Paris, France

Malcolm had looked everywhere.

Malcolm had looked everywhere. So thoroughly that he’d even circled back around and started looking in the same places again.

He stood up and shouted at the ceiling, “Colban! Have you seen the key to the tack chest?”

It wasn’t the first time he’d tried that, either. And just as before, Colban’s muffled reply came back incomprehensible, aside from the concluding “in a minute!”

The boy was becoming as bad as a woman for getting ready to go somewhere.

And just as before, Colban's muffled reply came back incomprehensible.

Malcolm hadn’t seen it coming. One day his son was a grubby little ragabash, who needed nabbing in a headlock to have the crumbs forcibly scrubbed from his cheeks; and the next he was drawing his own baths, stinking himself up with Parisian perfumes, and spending half an hour on his hair. For Christ’s sake, it was like living with Alred.

Malcolm rubbed his hands over his face and paced in a tight circle. Once again he came out staring at the side table. Of course, he’d looked there already—even lifted every sack and knickknack to peer beneath… or had he?

Or had he?

Just in case, he lifted everything a second time, unto the platter the baker had just delivered that morning. He even peeked under the loaves and the meat pies upon it. Still no key.

There was only one place he hadn’t looked, in truth: the one he’d been circling, the one he’d been scrupulously avoiding. Colban’s leather purse was lying on the table, but Malcolm did not want to be the sort of father who would invoke paternal authority to pry.

Still, one of the last times he distinctly remembered having the key, he’d given it to Colban so he could run home and fetch a halter out of the chest. What if the key was right there?

“Colban!” he shouted. “For the last time, get down here and help me look for this key!”

'For the last time, get down here!'

He heard a distant groan and a mumbling complaint that ended with “I’m coming!” But he didn’t hear the floorboards creaking overhead to announce that the lad was really going anywhere.

Malcolm swore softly and stared at the bag. What was inside? What did the boy judge necessary to carry everywhere he went? A slingshot and a tin pipe? The rusted knife he had scrounged up at Tynemouth, and the real Roman coin the Castilian had gifted him in Paris?

Or had Colban outgrown such childish treasures in the last weeks?

Or had Colban outgrown such childish treasures in the last weeks?

Malcolm ran a fingertip over the bag’s stitched seam. He had never quite gotten the knack of the fatherhood business, but lately he scarcely knew what sort of creature he was dealing with. In the bat of a brown eye, Colban could change from boyish and bubbling into a sullen cipher, and Malcolm never saw it coming. Did he say the wrong things? Did he fail to do the right ones?

What was in that stranger’s bag? Love tokens from some Parisian lass? Peppermint pastilles to sweeten his breath? A flask of wine? Souvenirs of Sigefrith?

Malcolm’s hand clenched, pulling his fingers back from the leather. And then the hand uncurled.

In a glance he had memorized the precise arrangement of bag, buckle, and straps—this was his great talent, after all, aside from horses—and his deft fingers flew to work. Without a sound he unbuckled and unstrapped, and he steadied the bag in place with one hand while he slipped the other inside.

He steadied the bag in place with one hand while he slipped the other inside.

He wasn’t looking, after all, he told himself, but only feeling around. He was trying to find his own property, which he distinctly remembered lending to Colban. And Colban was taking a donkey’s age prinking and primping up there… and Malcolm was his father, and he had a certain right. He didn’t want that boy getting in trouble. He didn’t want him sneaking sips of wine.

No leathern flask met his fingertips, thank God. In the jumble, all snarled in a tangle of twine, he recognized the cold, smooth cylinder of a tin pipe, a fishing hook jabbed into a piece of cork, a knife, a pair of scissors, a hare’s foot, and a sack of marbles.

Childish treasures indeed! Malcolm broke out in a thin smile, having already broken out in a sweat. Now he only needed to find the key or no, and get his hand out of there before the lad came down.

Deeper in, his knuckles nudged a second sack and were answered by a clink. With a few more nudges and a few more clinks, Malcolm determined it was a healthy fistful of coins.

Well, there was nothing wrong with that; Malcolm gave spending money to his son, and never asked him how he spent it. Nay, he was proud to know the lad was saving it: the English were known to be a profligate race, and it was as well if the boy handled money like a Scot.

But given the tumbled-​up chaos in the leather bag—a body would need to turn it out onto the table to find any particular thing—a coin purse seemed the likeliest place to stash a key. So Malcolm pinched his way over the sack of coins until he found it: first the shank and then the elaborate bow of the familiar key.

One-handed—for this was his great talent, after all—he opened the drawstring mouth of the purse and extracted the key. It was awkward and snaggy amidst all the twine and rubbish, but he pinched it between two fingers even while he pulled the drawstring closed and slid the key out of the bag.

Only there was something still clinging to it—something that jingled its way down the shank and fell before Malcolm could catch a glimpse. It plinked onto the flagstones beneath the table.

Malcolm shoved the key into his belt and swore. After a second’s consideration, he closed and buckled the pouch just as he had found it. He could return the fallen thing to the pouch later. Probably just another fishhook or scrap of wire. He didn’t need Colban coming down to find him grubbing around beneath the table with the purse lying open above his head.

Malcolm bent his creaky knees and got down onto the floor to look, awkwardly trying to keep his clean hose from touching the stones, though he ached in every limb. Fortunately he found the fallen thing straightaway: a gold ring lying bright and clean atop the dirt.

Fortunately he found the fallen thing straightaway.

At the first glimpse Malcolm himself had a queer falling feeling, as when a body isn’t watching where he’s walking, and steps into a pothole a few inches deep.

He blinked the feeling away, picked up the ring, and braced himself against the table as he heaved himself up.

He looked at the bag and wondered whether he had time to return the ring to the coin purse.

And then he looked back at his hand and wondered what in the Devil’s name the boy was doing with a gold ring. A man’s ring. A plain, heavy band.

There was that falling feeling again.

There was that falling feeling again, only it was not a pothole, it was a pit. Dazed, animated by nothing but habit, Malcolm slid the ring onto his finger.

All these months later, it still fit. The visible groove had faded and the pale skin had tanned, but over the years, like the trunk of a tree, Malcolm’s very flesh had grown around the band. O Mother of Mercy, it was his own ring.

All at once he felt the chill of the metal—cold as death—and he twisted at it, yanking it off his finger in spite of the tugging resistance it always put up at his knuckle. Jesus, he would tear off his skin if he had to!

He got it off and held it away from his face, panting for breath.

How he’d fought to get it to stay on Maire’s finger! The Devil knew he could open a bag one-​handed and steal a letter so neatly that the merest stray hair would remain where it had fallen, but with Maire he’d fumbled and scrabbled with the slippery band, until he’d twisted her dead limb all awry and found himself unable to put it back the way he’d found it.

The horror of that moment! In spite of all that followed, it had marked him. Even in death she’d resisted him. And now, even in death, she flung his awkward attempts at tenderness back in his face.

“Colban!” he shouted at the ceiling. His shrill cry was answered by a startled silence this time. “I want to talk to you! Now!”

The floorboards creaked overhead, and Colban’s feet appeared at the top of the stairs, then his skinny legs, clad in their elegant saffron-​yellow hose. The rest of him followed in wary silence.

When he reached the bottom, he peered up at Malcolm through his forelock, facing his father with that blend of fear and defiance unique to boys who know they’re about to get a scolding but don’t yet know for which of their misdeeds.

He peered up at Malcolm through his forelock.

Finally he muttered, “What?”

Malcolm regretted then that he hadn’t followed his brother’s example and raised the boy to say Aye, sir, and No, sir, and to come straightaway when he was called. Malcolm had raised him in the lackadaisical way he’d thought a boy would like—and this sullen, defiant creature was what he’d got.

Malcolm shot up his hand and showed him the ring, pinched between two fingers. “Where in the Devil were you getting this?”

Colban squinted at it for a moment, uncertain.

Colban squinted at it for a moment, uncertain, but if Malcolm had expected a stuttering, shame-​faced denial, the surprise was all his. Colban leapt at him, his face twisted in anger, and he hung his weight from Malcolm’s arm and pulled.

“Give me that!”

Malcolm yanked his arm back, but the ring popped out of his grasp and flew. Colban thumped Malcolm aside and dove for it.

“Give me that! It’s mine!”

Malcolm whirled around and saw the boy scrabbling after it on hands and knees. “’Tisn’t either! It’s mine!”

'It's mine!'

“Not any more! You threw it away!”

“The Devil I did! Tell me where you were getting that!”

Colban slapped his hand flat over the ring, scooped it up, and scrambled to his feet. He faced his father, clutching his fists tight against his belly.

'You looked in my bag!'

“Tell me where you were getting it!” he countered. “You looked in my bag!”

“In your bag? You little wart! ’Tis a woman’s grave you were robbing!”

Colban snarled. “That witch? And ’tisn’t robbery if it’s mine! You didn’t want it any more, so it’s mine now! And what were you doing in my bag? You didn’t know I had this ring, so what were you looking for?” He sniffed. “Or are you just getting some spy practice on your own son?”

'Or are you just getting some spy practice?'

“I was looking for my key! To the tack chest! Which you had, sirrah!”

Colban unclosed his fist long enough to slip the ring onto a finger, and clenched it tight again. “Then why didn’t you just ask me for it?”

“I bloody well did! Seven times and twice seven! What were you doing up there, besides ignoring me?”

In an instant, Colban’s face and voice went from flippant to flat. “Nothing.”

Malcolm clapped his hands over his head and seethed. “Jesus Christ!”

In a deep voice Colban taunted, “Don’t be taking the name of the Lord in vain,” mimicking Malcolm’s occasional, lackadaisical scolds.

“Cut it out,” Malcolm howled, “or I will give you such a thrashing, your very sons will never sleep on their backs!”

Colban rolled his eyes. Malcolm stood there panting. He’d had the last word, and yet he had the uncomfortable sense that he’d just lost.

“Now,” he said, trying to reassemble his paternal air, “tell me what you’re doing with my ring.”

'Tell me what you're doing with my ring.'

“’Tisn’t your ring,” Colban muttered.

“Answer me! It is, and you’re knowing it!”

“No, no, it isn’t!” Colban snapped back, riled again. “You had no right to give it to that witch!”

“Don’t call her a witch!”

“I’ll call her what I please! You had no right! How do you think my grandfather would like it if he knew what you’d done? From his own finger did he take it as he lay a-​dying, telling his brother to save it for you! And you threw it away on her! She wasn’t even your wife!”

'She wasn't even your wife!'

Malcolm grimaced. He didn’t know how to explain to the boy, and Colban hadn’t yet finished.

“And how were you thinking Cousin Aengus would feel if he found that on her finger?”

Malcolm lifted his hands and sighed. It was like Colban to think of others’ feelings ere Malcolm ever did.

“I wasn’t thinking, lad…” he said miserably. But his soft words had no effect on Colban’s defiant shell.

“If you aren’t wanting to wear it any more, that’s your own affair!” Colban continued. “But you’ll not throw it away, and least of all on her! My grandfather would have wanted me to have it, if you’re done with it. He would’ve wanted it to stay in the family.”

'He would've wanted it to stay in the family.'

Malcolm rubbed his beard and gazed off towards the floor. How could he explain it to the boy? He might say he’d meant it as a peace offering. But in truth—as ever in Malcolm’s life—it had been but a grandiose gesture, and one which had gone hideously wrong.

“…Or am I?” Colban growled, concluding a statement that Malcolm hadn’t heard.

He looked around and saw Colban’s eyes smoldering, their warm brown almost black beneath his lowering brows.

He looked around and saw Colban's eyes smoldering.

Terrified that he was doing or saying the wrong thing, Malcolm quavered, “Beg pardon?”

“Or am I unworthy of my grandfather’s ring, being but your bastard?”

Malcolm yelped, “No, Colban! God, no!”

'God, no!'

He tried to take the boy by the shoulders, but Colban clutched the ring to his chest and twisted away. Malcolm let his arms fall. Colban glared at him from a distance, defiant and ready to run. Malcolm dragged a stool out with his foot and flopped down.

“It’s my own, acknowledged son you are,” he said. “My own child. You’re knowing that, and all the world is knowing that. Everything I own will be yours when I die. Your godfather has sworn his solemn oath.”

Colban burnished the ring against his palm, but he never took his eyes from Malcolm’s head. Malcolm propped his elbows on his thighs and stared back. The boy was taller than he now, when he sat. He couldn’t remember when that had happened. He’d used to take the little man between his knees and look into his wee face.

“You may have the ring if you’re wanting it,” Malcolm said. “With my blessing.”

Colban’s frown deepened. He was wary, now that he’d won.

“Only promise me,” Malcolm went on, “that you’ll use it the way your grandfather meant it. Find a good woman, and love her with all your heart.”

Colban sighed and glanced up and all around, almost rolling his eyes.

“Nay, I’m meaning that,” Malcolm said. “With all your heart, holding nothing back. For there’s no meeting half-​way in love. A man has to go the whole distance. And a woman, too.”

Colban fidgeted with the ring that was flopping on his thin finger. “You’re grand with horses, Da,” he muttered, “but if I’m ever looking for advice about love, I’d better ask someone besides you.

Malcolm’s eyes grew wet, but still he stared at the stranger before him, wondering what had become of the open-​hearted, loving little boy he had miraculously sired. Lately Colban was showing the talent of a born assassin, whipping around to thrust the thin edge of a knife between his father’s ribs. Had Malcolm ruined him by bringing him to France to raise alone?

Finally Colban looked up and met his eyes for a only moment before looking back down at his fist. “But thanks anyway,” he mumbled.

Malcolm swallowed and mustered up a gravelly voice to say, “I reckon I can tell you what not to do, anyway.”

Colban shrugged a shoulder and fiddled with the ring.

“I did love Maire, lad. I… tried. Not hard enough, perhaps. We were too young and too proud, the both of us.”

'I did love Maire, lad.  I... tried.'

Malcolm rubbed his sweaty palms on his hose.

“I wanted her to know I was sorry. That’s why I put the ring on her hand. I wasn’t thinking it through. And I’ve been sick with fear that Aengus saw it, so I suppose I’m grateful you took it out of there before he ever did. Even if I don’t hold by grave-​robbing as a going thing, eh, lad?”

Colban didn’t smile. He didn’t respond at all. He only stood fidgeting, anxious for his father to stop yammering so he could get back to his hair, or whatever he’d been doing up there. Malcolm was hurt, but he didn’t know how to talk heart-​to-​heart with a boy so that he would listen.

“You’ll do better, lad,” Malcolm reassured him, talking away his own fears. “You’ve a good, big heart, like your grandsire’s. I’m not knowing where I went wrong with mine. Mayhap as a wicked fairy laid a curse on my head at the birthing of me. Every woman I’ve loved has come to an unhappy end. And the curse is—I’m still here!”

His voice cracked, and he bowed his head over his lap, finally looking away from Colban’s face. Colban’s feet stopped fidgeting. Malcolm breathed in gusts, choking back as much of his grief as he could. He wished Colban would go back upstairs after all. Spend an hour on his hair.

Colban's feet stopped fidgeting.

Then, in a soft voice, Colban said, “’Tisn’t your fault, Da, what happened to Maire.”

Malcolm snuffled and shook his head over his knees.

“Nor what happened to my mother,” Colban continued. “Sigefrith says she likely would have gotten sick in her head someday no matter what. It wasn’t because of me or you.” His feet shuffled closer. “And all the bad things happened long after you were parted. A thousand other things could have made a difference, aside from anything you did or should have done. You have to forgive yourself.”

Malcolm whispered hoarsely, “Lasrua was my fault.”

Colban did not have an answer to that. His feet stopped at some distance from Malcolm’s feet. But then it seemed he simply hadn’t heard.

“Beg pardon?” he prompted softly.

Malcolm lifted his head high enough to look at Colban’s hands worrying the ring.

“Lasrua,” he said. “That was my fault.”

“I thought that was Paul’s fault.”

“Ach, he held the knife, to be sure. But you know he was meaning it for me.”

“Aye, but it was an accident, what happened. You cannot blame yourself for that.”

'You cannot blame yourself for that.'

Malcolm looked up into Colban’s face. “’Twas more than an accident, lad. She wasn’t only in the way. She threw herself in front of me. She gave her life to save my worthless hide. And now I’m condemned to live, knowing that. Accursed I am.”

Colban stared back at him, speechless at last, though his brown eyes were soft and wide. Malcolm lowered his head again. Under the circumstances there was little satisfaction in having the last word.

For a moment Colban seemed to be sidling towards the stairs, but he stopped and fidgeted with his hands.

“I wasn’t thinking you were letting it get to you much,” he said.

Malcolm sat up. “Christ, lad! How cold-​hearted are you thinking me? A young girl died for me!”

Colban shrugged. “You never mentioned it, except that one time in Leol.”

'You never mentioned it, except that one time in Leol.'

Malcolm snorted. “Aye, then, for the wound’s being a bit raw yet. Nor did I want to burden you with an old man’s grief. I miss her still. But it wouldn’t do us any good to talk about it.”

Colban slipped the ring from his finger and padded over to the table. Malcolm watched him fiddle with his bag for a moment before losing interest and looking at the floor. Out of habit he started cracking his knuckles, but he stopped when he felt the empty place on his left hand.

“Da,” Colban said, “I have to tell you something, but you must promise not to get angry.”

Malcolm twisted around to look at him and worked up a weary smile. “There’s a phrase that never bodes well. What have you done now? Worse than grave-​robbing?”

Colban avoided his eyes and padded back into the center of the room. “Promise.”

A dark foreboding chilled Malcolm’s blood. Still he tried to speak lightly. “I cannot see how I may be promising that. I promise I won’t tan your hide for it. Will that do?”

“I guess so,” Colban muttered. “I have to tell you, I think Lasrua might still be alive.”

'I think Lasrua might still be alive.'

Malcolm took a moment to ponder the words, wondering which of them he had misunderstood. “Beg pardon?”

Colban balled his hands together, though he’d put the ring away. “On the last day we were in Dunfermline,” he said. “When the princes came to the cottage. ’Twasn’t to say goodbye. They were to tell us there was a letter for you at the castle, from the brother of you. And they were to give you a message. ‘She’s alive.’”

Malcolm shot off of the stool, and Colban fell back against the door.

“What are you telling me?” Malcolm shouted.

'What are you telling me?'

“I don’t know!” Colban whimpered. “I think she might be alive.”

“You think she might be alive? And you’re only telling me this now?”

“I didn’t think it mattered very much!”

'I didn't think it mattered very much!'

“You didn’t think it mattered? A girl died because of me and you didn’t think it mattered? I held a girl as she lay bleeding out onto Alred’s couch and you didn’t fucking think it mattered?

Malcolm followed Colban around the room, circling as the boy cringed and ducked away.

“You never mentioned it but the one time!” Colban protested. “I told you, I didn’t think you let it bother you!”

“How cold-​hearted can a body be?” Malcolm howled. “Did you never put yourself in my place for a moment and wonder how I might feel? Christ Jesus! A young girl, with her whole life ahead of her, died for me! Even had she been a stranger to me, tell me how a man ever gets out from under guilt of that? How were you thinking?”

'How were you thinking?'

Colban shook his head and nearly tripped over the laundry basket as he backed away and circled again.

“All the penance I’ve done! All the nights I’ve lain awake, my guts knotted up with guilt and grief, and you, you little wart, you didn’t bloody think it mattered?

'You never mentioned it!'

“You never mentioned it!”

“Why didn’t you mention it when the message came? If it didn’t matter, why didn’t you simply tell me?”

“Because I quarreled with Red. I didn’t want to go to the castle.”

Malcolm stopped hounding him and stood up straight. He was shaking all over, from his arms down to his aching knees.

Malcolm stopped hounding him and stood up straight.

“Because you quarreled with your little friend,” he said softly, “all these months you let me live with that girl’s blood on my hands. What if she’s still alive? What if she isn’t alive any longer, and I might have seen her one last time?”

His voice was almost calm, but it shook with the growing violence of his trembling. He grabbed his own elbows in his hands, but it wasn’t enough; still he shook, and still he wanted to tear someone limb from limb. And there was the boy, looking guilty as a puppy beside a gnawed-​up shoe.

And there was the boy, looking guilty as a puppy beside a gnawed-up shoe.

“Eh, lad?” Malcolm prompted. “For she wasn’t only a stranger to me. I loved her, and she loved me, and you let me believe she was dead.”

That odd, ugly expression flitted over Colban’s face, and his mouth twisted into a frown. “You never told me you loved her. If you’d ever mentioned it, just one time—”

“Spare me! Don’t be telling me now how you’re wanting to hear about your father’s romances! Forgive me for wanting to spare your tender ears! I cannot mention womankind without you turning into a little snot! Nora was the only female you’ve seemed to stomach since we… the only…”

Malcolm stopped short.

Malcolm stopped short, for a sickening understanding was flooding over him, filling him with outrage.

Colban crossed his arms and said sourly, “Some romance. How was I supposed to guess? I never saw you shed a tear.”

'I never saw you shed a tear.'

“You little shit.”

Malcolm lunged at the boy and grabbed his arm. Colban tried to jerk away, but Malcolm held on with all his strength, never minding if he was hurting him. He watched his boy’s eyes fall wide with fear.

“You—jealous—little—shit,” Malcolm said, shaking him. “That was what that was all about it, wasn’t it? The person I love best, alive or dead? You made me swear.”

'You made me swear.'

Colban’s face grew pale. He opened his mouth but only shook his head.

“You knew I’d loved her! And you knew she was alive too, and you let me think she was dead!”

Malcolm shook the boy until he felt his self-​mastery slipping away, and then he flung him off to crack against the door. Outside the horses startled in their stall.

He hurled him away to crack against the door.

“And what about her?” Malcolm shouted. “What if she thought I got the message and never answered? Never even sent a note to wish her good health and to thank her for saving my precious fucking life?”

Malcolm turned in circles and held his head between his hands. Thoughts were crowding into it faster than he could think them. What if she lived? What if she awaited him? What if she’d stopped waiting?

'What have you done?'

“What have you done?” he howled. “What have you done to my name? What have you done to that poor girl? I married her! I married her, and if she lives, she thinks I left her the very same day!”

Colban wailed, “You married her?”

“Aye, sirrah, I married her! I married her on her deathbed! Only now you’re telling me she lived!”

“You never told me you married her!

“And you never told me she lived, so I reckon we are quits!”

'I reckon we are quits!'

Colban stood between him and the door, his arms wide, his mouth open, his expression outraged, as if he was the one who’d been wronged.

Malcolm’s fury boiled over. He balled up his fists and shuddered with the urge to give the boy the thrashing he’d promised he wouldn’t. There remained him only enough lucidity to fear that he wouldn’t know how to stop himself, and that like his Uncle Colin on a rampage, he would beat the boy black-​and-​blue.

He would beat the boy black-and-blue.

“Out of my way,” he choked, “if you’re knowing what’s good for you!”

He shoved Colban sideways and charged through the door.

Behind him Colban bleated, “Where are you going?”


“Are you coming back?”


'Are you coming back?'