“Where do you suppose Hingwar and Nora are right now?”
Colban had already undressed, cleaned his boots, brushed his hair, and scrubbed his teeth, and now he was practicing grappling moves with an imaginary partner. Malcolm was still combing the tangles out of his hair.
“Eh! If they left not long after we did, they should have made Binche last night and Gembloux today.”
Malcolm slipped another snarl of hair off his comb and watched it float to the floor.
“I hope they have the sense to wait out the rain in Gembloux,” he added, grumbling over his hair as much as their nonsense. “It’s the best bed they’ll have for miles, and it’s bound to snow.”
He heard Colban’s bare soles scuffing on the floor behind him and the puffs of his breath as he sparred, so he was not entirely surprised by the teasing kick that thumped against the back of his leg. He was too exhausted to turn and retaliate, however.
“Too bad they couldn’t come with us to Paris,” Colban said.
Malcolm grunted and tugged the comb through his hair.
“Nora speaks better French than any of us. Even better than you!”
Colban darted out behind Malcolm and punched him twice in the back, so well judging the range of his fists that Malcolm felt only two feather-light taps to his kidney. Malcolm swatted an arm behind him, catching a satisfying slap of bare skin before Colban ducked giggling away.
“Lass even swears better than I,” Malcolm admitted.
“Wish I’d asked her to teach me some swear words you don’t know,” Colban said. “That would have been too funny.”
Colban’s shin banged against the backs of Malcolm’s knees.
“The Devil!” Malcolm groped behind him and came up with nothing. “Si je t’attrape !”
Colban laughed with glee and ducked into the corner by the foot of the bed. “Diable !”
Malcolm snorted. The lad was trying to drag him into a fight, and Malcolm only wanted to sleep. His hair would have to wait until morning. He tossed his comb onto the tablecloth and began wriggling his tunic off over his head. Colban’s heel slammed into his hip.
Malcolm yanked his head free and glared down at the boy, his arms still yoked together by his sleeves. Colban subsided back into his corner, still giggling.
Malcolm slipped his tunic off his arms and threw it back across the bed. “She was good for one thing, I’ll grant you that. You two always wore one another out by bedtime.”
Colban laughed. “Imagine how her poor uncle feels right now.”
“I know precisely how her poor uncle feels right now. The poor man wants nothing more than to get to sleep!”
“And just when he’s dropping off,” Colban said, “he hears a wee girlish voice asking, ‘Uncle, what does it feel like to be kicked in the balls?’”
Malcolm laughed. Colban returned to his exuberant sparring-match with shadows, and Malcolm shook out his mane and smoothed it back as best he could with his hands.
“It’s a good thing her cousin the Count could help her,” Colban said between punches. “It would have been horrible if she’d had to marry Sir Albert.”
“I suppose if he hadn’t been able to help her, you could always have married her, though.”
Malcolm whipped around, and he would have caught the boy with both hands if he had been nearer. Colban skittered back against the wall at the sight of him.
“I mean—if worst came to worst!”
Malcolm straightened and tried to breathe, as startled by his own reaction as by his boy’s suggestion.
“I only meant, the one sure way to prevent Sir Albert from marrying her was if she married someone else. You or someone else. But… you’re not married, if worst came to worst and she were in danger. And you like her, don’t you?”
Colban’s eyes were wide as a baby’s, and he had a way of tipping his chin down until his eyes were all a man could see—his baby-soft eyes, and his thick, black, masculine brows.
“Do you like her?” Malcolm asked hoarsely.
Colban blinked his brown eyes.
“Eh? Do you like her as a stepmother?”
“I… didn’t say that…”
Step by step Colban continued backing away from him. His shrinking and his blinking only roiled up Malcolm’s anger at the world.
“What do you want? You want me to go back there and ask her?” Malcolm pointed at the door with an arm that was shaking with outrage. “You want us to turn around and go back and find them? ’Tisn’t too late. Not a week will we be needing to catch up with them. Eh, lad?”
Colban finally stood his ground and cried, “I didn’t say that!”
Malcolm shouted back at him, “Then what in the devil are you saying?”
Colban hunched up his shoulders to protect his head, making himself look smaller and frailer than ever. His chest was still skinny, though it would not be so in a year; and the candle cast a rounded shadow that called to mind his little well-fed six-year-old’s potbelly.
Malcolm’s indignant anger dissolved at the sight of him. This was his wee lad, with his big, wounded eyes; and the soft, bare brown skin and glossy black hair Malcolm had always ached to cuddle and scarcely ever dared. He had not even been allowed to call the boy his son in those days.
Now he was his father before the world, he reminded himself, and a father was supposed to figure out what the devil his son was trying to tell him without being told.
Malcolm dropped to one knee before him, and was surprised to see how tall the lad became.
“Listen to me, Colban,” he said, speaking as he did to frightened foals. “Do you want me to get a mother for you?”
Colban folded his arms across his skinny chest, putting up a barrier between himself and his father’s head. “I never said that.”
“I know you didn’t. I’m asking you, do you want that?”
“Would you do that?”
“Do you want that?”
There was no tipping his chin down to a man who was kneeling below the level of his chin, so Colban simply turned his face aside. “I never start wanting a thing unless I’m knowing it’s a thing I might hope to have.”
“I’m asking you, do you want that?”
The softer Malcolm made his voice, the harsher Colban’s grew. “And I’m asking you, would you do that for me if I did?”
Malcolm laid his forehead against the back of Colban’s arm, afraid to meet his icy stare, afraid to answer his question.
But what would it matter now? In a way, marriage had lost its power to repulse him. It scarcely mattered whether he kept to himself or kept himself to another. Open or shut his heart was an empty box. There was nothing left to rob.
There was nothing left but his love for Colban, like a lining of solid gold, and no woman could come between him and his son.
Malcolm looked up, and his heart throbbed—as it had only a few times in his life—with a love that hurt as much as loss.
“I would do anything for you, my treasure.”
Only love me, he added in his thoughts.
“Anything?” Colban asked coldly.
Malcolm grew wary. His boy was clever, and Malcolm was fairly certain that even the best father did, for his child’s own welfare, occasionally have to say No.
“Eh, now,” he said, chuckling awkwardly. “I suppose if you were asking me, could you have pudding every day for breakfast, I would still make you eat your porridge. So no.”
Colban hurriedly pursed his lips, but it was too late to hide the smile at the corners of his mouth.
“Could I have pudding after my porridge?”
“If you’re still hungry after your porridge I’m thinking it means you haven’t eaten enough porridge.”
Colban finally laughed and ruffled Malcolm’s hair. Malcolm considered himself both forgiven and dismissed and got up off the floor. His knees sent out a last spark of pain to indicate their relief.
“Ach, I’m not wanting a mother,” Colban said, his voice soft and childish again. “I’m almost a man anyway. There’s no point now. It’s as a friend I’m liking Nora, and she needn’t be married to my father for that. I was only thinking, if worst came to worst it would have been a noble thing to do. I’d have married her myself if I’d been a little older. Besides, she’s far too young for you.”
Malcolm sighed. Gunnora was twenty-two.
“But would you really marry her if I asked you to?”
“I’d have to be asking her, too, you know. Mayhap she wouldn’t have me.”
“But would you?”
Malcolm tried to turn away from him, but Colban followed and popped up in front of him again.
“If I asked you?”
Malcolm grabbed Colban by his shoulder to stop his wriggling. “Laddie, do not be making me answer your ‘would yous.’ Marriage is a sacrament, and like the name of the Lord, ’tis a word that should never be taken lightly. Save it for your ‘will yous,’ if you please.”
“Ach! All right,” Colban said as he wandered off to his little shadow-boxing ring. “I only wondered. I couldn’t believe you would do something like that for me.”
“Ach! Couldn’t you?” Malcolm was hurt, and he did not know why. “What wouldn’t I do for you? Besides giving you pudding for breakfast. I only want you to be happy, lad. You’re my only son.”
Colban whipped around as suddenly as Malcolm had a few moments before. “Am I?” he asked. His cherubic stare was more terrible than a snarl.
Malcolm was aghast. They had never spoken of this before. On the contrary, Colban deftly turned the subject from any hint of the matter, even in the abstract.
Malcolm’s mouth was suddenly parched, and he grabbed the cup beside him to wet his tongue. It was all but empty, and he could only pretend to take a drink; lipping desperately after the last clinging drops would only have made him look like a bigger fool.
He put down the cup and turned back to his unblinking son.
“That’s… a little different.”
Colban shot back, “Why?”
“I’m just another one of your bastards, aren’t I?”
In a matter of seconds Colban’s innocent little face was hardening to the sardonic stare of a man’s, sneering with his thick, black brows. “Not even the oldest or the youngest, I’m thinking.”
“No! That’s nothing alike!”
“Why not? Because my mother was a queen?”
“Why? Because you loved her?”
“No! Or… aye, but—”
Something ugly flickered over Colban’s defiant expression, quick as the crack of a whip. Malcolm did not know what it was, but he knew just as suddenly that what he had said was not even true.
Malcolm grabbed his boy’s arm and hung on through Colban’s first indignant jerks. Something important was slipping away from the two of them—Malcolm did not know what it was, either—but he saw it disappearing like a snake tail into the grass, and he snatched at it and held on, speaking faster than he could think.
“No! Listen here. I don’t know why it’s different, but it is. And it’s nothing to do with your mother. This thing is between you and me.”
Colban stopped struggling and stared at him. He tipped his chin down, as ever, but there was nothing babyish about his face now.
“Listen. Your mother told me you were coming before you were here. And I was curious about you, a little, just as I’m a little curious about the others, and I wish them well, and so on. But when I held you… the first time I held you…”
Malcolm shivered. He could never hope to explain what he could not even comprehend himself.
“…a part of me fell into you forever. I’m not knowing how else to say it, treasure. Something happened that night. The very earth cracked beneath my feet, and the window shattered, and all the people woke for miles around, and it would not surprise me a whit to learn it was because I loved you so hard all of a sudden.”
Colban’s face was still angry, but his mouth was so stern and his forehead so wrinkled that Malcolm began to understand he was only putting on an angry face to hide some other face beneath.
Malcolm released Colban’s arm and stroked his hand over his boy’s glossy, freshly-brushed hair.
“I don’t know why it was so with you and no other, any more than I know why a body may hold a hundred different women in his arms before he finds the one he’ll love forever.”
Colban twitched away from his hand, and another glimpse of that ugliness crossed his face. It looked almost like pain.
Malcolm wondered what manner of beast lurked in his boy to break the surface with such a flash of scales. There was something Colban was not telling him, and as a father he was supposed to figure out what the devil it was.
The first time it had been at a mention of the lad’s mother. The second time when he spoke of… a hundred different women? Was he jealous of the women? And yet he would have welcomed Gunnora into their lives. Malcolm did not understand.
“It’s not only your sire I am, but your father. I’ll grant you I’m a rather poor one. But you’re my only son, and you’ll never know how much I love you ere you have a son of your own. You’re the most important thing in the world to me.”
“You are! By God, you are. Smack me if I’m seeming to forget it.”
“Swear it. Swear I’m the most important person in the world to you.”
Malcolm laughed in astonishment. “I swear it, lad!”
“Swear I’m the most important person in the world to you, alive or dead.”
Malcolm nearly laughed again, but his boy’s face was so piercingly grave. This, perhaps, was what Colban had been trying to ask him, with his tests of how much his father would do for him, his jealousy of the women, and his questions about his shadowy half-siblings.
And Malcolm realized that this too, like the sacrament of marriage and the name of the Lord, was a solemn thing, and not to be spoken lightly. But it was true.
“Colban, you are the most important person in the world to me, alive or dead. On the Cross do I swear.”
Malcolm made the sign of the Cross between them. Then he took his boy by the shoulders and stooped almost to his height.
“Your father’s seven blessings on you, my son.”
He kissed both of his boy’s cheeks, and reminded himself that there would only be a finite number of kisses remaining him before those soft brown cheeks would be angular and bristly, and Colban would have grown away from him for good.
Colban did not pull his head away nor wipe his face indignantly as he usually did when he was kissed. He even smiled. Malcolm was touched. And then Colban’s smile sharpened and his eyes flashed with mirth and cunning.
“My father,” he whispered lovingly, “may I have pudding for breakfast on Sundays?”