There was no one in the hall but two of his cats.

Ralf had not been with the King, but he did not appreciate being called away from his work nevertheless, and certainly not for nothing. There was no one in the hall but his cats.

“What did you do to him, Chlo?” he asked the nearest. “Chased him off, did you?”

Chloe pinned back her ears and meowed.

“And his ‘fine horse’, too?” Ralf muttered as he headed for the kitchen. The boy who had been sent to call him home had not bothered to note so much as the name of his visitor, but he had been eloquent in his praise of the “fine black horse” with all its trappings.

He made it as far as the doorway.

Ralf could hear his housekeeper coming to meet him, but she came not quickly enough. He made it as far as the doorway and stopped there, struck suddenly as stony-​limbed as Polydectes before the head of Medusa.

Behind the wall and beneath the surprising fall of her hair, Ralf saw no more than the slim edge of her profile, high at the forehead and pointed at the chin like a crescent moon, and sharp like the long blade of a scythe. Not all these months had dimmed its radiance, nor dulled its keen edge where it bit into his heart.

This was Danaë herself, lovely and sad.

But this was no Gorgon. This was Danaë herself, lovely and sad, persecuted for nothing more than having borne her fatherless child. Across her lap there even spilled a shower of golden light, like the seal of her heavenly lover, and her hands pawed through it helplessly.

Ralf had stepped into a myth. Somehow this beautiful being, beloved of the gods, had come to stop a while in his own house.

And somehow she had come to be seated in the little alcove at the top of the back stairs—not the lowly kitchen bench, perhaps, but still no better than what was offered the miller when he came to collect his coin.

Ralf’s housekeeper made it out of the kitchen only in time to catch the first swell of his outrage. He pulled her into the empty hall and hissed, “What is the meaning of this?”

Old Diera's face was as forbidding as any Gorgon's.

Old Diera’s face was as forbidding as any Gorgon’s. “I didn’t have nothing to do with her comin’,” she muttered. “And once she was here she would be coming in, so I let her in.”

“And why didn’t you bring her into the hall? And why didn’t you take her cloak? And why didn’t you offer her something hot to drink? Do you know how cold it is out there?”

'Do you know how cold it is out there?'

Diera’s eyes narrowed into scornful slits. “Sir, I can’t say nothing if you bring that kind of girl home, but you better tell ‘em not to be coming to the front door like they’s fit company.”

That kind of girl is a lady!” he growled.

Diera sniffed.

Diera sniffed. “I won’t be consercatin’ the behavior of that kind of lady by treatin’ her better’n she’s worth.”

“There is no shame in treating anybody better than she’s worth—and in this house, that is the only sort of misjudgment I shall permit you to make, Diera! Now get those candles lit and get some cider on to warm, and—oh God,” he croaked as he began to face the prospect of facing Flann.

'Now get those candles lit and get some cider on to warm.'

As he put away his own cloak, he had the time to think of how he might greet her, but he would have to muddle his way through the rest of the act. This time he would not have the luxury of days spent rehearsing his lines. This time he did not even know what sort of scene she had come to play.

Now she was looking him in the face.

He hid his nervousness behind a smile. “Good afternoon, Flann.”

Her lips seemed to move around a whispered, “Good afternoon”, but from his height he could not hear.

“I think the hall is warm enough now, so won’t you come in with me? And let me take your cloak?”

'And let me take your cloak?'

He had to hope Diera had not made a point of banishing her to the alcove, but Flann rose meekly enough that she seemed to believe his lie.

Her lap went dark when she stood, as if all the rain of gold had spilled out of it, but the window at her side cast a halo of wintry light around half the curving outline of her body, and the candle at her left warmly gilded the other cheek.

The window behind her cast a halo of wintry light all around her body.

For a moment his home’s humble alcove was a shrine; she was half-​goddess and half-​statue, and like an ancient priest, he was blessed with the sacred duty of dressing and undressing her.

Beneath her cloak she wore a fine, heavy gown he had never seen, and he realized too he had never seen her with her hair arranged otherwise than pulled tightly behind her head, as if to dull her feminine beauty with boyishness.

His humble hands were blessed with the task of dressing and undressing her.

Now she was dressed like a lady indeed, fit to kiss the hand of the King, except that her pretty shoes and her gown’s broidered hem were damp and dark with mud, and the ends of her hair had been frayed out around her face by the wind. She still panted as she breathed and walked with her weight on her toes, as if she had fled some dreadful dance and feared she had not done fleeing.

She still panted as she breathed.

Knowing her safe, however, and feeling himself the guardian of her safety, her perfume of tragedy only made her presence sweeter to Ralf. To his fond eyes her disarray only ornamented her beauty, giving her a wild, deerish, Diana-​like grace.

Ralf saw her seated on the least furry of his cushions, but he was then faced with the perplexing problem of choosing between taking the farthest cushion of the other couch or waking the wrathful Aelia to evict her from the nearer.

He was then faced with the perplexing problem.

While he considered, his little finger was clasped by a hand and shaken lightly like a toy.

“Won’t you be sitting beside me, Ralf?” Flann asked. “What I’ve to say I do not wish to be shouting.”

'Won't you be sitting beside me, Ralf?'

He had never heard her speak so gently. He had never felt her take his hand. Today she was coming timidly to him.

He sat beside her as carefully as beside the wariest of stray cats. As always he had to remind himself that with ladies—unlike with cats—he must not keep his eyes averted. Perhaps that was why no wary ladies had ever come creeping onto his lap.

He tried to find the right words.

He tried to find the right words to ask her what trouble had brought her to him—for trouble there surely was—without implying that she could only have come to him in case of trouble.

Flann herself interrupted his deliberations. “It’s to call on your wife I came,” she announced.

'It's to call on your wife I came.'

The words confused him, but there was an eager undercurrent to her voice that made his heart pound with more than nervousness. He could feel his pulse in his wrists without even applying a thumb.

“But she wasn’t at home,” she added.

It seemed there had been some horrible, incomprehensible misunderstanding.

“Flann…” he began. Shy as he was, rarely had his words come so painfully. “I don’t have a wife. I don’t know who might have told you I did.”

'I don't have a wife.'

“No one did. I thought you must have found a wife by now. You were so eager to marry when we spoke last.”

Was she mocking him? Her face was as red as his felt. Was she feverish, or was she simply as nervous as he?

“I was not eager to marry, per se,” he said. “I was eager—that is—hoping to marry you. At that time.”

She sat back and nodded. Ralf sighed in relief. He felt as if he had remembered his lines without ever having learned them. Then she startled him again.

“What about at this time?” she asked. Her eyes were frank and Flann-​like, challenging him to challenge her.

'What about at this time?'

The luxurious beauty of the hair and the dress had bewildered him at first, but by her eyes Ralf knew her for the girl he loved. This was the prideful girl who preferred scorn to pity. This was the brave and fragile girl who had a bow and no shield, who could only defend herself by attacking first. This was his Amazon.

When he was despondent or reckless enough to let himself dream, he saw her in myths: Flann flitting through groves of laurel and olive, bare-​legged for running and bare-​breasted for drawing her bow. He could be Theseus, Zeus, or Pan, and in his dreams he always caught her, dodging her arrows until the last, and with his stronger lungs, stronger legs, and stronger arms, teaching her she could never quite be the man she needed.

He could be Theseus, Zeus, or Pan.

But even in his dreams she had never come humbly to him. Flann herself had unbound her hair and dressed herself like a lady. Flann herself had come to lay down her bow and quiver at his feet. Flann herself was asking him to ask again.

And now his own timidity had turned his tongue to stone.

It was she who finally averted her eyes after so much silence. His own freed, he immediately glanced up at the chair behind her, lit all in golden light from the window. Now that he had them both in his sight, it was so easy to begin to dream again his most reckless dream.

He had already seen her curled up there.

During the days he had spent rehearsing his futile lines, he had already seen her curled up there in the sunlight, content as a warm and well-​fed cat. He had seen her little child stand lisping at her knee, never suspecting it had no father, and he had even dreamed so far as to see his own drowsy baby draped across her lap.

He had even dreamed so far as to see his own drowsy baby draped across her lap.

But this was neither his dream coming true nor any living myth. She was no Danaë, Diana, or Amazon: she was neither fleeing a divine destiny nor running wild and free. She was simply a muddy, tangle-​haired, confused and irrational girl, worthy of scorn if one saw her through such eyes as Diera’s, or pity if through his.

She was simply a muddy, tangle-haired, confused and irrational girl.

He only wondered how best to help her.

“Flann…” he whispered.


Almost as soon as the name had left his lips, it was repeated at a distance by a shout—“Flann!”—like the cry of some jealous god infuriated by his trespass.

The pounding on his front door was more mundane and more real. Though Diera reappeared so promptly that Ralf suspected she had been listening from the entry, even she was not fast enough to open it. Paul nearly knocked her over on his way into the hall.

Paul nearly knocked her over on his way into the hall.

“Flann!” he whinnied. “What are you doing here? We all feared you— You know what we feared!” He caught her shoulders in his hands and held her fast with his stronger arms.

Flann’s eyes were neither wide nor frank now, but they were fearless. “It’s to visit this gentleman’s wife I came.”

'It's to visit this gentleman's wife I came.'

“But—Ralf doesn’t have a wife!” Paul protested. “You know that!”

Then he shook her once between his hands, as if to wake her, or even to make certain she was real. He leaned his head close to hers and whined “Flann!” desperately.

“No, he does not!” she cried defiantly into the elf’s face. “It seems he does not want a wife at all.”

This was Ralf’s Amazon—not at all the meek and desperate little girl whose courage had wavered before his mere silence. If she could be so strong now, it meant he must have seen her as few men ever had. He could not bear to let her go away thinking him untrue.

'But, Flann...'

“But, Flann…” he protested weakly.

Neither heard.

“How did you do it?” Paul asked. “I wasn’t away half an hour! Were you waiting for the first instant our backs were turned?”

Flann’s lip curled back into a defiant sneer.

“Didn’t you think of Liadan? She was screaming for you when I left!”

'Didn't you think of Liadan?'

Her lip kept going back and back, past an ugly sneer, past a predator’s vicious snarl, back until she was baring her teeth like a skull.

“And didn’t you think of my father? He and Rua are down at the river looking for you! Flann! At the river!” His voice broke like a young teen’s, and he held her out at arm’s length to shake her again. “Flann!” he sobbed. “I only saw his face like that once before!”

It seemed he had been holding her away only to keep himself from holding her close, for when he finally pulled her tightly against him it looked like a surrender. At last Ralf realized this was an occasion when a man ought to avert his eyes.

At last Ralf realized this was an occasion when a man ought to avert his eyes.

Paul whimpered, “Come home, Flann. We love you. Tell us what you need!”

“I need… my baby!” Flann blubbered.

“And your baby needs you…”

“My sweet baby!”

There was more whispering that Ralf tried not to hear. He felt so awkward that he wondered whether it would not be less awkward to leave, but then Paul whirled around to grab his hand and shake it.

Paul whirled around to grab his hand and shake it.

“Thank you.”

Ralf felt more awkward than ever, and he could only smile stupidly and nod.

Then they were leaving. He could only blunder after them, as politeness demanded, though neither seemed to remember he was there, and he could only wish he were not.

But when her muddied foot first touched the stairs, Flann noticed where she was, and turned back to him.

“Ralf,” she whispered—not speaking to him, but naming him.


It was his one chance. It was not even a chance, but it was all he would have.

“At this time or any time,” he said. “I still hope.”


She replied, “Peacefully.” She seemed to be speaking the lines to some other play.

He wanted to correct her—“Passionately”—but peace seemed to be what she wanted to hear.

“Yes,” he nodded. “I bid you peace.”

'I bid you peace.'

Paul touched her arm, and she turned and shuffled away, heavy now on her feet beside her graceful brother-​in-​law. As she went she murmured, almost to herself, “Are you having so much you can be giving it away?”

As soon as he had seen the door closed after her, his house seemed a dimmer and duller place. Her presence had been so inconceivable that in her absence he felt only a miserable ache—not even a pain magnificent enough to make the room sparkle through tears.

His favorite cat jumped up onto the couch beside him, purring to herself, but loudly enough that he suspected she wanted to be overheard.

His favorite cat jumped up onto the couch beside him.

She too had been a muddy, tangle-​furred, frightened and confused little mother when she had first come creeping into his life all those years ago—scarcely more than a kitten herself, with her one surviving kitten dangling from her mouth. Her instincts had told her she and her baby would be safe, warm, well-​fed, and well-​loved with him. But no one had ever charged into his house to make Aphrodite come away.

Ralf had lived so long alone that he was not above philosophizing with cats. He asked her, “Has any joy ever come to the race of men when they have looked to love among the race of gods?”

Wise old Aphrodite looked skeptical.

Wise old Aphrodite looked skeptical.

Tanta stultitia mortalium est,” he sighed.

He listened as the two horses went clattering up the gravel path to the road, and he wondered drearily whether Flann had cared enough to look back before the trees had hidden the house away.

Finally he found the reply he would have made to her last wistful question if he had had the time to practice his lines.

“Take all I have,” he muttered. It was not so very generous an offer. He knew from the ache in his throat that for the next few nights at least, she already had.

'Take all I have.'