'Shh, shh...'

“Shh, shh…”

Palina had told her that she would never be able to care for a baby alone, but Aia prided herself that she was proving her wrong. Just as she had learned a new gait for her walk to compensate for Wendel’s weight on her high shoulder, so had their life together settled into an easy rhythm.

What she did not know how to do was care for a baby not-​​alone.

“Shh, shh, baby…” she whispered, bouncing him slightly against her breast.

Wendel twisted his sweaty fingers into her hair and yapped and grumbled. Aia had learned the litany of all the little and loud sounds he made, and she knew he was working his way up to a cry.

She turned her head and glanced down at Llen, sleeping open-​​mouthed on the bed. His breath hissed and sputtered faintly in his throat like rain falling into a fire.

His breath hissed and sputtered faintly in his throat.

Dared she put the baby down? Would he be patient, or would he cry? She had changed him in his cradle, but she could not hold him while she put water on to warm for his breakfast mash.

She also wanted to pull on a dress, or a nightgown, or anything. She did not know what Llen would see if he woke and saw her nudity. Beauty or ugliness – she did not want to be bared to him.

Before she could make up her mind, Wendel lifted his head from her shoulder and gave a bleating cry. Llen sucked in his breath and held it. An ominous silence yawned between the first wail and the coming one, wider and wider, and the throbs of Aia’s heart galloped into the gulf. She glanced at the fire, at the poker, at the door.

Wendel squinted up his face and howled.

Llen clapped his hand over his eyes and groaned, “Take that kid out of here!”

Aia panted in panic and cuddled her baby’s head against her shoulder. Where did he think she could take him? Wendel pawed at her with his damp hands and complained in crabby mews.

Llen cried out sharply and sat up as though startled out of a nightmare.

“Aia!” he gasped. “Bright Mother…”

He peered around the room through swollen, slitted eyes.

He peered around the room through swollen, slitted eyes. The husks and straw of the mattress crackled like a pyre beneath his shifting weight.

For long hours Aia had lain beside him, as stifled by his massive presence as if he lay atop her still. She did not know how to sleep not-​​alone. The men she knew left as soon as they could; their bluster and their bravado flagged as quickly as their dangly little male-​​pieces, and they covered themselves straightaway, shamefacedly dropped a coin or some more useful offering on her table, and hurried out into the cold.

Llen had fallen asleep cuddling her clumsily against his hot chest like a little girl with a doll.

He pushed down the blankets and grasped his legs behind the knees to drag them out one by one, like dead weight. His upper body nodded deeply to meet them. He was getting up.

Aia cupped her palm over the baby’s fuzzy head and peered down the back of her hand at the cradle. She did not know what Llen would do if she put Wendel down and he started to wail. She did know, however, that she would not be able to hang onto him if Llen threw her down or slammed her against the wall. She would not even be able to hold him if Llen decided to yank him out of her arms.

One by one the soles of Llen’s feet thumped onto the floor. His lank hair hung before his face, making a mystery of his mood. He lifted an arm to her – long and lean, dense and hard, ridged with ropy veins, striped with scars: terrifyingly male.

Aia panicked. Wendel squeaked in surprise as she dropped him into his cradle. She turned on the heel of her good leg and staggered away. She was glad now that she was naked, for beautiful or ugly, her body might serve as a distraction until she had put some soothing ale or cider into Llen.

She turned on the heel of her good leg and staggered away.

“Llen! You’re awake!” she gabbled. “I’ll just put some wood on and get breakfast started!”

The mattress rustled beneath his hips. “Breakfast?” he slurred.

Aia heard Wendel furiously pumping his fists and feet, struggling out of his blankets, the better to thrash and cry. She laughed wildly in terror.

“I have elven food, too, if you want! Anything!” Anything – she would give him anything if it would turn his attention from the baby.

The straw crackled and snapped and spit, and then – a chilling silence as the massive male weight was lifted at last. Llen was on his feet.

Llen was on his feet.

Aia skittered around her table, dizzy and sick. Would he not follow?

“Llen!” she pleaded.

Llen called, “Aia!” in a bleating whimper.

Aia grabbed the edge of her side table and dragged herself to a precarious halt, breathless and wondering. Out of habit she tried to categorize his cry. It was most like the sound Wendel made when she was obliged to let him wail for a while, and at last her head peeked over the rim of his cradle: “Aia,” the baby seemed to say, in reproach and in relief, “why did you forsake me?”

It was most like the sound Wendel made.

Then Llen clapped his hand over his mouth and bolted for the door. Three beautiful strides and he knocked it open with his shoulder, just in time to hang his weight from the doorframe and lean low to vomit onto the snow.

Rosy light raked his back, sculpting his heaving muscles with shadow and highlighting the silvery streaks of further scars. A silent winter wind swirled past him, lifting first his hair, then hers.

Llen pulled himself up with one arm and hung panting from the doorframe for a moment. Then his fingers slipped, and he fell onto his hands and knees in the snow.

Aia started towards him, her arms reaching out with compassion – just as Wendel let out a wail. Llen bent his face almost to the ground and vomited again.

Torn, Aia whimpered, “Llen? Aia’s here, baby!” she called over her shoulder.

Llen scooped up a handful of clean snow, smashed it into his face, and spat. There was none of the grace of his long strides in the clambering way he pushed and dragged himself to his feet, but all the muscles of his body slid and rippled together like a perfect play of water, scarcely obscured by his battle-​​scarred skin. Like a stag, he was a beast made for fighting and dominating and breeding. The baby cried again, but Aia was petrified. He was so terrifyingly male.

Once standing, he pushed the door open wider to let in the light or the winter air.

“You tried to poison me.”

'You tried to poison me.'

Aia gasped in surprise. “No, Llen!” she whispered.


He lunged at her, but she was far enough away that she was spared the first blow.

“Bitch!” he repeated, only inches away. “You tried to kill me!”

'You tried to kill me!'

“No, Llen, no!” Aia babbled.

He yanked on her arm and turned her halfway around so he could grab her by the hair: a taut fistful right at the base of her skull.

He brought her lips up almost against his and howled, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” Droplets of icy water fell from his sparkling beard onto her face, and in her terror Aia obediently opened her mouth and lapped at them.

Llen pulled her past him and thrust her head towards the door. “Stinking Mother, do you see that? It’s the dawn! Where’s my horse by now?”

'It's the dawn!'

He shoved her aside and strode into the corner by the foot of the bed. Aia stumbled but stayed standing.

“Where are my pants?” he demanded, even as he whipped them up from the top of the chest. Wendel let out a long whine, but Aia was too terrified to call out to him and draw attention to either of them.

Llen fell silent as he pulled on his pants, hasty and awkward, his back to the room. Aia had never seen such a long and clinging garment being put on, and she shuffled closer, ready to come to his aid the instant he demanded it.

She shuffled closer.

He did not need it. He pulled his belt tight and turned to her, his mouth twisted and trembling.

“Where are my boots?”

He shoved past her, heading for the opposite corner. Wendel cried long and loud. Aia cringed.

“Shut up!”

The baby choked and gasped in surprise.

Llen snatched up his boots and spun himself around to glare at Aia. “How am I supposed to get home now? I’m going to be killed!”

'I'm going to be killed!'

Aia whispered, “No, Llen…” Terrified as she was, she told herself she had to keep talking to him to keep his mind off the baby. “You could go by the roads of the men…”

“Right, and run into Lord Osh?” he sneered.

He sat on one of her low stools and pulled on a boot. With a frightened fascination Aia watched his bare arms working as he fastened the buckles. The muscles of his upper arms slipped beneath the heavy muscles of his shoulders as he stooped, making dark creases in his skin. The wood creaked for mercy beneath his shifting weight.

Then Wendel let out a long cry, and Llen’s hands stopped on one of the buckles. His fingers curled, and the tendons on the scarred backs of his hands stood out like ribs.

Hurriedly Aia began humming the first song that came to mind, hoping the baby would believe she was busy making his breakfast and would soon be nigh.

Hurriedly Aia began humming the first song that came to mind.

Llen lowered his head and finished buckling on his boots. He leaned heavily against the table to heave himself up. “Where’s my knife?” he barked, already scanning the room right and left. Aia whinnied in panic in the middle of her song. Wendel would not stop his fretful crying.

Then Llen’s gaze settled on the side table, piled with pots and loaves and sacks and empty cups.

“What is this shit?” he howled. “You tried to poison me!”

'What is this shit?'

He swung his fist through the air and swept the side of his arm across the table top, knocking down her tidy piles and sending food and dishes flying. Plates and crockery jars shattered and crashed. Wendel screamed.

“No, Llen, no!” Aia pleaded. “I never knew it would make you sick, I swear!”

Llen turned to her, raising the same fist. “Bitch!”

Aia ducked her head behind her high shoulder, but Llen had not meant to punch her. He slammed the side of his arm against her back as he strode past, mowing her down as he had her pots and jars.

Aia bleated as she fell and blubbered when she landed.

Aia bleated as she fell and blubbered when she landed. A clear drop fell from her nose onto the swept dirt. A turnip rolled past her hand and hit the wall. Then Wendel cried.

Aia looked up. Llen stood at the foot of the bed, pulling his shirt up his long arms. Behind her she heard the sickening splat of one of her toppled pots slowly vomiting its congealed contents out onto the floor.

She tried to sing to soothe her baby, but the melody rose and fell atop rolling waves of stifled sobs, and she shook and shivered from her lips to the arms that were propping her up. Her sweet lullaby came out in a mournful, maundering wail, like the blood-​​chilling, forbidden songs of the males that Sela had learned from Imin.

She glanced up at the flash of a knife, but Llen was only strapping it to his thigh. He stepped up to her, all boots and muscled calves, then yanked her to her feet by one arm and held her quaking beneath his face. She could not find the breath she needed to sing.

He held her quaking beneath his face.

“No more of that shit, do you hear me?”

She had no idea which shit he meant, but she nodded.

He shoved her against the wall beside the door, not quite brutally, but roughly enough that her stopped breath was knocked out of her in a gasp. Then she was breathing again: such shallow panting that his hair fluttered around his face even as it rose and fell slowly in the icy drafts from outside.

He shoved her against the wall beside the door.

“No more of that man food,” he growled. “No more of that ale shit. You’re an elf, do you hear me?”

She nodded.

“Do you hear me?” he shouted.

“Yes, Llen.”

After a few miserable mews, Wendel cried again. Llen drew a deep breath, and Aia clutched at his arms in fear that he would turn his attention from her to the baby. She could scarcely wrap her fingers around the swell of his biceps.

“No more living like a man just because you got that man-​​baby in here! You raise it like an elf or not at all!”

'You raise it like an elf or not at all!'

“Yes, Llen,” she whispered.

“I’ll give you a baby,” he muttered. “An elf baby.” He leaned with one arm against the wall, and with the other reached between their bodies to find his belt. “And I don’t want you feeding it that shit,” he warned her.

His hand jerked, the buckle clanked, and the end of his belt whipped softly across her stomach as he pulled it open. Aia hummed a snatch of tune she stole at random from some lullaby she knew.

Aia hummed a bit of tune.

“I don’t even want you eating that while it’s still in your belly, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Llen.” She tried to hum louder, so Wendel could hear, but her throat was so taut she could scarcely produce a sound.

“And don’t you tell anyone what happened here!” Llen warned, his voice suddenly shrill. “Anyone!”

'And don't you tell anyone what happened here!'

He fumbled blindly between them, doing some male thing she could not understand, tapping against her soft belly from time to time with the back of his heavy male hand.

“You tell them I beat you up! It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

Aia hummed. Llen stopped fumbling long enough to grab her by the shoulders and slam her head back against the wall, turning her last note into a yelp.

'Isn't it?'

“Isn’t it?” he shouted.

“Yes, Llen, yes!” she chittered.

He released her and slapped his palm against the doorframe, making such a loud smack that Wendel fell silent in the middle of a whine. He smacked and smacked the wood again.

'You tell them I threw you up against the wall and raped you!'

“You tell them I threw you up against the wall and raped you!” he hissed through his shivering teeth. “It’s the truth, isn’t it? It’s going to be!”

He pinned her against the wall with his shoulder and slid his hands down her hips to grasp her by the backs of her thighs. He stepped back and heaved.

He stepped back and heaved.

Crisp flakes of peeling paint shattered and scraped her and embedded themselves in her back as she was dragged up the plaster wall. She had no choice but to throw up her arms and hang her weight from his mighty shoulders.

He pulled her legs apart, and the winter air rushed between them, cold as ice everywhere she had been hot and wet. Then she felt a blunt knob of warmth sliding over her slippery skin – just the tip, deceptively soft. She braced herself, clinging tightly to his shoulders.

She braced herself.

He clenched her thighs in his bruising fingers and jerked her hips back against his. She felt him like a fist slamming into her belly from the inside. A quiver rippled over her body, and she cried out in spite of herself.

Wendel was sniveling in his cradle, and she tried to sing to distract them both, but her very first note went off into a keening wail. Llen grunted and steadied her at an angle he liked, then settled into his rhythm.

He scarcely moved inside of her.

He scarcely moved inside of her, he scarcely withdrew, but his strokes were long enough for her to feel his male skin slipping over that female skin whose sensations she had not yet learned to name; to feel over and over that ache and easing of ache that was not quite pain, in deep places she could scarcely believe he could attain.

Wendel cried on in his cradle, unheeded. Aia bit Llen’s shirt taut over his shoulder, and still she could not stop her sobs – the shivering, gulping, blubbering sobs of an unhappy child, such as he had never seen her cry. She shuddered in his arms. Her nose ran onto his shirt.

Aia bit Llen's shirt taut over his shoulder.

She tried reminding herself that this was how babies were made, but she had not wanted her baby to be made like this. She had wanted her baby to be made last night. Of course she knew that last night was all due to the ale and cider and wine, but she had wanted to pretend – as she liked to pretend that Wendel was her own child, that she was whole, that she was beautiful – that her baby was conceived in love, as she had been.

Llen gasped and shuddered and stilled. He tipped himself back until he bore most of her weight on his chest, and inside of her he pressed against a sensitive place he had not yet reached. Aia reminded herself that this was the moment when babies were made. The thought made her cry out in despair.

Llen released of one of her legs and wrapped a crushing arm around her back. Aia was obliged to squeeze his hips between her thighs, for fear that she would slide down and drive him still deeper inside.

For long minutes they clung together. Aia still gulped and whimpered with slight sobs, and shivered from cold and the aftereffects of her fright. The rise and fall of his unsteady breath rocked her like a baby upon his chest.

The rise and fall of his unsteady breath rocked her like a baby upon his chest.

She felt ever more helpless and naked as time passed. The act seemed over, and Llen still did not let her go. Wendel had given up crying for her, and he sucked his thumb and whimpered to himself over his abandonment. Aia began to wonder how long it took to make a baby. She wondered whether Llen meant to catch his breath and begin again.

Then she felt a sickening slip, and he fell out of her. His breath hissed in over his teeth, and he let her drop. Her skinned back slumped against the wall.

Her skinned back slumped against the wall.

Llen spun about and strode away from her, awkwardly at first, due to some fumbling with his hands at the level of his waist. But he was lordly when he lifted his cloak from the barrels and whirled the heavy folds of leather around his body like the swoop of a mighty wing. It creaked as it settled over his shoulders, and smacked his hips with a clatter of buckles and hatchets and knives.

Three beautiful strides and he was outside.

Three beautiful strides and he was outside. She heard his cloak flapping wildly around his beating legs, like the crippled wings of a bird who would never again fly. She heard his ragged breath as he hissed and spat it through his teeth, and his feet punching crisp holes in the snow as he ran.

Three beautiful strides and he was outside.