Flann had never slept with a man.

English euphemisms notwithstanding, Flann had never “slept with” a man. Flann had never “gone to bed with” a man. She knew no more of the practices and protocols than little motherless Eithne on her wedding night – perhaps less.

Was she supposed to undress herself now?

Was she supposed to undress herself now? Would he help? Would he watch? Was she supposed to strip to the skin or leave her shift until they were safe in the bed? Was she–

Osh simply laid a hand on her waist and led her to the chair. Flann laughed in relief. She sometimes forgot that it sufficed to trust in Osh.

Flann laughed in relief.

She let some of her dinnertime giddiness bubble up through her suppertime shyness, for lack of anything more appropriate to the occasion. It was intoxicating, but it was not desire; her hands were tingling and sweaty, and her heart beat her blood into her cheeks, but her body remained unkindled.

“What are you hearing?” she asked him pertly.

'What are you hearing?'

“Ah… a pretty lady falling asleep.”

“Not I!”

“I hope not,” he smiled.

“No one else?”

He listened intently. “Edina is scrubbing the stones in the kitchen…”

She laughed, “Osh!” and passed her hand over his nose and mouth. “Who is hearing us?

“Ah! No one, I think.”

'Ah!  No one, I think.'

She whispered, “Aye, no one,” and was startled by the instant intimacy created by words borne on breath alone. Even when she found her voice to speak again, her voice was no longer the same. “It’s alone we are.”

They were the words she had so often longed to say: when she stared forlornly at him across the room as their family laughed and talked around them, or worse, when he dared pull her onto his lap, and Finn and Paul and Lasrua stopped laughing.

Flann closed her eyes and held her breath, trying to discern what “alone” felt like. Alone was dim and very quiet. Alone smelled like the clean, smooth-​​shaven skin of his cheek.

Flann closed her eyes and held her breath.

“No, not alone,” he murmured. His breath blew in warm eddies over her face, harmless as a summer breeze over a shuttered house. “I am with you and you with me.”

Flann opened her eyes. “Alone together,” she corrected.

“No. Alone I am no more since you are here.”

He stroked his thumb across her forehead, seemingly without reason, except that it was like the furtive touches to his paintings that connected him to past thoughts.

It reminded Flann only of past touches: how Brude had marked her forehead before he had left her forever. She held her breath again as Osh breathed over her face, waiting for him to complete the second stroke of the cross. Instead he pulled her closer, squeezing the breath out of her.

'Why not say simply 'we are together'?'

“We are never less alone than tonight.” He spoke gravely, but he made the remark seem idle by plucking at one of her hairpins as he spoke. “You shall see. Alone is not what you think. The more there are people near, the more we are alone.”

Flann felt an easing of the tension on her scalp as the first pin slipped free, and she sighed and curled her toes in pleasure. Then she panicked. He was beginning to undress her. She could not let him get ahead of her – she could not bear to stand naked before him while he remained clothed, as Brude had so often made her do.

She forced her arms between their bodies and tugged on one of the unfamiliar toggle buttons that closed his shirt.

“What are you doing?” he laughed.

“Racing you! My hair, your shirt.”

'Racing you!'

He shook his head and clucked at her, and his other hand joined the first behind her head. “Young lady, I think you forget your opponent. No one in this house knows young-​​lady-​​hair pins better than I.”

“And it’s little enough I know of the ways and means of elven shirts,” she giggled.

He smiled indulgently and let her fumble, but when he had loosened her hair and laid the pins on the table behind them, he was kind enough not to crow over his victory. Instead he lifted his hands to her head again, stroked all of his fingers through her hair, and rubbed them over her tingling scalp.

Flann’s toes curled on their own, and her neck went so limp and lazy that her head would have seemed too heavy were he not holding it between his fingers. She was suddenly sorry she had begun opening his shirt. Now she was obliged either to finish or to appear even more awkward and stupid than she must already have seemed.

“Why does your maid try to hide all your pretty hair?” he frowned. “Tomorrow I do it myself. Then you shall see how beautiful you may be.”

Tomorrow morning! They would wake together… or they would, if she could ever get to the end of his shirt.

Finally her despairing little hands collapsed against his belly. Even before she had opened her mouth to whimper, “Osh…” he was at work on the buttons. He was kind enough not to exclaim over this either, and with one sweeping gesture of his arms, he pulled off his shirt, dropped it on the floor with an uncharacteristic carelessness, and hugged Flann against his bare chest.

Again she laughed in relief.

She laughed in relief, but briefly; his arms were so tight around her it was easier to relax and lie still. His breath whistled over her ear, deep and slow, until her fluttering heart slowed into its rhythm. She began to see how he calmed Liadan when she cried. She also understood why Liadan was content to be held and to peer over his shoulder with her keen gray eyes.

From where she sat, Flann could only see the wall behind the chair, but it was the very spot that had so captured her attention a few weeks earlier. There was the dapper little figure standing before his front door, the tiny house with its mysterious occupants, and the sheltering trees all around.

“Osh,” she whispered.

He hummed “Flann?” at her ear.

“Tomorrow everyone will be coming home again. And we shall be alone.”

He nodded slowly. “Now you are beginning to understand.”

She leaned back and reached an arm around the chair, but it was not long enough to touch the gray door again and recapture what she had once been thinking.

He twisted himself around to look, sliding her nearly off his lap and onto the cushions. “Oh!” he laughed. “This little fellow. Do you still wonder who is inside?”

'Two pretty ladies?'

“Two pretty ladies?” she guessed shyly.

“His wife and baby.”

Flann took a deep breath and held it, savoring the air that had borne the words, the one sweetest of all. If she had loudly scorned marriage for so long, it was only because it seemed so sacred to her – too sacred for her.

She was terrified and trembling, but she reminded herself that he was Osh, and it was safe to speak. “Osh?” she whispered. “Are you thinking of marrying me?”

“Ah! In a church like a man?” He smiled as adults smiled at children and their charming misunderstandings. “You know how I like these priests and their bothersome praying.”

'You know how I like these priests and their bothersome praying.'

Flann’s little bubble of joy collapsed on itself, sodden and fuming. In the dizzying confusion of her disappointment, she laughed rather than cried.

“I hope you’re liking them a little bit, Osh, for I cannot believe you’re liking them less than I like a ‘bothersome’ elf wedding and the sight of my own blood!”

“There will be no blood,” he whispered. “That is not for elves such as I. I mean another – the most ancient rite.”

Her laughter tittered into silence before his gravity, but she had nothing to raise in its place, aside from vague hopes and tears. She coughed to clear her voice and asked, “What is it?”

He pulled her closer, until he was whispering across her cheek. “It is the most beautiful thing. I shall show you.”

He pulled her closer.

He held her tightly, in silence. Flann did not know what to say, but she was too frightened to say nothing. “Does it hurt?”

“It will not hurt, my darling,” he murmured. His voice was low and as tight as his arms, betraying his longing. She knew that much from Brude.

But unlike Brude’s, the longing did not seem to be for her body. He did not run his hands over it or rub his own against it; he merely held her close.

She laid her cheek against his and closed her eyes, relieved that he wanted no more from her at the moment, though this time her relief could not bring her to laugh.

She laid her cheek against his and closed her eyes.

She thought of poor little Eithne, insisting to anyone who would listen that her husband had married her “before God.” It was absurd to envy Eithne, but Flann felt a pang of something like.

It was also absurd to come to a man’s room with the intention of giving herself to him without demanding marriage, and then crying because she had mistaken something else for the offer of it. Nevertheless she was crying.

“Do not cry, a chridhe,” he whispered. His warm breath flowed over her face, cool across its tears, clinging to its curves. Her eyes were closed, but her lips were open, awaiting a kiss that only came as a sigh.

Her lips were open.

He was kissing her as he had the first time, in silence, at a breath’s distance, close enough for her to feel his presence overlapping hers while not quite touching skin to skin. She let herself fall limp, surrendering herself to him, even unto her breath. He drank it up and poured it back into her again, mingled with his own, over and over, until there was only one air that they shared.

Her head was growing lighter, slowly rising, like a bubble through syrup, but her mouth and tongue felt heavy and numb. She reached out with her lips to kiss him, in the hope of reminding herself of their true shape and size by brushing them against the low stubble of his chin. But the kiss was oddly unrevealing of boundaries, like kissing the back of one’s hand, like kissing and being kissed.

The kiss was oddly unrevealing of boundaries.

She roused her heavy tongue enough to whisper, “Oshhhhh…”, but he hissed along with her, “Shhhhhh…” She did not know whether he was merely trying to hush her, whether she was making him say his own name, or whether she was saying his name with his own mouth.

She was sick – she was mad; her body was either dissolving into the air like smoke, or swelling into a bone-​​crushing heaviness. She could hear her heart pounding, and she could hear its echo. She could hear things she had never guessed: a crackling deep in the logs as the fire dug thousands of thready fingers into the wood; the whistling of the wind through millions of bare twigs outside; and a dull roaring high in the sky that was a winter gale blowing between innumerable stars.

Then she opened her eyes and saw that they were brown.

Then she opened her eyes and saw that they were brown.

She tried to scream, but with no control of her mouth, there was no hope of making a sound. And yet, remarkably, she did: a long, ear-​​piercing wail.

Osh lifted his head and gasped, taking in a breath of air from the room. Flann clearly saw his chin and the shadow of his beard. She felt her two arms as their clasp was pulled tight and broken, and his body lifted away. She felt her own small and slight body fall back against the cushion.

She felt her own small and slender body fall back against the cushion.

“Liadan!” he whispered, his eyes and mouth wide in intentionally comical dismay. “I thought she was sleeping.”

Flann heard another cry that she had not even intended to make, and which, she realized now, came from the next room.

“Liadan!” she repeated, beginning to shake with the nervous laughter of an uneasy sense of relief. “I think I was the one falling asleep there, Osh.”

'I think I was the one falling asleep there, Osh.'

“You were?” He stood and lifted her up into his arms as he rose, as easily as if she were no bigger than the baby. “I put you over here, then,” he announced as he carried her over to the bed. “Excuse me one moment while I have a word with this other pretty lady.”

'I put you over here, then.'

Flann sat giggling and trembling on the edge of the bed until she heard Liadan’s howls abruptly drop off into endearing whimpers. Then she hugged herself to be certain of her body, and pressed her palms against her cheeks and lips to feel the size and shape of hands and face alike.

She was perfectly intact, perfectly conscious, perfectly herself. Her body was her own. She had simply been drifting off into sleep – into a strange nightmare. Now she would sleep properly–

But she would not. Now that she was wide awake, she remembered her more concrete concerns of bed and bodies. Osh would return at any moment, and she would be scarcely better off than she had been when she had come in, except that he had removed his shirt, and her hair was unbound.

She could have slept with her hair still in its pins, but in her present state of confusion, she did not think she could bear to undress before him. Nor could she imagine that there was anything erotic in watching a lady struggle and squirm her way out of her dress without the assistance of her maid.

She had intended to strip bare, shocking as it might seem, for she thought her naked body could not possibly be more embarrassing than her gyrations as she wriggled out of her shift.

Then she had a second thought.

Then she had a second thought.

This was not the body she had bared to Brude. Then she had been pink with shame at her skinny, boyish figure, knowing how it compared to Cat’s curves, or to Eithne’s and Condal’s exquisite delicacy.

But Flann had had a baby since. Now her breasts swayed and sagged, and though she had just nursed Liadan before putting her down, the mere sound of the baby’s crying might – and she would die of the humiliation! – cause them to leak.

But Flann had had a baby since.

And her belly was anything but boyish these days: it was only in the last weeks that Cat had finally begun to look more pregnant than Flann, in spite of the two months that had passed since Liadan’s birth. She did not think it would ever be quite flat again, and that was leaving aside the matter of her broadening hips and jiggling thighs.

She did not think it would ever be quite flat again.

She could never let Osh see her – not when his first wife had been as gorgeous as Lasrua’s appearance implied. She could not! Better to live alone – or to never be alone with anyone – than to offer him all she had and see him wishing she were more.

She cast a despairing glance at the gown she had tossed on the floor, wondering whether she could put it on again neatly enough to convince him that she had never removed it. She had only had time to wonder when he opened the door.

She had only had time to wonder when he opened the door.

He stopped for a moment, seemingly startled, and she feared he was disappointed even with what her shift revealed.

She laughed wildly. “Too late!”

He pushed the door closed without a sound. “I was thinking too soon…”

She giggled, quaking like a last leaf before the winter wind. Another ten seconds of his stare and she was certain she would scream louder than Liadan.

She had scarcely had the thought when he stepped too close to stare, and hooked an arm around her waist to pull her still closer.

He stepped too close to stare.

“Is it still a race?” he asked.

“If it is, I’m helping you win,” she laughed.

“Thank you.”

He did not offer to even the score as she hoped – for his shirt now seemed the easiest of his garments – but only bent his head and kissed her.

He only bent his head and kissed her.

He kissed her like a man now, mouth to mouth, and like a man he ran his hands over her body. At first they seemed uncertain, but one soon settled on a firm, toe-​​curling stroke from her tailbone up to the nape of her neck and down again, fitting the curve of her spine to the curve of his body. On the next stroke, the first hand was joined by the other, and both of them grabbed a handful of linen as they went up.

She squeaked in surprise.

She squeaked in surprise as the fabric dragged up her legs, followed by the cool air, but the hands did not hesitate. When the hem reached her hips, one of the hands dropped to catch it, and then the other, and suddenly there was nothing for her to do but to lift her arms like a toddler and let him slip her shift off over her head.

She cheeped again at the shock of the cold air, but it was followed immediately by the heat of his skin as she fell against him. He tipped her head back and kissed her and caressed her – like a man now, perfectly sure of himself. He lifted her up and set her down so that her bare little feet were posed on his boots, and when he found something that made her squeak or sigh, he did it again. Even when Flann tried to prevent herself from squeaking and sighing, he would find something else she could not resist.

At last her body was coming to life.

At last her body was coming to life, blossoming with heat like cold embers flaring up and beginning to glow, and it was all at his hands; he was master of her body, though it still belonged to her.

She was as dizzy as a drunk. She wanted him to lie her down on the bed and do to her whatever she wanted – and even if she did not yet know what it was, she was certain he already did. Her lips tingled as they did when she drank too much wine, and her tongue was heavy and slow, but she turned her mouth away from his and sighed, “Oshhhhh…”


He reached a hand up beneath her hair and caught a fistful of it at the nape of her neck, tipping her head back still farther, but holding it still.

He lowered his mouth to hers as if he meant to kiss her, but he stopped short and only sighed. He held his breath until she took a breath and released it again, and then he was breathing with her, in with her out, out with her in.

He lowered his mouth to hers as if he meant to kiss her.

Flann felt a fluttering panic as her body began to dissolve like foam, but her feet were on his feet, her waist was in the crook of his arm, and her head was in his hand. Even while it lasted, her body was not hers to move.

She tried to speak, but her breath was too entwined in his; their lips were too close together. Even when she turned her face aside, she could feel his tongue in her mouth. Even when he tipped her away from him, she could feel his heart beating in her chest. She had not guessed it was pounding so, and he had seemed so sure of himself that she did not think it was due to nervousness or fear.

She could feel his heart beating in her chest.

The veil of herself crumbled away like ash, and so disembodied she floated through another veil of gentleness she had not known existed, into a nightmare of chained beasts she could not have imagined at all.

She felt her hands tighten around something, and she felt the pain of the tightening grip. She felt a desire to bite and suck. She longed to capture, to crush, to pin down, to penetrate. She wanted to squash any show of strength into helplessness, and to twist any resistance into a plea for further subjugation.

And yet she still felt a need to resist.

Her mouth was not her own, and she did not even know where to focus her attention to breathe. Nevertheless she managed to scream.

Her mouth was not her own.

Osh’s head snapped back and he stared at her, eyes widely blue, mouth widely mute, and his breath coming ragged and out of rhythm. There was nothing comical about his dismay.

“Liadan!” he whispered.


Flann closed her eyes and listened. She could only hear her baby’s long shrieks behind the wall, but she knew them well enough to fill in the gasping breaths of the silences between them.

When she opened her eyes, Osh was looking sorrowfully down on her, but he quickly composed his face into gentleness.

When she opened her eyes, Osh was looking sorrowfully down on her.

“Do you know what I think? I think she wants her Mama, and tonight Osh will not do.”

“Perhaps…” Flann murmured. She was relieved to find her voice was working and was her own, though she could not bring herself to laugh.

“I think she does not like to wake at night, and not to hear her Mama breathing in bed beside her.”

“Snoring, you mean,” she joked feebly.

'Snoring, you mean.'

“Perhaps so, even if it is strange taste for lullabies. And therefore, I think you should go snore for her.” He smoothed her hair out on either side of her head with his hands, as if she were herself a child.

Flann was relieved, and yet she felt bitterly disappointed in something – herself, perhaps, for having failed. She feared she would not even be able to look at him in the morning. In the morning! When she was supposed to have awoken beside him, and he to have done her hair…

“Do not cry, pretty lady,” he murmured, stroking his hands down her cheeks now. “That makes two, and that is too many for poor Osh. I think you find that if you go to the other room, no one will cry. And that is what I like.”

'That is what I like.'

Her head hung low beneath the weight of her shame, but she managed to nod.

“And if we want not to be alone, we decide that any time. That is a lot to talk about, and now you are tired. We shall talk. Here is for you.”

He put her shift into her hand, and before she could lift her head to thank him, he had crossed the room to pick up his own shirt, fold it with exaggerated neatness, and put it away. She saw he was giving her time to dress behind his back, and she hurried to take it.

He returned to kiss her cheek, but she pinched his chin between her fingers and said with feigned determination, “Tomorrow we shall talk.”

“Any time.” He smiled weakly enough that she could tell it had taken some strength to smile at all. “When you are ready. When you are ready.”

'When you are ready.'

He kissed her opposite cheek and herded her to the door.

“Good night, Flann. Now starts the race of who snores first.”

Once the door had closed behind her, Flann shuffled around the corner, twisting her gown between her hands as a soundless substitute for sobbing.

Their rooms were side-​​by-​​side, and it did not take long to go from one door to the other. Nevertheless, even before her eyes had adjusted to the darkness of her room, she knew that the race had already been won.

She knew that the race had already been won.