Aengus lay sprawled on the bench like a forgotten doll.

Ete and Aileann had been tucked into their beds, and now Aengus lay sprawled on the bench like a forgotten doll, limp from lack of stuffing, lolling from little fist and foot weights of lead.

He was dog-​​tired, but when he heard slippered footsteps shuffling through the dining hall behind him, he quietly planted his boot sole on the floor and pushed himself up to sit straight against the back of the bench. Then he crossed his arms over his chest, crossed his ankles over the pile of pillows, and awaited his reckoning.

Aengus awaited his reckoning.

He waited a while. The lead-​​weighted hem of the swinging curtain tapped and tapped and tapped against the door frame after Maire stepped through, ever fainter until Aengus had to squint his eyes shut and strain his ears to hear. He never knew when he had ceased hearing and begun imagining.

At last Maire asked low, “Aengus?”

Aengus grunted.

“Are you home already?”

“I didn’t go, Maire,” he muttered.

'I didn't go, Maire.'

She shuffled closer. Aengus heard the leather of her soles scraping roughly over the floorboards, followed by the faint slap of the heels, as though her shoe slipped off her foot at every step.

He wondered at her: his high-​​stepping wife shuffling like a beggar-​​child, as if her feet had grown too small for her own little shoes. He decided they must have been new.

“You didn’t go?” she echoed softly. Her hand lit on the back of the bench, just within the dimmest reaches of his peripheral vision.

“Lena wasn’t going to be there anyway,” he grumbled, “if that’s what you were thinking. Somebody had to stay home to take care of Kraaia.”

Maire's hand slipped off the bench.

Maire’s hand slipped off the bench. Aengus realized a moment too late that it was the most idiotic thing he could have said. “Aengus the Cunning” the men would be calling him: son and heir of old Colin’s unbridled tongue.

He tried to hide his stupidity by heaping explanations upon it, as was his way.

“I just got home after weeks of roving. The last thing I want to do is go out again into the snow. That’s fine and grand for the boys, but Father and I stayed in.”

Maire hesitated just far enough inside the edge of his sight for him to recognize the doe-​​gray blur of her old, heartrendingly familiar robe. That patterned robe had so often been the plumage of his quiet, softly shadowed, night-​​time wife, when she was his alone to hold; or the robe she opened to let their wee babies nurse, and the robe she wrapped them in.

A lump rose in his throat, and resolutely he swallowed it down.

A lump rose in his throat, and resolutely he swallowed it down.

“Is he up to bed?” she asked hoarsely.

No,” Aengus snapped, “he’s getting drunk in the kitchen, as you might have guessed.”

After a moment’s thought he held up his own worry against the gap left by Maire’s silence, and he feared it fit. “He waited till the girls were abed,” he added to reassure her. “God bless him,” he muttered bitterly to himself.

She waited still. Something on her moved: her arm perhaps, gliding up and down, stroking the back of the bench in silence.

She seemed to stroke the back of the bench in silence.

Finally she asked, “Are you going up to bed?”

“Aye, Maire!” he cried in exasperation. “What are you wanting?”

At last he looked up at her. His tongue galloped on ahead – “If you’ve something to say, then say it and leave me in peace!” – but a lump was already rising up in his throat behind the words.

Maire! Was this his haughty, healthy, high-​​headed wife? She was as gray and threadbare as her old robe. Her lower lip hung trembling like a heavy drop about to fall.

Was this his haughty, healthy, high-headed wife?

She was ill, he was certain now. Her maid had said she was only having trouble sleeping and had taken to wandering the house at night, but he supposed that he who had been away for weeks was best able to know the difference in her by sight.

She was ill; and though he had already lost her, still he was not ready to let her go. The realization so pierced his heart that it hurt to breathe. The back of his throat burned. She was already slipping away, and he only managed to stare at her, as idiotic in silence as he would have been in speech.

She moved first. She lifted her hand.

She lifted her hand.

Aengus could not turn his eyes from her haggard face, and so he only saw it coming at him as a pale blur gliding out of shadows. It only began to resemble a hand when it reached the level of his cheekbone, and then it veered off again, becoming a blur and at last only a sleeve.

She meant to slap him, and he meant to let her. He braced himself–

Her fingers slipped into his hair, so near his ear that he heard their hiss.

Her fingers slipped into his hair.

“I haven’t seen your hair this way in so long…” she whispered.

“I couldn’t be bothered to cut it while I was away,” he said solemnly.

“You’re looking as you did when I first knew you…”

“I couldn’t be bothered to do much of anything in those days, before you shaped me up.”

He winked. He did not smile, but she did, shakily.

“I like it this way,” she said.

“Note taken. That was worth getting out of your warm bed for, was it, girlie?” he smiled.

She laughed a little soundless, wheezing laugh, and touched her fingers to his cheek through his hair, and then stroked her thumb gently over its curve.

She laughed a little soundless, wheezing laugh.

Aengus’s head was reeling. Since that fateful night a year before, his wife had seemed a sheer, unclimbable cliff of cold anger and wounded pride. Now footholds and handholds were cropping out everywhere. Dear God, he prayed, let not it be because she is crumbling. His heart was melting like a bead of tin held over a flame.

“Now you can sleep easy, love,” he teased softly, “for you’ve gone and told Aengus you like his hair.”

She smiled and nodded.

“And I was a-​​waiting up here to tell you in the morning how I like your smile, but you’ve saved me the trouble.” He reached up and laid his hands on her hips, right on the faded, threadbare spots the same hands had worn on the robe over the years. “Come bide a while here,” he wheedled, “that you may recover your strength for the journey back.”

She nodded again and moved to walk around the bench, but she stopped and opened her eyes widely in confusion when he held her fast.

She stopped and opened her eyes widely in confusion.

“Come down here,” he insisted, tugging her hips gently against the high arm of the bench. “Have a seat.”

She tittered and awkwardly balanced herself on the edge. The arm was scarcely wide enough to hold a mug, and he took a moment to stroke his hand over the soft curves that swelled out all around the ledge of wood that creased her thighs.

Just when she seemed to think she had herself settled, he pulled, and she thumped into his lap.

She thumped into his lap.

She cried out once, delighting him with the same short, startled cry she used to make when he abruptly changed the angle or depth of his thrusting and surprised her with a shock of pleasure. She never made a sound if she was prepared, as though she had never lost the habit of their dangerous meetings in her dark room at Lord Colban’s home. And Aengus had never lost his old habit of laboring to win a cry out of her, in spite of the danger.

She squirmed briefly upon his lap, unable to reach the floor with her dangling, kicking leg. Finally she planted the heel of her other foot on the arm of the bench and shoved. She spurted out of his grasp like a fish and flopped back onto the cushions, with her legs still draped across his.

Aengus panicked and let her go, fearing he had gone too far, waiting to be slapped or struck, but when her hair fell back from her face he saw she was as panicked as he.

“Sorry!” she gasped.

He plunged his arms into the cushions beneath her and scooped her up again before she could sit up on her own.

“Sorry, love?” he laughed. “I was about to thank you!”

I was about to thank you!

“For – for falling on you?” she laughed nervously.

“For being felled!”

He grinned at her for a moment longer, but Aengus had never been a man to stop and wonder at good fortune when it came to him, and he simply could not help but kiss her. He did not even have the time to speak her name: the M turned into a moan against her mouth, and his unbridled tongue was already tickling her lips before he could have trilled the R.

She did not struggle, but nor did she relax.

She did not struggle, but nor did she relax, and though she moved her lips against his, there was an unyielding stiffness in them that finally gave him pause. It had not been so long that he had forgotten how her lips had used to melt against his.

Dimly he realized that he might not have been going too far, but simply going out of order, and he pulled back his head. Her eyes opened, and she stared up at him out of great depths, wearily, as if she had already sunk too far away to ever rise up to him again. Aengus was not an imaginative man, but he remembered his first thoughts of illness, and he was afraid.

He worked one arm out from beneath her shoulders and touched her face, carefully stroking, as if she were one of Ete’s precious wax-​​headed dolls that were seldom taken from the shelf. The skin beneath her eyes was swollen into thick pads, and he could not resist touching them over and over, each time imagining vaguely that they could be squeezed free of their burden of tears and restored to their youthful smoothness.

When that fanciful idea failed, he said shakily, “Forgive me, Maire, I was meaning no harm.”

She lay still, even relaxing slightly. The puddles of tears in her eyes had so deepened that her eyes moved smoothly beneath them as she looked over his face, never disturbing their shining surface.

“You’re never guessing how it is to be a man, Maire, and to be going away and coming home. Home!” he whispered. “You’ve no idea what it means until you’ve been long away. I went there first because I was saving home for last, you see. I’d been dreaming of nothing but coming through that gate, and taking off my boots, and no more to be roving. And holding my babies in my arms, and… And my own sweet wife, if only she would let me,” he added humbly.

He watched her eyes as this explanation sank down into her, making no ripples on the surface of her tears. Her only reaction seemed to be a slight turning-​​down of the corners of her mouth, and he could not guess whether it was disgust with him or regret for her own misunderstanding. He decided it was the reason more favorable to him, as was his way.

“You’re looking a fair bit tired now, love,” he murmured sweetly. “Were those girls getting all up in your hair while I was away? Well, their Da’s home now, and as you’ve noticed his hair is all grown out to keep them busy for a good while.”

'His hair is all grown out to keep them busy for a good while.'

She smiled, and her body trembled in the crook of his arm with silent laughter that never found its way out of her breast.

“Did I tell you how I love your smile?” he whispered.

She shook her head briskly, at last breaking the taut surface of her tears and letting one slip free. Aengus brushed it away with his thumb.

“I love your smile,” he whispered still more softly. “And did I tell you how I missed you?”

She shook her head.

“I missed you, by God! And did you miss me?”

She hesitated, but Aengus gave her time. He knew his wife. His love had worn threadbare handprints at certain places on her pride.

“I – I wish you had never gone,” she said hoarsely.

'I--I wish you had never gone.'

“I too,” he scolded with a smile, “but you know I only miss you the more when you’re near, love. I’ve missed you terribly these last months.”

He paused again, but she said no more. Her eyes roved all over his face, sometimes looking into his eyes, sometimes looking so far past his chin that he only saw their swollen lids and dark lashes.

Finally he released her from whatever struggle she was in and whispered, “It’s no matter now. When a man’s coming home, he’s never looking back up the road to see how far he’s been. Only straight ahead to where he’s going. To where he hopes he left his heart behind,” he added slyly, “for it surely never was turning up in his baggage.”

Her pride relaxed enough to let a little laugh escape, and that was enough for him. He slipped his arm around her shoulders again and kissed her conclusively.

He slipped his arm around her shoulders again and kissed her conclusively.

Oh, Maire! It had not been so long that he had forgotten, but it had been long enough that it all felt a little unfamiliar, a little new. He felt a little young and reckless again, with his hair tied back to keep it out of his eyes as he climbed the wall, and with his daring, dangerous love for this woman too impossibly magnificent for him.

He kissed her lips right and left, randomly, making her chase his mouth with hers. He teased her tongue out of her mouth and into his. He squeezed her so tightly in the crook of his arm that he felt her breasts flatten against his hard chest with her every breath. She was his! He had found his way home.

She was his!

Maire! Maire! Aengus had not felt such taut, urgent desire since he had been twenty-​​five and maddened by it. He had been wanting her for so long, so long…

Oh, there had been that Icelander on the island, but that woman had only made his hunger for this one harder to bear – not even a bite to tide him over, but merely a savory odor to sharpen his appetite.

That woman had not helped him forget but made him remember. When she had turned away and bent over to pull up her stocking, balanced on one leg, her white ass in the air, something about her curves had so cruelly reminded him of Maire that he had bit down on the heel of his hand to keep from crying out her name.

Maire! He could speak it now. He lifted his lips from her neck and moaned, “Maire, Maire…” He could hear her gasping breath hissing at his ear.

He slid his hand down her back, down her soft flank, and tried to slip it beneath her, but with her legs in his lap she was bent in a V and sitting with all her weight on her behind.

He tried to slip his hand beneath her.

Frustrated, he drew himself back like a bow and groped down her leg, down her soft thigh and round knee and hard shin, and past her fluttering hem to find her ankle.

Her stockings! Tonight he would peel them off himself, on his knees, his face nuzzling into her fur – and in the morning he would lie lazily and watch her dress again, her white ass in the air…

He slipped off her shoe, and she cried out in surprise when it hit the floor – another sharp, startled cry. Suddenly that warm, stockinged foot she planted on his thigh was the most erotic thing that Aengus had ever known.

She cried out in surprise when it hit the floor.

He tightened his arms and drew up on her body until half her weight was bearing down on her foot and he held her taut as a bow. He had to get away with her now, or he would take her on the spot, in spite of guards and servants and of drunken, disoriented fathers who might stagger in at any moment.

“Let’s go back to bed,” he murmured, though they had last left it together months before.

'Let's go back to bed.'


Aengus interpreted her groan in the manner most favorable to him, as was his way. He slipped her foot off his thigh and lifted her up to sit, then pulled her up to stand. She swayed drunkenly at the end of her arms, and he spun her around his body as if they danced.

“Aengus, my slipper…” she whimpered.

“You won’t be needing slippers where we’re going,” he leered. He wriggled his eyebrows until he won a dazed laugh out of her.

'You won't be needing slippers where we're going.'

Oh, Maire! Her slipper! He imagined himself stumbling out into the hall in the morning, weary and aching but well-​​satisfied, and finding her little slipper still lying where they had left it. Aengus drank deeply of the happiness he had not yet won, as was his way.

For now they stumbled giggling back through the curtain and through the dining hall to their room together, Maire limping because of her missing shoe, and Aengus on account of the awkwardness of his erection and his Englishman’s clothing, neither of which he was accustomed to wearing of late.

Their room! Aengus paused a moment on the threshold merely to admire it. Since Aed had been weaned he had scarcely set foot inside. It had not changed. He had come home.

He heard a puff and looked up in time to see Maire blowing out the candles beside their bed.

'Not so fast, girlie!'

“Not so fast, girlie!” he scolded. “I’ve been away so long, I don’t want to get lost in the dark on my way into bed!”

“Ach, Aengus!” she sighed.

He pulled her away before she had extinguished the last of the three.

“If you’re thinking you admire my hair, just wait until you get a look at the rest of me!”

'Just wait until you get a look at the rest of me!'


He tried to pull her close, but she slipped away like a last bit of thread falling off a spool. He followed.

“Aren’t you remembering how it was when you were first coming to me?” she asked sadly. “How dark it was? How you used to touch my face?”

'Aren't you remembering how it was when you were first coming to me?'

He was moved to learn she still thought of those days at all, and particularly that she remembered him touching her face, when the Lord knew he had touched every inch of her. For a moment he considered indulging her – there would surely be some delight in finding his way back to her in the dark…

But he had not quite yet reclaimed her for his, and he feared he would feel some of that guilt of those first days, when their love had been a crime. She was his wife, and he would have her fairly tonight, and look her in the eyes.

“Aye, love, and are you remembering how I swore I would be the happiest man alive if only I could see you?”

'I swore I would be the happiest man alive if only I could see you.'

“Ach, Aengus!” she groaned. “I’m so… not what I was then…”

He passed his hands around her waist and untied her robe. “Maire, Maire…” he sighed. He scolded briskly, “If you could be a man for an hour and look at yourself through a man’s eyes…”

He slipped her old robe off her shoulders and tossed it on the chair behind him, glancing at neither robe nor chair. Then he turned her around and held her still with a finger beneath her chin.

He held her still with a finger beneath her chin.

She was so nearly his now that it was an effort to breathe steadily. There was only the nightgown, her stockings, her single slipper…

He stared her deeply in the eyes and murmured, “You’ve no idea how I love you if you believe you’re aught but the most beautiful woman in the world to me.”

That duty done, he let his gaze wander. Her breasts rose and fell in a halting, gasping rhythm. It seemed she could no more breathe steadily than he. Oh, he would not make her wait any longer! They could take their time another time – or in an hour or two. He was feeling young enough to wake wanting more.

He looked away from her breasts only long enough to properly grasp her hands and pull her close, but then he saw the bruise on her upper arm.

“Maire, did you – ”

'Maire, did you--'

He only reached out to touch it with a finger, but he saw at once how hand-​​shaped it was: there was the thumb digging into the silky flesh of her inner arm, there would be the fingers… He leaned around her to look. There they were.

He laughed haltingly, wondering how she could have done such a thing to herself. “Maire!”

Then he thought to look at the other arm, and he saw the bruises of another hand. Suddenly he felt sick.



He knew Ete’s temper, and he tried to conceive how a single angry six-​​year-​​old girl might do such damage with her tiny hands…

Maire turned her face away from him and towards the fire, and the slight slant of her shoulders illuminated just enough of the top of her breast for him to see another bruise.

Aengus bit the heel of his hand to keep from crying out. He was horribly sick; he was shaking. His happiness was crumbling. Maire groaned and turned away.

His happiness was crumbling.

This was why she had wanted to come to him in the dark!

No no, this was why she looked so haggard he had hardly known her! His proud, self-​​assured, magnificent little wife had been brutalized. Her strength had been shattered. The warm gold of her face had been bled to gray.

“Maire, love…” he whispered. “I understand…”

He tried to wrap his arms around her.

He tried to wrap his arms around her, but she jerked like a fish.

Immediately he let her go, and immediately afterwards he imagined ghostly hands that did not: hands that had clamped around her arms and squeezed them until they bled inside – hands that had mauled her breasts – hands that had held her down and done other damage that her nightgown hid.

He imagined ghostly hands.

I wish you had never gone! Oh, Maire! To his dying day, so would he.

Then, at last, it occurred to him to wonder whose hands they had been. No ghost had visited his wife, but one living man who even then was sharing the earth with him. One man on earth was living his last hours, little though he knew, and Aengus would be the man to break the news to him.

His throat still burned and he still tasted bile, but his chest rose and fell with steady breaths that cleared fogs from his mind he had never known obscured him. His arms swelled with an unsuspected strength. He was utterly calm, utterly powerful. For a few hours his would be the hand of fate. For a few hours he would move with the the terrible majesty of God.

For a few hours he would move with the the terrible majesty of God.

“Weep no more, Maire,” he said. “No shame is on you. Only say the name.”

She moaned and shook her head behind her hand.

Aengus stepped up to her and pulled her to her feet with great solemnity, as he had on the day they had wed.

“Fear no more, Maire,” he murmured. “Your husband is home. I will – ”

She pulled his head to hers and kissed him violently.

She pulled his head to hers and kissed him violently.

Oh, Maire! His lust flared up again – all a man’s passions were much the same – but he knew she was only trying to turn him from his grim purpose in her own way. He would love her all the harder after he had returned home, but first he had to erase her shame and slay her fear.

He pulled his head away and murmured, “Maire, Maire, only tell me who hurt you, and it will all be over.”

She shook her head slowly upon his shoulder.

She shook her head slowly upon his shoulder.

“Maire, love…” he whispered. “Have no fear. You’ll see the man no more on earth nor in the hereafter, so do I swear. Tell me who hurt you.”

Her head stopped moving, but she did not speak.

Aengus gently kissed her ear through her hair, seducing the truth out of her. “Tell me, love,” he whispered. “It’s Aengus, your own man. Tell me the name, now. Only once and you need never say it again. Only once speak the name.”

Maire swallowed thickly. She might have been crying. She whispered, “Cearball of the clan of Brian.”

'Cearball of the clan of Brian.'