Vin does not go

September 21, 1085

Vin lived again the scene he had just put behind him, but in reverse.

Vin lived again the scene he had just put behind him, but in reverse. There again was the elf waggling a key before his eyes, again the key slipping into the lock, again the gate swinging shut. Vin was trapped behind. The elves were on the other side.

In his joy at being free again, breathing fresh air again, seeing the sky again, he had forgotten that these familiar faces were no friends of his. For fourteen years they had lied to him.

The man was still panting from his run--through his nose.

The man was still panting from his run—through his nose, as if he meant to hide the fact that he was out of breath. The nose was massive, but it fit on the massive face. The face was shiny with sweat that ran down into the beard. The beard was heavy and as black as the hair. The hair was thick and straight.

“My name is Egelric.” The voice was thick and deep.

He held out his hand, awkwardly, as if he wanted Vin to take it but wanted to make the gesture seem accidental. The hands were broad and square, and they appeared strong, but with a brutish strength. They were more like the paws of a bear than like any hands Vin had ever seen among the elves. They were unlike his own.

He held out his hand, awkwardly.

All his life had been spent rejecting something he could never slough off—his blood, his inheritance, his identity—without even knowing what it was. Now he saw precisely what he owed to this man: his nose, his lips, his hair and eyes. And who knew what else? What talents, what habits, what foibles, what failings?

He wanted to shout, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

At everyone.

He wanted to shout.

Instead he fumbled after one of the ideas that had occupied him during his nightmarish weeks of famished wandering, one of the threads he had trailed behind him as a link back to sanity.

“Are you a Scot?” he asked feebly.

“Aye,” the man gasped in surprise, and then he smiled. “And, by God, so are you!”

'And, by God, so are you!'

Vin was a Scot. That was something. But—he had never asked to be a Scot. Was being himself what it felt like to be a Scot? He was not certain he wanted to be.

“Say something in Gaelic,” he challenged, grasping at one of the threads that led back to the other black-​haired girl.

The man did, solemnly.

Vin was too proud to ask him what it meant. He fumbled about again and pulled up a scrap of something he had only recently let fall.

“Did you ever go across the sea? Did you ever fight against an army? Did you ever slay a great enemy?”

'Did you ever slay a great enemy?'

The man smiled foolishly.

Alred explained, “It appears we men are all either Beowulf or The Wanderer.”

The man opened his arms in a gesture of humility. “Ach! I’ve never been upon the sea, and by the grace of God, I’ve never fought what might be termed an army. I may be called a knight, but I’m still a farmer at heart.”

“I still wouldn’t care to meet you with bare fists,” Dunstan said.

“A farmer, and a brawler,” the man laughed nervously and pretended to polish his fist with the opposite hand. “But my lord will tell you I tend to make a fool of myself with my sword.”

'My lord will tell you I tend to make a fool of myself with my sword.'

Vin was startled by the sight of his own sheepish smile on another man’s face.

“Your lord will say no such thing,” Alred scolded.

Vin immediately forgot the smile. “Are you his lord?”

“I do have that honor,” Alred said.

“Are you my lord too?” he asked eagerly.

'Are you my lord too?'

A lord who had fought against armies, taken banners, and even saved his own lord from certain death—it was a fine thing! Finer even than a woebegone, wandering warrior who had laid his lord in the earth—and finer still, because he had written the poem about the other!

“Well, now…” Alred pretended to reflect. “For that matter, I suppose I am, by default. At least until you are old enough to swear your allegiance to me or some other.”

'I suppose I am, by default.'

“How old is that?” Vin asked.

“Older,” Alred said curtly, and he turned his gaze back onto the man pointedly enough that Vin’s was forced to follow it.

“It’s my mother’s own face you’re having,” the man murmured dazedly. “Like your sister.”

Vin sucked in his breath. He had not truly realized until that moment that he had a grandmother. Two of them. He had grandfathers. Great-​grandfathers. Ancestors stretching back forever.

He had not started with this man. He had only come through him.

Vin's breath came quickly.

Vin’s breath came quickly. He felt like he was being squeezed. He was only a grain of sand in an hourglass, with a multitude of grains above him: all his ancestors, doubling and doubling with each generation as the glass broadened. Below him and beside him were others, brothers and sisters, and far below was the emptiness of generations not yet born.

He was falling into it; he was squeezing through the neck of the glass with all the pressure of centuries of grandfathers bearing down on him.

The neck was this man.

The dog barked nervously when the silence grew too much for him to bear. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he pleaded, wagging his tail in the hope of reassurance.

'Isn't this wonderful?'

“That’s an excellent idea, old man,” Alred said to him, as if the dog had proposed something he could understand. “Though I didn’t know dogs tended to be mead-​drinkers.”

“He’s not,” Dunstan said, “but he is one of my thanes.”

“I raised this gentledog from a pup!” Alred protested.

“So did I!”

“I raised you from a pup, too, for that matter.”

“That, my lord, is an unanswerable argument,” Dunstan smiled.

'That settles it.'

“That settles it,” Alred said. “Thane Belsar suggests we all repair to this other dog’s castle for a cup of mead and a meaty bone. Shall we go?”

“No!” Vin cried before he knew what he was doing.

“We may chat on the way,” Alred said. “It isn’t far.”

“No! I…”

He felt he needed to explain to Alred.

He felt he needed to explain to Alred, but he did not know what to say. He had not thought of this. He was free, but he was still bound to go somewhere.

He could not go back with Vash. He had only run away because he had felt like nothing but an outsider since the death of his father, but now there were fourteen years of a vicious lie rearing up between him and the only family he knew.

For fourteen years they had made him believe he had been abandoned. For fourteen years they had made him believe—perhaps unintentionally, but so it was—that there was something so wrong with him from the day he was born that his own mother and his own father had not wanted him.

But nor could he go with this man. Fourteen years of unforgiveness could not be erased by the blurted explanation of a black-​haired little girl, however pretty, however funny.

And the man frightened him with his sad eyes, with his broad hands that hesitated between them like the hands of a man who fears he will wake from his dream the moment his dreams are fulfilled.

His eyes had been like that in his delirium.

Vin had starved as few men starved and lived to tell. He knew hunger as few men knew hunger. His eyes had been like that in his delirium, wide as empty saucers staring at imaginary pitchers of cream. His hands had been like that, wavering and seeking, creeping desperately into his sack day after day, long after the last crumbs had been plucked from the seams.

This man was hungry as few men hungered. Hungry for him. Vin had to get away.

He crept slowly backwards, back and back until he bumped up against Osh. There he stopped, as if he had struck a wall.

Osh stroked his arm with the knuckles of the one hand, but he tapped him gently on the back with the knuckles of the other, no one seeing, like a secret signal.

There he stopped, as if he had struck a wall.

“Hummm…” he said thoughtfully. “I cannot go with you, for I do not like to leave my Cat-​daughter and my darling Flann and baby home with only Rua to watch them. Perhaps Vin will like to walk with me, and I give him something funny to drink when we are there.”

“Rua’s there?” Vin asked.

“She will like to see you again.”

“And you shall meet my wife!” Paul said. “But—she’s your cousin!” he laughed. “And my baby will be your cousin!”

'And my baby will be your cousin!'

“Rua thinks it quite funny to live with Vin’s cousins,” Osh said softly. “She never knew you had a father or cousins at all.”

“She didn’t know?” Vin asked. Suddenly he saw a way out. If Rua had not known, Rua was not part of the lie. Rua was still his friend.

“She never knew until she saw Egelric. She thinks, ‘My goodness, how Vin has grown this last moon!’ But I tell her, it is Vin’s father.”

'But I tell her, it is Vin's father.'

“I shall go home with you, Osh,” Vin said. He tried desperately to remember the appropriate formalities of men: how to beg their pardon, how to explain, whether he needed to ask permission of anyone—and of whom. “I have missed Rua,” he added feebly.

“A fine idea,” Alred said. “We might all go to my own castle, where I may at least vouch for the mead.”

“I shall go home with Osh,” Vin said again.

“That is fine for you, old man, but to my knowledge there is very little mead-​drinking and thane-​gathering going on there. So if you wish to partake of those activities, you may always join us later. Shall we recover our horses, gentlemen?”

'Shall we recover our horses, gentlemen?'

“Paul and Vin and I shall walk, like elves,” Osh said. “If Vin likes.”

“And Vash?” Paul asked.

“Vash shall take our horses for us.”

Vash snorted. “Like a groom.”

“No?” Osh asked Vin. “We walk and talk, if you are enough strong. And I tell you all about how to do, so Cousin Cat does not scrache you.”

'And I tell you all about how to do, so Cousin Cat does not scrache you.'

“Scratch!” Paul groaned.

“You see,” Osh sighed, “it will take a long time to explain with this goat bleating his interruptions.”

Vin managed a small laugh.

Meanwhile Alred had snagged the man by the sleeve and was already leading him away.

Meanwhile Alred had snagged the man by the sleeve and was already leading him away.

Vin was dizzied by his sudden relief, as if the mere presence of the man had been a crushing weight on his chest, squeezing his lungs almost until the juice trickled out his nose. Still, he knew that he would be forced to face him again.

Then the dog noticed that Vin was not following. “You come too!” he barked and wagged his stumpy tail in encouragement.

'You come too!'

Vin said nothing, refusing to look him in the eyes, ignoring him entirely. To a dog there was no more absolute refusal.

The dog went away with the man.

The dog went away with the man.