Malcolm had always thought himself a good Christian.

Malcolm had always thought himself a good Christian. He did not even emulate Sigefrith in his never ending litany of colorful blasphemies, although he did find occasions to invoke the name of the devil all the day long. Malcolm knew what it was to fast all day, as one could do during Lent, nor was this his first nightlong vigil.

Nevertheless there was something about this night and this church and this vigil that was beyond his ken. It did not feel right. It did not feel real.

There was something unworldly about an English knighthood that was unlike anything there had been in his country, at least until the devout English Queen Margaret had come to them. An English knight swore fealty to his earthly lord, but also to the Lord of all. Knighthood was not a sacrament, but Father Brude had explained to him that it was very much like taking orders: a solemn, holy thing indeed.

And so he was supposed to pray, renounce any prior quarrels as being unworthy of a knight, and cleanse his mind of worldly ambitions. And in the hours before the dawn he was supposed to have sworn, before swearing to Sigefrith that he would serve him in war, to also defend the Peace and Truce of God; to make himself the champion of children, widows, and virgins; to protect the lives and goods of peasants, the poor, and the unarmed clergy; and above all to answer the call to arms of Christendom if that call ever came, as Father Brude thought it would.

But Malcolm could not keep his mind on any of those things. Always there was some unwanted thought buzzing about in his mind, distracting him, like a fat fly. He did not think it worthy of this night, but finally, in desperation, as the hours wore on and he still could not feel the peace of God upon him, he reached out and snatched it.

It was the voice of his father. It was his father saying: “It is Iylaine you want. She is all that matters.”

It was the voice of his father.

He had long expected he would remain with Sigefrith when he was grown. He had long expected he would be a knight like his friends Brede and Sigefrith and Aengus. He had expected it in the same way he expected he would grow a beard: someday, inevitably, when he was a little older.

He still saw knighthood in this wise. That it would come tomorrow or in three years was of little importance to him. One day he would stop shaving; one day he would swear an oath.

All that mattered was the blood-​​chilling urgency of his marriage. It was like galloping down a hill, when the horse fell forward with every stride and covered even more ground than his legs should allow. It was like knowing the horse could not be pulled up before the bottom of the hill was reached, or he would tumble and break the both of their necks. He had to reach the bottom before death met Iylaine there. Knighthood was merely a ditch to be leapt on that descent. The house was merely a low fence.

Somewhere within the buzzing there was also the voice of his cousin Malcolm, who had told him, “It’s many years and long a man can live with a broken heart.”

They wanted him to think of afterwards, afterwards… He could not. One might as well ask a man to envision what would come after his own death. He had stopped living for himself years before. His death would not be his own.

His death would not be his own.

The buzzing had also been the voice of his brother, who had said what his father and his cousin had not dared: “It’s dying she is.”

He knew that if one saw a girl daily in her slow decline, one might as well be blind. He could not remember how she had looked when she was well – if she had ever been well. He could not see her as his brother saw her, who had last seen her in their father’s house two years before.

And yet he could remember how she had been. He remembered how she had escaped from his father’s house and gone out with Druid onto the moor. He had found her playing a game with the horse, taking turns running and chasing; found her laughing and pink-​​cheeked and tangle-​​headed. And to think he had scolded her for it! He had not wanted her to alarm his mother by being so unladylike. She had still been pink-​​cheeked and tangle-​​headed when he had brought her home. His mother had not seen her, but his brother had.

Now he had to carry her in his arms merely to take her out into the court so she could get some sun. And yet the sun did seem to do her good! He was certain of it!

But the buzzing voice told him – and it was his own voice now, and at last he consented to hear it – that it was nothing more than blowing on a dying fire. It would flare up for a time and be brighter, but the embers would be consumed all the sooner for it.

When it went out, there would be only cold and dark and ashes left in his life.

When it went out, there would be only cold and dark and ashes left in his life. It did not matter whether he became a knight, and so he would. It did not matter whether he lived after her, and so he would.

Perhaps – and this he prayed – God would grant her long enough to give him a child, though he feared she had not even life enough in her body to keep an infant alive. But if she had a child, it would be like lighting a second fire from hers. All would not be cold and dark and ash.

Malcolm was supposed to pray all through the night: he was supposed to make himself ready to defend the peace of God. This, he saw now, was beyond him. This was right, perhaps, but it was not real, though he was an honorable man and would do his duty as a knight and as a Christian.

Tonight he needed greater courage than did a knight entering onto a battlefield, for he already had the certainty that he would be defeated. He could only pray that the peace of God would be upon him before the dawn.

He could only pray that the peace of God would be upon him before the dawn.