She could still see him, his little face pale against the gray-blue sky, strands of hair working loose and whipping around his head in the stiffer wind of the open sea.
Feet sinking into the damp sand, she stood at the water’s edge as far out as she could without the inrolling waves wetting more than the toes of her boots. In the boat Colm’s red-brown hair marked him out but only in her mind could she see the freckles sprinkled across his nose and still baby-round cheeks. They made him seem younger than he was. Which was young enough.
The longboat reached the current. At the shipmaster’s signal the slaves lifted their oars and set them inside the boat.
Her husband had not come to see the boy off. Fostering was an innovation of the High King; it would not do for an under-king to be seen wet-eyed, and the whispers that would follow that he did not approve of the new system. Otho had taken leave privately as a father, publicly as king, and remained in the castle. But they had decided no one could take it amiss if the Queen watched his departure, even damp-stricken. There were some privileges of motherhood.
The boat began to follow the current, the distant shapes blurring. She knew which Colm was only because he was smallest.
It was not that she disapproved of fostering. It was surely easier for a boy to learn to be a warrior away from those who could recall when he played barefoot in the dirt.
Knowing that did not make it easier to let him go.
He was eleven; he looked eight, with his full, freckled cheeks, dimples welling when he smiled, as he did often. Why shouldn’t he? He was indulged by his parents and the entire household, more so because attention had not spoiled him. He was polite to the servants and worshipped the warriors, and they, in turn, adored him. He did not filch treats from the kitchen; in consequence, he was given them.
Which was why he had to leave. How could he learn to be a warrior here? He had some skills already; training with the knife began as soon as a boy was old enough to grasp the hilt. But who could cross swords with him in earnest, hit hard enough to bloody his nose, when for more than a decade he had been everyone’s little brother? He was a prince; he would fight, and fight often. She would have him survive. She wanted him to be a warrior talented, shrewd, and subtle, as much as she had wanted it for his brothers.
Eleven seemed younger than it had when her eldest left for his fostering.
It was not that she distrusted his foster lord. He was her brother; she knew he would care for his nephew yet be able to give him the training he needed.
The current must have been swift. The boat would not be in sight much longer.
Nor did she mislike his guardian for the trip. Murrow was second son of the High King and had fostered with her brother as well. Her heart had eased, as much as might be, watching his manner with the boy: talking about what lay ahead, telling stories of his own foster years, joking that Colm could not possibly be a more doltish fosterling than he had been, claiming to have been such an inept student that he’d been knocked out every week for a year by the swordmaster.
It was the world itself she distrusted, and the precariousness of children within it. Of six children, they had already lost two; their second son had died of the green cough when he was three, their only daughter of a fever before a year old. A year did not pass but that some child from the city drowned in the sea or the river. Disease and mischance stalked the lives of all children. The offspring of kings faced other dangers: those who would not shrink from killing a child in their efforts to seize power or clear a path for their own children. When warriors went to battle, some would not return, but they faced open danger: swords, knives, axes, spears. Children walked each day through an unseen cloud of peril.
She had held her boy as he coughed more and more weakly. Wretched as it had been, how much more dreadful for Colm to be ill and her not there, for him to die away from home, to not know until days or weeks later, to learn that he had called for her and she had not been there.
The longboat was so far out that someone sighting it for the first time might not recognize it. It could be a distant rock, or even a high crest in the water. But she could still see it.
By the time the boat had pushed off the tremor had left Colm’s lower lip. Murrow’s stories were working; the boy was thinking about where he was going rather than what he was leaving. She would not forget the prince’s subtle kindness. But she found her misery increasing as her son’s lifted. She did not want Colm to leave quelling sobs. Except maybe she did. To have him go was difficult. To not be missed, unendurable.
She knew he would long for home in the days to come. But he was a child, and children by nature look forward. Unless he became ill — please mercy that he would not — he would be so busy that he would think of home less and less as the months drew on. That was another part of motherhood, that she would mourn his absence more than he would hers.
It was mourning, this leaving. Even if he remained well, learned as he should, and returned at the end of his foster years, she would never see this bright-eyed child again. A tall stranger with Colm’s name would step from the longboat. A prince eager to take his place beside his father and brothers. Another soul to fret for when the drums called.
The boat was gone now.
She watched a while longer, but it did not return. She stepped back. A moment later she turned and began the slow walk up to the castle.