Britamund yawned.

Britamund turned her face into Dunstan’s collar and yawned. The poor darling was too tired even to lift her hand to her mouth. Dunstan rubbed her arm.

“Oh, Dunstan,” she whispered. “How can I yawn at a time like this?”

“It’s late, and you’re tired.”

“I know, but… it seems so…”

She sighed and kicked the tapestry with the toe of her slipper. The heavy hanging flapped against the wall, wafting clammy air around their ankles until Dunstan stopped it with his foot.

Behind them another breath rasped through Lasrua’s throat. Britamund squeezed Dunstan’s wrist.

Dunstan had stopped counting.

He had stopped counting how many of his own breaths fit between two of Lasrua’s. Each time he counted so high that he dreaded she had breathed her last.

But now Britamund held her breath, as if to determine through experimentation how long a young lady could last without air. Dunstan told himself she was in no danger, and still her silence chilled him to depths he had never known frost could reach.

He shook her until she exhaled. She wilted against him, panting like a tiny child trying not to cry.

He whispered, “You have a perfectly undeniable reason to be tired, Brit.”

He tightened his arm around her, as if his arm could shield the growing life inside of her from the rising flood of death at their backs.

“I wonder if I shouldn’t order you to bed. You need your sleep.”

“Your father hasn’t ordered Hetty to bed.”

'Your father hasn't ordered Hetty to bed.'

No, his father was too busy being maudlin somewhere, too busy failing to rise to the occasion.

“That’s because Hetty has been a mother before. She knows when she has done all she can, and she puts herself to bed.”

Britamund yawned again. Like a cat she rubbed her face against Dunstan’s chest and kneaded his knitted sleeve. Dunstan imagined himself picking her up and cuddling her on his lap, stroking her head until she curled up and slept…

Lasrua breathed again, in and out, with a hiss like the wind blowing through a forest of dead leaves.

Britamund pounded her fist on her leg and whispered, “Why can’t I stay awake? How can I be tired when she’s – she’s – ”

Her quivering mouth made up Dunstan's mind for him.

Her quivering mouth made up Dunstan’s mind for him.

“I’m putting you to bed.”

“No!” She yanked on his sleeve, and her whisper grew hot against his face, since she could not allow it to grow loud. “I can’t sleep now! I would be too afraid to wake!”

Dunstan squeezed his eyes shut, remembering his own struggles against sleep when his father had lain dying – and worst of all: that frantic moment between wakening and hearing the first breath from the bed.

Osh spoke before Dunstan could find anything comforting to say.

“You may go to sleep, dear lady. Have no fear.”

'You may go to sleep, dear lady.'

Father Matthew stopped in the middle of a murmured prayer, and Hetty sat forward so suddenly that her chair creaked. This time they all held their breath.

Osh had not said a word since he had carried his dripping daughter up the stairs to her bed, announcing only that she had to be kept warm. He had not answered their questions, nor looked anyone but Lasrua in the face. None had dared touch so much as his shoulder to get his attention.

“Hetty, too,” he said. “Father, too. Thank you. Everyone now may go to sleep.”

Lasrua took a long, rattling breath. They all exhaled. For a few seconds Dunstan had been certain Osh had just witnessed her death.

Hetty spoke up, her voice trembling more than Osh’s. “Do you want to be alone with her now, dear?”

Osh unfolded his long legs and stood. “Yes, please.”

Britamund slid off the mattress and padded around the foot of the bed. Dunstan followed, grateful to be led.

Dunstan followed.

She stopped by the door, and he stepped up beside her, prepared to open it. But Britamund clasped his hand and peered around the bed curtains. Dunstan felt the pain in her words before she spoke them, by the way she squeezed his hand.

“Might we say goodbye to her, Osh?”

'Might we say goodbye to her, Osh?'

Osh unfolded his arms and blinked at her. Shadows rimmed his eyes, but in the last hour they had lost the pink stain of tears no one had seen him cry. Dunstan bit his lip to hold back tears of his own.

Osh said, “No. You may say goodnight, however. Not too long.”

Father Matthew stepped aside and went to help Hetty rise. Britamund squeezed Dunstan’s hand and whispered, “Come.”

She was so brave.

She was so brave.

She released his hand to stroke the richly dyed blankets heaped over the girl’s bleached body. Dunstan watched, breathless with dread that Britamund’s hand would touch one of the spots of dried blood.

“Good night, Rua. Sleep well.”

Dunstan winced. He wondered who was only pretending, and who truly believed Lasrua would wake. Osh believed perhaps. But Dunstan did not want to think his practical, pragmatic wife was in such pain that she would lie to herself. Who else would tell him life’s terrible truths, if Britamund would not?

Dunstan winced.

Britamund reached back and patted Dunstan’s hip until she found his hand.

“She’s almost smiling, isn’t she? She must have fallen asleep smiling.”

It was not quite a question, but with her last words a drop of uncertainty plinked into her voice and faded like a plume of dark wine into water.

She shrugged, twisting her shoulders in her stiff bodice. “Or she’s having sweet dreams…”

Osh shuffled from foot to foot with a fidgety awkwardness unlike him, but he spoke through a smile. “You guess right two times. And I guess the same for you two…”

'You guess right two times.'

He stretched a coaxing arm towards Britamund and Dunstan, but Hetty’s hands perched upon it like a pair of white birds on a fence.

She tipped up her face and asked, “Might I kiss her goodnight, Osh?”

Osh hesitated, and Hetty’s cheeks blushed from pink to red. Then he sighed, smiling wryly, and dropped his arm. “Ah, it is no matter now. Everyone may kiss everyone. My sister is here.”

Now his voice trembled more than Hetty’s. They all stared, but Osh turned towards the door and smoothed back his hair.

Dunstan heard his father’s voice at the end of the hallway, calling, “This way!” His soft-​​soled boots all but trotted towards the door.

Osh hurriedly brushed his beard flat and clasped his hands beneath his chin. He whispered, “My sister!”

The door swung open, and Dunstan’s father skittered in, panting. “I beg your pardon!”

He stumbled past Osh, forced onward by a towering blonde who strode in as if she had not noticed the obstacle in her path. She did not seem to notice anything. She stepped into Osh’s embrace and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, never having looked him directly in the face.

'How is she?'

Dunstan’s father stopped at his side and whispered, “How is she?”

Britamund turned her head and answered. “She still lives.”

Osh buried his face in his sister’s shoulder and shook with loud sobs. It occurred to Dunstan that he had not heard Lasrua take a breath since Osh had stood.

He took Britamund’s hand and stepped forward, forcing her ahead of him with his shoulder.

Hetty asked, “Can she help her?”

Britamund craned her neck around, awaiting the answer, but Dunstan aimed her at the door and steered her through. He even pulled it closed behind them. Father Matthew and his parents could open it again when they left. He wanted a wall between Britamund and that room.

In the hallway he passed her hand to his other hand and squeezed past her to lead her to their bedchamber. But Britamund planted her feet and would not be dragged.

“Let’s go to the chapel.”

Britamund planted her feet and would not be dragged.

Dunstan took a deep breath. His heart pounded. “I think we should go to bed.”

“But I couldn’t sleep.”

“You should at least get undressed and lie down.”

He worked his fingers between hers and held them fast, squeezing them almost to the point of pain, until he could no longer tell her pulse from his.

Her voice softened, but she spoke no less surely. “I want to pray for her.”

Dunstan closed his eyes. He could not tell his wife she could pray while naked and on her back. He could not forbid his wife to pray.

“Very well.” He turned her around and headed for the stairs.

He almost made it.

Just before it was too late to turn, he turned, threw open the door to the gallery, and pulled her through.


He pushed the door closed and spun Britamund into his arms. He flung himself back against the wall to avoid any risk of shoving her against it. Then he sank his hand into her loosening braid and kissed her.

He sank his hand into her loosening braid and kissed her.

She squeaked and staggered to get her balance, but finally leaned against him and let herself be kissed. Her lips softened beneath his wherever he sought them. Her tongue politely met his tongue.

Then they both chanced to lean the same way, and his shoulder slid across the paneling. He jerked to the side to right himself, and Britamund pulled back her head.

“Brit – ”


His hoarse voice and ragged breath startled him. Only seconds before he had been speaking calmly. His groin ached as if she had spent the last hour teasing him with her foot beneath the dinner table, and not sitting with him at the bedside of her dying friend. What was the matter with him?

Britamund drooped out of his arms and settled against the wall. His hands slid around her back and flanks until they touched the laces on her sides, and then he caught her waist and held her.

He caught her waist and held her.

Layers of hot, rumpled fabric separated his hands and her skin: velvet, wool, and linen. The poor darling must have been so uncomfortable. He wanted to untie her laces and peel the layers off over her head, one by one. He wanted to lay her down and stroke his palms up her belly and breasts, smoothing out the wrinkles pressed into her skin by the seams and creases in the cloth.

She whispered, “Do you think Osh’s sister will be able to save her?”

Dunstan swallowed and tried to slow his breath. He did not want the poor darling to guess what was going through his mind.

“I don’t know, Brit. How can I know?”

Her lip quivered, and she turned her face away to hide it. He realized an instant too late that she had been hoping for reassurance. She! From him!

He whispered, “But Paul must have sent her. That means she must be able to help. Perhaps better than the other elf. That’s probably why he sent her instead.”

Britamund made a small sigh: a puff of breath portioned out by the slight relief she allowed herself to feel. But then Dunstan had never thought of himself as reassuring.

Dunstan had never thought of himself as reassuring.

She hung her arms from his neck, and he stepped closer, careful to keep his hips from brushing hers. He could not have explained why he wanted her as he did – wanted to lie with his wife “at a time like this.” He worried himself.

She asked, “Do you think we did wrong? Letting her believe in Malcolm all this time? And helping to bring them together?”

“We were right, weren’t we? He came back for her.”

“But you see what happened.”

Dunstan shrugged, and one of her hands slid off his neck to smooth his tunic in circles over his chest. He thought he could allow himself another step nearer.

He whispered, “Sometimes unfortunate things happen in spite of our best intentions. Sometimes we wound our friends by acting out of love. But what else can we do? Love is still the best guide we have.”

She tilted her head and smiled with a corner of her mouth.

She tilted her head and smiled with a corner of her mouth. Dunstan decided he could risk a kiss, but when his lips brushed hers she whispered, “Dunstan!”

Dunstan pulled back his head just far enough that he did not feel the need to open his eyes.

She asked, “Where do you suppose he went? Malcolm, I mean?”

He caught himself just before he said he did not know. “Probably back to Aengus’s.”

“Don’t you think someone should tell him?”

Dunstan sighed and opened his eyes. “Tell him what, beloved? We don’t yet know.”

“But he must believe her dead by now.”

'But he must believe her dead by now.'

What could he tell her? He had to prepare her for the terrible truth.

He whispered, “Perhaps he does. But suppose we gave him that hope tonight and were forced to take it away again in the morning. Would that not be crueler?”

She tipped her head back against the wall, baring her throat. Her face contorted with fierce pain. “Not for me, Dunstan! Give me hope. I couldn’t live a single night believing you were dead.”

“Beloved – ”

Britamund pulled his body against hers, hips and all, and kissed him.

Britamund pulled his body against hers.

Dunstan forgot all his “time like this” misgivings and kissed his wife. One did not tiptoe away from a glimpse over the brink of death, whispering prayers and clutching cold, rattling beads. One threw oneself back from the precipice to flop face-​​down and arms-​​outstretched in the land of life, and kissed the earth, and crawled like a grateful pilgrim to drink at wells of love.

Britamund had just begun tugging on the laces of his collar when they heard footsteps coming down the corridor. Britamund turned her face aside, and her panting breath in Dunstan’s ear was the loudest sound.

With his other ear he heard a door close in the distance: someone going back to his parents’ room. Britamund’s arms tightened around him as the other footsteps creaked nearer. Dunstan kissed her cheek and was surprised to taste tears.

Dunstan kissed her cheek and was surprised to taste tears.

The man did not turn at the turning, as Dunstan had. The door to the stone staircase squeaked open and closed, and Dunstan heard only Britamund’s breath until the man reemerged through the door below their feet. His soft-​​soled shoes shuffled across the candlelit hall, and finally fell silent after the clink of the closing door.

It must have been Father Matthew going home or to the chapel. For otherwise, if Father Matthew had stayed with the elves, it was Dunstan’s father leaving Hetty to go off and be maudlin alone. Dunstan did not want to know.

He whispered, “Let me take you to bed, beloved.”

Britamund sniffled and nodded. “Only promise me one thing first.”

She slipped her hand beneath his shirt and explored the hollows of his collarbone. His pulse pounded against her fingertips.

He said, “Anything,” and meant it.

“Promise me that as soon as we have good news – or even good reason to hope – you will send word to Malcolm. I cannot bear to imagine the night he is living. Coming all this way, and seeing her… and then…”

'Promise me.'

“I promise you that I, personally, shall deliver the message.”

Britamund nodded and leaned her forehead against his. She plucked at the laces of his collar. “What do you suppose he wanted to ask her?”

Dunstan took a deep breath and considered the question. He doubted they would ever know. He did not care to trample that hallowed ground with a guess.

“I do not know, my lady. What is the most beautiful question you have ever heard?”

Britamund sniffled and pulled back her head to smile at him. “I did not, in fact, truly hear the most beautiful question I ever heard, my lord. I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention. I only remember the answer.”

He laughed. “What was it?”

“I will.”

'I will.'