and the Duke. He had little dreamt how much his vanity would cost him.

“I shall write to Lady Gwynn!”

“No, you shall not!”

“One can address such a plea to a lady! To a lady’s gentle heart!”

Gaethine closed his book and whacked it down on his leg. “No, you shall not!”

'No, you shall not!'

“No, I shall! Such a matter is outside the realm of diplomacy…”

“You shall not write to that simpering slut on my account!”

“Watch what you call her!”

A lady’s gentle heart! You’d be safer addressing yourself to her tits. You made yourself certain of them, at least.”

Gaethine turned his head and cleared his throat with a cough, unwittingly saving himself from being dragged to his feet and forced to repeat his insults three inches from Aed’s nose.

Instead Aed only wailed, “What’s the matter with you? Why do you hate her so? I have tits waved in my face most every day!”

'Why do you hate her so?'

“Because she is unworthy of you!” Gaethine’s voice was hoarser than before and his breathing ragged.

Aed said, “So are they all!”

“Ah, but you think her worthy! Every time you speak her name I lose a little respect for you.”

“And every time you insult her, I lose a little respect for you!”

“You shall not write to that vixen on my account! I would not—” Gaethine interrupted himself to cough.

“There goes a little more of it!”

While he waited for Gaethine to finish his sentence, Aed dreamt up cutting retorts to meet several possibilities. But Gaethine kept coughing.

Gaethine kept coughing.

Aed drew his foot up onto the bed to prevent himself from hopping up and going to him. He sometimes imagined there was something he could do—some words to say, or a hand on the shoulder, or an arm to lean on. Sometimes he had thought his simple, silent presence could be a balm. But if Gaethine blamed him for taking him away from Lothere and the Saracen doctor…

Aed laid his cheek upon his knee.

Aed laid his cheek upon his knee and hugged his leg with all his useless strength, afraid to move. He felt every fresh spasm that came over Gaethine as a jolt in the top of his own spine.

Between coughs, Gaethine choked out, “—I would not allow any treatment—” and Aed realized that in Gaethine’s head their argument was still going on.

'I would not allow any treatment.'

“Forget that, Gaeth! Christ! I shan’t write to her. Forget I mentioned her.”

“—that resulted from her meddling!”

“All right! I hear you. Take it easy. I shan’t write to anyone.”

Gaethine spat into a cup and lifted the end of the towel beside him to wipe his face. His chest still rumbled like departing thunder. Aed could see no sign of blood from where he sat, but Gaethine always hid it when he could.

Aed could see no sign of blood.

“Shall I get you a drink?” Aed asked him.

“I’m fine.”

Gaethine held himself very straight, closed his eyes, and breathed slowly through his nose. Aed stayed quiet and let him recover, but he watched him all the same, wary of another attack that he would be no more capable of warding off.

Gaethine held himself very straight, and closed his eyes.

After a time Gaethine’s rawboned face settled into a look of peace. The grimace of his constant suffering relaxed, and his features fell not into the sickly droop of fatigue, but a soft, fawnlike beauty: the face of the carefree little boy Gaethine had once been.

He looked more asleep than he did when truly sleeping. Or perhaps it was as the Abbot had written: not sleep, but wakening to a deeper life. Whatever it was, lately Gaethine spent ever more time there.

At last Gaethine opened his eyes, and faint lines creased his face again. His gaunt hand caressed the book lying closed upon his lap.

“Don’t be letting me keep you from your dancing and whatnot,” he said. He did not sound sarcastic.

“Ach! It’s likely the dancing will be done by the time I make it down there. ’Tisn’t worth going. It’s no matter.”

'It's no matter.'

Gaethine shrugged and opened his book.

“You won’t mind if I laze about in here, would you?” Aed asked him. “I don’t feel like doing much of anything.”

“Suit yourself. But I mean to read.”

'Suit yourself.'

“I’m not minding. You give a man room to think, Gaeth, I’ll grant you that.”

Aed stretched out on the bed again. From this spot he could see both Gaethine quietly reading, and the crucifix hung high on the curve of the vaulted wall, leaning over him as if the Cross threatened to topple.

“But if you find out what happens when the bird shows up and eats the worm, I’m eager to know.”

Gaethine answered with an amused snort.

Aed smiled to himself, but not for long. He knew the worm would triumph in the end.

He knew the worm would triumph in the end.