Ethelwyn is touched by the ghost of a man

December 21, 1085

'Quiet down here.'

“Certainly is quiet down here,” Ethelwyn chuckled. “Those boys…”

Egelric acknowledged the worth of silence by failing to break his own.

Ethelwyn hung his fingertips over the mantel’s edge and let his gaze follow Egelric’s down to the spindly logs. The fire warmed his face and toasted his knees, but the stone slab was damp and cold. The scent of charred hickory scarcely reached his nose; the frigid air was dense with odors of mildewed parchment and aging wool tapestries. Ethelwyn would have guessed Egelric had not entered the room since he had returned home, but there were empty pitchers and dirty cups enough to prove otherwise.

“Mind you, we miss them when they’re away, Mouse and I,” Ethelwyn said. “Quiet around here without the sound of them tearing around and laughing…”

'The sound of them laughing...'

Ah, now that was making it harder than it had to be. Ethelwyn had never once heard the precious sound of his own son laughing. Cynemaer had not lived long enough to learn. But the thing was already half said.

“That’s why we were thinking… with Sigefrith and Wyn away, we mean to stay home for Christmas, but we should like to have you and the children come. Mouse says, the more people we can cram into the room, the merrier. And children count for two—”

Egelric made some shrug or slight gesture that was only detectable by the sound of his rough-​woven sleeves sliding over the backs of his hands.

“So, will you consider it?” Ethelwyn blurted, unable at the last to go as far as asking outright. “It would make Mouse so happy…”


“She would— You will?”

“Aye, we’ll come,” Egelric muttered.


That had been almost too easy.

That had been almost too easy. Ethelwyn straightened his collar and his cuffs and managed to stay quiet for at least ten seconds.

“I know it will be… difficult. It’s diff… difficult for us, too.” He took a deep breath. The difficult part was said. “But you know, Egelric, we must think of the children. Christmas is so important for children. I’ve forgotten nearly everything that ever happened to me, but many of the few memories I have left are of the Christmases of my boyhood. My mother always used to—”

“I said we’ll come.”

“Ah—Oh, I suppose you did…”

That had certainly been too easy. Egelric hated Christmas out of principle. Egelric hated Christmas with a passion that other men reserved for what they most dearly loved. Even if he had consented for the sake of the children, Egelric’s crotchety pride required at least a token resistance. Egelric had simply given up.

Ethelwyn took a step back.

Ethelwyn took a step back. In the gloom Egelric’s bronzed profile was bright as a polished coin. With his head bowed, the firelight struck him full on, erasing the lines and shadows of his face, gilding him with the illusion of a young man Ethelwyn did not remember or had never known.

Ethelwyn was benumbed by the same sense of immateriality that chilled him sometimes when he saw his own reflection in a mirror—of not knowing which side of the glass was real.

He was real.

He stretched an arm out behind him and found the wall. The stone was cold and gritty. He was real. Egelric was a ghost.

One of the tall doors opened while he stared, and more ghostly figures entered. Ethelwyn watched them with a frigid fascination. They were silent and eerily grim, and all together the sort of unlikely crew that assembled only in dreams.

Ethelwyn watched them with a cool fascination.

There was the King’s Reeve, and there the soon-​to-​be Captain of the Royal Guard, Natanleod, who in the real world could not stomach him. Sceadwung-clif’s own guard Eudaf followed them in, looking as astounded as if he had no idea who or where he was. Finally there was the preposterous presence of one of the King’s weapon smiths, whose name Ethelwyn did not even know, and whom he would not have recognized if not for the lurid scar that covered the half of his face. The other half was at that moment a ghastly white.

Eudaf creaked, “Sir?” in a voice that was not his own.

Saeward repeated, “Sir,” coolly, as if correcting his diction. Then he went on.

'You are under arrest.'

“By command of His Majesty the King, whom God preserve, you are under arrest.”

Ethelwyn awoke clutching his heart. He could feel it kicking against his hand, violently alive. He was real.

Saeward’s cheeks were pink with cold, his hair ruffled, and he smelled faintly of horse sweat and of wool dampened with snow. He was real too. Everything was real. And nevertheless it was a nightmare.

“Under arrest?” Ethelwyn cried. The ringing in his ears made his own voice sound far away—a call from the other side. “You cannot arrest him! He has committed no crime against the Crown!”

'You cannot arrest him!'

“He is accused of the same.” Saeward took a step towards Egelric, and Ethelwyn scrambled to get in his way.

“Of what? By whom? Rape is no offense against the Crown—”

He stopped, breathless and mortified. It was the first time the word had been pronounced between them. He turned his head slowly towards Egelric, half-​expecting to be punched in the face. But Egelric was sickeningly calm.

“Rape is an aggravation in this case,” Saeward replied.

He looked at Egelric again, and Ethelwyn shot out his arm between them.

Ethelwyn shot out his arm between them.

“I hope you have a warrant, sir.”


Saeward opened the leather case on his belt and extracted the folded parchment with an exasperating patience. As soon as it was clear, Ethelwyn snatched it away and strode past him to the lamp, sorely tempted to shove the man aside as he passed.

He heard a pair of boots softly approaching as he unfolded the parchment, and he clapped it down on the table, smoothing it flat to hide at least one of the deep red, ring-​shaped stains that defaced the wooden surface, where a cup had been filled by an unsteady hand.

He clapped it down on the table.

The first word he saw was Murder. All was a blur around it, like an image seen through a lens. He stared until wavering ghosts of the letters were seared onto his eyes in green fire.

“All in order?” Saeward murmured.

The periphery began to come into focus. Incitement to commit, repeated on line after line, each word perfectly aligned with the word above it—even unto the individual letters, each to each, with the precision of… Malcolm.

Horrified, Ethelwyn glanced over his shoulder. Egelric had not yet moved. His back to the fire now, his face was a mask of shadow.

In his confusion Ethelwyn turned blindly and was dazzled by Saeward’s pale face shining out of the gloom. His expression was cold and blank as the moon’s.

Ethelwyn stubbed his finger down on the page and then—almost—upon the reeve’s shoulder.

'What is this?'

“What is this? You cannot simply take a list of Maire’s crimes and slap Incitement to commit in front of each and call it a warrant!”

“That is the definition of incitement, is it not?” Saeward asked wearily. “It does go on, you know.”

Ethelwyn turned back to the parchment. He tried to skip over the crimes he feared Egelric had actually committed—those he had admitted to, the rape—but he was snagged on the S of Sodomy. S-o-d-o-m-y—each letter written with Malcolm’s customary precision, each thick stroke a slitted window onto the scene: Malcolm’s dark head and broad shoulders bent over a table, his pen cleanly lifted between each letter as he spelled out a list of vile accusations against his father-​in-​law with the same tidiness he used to tally up the rents.

Ethelwyn prayed Egelric would never see it. He swallowed against the lump rising in his throat and read on.

Assault against a ward of the Crown?” he cried. “What ward of the Crown? What’s this supposed to be?”

'What's this supposed to be?'

“Lady Maire,” Saeward sighed.

“What ward of the Crown? Maire’s the ward of her husband and none other!”

“While her husband was out of the country…”

“Bollocks! A woman isn’t made a widow every time her husband leaves the house! That accusation is invalid!”

“You are welcome to make that point at the trial.”

“That makes this warrant invalid!”

'That makes this warrant invalid!'

“It certainly does not!” Saeward snapped, out of patience at last. “All that truly matters is the ‘hereby commanded forthwith to find and arrest,’ and I assure you, that is all in good order!”

Ethelwyn scowled and leaned over the parchment, planting his palms protectively on either edge. “We shall just see about that.”

“Oh, good God, what do you expect to find? Do you suppose Malcolm the sort to forget to cross a T and turn an arrest warrant into a letter of commendation?”

“Ha!” Ethelwyn realized then that it was precisely the sort of thing canny Malcolm might do, if such a thing could be done. He returned to the beginning of the document, scanning for intentional mistakes or signs of secret codes.

Meanwhile, ghostlike, Egelric shuffled up behind him without a sound—until he spoke.

“Malcolm wrote that?”

'Malcolm wrote that?'

His voice had been almost its old gruff self at the dinner table, growly around the edges, and still capable of deep, chuckling laughter when the children’s antics had been irresistible or Mouse had been at her charming best. But this voice was dry and creaking as a rush of wind through dead trees.

Saeward muttered, “He did not seem to relish the task.”

“Never mind any of this, Egelric,” Ethelwyn said. “This warrant is invalid and these accusations are absurd!”

'These accusations are absurd!'

Saeward said, “This warrant is perfectly valid, and I intend to execute it.”

“What happened?” Ethelwyn challenged. “Did she talk? It’s her word against his. You know he didn’t do half the things on that page! More than half!”

“That shall be determined at a later time. I am not here to try him. I’m here to arrest him.”

Saeward dropped his arms and lowered his head and shoulders as if preparing to charge past Ethelwyn to grab Egelric in the corner. Ethelwyn simply stepped in front of Egelric and put his body in the way.

Ethelwyn simply stepped in front of Egelric and put his body in the way.

“Does His Grace know about this? These are the Duke’s lands, and as I recall, the King may not substract a vassal of the Duke without the latter’s consent, except in case of—”

Wherever he may be found,” Saeward growled. “Did you miss that part?”

“Does the Duke know about this?” Ethelwyn insisted, convinced he had found a spar worth clinging to. “Does he even know about this?”

Egelric bumped Ethelwyn’s elbow with his shoulder as he tried to slip past, alerting him. Ethelwyn turned and chased him into the other corner, blocking his escape with one arm propped against the mantel and the other against the wall.

'Let me go, Wyn.'

“Let me go, Wyn.”

“Egelric! Don’t give up like this! That warrant’s invalid! Or—Alred has to be told, or something!”

Lit by the fire beneath and the torch above, Egelric’s cragged face was deeply shadowed in its hollows. His dark eyes were perfect mirrors, reflecting the dim faces of all the men in the room. Only Egelric was on the other side.

“What will that change?” he asked. “He’ll just come back with another.”

“It will give us time to think of something! Don’t go with them!”

“Wyn, I’m already gone.”

“No! No!”

'I'm going with you!'

Ethelwyn tried pressing his palm against the sharp corner of the stone, but his numb hand passed straight through. His shaking arms dissolved and fell in a mist. His eyes blurred with a rim of tears.

“I’m going with you!”

“You’re staying here,” Egelric said. “With my children.”

“Mouse is here!”

Egelric closed his eyes and sighed. He had not meant for the afternoon.

He had not meant for the afternoon.

“Wyn. If I don’t come back, I want you to take care of my boys. Jehanne and Baby-​Flann should go to Hetty—”

“But you’re coming back! You’re coming back!”

Egelric grabbed Ethelwyn’s shoulder and squeezed. Egelric’s hand was real.

“I want you and Mouse to raise my boys. I know you’ll make good men of them. You’re the closest thing they have to an uncle.”

'You're the closest thing they have to an uncle.'

Whimpering, Ethelwyn echoed, “You’re the closest thing…”

Egelric held on. Egelric’s warm, strong, solid hand on his shoulder was the only thing Ethelwyn could feel.

Then Egelric let go. He sidled out of the corner, jostling Ethelwyn slightly as he passed. Ethelwyn’s tears sloshed over their rims and slid down his cheeks. He felt them with his fingers. His face was cold and numb as glass.

Egelric stopped before Natanleod and crossed his wrists behind his back.

'His face was cold and numb as glass.'

“You do it, Nat. I don’t want him to.” He tossed his head at a man he could not see.

“Sure I will, Egelric,” Natanleod said. He pulled out a rope and carefully folded it double.

“Don’t knot it yet,” Saeward muttered. “We need to get him on a horse.”

Natanleod cracked the folded rope in his palm and turned.

'You do your job, I do mine!'

“You do your job, I do mine! Is that clear?”

“And you may speak to me in that tone tomorrow. Captain.

“I accept the invitation!”

The rope hissed through his clenched hand as he pulled it free, and the loose end leapt up the back of his arm like a striking snake. Then it fell limp, and he was almost gentle again as he turned back to Egelric. “Steady, man.”

Hands wove rope between hands. Almost at once Ethelwyn lost track of whose were whose, which were bound and which loose. He only knew that none of them were real.

“There’s one more thing,” Saeward interrupted.

'There's one more thing.'

Ethelwyn woke hyperventilating. His mouth was numb and his head ringing.

“Perhaps you would oblige us, Ethelwyn,” Saeward nodded. “Sir Malcolm advises Egelric that he will want to bring his kilt.”

“No! No!”

Ethelwyn had reacted reflexively at the strangeness of the request, but once he had considered it…

There was no explanation for it.

There was no explanation for it but that Malcolm believed a Scot would want to die in his kilt. Malcolm would allow him this much dignity. But Malcolm expected him to die.

“No, Egelric, listen! Don’t give up! You know you had nothing to do with that murder!”


“They can’t have any evidence! It’s her word against yours, and they can’t hang you for that!”


“I will be there, Egelric! I won’t let her get away with this! The first thing I’m going to do is to see about this warrant!”

'I will be there, Egelric!'


Egelric’s shoulders shifted far enough for Ethelwyn to hear the rough wool of his shirt sliding over itself. Without thinking, he had moved to lay his hand on Ethelwyn’s shoulder to quiet him, but his hands were already bound. He was already gone.

“Wyn, please go upstairs and bring my kilt down for me. Try not to let the boys know what’s going on.”

“But Egelric!”


Egelric laid his warm, strong, steady voice of old upon him like a ghostly hand. Ethelwyn was silenced.

“The peace of God on you, brother. It’s time for me to go.”

'It's time for me to go.'