Malcolm had nothing but reasons not to smile.

Malcolm had nothing but reasons not to smile.

The rain fell in fat drops that pierced through a man’s hair straight to his scalp with all their stinging force behind them, and whatever the drops could not reach the fog quickly dampened.

His body still ached from that first hurried journey, and the blisters on the sides of his fingers had only had the time to break and not to heal.

To crown his misery, he had drunk too much the evening before and slept too little since; and he had found sleeping with Maire’s cook to be less satisfying than he had hoped, both as revenge and as a way to spend the night.

There were the boys, too.

There were the boys, too, running about and laughing despite the early hour: four of them under the age of fifteen, giddily oblivious to such matters as rain on their faces and a rushed breakfast in their bellies, which only reminded Malcolm that he was not as young as he used to be.

He would have preferred to have gone away quietly with Colban alone. He understood too well, however, what such a journey could do to forge the first link of a bond between a man and the son he hardly knew.

Egelric was so entranced by the presence of Finn that he too was oblivious to the rain.

Egelric was so entranced by Finn that he too was oblivious to the rain. Malcolm loved his cousin enough to grant him that, even though Finn had already proven to have a remarkable tendency to “forget something in the house”, which did not bode well for the rest of the journey.

Finn had already proven to have a remarkable tendency to 'forget something in the house.'

However, the third time he bolted out through Cousin Catan’s front door, he was accompanied by the one thing that could make Malcolm smile in any weather and in any state of fatigue: a pretty girl.

He was accompanied by the one thing that could make Malcolm smile in any weather.

“Good morning to you!” Malcolm grinned and lifted his palms to the sky, ironically both declaring this drizzly dawn “good” and to offering it up to her. “…lass,” he added.

Her pretty face twitched. “Good morning, sir. Good morning everyone.”

'Good morning, sir.'

Cedric took a moment out of his pursuit of Domnall to greet her, but otherwise only Egelric seemed to notice her.

Malcolm already knew, however, that his cousin Egelric noticed the girl every time he saw her, and neither did Malcolm blame him. Clearly he had let slip an opportunity to pass a more amusing evening than he had spent bedding Maire’s cook, even if it would have meant sleeping alone—which it might not have, after all.

'Change your mind, did you?'

“Change your mind, did you?” Malcolm asked her.

“About—what?” she blurted, already discomfited.

“About marrying me! I was waiting for you to show up with the priest…” He shrugged helplessly.

“What’s this?” Egelric laughed.

'What's this?'

“I never wanted to marry you!” the girl cried. “You!” she added in a huff, as if it was not the marrying that she minded so much as the man.

“It was your own idea,” Malcolm said. “When she met me at the door,” he explained to Egelric, “she asked me was I looking for a wife. And as it seems I haven’t one…”

“Never!” she protested. “I only asked you whether you were looking for your wife—for I thought you were Eithne’s husband!”

'I thought you were Eithne's husband!'

“Ach! I can’t decide whether you have insulted me more by withdrawing your proposal or by mistaking me for that son of the devil!”

“I did not propose!

Malcolm laced his blistered fingers together and chuckled appreciatively at her. It seemed a pity he could not stay a few days.

“Aye, then, but if you’re not here to marry me, what are you doing out here this fine morning? It’s, ah, raining, if you hadn’t noticed.”

'It's, ah, raining, if you hadn't noticed.'

His hand darted out to stroke her wet cheek with a finger, and the deed was done before she had the chance to jerk her head away. She chose to pretend not to have noticed his touch, but even the gray light of this rainy dawn revealed otherwise: her cheeks would not have been pinker if the sun had shone.

I don’t mind the rain,” she said smugly. “I have water nature. Beneath my hair and cloak, I am as dry as a bone.”

“Ach!” Malcolm leaned down so near to her that he was able to look up into her face. “I wouldn’t have you bone dry, lass. That wouldn’t be pleasant for you or for me.”

'That wouldn't be pleasant for you or for me.'

Egelric laughed through his nose.

“Do not call me lass!”

The girl seemed more flustered by the “lass” than by the vulgarity of what he had said. Perhaps, he thought, she was simply too innocent yet to understand.

Then Malcolm was quite certain he had wasted an opportunity. Even to an old and jaded Scot such as he, there was still a rare pleasure to be had in teasing a girl who could only vaguely guess that she was being teased.

There was still a rare pleasure to be had in teasing a girl.

And when one tired of that, there remained the innocence. Malcolm was deft enough to slowly peel it away, layer by layer, and make it last.

“Ah, but… what was the name of you, again?” he murmured.

“Rua,” she blurted. “I mean… Lasrua… is my full name… But my friends call me Rua…”

'But my friends call me Rua...'

Las–rua!” he gasped. “Las–rua is the name of you, and you’re telling me your friends are calling you Rua! The devil! And you won’t let me call you Lass!”

Her pretty green eyes and pretty pink mouth widened in outrage. “You are not my friend!”

Malcolm laughed triumphantly. “Aye, and so there’s nothing left of your name for me to use but the Lass!”

'Aye, and so there's nothing left of your name for me to use but the Lass!'

Egelric’s laughter finally burst forth, but he thoughtfully turned away to pretend to spend it on Finn.

“Da?” Colban asked sweetly. “Aren’t we ready to go?”

'Aren't we ready to go?'

If the boy was calling him Da, it meant he was attempting to wheedle him. That was a girl’s habit Malcolm did not want his son to acquire, and he ignored Colban and leaned closer to Lasrua—out of principle.

“You still haven’t told me why you’ve come out. I shall be inclined to believe it was to say goodbye to me.”

'I shall be inclined to believe it was to say goodbye to me.'

“It was to say goodbye to Finn,” she sniffed.

“Ach!” Malcolm stood tall and nodded knowingly. “Your sweetheart, is he?”

'Your sweetheart, is he?'

“No!” she gasped.

“No?” He tried to scratch his beard thoughtfully, but he found it only made him wet beneath his fingernails—heretofore the last remaining part of his body that had still been dry, it seemed. He compromised by rubbing his chin with his fingers instead. “Have you one?” he asked.

“I—!” She reared back her head in arrested outrage. Malcolm had the queer impression that he could feel her heart pounding. “He was killed,” she said stiffly.

'He was killed.'

“Ach!” Malcolm had not thought of that possibility. He had a particular respect for dead sweethearts and those who still loved them.

“Da?” Colban asked anxiously behind him.

Malcolm was considering going away after all. He did not want to hurt the girl. But when he bowed his head in sympathy, she bowed her head closer to his.

But when he bowed his head in sympathy, she bowed her head closer to his.

“I must be taking my chances then,” he sighed.

“I beg your pardon?” she asked.

When he leaned towards her, she drew up her body shyly, but she did not exactly step away. There remained only a few inches of rain between them.

“I cannot be asking him whether he would mind me kissing you.”

'I cannot be asking him whether he would me kissing you.'

She tried to protest, “I beg your—”

In spite of his age and his limp, Malcolm could still pounce like a cat.

Colban and Olaf groaned, Domnall applauded, Finn stopped in mid-​babble, and Egelric laughed aloud.

Egelric laughed aloud.

Those first instants were all Malcolm knew of their reactions. Even at his worst moments—even with Maire’s cook—it could not be said that Malcolm could kiss with his lips while his mind was too far elsewhere, but this elf-​lass captured all his attention.

Suddenly he was a boy of less than fifteen himself, kissing a girl for the first time, learning how a mouth besides his own could taste and feel. He was old and jaded, and he had kissed hundreds of girls, but nothing had prepared him for Lasrua. Her mouth was cool and wet and sweet, like a ripe plum plucked at night and bitten with the dew still on it, and it only made a man hungrier the more he ate of it.

Lasrua's mouth was cool and wet and sweet.

As for him, never had any comparison of passion to fire seemed so apt, however poetic. In a few moments he would be consumed entirely, like a log in a furnace—but perhaps logs too gloried in the flames. Surely their entire tranquil lives as trees were meant only to prepare them for their passionate deaths. Malcolm was not certain he had not been born for this.

She had only struggled briefly and soon relaxed, opening her mouth to him and letting him guide her as if she too were kissing for the first time and trying to learn. Perhaps she truly was.

Her lips were alive and rippling beneath his, but her body went limp, almost pouring itself out of his grasp. When he lifted his head to look at her properly, her face fell as still as a quiet lake, in spite of the rain that pattered over it, in spite of his breath.

Her face fell as still as a quiet lake.

Malcolm knew that look, but he had never called it forth merely by kissing a girl.

He saw now he had wasted more than an evening. His entire future seemed as bleak as the day. He would spend the rest of his life trying to recapture that kiss on other lips, growing old and bitter with the searching. If he rode out into that rain now, it would never stop falling, and the sun would never shine again.

If he rode out into that rain, he would never see the sun again.

He whispered, “Lass…” It was not meant to tease her, but it was all he could find to say. It seemed to him that if she did not understand without being told, there was nothing to say anyway.

Egelric coughed discreetly, but that was not enough to catch Malcolm’s attention. The sound of the front door flying open and slamming against the wall was.

'Let go of my sister!'

“Let go of my sister!”

Lasrua came to life and shrieked, “Paul!” as if in terror of her brother, but it was Malcolm’s breast she battered with her arms.

It was Malcolm's breast she battered with her arms.

Malcolm let go of her—he had no choice. He saw now that his young cousin and namesake had not been exaggerating when recounting the strength of angry elf-​lasses.

He turned to her brother, scowling in defiance, though he had to hope that he would not be asked to test the strength of angry elf-​lads.

He turned to her brother, scowling in defiance.

“We’d not quite finished.”

“No, no!” Paul cried, his voice high-​pitched with boyish fury. “You’ve quite finished! It’s time to go!” He leaned closer and added in a low snarl, “My sister is not to be confused with my cook, my wife’s maid, or any of the other women of this house upon whom you’ve already laid your filthy hands!”

'My sister is not to be confused with my cook.'

Malcolm glanced down at his hands as if he had meant it literally. “She’ll wash,” he muttered.

Paul screeched, “No! She’s fit for better than the likes of you!

Malcolm pounced, snatching up a handful of the elf’s shirt to yank him closer.

Malcolm pounced.

“Watch what you say, lad,” he growled. “If you insult me, you insult your own wife, your own child, and my entire clan. It’s all the same blood.”

Paul was not intimidated. Never looking away from Malcolm’s eyes, he took Malcolm’s fist between his hands and with his powerful fingers easily peeled it away from his shirt.

“That is not what I meant,” he said coldly. “I do not insult who you are, but what you are. My quarrel is with you alone, or will be if you ever lay a finger on my sister again.”

'My quarrel is with you alone.'

“What about in your sister?” Malcolm sneered.

“Malcolm!” Egelric barked. If Egelric was warning him off, he had gone too far.

Paul’s face was red with fury, but he had the grace to let Egelric’s interruption provide Malcolm a means of escape. Malcolm took it, though he despised himself for it, even knowing he stood no chance in a fight with an elf.

'May the devil's cat eat you and swallow you sideways!'

“May the devil’s cat eat you and swallow you sideways!” he cried aloud in Gaelic, making up in volume for the mildness of the curse, out of love for Cousin Catan.

“Are we leaving?” Colban asked weakly.

“Aye, we’re leaving! Are you coming, lass?”

'Are you coming, lass?'

Even the bustling of the many bodies stopped. There was only the sound of the rain falling on everything—rustling onto the thatch of the roof, clattering on the stones of the stoop, and splashing into puddles all over the yard. Such weather would not soon clear.

Malcolm himself was so still that the fat drops clinging to the tip of his nose hesitated a long while before letting go and falling a second time. He dared not turn to look at the girl. He scarcely dared breathe.

Finally Paul broke though his astonishment to cry, “She’s not going anywhere! And if you’re not gone at once, I shall pick you up and carry you out of here myself!”

'I shall pick you up and carry you out of here myself!'

“Let her speak for her own self.”

“She has nothing to say!”

Perhaps it was true. Lasrua only whinnied softly like a frightened mare.

Lasrua only whinnied softly like a frightened mare.

“Let’s go, Malcolm,” Egelric said. His was the unanswerable voice he used to command men.

Malcolm spat into a puddle, and then laughed bitterly at the emptiness of such gestures in a world of rain. All his life had been empty gestures, though he had lived it more fully than most men. He had even loved it in his savage way, though like a hard woman it had made him old and jaded before his years.

Like a hard woman it had made him old and jaded before his years.

One could capture and kiss it, one could hold it down and rape it; one could take its innocence and even its soul if one were ruthless enough; but real happiness—such sweet surrender as he had seen on Lasrua’s face—could only be wilfully given and gratefully received. Life had never looked on him in that way.

He hated life for it, and the elf-lass too.

He knew he would spend the rest of it trying to recapture the evanescent happiness of that kiss, though it would be like clutching fistfuls of fog. He hated life for it, and the elf-​lass too, with a passion that would consume him until he was dead.

He hated life for it, and the elf-lass too.