'Mayn't we be married in one of the chapels?'

“Mayn’t we be married in one of the chapels?” Eithne murmured. It was becoming apparent that Araphel and Amarel were disposing the candles and lamps across the court with a purpose.

She had swooned over stories of desperate lovers obliged to marry at night – even outside in the wilds, beneath branches arching cathedral-​​like over misty glades – but never in the middle of a paved court, close to the prosaic abbey kitchens and smokehouses and even to the baths. Certainly one did not when there were two perfectly good, freshly-​​built stone chapels right behind one.

“You’re wanting to be married before God, and yet it’s beneath a roof you want to hide?” Cian chided gently.

'It's beneath a roof you want to hide?'

“Isn’t the Lord seeing everywhere?”

“Aye, but the eyes of you aren’t seeing through to heaven. Look up, Eithne. What are you seeing?”

At last the moon had gone quite dark. In a few hours the red wandering star would rise and find his quarry gone. By that time Eithne would be sleeping in her husband’s arms.

At last the moon had gone quite dark.

On each of the nights they had spent in the wilds on their hurried journey, as she had lain quaking with homesickness and loneliness in the warm hollow her body had made in her blankets, she had longed to rise up and climb into Cian’s bedroll beside him. In the eyes of anyone who found them together, she might as well have done so; she was ruined forever.

She had not, only because her refusal was her one remaining power over him. Now that it seemed he truly was about to marry her, in some utter, irrevocable way known to angels, the idea of lying beside him began to frighten her again. All she knew of his naked body was blue-​​black skin, leathery wings, and claws.

“The stars,” she whispered.

'The stars.'

“Aye, the stars. How many?”

She gasped. The idea of counting them was absurd. In the clear autumn air there was no end to them; the spaces between the brightest, which would have appeared black on a moonlit summer night, were frothy with thousands of smaller stars. Between these, she thought, there must only be more.

The idea of counting them was absurd.

“We angels marry beneath them because we wish our descendents to be so many,” he said. “It is how men, too, married before the Flood.”

Sweetdew trotted past them, clearly intent on some feline mission, but she could not resist adding her meowed commentary as she went by.

Sweetdew trotted past them.

“And I told you to stay away from the toms!” Cian called after her.

Eithne giggled.

“That’s just what I need right now,” he muttered. “An armful of squirming cute-​​and-​​so-​​forths to shred the little dignity remaining me with their wee claws.”

'That's just what we need right now.'

Eithne never found him more lovable than when he was poking fun at himself, and she laughed aloud, startling herself with the echoes of her laughter down the deserted paths of the abbey.

Araphel and Amarel had stopped their preparations to stare at the both of them.

“Eithne has ridden so far today she can hardly stand,” Cian said coldly. “Let us not make this last any longer than necessary.”

Araphel turned sharply away. “You will have to wait for an open fire,” he grumbled.

“Eithne can provide that,” Cian said. “My dear?”

'My dear?'

Amarel had already assembled a tidy pile of wood from the kitchen nearby. She would only have to light it. Cian had warned her not to reveal any sign of her magic to anyone, but she supposed angels were an exception, if he was asking her to do it.

“Aye,” she said timidly.

“You did very well inside a moment ago,” he murmured into her hair. “It is only a little more wood.”

She took a deep breath but hastily let it out again. She sometimes thought that Cian was disappointed in her when she relied on gestures to help her focus her magic, and perhaps holding one’s breath could be considered a gesture. More than anything she did not want to disappoint him before these other angels.

She took her deep breath only when it was done.

She took her deep breath only when it was done.

“Splendid!” he said behind her. “Almost a smokeless fire – wouldn’t you say, gentlemen?”

When she opened her eyes again, the other angels were staring at her with what was, if not horror, then at least shock.

The other angels were staring at her.

Cian snapped his fingers beneath Amarel’s nose. “What next?”

Amarel turned away and hugged his arms against his body. Eithne looked to Araphel.

“You need something of value to give her,” Araphel scowled. “A coin or a jewel…”

“How worldly,” Cian sneered.

“She is of the world,” Araphel replied, no more politely, “and you are swearing to provide for her for as long as she inhabits it.”

'You are swearing to provide for her for as long as she inhabits it.'

Cian mumbled, “I have a ring.”

“Fine. Then she needs a veil for her head.” He sighed in frustration at this next obstacle. “Perhaps a towel, if she has none…”

“A towel? Certainly not,” Cian snapped. Then his voice grew abruptly as gentle as the hands he laid upon her shoulders. “Tell me what finer and fairer covering for a head may be found than this hair already upon it?”

'Tell me what finer and fairer covering for a head may be found than this hair already upon it?'

Amarel cocked his head in contemplation, though his face did not lose its look of sadness. Eithne lowered her head shyly.

“May I loosen your hair?” Cian whispered at her ear.

He had been trying to get at her hair ever since they had left her father’s house. She always wore it braided when she rode, but these last nights she had left it braided even when she slept. Letting him into it would have seemed a surrender.

Now the time had come for surrendering.

“You shall be doing one,” she giggled hesitantly, “and I the other, and we shall race.”

'You shall do one and I the other, and we shall race.'

“You would surely win, for I intend to take my time.”

He did not say “You will”, so Eithne dared not lift her hands to the task. Cian worked alone, slowly and solemnly, not unraveling her hair with his fingers as she did, but carefully uncrossing and uncrossing the strands with the same gestures she used to braid them, only in reverse.

Not until he had loosened it all did he let himself go, and then he abandoned himself to it.

He abandoned himself to it.

He ran his hands through it, pulled it up to stroke it over his cheeks, and breathed so deeply of its odor that she could feel his cold breath on the back of her neck.

“It still smells like the dew, Eithne,” he murmured, “from this morning when you brushed it out. Do you remember?”



She remembered it, though she would never have remarked the simple, routine act of brushing her hair if he had not paid it so much attention.

Now he scooped up as much of it as his fists could hold and buried his face in it. “The morning dew at midnight! Eithne, Eithne,” he moaned softly, “your hair will be the doom of me. You are not of the world–you are a world of your own: flowers and dew… flesh and tears…”

She twisted away from him, and he let her hair slip out of his hands regretfully.

She twisted away from him.

“You needn’t have mentioned tears on my wedding day,” she whispered.

The idea had troubled her, but now that it had been pronounced, it terrified her. Her heart began to throb. Were not angels more than prophets?

“I was only meaning that you were a world entire,” he said gently. “A body for earth, and tears for rain. The smiles of you are the sun.”

'The smiles of you are the sun.'

He lifted his hand and touched her cheek with his fingertips, there where she would have dimpled if she had smiled.

At times his ardor thrilled her like the rolling thunder of a storm in the distant hills, and at times it frightened her, like lightning cracking down around her very head.

She turned awkwardly back to the other angels. She did not think they could have overheard what he had said, and she was almost sorry for it, shy as she was. If they had heard, they might have reassured her that he was not a danger to her – or warned her if he was.

They might have reassured her that he was not a danger to her.

Araphel merely grumbled, “I thought you were in a hurry.”

“What next?” Cian growled ominously.

When Araphel replied, he spoke to Eithne instead, and his voice too softened as Cian’s did when he spoke to her.

“Now you must be coming to stand nigh the fire,” he said, “and we three shall walk seven times around you.”

Eithne opened her mouth.

Eithne opened her mouth. A ring – a veil – those were things she knew. She had never heard of priests and grooms walking seven times around brides.

Araphel seemed to notice her hesitation. “Once for each day of Creation,” he explained. “It was the angel of the south wind who married the first man and the first woman. This is how.”

'This is how.'

Eithne stepped forward. There was no turning back for her in any case.

The three angels took their places around her and began to walk. They moved slowly, like priests at a Mass, and the solemnity of their faces was so great as to be grim. One by one, over and over, they passed between her and the fire, throwing their shadows over her and each other, buffeting her with heat and cold and heat again.

They passed between her and the fire.

When she had counted Cian’s fourth pass before her face, they slowed at the sound of a weird wail arising from far off down the abbey paths. If they had continued calmly marching, Eithne would surely have screamed in terror of them as well as of the voice, but their own confusion seemed to prove that they were not intending to summon a banshee or other shade.

Their own confusion seemed to prove that they were not intending to summon a banshee.

Eithne thought for a moment that it might have been Dana come to rescue her again. She was not relieved. She had willingly run away with a man: “saving” her from him now would be dooming her to a lifetime of shame.

Then Cian rolled his eyes and sighed, freeing her to consider less supernatural explanations. Amarel bent and clapped his hands softly.

Amarel bent and clapped his hands softly.

At last Eithne understood that it was only the yowling of a cat who was trying to meow loudly and long and to run at the same time.

“Sweetdew!” she cried.

The cat trotted up to the hem of her cloak, speaking so rapidly that her meows tumbled over one another, the end of one coming after the beginning of the next.

The cat trotted up to the hem of her cloak.

“Sweetdew!” she laughed. “What is she saying, Cian?”

“It’s scandalized she is to see me marrying you without a lady present,” he sighed. “I hope you do not believe I intend to allow you into our bed tonight!” he scolded the cat. “If you do, I suggest you have a seat and think again!”

'If you do, I suggest you have a seat and think again!'

Sweetdew hurried around Eithne’s feet, two, three, and four times before coming to a stop and sitting herself down to meow disdainfully up at Cian.

Eithne laughed, doubly delighted to have had a distraction from the silent solemnity of this ceremony.

She meowed disdainfully up at Cian.

“What did she say to you?” she asked Cian.

“I shall tell you at a later time,” he said dryly. “I don’t want you changing your mind now.”

He scowled with his brows, but he smiled his sly smile, and Eithne knew he was only joking. She grinned at him in relief.

She grinned at him in relief.

“Her ladyship will walk with us,” Cian announced. “I doubt we shall find another lady tonight, so late, and in an abbey. Unless your friend the Abbot has taken a liking to such creatures?” he asked Araphel.

“Let us continue,” Araphel answered coldly.

They continued, but everything had been changed by the arrival of Sweetdew. Eithne could scarcely keep from giggling to see her sauntering along behind Cian, the height of her scornful nose surpassed only by that of the tail she held straight up behind her.

They went thrice more around before Araphel stopped suddenly, just as Cian passed before Eithne for the seventh time.

His fine face was white beneath the black mark upon his cheek.

His fine face was white beneath the black mark upon his cheek, and he did not ask what came next, though his eyes were clearly looking for guidance.

“Now,” Araphel said to Cian with a thin smile, “comes the moment when you will be changing your mind.”

'Now comes the moment when you will be changing your mind.'

“I have no such intention,” Cian replied. One who did not understand Gaelic would have thought it a threat by his tone.

“You must be kneeling before her,” Araphel said. “Before God and before two witnesses, since you would be doing it properly.” He made a mocking bow and waved at the earth beneath Cian’s feet.

Cian stared at Araphel long enough that even sad-​​faced Amarel too began to smile grimly. One who did not know them for angels would have thought them all devils, their faces lit from beneath by Hell’s fires.

One who did not know them for angels would have thought them all devils.

Finally Araphel seemed to decide that Cian had indeed changed his mind, and he snorted and began to turn away.

Cian’s hand leapt up and caught his arm in a tight grip. “Whither do you go, brother?” he growled. “Will you not witness?”

“On the contrary, I’ll not be believing it until I see it.”

'On the contrary, I'll not be believing it until I see it.'

“Then step back.”

It was not the first time Eithne had seen him on his knees, but it was the first time he had not met her there.

Once down he recovered his poise. “I am merely surprised that the two of you are thinking yourselves worthy to stand before her,” he sniffed.

'I am merely surprised that you two are thinking yourselves worthy to stand before her.'

The two of them stood and stared.

“This is quite comfortable for my own self,” Cian scolded after a moment, “but Eithne is still on her feet, and it’s a tired little lady she is.”

Eithne asked, “But mustn’t I be kneeling too?” She had attended enough weddings to know she ought, and even as she spoke she put out her hand to support herself on Amarel’s arm.

“No, Eithne,” Araphel said. “You needn’t be kneeling before him now. Later tonight, though, it’s beneath him you’ll be laying yourself down.”

'You needn't be kneeling before him now.'

He tried to speak like a father scolding a child – “Were you thinking of that?” she could almost hear him say – but his voice faltered at the end. His storm-​​gray eyes softened into a look of pity, for her, and of helplessness, perhaps for himself.

“I know,” she whispered.

'I know.'

Amarel stepped up and held his hands out over the space between her and Cian as over a hidden fire. Seeing him, Araphel hurried to do the same. Sweetdew simply stretched herself out on the flagstones behind Cian, where she might warm her flank by the fire.

“Are you knowing the words?” Araphel asked, no longer smug and no longer mocking.

'Are you knowing the words?'

Cian did not look away from Eithne’s face. “No.”

Araphel spoke rapidly in the strange, throaty language they had used together in the guest house. It was a wonder to Eithne that they could even call such sounds words; she could not hear the spaces between them. She had always imagined the tongues of angels more musical.

Cian spoke then, apparently repeating what Araphel had said, though the phrases were made unrecognizable by the change in tone.

Cian spoke then.

In the midst of the stream of sound, he took one of her hands and slid a ring onto her finger. He held her hand even afterwards, but she could feel the ring tipping to the side by the sheer weight of the stone.

Then there was the silence of an autumn midnight, troubled only by the cracking of the burning logs. Eithne looked up at the stars, remembering what he had said, and wondering whether they were now married in the eyes of God.

“Tell her what you said,” Araphel murmured.

'Tell her what you said.'

“I have sworn to love you and provide for you and for our children, not to be led astray by vanities or trifles that perish, forswearing all other women, as long as you live.”

'I have sworn to love you and provide for you.'

“Forswearing all others,” Araphel corrected.

Cian waved the back of his free hand at him. “So I swore.” He rose, still holding her hand.

“Are we married, Cian?” she whispered.

“You are become mine forever,” he said solemnly. “I am become yours.”

'You are become mine forever.'

She felt a chill down the back of her neck, like his breath.

“Need I say nothing?” she whimpered. “I have not sworn.”

“You must answer his last words by repeating them,” Araphel said. “‘I am become yours. You are become mine forever.”

“But… needn’t you ask me, ‘Do you take this man…’?”

'Needn't you ask me, 'Do you take this man...'?'

“Amarel and I are only witnesses. There are no questions here, Eithne. Only answers.”

Sweetdew stopped washing her paw long enough to lift her head and give a long, comforting meow.

Cian stared at her.

Cian still stared at Eithne, and as the seconds passed he looked less comforting and more like one in need of comfort. Perhaps he feared it was she who would change her mind at the last.

“I am become yours…” Her voice sounded as high as a child’s to her ears, but she dared not stop to deepen it. “You are become mine. Forever.”

'You are become mine.  Forever.'

Now she took her deep breath, as when she had lit the fire, but before she could let it out again, Cian pulled her close. The last thing she felt as a girl was her body thumping against his and the weight of her hair lifting from her shoulders as he caught it in both hands.

Then he kissed her.

Then he kissed her. He had not given her more than a peck on the cheek since the first time he had come to her in her bed, but it was clear now that he had been struggling against his desire all the while.

“Your wife is very tired, Cian,” Araphel said. His voice too was high like a boy’s, but it quavered like an old man’s. “And very young.”

Cian lifted his head away, though he did not open his eyes. He breathed deeply of the night air and breathed it out colder across her face.

He breathed deeply of the night air and breathed it out colder across her face.

“Is there room for two more guests at the abbey?” he wondered aloud. “We shall only need a bed for the night.”

Amarel swallowed and turned away, but only to stare at the blank wall surrounding the cloister. It was Araphel who walked off towards one of the guest houses. Eithne watched him go over her husband’s shoulder.

Eithne watched him go over her husband's shoulder.

Once he had disappeared behind a wall, she idly slipped her thumb beneath Cian’s collar and pulled his tunic aside. Even in the dim firelight she could see the precise edge of a sunburn on his neck, like the mark of a divine executioner meant to guide the axe. He had taken the illusion of flesh even that far.

Cian slid his cheek over the hair of her head and wrapped the ends of it over and over around one of his hands. “Mine forever,” he whispered.

“Before God,” she replied.

'Before God.'