Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

'What is it?'

“What is it?” Yusuf asked. “If this will take some time, I will return later, God willing. The sun is setting. It is time for my prayer.”

Lord Aed’s head dipped slightly, and his close-​fitting tunic stretched taut over his shoulders. With his thumb he spun his heavy signet ring around his finger.

'What do you pray for, Saracen?'

“What do you pray for, Saracen?” he asked. Or maybe, Yusuf thought, “What do you pray for?”

Yusuf answered, “For the glory of God.”

The ring spun. Yusuf scratched his beard and looked around.

He’d never been summoned to this room, and it wasn’t what he’d expected of a young barbarian. There were weapons and riding gear, certainly, but there was also the entire western alcove given over to chronicles and correspondence.

Aed's heavy table was spread with sheets of fresh parchment.

A tall shelf on one wall was stacked with old books, as well as rolled parchments so ancient they had sagged and settled into the shapes of their pigeonholes. They might have been antiquities, but Aed’s heavy table was spread with sheets of fresh parchment, pens and ink, and a few bound folios: not so much clutter that he couldn’t work there, but enough to prove that he actually did.

Yusuf was mildly surprised to learn that young Lord Aed could read and write at all. He might have blamed a secretary, but this was the lord’s private chamber and not his office. The door was kept locked during the day. None but Aed seemed to have the key.

“I have received a letter,” Aed said.

He flicked his fingers over a folded square of parchment. It still bore the fragments of a large wax seal.

He flicked his fingers over a folded square of parchment.

He added, “From King Sigefrith.”

Yusuf took a breath and rocked back onto his heels. “Ah. Does he know where I am?”

“I told him in a letter.”

“How long has he known?”

Aed stopped fidgeting with his ring. “One week?”

Yusuf grunted. That was one week in which his sister and friends must have had the meager reassurance that he was alive and not in immediate danger. And two weeks during which they must have been sick with worry. That had seemed the cruelest part of his captivity. He’d been imprisoned before, but no one had known it to miss him.

'What does he say?'

Yusuf asked, “What does he say?”

“He demands your return.”

“And? Am I free to return?”

Aed shot up and shoved back his chair. Yusuf had a glimpse of savage eyes and a heaving chest before Aed flung himself in the opposite direction. He stopped against the shelf and leaned, bowing his head over the old parchments. His tunic strained over his shaking shoulders.

Yusuf lowered his guard and waited. Finally Aed let his hand drop from the shelf and turned.

“And you would go?” he asked. “Simply go?”

'And you would go?'

He was so plainly trying to sound composed, but his voice was thin and quaking with emotion. Yusuf judged it would be kindest to pretend not to notice.

He said, “This is not my home.”

“What of your patient?”

“My patient,” Yusuf said, “has been demanding you send me home. For weeks.”

Aed’s face hardened. “And so you go, the first chance you have.”

Yusuf lifted his empty hands. “I have prescribed the best treatment I know. I have done all I can.”

“What have you done?” Aed demanded. “You have done nothing! Every day he is more sick!”

'You have done nothing!'

He twisted his lips, trying to hide his anguish behind a mask of anger. Yusuf had seen it before. He’d puzzled out the phrase “I am dying” in Gaelic by listening to the last words out of Gaethine’s mouth before Aed would storm out of the room, ranting.

Perhaps, Yusuf thought, Aed needed to hear it from someone else.

“Lord,” he said gently, “he is dying.”

A shudder ran over the young man, a simmering that threatened an explosion. Yusuf would have endured any violence in that moment, from fists to tears. With those words he had lanced many an ingrown coil of grief, broken through the shell of denial and allowed healing to begin.

But Young Aed pulled himself together with a self-​mastery that was eerily beyond his years. Yusuf didn’t like it. He’d seen what could happen to a man if his anger was allowed to calcify.

“So you surrender,” Aed said. It wasn’t a question.

“His treatment should continue. But his life has always been in the hands of God.”

Aed leaned a wrist on the back of his chair and stared down at the cushion. He had a noble bearing, Yusuf thought, for a barbarian. The setting sun washed his profile with fiery light, but his hair hid his eyes, leaving him cold and expressionless as a mask of burnished copper.

He lifted his head to the western sky and announced, “Then he is no longer in your hands. Return to Lothere.”

Yusuf hesitated, disbelieving. “Am I freed?”

'Am I freed?'

“Yes. Go home. Go away. Leave us.”

Aed ran a finger up and down the peaked back of his chair and slowly turned away. He kneeled to dig through his affairs, as if their meeting had already ended.

Yusuf looked out at the sun setting over the bay and wondered what to do next, after his prayer. He wanted to leave before the young lord changed his mind, but night was falling, and he couldn’t quit Carn Liath without saying farewell to Gaethine. And Gaethine was with his mother tonight.

“At once?” Yusuf asked.

Aed grunted and kept busy. Abruptly Yusuf recognized the faint clinking he was hearing as the sound of coins falling onto coins.

Was he to be paid? Yusuf wondered how he would survive the trip. He’d made more perilous journeys than Galloway to Lothere, certainly, but rarely carrying silver, and never on the back of a mare that attracted covetous glances everywhere he rode.

He asked, “Is Sigefrith’s messenger still here?”

“No.” Aed slammed the lid of the chest and stood. He dropped a sack of coins on the edge of the table and stared at Yusuf as if daring him to take it. Yusuf was unimpressed. He had watched his father coolly decline taller stacks of coin than that.

“My freedom has no price,” he said.

'My freedom has no price.'

“Your freedom I’m returning to you entire. That is for your time and your toil.”

“It is true,” Yusuf said, “that you cannot give those back.”

Neither moved at first. Yusuf considered refusing the money and teaching the young man a lesson in nobility. Let him live with the niggling of his conscience. Let him remain forever in Yusuf’s debt.

But he watched the flush rise in Aed’s cheeks, and the hint of panic in his darting glances as he realized Yusuf wasn’t doing what he expected him to do. Yusuf took pity. He picked up the pouch, allowing one thing in the poor boy’s world to go just as he had planned.

Aed pulled out his chair and sat, as lords liked to do in these lands before their inferiors. That did not impress Yusuf, either.

“And?” he prompted, seeing Yusuf’s scowl. “Is it not enough?”

'Is it not enough?'

Yusuf squeezed the clinking bag as if getting a feel for the number of coins it might contain, but in truth he was only watching Lord Aed’s attentive face. He threaded the pouch through his belt and let it hang from his hip.

“Perhaps too much,” he grumbled. “If it gets me murdered half a mile from here.”

“Congal will escort you,” Aed said.

Yusuf flapped his arms against his sides. “Congal?

“Congal.” Aed sat back and crossed one leg over the other, looking slyly pleased.

'Congal will be the thief who murders me!'

“Congal will be the thief who murders me!”

“He will not, if he gives me his word.”

“His word?

Aed sat up and glared at him. “Aye, his word to me! You’re needing him! Even lacking the silver, how far were you thinking you could ride on that mare of yours?”

“That’s why I asked you whether Sigefrith’s man is still here!”

“Sigefrith’s man could not help you. You’ll never make it through Congalach’s lands without Congal.” Aed thumped back against his chair and looked Yusuf up and down, smirking. “On that horse or any other, I’m thinking.”

Yusuf stared at him, all but shaking from three weeks’ pent-​up outrage over Aed’s prodigious disregard. Even Congal could be jocular at times with his insults and his pranks, but Young Aed looked on Yusuf with a disdain bordering on the disgust reserved for vermin.

Yusuf stared at him.

Still, the sunlight was already dimming on Aed’s cheek, reminding Yusuf that it was time for his prayer. Soon enough he would be able to say he would never see Aed again, and none of this would matter.

Aed picked up a pen and twirled it over a blank parchment, watching the feather as if his fidgeting were of greater import than a Saracen prisoner.

“You will leave at dawn,” he announced.

Yusuf could not recall having seen Congal awake at dawn before, unless it was when he staggered up to bed after a night of carousing.

Yusuf asked, “Will he be conscious?”

Aed's gaze flickered involuntarily up to Yusuf's face.

Aed’s gaze flickered involuntarily up to Yusuf’s face. He looked away and shrugged. Perhaps he hadn’t understood the English and was too proud to admit it.

“Conscious?” Yusuf repeated. “Awake? Not drunk?”

Aed snorted, and a tiny smile crooked the corner of his mouth. “He will be.”

Yusuf shook his head in exasperation. He did not believe Congal or any of his men would be able to stand upright before noon. At least that would give Yusuf time to check on a few of his local patients, and to say farewell to Gaethine.

“Am I excused?” he asked, after watching Aed fiddle with his quill for a while. “I must pray. And pack.”

'Am I excused?'

After a long moment Aed sat back and folded his arms. Yusuf had been preparing to interpret the slightest movement as permission, but the look on Aed’s face was arresting: a stubborn helplessness, like a sulking child afraid to ask for reassurance and seeing his last hope of it walk away. Yusuf softened.

“I have already written most of my recipes for the monks,” he said, “but I will write detailed advice for your friend’s care. Is there someone here who can read Latin? Your priest?”

Aed’s brows lowered. “I can.”

'I can.'

“Very good. Try to follow my advice. I know his mother will attempt the opposite. Indulge her if it is something Gaethine particularly wants, but see that my advice is followed, to preserve his strength and his comfort. However, his mother’s presence is a good medicine.”

Aed unfolded his arms again and laid one of them across the table to finger the feathered edge of a quill. He would not meet Yusuf’s eyes for longer than a few defiant glances.

Yusuf had been a doctor long enough to recognize the signs of secret pain, of all kinds. He was still not done here.

“Is there anything you wish to ask me?” he prompted.

'Is there anything you wish to ask me?'

“Did you ever—”

After blurting those first few words, Aed furrowed his brow and concentrated twice as hard on his quill. Yusuf folded his hands and waited.

“…see a man… live,” Aed finished tautly. “Sick like Gaethine.” He did not look up.

“Did I ever see a man recover from phthisis, as ill as he is now? No, lord, I never did. But all things are possible with God.”

Aed snorted in derision.

Yusuf looked down at him, at his silky black hair, at his unlined eyes, at the smooth skin on his cheeks, which still wore traces of an infant’s roundness. Yusuf wondered how old he was. He wondered whether this was the first time he’d lost someone he loved.

“Go away,” Aed muttered. He turned his chair around to face his table. “Go pray, Saracen.”

'Go away.'

Still Yusuf hesitated. “Lord, may I suggest one thing you might do for Gaethine? Something I shall not write down.”

Aed looked around, his expression unguarded for once, and so full of raw hope that Yusuf briefly cast about in his mind for some forgotten plant or some remedy he hadn’t yet tried, wishing he could say something the poor boy wanted to hear. But of course, that hadn’t been the sort of suggestion he’d meant.

“The next time,” Yusuf said gently, “listen to him when he tries to talk to you. When he tells you he is dying, tell him you know—”

Aed turned away and banged his arms down on his table, startling Yusuf speechless for a moment.

Aed turned away and banged his arms down on his table.

“Tell him you know,” he began again, “or at least listen to him talk. He is wearying himself trying to make you admit that. And until you do…”

Aed’s tunic drew tight across his back. His breaths came in unsteady gusts. Yusuf padded up behind his chair and laid a hand on his shaking shoulder.

“Until you do,” Yusuf said, “you cannot give him what he needs from you. Do not make him take his last journey alone. Have the courage to walk with him.”

'Have the courage to walk with him.'

Aed’s body lurched, but he stayed hunched over his table.

He choked, “Do you—believe in Hell, Saracen?”

It was the throaty growl of a man trying to hold back tears, and worse than tears. He sounded like an old man: far, far beyond his years.

Yusuf stepped back, lowered his hand, and said nothing. The sun had vanished behind the hills, leaving only a horizon rimmed with yellow light.

Yusuf stepped back, lowered his hand.

“I hope you rot there,” Aed panted. His shoulders heaved.

“Peace be upon you,” Yusuf said, taking his leave.

A drop fell onto the wood between Aed’s forearms. He hastily moved one arm to cover the spot, and jammed the thumb of his other hand into the corner of his eye. He began muttering in Gaelic—vicious, brutal words, the few Yusuf recognized. He was, Yusuf supposed, cursing him.

Looking away was the kindest thing Yusuf could have done, but he could sense the young lord’s gilded, grieving profile stamping itself into his memory, sharp-​edged as a newly minted coin. There were patients he never did forget—most often those he had never known how to help at all.

“That will do you no good, my poor boy,” Yusuf whispered as he backed towards the door. “Nor tears, nor curses. There is no peace but submission to the will of Almighty God.”

He backed towards the door.