Look, damn you! She’s looking right at you!” Finally Cearball sighed in exasperation and mouthed something soundless at someone across the room.

Cearball mouthed something soundless at someone across the room.

Malcolm tried to read his lips, but his years of practice failed him, and he could not even decide whether Cearball was speaking English or Gaelic.

Then Cearball leaned forward, lifted his brows, and appeared to be listening intently. That was what did Malcolm in. He looked–

He looked--

–straight into the eyes of the brawny swordsmith seated at the far table. The girl was staring idly off towards the door.

Malcolm looked back and banged the flat of his hand down beside his mug. Cearball laughed.

“Damn you!” Malcolm whispered. “She is not looking at either of us! If you keep this up, poor old Seax is going to think I’m flirting with him!

“Whatever your pleasure,” Cearball shrugged. “Just so long as you get some practice…”

'Whatever your pleasure.'

“I am not – do not – I do not need – ” Malcolm stammered.

Cearball was already looking across the room again. He fluttered his fingers in an absurdly coy wave and then tugged at the breast of his coat. Suddenly his face lit up like a gleeful child’s and he begged, “Look look look!”



Look, you damned Scots pixie! She’s showing you her tits!”

“Is not.”

“She is! Sweet mother of Moses! You’re hopeless!”

Then Cearball yanked quite convincingly at the left breast of his coat, as if the girl had only bared the right. That was what did Malcolm in. He looked–

–straight into the mouth of Seaxbeorht as his massive jaw slowly ground away at his bread. Behind him the girl stood as decently clothed as she ever did, and she looked harmlessly off towards the fire, though by now she was giggling into her wrist.

“The devil take you both!” Malcolm cried. “You’re trying to get me killed or crushed or what else? You remind me why I never go anywhere with Caedwulf!”

The girl was as decently clothed as she ever was.

“I’m trying to get you some practice,” Cearball laughed.

“Practice doing what?

Cearball sighed regretfully, “Ach, if you are not even knowing…” He picked up his cup of hot wine and blew carefully over the rim before taking a sip.

A wave of heat rolled over Malcolm as though Cearball drank from a mug full of fire. Malcolm could not explain it, and uneasily he concluded it was a feeling of inferiority – one sensation he scarcely knew. It left a smoldering defensiveness in its charred path.

It left a smoldering defensiveness in its charred path.

“I’m not needing practice picking up women,” he muttered. “I’ve a wife already, if you hadn’t noticed – and do not be saying you haven’t, for inconspicuous is the last thing I would call my wife!”

“I’m not talking about finding a wife, little laddie,” Cearball said. “It’s the other kind I’m meaning.” He pointed subtly across the room with the blade of the cheese knife.

“I’m not needing the other kind either,” Malcolm scowled. “What am I to do with that?”

“Everything you cannot be doing with your wife,” Cearball replied.

'Everything you cannot be doing with your wife'

It was true that Cearball could be exasperatingly Caedwulf-​​like at times, but in that sly smile there was nothing of Caedwulf’s grandiose posturing – no boasting of the sort that made one believe a man all the less the louder he crowed.

Cearball never boasted at all about such matters, but somehow he made himself be known. That sly smile spoke volumes of wisdom. Cearball had done things that Malcolm had never done. Cearball knew things that Malcolm did not know.

That was what did Malcolm in, every time.

“What sort of things?” he asked weakly.

Cearball rested his elbows on the table and leaned close–

–and sat up suddenly, startled like everyone in the tavern by the clang of the door bolt being flung open and a woman screaming, “Malcolm!”


Iylaine needed a moment for her eyes to adjust to the torches and to spy him seated far back in the room, and for the space of that moment Malcolm’s keen mind was briefly overrun by a swarm of filthy images scrabbling for cover like a barnful of rats dodging a light.

Then she saw him, and their gazes locked together, and she was his wife, and they were one. He forgot everything but their common life: her health and safety, their children, their house, their family.

Something was wrong. That thought burned through all the others like a torch dropped into a bed of straw. He bounded up and met her in full flight.

He bounded up and met her in full flight.


“Malcolm!” She clutched his collar in handfuls, and his hair with it. “Aengus was at the house and he was looking for you – ”

Malcolm groaned, “Aengus!” in something like relief.

Iylaine pulled his head close and gabbled, “But I think he was truly looking for Cearball, and he had his sword – ”


“ – and I told him I didn’t know where you were but I think he knew I was lying – ”

'I didn't know where you were but I think he knew I was lying.'

“Baby…” The third time he only breathed her name, stirring up the cold air that clung to her hair. It came as a relief to his hot face.

“ – and I came to tell you as soon as he left, but he was waiting for me, and he followed me all the way up the road, and I rode as fast as I could, but he’s right behind me, and – Malcolm!”


He tightened his grip on her waist to make her mind him. His eyes focused vaguely on the men milling about the room, all on their feet at the arrival of a lady or the arrival of excitement, depending on their breeding.

Malcolm knew he had to get Iylaine out of that tavern.

Malcolm knew he had to get Iylaine out of that tavern – and beyond the range of her marvellous ears – before Aengus arrived. He spared Cearball neither a thought nor a glance.

“I didn’t know what to do but I knew you would know what to do, Malcolm,” Iylaine babbled.

“Aye, Baby,” he soothed. One of the men was standing in the open door, staring out into the night. Malcolm feared he was about to announce Aengus. “What we’re going to do is get you out of here,” he began.

“God blind me, boys!” the man bellowed. “That horse ain’t saddled!”

'That horse ain't saddled!'

The other men laughed and exclaimed and rushed to the door.

Malcolm whispered, “Baby!”

“That horse ain’t bridled neither!” another declared, and the rest of them hooted and howled.

Iylaine! Didn’t I tell you to never do that again?”

“I didn’t have time,” she whimpered.

“You didn’t have time to take care of yourself?”

'I took care...'

“I took care…”

He sighed indulgently and pulled her head down onto his shoulder to embrace her like the heedless child she sometimes seemed.

Behind her blonde head he saw the men by the door leering and laughing… and the gaze of his golden eyes sharpened as he realized they were leering and laughing over his wife.

With their dull minds they were trying to comprehend it – trying to imagine the image Malcolm already knew: his wife, with her skirts kilted up above her knees, her stockinged legs straddling Druid’s dark back, her little booted feet turned in to clasp his flanks, her hips rising and falling in time with the horse’s, and her body arched so far over his neck that her blonde hair hung down into his black mane.

With their dull minds they were trying to comprehend it.

The sight had always frightened, exasperated, and even embarrassed Malcolm, but for the first time he saw it as these men did. Her bare knees clasping his flanks… her bare feet turned in tightly against his thighs… her blonde hair hanging down into his face… and her hips rising and falling over his…

He reacted in a spasm – he kissed her to keep himself from groaning aloud.

He kissed her to keep himself from groaning aloud.His wife! She awoke at the first touch of his lips, like tinder to a spark, and kissed him with her own hungry passion. She raked her fingers through his hair, tugged on his collar, pulled him and shoved him, struggling against him for the pleasure of feeling him struggling with her. She hurled their bodies roughly against the pillar and then let him bend her back until she was helplessly hanging from his arms, farther than any ordinary girl could bend, until he could no longer reach her lips but only kiss her all down her neck.

He could no longer reach her lips but only kiss her all down her neck.He! Ordinarily too modest to give his wife a kiss lasting longer than a second or two in public, and now – not only had he not forgotten the other men, but their hooting and their lewd laughter sounded like cheering to him. Not only did he not care that they were imagining his wife’s bare thighs straddling a horse’s back or man’s hips, but he hoped they were – and he hoped they burned with envy.

Their hooting and their lewd laughter sounded like cheering to him.His wife! His! What had the other kind of woman to offer him beside this? What could Cearball possibly have experienced that could begin to rival this?

Malcolm lifted his head from his wife’s breast and looked back. Cearball, to his flaming annoyance, was not even watching.

Cearball, he realized, was belting on his sword.

Cearball, he realized, was belting on his sword.

Malcolm pulled Iylaine up until she stood on her own feet. Dizzy and breathless, he lifted his head and tipped it back, imagining that the fire that had rushed up into his face could be drained away like a throatful of blood. He could not understand what had come over him.

Iylaine wiped her mouth on her sleeve and whimpered, “Malcolm, he’s coming!”

'Malcolm, he's coming!'

By that time, even the men’s ears could hear the galloping hooves, and their laughter began to sound uneasy. Druid recognized the horse he had been racing and lifted his head to raise a shrill whinny of triumph. Devil screamed and kicked out in rage in the shed where he was tied.

Cearball pulled his belt tight and turned. For an instant Malcolm did not know him. He had seen Cearball sullen and angry, and he had seen Cearball furious to the point of hilarity, but he had never seen Cearball so chillingly grim.

He had never seen Cearball so chillingly grim.

Cearball only glanced at him before he turned his face aside to watch the door. He reached into his coat and pulled out a dagger.

Cearball had done things Malcolm had never done.

“Listen, lad…”

Iylaine squeaked, “Malcolm, he’s here!”

Before reaching behind his back to tuck the knife into his belt, Cearball paused to flick the blade, turning it just so in his palm – just so that it would be ready to stab the moment he drew it.

Cearball knew things that Malcolm did not know.

Cearball knew things that Malcolm did not know.

Malcolm saw that he would have to get his wife away – at least out of that tavern. The things he feared she would overhear now paled before the things he feared she would witness.


It was too late. The other horse galloped into the yard and staggered to a stop, too exhausted to answer Druid’s challenging call. A man’s boots slammed onto the frosty ground as he dropped from the saddle.

Even with their men’s ears, every man in the tavern heard the falls of Aengus’s wrathful feet.

Seeking reassurance, Iylaine clutched at the back of Malcolm’s sleeve and whimpered, “Malcolm…”

A wave of heat rolled over him – he feared it was a feeling of insignificance.

Aengus stepped through the open door. His eyes needed no time to adjust to the torchlight: he was already glaring through a veil of fire. He stared straight down the room and shouted, “Cearball, of the clan of Brian!”

'Cearball, of the clan of Brian!'