Lena awoke an instant too late.

Lena awoke an instant too late to comprehend what Paul had howled into the night – she only knew that she had heard. Benedict too awoke with a grunt, but he sucked himself right back to sleep, with five or six soft clicks of his tongue in his empty mouth. Lena breathed gently beside him and listened.

Outside a dog barked once and snapped its jaws at the fog its breath made in the cold air. The chickens in the coop made a quick clatter of clipped wings and settled, and Lena heard one of the horses sigh, shift its weight, and cock its hind hoof in the straw.

Silence seemed to have settled back over the valley like a blanket briefly lifted and let go. Meanwhile, however, a chill had crept beneath it, and Lena was afraid to sleep.

Then Paul howled again, yanking the cozy silence down and flinging it aside for good: She has returned!–less a bellow of triumph or thanksgiving than a wailing plea for his father to hurry down from his hill.

Paul howled again.

Now the dog barked frantically, and the hens woke again and began to gabble their gossipy confusion. What was that? What was that? Did you hear that? Lena imagined for them.

The front door slammed, and then Lena heard the shuffling and the sniffling in the entry – Paul’s high-​​pitched, panicked questions, and Lasrua’s squeaking non-​​replies.

Lena laid her head back on her pillow, closed her eyes, and tried not to listen. The girls of her caste were endowed with an exquisite discretion; they all learned how not to hear what happened behind closed doors.

Lena laid her head back on her pillow.

Lena concentrated on the clucking of the hens as she would have focused on the idle chatter of the girls in the Great Hall. Did you ever hear such a thing? she imagined for one restive hen. Probably nothing, for another, a grumbler. And for a third, Say, did you hear about…?

Meanwhile, downstairs, behind closed doors, some of the words were eerily the same. Let’s take that off… Don’t touch me…

In spite of her rapt attention to the chatty hens, Lena felt her old taut fear like a fist pressing into her gut from the inside: the fear of being taken behind closed doors.

You see the feathers on that one? one of the cattier hens confided to another. Dyed! — No!

And downstairs: Please sit down… No! Rapid pacing, like a trapped animal, and the slow, heavy steps of a male, of a predator, hemming her in.

Lena imagined the hens squatting on silky cushions.

A hen asked, Did you hear about that other one? Lena imagined them squatting on silky cushions instead of their humble straw, their heads bowed close together, their crests shaking like sparkling ornaments in shining hair. No! What happened to her?

What happened to you? It was Paul, asking and asking. Lasrua did not even know. She was only sobbing and sobbing.

“What happened to her? What happened to her?” It was not the chickens now – it was Cat.

Lena threw off the blankets and sat up. Benedict grunted, sucked his tongue for a moment, and drifted back to sleep.

Lena threw off the blankets and sat up.

“Paul!” Cat wailed. “What are you saying? What happened? Speak English!” At last, exasperated, she shouted, “Lena!”

That was the point at which Lena’s discretion always ended. She hurriedly tucked the blankets around Benedict’s limp body and headed for the stairs.

“Paul, what’s wrong with her?” Cat demanded. Her voice was shrill with fear. “Did someone – ”

'Did someone--'

Cat sucked her breath through her teeth to catch a sob and let it out slowly in a hiss. Her body jolted straight and arched back as if she had been struck across the face – or across the breast…

Lena leapt straight out over the last three steps and landed lightly in the doorway. Cat had been left too long alone without an explanation, and finally she had filled the wide emptiness with her own almighty fear.

But what could Lena tell her? Lasrua answered every question with I don’t know, I don’t remember…

What could Lena tell her?

At last Cat stomped around Paul to Lasrua’s side, her feet all but silent in the deep fur of the rug, and begged, almost sobbing herself, “Rua, what happened?”

Lasrua wailed in English, “I don’t know! I don’t remember!”

Cat cried “Paul!” as though Paul could make her.

“I don’t remember anything,” Lasrua whimpered. “I remember walking in the snow – and it was morning – and then it was evening and I was at the lake…”

Paul whispered fearfully, “The lake!”

“And I walked home, and that’s all I remember…”

“But Rua,” Cat gasped. “What about last night? Where were you spending the night, darling, or with whom?”

'What about last night?'

Lasrua quavered, “The night?”

“Lu, you’ve been missing since yesterday morning!” Paul cried.

Then Lasrua shrieked and sobbed anew.

Lena discreetly turned her eyes away. Derbail’s shuffling and door-​​opening overhead had turned into a heavy footfall on the stairs, and Lena tried to distract her mind by concentrating on the creaking of the treads.

Almost at once she swayed with a strange dizziness.

Almost at once she swayed with a strange dizziness. She leaned back against the doorframe and swallowed. She could feel a burning nausea trickling slowly downward into her gut like an overheated drink. Creak… creak… creak… She realized it sounded like a bed.

“What happened to her?” Derbail whispered at her side.

'What happened to her?'

Lena breathed lightly through her mouth, trying to calm her queasy stomach.

Derbail cocked her head and whispered slyly, “Run off with you-​​know-​​who?

Lena breathed, “What?”

You know who,” Derbail whispered confidingly. She clucked her tongue in her mouth and shook her head. “I could have told you he’d do it. That man doesn’t even believe in halters to tie his horse down. Ride him once and let him go.” She sighed and turned expectantly to Lena.

She snorted and turned expectantly to Lena.

Lasrua was whimpering, There was a – a fire. And kittens… or puppies! Paul howled, Puppies?

Lena whispered, “She does not know what happened to her…”

“No more than I did when I was her age and got tricked,” Derbail replied grimly, as though this only proved her theory. “But I learned my lesson, Lena,” she whispered. “Never trust a man farther than you can throw him.”

Lena blinked at her, sizing up the maid’s broad shoulders and beefy arms, and wondering how literally she meant it.

Lena blinked at her.

But Derbail was blinking too: her eyes were wet, she swallowed thickly, and her mighty breast heaved beneath its pink ribbons. Lena realized she was reliving the old heartbreak she pretended not to feel. Derbail had simply covered over the gaping mystery of Lasrua’s disappearance with the tawdry canvas of her own. Being “tricked” and ruined by a man was the greatest horror husbandless Derbail knew.

“Cat,” Paul said tautly, “won’t you please take Rua up to her room and – ” He went as still as a deer.

'And what?'

“And what?” Cat prompted.

“And – and look at her!

“Look at what?” Cat whispered.

I don’t know! How am I supposed to know? Can’t you tell?”

Cat’s lips were turning pale and her cheeks were growing flushed. “Tell what?”

Paul’s lithe body arced suddenly like a bow, and he beat his own skull with his fists, howling, “Naí! naí! naí!

'Naí! naí! naí!'

Lena discreetly closed her eyes, but the blindness was harder to bear. Paul’s voice was almost as high-​​pitched as a girl’s, and the sound of fists against a skull was always the same.

She concentrated her thoughts on Edina’s padding feet as the little maid hurried up the stairs and into the entry. She moved like a girl who was arriving late and feared missing the fun. There had been such girls in the Great Hall too.

Lena discreetly closed her eyes.

Are you hurt, darling? Cat was cooing. Are you having any bruises or scratches on you? There was a tremor in her voice like the long, low ringing of a temple gong far away.

“What happened?” Edina whispered when she reached Derbail’s elbow.

“She’s not telling,” Derbail replied grimly.

“Lord! She must ha’ done something bad. I wonder if she ran away?”

'Lord!  She must ha' done something bad.'

“With a man,” Derbail added.

Or are you hurting… anywhere?  —  Naí! naí! naí!

“Or maybe she ran away ’cause of Flann?” Edina suggested. “That’s what I done when my Da got married again.”

“Maybe she ran away with a man because of Flann,” Derbail proposed as a compromise.

Edina did not reply, and after a moment Lena looked over at her. Edina’s head was sinking before her eyes, and her wry little mouth was drooping softly open.

Her wry little mouth was drooping softly open.

“What happened to you, Dina?” Lena whispered.

Edina’s head snapped up. “Oh,” she scoffed, at once her no-​​nonsense self again. “Nothing much. I just… did some things I shouldn’t ha’ done with some men I shouldn’t ha’ spent any time with. I’m still a maiden, mind,” she whispered roughly, “but I did… some things. I had to eat, you know!”

“Your jaw will be tiring ere you fill your belly that way, lassie,” Derbail whispered.

'I had to eat, you know!'

“I didn’t mean eat that, you stupid cow! I didn’t even swallow it anyway! I guess that means you do!”

“Fie, and if I do!” Derbail whispered defiantly. “I never met a man that didn’t love that. Some better than anything.”

Lena swayed until her spine cracked against the doorframe. Her face flushed, her empty stomach twisted and gurgled, and she feared she was about to vomit, as she had sometimes tried to vomit up things she had swallowed years before.

She feared she was about to vomit.

Outside the dog began barking again, snapping its teeth all the more aggressively because it was helpless and tied down. Then Lena too heard the first distant footsteps crashing through the drifted snow in the forest, rapid and ragged and faster than a deer. Lena knew it was Osh: he had no antlers to snag.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Kraaia was flitting from shadow to shadow, trying to listen without being heard, trying to see without being seen. There had been such girls in the Great Hall, too. Lena had been one of them.

But poor round-​​eared Kraaia could not suspect the whispery sounds she made with her bare feet, nor the sighs and moans of the floorboards that flexed beneath her weight.

The poor beautiful, blue-​​eyed little girl never suspected how her body betrayed her. However she turned her head, behind her some man would always be watching her – seeing without being seen – sizing up her swaying hips for grasping and reckoning the weight of her breasts with his empty hands.

It did not matter that her hips were scarcely flared as yet, nor that her breasts were but slight bumps upon her chest, like the dents of thumbs pressed out from the inside. Some men loved little girls better than anything. Lena had known one of them.

Lena had known one of them.

She did not want Kraaia to come down. The very air of the frigid room seemed imbued with sex and suffering, like the lingering fog of the ladies’ own polluted breath. No one knew what had happened to Lasrua, and so each had faithfully returned to her own most unholy ground – to each a golden calf for lack of Truth: to each the graven image of her almighty fear.

Then Paul stopped his moaning to shout, “My father is coming!”

'My father is coming!'

Kraaia did not dash down into the hall, but from that point forward her aimless flitting took a definite course: from shadow to shadow she began shuffling towards the stairs. Lena listened to Osh’s feet pounding closer and prayed that he would reach the hall before the girl. She did not want to witness what Kraaia most feared.

Lasrua stiffened abruptly and cried, “Vash was there!” Her face was still contorted by her last sobs, making her sudden smile grotesque, but it relaxed as she shuddered in relief.

'Vash was there!'

Kraaia’s little feet on the stairs made a creak… creak… creak… that could only have been heard by elves. Lena sent a fearful glance up at her. Kraaia’s pretty mouth, as ever, was sullen and defiant: she never suspected how fragile and helpless she was.

Kraaia's pretty mouth, as ever, was sullen and defiant.

“Vash was with me!” Lasrua repeated soothingly to herself. “I spent the night with Vash…”

“Vash wasn’t with you!” Paul wailed. “Vash was helping us look for you! Vash spent the night with Kraaia!”

He sent an ugly look over his shoulder at Kraaia’s bare feet. He had heard their creaking more clearly than Lena with his long male ears. Innocent Kraaia continued placidly down, believing herself silent.

Outside the ragged rhythm of Osh’s feet changed abruptly to long and steady bounds, like a leaping stag. He had left the woods and reached the wide, untrodden whiteness of the back yard.

One of the horses awoke to whicker, and in the hen house feathers were fluffed and straw scattered. Lasrua began to sniffle and cry.

Creak… Kraaia had come low enough to see Paul’s face if Paul chose to look at her that way again. Lena closed her eyes and prayed that Osh would arrive before he so chose. She prayed he would arrive before her little bare feet touched the floor. Creak…

The back door flew open with a bang such as doors ordinarily made only when slamming shut, and Osh bounded into the entry with the snow still whirling off his robes. 

Kraaia hesitated on the last step.

Kraaia hesitated on the last step and Osh froze for an instant beside her. Each stared startled into the other’s eyes, and they quivered together like a pair of deer.

But Osh had only meant to stop his forward momentum with one leg, and at once he bounded off again to the side.




Lasrua grunted as her father’s body crashed into hers and his arms squeezed the breath suddenly out of her lungs.

Kraaia’s bare sole slapped onto the floor, and the second landed lightly beside it. She let her hand slip off the railing and stared dully at Derbail’s broad back, displaying a very un-​​Kraaia-​​like lack of curiosity. 

She let her hand slip limply off the railing.

Kraaia had not let herself be hugged that morning, though poor Osh had been obliged to all but sit on his hands to prevent himself. Lena wondered then whether he ought not to have tried.

“Rua!” Osh’s body shook with panting and laughter and dry sobs, as though the great lord of air could not even control his own breath. Rua’s little head peeped over his shoulder like a baby’s.

Suddenly she pushed him away and sniffled, “Daddy, I lost my necklace!”

'Daddy, I lost my necklace!'

“It doesn’t matter,” he soothed, laughing shakily.

“My mother’s necklace! I don’t know where!”

Osh folded her into his arms again. “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter…”

“She doesn’t know what happened!” Paul bleated. “She says she doesn’t remember anything!”

“It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter…” Osh chanted in a whisper. Though her feet were on the floor, he rocked his daughter in his arms like a baby.

Lena discreetly lowered her eyes and tried not to listen.

“I wonder what happened to her?” Kraaia whispered.

In her desperate search for a distraction, Lena forgot that Kraaia had not expected to be heard, and she replied, “She does not remember what happened.”

'She does not remember what happened.'

Startled, Kraaia did not reply for a moment.

But, Father, she said she was at the lake! — It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter…

“Did she get hurt?” Kraaia finally muttered.

“We hope not,” Lena said.

Kraaia swallowed and shuffled for a moment between her two feet, going nowhere. Suddenly she shoved her way past Derbail and shouted, “Tell them about the fawn!”

Lasrua cried, “The fawn!”

Her body stiffened so suddenly that Osh was startled into letting her go. She staggered, tipped back her head until her sparkling, wind-​​tangled hair swung loose like a veil, and shrieked, “Malcolm!”


It was a terrible, terrifying cry of raw pain. They all fell silent, elf and woman alike, with the instinct of animals hearing one of their kind being skinned alive.

Upstairs Benedict whimpered and clicked his tongue to no avail. The dog barked frantically in some man’s yard. And then Paul, whose voice ordinarily rose higher in pitch the greater his agitation, squeezed his skull between his hands and bellowed “Malcolm!” with the voice of a stag in a November field – so deep that Lena’s ribs thrummed like a temple bell.

Cat’s whispered “Malcolm?” was no more than the plink of a drop of water into roaring torrent of fire.

“Where is he?” Paul snarled. “By my mother! I will plant one of his limbs at each corner of this valley, and bury his head beneath a mountain of stones!”

'I will plant one of his limbs at each corner of this valley.'

Lasrua swayed with wailing sobs like a mourner. Osh said warningly, “Paul…”

What did he say?

Lena turned her head in time to see Derbail cross herself across her mighty breast. She was so disoriented that she could not recall who had pronounced the words – she only knew that she had heard.

It had not been Kraaia, however. The terrified girl was biting her lips so tightly together that their enticing pink fullness was flattened into a purple line. Her eyes were wide and blue. Her face was smooth and white.

I told him what I would do to him!

“They are not angry at you, dear,” Lena whispered.

'They are not angry at you, dear.'

“I wasn’t lying about the fawn!” she whimpered.

By my mother, I will bleed him dry before his eyes!  —  Paul!

Lena tried to give her an encouraging smile. “I know, dear. I believed you.”

“What’s he saying?” Edina begged.

“And Vash did too!” Kraaia said pleadingly.

Cat whimpered, “Paul?”

Panicked and frightened and disoriented, Lena smiled again – all around, at everyone. Benedict was whining, the dog was barking, the chickens were chattering, and there were too many conversations for her to focus on even one.

“I warned him to stay away from my sister!” Paul slavered. “I told him what I would do!”

'I told him what I would do!'

Osh barked “Paul!” in a voice he so rarely used that Lena nearly threw herself to the floor as at the entrance of a lord. “Nobody in this room cares what you told and what you want to do!

“Care if you will – I tell youwant to kill him!” Paul howled.

“Nobody in this room shall kill anyone!” Osh commanded.

“I don’t need your permission to defend my sister’s honor!”

“You have my permission to be silent!” Osh thundered. “And that is all!”

Paul set his lips into a cold gray line and glowered, but he said no more. 

Edina leaned far over, revealing herself to be clinging like a monkey to Derbail’s broad hand. She whispered, “For the love of Davey, Lena, what are they saying?”

“I told you it was you-​​know-​​who,” Derbail said darkly.

'I told you it was you-know-who.'

“I didn’t lie about the fawn,” Kraaia whimpered, “just ’cause I lied about staying in my room. Honest, I never even saw Malcolm!”

Paul’s body whipped around, and in the breeze he made his wispy hair fluttered far back from his face, unveiling the murderous malice of a predator, a male.

Paul's body whipped around.

Perhaps it had only been directed at the sound of the name, but Lena could not allow Kraaia even to see such hatred. In an instant her arms were wrapped tightly around the girl’s thin body, startling no one more than her timid self.

In an instant her arms were wrapped tightly around the girl's thin body.

Kraaia panicked, and she jerked and twisted her body like a frantic fish, but she had not yet reckoned her own weakness against the strength of elves.

We know you did not, dear,” Lena babbled to soothe her and distract her. “Penedict and I believed! And now everyone shall!”

Kraaia tried to snort and seemed to choke instead. “I told you I wasn’t lying!”

Lena began to sense the girl’s great fear: that she would not be believed even when she was telling the truth – that she would not be trusted and would never learn to trust – that in the end she would not be loved nor ever learn to love.

Lena began to sense the girl's great fear.

I believed you!” Lena squeaked. “And – ”

She hesitated, timid and fearful like all the ladies of her caste merely to speak the sacred name. But she remembered the kind smile, and the regard, and the ineffable intimacy she had shared with the only elf who had ever kissed her, and for Kraaia’s sake she dared.

“And the elf Vash believed you!” she whispered.

Kraaia said nothing, but she no longer struggled. Though her arms were almost limp, she let herself be hugged. Lena rocked her like a baby. Her little head was heavy like Benedict’s when he pretended he did not want to sleep.

Lena rocked her like a baby.

“Now, Kraaia,” she murmured, “will you please go up and lie down with Penedict until I come up? He starts to wake and he is afraid to be alone.”

Kraaia sniffled and asked dubiously, “Me?”

“Penedict trusts you.”

Kraaia only sniffed again.

From across the room Osh called softly, “Good night, Kraaia.”

Kraaia said nothing, and after a while Lena began to believe she had simply not heard with her round little ears.

She whispered, “Kraaia, Osh says good night.”

Even this her round little ears seemed not to have heard. Her only reply was to lift her arms higher around Lena’s back and give her an awkward, almost soundless squeeze.

Her only reply was to lift her arms higher around Lena's back.