Aed slipped his fingers out of his boot laces.

Aed slipped his fingers out of his boot laces and slid them into the cuff of his sock. The footsteps in the corridor walked a short ways past the door and slowed. The tap-​tap-​tap of the booted heels grew fainter and farther spaced, like the last trickling drops from the mouth of an empty pitcher. Tap… Tap…


Aed hooked his fingertips around the cross-​guard of his hidden knife.

Abruptly the feet returned, a rapid tap-​tap-​tap-​tap like an ominous leak. The door burst open—Aed drew his knife and flipped the handle up into his palm—

But it was only Gaethine coming in. Aed clapped the knife down onto the bedside table and nonchalantly scratched the back of his neck.

Aed scratched the back of his neck.

“Don’t you knock?” Congal complained from the other bed.

Gaethine stopped in the center of the room and scanned the far wall from corner to corner. He did not acknowledge Congal with so much as a grunt, but Congal knew better than to insist. Gaethine mac Augustin was a useful man to have to hand. One learned to overlook his eccentricities.

“Why?” Aed called past him to Congal. “Have you made some plans for us tonight that I should know about?”

He pulled his feet up onto the bed covers, boots and all. Gaethine was unpredictable enough that he thought he might need them later.

“There have been occasions,” Congal trilled, “when you were the fairest lassie I saw all day, Aed. Today has not been one of them.”

The tapping of Gaethine’s boots started up again, a few short steps stalking straight to the window nearest the fire. Aed sat back and watched him as he threw open the shutters and leaned head and shoulders outside, appearing perilously off-​balance on his long legs.

Aed could not help but imagine him pitching forward.

Aed could not help but imagine him pitching forward and spilling head-​first onto the flagstones below. He counted out the number of paces between the bed and the window and calculated that he could never reach him in time. He itched to get up and nonchalantly stroll over to the window to peer outside over Gaethine’s shoulder. But the seconds passed, and he only sat.

Then Gaethine pulled his head inside and glanced back over his own shoulder at Aed. “I like your room better than mine. One can see everyone who comes through the gate into the court.”

'I like your room better than mine.'

“What ill star were you born under, Gaeth?” Congal laughed. “Always gets the room with the view onto the cess-​pit.”

“You want to trade beds with Congal?” Aed asked.

“Just one moment!” Congal protested. “I want to know what do you have a view of, first? If it’s the Queen’s bedchamber, now…”

'If it's the Queen's bedchamber, now...'

“The graveyard,” Gaethine said coldly, cutting off Congal’s chuckling into a nervous titter, and then nothing. He turned to Aed and said with only slightly more warmth, “And you don’t want to spend the night listening to me coughing.”

“Christ, Gaeth, if I can sleep through Congal’s snoring…”

Gaethine had already turned his attention to the obscenely bulging leather purse that hung before his groin. He fished out a fat red apple and set to work polishing it with the end of his scarf. Congal apparently decided not to make a joke about it.

“Where’ve you been, anyway?” he asked. “We thought perhaps you’d decided to go up and see about that elf-​lass after all.” He sat up and grinned wickedly at Aed.

Gaethine grunted. “Perhaps tomorrow,” he muttered, which Aed found to be a remarkably effective way of saying, “Certainly never.”

Gaethine dusted off the corner of the mantel.

Gaethine dusted off the corner of the mantel with the side of his hand and carefully stationed the apple in the cleanest spot. Then he reached into his sporran and pulled out another, leaving the purse deflated.

“I am just returned from being volubly entertained by the Captain of the Royal Guard,” he announced as he polished his fruit.

“The Captain of the Guard?” Aed frowned. “Who was he again?”

“He wasn’t at supper. It was his last evening watch, and he wanted to see it through. It’s a knight he’ll be ere Tuesday morn.”

Aed sat back and picked at his bootlaces, both relieved to learn that he had not failed to notice so important a personage, and annoyed to think that Sigefrith would have held so important a personage back. Aside from the formidable presence of mac Colbain, he had not been especially impressed by any of the male guests at the King’s table. He was certain there was something more in this valley than that mediocre crew, or Sigefrith was an alchemist of men.

'What did you think of him?'

“What did you think of him?” he asked Gaethine.

Gaethine dismissively waved the end of his scarf. “He’s either a jovial idiot, or a diabolical genius clever enough to make me believe he’s a jovial idiot. In this world there are far more of the former than the latter.”

“What about diabolical genius over here?” Aed laughed. “Acting like he doesn’t speak a word of English so he can get lessons from the Queen! Bosom?

“I was only helping you out, lad!” Congal protested. “I knew you were too shy to ask.”

'I knew you were too shy to ask.'

Diabolical genius here rather proves my point,” Gaethine muttered.

“How was I to know I would be seated across from mac Colbain?” Congal complained. “Anyway, what harm was done? Either he never guessed, or he thinks I was playing stupid to flirt with the Queen, and then?”

“He guessed,” Aed assured him. He glanced up at Gaethine at the first crunch of apple.

“And then?” Congal insisted. “So I was keeping mac Colbain busy down at my end, and that left you two free to get busy up at the other. Eh, laddie?” he cooed at Aed. “With your new bosom friend?

Aed ignored him. “Did he lock you up for trespassing, or what?” he asked Gaethine. “Couldn’t you get away?”

'Couldn't you get away?'

“He followed me, rather,” Gaethine said. “I will grant that the man is an accomplished guard, in the style of a particularly friendly mutt. However,” he added with a sly smile, “his house can be reached through a corridor that goes right past the open door to the armory, and is directly across from the weapon smithy, and I must say—”

“Ooh, he took you home with him?” Congal cooed. “Do tell!”

'Do tell!'

Gaethine closed his eyes and took a calming breath and another bite of his apple. Aed glared a warning at Congal. They waited in silence for Gaethine to swallow.

“I must say,” he continued once his slight smile had returned, “that I have rarely seen so many new swords and sword blanks all together assembled.” He turned his apple to the unbitten side and took a large bite.

“Just in time for the spring or summer…” Aed mused while Gaethine crunched. “It’s making ready for war he is.”

“With whom?” Congal asked.

“That I cannot tell you yet,” Gaethine said. “But from what I have gleaned from the weed-​choked mind of yon Captain of the Guard, they haven’t beasts enough to make it a long march.”

'They haven't beasts enough to make it a long march.'

“Somewhere they can be in a day or two,” Congal said. “Mayhap Congalach’s country.”

“Only if they can march an army past Leol,” Aed pointed out.

“I think rather towards the sea,” Gaethine said. “Sigefrith is a Viking in the blood. So long as he lives, this country will be menacing to spill over the hills and run down into the sea.”

“Ahhh, now that could be a problem for you, Aed,” Congal smiled.

Aed dismissed the idea with a wave. “Much good will it do him once I’ve taken Ramsaa.”

'Much good will it do him once I've taken Ramsaa.'

Whoever held the bay of the Fleet and the fort of Ramsaa controlled all sea trade to the north of the Isle of Man—from the Point of Eyrr to Saint Bega’s Head on the British coast.

“On the contrary, it will oblige him to be quite friendly with me…” Aed said thoughtfully.

“Aye, but you’ve not taken Ramsaa yet, laddie,” Congal laughed. “You’re counting your chickies ere the hen has even found a spot for her nest.”

“I’ve no other plans for the summer,” Aed smirked. “Have I ever failed to take what I wanted?”

Gaethine muttered something—it sounded like “You’re young”—but his head was already sticking out the window by the time Aed turned. He had pulled the empty casement shut and only poked his head through one of the holes, but it did not seem likely that the rickety wooden rails would hold him if he fell.

“I don’t know…” Congal smiled. “It’s in a lonely bed you’re laying your head tonight, I bid you note.”

'It's in a lonely bed you're laying your head tonight, I bid you note.'

“What makes you think I want anything different?”

“Only that idiotic grin you get every time I mention your bosom friend! Look at him, Gaeth!”

Aed tried to straighten out his traitorous lips and looked at Gaethine. Gaethine only slipped his arm through another hole in the casement and took a bite of his apple around the mullion. His dark hair was the color of the night outside, and from where Aed sat he appeared headless.

He turned back to Congal and asked, “What makes you think I want anything different tonight? I meant: Have I ever failed to take what I wanted in the end?

Congal hooted with laughter. “I hope you’re meaning to warn the poor lass before you take her in the end!

“Some things are best taken by surprise,” Aed countered, though he had no clear idea how he would go about attempting such a maneuver, nor even whether he would want to.

'Some things are best taken by surprise.'

“Or taken by force?” Congal suggested.

Aed paid a sudden rapt attention to the unlacing of his boot, wondering what his friend had in mind. Congal too could be unpredictable in his way.

While he hesitated, Gaethine pulled his head and hand back inside and announced, “I think you should take Condal.”

In the end,” Congal snickered.

Aed did not laugh. Gaethine’s tone killed even the foolish grin that was forcing his mouth into uncomfortable spasms as he fought to tamp it flat.


“She’s special.”

'She's special.'

Aed’s nose twitched. Gaethine was staring at him as though he expected an argument, which was proof that an argument was warranted.

“You saw her eyes,” Gaethine said. “Just like Uallach’s.”

“No! No! No! Don’t start that with me!” Aed yanked his boot open, making the laces leap up and whip the backs of his hands as they raced through the holes. “I’ll not be marrying a girl who has fits!”

“We don’t know that she does.”

“I reckon it comes with the special, doesn’t it? Or something else? Fie! At least Uallach is a daughter of Aed!” In emphatic punctuation he pulled off his boot and tossed it end-​over-​end to land with a thud on the hollow floor. “I thought this trip wasn’t truly about finding a bride, anyway?” he challenged.

'I thought this trip wasn't truly about finding a bride, anyway?'

“Listen to me, lad,” Gaethine said gravely. “She’s more than a daughter of Aed. Uallach makes the back of my neck prickle. Condal makes me want to rip out my spine.”

Aed bobbed his head in impertinent time to the flicking of the laces he was loosening on his other boot. “Now that’s a pretty compliment to give a girl!”

“No wonder he can’t get laid!” Congal laughed.

Aed took shelter by laughing with him. “Marry her yourself, Gaeth! I’m sure you’ll know how to make her feel special.

In the end,” Congal added.

'In the end.'

Aed burst into helpless laughter. “Quit that!” He pulled off his second boot and held it up, threatening to toss it end-​over-​end at Congal’s head.

Congal fished a gold coin out of his purse and brandished it at the end of his arm with equal menace. “How much will you wager I can’t get the Queen to teach me how to say in the end by the end of supper tomorrow?”

Gaethine sighed in impatience and tap-​tap-​tapped back to the window, nibbling at his apple.

“It would be more to the point if you got her to teach you before breakfast,” Aed said.

'It would be more to the point if you got her to teach you before breakfast.'

“By demonstration if gestures fail!” Congal agreed. “Oh, dear, I’ve forgotten what ‘bosom’ means again,” he sighed in better English than Aed could ever hope to muster.

Their laughter quickly evaporated as each followed the lead of the other in listening. Gaethine was head-​and-​arm through the window again and seemed to be breathing heavily. Aed heard a faint crackling sound that might have been Gaethine trying to clear his lungs without coughing.

“Come in, then, and close the shutters, Gaeth,” Congal said. “The lads aren’t liking the night air up in there.”

He pushed the front of his kilt down flat between his legs to protect “the lads”, though Aed suspected he was more worried about how the night air was treating Gaethine.

“You cannot be blaming the lad for defying reason,” Congal added. “There’s a maggot making a feast of his brain, who goes by the name of Loooove!”

'There's a maggot making a feast of his brain.'

“The maggot named Love?” Aed asked him, laughing a little more loudly than the joke warranted. “No wonder you can’t get laid!”

Congal patted the front of his kilt. “I’ve a viper named Love right here who objects to that remark. But I’m not the man in love, laddie. I’ve nothing eating the sense out of my head—not that I’ve a lot to start with.”

“I am not in love!” Aed protested, laughing still louder as though this joke outdid the last.

“Aren’t you, then?” Congal batted his eyelashes at him “Mightn’t we have talked about something else then, ever since we came up here?”

“I was only telling you what we said—”

'I was only telling you what we said--'

“Look at him, Gaeth! Bosom friend!” he called in a stage whisper. “Look at him! Lights up like a chimney!”

“I do not!” Aed balled up one of his socks and threw it at him in retaliation. He glanced uneasily at the window, both wishing and fearing Gaethine would hurry back inside.

Bosom friend! In the end!” Congal chanted. “Ach! That’s rhyming in English. Listen, lad—I shall write you an English love poem to give to your fair lady—”

Aed laughed, “Please, no!” He held up the other sock to warn him. Congal lobbed the first sock back across the room.

Gaethine pulled his head inside and turned so sharply on his heel that Aed heard the scrape.

“Shall I leave you two to your pillow fight?”

'Shall I leave you two to your pillow fight?'

“Ach, so soon?” Congal asked merrily. “Three pillows do I spy!”

Without a glance, Aed waved the back of his hand to silence him. He was watching Gaethine.

“Perhaps tomorrow we might discuss this seriously,” Gaethine said.

“Tomorrow my answer will still be No,” Aed replied. “If she didn’t have fits, I might begin wishing she did, simply so I could have some excitement in my house. I have had more interesting conversations with my horse.”

'I have had more interesting conversations with my horse.'

“I believe she was feeling somewhat overshadowed by her friend.”

“I am a man surrounded by shadows,” Aed said. “I will not have a wife who is so easily intimidated.”

Gaethine tossed his head and stalked over to the window to fling his apple core out onto the court below.

“She must be clever and capable and healthy and strong first,” Aed continued, “no matter how special she might be. It’s through her I must be getting my sons. And I’m wanting a wife who can hold the reins if need be, so I can bear a sword in each hand.”

“Or grope her from behind,” Congal added.

'Or grope her from behind.'

Aed coughed to stifle a small laugh.

Gaethine turned and folded his arms to stare down at Aed from on high. “I thought this trip wasn’t about finding a wife.”

Aed felt oddly guilty, as if he had been caught misbehaving. “I never said it was.”

“She’s nothing. She’s nobody.” Aed knew at once that he had turned the subject to Lady Gwynn.

“That isn’t true…”

“She’s the daughter of a self-​proclaimed Duke who has less land and less men and less future than you.”

'She's the daughter of a self-proclaimed Duke.'

“Aye, but her mother was—”

“Her mother was the cousin of a lot of limp-​pricked sons of dead or exiled princes, none of whom has more than a house or two to his name. The day of that family is done.”

“What about her cousin who’s here?” Congal asked. “What’s his name? Conan?”

“Cynan,” Aed corrected him hastily, hoping Gaethine would simply refuse to be distracted.

“Aye, that Cynan fellow,” Congal said. “Tell him what you told me, Aed. The Maggot of Love hasn’t eaten his way through everything up there just yet.”

'The Maggot of Love hasn't eaten his way through everything up there just yet.'

Aed sighed and rubbed his forehead, still hoping Gaethine would ignore the interruption. But Gaethine stood silent, at attention.

“I was only thinking out loud,” Aed mumbled. “How that Cynan fellow seems to have his eye on young Margaret for himself, and how his father is heir to Gwynedd…”

“His father has to get out of prison first,” Gaethine said.

“Aye, and so he might,” Aed smiled slyly. “With a little help from the north. Mind you, we’ve never been friendly with Welshmen, but if one little wife wrote to her sister, and the other little wife begged her husband… how could I—or, ah, he refuse?” he smirked.

'How could I...'

Gaethine took a deep breath, and Aed winced, fearing a cough. Instead he only sighed through his nose.

When he saw that Gaethine did not intend to speak, he continued uneasily, “Imagine a triangle drawn from the tip of Gwynedd to Ramsaa harbor to the bay of the Fleet. Let’s even put a son or cousin of Sigefrith in on the coast somewhere to keep the old Viking happy. Better yet, the Duke’s son and Sigefrith’s daughter.”

Gaethine’s folded arms rose and fell. He was breathing too deeply for a man who was standing still.

Gaethine's folded arms rose and fell.

“Makes a rather large diamond,” Aed said. “Our ships will be at home in any port on the west coast of Britain, from the Hebrides to the tip of Wales. I could do through marriage what I couldn’t do in ten years of war.”

“Are you telling me…” Gaethine asked in a thin, breathless voice, “that you will overturn your plans for the next ten years… because some twelve-​year-​old tart waved her tits in your face for a few hours?”

Aed got his legs beneath him and leapt off the mattress to land with a thud of his bare feet just before the toes of Gaethine’s boots. Gaethine flinched.

“Say again?”

'Say again?'

“Which part? The insult to you or the insult to her?”

Aed breathed deeply for a man who was merely standing still. “Don’t think I feel too sorry for you to hit you,” he warned.

Gaethine’s lips contracted into a pucker, quite unlike Aed’s earlier attempts to stretch his grin flat, but seemingly likewise intended to hide some expression he did not want the other man to see.

Gaethine's lips contracted into a pucker.

“Watch it, Gaeth!” Congal laughed. “Do not you be saying I didn’t amply warn you! The Maggot of Love!

Aed was standing close enough to Gaethine to hear an ominous crackling and wheezing in the depths of the man’s chest. He decided to back down. Already he was regretting what he had said.

“Ach, Gaeth, you’re only sore because she corrected your Greek,” he teased.

'Ach, Gaeth, you're only sore because she corrected your Greek.'

“She what?” Congal begged.

“Corrected his Greek at table!” Aed grinned.

“She did not correct my Greek,” Gaethine spat. “She corrected my citation. There is nothing the matter with my Greek.

“Quite gracious about it, too,” Aed said to Congal. “It is very pretty to say in your way, too,” he attempted in his awkward English.

Congal winced. “Forget the Greek, by Zeus, and get her to teach you English.” He sat up and clapped his hands together in excitement. “New wager!” he announced. “You take Gwynn, and I take the Queen, and we shall see who can get the first proper English translation of in the end!

'You take Gwynn, and I take the Queen.'

Aed nodded. “Agreed. Does it matter which end?”

“Take whichever end you can get, laddie, but I’m warning you, it’s a difficult time she’ll be having, teaching you English with her mouth full.”

Aed burst out laughing and darted over to his bed to throw one of his balled-​up socks at Congal. Congal ducked and was obliged to fish around behind his mattress to retrieve it for a counterattack. Aed turned back to Gaethine at the sound of the scrape of a heel.

“Good night,” Gaethine muttered.

'Good night.'

Aed caught his arm and let it go. “Wait, Gaeth, you can play too! You take Condal, and…” He remembered too late that Condal already spoke Gaelic, and nothing else particularly well.

“Show her there’s nothing the matter with your Greek!” Congal crowed.

He punctuated this suggestion with a well-​aimed sock to the back of Gaethine’s head. Aed laughed, but Gaethine, ominously, did not even flinch.

“Go on with you, lad!” Congal groaned. “In which hostel were you leaving your sense of humor behind? We need to get this man laid, Aed, and not by any crippled elves or captains of the guard.”

'We need to get this man laid, Aed, and not by any crippled elves or captains of the guard.'

“And I happen to know a very special young lass…” Aed smiled. He knew it unwise to pester a rankled Gaethine, but something so infuriated him about Gaethine’s proposal that he wanted to push back and back and back.

He knew it unwise to pester a rankled Gaethine.

“We shall win her for you, laddie!” Congal cried. “I shall write you a love poem—”

“—entitled, The Maggot of Love!” Aed crooned.

Dearest Condal, if I could make you mine,” Congal recited, “I would have to rip out my spine—

“Enough!” Gaethine shouted.


Aed’s laughter was cut off at once, and Congal’s chuckling quickly trickled into silence. Gaethine rarely made such a roar unless he was coughing, and indeed his desperate wheezing hinted the sounds were like enough for one to provoke the other.

“I shall see you tomorrow…” he panted, “when mayhap you will not be so quick to make light… of so many serious matters.”

“Go on, Gaeth,” Aed said contritely, “you know we’ve been drinking and making merry all the evening. You cannot be expecting us to know what we’re saying…”

'You cannot be expecting us to know what we're saying...'

It was as close as he could come to apologizing for what he had said. He could only wish he had not said it.

“That’s why I’m…”

Gaethine bowed his head and breathed shakily through his open mouth, several pants between every phrase. Aed itched to hold his shoulders and steady him, but he did not know whether it was the right thing to do. He did not know whether there was anything he could do. He only knew that he would lose in the end.

He only knew that he would lose in the end.

“…going to bed,” Gaethine whispered.

“Why don’t you take Congal’s bed and stay here?” Aed pleaded.

“Aye, do, lad,” Congal said. “It’s yours.”

Gaethine took a long while before replying. His breathing was so quick and shallow that Aed wished he would simply cough and have done with it. He liked to think it cleared his lungs. He liked to think it helped.

Finally, however, Gaethine lifted his head high and spoke one phrase without gasping.

“Because I wouldn’t want you feeling sorry for me.”

'Because I wouldn't want you feeling sorry for me.'

He had heard. He had felt it. It had mattered. Aed stood like an unjovial idiot and listened to the tap-​tap-​tap of Gaethine’s heels heading for the door. His only hope was to make Gaethine understand he had only been teasing. The only way he knew was to continue to tease.

He snatched up his balled sock from off the bed covers and threw it squarely between his friend’s shoulder blades. “Then get back here and defend yourself!”

'Then get back here and defend yourself!'

Congal’s dammed-​up laughter burst forth in a rush. He tugged furiously on the laces of his boot and cried, “You must give a man fair warning, Aed! Let us ungird ourselves for battle!”

Gaethine turned with a scrape of his heel and stooped to snatch up the sock. Aed was already too busy scanning the floor for the second sock to see the look on his face, or he might have been forewarned.

Gaethine drew back his arm and hurled the sock at Aed’s chest with all the strength of his sickly body. It never made it.

The cloth was ablaze almost before it left his hand.

The cloth was ablaze almost before it left his hand. It vanished in a puff of flame and fell as flakes of ash just short of Aed’s bare feet.

Gaethine never stood straight afterwards, but stumped to the door wheezing, bent almost double. His boots made hollow thumps on the floor, like fat drops falling from near the ground. Congal’s bed creaked as he shifted his weight uneasily from hip to hip. Aed was petrified.

Gaethine managed to control his lungs until he had slammed the door behind him. Then his wet and ragged coughing racketed from one end of the narrow corridor to the other until he reached the stairs.

Aed listened for every step as he staggered: tap-​tap, and then a long pause while he coughed, and another tap, like a sponge being squeezed and shaken. He even heard what sounded like a hand smacking against the wooden wall as Gaethine fought to stay on his feet.

Aed listened for every step as he staggered.

Aed itched to go out barefoot into the corridor, and put a steadying arm around his friend’s shoulders, and lead him nonchalantly back into the room, where he would not have to sleep alone. But the seconds passed, and he only stood.

The clamor from the corridor grew faint and finally faded, like echoes from the depths of a well. Through the open window there came an icy draft and the distant sounds of dogs barking, latches falling, and Englishmen calling out goodnight.

Congal sighed and shook his head. “I do wish he would warn a man before doing that sort of thing.”

Aed only brushed the ashes from the back of his arm.

Aed only brushed the ashes from the back of his arm.