'Garrie, isn't it?'

“Garrie, isn’t it?”

That did it. The startled guard staggered back from the doorway he had been peeking around and thumped against the far wall.

“Aye, sir!” Garalt tugged his tunic straight and attempted to look like a man at his station.

Malcolm twisted one of his fingers and popped a knuckle by way of acknowledgment.

The idea of this mouth-​​breathing twit spying on him would have been laughable if Garalt had been the only one doing it, but Malcolm heard doors creaking open and clinking shut all up and down the house. He heard skirts swishing around tiptoeing feet and gasps of surprise from the shadows.

But he had not heard the half-​​stifled girlish giggling that ordinarily surrounded him wherever there were girls. He had not heard laughter of any kind at all. What had Maire’s cook told them?

The idea of this mouth-breathing twit spying on him would have been laughable.

Malcolm stuffed a hand into his collar and rubbed the sweltering back of his neck. The pads of his fingers were so swollen and wrinkled that he might as well have been wearing gloves. His wool coat had been wet so long that it was beginning to tear apart along the seams, and in certain damp folds his chafed skin threatened to do likewise.

All his grand plans for the day had shrunk to a desire to get dry, to get warm, to lie between clean sheets – even if it meant begging a bed of Aengus and Maire. And he would still have to go out to the stable and beg a horse comb if he was to have any hope of untangling his snarled hair.

At last he heard a pair of shuffling feet that did not turn back after peeping around a corner.

It was Aengus, coming in from the back of the house.

It was Aengus, coming in from the back of the house. Malcolm was relieved. He was not too proud to beg a bed of Maire, who was bound to tell herself that the bed she offered might have been her own if she had used him better. But he was too proud to stand before her looking and – he wiped his nose on his shoulder, granting himself a discreet sniff of his armpit – smelling like a beggar.

But Aengus was not looking much better himself.

Aengus was not looking much better himself.

Malcolm ventured no more than a half-​​smile. “Cousin…”

Aengus did not return even a fraction of the smile. A few locks of dirty hair slipped strand-​​by-​​strand out of his low ponytail and grazed his unshaven cheek.

Malcolm had seen Aengus looking more dapper lying belly-​​down in the mud beneath his shield. And even then, even as arrows whirred overhead, Aengus had known how to turn to the men lying beside him and make them twist their guts with laughter.

Aengus folded his arms. Malcolm touched his sleeve.

Malcolm touched his sleeve.

“What happened to you, young devil?”

It had to be grave. Never had Malcolm’s appearance so invited the jokes his snotty little cousin was failing to make.

Aengus sniffled and swallowed. “Too long I waited.”

The voice was Aengus’s, but it was soft with a sense of helplessness, and stuffy from tears. In Malcolm’s heart a long-​​sleeping cousinly protectiveness pricked its ears and lifted its nose: on the lookout for the boys who had teased the puny brat about his red-​​headed mother or his erratic ass of a father – or whatever it was that could make a grown-​​up Cousin Aengus cry.

Malcolm pressed his palms together in an almost prayerful gesture. “What can I be doing for you, man?”

Aengus’s gaze dropped to follow the movement of Malcolm’s hands, and then his head jerked aside as though Malcolm had smacked him with one of them.

His head jerked aside.

Malcolm froze. Had he said the wrong thing? Had he unwittingly wronged the man while he had been away? And then he looked down himself.

The ring.

The ring.

He could take it off when he was someone else, when he was far away. The first time, he had traveled all the way to Paris as a Castilian wine merchant to be certain it could be removed. But in eleven years his feet had never trod British soil unless that ring was on his hand. He had sworn he would carry it down into his grave, and let the bitch and her father pry it off his finger then.

But he had not meant it as an affront to Aengus, who doubtlessly wore one of his own. Malcolm cocked his head and tried to steal a glimpse of Aengus’s hand through the curtain of his matted hair, but he spun about at the sound of a door cracking against the wall in the entry behind him, and the thudding, scuffing tread of a man making no effort to sneak or spy.


“Uncle!” Malcolm laughed. “God bless me!”

Colin staggered in and shuffled to a stop. His body swayed obscenely from the hips upward as he fought to keep his balance in his new, stationary position.

Malcolm laughed again. It was no wonder Aengus looked like something hacked up by the Devil’s own cat. A few weeks cohabiting with Colin would take a toll on any man.

“Malcolm! You son of a bitch!” Colin slurred, forgetting – as he often did – that the bitch in question was his own sister.

'Malcolm!  You son of a bitch!'

“Uncle!” Malcolm grinned. “The last man I expected to see!”

“I’d say the same of you, Malcolm, but they say the Devil always does show up when a body’s least expecting him. Aengus! What’re you doing out of your bed?”

Malcolm glanced over his shoulder. Aengus’s face was expressionless, like that of a dog resigned to its beating and to all beatings to come, but his eyes were still as red-​​rimmed and puffy as when he had come in, his face still as mottled, and his nose still dripped into his untidy mustache. Aengus, Malcolm realized, had the Devil’s own cold.

Malcolm turned back to Colin and asked, “Ach, is there something going around, then?”

'Ach, is there something going around, then?'

His voice sobered as he remembered that Aengus and Maire had lost their littlest daughter to the “something going around” of the winter before, almost to the day.

“Is that what’s happening in this valley?” Malcolm wondered aloud. “The devil! You won’t be believing the day I’ve spent, Uncle, a-​​riding down the hills and back again in the rain – ”

“God bless you, Malcolm,” Colin said, unsmiling, “you smell like it.”

Malcolm ventured a half-​​laugh and decided against complimenting Colin on his own beery perfume.

“First I was going to young Sigefrith’s, but the house was dark, and no one was at the gate.”

'First I was going to young Sigefrith's.'

Young Sigefrith! He had so many children, the death of a few seemed almost inevitable. If ever Malcolm had needed a reason not to procreate, he had just found one there.

“And then was I riding all the way across the valley to see Cousin Egelric, but the castle was shuttered and the banners taken down, and the men there were taking one look at me and walking the other way.”

Cousin Egelric too had a fair number of children at home, including his long-​​lost eldest son, Finn; and Malcolm recalled that his pretty young wife must have given him another in the meanwhile. And of course, Sigefrith and Egelric themselves could have fallen ill, if Aengus had. Anyone could have.

Anyone could have.

“And then I did ride all the way back, and thought to stop at Cousin Catan’s house for the night…”

Malcolm pushed his damp sleeves up his arms and tried to rub life into his clammy wrists.

“And… and the strangest thing, Uncle.” His voice cracked. He swallowed and continued. “Either I could not find it again, or… there’s nothing left of it but the chimneys.” His traitorous voice cracked again. “But in the dark and the rain…”

Colin looked past Malcolm and growled, “Aengus, go back to your bed.”

Malcolm looked back, but Aengus gave no sign of having heard, much less of going anywhere.

Aengus gave no sign of having heard.

Too long I waited–what had he meant? Waited for what? To send for a doctor?

Malcolm concluded, “And so I was coming here to get the news. And, God bless me, mayhap a warm bed!”

Colin glared. Malcolm tittered. He could scarcely believe it of himself: himself, trying to appear harmless and winsome. Himself, quailing before his uncle as he had not since he had been of an age for Colin to wallop him across the ear. But he had not misbehaved; he could not fathom why he should be afraid of his uncle now.

He could not fathom why he should be afraid of his uncle now.

Then it occurred to him that he was simply afraid.

He whispered, “How’s my son?”

Colin wiped his nose on his sleeve and glared past Malcolm’s shoulder. “Aengus, for the last time I’m telling you, get you back to your bed!”

'Get you back to your bed!'

At last Aengus moved. He reached behind Malcolm and lifted a pink slipper that lay on the mantel. He clutched it against his chest as he walked away, but he went no farther than the bench before he flopped down and curved his body around the little shoe, cradling it on his lap like the broken-​​winged birds and limp kittens that the other boys had abused because Aengus loved them.

Malcolm had scarcely noticed the slipper on the mantel, and he scarcely took the time to wonder at the gesture now, but in days to come he would wish he had at least stroked the silk himself.

Now, however, he grabbed his uncle’s knitted sleeve and demanded, “For the love of Christ, tell me how is my son!”

Colin shoved him off and maintained his balance surprisingly well.

Colin shoved him off.

“Your son is fit as a flea, Malcolm, as you would know if you’d grown the balls to ride up to that castle and simply ask. Young Sigefrith is at his father’s castle, because his father almost killed the Duke in a fight over the Duchess and had to go away. As for Cousin Egelric, he was banished from this kingdom because he lost his last shred of humanity when his wife died, and he raped and beat Maire while Aengus was abroad.”

Malcolm staggered back. Colin had just delivered a wallop to beat anything he had inflicted in times of old.

Malcolm staggered back.

But Colin had only just begun. He grabbed Malcolm by the collar and pulled him toe-​​to-​​toe.

“And Cousin Catan’s house is gone because poor Maire lost her mind after that monster crawled off of her, and she killed Penedict’s mother and burned the house down around her body.”

Malcolm struggled, and Colin pulled him closer, blasting Malcolm’s face with the spitty half-​​whisper of a drunk making a killing point.

Malcolm struggled, and Colin pulled him closer.

“And last night, you scrawny fuck-​​up, while you were dragging your worthless ass into this valley – where you are welcome like the seven plagues and where the very stones curse your name – ”

Malcolm tried to gibber a protest, but Colin choked it off by twisting his collar against his windpipe. He heard a crackling – Colin’s knuckles, or his wet wool coat ripping at the seams. His stopped-​​up blood throbbed in his ears, but not loud enough to drown out his uncle’s final snarl.

“Last night – God bless her soul – of a broken heart she died!”

'Of a broken heart she died!'