'It's not going to be this way, lad.'

“It’s not going to be this way, lad,” Malcolm said softly to Cearball, taking the same voice he used to calm his belligerent horse. “She isn’t worth it.”

“Take it outside!” Cadwgan warned them. “I just laid this straw!”

Cearball tossed his head at the tavern-​keeper, swishing his ponytail like Devil swatting at a fly. “My life’s worth it to me,” he said to Malcolm. “She isn’t worth dying over.”

“She isn’t worth killing over, either, lad,” Malcolm murmured. He had to stall the men at least until Thorric got Iylaine well away. He doubted the steward’s house was far enough off the road to take her out of the range of shouting, however. Somehow he would have to make these men fight in a polite tone.

'She isn't worth killing over, either.'

“I never yet killed anyone over a woman,” Cearball muttered, curling his scowl into a bare-​toothed sneer of disgust. “Unless you’re counting my mother,” he added to himself.

Malcolm watched him to see whether he would spit, as he always did when he mentioned his mother. He did, but he managed it without looking down. The stare he shared with Aengus seemed a contest of its own.

Malcolm heard the back door slam behind Thorric and Iylaine. How long before she was safe behind Thorric’s door? And why had Cearball just taken a sharp breath? Malcolm’s concentration was slipping like reins clasped in sweaty hands.

“Cearball, listen to me,” he pleaded. He tugged Cearball’s sleeve, trying to turn him around.

Cearball angrily jabbed his elbow back into Malcolm’s ribs. “What are you doing?” he snarled.

“Stand aside, son of Sigefrith!” Aengus cried. “This is not the hour for your diplomacy!

Malcolm stepped back, mortified as a young maid first venturing among ladies and naively breaking social codes she does not even know. Was he not to touch the man? Was it forbidden to attempt to break that terrible stare?

“Cearball of the clan of Brian!” Aengus bellowed. “Are you not the man?

'Cearball of the clan of Brian!'

Cearball stepped forth at once, and Aengus immediately turned to go out, as though an entire preamble’s worth of diplomatic formalities had been arranged in that instant.

Malcolm had seen none of it, and Cearball was already several steps ahead of him by the time he reacted. He compensated by hurrying forward to put himself one step ahead of Cearball as they strode out.

Cearball’s reaction was to growl, “Keep your mouth shut out there,” as though Malcolm were a kid brother he only grudgingly allowed to tag along.

'Keep your mouth shut out there.'

The humiliation stung Malcolm’s throat and eyes, and only his stubbornness kept him from faltering in his stride. What protest could he possibly raise? I’m a big boy too? Because he had broken a nose or two and blackened a few eyes to defend the honor of his sweetheart’s pointed ears?

Outside, as if at some pre-​appointed spot or at some invisible signal, Cearball stopped walking, and Aengus turned abruptly to face him. Malcolm shuffled a few steps more to give the impression he was man enough to choose his own stopping place.

Cearball stopped walking.

“Swords, knives, or fists?” Cearball asked gruffly.

Malcolm stared at him, stunned. There would be no accusations, denials, or excuses. There would be no formal parley—no ground rules—no chance to soothe sore tempers or even to stall. There would be no diplomacy.

For reply Aengus drew his sword. “The better to behead you, lad,” he explained with a savage smirk.

'The better to behead you, lad.'

Malcolm gasped, “Aengus!”

It was frankly too much: Cearball had done nothing Aengus had not done himself—with the same woman! A man could be pardoned for slaying the man he surprised in bed with his wife, but hunting him down to kill him was not only against the law, it was also likely to start a blood-​feud with the Brians—and Malcolm son of Colban was not of the opinion that a mere Aengus was worthy of taking such a step on behalf of their clan.

But no one was asking Malcolm’s opinion. Neither even spared him a glance.

Cearball drew his sword in a flamboyant arc, but while Aengus was distracted by the impudence of his blade, Cearball widened his stance and stood ready to strike or parry before Aengus had even balanced the weight of his sword in his hand.

Cearball drew his sword in a flamboyant arc.

By now Malcolm breathed so softly through his open lips that his breath scarcely made a fog. He dared not even swallow. The two men seemed balanced on a razor’s edge. A gust of wind blew up from the south, and Malcolm cringed, imagining that even a breeze would upset them and make them fall to one side or the other: death for one or both. He imagined he already heard a bell toll.

“Aye then?” Cearball asked lightly. He straightened his cuff with the delicacy of a society lady gossiping with another. “Is that what her first husband did to you?”

'Is that what her first husband did to you?'

“I never did to her what you did!” Aengus snarled.

Malcolm had never seen Aengus so ferocious. It seemed folly to rile up such anger—like teasing an unchained, vicious dog. He whispered, “Please, lad…”

“Ach, is that why?” Cearball chuckled. “No wonder she went looking elsewhere.”

Aengus roared like a bull and swung his sword back and down like an axe aimed to cleave the other man straight along the grain. It was a well-​chosen angle, for Cearball’s cuff-​straightening had tilted his sword off-​axis and left his shoulder exposed, and for a paralyzed instant Malcolm believed he was witnessing the death of his friend.

For a paralyzed instant Malcolm believed he was witnessing the death of his friend.

But Cearball had been expecting the very blow—he had set Aengus up to make it. He stopped it neatly with the flat of his blade, so close to the hilt that he risked his hand, and so confidently that he clearly knew he risked nothing at all.

Aengus’s sword slipped away with a grinding sound that made Malcolm reflexively grit his teeth—but then the worst fate Malcolm had ever feared in a contest with swords was spoiling the edge of his blade. Aengus did not wince.

Cearball wagged his fingers at him, goading him on. “Need a few pointers, man? I know how she likes it.”

'I know how she likes it.'

Aengus snarled wordlessly again and swung his sword: once recklessly exposing himself by swinging sidewise at Cearball’s ribs, and a second time brutally from on high. Cearball countered them both, and with the second blow knocked the tip of Aengus’s sword into the frosty ground, nearly disarming him.

He generously gave Aengus an instant to lift his sword again before swinging at him twice for his own part, beating him back towards the fence.

Aengus was faltering, and it seemed to Malcolm a little unfair. Cearball was young and well-​rested and had been planning for this meeting for days. Aengus was older and exhausted and outraged, and he was fighting for the woman he loved, however unworthy.

Aengus was faltering.

Malcolm whimpered pleadingly, “Cearball,” and then he howled, “Cearball! Knife!” even before he was conscious of what that flash at Aengus’s belt could mean.

Cearball skittered back and drew his own dagger, and the face he made then made his sinister scowls of earlier seem almost reserved.

“Is that a Scot’s honor?” he growled.

“You cannot do that, Aengus!” Malcolm wailed. “You cannot do this! You cannot kill a man for doing what you did and had Malcolm’s forgiveness for! And my father’s too!”

'You cannot do that, Aengus!'

Aengus sobbed, “I never raped Malcolm’s wife!” and flung his knife sideways at Cearball’s middle like a skipping-​stone. He stood too near, however, or his left hand threw too wildly, and it only grazed the wool of Cearball’s coat.

Cearball sprang at him and swung down onto Aengus’s hastily-​lifted sword, denting the edge of his own blade.

“I never raped your slut wife!” he howled. “She came to me! When all I ever wanted was to sleep!”

Malcolm understood at last: all that their staring and scowling and unseen signals had bought them was a hideous misunderstanding that might yet prove fatal.

“Stop this!” Malcolm shouted, forgetting Iylaine and her ears. In spite of the swords and knife he roughly shoved the two men apart at the shoulders. “It’s Egelric you’re wanting!”

'It's Egelric you're wanting!'

Aengus yelped, “Egelric!”

“Egelric!” Cearball cried. “He’s your man! I saw the bruises on her neck!”

Aengus made a chilling squeak and clasped his free hand to his neck, gaping widely as if choking. Malcolm thought of his own wife and her own delicate neck, and though Cearball had described it all to him before, only then did the thought make him physically sick.

Only then did he remember his wife’s exquisite ears, and he prayed she had not heard.

Cearball pointed at his bruised eye with the point of his knife and said, “I got this defending your slut wife from that devil—and this is how you thank me!”

'This is how you thank me!'

“She named you…” Aengus said dazedly. “Cearball of the clan of Brian…” His dying anger lifted its head a last time to bark, “Are you calling my wife a liar?”

Cearball hissed, “A lying bitch!” and hurled his knife at the house behind Aengus’s shoulder. It struck the center of the post at the height of a woman’s heart and stuck there still as death.

They all stood and stared at it, panting clouds of fog with their breath, until its hilt had cooled enough to begin whitening with falling snow. Malcolm again had the uncanny impression that he was hearing bells.

Aengus murmured a tentative “Egelric…” but his anger stirred no more. His arm dropped, and the point of his sword scraped over the frosty ground as he swayed, tracing unreadable letters in the snow. Simple-​hearted Aengus simply could not comprehend such treachery. He was left mute and humbled as before the unknowable mysteries of God.

Cearball sheathed his sword with a snap that hinted he intended to soon draw it again. “He likely told her to say it,” he admitted gruffly. “We mayn’t need be blaming her.”

'We mayn't need be blaming her.'

He walked unarmed past Aengus to retrieve his knife.

Malcolm watched him in mute admiration, though he felt so sick and feverish it pained him merely to lift his eyes. Beneath his crudeness and jocular vulgarity Cearball had a bedrock of real gallantry, where most of the young men Malcolm knew had only a veneer of honor to hide their depths of crude.

Malcolm himself lacked gallantry enough to agree.

Cearball slipped his dagger into his coat and tucked his wind-​ruffled hair behind his ears. His gaze roved over the snowy ground as though his mind were already elsewhere, but Aengus and Malcolm both helplessly watched him for a sign of what was to be done next.

Then Cearball lifted his head and looked up into the snow falling from on high. “Are you hearing something?” he asked.

'Are you hearing something?'

Then Malcolm heard it too: the blaring of a horn whose deep tones could carry for miles, even on a snowy evening. The first notes Malcolm knew as well as the sound of his own voice.

“A message from the King…” he translated for Cearball’s sake.

Then he listened breathlessly, trying to to hear over the sound of his own pulse pounding in nervous anticipation. This was not the night for drills.

“On behalf of…” He looked over at Aengus, bewildered. “…you?”

Aengus clamped his lips together and slipped his cold sword back into its scabbard. His face looked as pale as frostbite.

His face looked as pale as frostbite.

“Fire…” Malcolm said as soon as he recognized the two grim notes. “I hope it’s only—”

There was more. They listened silently to the end.

“A call to horse and arms,” Malcolm said softly. “I’ll have to be going, lad, but if you—”

“Oh God!” Aengus screamed. “What has she done?”

'What has she done?'