The baby was sobbing so hard she sometimes skipped a breath.

The baby was sobbing so hard she sometimes skipped a breath, and then she would panic and fling out her quivering arms, rigid and eerily silent until the time for the next breath came, and she would scream and begin again. Aelfden had heard her from one end of the cloister to the other.

“Take her!” Flann snarled. “Take her!”

Aelfden took her. He scarcely saw the baby’s face as she was transferred to his shoulder, but Flann’s was wet all around the mouth from kissing and kissing the sweat and tears from the little cheeks, and to no end.

Flann's face was wet all around the mouth.

“Is she hungry?” he asked stupidly.

“I just fed her!” Flann sobbed. “In the forest! It’s on a log I was sitting and nursing my baby, like a filthy strumpet I was!”

“In the forest?” he echoed. He had been so occupied trying to guess why she had come that he had not even stopped to consider how. “How did you come here, child? Did you walk all this way?”

“Aye! And farther still!” Flann cried. She brandished a sudden defiance up out of her flood of tears, but it was an ugly sort of strength. “For it’s to the river I first did go!”

'For it's to the river I first did go!'

“To the river…?” he murmured.

Liadan lifted her head off his shoulder and screamed. Aelfden lost a moment trying to comfort her, but Flann waited – seeming not merely patient but eager for him to ask why.

“Why would you be going to the river, Flann?” he asked gently.

'Why would you be going to the river, Flann?'

He had asked, as she had desired, and yet she did not answer. Slowly her mouth spread into a grin as broad and sinister as a skull’s.

Aelfden was accustomed to men and women trying to shock him with their wickedness. He knew their savage pride was only a mask to hide their terror that they had sinned past forgiving. It did not mean that he was past being shocked.

He flung an arm around her to pull her against his other shoulder, without thinking, as he would have dived into the water. For a moment she struggled, as a drowning girl would struggle, but then she went limp, and he held the three of them together.

“I didn’t know what to do!” she blubbered into the rough canvas of his robe.

Liadan stopped her wailing and only gasped and hiccupped, as if she wanted to hear or help him hear.

“I couldn’t decide!” Flann moaned. “Both of us? Or my own self alone? Or my baby? My sweet baby in the cold, cold water?” she squeaked.

“You made the right choice,” Aelfden murmured.

The steady pounding of his heart was calming the three of them. The baby turned her face into his neck and sighed, filling the space between their heads with her milky breath. The head on his left shoulder smelled like sweet baby sweat and tears, and the head on his right smelled like the night air and flowers that were out of season.

For a moment he thought that his cramped heart might simply have expanded if he could have invited such beings as these to dwell in it forever. But then he would have to begin locking the door.

Flann pushed herself away from him and roughly wiped the tears from her face with the heel of her hand.

“And then I was thinking of my father,” she mumbled. “I heard him saying, ‘See there, lass! It’s for this I was teaching you to swim!’” She laughed shakily.

'And then I was thinking of my father.'

“He was teaching you to be strong,” Aelfden said.

“He always said I was his favorite son.” Flann smiled a weak smile like a waning crescent moon. Her voice was husky enough from crying that she sounded like a boy indeed. “I wish I had been. It’s a terrible woman I am. A terrible mother…” she added in a whisper she directed at the back of her baby’s head.

“I do not think your daughter would agree, Flann,” Aelfden scolded gently. “She is growing very big and fine, if I am any judge. And it’s a good mother will even stop to sit on a log in the dark forest if her baby is hungry.”

“I didn’t know what else to do…” Flann muttered. “She was crying so… And I sang…”

“You did the right thing again, despite not knowing. I think your heart knows the right thing, if you don’t. And it was right to come here, if you did not know where else to go.”

'It was right to come here, if you did not know where else to go.'

Flann lifted her arms and dropped them again in a grandly weary shrug. “It’s to Saint Margaret’s only I was thinking to go, after. But what I would be saying at Nothelm gate I did not know. And I was afraid Father Matthew would hear me and come, and – I could not bear it!” she groaned. “I would have screamed.”

Aelfden tried not to smile.

“I couldn’t have told him anything I’m telling you, Father,” she said dramatically.


“But I wasn’t thinking to wake you either, Father,” she said, suddenly meek. “I was only thinking to go into the chapel and light a candle for the father of me, and wait for the dawn. But Liadan was crying so when I came to the gate. No more could I bear! And I feared the monks would be there, and I a wicked woman with my baby, disturbing them in their prayers…”

'And I a wicked woman with my baby, disturbing them in their prayers...'

“I was not sleeping, so there is no worry there,” he soothed. “And no one is in the chapel now, my dear. We’ve still an hour or more before Lauds. And we are all sinners here – you’ve as much right to be there as we. And Liadan, too. What did our Lord say? ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.’”

Flann smiled weakly and laid a hand on her daughter’s back for a moment.

“I would invite you to come any time you like, but it is too far for you, Flann. You mustn’t be coming so far alone. Your family must be very worried.”

'They don't care.'

“They don’t care,” she muttered.

“I’m not believing it. Why are you saying so?”

She shrugged, but weakly, with one shoulder. “Look how quiet she is,” she pouted, nodding at her baby. “I’ve only to hand her to someone and she quiets swith and sure.”

Aelfden lifted the baby off his shoulder long enough to have a peek at her face. It was still red and wet with tears, and her pale eyes were still pink around the edges, but aside from the occasional hiccup, she was calm and almost drowsy.

It was still red and wet with tears.

But the same could be said of her mother.

“Look how quiet you are,” Aelfden said to her. “I am certain that is why.”

Flann snorted in scorn. “It’s in your arms she’s lying, Father. Look how quiet you are!”

“And that is precisely why. My child, I have been a priest since you were scarcely older than your daughter is now,” he reminded her. “I know by now that it is impossible to calm a man, woman, child, or baby if one is agitated oneself.”

'Aye, and that's why you're the priest, and I'm the wicked woman!'

“Aye, and that’s why you’re the priest, and I’m the wicked woman,” she laughed harshly. “You cannot be expecting me to follow your saintly example.”

“My example should give you courage, dear girl,” Aelfden said. “It proves one does not require the patience nor the virtue of a saint, as I most assuredly am not.”

At last a real laugh came gurgling up out of the sludge of sorrow in which she swam. “Fie!” she scoffed, squeezing his arm in a gesture of pure affection, such as he had so rarely felt in all his love-​​starved life. “I won’t let any man say so, Father. Not even you!”

'I won't let any man say so, Father.'