Cearball snorted sharply to say, “I told you so.”

At first Iylaine only glanced at him, but then she leaned out into the cold to look him up and down in search of wounds. She took a breath–

“What is this naughty Baby doing out of her bed?” Malcolm interrupted. He herded her back into the house by stomping broadly through the door.

“Malcolm – ”

Cearball slipped through the door behind him and headed straight back to his room. He only mumbled, “Good night, my lady,” and bowed stiffly to Iylaine on his way, scarcely breaking his stride.

Malcolm went the other way, forcing Iylaine to choose between them.

Malcolm went the other way, forcing Iylaine to decide.

She followed him.

“Malcolm, is he hurt?” she whimpered.

“His shoulder will likely be hurting him,” Malcolm muttered.

'His shoulder will likely be hurting him.'

Something always did take the brunt of a murderous rage, he mused. Not always the thing that had provoked it. He picked up the poker and hefted it like a sword in his hand.

“What about Aengus?” Iylaine asked fearfully.

'What about Aengus?'

Her hands slid around his waist to meet at the buckle of his sword belt. Too exhausted to be surprised at this unaccustomed favor, he obediently lifted his arm and laid his elbow on the mantel to give her room to work.

What could he say? he wondered. Aengus was unhurt? Aengus was badly hurt.

“Aengus is at home now, Baby,” he said. Even when he tried to speak gently his voice sounded startlingly deep and gruff, like his father’s, or like his own when he had a bad cold. He had shouted too much. He had breathed smoke and ash.

“But what happened? Where have you been?”

The end of the belt slipped through the buckle, and Malcolm felt its weight easing off his hips. He stood silently and watched her work until she glanced expectantly up at him.

“We’ve been all over, Babe,” he said wearily.

'We've been all over, Babe.'

“What happened? Where was the fire? You smell like smoke.”

She gave him a last glance, but when she saw he would not answer right away, she hefted his sword and belt and marched off to the cabinet.

Malcolm slid his arm off the mantel and leaned to watch her go, for he could not understand the stiff waddle of her walk. It stirred memories of her plodding around the house in her last weeks of pregnancy, and woke in him confused feelings of love and pride and fear.

Then it occurred to him that she was simply trying to walk like the Queen. Mighty Iylaine had mistaken Eadgith’s awkwardness with Sigefrith’s heavy weapon as the proper way for a lady to carry a sword.

His own silly Lady Baby! He had been annoyed to find her at the door, but he was so very glad to see her now. She was just what he needed: so very beautiful, so very adorable, so very dear…

“What about my father?” she asked as she marched back.

Malcolm sighed and turned back to the fire. She had heard. He did not know what she had heard.

'What about my father?'

“What?” she whined. “You can’t leave me scared all night and come home and tell me nothing!”

She grasped his collar and tried to turn him around. His body moved, but his head lagged behind, and something in this seemed to frighten her. She released his collar and gently stroked his cheek and neck.

“Are you hurt, Malcolm?”

'Are you hurt, Malcolm?'

He smiled. He was not too weary to let this unaccustomed tenderness pass unheeded. “I’m more tired than anything, Babe, and I simply want to go to bed. With you.”

He tried to wrap his free arm around her waist and pull her close, but she straightened her arms and began to fuss with his collar again. She made a little housewifely frown and ruffled the fur, and Malcolm remembered the ash: the last tangible remains of things utterly burned.

His smile wavered. Perhaps, he thought, she was flicking away flakes of the broad oak beams of Paul’s house. Perhaps bits of the quilted counterpanes Catan and Flann had made. Perhaps the dust of rosy hams that had hung in the pantry. Perhaps Lena’s skin or hair.

He squirmed his shoulders away from her pawing hands.

He squirmed his shoulders away from her pawing hands. He coughed and tasted not smoke or ash but bile.

Deprived of his collar, she turned her attentions to the belt of his coat. “What burned, Malcolm? Was it at Nothelm? Was it the stable?”

“There was a fire at Paul’s house,” he muttered.

She let her arms drop. Malcolm wished he had mentioned it earlier; few things could absorb Iylaine’s attention like her forbidden elven cousins.

Few things could absorb Iylaine's attention like her forbidden elven cousins.

“But… he has fire nature…” she murmured. “Why didn’t he put it out?”

“They were all at Nothelm, Babe. He did put it out, but he had to get there first. We were there almost before he was.”

She opened his coat, and he obediently slid his free arm out of its sleeve. He passed the poker to his other hand and realized he had not yet touched the fire.

Iylaine whimpered, “But, Malcolm – ”

'But, Malcolm--'

He shook the poker and grumbled, “What the devil am I doing with this?”

Iylaine meekly took his coat and carried it away.

Malcolm jabbed heedlessly at the blackened logs until he flipped one of them over and revealed the glowing embers of its belly. Its smoldering orange sickened him, like turning over the harmless-​​seeming corpse of a hedgehog and finding a seething, liquefying mass beneath.

“Was anybody hurt?” Iylaine asked softly when she returned.

Malcolm closed his eyes and tipped back his head. Blindly, by memory, he replaced the poker in its stand.

Malcolm closed his eyes and tipped back his head.

“Aye, Baby,” he sighed. His voice reminded him of his father’s, and it was a strange comfort to him. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”

It was the one question he ought to have dreaded above all others – above even “What about my father?” It was the spider, and all the other questions were merely the spokes of a great web leading back to it. The spider seemed to be watching him.

Iylaine’s mind was such that his philosophy terrified her. “What happened?” she squeaked. “Who got hurt? What happened? Where’s my Da?”

“Home!” Malcolm said roughly. “God willing. Let’s go to bed.”

'In bed.'

“But aren’t you going to tell me?” she gabbled. “You have to tell me!”

“In bed.”

Malcolm marched straight back to their room, and once inside, he marched around the bed and straight past the fire, and straight unto his daughter’s cradle, as though it had been his destination all along.

Maud was sleeping soundly with her head turned to the wall, baring the flawless surface of one fat cheek and the perfect whorls of one little ear, with its tiny, kissable nub that would one day curve into a kissable point.

Maud was sleeping soundly with her head turned to the wall.

The mere sight of her erased all the horrors he had seen. The sound of her breathing stilled the echoes of Aengus’s howls and Catan’s keening, and her sweet baby odor was the first thing he had smelled besides smoke since the moment a wind from the south had brought him his first taste of fire.

For the first time in hours Malcolm was at peace. Nothing else mattered so very much. His baby was perfect and safe. His love for her was perfect and complete.

Then he chanced to wonder whether Aed had ever leaned over Maire’s cradle and thought he had found peace.

Then he chanced to wonder whether Aed had ever leaned over Maire's cradle and thought he had found peace.

“What happened, Malcolm?” Iylaine asked softly. “You look like something bad happened.”

Malcolm did not want to know how he looked. He turned on one foot and did not stand from his crouch until he had his back to the mirror.

“Lena’s dead,” he muttered. “It appears Maire murdered her.”

'Lena's dead.'

Iylaine made a gasping sound as women did when startled. Iylaine made it often, for she loved scandalous gossip, and Malcolm would have been angry at her had he not noticed how her hand trembled until she clasped it in the other.

“Maire went out right after Aengus left looking for Cearball…” he continued.

The gravity of his hoarse voice again surprised and soothed him. It almost seemed that his father was telling the terrible news for him, and he switched to Gaelic to make the illusion complete.

“Lena and Kraaia and Benedict were alone at Paul’s house, and that’s all we’re knowing for sure.”

“Kraaia?” Iylaine asked. She reached around him from behind to unbuckle his belt. Malcolm obediently lifted his arms like a boy.

She reached around him from behind to unbuckle his belt.

“They were friends,” he said simply. He was moved to pause for a moment, though he did not know in honor of whom. “A little while later Kraaia was coming to Aengus’s and bringing Benedict with her…”

Iylaine slipped his belt off his waist and carried it away to the chest. He thought she held it with a special reverence, though she could never have seen how Eadgith undressed the King.

She looked into his face as she returned, and he was reminded to go on.

“All in a panic she was, and told Colin how Maire was attacking Lena with a knife, and how the house was all afire.”

Iylaine frowned at the hooks she was opening down the front of his tunic.

“How could Maire attack an elf with a knife?” she asked dubiously. “Even that kind.

'How could Maire attack an elf with a knife?'

“We’re not knowing that, a cridhe. I did tell you how little we’re knowing for sure.”

He shrugged to help her pull the heavy tunic down his arms. He was speaking like his father and letting himself be undressed like a baby. There was little Malcolm left in him at all.

Iylaine folded the stiff cloth into a neat, housewifely bundle and laid it aside. “But she did kill her?” she asked when she returned.

Malcolm lifted his arms and let her pull his sweaty shirt off over his head. The little of Malcolm left in him tried to clasp her to his bare chest, but she twisted away.

“I told you she did,” he said as he watched her fold. “They found her body in the house. What was left of it,” he added. He had meant the house, but he realized it applied to Lena’s blackened body too.

'But what will happen to Maire now?'

“But what will happen to Maire now?” Iylaine asked.

Malcolm waited to see whether she was about to untie the string of his leggings. She so rarely helped him undress that he feebly attempted to feel aroused, in spite of everything.

“Did they catch her?” she asked bluntly in English.

He failed. He was too tired anyway.

“They have her at the castle now. Some time before we arrived she walked down to the village and let herself in at a door, and went straight to the family’s bed and laid her down without a word. And slept straightaway, they said. That much we know. Her dress was all burned, and all scratched and torn was her face. The people weren’t even knowing who she was.”

'The people weren't even knowing who she was.'

Iylaine appeared absorbed in contemplation of these sordid details, and Malcolm began to regret having said so much.

“Don’t you be repeating all I told you to your friends,” he warned her. “This is a family matter.”

“I won’t,” she promised.

“You’ll be hearing enough scandal as it is without adding fuel to the flames.”

Malcolm grimaced at his own unfortunate metaphor and sat on the foot of the bed to unlace his boots. Iylaine dropped at once to her knees to do it herself.

Iylaine dropped at once to her knees to do it herself.

Malcolm stared at the top of her blonde head, faintly annoyed. He wondered why she was not so quick to undress him in happier times. Eadgith did the King. He began to suspect she was only trying to keep him talking.

“What’s going to happen to her now?” she prompted.

“The devil blind me if I’m knowing, Baby,” he grumbled. “Saeward had a go at her, but she’s not said a word since she left home.”

“Is she mad?”

Iylaine slipped off one of his boots and gently rubbed his ankle between her hands. Malcolm leaned to the side and tried to see her face. The unaccustomed tenderness made him doubt his most recent suspicions again.

She turned her face aside to untie his other boot. “Malcolm?”

“Some kind of mad,” he mumbled. “Maybe only the mad-​​with-​​jealousy kind.”

“But what’s going to happen to her? Will she hang for it?”


Her head popped up between his knees.

Her head popped up between his knees.

“Ladies don’t talk that way,” he scolded her.

“Only to you, Malcolm,” she peeped. Her face dropped again and she pulled off the other boot.

Malcolm snorted and tasted smoke in the back of his throat. “She could be executed,” he admitted. “Murder, arson, breach of household, breach of the King’s peace…”

“Men hang for less,” Iylaine sagely pointed out.

“Lesser men,” he muttered. Suddenly he clapped his hands down on his thighs and stood up. “Listen, Baby, I don’t want to talk about this. Let’s just go to bed.”

'Let's just go to bed.'

“But you haven’t told me what about my Da!”

Malcolm stopped where he stood. He had almost forgotten this side of the tale: the putrid, seething underbelly of the merely sordid story he had just told Iylaine. All the unanswered questions were there. All the answers too. But Malcolm did not envy the man who would have to sort them through.

“I heard you and Cearball and Aengus talking about him just before you heard the horns,” Iylaine insisted.

“I don’t want to talk about that now, either.”

'I don't want to talk about that now, either.'

“But why?”

“Because I don’t know anything about it, that’s why! There’s no use in talking about what might have happened when we can just wait till tomorrow and find out what did, that’s why!”

“What do you mean, what happened?” she wailed. “What happened with my Da?”

'What do you mean, what happened?'

“Whisht!” He pointed imperiously at the cradle.

“What do you mean you don’t know about it?” she whispered harshly. “You were the one who brought it up!”

Malcolm tipped back his head and sighed. “What did you hear?”

'What did you hear?'

“I don’t know,” she pouted. “I can’t understand Gaelic too well from far off if you’re fighting. But I heard Egelric, Egelric, Egelric, and now I want to know why, and what my father has to do with Cearball and Aengus and all that!”

Malcolm pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to relax his scowling forehead.

“Cearball knows,” she blurted defiantly. “I shall ask him – ”

She turned lightly, but his hand whipped out and caught her arm. She was strong enough to struggle away, and wise enough not to.

She was strong enough to struggle away, and wise enough not to.

“Very well, Iylaine,” he said in his father’s own coldly angry voice.

Iylaine seemed to shrink in awe of it, as little Malcolm always had.

“I shall tell you what little I know. I do not want to hear you argue. I do not want to hear you wonder. And I do not want to hear you pronounce the words ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, or ‘what if’ until this time tomorrow. The facts are all I will say. Is that clear?”

'Is that clear?'

She nodded.

“When Aengus went out looking for Cearball, it was to punish him for something Cearball had not done. For she had said – ”

“But I thought he did do it,” Iylaine whimpered.

But–that’s another one I don’t want to hear,” Malcolm snapped.

Iylaine frowned, beginning to look more angry than meek.

Iylaine frowned, beginning to look more angry than meek.

I was saying,” he continued, “Aengus went out because he had seen Maire undressing, and he says she had terrible bruises on her arms and on her breast. And Cearball says she had bruises on her neck and hip when he saw her. And her maid says she saw the bruise on her neck when she did her hair. Those are the facts. And Maire told Aengus it was Cearball who had done that to her, but that was a lie. That’s another fact.”

Malcolm folded his arms upon the mantel and laid his head upon them for a moment. He was not a bad liar, but he was a poor tale-​​teller and he could not imagine a harmless way to slip Egelric’s name into the story.

“And here’s the only other fact we have tonight: that bruise Cearball is wearing is from the fist of your father, and it was over Maire they fought – ”

That bruise Cearball is wearing is from the fist of your father.

Iylaine snarled, “No!” but Malcolm went stubbornly on.

“ – for he had lain with her too – ”


“ – and we don’t know what else he did or might have done to her, but I just spent an hour listening to Saeward ask Cearball twenty times in ten different ways what was said that morning – ”

'And we don't know what else he did or might have done to her.'

Iylaine cried, “No!” and shoved his shoulder, infuriating Malcolm into saying more than he had meant.

“ – and God blind me if your father didn’t all but admit to giving her those bruises, and if you want to know why I brought Cearball here last Sunday it was because your father all but threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave!”

“Cearball said that!”

“Aye! And I believe him!”

'Aye!  And I believe him!'

“Cearball said that! Your new friend who you’ve known one single week, and you believe him instead of your own father-​​in-​​law!”

“I don’t have anything to believe from my father-​​in-​​law since I don’t know what he said yet!”

He paused to swallow painfully. He was trying to shout in a whisper with a throat that was already raw.

“Right at this minute Saeward is probably asking him twenty times in ten different ways! And that’s why I’m telling you I don’t know yet – ”

“Saeward!” she gasped.

“Aye, Saeward! There was a murder done tonight, Iylaine! And almost two! And for all we know – and I’m not saying I believe it, but I heard twenty different theories tonight, and they all made me sick – Maire and your father somehow cooked up the whole thing between them – ”

'There was a murder done tonight, Iylaine!'


“ – so Cearball would kill Aengus and make her a widow so they could wed – or Aengus would kill Cearball to get your father’s revenge – or just to protect him, or because Egelric had a grudge against Lena, or Paul, or I don’t know what all – ”

“My father would never marry Maire! He still loves Lili!”

“Iylaine!” he groaned.

Her fury crumpled suddenly into anguish. “How can you even say those things?” she sobbed. “My Da who loves you!”

'How can you even say those things?'

Malcolm was stricken. In struggling with her he had done just what he had forbidden her to do: he had spouted a horrifying litany of “maybes”, when even in the worst case only one of them could be true. He had left his feeble facts far behind.

“I’m not saying I believe any of those things, Baby,” he soothed.

'I'm not saying I believe any of those things, Baby.'

She smacked him away.

“I don’t believe any of those things, Babe. Perhaps there was a third man, and she’s making the others take the blame. Perhaps it was all just Maire’s doing – perhaps she even bruised herself…”

“My father would never touch her,” she growled.

She sounded more like an angry kitten than her lioness of before, and gingerly Malcolm tried again to embrace her. She hesitated only an instant before collapsing against his breast. Her arms tightened around his waist, and her head lay heavy on his shoulder. She wanted to be safe and comforted. She believed he would know what to do.

'Perhaps he never touched her at all.'

“Perhaps he never touched her at all,” he crooned, “and only pretended so, because he didn’t like Cearball and wanted an excuse to punch him.” He had left the facts so far behind that he was making up lies, he knew. He sighed, “The devil knows the lad makes me wish for an excuse sometimes.”

Iylaine sniffled and laughed sloppily against his neck.

“It’s likely all a misunderstanding, Baby mine,” he murmured. “Let’s wait and see before we worry. Things always do appear bleak at night, but we take them easy in the morning.”

“And you won’t let anything happen to my Da,” she mumbled.

He came so quickly to a conclusion that she could not even have known he had stopped to think. For the sake of her happiness, there was nothing he would not do.

“No, Baby,” he whispered hoarsely. “If it comes to that, I will not let anything happen to your Da.”

'If it comes to that, I will not let anything happen to your Da.'