'Ach, Flann.'

“Ach, Flann,” Maire said gently as she waddled into the hall. “I didn’t know you were here.”

She stopped some distance behind him, for there was something intimidating about the silhouette before the fire. Even at rest, her husband’s boisterous cousin usually stood with a playful tilt to his body, as if he might break into a dance at any moment.

This straight-​​backed, proud-​​headed Flann could only be an angry Flann.

“Have you spoken to your daughters?” she asked.

The head turned, and even before she recognized it, something about the profile caused her heart to leap painfully.

The head turned.

“Forgive me, Maire,” Malcolm said. “Aengus told me you were napping, else I would not have been here.”

Maire opened her mouth but found it too dry to permit her to speak.

“Flann is having a word with his girls. Aengus said I might warm my knees in the hall as easily as cool my heels in the stable.”

“Of course,” she murmured.

She did not think she had said more than seven words to him in the last seven years. She felt a queer panic at the thought that she had just wasted two of the words allotted her for the next seven.

He turned his body towards her, and it seemed an invitation for her to approach. She did, slowly, laboring under the weight of her babies and her sorrows as she had been for weeks.

She did, slowly.

“Allow me to take the opportunity to tell you I was grieved to learn of your loss.”

She dipped her head in acknowledgement.

Every facet of his voice bore the polish of one accustomed to speaking to kings, deceiving enemies, and seducing women, but she knew he was being sincere. He had never cared enough to try to be convincing when he lied to her.

“Perhaps I should have sent the message by way of my cousin,” he said. “But I did not know whether you would wish to hear such a thing from me.”

“It means more to hear you say it.”

He bowed his head and then folded his arms across his chest.

He bowed his head and then folded his arms across his chest.

Maire’s heart leapt cruelly again before she quite understood why. Then she became aware of the ring on his left hand.

“Have you married again?” she murmured dazedly. Had everyone decided to keep it from her?

'Have you married again?'

His gaze followed hers down to his hand and, startled, he jerked his arms away and to his side again. He blinked twice rapidly as he sought to recover his poise, and then a strange smile began to grow at the corner of his mouth.

He tapped his chin thoughtfully with the fingers of his left hand, but she knew it was only an excuse to show off the ring again.

He tapped his chin thoughtfully with his fingers.

“That depends on whom you ask.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t you recognize it, Maire?” He wielded against her the thin smile that had always cut her like a blade. “It’s your own self gave it to me.”

“You’re still wearing my ring?” she gasped. Her heart pounded in outrage, pumping a hot flush into her cheeks.

'You're still wearing my ring?'

“It’s your father decided we were never married. I was never consulted.”

“How dare you?” She whispered so as not to shout. “How dare you flaunt that – that – before everyone?”

He lifted his head and stared down at her.

Maire wielded a steel-​​bladed smile of her own. “You’re a man can forgive many things, Malcolm son of Colban, but you never will forgive me for not wanting you.”

He snorted.

He snorted. “It’s you who haven’t yet forgiven me for not wanting you.

“I couldn’t care less.”

He nodded slowly, agreeing with himself. “I can forgive you, Maire. It was only just, what happened. I loved another man’s wife. To punish me, my wife loved another man. To punish her, her husband loved another woman. What’s next, Maire daughter of Aed? We need a man for your husband’s elf-​​woman to love.”

'We need a man for your husband's elf-woman to love.'

“Are you volunteering?” she sneered.

“No. That would be an odd turning-​​about of things, would it not?” he chuckled softly. “Would it start all over again? I wonder…”

Maire scowled at him, her hands clenched into little fists, slicing into themselves with their own nails. Though it seemed a shame to waste her life’s one great passion on hating a man, never had she loved anything or anyone as much as she hated this one.

Never had she loved anything or anyone as much as she hated this one.

“But I think Aengus loves you, and – more to the point – he feels remorseful over what he has done, which I do not think you ever did. It might be crueler to him if you were to be loving another man. Certainly it would have more of an effect on him than it did on me. You might find it worthwhile this time.”

“Are you volunteering?” Her low voice trembled in fury.

“That would be quite a turning-​​about,” he laughed.

“Bastard,” she hissed.

“Ach, Maire!” he sighed. “To the man who still wears your ring, no less.”

'To the man who still wears your ring, no less.'

“I demand you remove it!”

“‘Let not man put asunder,’” he reminded her, smiling. “Not even Aed.”

“It is an insult upon my head! If you still wear that ring it is to call me a harlot and my children the daughters of harlotry. Don’t be pretending you love me and want me after all these years. When God knows you never did!” She nearly sobbed.

'When God knows you never did!'

“Ach, Maire!” He shook his head sadly. “I believe that is what you can’t forgive.”

She steadied her voice by making it vicious. “Bastard!”

“I told you I would never love you. You heeded not my warning, so certain you were you could make me. That is what you can’t forgive, Maire. A man who wouldn’t let you have your way.”

Maire was too upset to summon the sharp-​​edged smile, but she could lance hatred at him from the depths of her eyes.

“Bastard!” she whispered.


“But it’s a good husband you’ve chosen for yourself in Aengus,” he smiled. “You can have your way with a man who feels as remorseful as he. Which, God knows, I never did.”

She smiled with a savage irony of her own.

'Good evening, Maire.'

He bowed suddenly, and when he spoke again he had taken up the genteel voice he used for speaking with kings, though not for seducing ladies.

“Good evening, Maire. Kindly tell Flann I walked back. I seem to have scorched my knees with waiting.”

He turned away from her with his customary, catlike grace.

When he saw she would offer no reply, he turned away from her with his customary, catlike grace. He was so tall that she could almost see his body spiraling from the ground up: first his legs turned, then his hips, then his shoulders, and lastly his proud head.

The ring flashed as it passed before the firelight.

The ring flashed as it passed before the firelight, and he walked out, still graceful even with his slight limp.

Maire picked at the underside of Aengus’s ring with her thumbnail. She had cast the ring Malcolm had given her into a pond. She knew she would never find it again. She had tried.

She knew she would never find it again.