Flann leaned heavily on the handle as she closed the door.

Flann leaned heavily on the handle as she closed the door. The taper was lit before the little icon, and she grimaced in a spasm of shame. She was only an ordinary woman, but he…

“I… I hope I did not disturb you in your prayers,” she faltered.

He turned abruptly to her, pulled her close, and kissed her before he spoke a word.

He turned to her and kissed her before he spoke a word.

His beard smelled like incense, and she felt sick and dizzy as she always did during Mass, as she always did when she kissed him. She felt weak and humble and sacred as she always did in church, as she always did in his arms. She felt her heart rejoicing.

“I was only reading a letter,” he murmured. “It’s waiting for you I was, my treasure.”

'It's waiting for you I was.'

His voice was gentler than a woman’s – as gentle as a mother’s. It was no wonder that all the people loved him. The wonder was that he loved her.

She smiled at him, and then she turned her face away, embarrassed to smile so broadly and be unable to stop it.

He kissed the cheek that was turned to him and stroked a hand down the other – a soft hand that had never worked and never wielded a weapon – and down her neck, and down her throat to the first hook of her cloak.

She took a step away from him.

She took a step away from him and began unhooking it herself, laughing awkwardly. He took a step after her that swallowed up the space she had tried to put between them, but he did not touch her again.

“How are you?” he asked with the anxious gentleness of a mother. “You seemed unwell at dinner today.”

'How are you?'

She did not want to tell the truth and she did not want to lie. She turned away with a brittle laugh and dropped her cloak on the chair. “I suppose Alred’s cook is a little rich for my tastes.”

As soon as she turned back he caught her in his arms, less a mother than a playful lover. “Now, I’ve taken a vow of poverty, so I’m not rich in the least, and nevertheless you aren’t looking all that canty.”

'I'm not rich in the least, and nevertheless you aren't looking all that canty.'

She laughed another brittle, jagged-​​edged laugh, trying to please him, trying to fool him.

“Come, my treasure.” He was not fooled. “It’s the light heart of you I’m needing tonight.

“Are you sad?”

“Sad!” His eyebrows lifted ironically, and he gave her a smile that was something more than sad.


“Worse than sad?” she offered.

“My treasure, I’ve read that letter over and again, forwards and backwards and sideways, but there’s no help for it. Either I’m going to Rome or it’s to Rome I’m going, but what’s certain is I must leave you for a time.”

“Rome?” she whispered. But it was the words “for a time” that echoed in her mind.

“Whisht!” He caressed her cheek again, and then turned her face to him to kiss her.

He turned her face to him to kiss her.

Her heart called up a protest from the bottom of the pit into which he had tossed it, but she let him kiss her for a while. She thought she could use the delay to think of what she could say, but she found she could not think at all. There was only her heart pounding out “for a time… for a time…”

His hand slid up between them to tug at the laces of her gown.

Flann pulled back her head and stepped away. She had always been too embarrassed to stand still and let him undress her as he seemed to want to do, but now she also wanted the delay and the distraction of undressing herself. She would use that time to think of what she could say, and given the trembling of her wretched hands, the time would be long.

“Tell me, my treasure,” he murmured. “Is ‘sad’ the word?”

'Is 'sad' the word?'

She looked up from her laces. “No.”

“Do you have nothing to ask me?” he prompted after a while.

“I’m trying to think of a better word than ‘sad’.” Her attempt at a laugh spluttered off into a sob.

“Whisht!” He laid his hand on her cheek. He did not merely stroke it once and drop his arm; instead he held his hand there, caressing the side of her nose with his thumb and the wisp of hair beside her ear with his fingertips.

She felt awkward and embarrassed undressing in front of him when he stood so: close enough to touch, but not touching her anywhere besides her cheek. And as she crouched and bobbed to remove kirtle and chemise and underskirt, always his hand stayed with her, until she felt that she herself was nothing but an extension of his arm.

It was not until she reached her shift, which had to come off over her head, that he lifted his hand. Then, as she pulled it off, he turned away from her. This was a relief at first, but he stood with his back to her as he undressed himself, and this seemed somehow unfair. However, when he turned to her again, she saw why.

'My love--wait--'

“My love – wait – ” she gasped, but he hooked an arm around her waist and pulled her against him.

The room was cold, and it seemed doubly so to her, who had just stepped out of her heavy winter garments. The sudden heat of his skin shocked a moan out of her, and with this encouragement his body twined around hers like a snake, his neck around her neck, his arms around her back, and even one of his legs around her leg, tipping her off-​​balance so that she had to cling to him to keep from falling.

She had to cling to him to keep from falling.

She turned her mouth away from his. “My love!”

She dared not call him Brude because he was a priest, and she dared not call him Father because he was her lover. She only ever called him “my love” when they were alone together, and now she found she could not even make a protest without telling him she loved him.

But he lifted his head, and he held her as gently as a mother holds her child. He caressed her cheek again, and she was no longer afraid.

He caressed her cheek again, and she was no longer afraid.

“Forgive me,” he murmured. “Did you think of a word?”

“A word?”

“Truer than ‘sad’?”


“What do you think of ‘broken-​​hearted’?”

“That’s… true…”

“But I shall return, my treasure. I hope before the snows fall next winter.”

She pursed her lips to prevent them from quivering. That was not nearly soon enough.

She pursed her lips to prevent them from quivering.

“You don’t believe me?” he asked.

She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t even look at him. She would be alone.

He laid a hand on her hip, curled his fingers around the jut of her hipbone as he liked to do, and then slid it down, dragging his thumb down into the sensitive curve of her groin. The skin of her belly tried to twitch away from his touch.

“Father!” she cried, finally frightened into breaking her own rule.

“Flann!” His arms tightened around her. It felt like he had caught her, so she was led to believe that she had been falling.

“Now, talk to me, my treasure,” he murmured. “Say what you want to say. I’m listening.”

His voice was gently indulgent, like that of a priest listening to a confession – or would have seemed so, except for the light kisses he trailed across her nose and brow and cheek as he spoke.

His voice was gently indulgent.

“I don’t know what I shall do without you,” she quavered.

“Nor do I.”

“No! I mean…”

“I shall return.”

“No! I mean – that’s not – ”

He tried to kiss her again, but she pulled her head away, though not so far that she would be obliged to look him in the eyes.

'It's pregnant I am.'

“It’s pregnant I am,” she blurted.

She had not noticed that both his hands were slowly stroking her until they stopped. She waited for him to speak.

“Did you hear?” she asked when he did not.

“Aye, my treasure.” He spoke with the tenderness of a parent disillusioning a child. “But I think it’s mistaken you are.”

“I don’t!” Her simmering outrage was an unexpected source of strength. “It’s nearly a month I’ve waited for my troubles, and still I wait!”


“Don’t act as if it can’t happen! I tried that, and it happened anyway,” she pouted.

His gaze only lightly brushed her cheek as he stared off over her shoulder.

His gaze only lightly brushed her cheek as he stared off over her shoulder.

She realized he must have been looking at the candle that burned before the tiny crucifix, and she sobbed in shame.

His arms tightened protectively around her. “Has someone hurt you, my beloved one?”

“What?” she gasped. “That’s not – what’s–wrong!

“Did someone come to you in your bed, pretending to be me?”

“What? No!”

“Did I ever come to you in your bed?”

“No! What – what do you mean? I sleep with my sister, anyway!”

His brows lowered, darkening his cloud-​​gray eyes.

“What don’t you understand?” she asked. “It happened here. It was you. Don’t you understand how babies are made?”

He stepped away from her until the only contact between them was the hand that he held. The air of the room was a shock of cold to her skin.

He stepped away from her.

“Aye, my treasure. I did not think of this.”

“What shall we do?”

To her relief he did not attempt to extract himself from the “we”.

“I must think of this now,” he said, “since I did not before. You must be protected, if this is true.”

“I am not lying!”

“Whisht!” He tugged on her hand, and she did not resist. He led her to the bench, and she let him pull her down onto his lap. If only he would lead, if only he would show her what to do, she would be glad to follow.

He led her to the bench, and she let him pull her down onto his lap.

“I don’t say you lie, but I do think you may be mistaken.”

“I only hope so,” she whispered.

“Don’t worry yet.”

She so longed to believe him that she was almost willing to overlook what her body was telling her. But he was a man; his assurances rang hollow to her woman’s ears.

He kissed her and caressed her, and she began to fear that he was no longer thinking of her trouble.

He kissed her and caressed her.

“What shall I do?” she asked.

He leaned back his head and looked up at her. “You shall wait, and not worry.”

“But how can I – ”

“Whisht! I shall do the worrying.”

He pulled her head down onto his shoulder, and her face sank into his wiry red hair. It smelled of incense, and it rasped her cheek as incense rasped her throat. She closed her eyes, sick and dizzy again, and tried to breathe his hair.

She closed her eyes, sick and dizzy again, and tried to breathe his hair.

With the fingers of his left hand he traced circles on her back, soothing her and distracting her. Meanwhile he slid the other hand between them, and though it was far too early for him to have felt anything, he stroked his hand down her belly, so lightly that she could feel the wiry red hair on the backs of his fingers tickling her skin.

That touch made her feel almost sacred. She could almost believe her body a tabernacle. She could almost believe such a man could sense some sign that she could not, as bright as a red lantern to him whose eyes were daily turned to holy things, telling him what was within.

That touch made her feel almost sacred.

She waited for him to make a pronouncement, but he only slid his hand farther down her belly, down until his fingers were lost in the wiry dark hair below.

She could not even protest without telling him she loved him, so she said nothing. He only whispered, “My treasure…” and tipped her back onto the cushions.

It seemed a foolish thing to do, if he truly believed she was mistaken. She could not be mistaken forever. But she did not believe she was, and so she did not think it mattered. She was weak and humble and happy in his arms.

She was weak and humble and happy in his arms.