St. Ninian’s Well, near Leol, Cumbria

Ethelwyn had thought he would be conspicuous.

Ethelwyn had thought he would be conspicuous, sitting alone in the farthest corner of the empty tavern, but instead he seemed to have become invisible.

He did not much mind. If he could not drink with Egelric, he did not wish for company tonight.

Indeed, as the hours passed, and the sky dimmed from blue to pink to lilac, even that wish began to fade away.

The sky dimmed from blue to pink to lilac.

His station in the back corner allowed him to watch both doors and the window, but he spent most of the evening watching the lamp on his table burn low. He found himself not rehearsing what he would say to Egelric, but thinking about his own future, which he had for so long postponed.

He wondered about his new job, his new master, his new colleagues and companions. He weighed the merits of the three houses the young Baron had offered, and mentally sorted through his old furniture, choosing the pieces he would move from Sceadwung-​clif and those he would sell. He thought of his pregnant wife, whom he would have to move in gentle stages from Raegiming to Thorhold. And he thought of the baby who would be born in the autumn in whichever house he chose.

He looked up when the door opened, but he remained oddly calm as it banged shut again with only Finn on the inside. Perhaps he had always known that Egelric would not come.

It banged shut again with only Finn on the inside.

First Finn looked straight at him, as surely as he had looked at the sun. But before he came in, he looked all around the tavern, on both sides of the central stairs, as if assuring himself that someone else was not there.

Ethelwyn got up and squeezed out of his corner. Finn made up his mind to come in.

Finn made up his mind to come in.

“Evening, Wyn,” he said as he strolled up, looking as if he’d gotten used to the idea of talking to old acquaintances again. He put out his hand instead of stuffing it into his armpit, and Wyn shook it. It was cold from a long walk in the night air.

“Evening, Finn. I’m glad you came.”

Finn nodded at the lamp and the empty mug. “You picked our usual table. My father is just washing up at the well. I’ll go get him.”

Finn released his hand, and Ethelwyn clapped it against his heart, staggered.

“Wait! What? He’s here?”

Finn turned back and cocked his head. “Aye. He’s just washing up.”

Ethelwyn’s heart beat faster, sending a rush of blood to his head. “Praise God,” he whispered.

'Praise God.'

Finn had been on the verge of bounding back to the door, but now the lightness went out of his limbs.

“Listen,” he said. “I don’t know if Brede and Eadred told you. My father cut his hair short, and he has a bad scar on his face. He doesn’t look the same. So, please try not to look surprised. Act like normal. He doesn’t like it when people stare.”

'He doesn't like it when people stare.'

“Finn,” Ethelwyn said shakily, “I’ll be glad to see him, however he looks. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt his feelings or his pride.”

Finn sniffed, but he seemed satisfied. “I’ll go get him.”

Maybe Finn had spent too much time with his father during his exile and not enough time before. Maybe he’d been too marked by the sudden alterations and hadn’t noticed the gradual change. Or maybe there were things he just couldn’t bring himself to say.

Whatever the reason, his warning had been off the mark. Ethelwyn could not help but look surprised.

Ethelwyn could not help but look surprised.

Egelric had not merely grown thin: he was gaunt. From the far corner of the tavern, Ethelwyn wasn’t even certain at first that it was Egelric who’d followed Finn in. He’d known Finn’s silhouette in a heartbeat, but here he was feeling as he had in the months after his illness: trying to convince his disbelieving brain that he ought to recognize this man.

In spite of the scar Ethelwyn did recognize his face as he came closer. The scar! The only shocking thing about the scar was that the face it disfigured was lean as a drought year.

Ethelwyn recognized his face as he came closer.

Finn stopped at Ethelwyn’s side, jarring him just as well as a jab to the ribs. Ethelwyn offered his hand, and Egelric reached out and gripped it like an axe handle. His palm was rough with calluses and cracks, and he crushed Ethelwyn’s bones into a new shape, but by God, it felt good.

“Good to see you,” Ethelwyn choked out.

Egelric nodded and gave Ethelwyn’s arm a firm shake. “Likewise.”

Egelric's expression did not change at all.

He slapped Ethelwyn’s shoulder and let his hand go.

“Finn tells me you were getting tired of drinking alone.”

He nodded at the corner, and Ethelwyn spluttered into laughter. He paused in his efforts to massage his hand back into shape and waved at the table behind him.

“You two care to join me?”

“You buying?”

Ethelwyn laughed again, more easily this time. The blood seemed to be rushing back into his heart, just as it was into his hand.

He turned to bid his friends to sit, but he missed a beat when he saw that his mug had somehow moved from the far corner to one of the spaces on the side. Finn?

He missed a beat.

“Err… My pleasure. Have a seat.” He looked behind him and called, “Goodwife!”

He turned back in time to see Egelric squeezing around the table to take the seat in the far corner. He steadied the lamp and tipped up the corner of the table to give himself a little more space as he went round, but it hardly seemed necessary, thin as he had grown. Egelric still moved like a man accustomed to taking up more room.

“What’s new with you, Wyn?” he asked as he settled in.

Ethelwyn pulled out the chair Finn had assigned to him by way of his empty mug. “Oh, we’re all well at home. The boys are well, though of course they miss you. Gils just lost his first tooth and Wulf is working on another…”

Egelric lifted a hand to silence him. “We’ll get to them. Right now I’m asking about you.”

'We'll get to them.'

“Oh… well.”

Ethelwyn ran a hand through his curls. It was hard to begin by telling Egelric he had a new employer.

He laughed awkwardly. “Where to start? I’ve been on the road a few weeks, you know. But when I go home I expect everything will be ‘new with me.’ You see, the Baron is taking me on as his new steward. I…”

Egelric lifted his brows and nodded, looking surprised but not displeased.

“I… Oh, my God, you don’t even know, do you? The old Baron died a few months back. Young Brinstan is Baron now.”

Egelric looked away, and Ethelwyn gave him a moment to let the news sink in. But Egelric began shrinking back against the wall, and Ethelwyn looked around to see the innkeeper’s wife strolling up.

“Hallo, men. What can I bring you?”

“What shall we have?” Ethelwyn asked Egelric. “Her best wine? Since I’m buying, after all.”

Egelric watched the woman as he might have watched a hornet: the sort of creature who would most likely be content to go about its business, but who might also suddenly turn on a man and sting.

'What shall we have, Egelric?'

“I’ll have wine,” Finn said.

“Oh, you will, will you?” the woman drawled. She cocked her hip and turned an amused smile onto him.

With her attention diverted, Egelric relaxed a little, though his eyes remained keen.

“Wine?” Ethelwyn prompted him.

“I’ll have your heather ale,” Egelric said warily.

The woman gave him a smart nod. “Good choice. And wine for you, sir?”

She swept up Ethelwyn’s empty mug and turned away with a swoop of her skirts. Given half a chance Ethelwyn might have asked for the same thing Egelric was having, but he shrugged at her back and let her go.

“Wyn,” Egelric said, “maybe we should get the worst behind us. Why don’t you tell me who’s dead.”

Ethelwyn shot a nervous hand into his tunic and rubbed his collarbone. He would have sworn there were a few more lines around Egelric’s eyes, and more gray hairs in his beard than when he had come in.

“Well, aside from the Baron—God rest his soul—no one that’s especially close to your family or mine.”

“That isn’t true,” Egelric said quietly. “My cousin Maire is dead.”

'My cousin Maire is dead.'

Ethelwyn blanched. How was he supposed to react to that?

Finn came to his rescue by asking, “What about Brede’s daughter?”

“Oh! That’s true. His middle daughter, I believe. And, Finn, I’m sad to say: there’s someone else I should have mentioned. I’m afraid old Belsar didn’t make it through the winter.”

Finn made a soft cry.

Finn made a soft cry, and Egelric turned to him with a look of sympathy so deep and so fond that he might have learned it from the dog.

“Eh, now, Finnie. He was a grand mutt.”

“He was old,” Finn said, flushing pink and already trying to erase his boyish outburst.

“We went to Raegiming for Christmas,” Ethelwyn explained, fussing with the table cloth so he wouldn’t have to look these men in the eyes. “Took him with us. And right after we arrived we had a big snow, and Belsar got out into it. A week later he showed up at Sceadwung-​clif. I didn’t have the heart to take him away again. And one might say he didn’t have the heart at all. Clever old fellow ate just enough so we wouldn’t notice he wasn’t eating. Died on the Feast of the Epiphany.”

'Died on the Feast of the Epiphany.'

Ethelwyn stopped, choked up. He decided not to mention how the animal had laid on the bare stones of the entry, doggedly returning after every attempt to remove him, until the staff had given in and made him a bed. Nor how he’d died with his nose pointed at the door, waiting for Egelric to open it again.

Fortunately the innkeeper’s wife returned with their drinks, because no one was saying anything, and Ethelwyn was afraid to look up.

Finn took the cup the woman handed him and lifted it towards the middle of the table. “To loyal old dogs,” he said.

“And to loyal old friends,” Egelric added gruffly, tapping his mug against Ethelwyn’s cup.

Ethelwyn got choked up again, but Egelric saved him by turning his mug towards Finn.

“And ornery young devils,” he added.

“I am not ornery!” Finn protested.

“Tetchy though.”

Finn’s pewter goblet was no match for a hefty wooden mug, and Egelric deliberately cracked them together hard enough to slosh Finn’s wine over the rim. Finn turned red with exasperation, but the complicit look they exchanged—almost forehead-​to-​forehead over the table—nearly broke Ethelwyn’s heart with its reminder of gazes he and his first-​born son would never share. But he was glad for the two of them. Heart-​glad.

Egelric archly took a swig from his mug while Finn was still patting at the spill on the tablecloth. Then he turned to Ethelwyn and sucked the froth from his mustache: one more heart-​familiar gesture that had remained utterly unchanged.

“Now,” he prompted, “why don’t you tell us some good news.”

'Why don't you tell us some good news.'


Ethelwyn hastily reached over the lamp to tap his goblet against Finn’s, and finally took a fortifying sip of wine.

“Here’s a good one,” he said, much cheered. “Hetty’s been safely delivered of a baby daughter. It was the day before I left, so I never saw her. But Alred must have celebrated in his usual style, because the pilgrims we met coming from Lothere were talking more about the festivities than about the miracles. Lent notwithstanding!”

'Lent notwithstanding!'

Finn grinned. “As long as they kept one foot on the floor.”

Ethelwyn smiled back. “Let us hope they did.”

“Know what they named her?” Egelric asked.

“I didn’t hear. I know she’d wanted to name it Lili, if it was a girl.”

“Wonder if Alred let her.”

'Wonder if Alred let her.'

Ethelwyn frowned and lifted his nose. “I should like to say, How could he refuse her anything in that situation? But I’m afraid I can’t. Egelric, I need to speak to you about Hetty.”

Egelric sat down his mug and leaned back, as if the ale had suddenly made him ill.

“It is a great presumption, I know. But I’m afraid Hetty has few allies. I must tell you, they have made a sort of gilded prison for her there. She is not ill-​treated, insofar as I can tell. But her wishes are disregarded. She—”


“She is allowed to do whatever His Grace and that Saracen doctor decide she may do, and no more.”

'She is allowed to do whatever His Grace and that Saracen doctor decide she may do.'

Egelric crossed a hand over his chest and rubbed his opposite arm. His loose shirt drew taut and strained open at the collar, revealing his neck and his thin shoulder. Ethelwyn was reminded of nothing so much as a starved horse, all ribs and jutting hip bones. He forgot what he’d been about to say.

“What does that doctor have to say about anything?” Egelric muttered.

'What does that doctor have to say about anything?'

Ethelwyn sniffed. “That I could not tell you. I would certainly never allow even a Christian man to examine my wife in the states of undress to which I hear he requires she be reduced. However, I am not a Duke, so I do not presume to judge.”

Egelric shook his head and ran his fingers through his graying hair. It was so short it stood up in the wake of his hand, like a cat’s fur brushed the wrong way.

“Is she ill or what?”

I am no Saracen doctor, of course, but if she is unwell I think it is because she is treated like an invalid. You know Hetty needs to feel useful. What she loves best is doing kindnesses for her friends, and she is not permitted to do anything for anyone. I have made her recite German recipes to me on Mouse’s supposed behalf, and pretended to forget Bible verses so that she would have something to look up for me for the next time I visited. I would have torn a seam on my own shirt if I’d thought they would let her sew it up for me!”

'I would have torn a seam on my own shirt.'

Egelric snorted, and the corner of his mouth tweaked up in a half-​smile. “No greater love hath Ethelwyn than this.”

“Just so!”

Ethelwyn was still flushed with outrage over Hetty’s mistreatment, but it did feel good to be teased by Egelric again. He wondered why he had ever let it bother him.

“And what,” Finn asked, “were Lady Gwynn and Lady Margaret doing all this time?”

“Well! Far be it from me to criticize a lady. And I daresay she was doing what she thought right. But my Lady Gwynn has been so gracious as to perform all the duties of the Duchess during Hetty’s confinement. And you may imagine how it must make Hetty feel to see how easily she is replaced.”

'And you may imagine how it must make Hetty feel.'

Ethelwyn was grimly pleased to see Finn frown. He would let that idea sink in. Finn too would take Hetty’s part.

“And Egelric,” he said, turning back to Finn’s silent father, “I’m afraid it’s not only Hetty who needs you. Things aren’t going well at Iylaine’s house. She and Malcolm quarreled, and he left for Scotland a few weeks go. He said he was only going to visit his mother…”

Egelric’s eyes widened in alarm. Ethelwyn hastened to explain.

Egelric's eyes widened in alarm.

“She isn’t ill. Vash… did something. He unmixed their blood somehow. I gather it isn’t dangerous any longer.”

Finn said, “That is not possible.”

Ethelwyn shrugged. “I was told it was. Alred was there.”

Finn shook his head. “That is not possible.”

'That is not possible.'

Finn had the smug look of a boy who had—for the first time in a good while, perhaps, living among men—the certainty that he was right. Ethelwyn was annoyed.

“Ask Paul, then, if you do not believe me! He was there the second time, when Vash did it to Iylaine.”

Egelric whispered, “Vash saw Iylaine?”

Ethelwyn smoothed back his hair, suddenly nervous. “Only briefly, I understand.”

“Was this before or after Malcolm left?”

“Before. That is, Malcolm was there.”

'Malcolm was there.'

Egelric took a deep breath and sighed, creaking back onto the seat of his chair until his shoulders touched the wall. Ethelwyn sipped at his wine.

“She and Malcolm had been squabbling for some time, I understand,” he said. “If I may be so bold, it got bad once you weren’t there to talk some sense into them. Gunnilda has tried, but you know she and Malcolm have never seen eye-​to-​eye. And Malcolm’s brother was there for a while, and you know how he and Iylaine are. And his father was there. And the next thing Iylaine knows, they’ve all gone away together.”

Ethelwyn set down his goblet and leaned over the table.

“Egelric, she begged me to find you and bring you home. I am sorry if I seem to be hounding you, but Hetty and Iylaine both begged me to find you and bring you home. I gave my word to two ladies that I would give you that message. Please come home.”

Egelric remained slouched back against the wall, his head hanging. The lamplight shone full on his scar, casting no shadows—almost erasing it. But his cheeks were gaunt. Beneath his laced collar his chest was hollow, his breastbone visible beneath the skin.

But his cheeks were gaunt.

Finn looked sleek enough, and he claimed to spend every night with his father. Surely Egelric did not want for food. Was he quietly starving himself, like his loyal old dog? Was he letting himself die?

Abruptly Finn asked, “Do you know, how is Connie?”

Ethelwyn looked up. “Oh—Connie. She seems to be in good health, as are her sisters. There was a bit of a…an awkwardness a while back. When that Irish fellow was getting ready to leave.”

Finn’s tanned face flooded with red. “Cearball!”

“Ah… that was the name. It seems he asked her to marry him…”

'It seems he asked her to marry him...'

“Cearball did!”

“I’m not saying she accepted! It seems he asked Lord Colban for his blessing, and he refused to give it until Connie was older. But there is some talk of a secret betrothal or something of that nature. At least, that is what Iylaine intimated to me. Connie has been living with her and Malcolm, so perhaps she heard something…”

This time it was Egelric who saved him from this awkward conversation by starting another.

“Anyone heard from Eithne?” he asked.

'Anyone heard from Eithne?'

“Ah… no, not that I’ve heard. Not that I would be the first to learn. But I’m afraid there’s been no news. And I’ve not heard whether Cat has been confined yet. However, Paul lost his sight again. It seems your cousin Malcolm married Lasrua, and Paul tried to kill him, and accidentally almost killed Lasrua instead… It gets a little complicated.”

Egelric sighed and swore in Gaelic. “Any other bad news?”

'Well, let me think...'

“Well, let me think…”

Egelric raised a hand to silence him. “On second thought, why don’t you start by telling me about the boys.”

'Why don't you start by telling me about the boys.'