The baby was only half-awake and his mother half-asleep.

The baby was only half-​​awake and his mother half-​​asleep, but he lay in her arms, and neither needed to move far to find the other.

Flann lay alone in the other bed, suffering silently. Her limbs were as rigid as boards, and she squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her hands into fists, driving the nails into her palms.

She listened as Benedict squirmed and grunted, rooting around for a breast. He nursed hungrily at first when he found it, and she listened. She listened as he began falling asleep again – a few sucks, drifting off into milky snores – and then with a startled squeak he would rouse himself for another few sucks.

This went on and on, it seemed. This happened over and over, all night long.

Flann listened.

For the first several months of her pregnancy she had slept well at night – so well that one could not wake her until she was ready to wake. Now her nights were spent in an agony of listening and watching, aggravated by the presence of Lena and Benedict in the tiny room that was supposed to have been hers alone, until Paul’s father and sister came.

Flann listened.

Flann had grown up in a busy home with many sisters older and younger, but she had never so longed for solitude as she had these last weeks in this little house, over-​​run with servants, sisters, and elves.

She could not even go outside to be alone: Paul had warned her to stay out of the forest, and if she stayed near the house she would be within sight of the leering, whistling men who passed on the road. Her shame had cost her all the respect men owed her as a fine lady, and since she could not retaliate, proud Flann stayed in the house.

She would lock herself in the small pantry when she was desperate enough for solitude. Then she would sit on the cold tiles amid the baskets and bundles stored beneath the massive oaken table; and she would eat honey or jam straight from the pot, and sometimes cry.

Sometimes she would dream of another house she had visited twice: a fine house, with paneled walls, a high-​​ceilinged hall full of books, and windows that let in a golden light no matter the color of the day. In it dwelled silence, order, and peace, and three cats, and a man named Ralf.

She had apologized to him after her outburst, as befitted the fine lady she had once been, but a man like Ralf did not ask three times. Nor could she have accepted him if he had; but since she knew he would not, she sometimes permitted herself to dream of silence and peace, a golden light, and a man who cared for her and treated her with tenderness despite her shame.

Flann had not forgotten her love.

Flann had not forgotten her love, but sometimes it seemed that since she was bound to love a memory in any case, she might more comfortably love a memory while herself being loved by a gentle man.

Indeed, as the weeks passed since Brude’s departure, and since she neither saw him nor dared speak of him with anyone, it all came to seem more a dream than a memory.

She knew their love was the cause of the changes in her body, but thus far in her pregnancy, those seemed like nothing more than the symptoms of a new illness. Even the sounds of Benedict and Lena in the night could not make her comprehend that she would have a squirming, suckling baby of her own in the fall. If Brude had left the print of his hand on her skin it would have seemed a surer proof of his existence. She could not believe in the baby.

Even the lock of hair Brude had left with her had lost its power to move her, and she had stopped taking it out to gloat over the strands. All that gold and copper and bronze seemed to have tarnished in his absence, like her love.

All that gold and copper and bronze seemed to have tarnished in his absence, like her love.

Her sister told her almost daily she had been a fool, and Flann was beginning to believe it. How could she explain to herself that Brude had known exactly what to say to her, exactly how to touch her?

He had once solemnly confessed to having been very bad in his youth and having spent years in silent penance therefore; but all while confessing he had been both breaking his own vows of chastity and leading a young virgin astray.

Even proud Flann did not think herself irresistible enough to tempt an otherwise honorable priest to his ruin.

Even proud Flann did not think herself irresistible enough.

On the contrary, she was probably not the first passionate young girl he had seduced with his gentle voice, his gentle hands, and the fascination lent him by his somber robes. Perhaps he had left an entire series of girls behind him as he moved from parish to parish on Church business. Perhaps he even had a habit of fabricating “letters from Rome” when he feared a relationship had grown too serious – when he feared the very consequences he had so long refused to admit possible.

Perhaps everything he had told her at the end – his solemn promise to return, his endearments, his blessings – had merely been intended to keep her faithful to him, to convince her to protect their secret until he was safely away from the wrath of her kin.

Proud Flann would protect the secret until her death, for her own sake if not for his. Proud Flann would never admit to anyone that she had been a fool. But in these long watches through the night, as she strained her ears to hear the Abbot ringing Matins and Lauds, marking the end to each of the stages of her suffering, then she could sometimes admit it to herself.

Still, when she reached the peak of her agony, when her body was most oppressed by the outward company of all these people and her soul most strained by so much inner loneliness, proud Flann would humble herself enough to silently call out to her love across the miles, not as a challenge, but in a desperate plea.

She had never heard a reply.

She had never heard a reply. Love was not as it was described in the great Celtic romances she had only come to appreciate when she had begun to live her own. Now she scoffed at them again: Love was not as it had been for Aillinn and Baille, for Liadan and Kurithir, for Etain and Midir. Love was not stronger than distance, time, or death. Love was folly, and she was a fool.

The bell rang on the distant hill for the next vigil of the night.

Flann still lay in her bed, but her limbs ached as if stretched to bear all her weight.

Besides the prayerful Abbot and his monks and Flann herself, everyone in the valley slept, but her over-​​strained ears seemed to hear the jeers and whistles of two hundred men.

She slept beneath sheets of fine linen and wore a gown of finer linen still, but she thought she could feel every thread in the warp and weft of them tearing at her skin like thorns.

This went on and on, every night, all night long.

This went on and on, every night, all night long.

The bell had only rung for Lauds, telling her she still had three hours till dawn. She could not bear it. If only he would return and take her away from here! And if he did not care enough to, if only he would tell her so, so she could try to learn to live without him – without hope!

She could not bear it. She squeezed her eyes shut, gritted her teeth, and drove her nails into her palms. Her fine face was wet with sweat and tears. At last her heart burst open and loosened the desperate plea, the silent cry: “Why have you forsaken me?”

Flann listened.

This time there came a reply. Relief poured over her like cool rain.

This time there came a reply.

She realized that the image that had remained with her all these weeks had been Brude with his eyes tightly shut against her, Brude pushing her away.

But she had forgotten his eyes of the moment before, when she had opened hers after their last kiss and seen such love and sorrow in his that she had known he was looking at what he loved most in the world. “His treasures,” he had said – she and their baby.

How could she have forgotten those eyes? Those cloud-​​gray eyes that she had said would be the one thing she would most surely know him by? Now she remembered. Now she felt as well-​​loved as if she still stood beneath their gaze.

Her limbs relaxed, and she threw off the blankets and the silky sheets and stood.

Flann waited.

Flann waited.

Love was stronger than anything. Love was life. Was it not? she wondered silently.

The reply came again, and Flann smiled in secret joy. Their love was alive. Somewhere down inside, in a hidden place she had not known was a part of her, she had at last felt the proof of it: a faint fluttering, like a pair of tiny wings.

She had at last felt the proof of it.