Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

That would have to do.

That would have to do. Gaethine had done his best to straighten up his room, but he could do no more without calling for a chambermaid. Even simple housekeeping left him light-​headed and panting for breath. Even walking around his room.

By now colorful spots swam across his vision, but he stopped to wash his face, neck, and beneath his arms. Then, head reeling, he staggered over to his chair, lowered himself into it, and sat back against the cushion to wait.

Within minutes he was sweaty again, shivery and chilled. He didn’t even know whom he was waiting for—the doctor or Aed come back to “explain.” It would be whomever came first, since he was in no condition to go in search of anyone. If he’d had that much strength, he would have leapt on a horse and fled.

He heard someone call out, somewhere in the castle, and he tensed. Abruptly it occurred to him that he had not combed his hair that day. He hunched over his lap and attacked his curls with his fingers, untangling the worst of the snarls and fluffing up the back in case it was matted down from lying in bed. His arms were shaking. Did he have time to cross the room and find a comb? Did he have the strength?

Someone knocked at his door, and in a panic he wrapped his arms around his waist and hid his fists in his sleeves. He had no time at all. That would have to do.

He wrapped his arms around his waist and hid his fists.

He turned around and barked, “What?”

The person outside tested the door, found it unlocked, and pushed it slightly open. The doctor’s head peeked in and looked around the room, and then he stepped inside.

He was here. He was really here. Gaethine breathed through parted lips, hunched over and panting for breath even as he tried to appear unmoved.

The doctor wouldn’t have noticed anyway. He closed the door softly and started across the room, staring straight ahead.

'I apologize if I stink.'

“My apologies if I stink,” he said in Greek. His tone was flat and cool, but his ease with the language was evident. “My other clothes are being washed, and I will not wear borrowed garments that bare my legs. I am aware,” he added darkly, “that I am a difficult guest.”

“I knew nothing of this,” Gaethine said. “I knew nothing. No one told me.”

The doctor set his fringed leather bag on the floor and turned halfway to Gaethine. He closed his blue eyes and dipped his head in the slightest sign of acknowledgement. “I am glad.”

Then he whipped back the curtains, blinding Gaethine with the bright light from the bay.

Gaethine heaved himself up from the chair and stood on shaky legs. “Are you a prisoner here?”

The doctor answered grimly, “Captured at the point of spears.”

He tied back the curtains, left and right. Light billowed around his body. Squinting and blinking, Gaethine stepped towards his radiant silhouette.

Squinting and blinking, he stepped towards the doctor's radiant silhouette.

“I am sorry,” he pleaded. “I knew nothing of this.”

The doctor ignored his apology. He stood with his fists propped on his hips, staring out at the sparkling bay. “Good light,” he said. “Good air.”

“You may go,” Gaethine said. “This is infamous. I do not accept.”

The doctor turned. With the light at his back, his face was almost black, but his head was high and his shoulders straight. Gaethine desperately wanted to read his expression. Outraged? Unforgiving? Scrutinizing?

He stared at the only thing he could make out in the grazing light: the high, hard cheekbone and the hollow cheek, like stone sculpted by driven sand… and the surprising softness of the lobe of an ear.

Gaethine desperately wanted to read his expression.

“I am here,” the doctor said at last. “I will treat you.”

A flood of relief nearly swept Gaethine off his feet. He closed his eyes and took a steadying breath, but the glowing outline of the doctor filled his vision, even behind his lids.

“It is God’s will,” the doctor said. “On the road, I saved the life of a laboring mother and her child, as God willed it. Perhaps He has a plan for that child. Perhaps an evil man has died in Lothere, meanwhile, whose life I would have saved. Or perhaps God has a plan for you.”

Gaethine opened his eyes to slits and stared into the light. He was tempted to believe. But he did not think the Lord sent angels to earth in the guise of Moors.

Gaethine slitted his eyes and stared into the light.

“Do you understand me?” the doctor asked. “I speak English too. So-​so.”

The coarse sounds of English jarred Gaethine out of his wary silence. Any pig could grunt. Gaethine wanted to hear the music of the man’s Greek again, even if he didn’t understand every word.

He answered, “Greek.”

The doctor nodded. “I prefer Greek, myself.”

His voice was softer, now, and kind. It seemed their negotiations over language had resolved a number of other things.

He said, “Let us begin, then, Gaeth, while the light is good.” He corrected himself quickly, “Gaethine.”

Gaethine countered just as quickly, “Gaeth.”

“Gaeth, then,” the doctor said. “And you may call me Yusuf. It will do me good to hear it around here.”

He glanced around the room until his gaze lit on the stool tucked into the alcove. He moved a stack of blankets aside and leaned on it to test its strength.

“Yu-​suf,” Gaethine repeated, struggling with the strange vowels.

“Yu-​suf!” the doctor corrected brightly. “Or Joseph, if you prefer.”

He swung the stool out of the alcove and plunked it on the floor at Gaethine’s feet.

Gaethine tried again—“Yu-suf”—determined to get it right.



Gaethine knew he was lying. He told himself he should quit embarrassing himself and call the man Joseph. Or perhaps Mahomet, as Congal did.

Yusuf stooped over the stool to brush the dust of its seat. Gaethine moved his lips, repeating Yu-​suf.

The doctor swung his head up again, and Gaethine clamped his mouth shut. Yusuf eyed him strangely. Gaethine responded with a challenging stare.

Finally Yusuf said, “You have too much hair.”

Gaethine blanched, mortified. Had he fluffed it up too much? Was it that obvious?

“Has it been falling out?” Yusuf asked.

Gaethine shook his head slightly.

“Good. It is a bad sign, when it falls out. But you have too much hair. It is sapping your strength. The first thing we should do is cut it off.”

Gaethine knew it was time to kick over the stool and sling the doctor through the door by his shirt collar. Instead he gingerly touched the back of his hair.

Instead he gingerly touched the back of his hair.

“It is the first thing they do when a boy enters the monastery,” he muttered. “They shave his head.”

“On account of lice?”

“No. On account of vanity.”

Gaethine pinched a curl between his fingers and pulled it taut. It barely passed his shoulders.

“My hair went to my waist,” he added quietly.

'My hair went to my waist.'

“And they cut it off?” The doctor had a dispassionate way of asking questions, but somehow one understood he was paying attention to the answers.

“And burned it. I was very vain.”

Gaethine tried to smile, but he was too exhausted to fake it. His legs threatened to buckle beneath him, and that stool looked so good. But he’d said too much already. He was too shy to move any closer.

“How old were you?” Yusuf asked.

'How old were you?'


“It’s fortunate you kept it trimmed. It might have grown back by now.”

Yusuf stooped to give the stool a quick, unnecessary second dusting, and somehow that was invitation enough for Gaethine to cross the distance and sink down onto it. He rubbed his sweaty hands on his robe and held his silence as his ears buzzed and dizziness swashed over him, seeking a new level.

“May I?” Yusuf asked above him.

'May I?'

Gaethine nodded without knowing what he was asking. Suddenly the doctor’s fingers were combing through his hair and across his scalp, and he froze again, almost petrified but for the slight twitches that constantly shivered through his dying body.

There was nothing sensual about Yusuf’s poking and pulling—nothing like Aed’s fascination with his hair: burying his face in it, crumpling it up in handfuls—but Gaethine had thought he would never be touched by these hands again.

“Cut it off,” he said hoarsely.

“So I will.” Yusuf patted the crown of Gaethine’s hair flat and brushed off his hands. “As soon as I’ve examined you, while the light is good.”

'So I will.'

Gaethine was satisfied. If the doctor was hesitant, he would hack off his own hair before Aed ever returned to “explain.” He would burn it again if the doctor left him a few minutes alone. It would be for the best. He never should have allowed it to grow.

Yusuf pushed up his sleeves and squatted beside the stool. His clothes did stink of sweat and travel, but his skin was clean and faintly aromatic. Did the men of Araby smell like the myrrh and spices of their homeland?

He pushed up Gaethine’s sleeve, and once more his hand closed around Gaethine’s wrist, taking his breath away. This time Gaethine thought he could feel his pulse fluttering against the doctor’s fingers, weak and rapid. What did the doctor think? There was a faraway look in his eyes, but Gaethine knew now how near he was: looking down inside of him, communing with his heart.

What did the doctor think?

Finally the light returned to Yusuf’s eyes, and he sat back on his heels. Gaethine took a gasping breath, wondering whether the doctor would repeat the one gesture he remembered best: the one gesture that had made him wish a hundred times that he’d stayed behind in Lothere, to die or to be healed.

And he did: he took Gaethine’s hand between his and rubbed it. It only lasted a second, but the act embodied such gentleness, competence, strength, and compassion that Gaethine still thought of it when the coughing got so bad he thought he might not survive the night. He imagined it would not be so terrifying if he could have that hand to hold.

“How do you feel?” Yusuf asked.

Gaethine panted to catch his breath, close to a cough. Yusuf waited patiently, his blue eyes keen.

“How do I look?” Gaethine rasped.

“You look worse than when I saw you last. Did you take that sea voyage?”

Gaethine was oddly elated to know he’d remembered. “Near enough,” he muttered. “I took another.”

Yusuf grunted and stood. “Night sweats?”


He pushed back Gaethine’s hair and felt beneath his jawline with his fingertips. “Any swellings here?”

'Any swellings here?'



“Haven’t I now?”

Yusuf paused his stroking of Gaethine’s throat to press the back of his wrist against his forehead. “You’re warm.”

He pressed his palms against the sides of Gaethine’s neck as if to test its heat, too. Few men had hands so smooth, but no one would mistake them for a woman’s.

“Worse at night, though, isn’t it?” he asked.

Gaethine hesitated. He disliked probing questions, particularly questions about his health. But as long as Yusuf was touching him, he was helpless as a fawn.

“I suppose,” he finally said. “I always feel warm to myself.”

“Sore throat? When you swallow?”

'When you swallow?'


“You’ve lost weight.”

It wasn’t a question, so Gaethine didn’t say anything to that.

“Still coughing?”

Gaethine snapped, “Yes!”

“Coughing up blood?”

That was enough. Gaethine locked his folded arms tight over his chest and said nothing.

Yusuf waited. He pulled down Gaethine’s lower lids one by one and peeked at his eyes, but afterwards he stood up and waited. And waited.

Finally he repeated, “Are you coughing up blood?”

Gaethine stared out the window, watching streaks of clouds slide over the horizon from the west.

“Either you are or you aren’t,” Yusuf said impatiently, “and you know perfectly well whether you are. If you tell me some other man’s symptoms, I will treat some other man, and it won’t help you. Are you or aren’t you coughing up blood?”

'Are you or aren't you?'


Gaethine expected to see a look of triumph or at least satisfaction, but instead Yusuf put his hand on Gaethine’s shoulder and squeezed. Gentleness, competence, strength, compassion.

“That is a bad sign,” Gaethine whispered shakily.

“That is a bad sign,” Yusuf agreed. “But, God willing, it is not too late. I can treat a cough, and give your lungs a rest, so they might heal. But I want to hear you cough. And I want to listen to you breathe. Would you remove your robe?”

Remove his robe? Gaethine shook his head. He hadn’t even thought of that. It was out of the question.

Gaethine shook his head.

“It will be easier,” Yusuf explained, failing to understand. “We needn’t do so every day, but I wish to do a full examination.”

Gaethine was beginning to panic. He looked back at the door, but he didn’t have the strength to fight or to flee. This was his room, his sanctuary, and he was no longer safe in it.

“What is it?” Yusuf asked. “Have you mortified your body?”

'Have you mortified your body?'

Gaethine let out his breath in a gasp.

“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before,” Yusuf said.

Gaethine grabbed his knees and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. He loosened the belt of his robe.

He loosened the belt of his robe.

Yusuf asked, “Would you like me to step outside while you undress?”

Gaethine shook his head. “What difference would that make?”

'What difference would that make?'

Yusuf shrugged. “To some it makes a difference. It’s the same to me.”

Gaethine slipped off his robe and draped it over the stool.

“My shirt, too?” he whispered, sweaty and shaking.


Gaethine lifted his head and looked into the breathtaking blue of those eyes.

Gaethine lifted his head.

“You have nothing to fear, Gaeth. I don’t tell secrets. I’ve treated bishops for the curse of Venus. I’ve treated men who were women and women who were men. You’re ill; you have nothing be ashamed of. I’ve seen everything.”

Gaethine whispered, “No, you haven’t.”

Yusuf laid a hand on Gaethine’s shoulder. “Is it because I am a Saracen?”

'Is it because I am a Saracen?'

He slid his other hand down Gaethine’s arm and lifted his hand, palm-​upward. Neither of them looked at the deep pit of a scar in the middle of it, but they both knew it was there.

“I will not scorn you for your religion,” Yusuf said. “And I ask you not to scorn me for mine. We are both imperfect men, trying to serve God in the way we think He wants to be served.”

'I will not scorn you for your religion.'

He hadn’t understood, but this pronouncement diverted Gaethine’s mind from his misery. That, and the hand on his shoulder and the hand cupping his hand. If he only dared take a few steps he could walk right into the doctor’s arms.

“Trust me,” Yusuf said conclusively, “and I can help you, God willing.”

He let go and stepped back. Gaethine lowered his head and began unrolling his sleeves. His thin arms were streaked with veins that stood out in high relief in the sunlight. All the fat and flesh had been eaten away. There was nothing left of him but skin, bone, and gristle.

The doctor was wrong. He hadn’t seen everything. He might have seen the disease before, but he’d never seen the youth it had devoured: strong, slender, beautiful, and so full of life they’d had to entomb him in a monastery to keep him from setting the world on fire. They hadn’t let him out of there till he was truly dying.

Gaethine turned his back to the doctor and pulled off his shirt, using the horror of his scarred back as a shield to hide the ugliness of his sunken stomach and protruding ribs.

Yusuf said nothing at first.

Yusuf said nothing at first. Nervous and shivering, Gaethine pinched a curl between his fingers and pulled it taut. There was nothing left of him, he corrected himself, but skin, bones, gristle, and a pile of magnificent hair.

He’d seen enough relics of saints and graves of common men to know that the hair often endured—thick and lustrous and the color it had been in life—even when the leathery skin had rotted away and the skeleton was falling to pieces. It was telling that his one remaining vanity was the thought that he would make a beautiful corpse.

“To think,” Yusuf said ironically, looking over his freshly-​scarred back, “that I was worried about your hair.”

'I was worried about your hair.'