Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

Gaethine awoke with the muddled sense that he needed to be alert.

Gaethine awoke with the muddled sense that he needed to be alert for something and had been weak somehow. He blinked his blurry eyes and wondered why there was a light. Had he lost all notion of day and night?

He heard a muffled thump near the floor, and he knew he was not alone. He remembered: his mother!

He beat back the blanket and sat up—but it was not his mother. It was Yusuf, kneeling on a patterned rug, his forehead touching the floor.

It was Yusuf, kneeling on a patterned rug.

Yusuf was praying. Gaethine’s astonishment softened into wonder.

The sky was dark outside, but the corners of the room glowed with candlelight. Night air blew in from the bay, cool and fresh and quiet. And Yusuf sat up and rested his hands on his thighs, his eyes closed.

Yusuf had never admitted witnesses to his prayers, and Gaethine knew he ought to look away, but he had never seen a man look so noble on his knees.

Gradually, though, he began to wonder why Yusuf was praying there. It looked like a vigil such as one kept for the dying or the dead. And not for the first time he wondered why his mother had arrived that day. Would she brave the wrath of his father for a mere visit? Was this it? Was this the end?

Was this the end?

A chill stole through Gaethine’s veins, a cold that was not eased by the blankets still covering his legs. His own wheezing breath began to sound unreal to him, like the last labors of a body whose soul is already slipping away.

He tried to speak, but a fit of coughing erupted from his open mouth. The concussive pain in his ribs crumpled him in on himself, and for the moment he was nothing but a hot, spindly husk of a man, hacking his lungs out over the side of the bed.

A towel appeared before his mouth and he clapped it against his face, only dimly aware that Yusuf must have put it there. A hand settled on his heaving shoulder, and at last he felt something outside the prison of his wretched, pain-​wracked body.

His coughing eased. By the time Yusuf had crossed the room and returned with a mug of hot honeyed wine, Gaethine was wiping his eyes and mouth and gasping for breath.

“Drink,” Yusuf said, his voice as warm and sweet as the steam.


Gaethine took the cup.

“Did I wake you?” Yusuf asked. “I am sorry.”

Gaethine shook his head. He blew away the steam and sipped, while Yusuf dragged a stool up beside the bed.

When he could venture to speak, Gaethine said, “I am sorry I interrupted your…”

They both looked at the rug, Yusuf twisting on the stool to peer behind him. Gaethine waited for Yusuf to provide the missing word, but Yusuf said only, “I had finished.”

Gaethine tried again. “Do you often pray in my room?”

Perhaps it was only the candlelight filling different hollows on his face, but Yusuf’s expression shifted, seeming abruptly sad.

Yusuf's expression shifted, seeming abruptly sad.

“Twice or thrice,” he said. “This is the last time.”

Gaethine fell silent, stricken.

Yusuf took the mug from him and set it aside. “I’m supposed to be upstairs,” he said. “I told Congal I needed to pray.”


“He is waiting for me outside, with the horses. I’m not supposed to be in your room. I wasn’t supposed to wake you. I presume,” he added dryly, “barbarians do not believe in goodbye.”

Goodbye. Gaethine was beginning to understand.

Gaethine was beginning to understand.

This explained the caressing, nighttime gentleness of Yusuf’s voice: he was speaking softly, so as not to be heard. This explained his presence here, too, at this quiet, intimate hour. This was it. This was the end.

Yusuf sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Lord Aed received a letter from King Sigefrith. He knows where I am. He orders my return.”

For a moment Gaethine managed to ponder the politics of this. He wondered how Sigefrith had learned. He wondered why Aed would hasten to obey. But he could only bring himself to care that Yusuf was going away.

“And did he stipulate,” Gaethine asked, “that you return in the company of Congal?”

Yusuf snorted. “No, that must be Lord Aed’s last insult to me. One more week in the company of Congal and his men.”

“Congal is growing fond of you, you know. Don’t let on I told you. It will spoil his fun.”

Yusuf grinned, and Gaethine responded with a smile that squeezed tears to the corners of his eyes.

Yusuf grinned.

Yusuf leaned over the blankets and confided, “I shall make him sorry he ever taught me how to say ‘Cock off, cunt face.’”

“Make him glad to be rid of you,” Gaethine agreed.

Yusuf chuckled, and Gaethine wheezed. Their laughter faded, but when Gaethine looked up, he found Yusuf still fixing him with one of his sharp, blue stares. Yusuf pounced.

“I left instructions with Father Fergal for your treatment,” he said. “I expect you to continue it in my absence. To the letter, just as if I were here.”

Gaethine lay back. Yusuf would not be here. “Does it matter?”

“It matters to me,” Yusuf said. “I have enough babies for patients, without the adults refusing to take their medicine unless I’m there to spoon it in.”

“But does it matter to me?” Gaethine asked, scowling. “Why bother? So that I can live a few more weeks? Suffer a few more weeks?”

Yusuf’s expression went suddenly, unbearably wistful. Gaethine wanted to smack him. He wanted to grab him by the arms and shake some shame into him.

He tried to sit up but could barely lift his shoulders from the bed. “How long do I have, doctor? How long?”

He tried to sit up but could barely lift his shoulders from the bed.

“You know that only God knows—”

“Days? Weeks?”

“Only God—”

“Go on and tell me!” Gaethine snapped. “I don’t care. I only want to know whether it’s worth asking you to write to me at all.”

He stopped short, startled by the words that had slipped out. His breath caught high in his chest, and he held it, fearing another fit of coughing. But Yusuf seemed to relax.

Yusuf seemed to relax.

“Certainly you may,” he said. “Certainly I shall. I could send a letter back with Congal, and you’ll have that in a fortnight. And I have no great fear that you’ll not be here to read it.”

A fortnight. A letter.

Still, Gaethine could not resist asking sourly, “And after that? Supposing I reply? A month from now. Will you think it worth the trouble of answering me by that time?”


Yusuf clasped Gaethine’s wrist and leaned over the blankets, almost nose-​to-​nose.

Yusuf clasped Gaethine's wrist and leaned over the blankets.

“The last letter will be mine. God willing, I will write to you until I receive no more reply. And I pray there will be many replies.”

“But there will not be, will there?”

Yusuf squeezed Gaethine’s wrist and sighed.

Gaethine flopped back against his pillows and closed his eyes. He was tired of fighting. Tired of insisting.

He was tired of fighting.

“Sometimes,” he muttered into the darkness, “I pray God I might just live long enough to hear someone admit out loud that I am about to die.”

Yusuf’s quiet voice responded, “I have never been dishonest with you about your malady.”

“But you never will say it. Say it’s nearly the end. I never know whether to be surprised when I wake up alive. You never will tell me how much time I have.”

“A few weeks,” Yusuf answered, unhesitating at last. “A few months. Summer is coming. The weather is on your side. But it is up to God.”

'But it is up to God.'

“I thank you, doctor,” Gaethine snapped. “Now tell all the others! They put everything aside for me. They move mountains for me. They kidnapped you and my mother for me. But they pretend it’s nothing, pretend I will be well in no time.”

Yusuf was silent. Gaethine squeezed his eyes shut and lay gasping after this speech. Once, breathing had been something he did not think about or labor at, but simply did. He no longer recalled how that felt. He had once been able to speak at length. He had once had a voice like thunder.

“They are young, and they are barbarians,” Yusuf said at last, wistfully wry. “As I suspected, they are still learning how to say goodbye.”

Gaethine snorted and prepared to say something sarcastic, but it struck him that he too was young, and a barbarian, and that he was going to have to say goodbye. To Aed. To Congal. To his mother.

He would have to say goodbye to everyone he knew.

He would have to say goodbye to everyone he knew, whereas they would have to say goodbye to him alone. They would still have each other, and after a bit of grieving they would go on living much as before, except he would be off rotting in his tomb.

His sarcastic reply was warped into a whimper: “I don’t want to die!”

Yusuf leaned over the bed. Gaethine snatched at him and clutched him by the arms.

“I scarcely lived!” he pleaded.

'I scarcely lived!'

Yusuf appeared startled but did not pull away.

“I want to go to Egypt! I want to go to—to Toledo! I want to read all the books!”

“All the books!” Yusuf groaned. “Oh, my poor friend.”

A strangled laugh tore itself from Gaethine’s chest, leaving a bleeding hole behind. He felt his anguish contorting his face into a cadaverous leer, and he could not bear to have Yusuf see him so. Unthinking, he grabbed the back of Yusuf’s neck and dragged him closer, pulling their foreheads together with a smack.

Yusuf stiffened and propped a hand on the mattress to keep his balance, but he did not pull back hard enough to best Gaethine’s strength. And Gaethine used all his dwindling strength, all the strain of sinew in an arm that had wasted away.

“Don’t go,” he blubbered. “Not while I live. It won’t be long.”

Yusuf’s mouth fell open, and his breath on Gaethine’s face was warm in places and cool in others, where it dried the tracks of tears.

“I don’t know how to say goodbye to you,” Gaethine whispered. “I won’t say it.”

“My poor friend,” Yusuf said hoarsely.

Yusuf was drawing back firmly enough to drag Gaethine up with him. But Gaethine’s arm was no longer strong enough to support the weight of his own body. His hand was slipping.

Yusuf’s mouth was so close to his that Gaethine could taste it. But with the last of his strength he merely pulled himself up far enough to slide his cheek over Yusuf’s and breathe the scent of his hair before he let go and fell back onto the pillows. He looked up to see Yusuf’s face slick with his own sweat and tears.

Yusuf stared down at him, silent, and Gaethine lay limp, hot, and helpless, with eyes as liquid as a feverish child’s.

Finally Yusuf wiped his face on his sleeve and ran a hand back through his hair. “You will agree,” he said quietly, “it is time for me to go.”

'It is time for me to go.'

Gaethine frowned. “I did not agree when they brought you here. I will not agree now that you go.”

Yusuf shrugged and flapped his arms against his sides. “Nobody asked me, either. I only learned last night. I am sorry we had to say goodbye like this. But I must go.”

“I will not say goodbye.”

Yusuf shook his head, and the corner of his mouth lifted into a wry smile. “Stubborn as a Toledan tin merchant. You can’t stop me from saying goodbye to you.”

'Stubborn as a Toledan tin merchant.'

He put out a hand. Gaethine folded his arms and lay back, scowling.

“Goodbye, Gaethine. Go in peace. You are the only barbarian I’ve ever truly liked.”

“You lie. You’re growing fond of Congal.”

Yusuf laughed outright. “Only to tease. You…” He shook his hand before Gaethine’s folded arms, insisting. “…have been a friend.”

Gaethine grudgingly held out a hand. For the last time he felt Yusuf’s soft, sure grip, and it was over before he could remark that it was happening. But Yusuf brushed his hand over his heart as he turned away, in a sweet, subtle gesture that Gaethine was uncertain he was even meant to see.

Yusuf crossed the room to extinguish two of the candles, then stooped to roll up his rug. Gaethine lay back and folded his arms again, letting his hand lie over his heart at first. But he shoved it back into his armpit when Yusuf turned.

“If Congal gives you any trouble on the road,” Gaethine said, “threaten to tell Sigefrith that he knew perfectly well what bosoms meant.”

'Threaten to tell Sigefrith.'

Yusuf grinned. “Good advice… if I wish the final resting place of my headless body to be a bog in somewhere in Galloway.”

Gaethine grunted at this evidence of the doctor’s sagacity.

Yusuf hefted the strap of a saddlebag onto his shoulder, then slung his fringed leather medicine bag over that. He tucked his rolled-​up rug beneath his arm, blew out the last candle but one, and stopped, facing the bed.

He carried everything he had brought into Galloway excepting his horse and his sword. He was about to vanish without a trace.

“God bless you,” Gaethine snapped out.

Yusuf paused. “Was that goodbye?”

“No. That was God bless you.”

Yusuf shook his head and moved for the door. “Stubborn as a Toledan tin merchant…”


Yusuf stopped again, tilted his head and waited. He bore his burden patiently.

The last candle burned behind him, and his face was dark, but Gaethine began to imagine he beheld a glow shining out of his pale eyes: a hint of the glory of Heaven’s angels. Yusuf was good—too good for such a black sinner as he.

“Marry that woman, if you want her,” Gaethine growled. “I have never heard anything so ridiculous as your excuses. And bear in mind that I have spent the last half year in the constant company of Congal.”

Yusuf hesitated and swallowed. Finally he only said, “God bless you, friend.”

“And you,” Gaethine muttered.


Gaethine grunted.

Yusuf waited a moment longer, then slipped out through the door and quietly shut it behind him.

Tears rushed to Gaethine’s eyes, but he squinted up his face and held them in, fearing that Yusuf would remember something and return. But the minutes passed, and Gaethine came to understand that he would not, that he would never. He had looked upon his beloved friend for the last time.

Gaethine's eyes welled up again.

Gaethine’s eyes welled up again, and he rolled over onto his side. He pulled his bony knees up beneath the blankets and let snot and tears drip unchecked onto the sheets. He was nothing but a hot, spindly husk of a man, seeping pure sorrow.

Yusuf was gone, and perhaps Congal would return too late. For Gaethine, there was little left in life but last times. He was young, too young to die. And too much a barbarian to say goodbye.

For Gaethine, there was little left in life but last times.