Alred lolled his head and rubbed the back of his neck.

Alred lolled his head and massaged the back of his neck. “I beg your pardon if I seem to doubt your honor, sir, but recent events impel me to inquire: Did you truly surrender all your weapons at the gate?”

“Aye, I did.”

Alred snorted. “I beg your pardon if I seem to disbelieve you.”

Alred snorted.

Malcolm weighed his words, seeking to match his opponent in both civility and sarcasm.

“In light of recent events, my lord, I elected to comply. Even had I not, no woman will be putting her arms around me tonight.”

“Ah. You reassure me, inasmuch as all the women I love most in the world are presently within these walls.” His merely grumbling tone of warning went keen. “And the woman my son most loves.”

Malcolm glanced across the room at Dunstan, who hummed a danceable tune as he jabbed at the fire.

Malcolm glanced across the room at Dunstan.

Warned away from Princess Britamund! Malcolm nearly laughed. She inspired no more lust in him now than she had as one of the more tiresome topics of conversation of her prattling mother. She only made him feel old.

How old was she? Sixteen?

Malcolm blew his sweaty forelock away from his face, and when it settled he stared down at Alred through the strands. “I hope you felt impelled to inquire the same of her brother and father.”

'I hope you felt impelled to inquire.'

“Both gentlemen have assured me that they are entirely unarmed.” A slight smirk tweaked up the corners of Alred’s mouth. “Not that it matters. Elves, you know. With a single look her brother could boil the blood within your veins until the froth bubbled out your nose.”

Malcolm matched his smirk and dropped his voice a shade lower. “You would like that, wouldn’t you, my lord?”

Dunstan flopped a log onto the fire with a crash of sparks. He picked up his tune again, his humming louder and merrier than ever, making his father’s chuckle seem all the more grim.

'I would pay dearly to witness that.'

“Malcolm, there remain few things in life that have the power to amuse me. But I would pay dearly to witness that.”

Malcolm turned his head. He had nothing to say to men who lacked the decency to bury quarrels many years dead. Nor loves.

Dunstan crouched over the woodpile again and tipped up a log, judging its size.

Malcolm said, “No more, if you please, lad! My meat’s falling off the bone as it is.”

Dunstan laughed and dropped the log. Now that it was said, Malcolm smoothed his hair into a ponytail and fanned the back of his neck with it. For days he had yearned for a warm fireside, and now it seemed all his wishes were coming true at once.

Alred growled, “You might consider the comfort of others for a change, sir. Lasrua loves a hot fire. As you would know, if you could honestly claim to be the least bit acquainted with her.”

Dunstan stood and brushed off his hands. He had not heard, or pretended not to have. “In that case I shall go fetch the platter and fork!”

He stepped towards the door but stopped before Malcolm.

He stepped towards the door but stopped before Malcolm.

“Ah… are you best enjoyed with gravy or a sweet relish?”

Malcolm laughed. “I cannot think of a single polite answer to that question.”

Dunstan slipped an arm between the two men and steered Malcolm towards the fire. “With your own juices?”

“That was one of the less impolite ones!”

'That was one of the less impolite ones!'

Dunstan clapped him on the shoulder. “We shall serve the sauces on the side and allow the guests to season you at table.” He turned. “Father – ”

Malcolm stopped laughing. “Wait! I’m not here to…”

Dunstan smiled. Behind him, Alred attempted the elven trick of boiling a man’s blood with a stare. A drop of sweat slid down Malcolm’s spine.

“…be eaten.”

Dunstan laughed and stepped back. “Fortunately I believe everyone has had a hearty supper.”

He laid a light hand on Alred’s elbow and turned him around. At the door he stopped to call back to Malcolm.

“Ladies being ladies, I cannot promise she will be right with you. But we shall try to coax her forth with compliments.”

He winked and pulled the door closed. Malcolm stared at the painted wood, still fumbling for a worthy protest. But it was too late now. He turned his back to the door.

He turned his back to the door.

He had been an idiot at the gate. He could make his voice rumble with defiance; he could make his charcoal eyes smolder with disdain. But Dunstan had not been there to witness. And by the time his message had filtered from the gate to her bedchamber through a series of servants, only his words would remain: “I’ve but the one question to ask her.”

What would a young lady make of that?

Malcolm grabbed the poker. 

Malcolm grabbed the poker and stirred up a bed of fire.

The new log sprawled dense and black on its bed of fire, arched in agony or abandon. Already fingers of flame peeled back shriveling flaps of bark. Tiny tongues licked over the bared wood.

Malcolm snagged the branch with the hook and flipped it over onto its belly. The coals cracked and spat at its crash, and a spray of white-​​hot sparks showered up the bricks with a sleety hiss. The broken embers throbbed with yellow heat through their dusting of ash.

Malcolm asked aloud, “What the devil am I doing?”

The poker clanged back into its stand.

His hair clung to his wet face.

His hair clung to his wet face, and no matter how he squirmed, his skin met damp wool. His sweat had a sharp, metallic scent, so unaccustomed he could smell himself as if he were another man. And he was so tired.

He whispered, “What the devil am I doing?”

Grand gestures such as these were the domain of younger men.

Malcolm studied the plain wooden door across the room, wondering whether it still led to a flight of stairs that opened onto the gate and the blissful coolness of the rain beyond.

But it was the painted door that opened while he stared.

It was the painted door that opened while he stared.

The elf’s hatred still burned like embers. His face shimmered behind its scorching heat.

Malcolm’s tunic peeled away from his wet back as he straightened.

Then a pale hand fluttered into sight behind the elf, and Malcolm’s shoulders went rigid. His heart clenched.

The hand settled on the elf’s elbow, and out of the gloom a sliver of face appeared. Its moonlike glamour turned his blood to frost. He wanted to shove it back into the hallway. He wanted to slam and bolt the door. He took a sharp breath, preparing to shout, “No!”

Then the face passed beyond the shadow of the elf’s shoulder, and its ghostly beauty was spoiled by Sigefrith’s square chin. It was the Princess Britamund. Malcolm exhaled.

Britamund nudged Paul’s arm. “Pardon me?”

Paul shuffled to the side, and Britamund glided in.

Britamund glided in.

Malcolm stepped back until his shoulder hit the mantel. He wondered whose idea it had been to send her. Dunstan’s, sending his wife out of courtesy? Or was it Alred’s idea of a joke: parading Maud’s daughter before him on the night he had seen Maire lying dead?

A gently coaxing male voice spoke a foreign phrase in the hallway, and another pale form stepped into the room. Malcolm concentrated all his attention on the Princess.

Malcolm concentrated all his attention on the Princess.

She had her mother’s eyes, just as Colban did. Eyes that could melt a man, and with a bat of their lashes freeze him solid again. But Britamund wore her mother’s pouting lips in her father’s matter-​​of-​​fact line. 

Was the elf lass looking at him? He could not look.

He clasped his wrist behind his back and bowed. “Your servant, my lady.”

He bowed.

“Good evening, Malcolm. I hope you are well.”

She lifted her hand, and Malcolm bowed lower and brushed his lips over the backs of her fingers, breathing warmly between them. Her hand fell away from his mouth and twisted itself in her skirt. She took a step back before she nodded and smiled.

“I wished to personally welcome you to Lothere, and most especially to thank you for allowing Cubby to spend Christmas with us this year.”

Malcolm straightened.

Malcolm straightened.

“We miss him so much at this time of year. He always asked for ‘a big horse just for me’ for Christmas, and this year he finally got it! A son of Cy-​​roos!”

Malcolm managed to chuckle. “That boy. If horses were wishes…”

Before he recovered his wits, Britamund stepped to his side. She swept her arm towards the elves at the far end of the room.

“You remember my friend Lasrua, and her brother Paul and father Sir Osh.”

'You remember my friend Lasrua.'

He had not forgotten her face, but remembering her beauty was like remembering pain. One only recalled that it had hurt. At its first stab he dropped his gaze.

Had she dressed herself in finery to meet him? He did not know what she customarily wore. Her pleated linen was pure white, but it seemed tawdry against her skin. He imagined her naked: luminous, bright enough to read by or to light his way home.

Her pleated linen was pure white, but it seemed tawdry against her skin.

Britamund tucked her hand into his elbow and stepped forward, but his arm resisted. The muscles of his shoulders clenched into knots.

Without faltering, Britamund slipped her hand free and crossed the room to join the elves.

Malcolm panicked. Having failed to drag him up to Lasrua, did she intend to march Lasrua up to him?

Malcolm panicked.

Britamund slid her hand around her friend’s corseted waist. Lasrua’s body bowed outwards from its unseen pressure in the small of her back.

Malcolm went rigid, willing his rigidity into her. A drop of sweat ran down his temple and tickled his cheek, but he dared not lift a hand to wipe it away. At last he risked a look into her face, hoping he could tell her with his eyes to stay back.

But he could not grasp her gaze long enough to warn her. Her eyes met his only in flashes, and her expression wavered like a reflection feathered with rain. Her flickering smile only hinted at the blissful coolness of her kiss.

Her eyes met his only in flashes.

Britamund sighed her surrender. “I shall have to leave you, if you will all excuse me.” She slipped between Lasrua and Osh. “I had better see what Dunstan is cooking up downstairs. He was saying something about a gravy ladle.”

Osh said, “You must tell him that you are the person who should be hungry for a snack before bed.”

Britamund stopped in the doorway and laughed. “I prefer to have my snacks shortly after midnight, at the hour most inconvenient to him. Dun-​​stan! I want a sand-​​wich! With gra-​​vy!” She giggled, and the painted door clicked shut.

Osh stared after her, chuckling. He looked reassuringly older with his beard. Malcolm remembered he was married to Cousin Flann now, and wondered just how much older he was. Flann was scarcely more than sixteen.

He wondered just how much older he was.

Then Osh looked at him, and Malcolm looked away to Paul. A vicious stare was something Malcolm could meet.

Paul held his gaze for a moment before glancing at the back of his sister’s head. “Avé, Lú, tésíwítavérú.

Lasrua turned towards the couch.

Malcolm said, “Wait!” and she stopped.

Paul glared at Malcolm through his wispy hair. “Tésíwítavérú.

Lasrua bowed her head and went to the couch. Malcolm did not look away from Paul, but he felt her coolness as she went by as if she had passed between him and a fire.

Lasrua bowed her head and went to the couch.

Malcolm said, “Wait one minute! I’m not here to listen to you speaking in tongues! Or if that’s what you’re wanting, by God, I have a few things to say to you in Gaelic that will rot your pointed ears right off your skull!”

Osh sighed and rocked his weight between his feet.

Paul lifted his head. “Do you have something to say to my sister? In English?”

Malcolm lifted his head higher. “Aye, if you’ll be leaving us alone for a bit.”

'Aye, if you'll be leaving us alone for a bit.'

Paul lunged. His father leapt after him and caught his shoulder, but he could not have stopped him if Paul had not pulled himself up in time. The danger passed before Malcolm’s human reflexes had even lifted his arms.

Paul scuffled backwards and banged his own head once with his fists. “Naí! You shall say it to me!”

Osh squeezed his shoulder. “Paul…”

“He shall say it to me! And if it’s not fit for my pointed ears, by my mother, it’s not fit for hers!”

This was not the scene that Malcolm had planned. This was so much easier. This was battle. This was man-​​to-​​man.

He said, “I don’t mind saying it to you. I don’t mind who’s hearing. I’ve only the one thing to ask her, and all I’m wanting is an answer!”

'I shall give you your answer!'

Paul’s arms trembled. He seemed to have difficulty opening his clenched teeth to speak. “Ask it! And I shall give you your answer!”

In the heat of the fire, the muscles of Malcolm’s back loosened and rippled. Beads of sweat trickled freely down his face and into his unshaven beard. He had never felt more like a man. He lowered his head and smiled.

A practiced flick of his thumb opened the loose strings of his purse, and his finger hooked the chain. The butterfly leapt up and swung out in a graceful arc before it fell jerking and bobbing at the end of its tether.

'What do you know of this?'

“Elf! What do you know of this?”

Paul clapped his hand to his chest. For an instant Malcolm believed the elf had a weak heart, and he had just killed him.

Then he saw the firelight flash off the blade of a knife, and he knew he was about to be killed.

He knew he was about to be killed.