Malcolm sprawled onto the floor.

Malcolm sprawled onto the floor, his skull still ringing from its whack against the mantel. Overhead a fight commenced without him: shouts and scuffling, a screech of table legs over wooden planks, a smash of shattered glass.

He smelled scorched wool and pushed himself away from the heat that blazed at his shoulder. Osh slammed Paul flat on the tabletop and bent over him to bellow into his face. Malcolm remembered the knife.

“Son of a bitch!”

He reached behind his head for the poker. The hook snagged the stand, and all the irons crashed and clanged around him. He shook the poker, failed to free it from the tangle, and finally shoved the clattering pile against the wall to give himself space to get his feet beneath him.

“Lying son of a bitch!”

He staggered as soon as he stood and nearly cracked his head again. The floor pitched like the deck of a cargo ship crossing the Channel.

He staggered as soon as he stood.

The dizziness alarmed him, but he knew how it felt to be stabbed, and there was none of that searing pain. The blow to his head had simply left him swavering like a drunk.

And Malcolm knew how to fight when drunk.

“Son of a bitch! Put down the knife, elf, and fight like a man!”

'Put down the knife, elf, and fight like a man!'

Osh shouted, and Paul struggled and snarled. Neither paid any attention to him.

Malcolm swayed back against the fireplace, propping himself up while he surveyed the spinning room. He had never realized how many convenient weapons there were to be found in a tavern. What was a body supposed to do in here? Chuck books at his opponent’s head?

Then his gaze settled on the elf lass cowering a swinging fist’s length away. His tongue fumbled, but his blood was up, and he let his words fly in an extravagant slur. “Get you gone, lassie! This is not the place for womankind!” He pounded his fist on the mantel.

She turned to him, and her arms loosened their hold on her body like ropes unwinding from a winch. Her green eyes appeared black against her chalk-​white face, but her shoulder was a blot of vivid red.

“Where is my necklace?”

'Where is my necklace?'

“Your necklace! The devil!”

Paul’s elbows smacked the tabletop as he struggled to rise. Osh shook him with both fists and launched into a scolding so ponderously point-​by-​point that Malcolm imagined he understood the elven word for “first of all.”

Lasrua lifted her hands to her mouth, as if she sought to warm them with her breath. The thought of her bloody palm brushing her lips finally shattered Malcolm’s stupefaction and sobered him in an instant.

“What’s happened to you, lass?”

He leaned, and she turned away, winding herself up in her arms again. A trickle of blood snaked down her collarbone to soak into the spreading stain on her linen.

'What's happened to you, lass?'

The wound lay in the hollow of her shoulder: one of his most ticklish and closely-​guarded spots, and therefore one of hers he would have most liked to kiss.

It was also a favored target for the assassins of very short or conveniently seated men. Although it required a good aim and a fair amount of force from above, death within minutes was almost guaranteed. Fortunately it seemed she had only been scratched.

He did not know what to do with her. He looked to her father, but Osh was savagely holding forth on point five or point six. Malcolm had no experience comforting injured elf lasses nor even frightened children. Horses were what came naturally to him.

He clucked and trilled.

He clucked and trilled; he stroked her flanks and shoulders. He murmured a rich flood of Gaelic endearments, satisfied she understood not one word more than a panicked mare: his wee jewel, his white doe, his toy, his treasure. He drew her shivering body into the curve of his arm. When he whispered he could taste her blood on the air.

A fhaoileag mo ghaoil…

Her flashing eyes finally looked into his, terrified but trusting.

Then a heavy book slammed onto the floor and startled a shriek out of her. The wound throbbed, and a spurt of blood soaked the shoulder of her gown and rapidly spread.

Malcolm grasped his outrage like a spar and swung it against the grappling elves. “Will you knock it off, the two of you! Can’t you see she’s bleeding?”

Paul wailed, and the shouts and struggles ceased. Malcolm turned his attention back to the girl.

Malcolm turned his attention back to the girl.

“Easy now… let’s be sitting you down.”

Paul’s body flew past headfirst to land sprawling beside the painted door. Osh bolted across the room to meet it, raging, and heaved it up and slung it against the wall.

Malcolm gave them a last glance, and the range of his notice tightened to enclose no more than his arms.

“Let’s be sitting you down now…”

He shuffled Lasrua as far as the couch before she grabbed him and stiffened. “Malcolm!”

Malcolm stopped in the middle of a pretty phrase. He realized he would have to speak English with her.

She clutched his tunic, and her weight began to drag. “Malcolm! Malcolm!”

He chuckled. “Ach! Malcolm, is it? That’s only being the Christian name of me, lass, and not the dire insult you’re seeming to think it is.”

'Sit yourself down now...'


“Sit yourself down now…”

He leaned her over the couch until they nearly toppled, but she clung to his tunic like a terrified kitten.

“Malcolm! My necklace!”

“Ach! We shall find your necklace for you, girlie. I dropped it somewhere…”

“Where did you find it? How did you get it?”

Malcolm tried to shrug her off, but for all his grunting exertions his torso merely twisted in his clothes. “That’s being a bedtime story for a week of nights, and I do not tell bedtime stories to wee lasses who aren’t in their wee beds. Or at the very least lying down. Now—”

He slid his arm down her body.

He slid his arm down her body, intending to lift her up beneath her thighs and lie her down himself, but Lasrua panicked and let go.

She fell onto her good side, but her other arm jerked her wounded shoulder back, and she screeched in pain. A tendril of blood ran across her breast. The door slammed, and Osh was at her side by the time it soaked the linen.



Lasrua flopped onto her back, and a gush from the wound glazed her neck and shoulder with glistening red.

She flopped onto her back.

Malcolm stood away, horrified at what was happening and petrified by the fear his slightest movement would make matters worse.

Only his shivering mouth moved, whispering his life’s simplest and sincerest prayer.

“O God of miracles… O Mother of Mercy… Help her, please…”

'Help her, please...'