Eadwyn dropped his crust onto the dirt and let his head fall back against the wall. “He’ll be asking for me next.”
Leofric himself was exhausted, but he was old. Such a sepulchral voice on a twenty-year-old man was a sign of more than physical weariness.
He said, “I’ll go.”
“No, that isn’t what I mean. I mean he’ll be asking for me. Me.” Eadwyn lifted his head, but he peered at Leofric through eyelids swollen from fatigue. “Didn’t you find it odd, the way he asked for Ethelmer?”
Leofric snorted. “Odd compared to what?”
Eadwyn dropped his head back against the wall. Behind their lids his eyes rolled.
Leofric balled up the rag he was using as a napkin. “He’s coming to the end of his journey. Probably has some things to say.”
Eadwyn asked, “The end of which journey?”
Leofric tossed away the rag and sighed.
From the other room – a former byre, he guessed, by the marks of hoofs and horns in the crumbling walls – he heard Ethelmer’s voice, thin as a knee-high child’s. The boy was young, but not that young.
Theobald’s voice could not be heard at all, except by the periodic silences it imposed on Ethelmer’s. He had screamed himself hoarse, and it was just as well, for it meant the hosteler was less likely to turn them out in the middle of the night.
Eadwyn asked softly, “Do you think it will be tonight?”
Leofric bowed his head and studied the filigree of scars on the backs of his hands. “Only the Lord knows.”
“Do you suppose Theobald knows?”
Eadwyn had never spoken so directly on the matter. Exhausted as he was, Leofric would honor the question with an earnest reply.
“Does he know the day and hour? No, I don’t suppose he does. But I believe he knows he’s coming to the end of his last journey. And he’ll have some things to say. To all three of us, most likely.”
Leofric peered back through the empty doorway. The sooty lamp in the other room cast a blurred, oversized shadow of Ethelmer on the backdrop of the moth-eaten bed curtain. The boy seemed to be rocking himself where he sat. Leofric wondered what was being said. He wondered what promises Theobald would extract from each of them.
“If it were I in there,” he said to Eadwyn, “as one day I shall be, in my turn, I would not wait until my last night to say those things. Therefore I do not think it will be tonight. But only the Lord knows.”
Eadwyn said, “It would be too cruel if he came this far and didn’t quite make – ”
Leofric lifted a warning hand. Ethelmer’s shadow blotted out the entire bed curtain, then shrank as he stepped away from the lamp. The boy who stepped through the doorway was smaller still. Leofric recognized the lifted chin and the taut mouth of a child trying not to cry.
Ethelmer walked to the center of the room before he looked at anyone, and then he looked at Eadwyn. “My father wants to see you, now.”
Eadwyn sent Leofric a grimly triumphant glance and heaved himself up off his couch of grain sacks.
Ethelmer stopped him and spoke a soft phrase beginning, “Please, would you tell him…?”
Leofric was too polite to strain his ears to hear the rest, but he wondered what it was. He wondered what request Eadwyn would make of him when his turn came.
They both watched Eadwyn vanish behind the curtain and reappear as a towering shadow. Then Ethelmer toddled closer to the bench, twisting his hands. Leofric recognized the signs of a child with a difficult question to ask.
He brushed the crumbs from his lap and patted the bench beside him. “Come sit down and finish your bread, runt.”
“Please, my lord, I’m not hungry.”
Leofric sighed. “None of us are. But sometimes a man simply has to put food in his mouth, chew it up, and swallow it.”
Ethelmer chewed on his lips, but he did not even look at the food.
“Have something like a lump in your throat?” Leofric asked gently. “Don’t think you can swallow?” He rubbed his neck to illustrate.
“You might try talking it out. Come here, runt.”
Leofric held out his hand, and Ethelmer finally shuffled over to sit beside him on the bench.
“Something you want to ask me?”
Ethelmer responded gratefully to the invitation. “Yes, my lord. I wondered… Don’t you think we could stay here for a while? This place isn’t bad.”
Leofric lifted his head and looked around at the mud-plaster walls. Their lodgings were damp and crumbling, the air fusty with mold, but they had slept in worse. Other travelers moved faster than they along their road, and the reputable innkeepers were forewarned of the red-headed madman who seemed almost normal by day.
“You think it would do your father some good?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Did he tell you it would?”
Ethelmer looked down at his hands.
“He wants to go on, doesn’t he?”
Ethelmer said nothing, as boys did when loath to agree.
“Well, runt, I’ll tell you: if I thought it would do your father some good, I would make him rest a day or two. But you know he isn’t going to get any rest here.”
Leofric gave the boy’s hair and shoulder a rough caress. The skinny little body wobbled, but it did not twist away from his hand as eleven-year-old boys did when they were not deeply grieved.
“You know,” Leofric whispered, “tomorrow is the last long ride we have to do. And it’s only twelve or thirteen miles. By tomorrow night we’ll be in Todeorde. And – I’m not promising – but if the weather is clear, we might get a glimpse of Winchester spires. And if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow, when we’re in Andover.”
For days now Leofric had been squinting into mists, seeking landmarks in a world that was materializing out of his memory. Cattle-dotted hill slopes proved to be populated with herds of sleek-coated breeds he had not seen in twenty years. The very bells around their necks chimed notes he still knew. He could count on what he called a normal breakfast without making special arrangements to ban groats from the table, and at supper he knew the names and charms of every sort of cheese.
The men they met on the road spoke without a trace of accent. The children sang rhymes he had begun to believe only his own and Sigefrith’s children knew. There were signs of Normans, it was true, but they were the foreigners here, not he. He was coming home.
“And I want you to think,” he said, “about how your father will feel when he gets his first sight of Winchester off in the distance. Think of the hope that will give him. Every step that brings him closer gives him a little more hope. And that does him more good than lying here.”
Ethelmer seemed to shrug slightly, or perhaps he only tipped his head towards his shoulder. Whatever it would do for Theobald, the idea did not seem to give Ethelmer much hope.
“We’re almost there, runt. Only think of it! On Sunday, we shall all attend Mass in the cathedral. And once we’re there, I promise you, we shall stop and rest for as long as your father needs. The monks shall care for him. They know what to do. We shall all have a good, clean bed, and good food, and plenty of rest. And while your father is getting stronger, I shall show you two runts the town. What do you think of that?”
“My father thinks he is going to die.”
Leofric’s eyes squeezed shut, but he took care not to make a startled move. “Did he tell you so just now?”
“He told me, he says if he dies, he wants us to bury him in Winchester, but take his heart back home and open my mother’s tomb and put it inside with her.” Ethelmer’s voice cracked and squeaked with the strain of holding back tears.
Leofric took a few deep breaths to give himself time to collect his thoughts. “Well, runt, he did say If. But that’s an important thing he asked you. When a man asks you… especially your father… to take care of him after his death, that’s a very solemn and important thing. That’s why he asked you. Because you’re his son, and he knows you love him and will honor him. Even though it seems a terribly difficult thing to do.”
“But they’ll have to cut him up.”
“It won’t hurt him, baby.”
Ethelmer lipped, “I know.”
“Our bodies are dust, and to dust they return, but because we believe in the Lord we shall never die. What happens to his body will not matter to him once he’s gone. But it matters to him now to know that his heart will abide forever with your mother on earth, because his love will abide with her forever in Heaven. It’s not essential, but it is good and right, and it gives him ease to know it will be so. To know that you and I and Eadwyn will do this for him.”
Ethelmer nodded without lifting his head. Leofric laid an arm over his shoulders, and the boy wriggled himself cozily closer.
“And it will matter to you and to your brothers and sister to have him near. The important part of him: his heart.” Leofric patted Ethelmer’s chest. “The only part that matters. It’s not essential, but it’s good and right to bring him home. Sometimes a boy, when he’s hurt or confused about something, or just feeling lonely, he likes to kneel down beside his father and mother and talk about his troubles. They won’t be able to answer you out loud any longer, but they will answer you in your heart. And sometimes a boy just likes to know his mother and father are near.”
Leofric pulled the boy’s head against his cheek and sighed. Behind the curtain Eadwyn’s shadow was still, awaiting the promise that would be asked of him by a voice that could not be heard. Leofric awaited his turn.
“Sometimes,” he said, “a man does, too.”