Maire was trying to convince herself that she was hearing only the ordinary creaking of her house.

Maire was trying to convince herself that she was hearing only the ordinary creaking of her house. The previous days had been stormy, but that afternoon the wind had blown up from the south and chased the clouds away. The sound, she told herself, was only the sound of damp floorboards drying.

Her self protested that the sound came only from the boards directly over the window across the room, and she countered that it was because the ceiling there was particularly damp, and she had an especially hot fire in her room to replace the warmth of her husband’s body – though it pained her to admit it, even to herself.

But she had nothing to say to herself when she realized that she was hearing not only the evenly-​​spaced creaks of someone attempting to tread softly on a noisy floor, but also the occasional sound of boots scuffing over wood.

Directly over her head was a room reserved for guests, and they had no guests that night.

Directly over her head was a room reserved for guests, and they had no guests that night.

She tried half-​​heartedly to tell herself that it was only one of the servants bumping around, not because she did not want to get up to see, but because she did not want to be disappointed when she did. She had spent so many nights listening and had risen so many times at the merest tap or clink – anything that might have meant a door opening and Aengus coming home… Aengus unbuckling his belt and taking off his sword… Aengus creeping in to check on the girls before coming in to her…

She did not want to be disappointed when she did.

She never bothered to take a robe or cloak, and once she made up her mind to go, she always ran. Her bare feet slapping across the floorboards would have woken anyone below. If they had had an unexpected, late-​​arriving guest, she might easily have caught him naked that night, for she flung open the door to the guest room without knocking.

It was her long-​​expected, late-​​arriving husband.

It was her long-expected, late-arriving husband.

Her voice caught in her throat, but his name came up in a whisper: “Aengus!”

He turned to her and gave her a weary smile. He stood before the mirror, but she could not imagine what he had been doing all this time, if he could have creaked and scuffed for so long and still be in such a state. His clothing was filthy and caked with dried earth, and his hands and face were dark with dirt.

His hands and face were dark with dirt.

“What are you doing?” she asked, as if it mattered.

He waved a grubby hand at the bits of leaves and snarls of hair scattered on the small table before him. “Combing my hair,” he said. His voice was not working properly, either, and the words came out in a croak.

“Aengus!” She opened her arms to him, but he only straightened and stayed before the mirror.


“Aye, Maire.”

“Aengus!” She crossed the room, stepping carefully over the creaking floor so as not to wake her sleeping self below from this beautiful dream.

“Aye, Maire. Careful now,” he cautioned as she approached. “I’m a walking rubbish heap.”

'I'm a walking rubbish heap.'

“It’s no matter!”

Dare she touch him? Would she not wake? She could not help it! Her husband! She stood on her toes and nearly knocked him against the wall when she fell against him and squeezed his shoulders with all the strength of her arms.

“Ach, Maire!” He patted her back awkwardly with his dirty hands. “Your poor white gown!”

She could not laugh fast enough.

“It’s no matter! I shall take it off!” She could not laugh fast enough. Her giddy giggles were like the chittering of birds. “Aengus!”

“Ach, Maire.” He leaned his head against hers and took a deep breath. “Your hair smells so sweet… so dark…”

“What happened to your voice? Where have you been?”

He slid his hands down to her hips and gently pushed her away.

He slid his hands down to her hips and gently pushed her away. The question seemed to have pained him, and the look on his face pained her. She was suddenly reminded of the most popular theory explaining her husband’s disappearance: many suspected that he had simply found a girl he liked and run off with her. He had done it once before, they said.

They had forgotten that Maire had been the married one at that time. Aengus had in no way proven he could leave a wife and children, even for love. But the pain on his face, the regret in his eyes seemed to tell her he could, if only for a while.

'But it's no matter!'

“But it’s no matter!” she blurted. “You needn’t say if you don’t like. It’s no matter, love. I shall never ask you again. It’s come home you are. That’s all that matters.”

She lifted her face to him and tried to kiss him, but he turned his head away.

'No, love, not yet.'

“No, love, not yet,” he said. “You don’t know what I’ve been eating lately. Let me wash my mouth and bathe before I touch you, won’t you?”

“Of course.” She forced a smile.

“But I shall tell you where I’ve been, though I don’t quite know myself. I was coming home along the path when the horse threw me…”

“He came home without you that night.”

'Ach, feckless beast!'

“Ach, feckless beast! Wish I’d had a dog. I don’t know what happened then, Maire. I must have been knocked out, but when I woke I was far from the path, in a maple wood in the hills. I was in a deep pit in the ground. All full of leaves and rubbish and a – a skeleton.”

Maire gasped.

“It was a sort of dungeon in the woods, love. With a roof that kept me in but didn’t keep the rain out. And so someone must have taken me there, but I don’t know who.”

“Couldn’t you climb out somehow?”

'Couldn't you climb out somehow?'

“I tried, Maire. For two weeks I tried to dig and climb and build and anything I could to get out. And I would still be there if a pair of elves hadn’t found me. Last night a few wolves found me there, and I think the elves must have wolves as we men have dogs, for tonight those wolves led two elves to the spot, and they were quite tame with them. And the elves helped me out, and… and one of them brought me home. On the other’s horse. They have horses, Maire. Fine horses…”

Maire did not care about the horses. “Elves? The elves who attacked Malcolm and stole baby Donnchad?”

'I don't know, Maire.'

“I don’t know, Maire. I don’t know anything,” he mumbled. His shoulders sagged, and his hair hung over his face, and even his lower lip seemed to droop in weariness. “Perhaps they’re the same ones who put me in there. Perhaps the two tonight were different. Or perhaps they’re all the same, and they simply decided to let me go after two weeks. I don’t know.”

“Didn’t they say? Didn’t they talk to you?”

“They claimed not to know. They only said it was the wolves who led them to me.”

“Oh, Aengus,” she whispered. The hair on her neck prickled as the horror of what he was not telling her began to sink into her mind. “Two weeks in a pit? How big was it? What did you – what did you eat?”

'What did you--what did you eat?'

“Raw meat and blood, mostly, Maire. Maire…”

He stopped and stared down at the hands he held out between them. His dusty palms were seamed with darker dirt, his fingertips cut and bruised, and several of his fingernails were black. His arms trembled, and he was holding them before him as if to warn her away. His battered hands seemed to tell an entire story in themselves.

'Maire, I can't talk about it yet.'

“Maire, I can’t talk about it yet. I can’t touch you yet. I’d meant to bathe and eat and sleep a while, and go to you in the morning. May I do that?”

“Of course.”

'Of course.'

“Don’t worry, love.” His smile wavered and scarcely crinkled the corners of his eyes. “Sleep now. You’ll sleep, won’t you? I won’t run away in the night. I promise.”

'I won't run away in the night.  I promise.'