“Friend?” Cat whimpered, forgetting his name for a moment in her confusion and her fright.

“It’s only I, Mina,” he murmured. “Go back to sleep.”

His dark form passed before the fireplace and then disappeared.

“Paul?” she squealed and sat up.

A fringe of light suddenly appeared near the floor, a halo in his blond hair. He had only knelt to rouse the dying fire.

He had only knelt to rouse the dying fire.

“Sleep, Mina. Don’t let me wake you.”

“But I wasn’t sleeping,” she mumbled, though she was confused enough that she suspected she had been. “Where have you been?”

Her mother had always warned her that this was among the phrases one did not speak to a man if one wished to have a happy marriage. However, her father could have sought nothing worse than mead or maidens in his nighttime rovings. Cat did not think the old rules applied to her and Paul.

“I was with the Abbot,” he muttered and turned away to begin undressing.

'I was with the Abbot.'

“All evening? Half the – how late is it?”

“I left him so he could prepare for Matins. It is not quite midnight.”

“All this time?”

“You may ask him tomorrow if you don’t believe me,” he said sullenly.

“I believe you, Paul,” Cat murmured. “I only wonder what you could have been doing with a priest for hours and hours.”

He stood for a moment with his shirt in his hands. She saw only the slender white back of him, and the firelit gold of his hair on his head and neck and shoulders.

He stood for a moment with his shirt in his hands.

Then he tossed his shirt down and went to work on his leggings.

“What have you been doing this day, my own love?” she asked him: another question a wise wife was not to ask. “It’s not a word your father was telling me. He only said you would wish to speak with me when you returned.”

She watched him undress, and then he pulled a heavy deerskin out of the chest and tossed it onto the floor before the fire. She was not angered by his refusal to speak, for something about the way he moved told her he merely wished to finish what he was doing first. She did not need her mother to know it would have been unwise to press him then.

He kicked out a fold of the skin and planted his bare feet in the center of it. The firelight shivered over his bare calves and his bare back, and it illuminated the ends of his lank hair and even the long point of his ear beneath. Cat was reminded that she had not married a man, and that nothing her mother had told her might avail her in any case.

His hollow voice and his inhuman accent frightened her.

“Today I committed murder,” he said grimly. “This evening I confessed my sin, and tonight I begin my penance. I have not been worthy of the miracle that restored my sight, and I have not been worthy of you, either. That is not what my father thought I would say, but that is what I have said.”

Cat scarcely heard anything after the word “murder”.

Such a crime on the part of the imposing, alien creature before her would not have surprised her. But this was the same creature who bleated like a goat and made fun of himself to make her sister laugh; who kissed baby Benedict until he squealed; who held her close at night with only her nightgown and the bed sheet between them, and who woke her when she dreamed, and who kissed away her tears when she cried. She could not understand.

When she did not respond, he turned towards the fire and folded his legs to sit before it. His body drooped, and then he looked a little more like her Paul.

His body drooped, and then he looked a little more like her Paul.

“I must fast for three years,” he said dreamily, “and if can find a way to recompense the family of the elf I killed, then I may fast half as long. I must abstain from meat on Fridays for all the rest of my life. And I may not lie with my wife until the Feast of the Ascension, two moons hence.”

He turned his head slightly as he spoke the last, as if he wanted to see her face, but she stood too far behind him, and he did not twist his neck.

“But all that is nothing. That was what the little book said was just penance for the sin of murder committed out of revenge.” He lifted his hand and said pleadingly, “Come sit beside me, Mina, if you aren’t frightened of me.”

She took the hand he offered, but he led her around behind him to sit on his right. It was the right side of his face that was hidden by his hair.

It was the right side of his face that was hidden by his hair.

“I committed a sin out of wrath,” he said. “The Abbot says that wrath is nothing but a love of justice twisted into something evil by the devil.”

Cat stared with a horrified fascination at the fair hair on his forearm, which glittered like a web of spun gold in the firelight. Her people were so dark that he seemed almost translucent to her, and all the more alien for it.

He seemed almost translucent to her, and all the more alien for it.

“But justice is not for men or elves to do,” he murmured. “My penance is easy, but my true task seems impossible to me. The Abbot says that I sinned out of wrath, and so I must learn forbearance and forgiveness. I told him he might ask a fish to fly.”

She laid her hand on his arm. It was only because she could no longer bear that unholy sparkling, and she almost expected to be burned by it. But when she touched him she felt only his skin, the muscles and bones beneath, and the ordinary warmth of his body. He was only a living elf, only her husband.

But when she touched him she felt only his skin.

“With God, all things are possible,” she said hoarsely.

She thought she saw him smile behind the veil of hair. “That is what the Abbot said to me. But I think God Himself or one of His angels will have to come to stand between me and the Lar-​​elf if ever we meet. I do not know how I could look that devil in the eye and say ‘I forgive you.’”

Cat squeezed his arm ever more tightly as he spoke, until he pulled it away from her to lay it over her back.

He pulled it away from her to lay it over her back.

“But I would slay him at once if he ever came to hurt you, Mina. Don’t be afraid. I won’t let anyone hurt you, and defending you or our family would not be a sin.”

Cat nodded.

He turned her around and pulled her to sit between his legs so that he could hold her close.

He turned her around and pulled her to sit between his legs so that he could hold her close.

She did not know whom he had killed, but when he had said the word “revenge” she had briefly hoped that it had been Lar.

She too had been told by the Abbot that the only way to free herself was through forgiveness. But Lar’s death was the only freedom she thought she would ever have the strength to attain. Her husband had committed murder, but she admitted herself – to her shame – more aggrieved at the choice of victim than at the crime.

Wave upon wave of tears broke upon her as he cuddled her and kissed her hair, and she fought them back every time. She only wanted to be happy with him, and just as it seemed she had been drawing near to her happiness, it had been pushed far back again.

“I think you are tired now, poor little lady-​​kitten,” he murmured. “Let’s put you to bed, and we shall talk in the morning.”

'Let's put you to bed, and we shall talk in the morning.'

She nodded against his shoulder.

“I shall sleep here before the fire if you don’t mind, but if you are frightened, perhaps you will like to ask your sister to come sleep with you, and I shall go sleep outside your door.”

“Frightened of what?” she gasped.

“Of me.”


“In a manner of speaking, Mina.” He gave her an unconvincing smile.

“I wish you would come sleep in the bed with me,” she squeaked.

“Now, Cat, don’t make this harder for me.” He laughed awkwardly and smoothed back her hair on either side of her neck. “It’s called penance, not torture.”

'It's called penance, not torture.'

“Torture?” she whispered.

“It was a joke, Mina. A poor one.”

This time the tears overflooded her eyes. An hour before she had told herself that perhaps… when he came home…

For she had learned what it was to try to fall asleep without him holding her, and she had never more desired to have him close to her than that night, when he was far away, when she did not know where and did not know why.

Two moons hence, he had said. Living with baby Benedict and seeing her sister’s gowns growing daily tighter around her middle, she was reminded that her own body reckoned time in moons. Eleven moons would have to pass before she could hope to have a baby of her own. Two moons before she could even hope to hope.

Unless Lar came again for her.

“Please stay close to me.” Her tears slipped down her cheeks, unkissed. “I’m only frightened when you’re away.”

'I'm only frightened when you're away.'