Father Dominic clucked his tongue and waved the back of his hand at Father Matthew.

Father Dominic clucked his tongue and waved the back of his hand at Father Matthew, cutting his fellow priest off in mid-​​boast.

“That is nothing. We Italians, you know. Mine is twice longer.”

Matthew cocked his head and frowned. “Oh, is it?”

Sacra verità. Mine is longer than the Emperor’s.”

Alred choked on a laugh.

Dominic clacked his heel. “What? Do you doubt the word of a priest?”

“Far be it from me, Father! It is only that I never thought to hear such a phrase spoken by one man of God to another.”

'Far be it from me, Father!'

“Such a… Ah…”

Dominic smiled as he began to understand, but at the sight of Matthew’s blinking confusion he stopped himself short of a grin.

Alred pretended to cough. “Nevertheless – one man of God to another – I believe Father Matthew is entitled to feel somewhat skeptical. Perhaps you ought to, ah… take it out and show him. As it were.”

Dominic chomped on the inside of his cheek and brushed at an imaginary piece of fluff on his robe until the urge to laugh had passed.

“Certainly, Father Matthew he would not doubt the word of a priest.”

He glanced up at Matthew’s pink face and peevishly pouting lips. Clearly Matthew had his doubts, and now he dared not mention them. Dominic snuffled into his collar.

Alred shook a finger at him. “Now, now, he may not doubt you, but he must wish to see for himself. Even a man of God might admit to taking an interest in such a prodigious… ah, handle. As it were.”

Alred shook a finger at him.

Matthew gave the Duke a gracious nod and folded his hands together. “Indeed, I am interested.”

Dominic choked and was forced to hide his mouth behind his fist, but Alred had hit his stride.

“Whip it out, Padre! Need we stand farther back? I hear it’s quite a mouthful.”

Dominic buried his face in his elbow and shook with stifled laughter. Lately he wondered whom the Duke was truly toying with when he dragged him into the sport of Matthew-​​baiting.

Matthew asked, “Is it so humorous?”

Dominic coughed and spluttered and concentrated all his attention on Matthew’s blessed, slow-​​witted gravity. Only my name! he reminded himself.

He lifted his head and cleared his throat. “No, no, it is quite orthodox. Only a small cough I have.” He coughed again to demonstrate.

Matthew inclined his head.


Dominic took care to stare directly into Matthew’s eyes, one man of God to another. The green-​​shouldered blur of the Duke was unnervingly still.

Dominic took care to stare directly into Matthew's eyes.

“Here is my name.

He risked a stern glance at the Duke, but Alred clasped his hands and raised a saintly half-​​smile to the ceiling. Dominic rushed through the familiar syllables before Alred’s halo had time to tarnish.

“Domenico Guglielmo Maria Ottone Enrico Aleramo Bonifacio del Monferrato.”

Alred sprang to life and tapped Matthew’s arm. “Il Gigante to the ladies.”

“No!” Dominic slapped his hand on the mantel. “You wait only for to say that!”

Alred folded his arms and laughed, but he abruptly fell silent and tipped back his head to look behind him at the door. Matthew turned.

Then Dominic heard a pair of booted feet hurrying down the stairs. He slid his elbow back onto the mantel and tucked himself into the corner. Yesterday had been one of those days in which anything could happen, and without warning. Today he preferred to stand out of the way.

The Duke’s son made a tight turn at the bottom of the stairs and jogged in, pink-​​cheeked and wet with rain. “Father!”


“Dunstan! Where were you?” Alred did not sound pleased. “We just finished breakfast!”

Dunstan nodded at the priests, panting. “Fathers.”

“Even Brit didn’t know where you were!”

Dunstan’s voice remained soft. “I thought she might have known. I had hoped to return before she woke, in any event – ”

“Well, your stepmother didn’t know. She was worried about you, Dunstan, with all these elves around.”

“How’s Rua?”

“Ah!” Alred threw wide his arms and smiled. “Now that is a question I am pleased to answer. She seems to be out of the worst danger. Joseph just saw her, and he’s optimistic. I daresay he wouldn’t have believed the story if he hadn’t seen the blood upstairs.”

'I daresay he wouldn't have believed the story if he hadn't seen the blood upstairs.'

Dunstan indulged himself in a smile for the space of two panting breaths. “Has she woken?”

“Not entirely, but she has opened her eyes a few times when Osh has spoken to her. Doesn’t laugh at my jokes, however. Not that this is a time to laugh.”

He sent a stern glance behind him at Dominic. Dominic jerked his arm off the mantel and stood up straight.

Dunstan rubbed his hands over his face and wiped the rain back into his hair. The cold had tinted his cheeks and nose deceptively pink, but his lips were pale.

His father’s voice sharpened again. “Where on earth have you been, Dunstan? In this weather? Have you heard about Paul?”

Dunstan sighed. “I heard. I spoke to Aengus…”

'I spoke to Aengus...'

“Oh, is that where you were?” Alred picked up a quill and stroked the tiny tuft of feathers at its end. “My heart bleeds for poor Catan. I shall have to call on her this morning, if we can arrange for Paul to be taken out of range of my wrath. Have you seen her, then?”

He twirled the feather between his fingers and lifted a keen gaze to his son’s face. Dunstan flushed.

Dominic looked up at Matthew.

Dominic looked up at Matthew.

He had once made the mistake of suggesting to Matthew that there was something amiss between the Duke and his heir. Matthew – being Matthew – had denied it, and thereby shut himself off from ever asking aid or advice. The young priest seemed incapable of admitting anything was wrong – and still less that he ever was.

Dunstan said, “I was there too early – ”

“Oh, is that so?”

“Father – ”

“And where have you been since?”

'And where have you been since?'

Alred took a pen knife from the table and carved a curl off the nib of his quill.

Dunstan watched him, panting softly. Dominic looked to Matthew again, wondering – God forgive him the thought! – whether it was wise to leave a weapon in the Duke’s hand. But Matthew appeared more interested in what Dunstan had to say than Alred did.

Finally Dunstan said, “Wintermere.”

“Wintermere!” Alred clenched his fists at his sides, knife in one and pen in the other. “To Wintermere and back! Holy Mother Juno! You must have left before dawn! What in God’s name were you doing in Wintermere? Begging your pardon, Fathers.”

Matthew inhaled sharply through his mouth, but in the end he only swallowed.

Dunstan said, “Looking for Malcolm.”

Alred slapped the quill into his knife hand and threw them both aside. The knife skidded across the table top and clattered to the floor. Dominic dared not look down to see what had become of the quill.

“Malcolm! I knew it!”

'Malcolm!  I knew it!'

“Father – ”

“Didn’t find him, did you? Gone, isn’t he? Aha! I had a message from Sigefrith last night! He went directly to that castle and dragged Cubby from his bed and carried that poor boy off in the pitch blackness and the pouring rain! As you would have known if you had deigned to inform me of your fool’s errand this morning! Or – dare I dream – ask my permission!”

Matthew drew his arms up against his belly and hunched his shoulders. His rosy face had gone pale.

Dunstan struggled to keep his voice soft. “I know, I spoke to Sigefrith this morning, too – ”

“Did you? You’ve been to Aengus’s, to Wintermere, and to the castle too? Decidedly, my boy, you get around at the speed of gossip today! And do just as much good!”

“Father, listen, please. I’m asking your permission now. I want to take Bertie and go after him – ”

'I want to take Bertie and go after him--'

“Go after him? Absolutely not! Absolutely not! Have you lost your head? That man is halfway to Leol by now! And God help him if he ever sets cloven hoof in this valley again! Sigefrith will have him hanging from a meat hook!”

Matthew bowed his head and stepped past Dunstan towards the door, rubbing his elbows through his sleeves. Seen from behind, his stooped shoulders and swaying gait made the strapping young priest appear hunchbacked and ill. Only the pink tips of his ears peeking out past his close-​​cropped hair gave him away.

Dominic moved to follow him, but Dunstan threw out his arms and unwittingly blocked his path. Matthew stopped beside the door.

Dunstan protested, “But, Father, he believes she is dead!”

“Let him! Jupiter! It’s the kindest thing you can do for her! Every time he spends more than a quarter hour with a woman, he leaves behind misery and madness and death! Ask Emmie where her mother is! Ask little Aileann where her mother is! Ask Osh where his daughter almost went!”

'Ask Osh where his daughter almost went!'

Alred’s arm swung left and up and back as he pointed in the directions the three women lay, forcing Dominic to dodge. He now regretted having stationed himself in the corner.

“But, Father, please understand what I’m asking. I promised Brit I would send word to him – ”

“Ah! Is that how you please your wife? By fetching back the man who shattered her mother’s life and broke her father’s heart? Is that how you honor your bride’s father? Is that how you comfort your friends in their grief – by going to Aengus on the day of Maire’s funeral and asking him where Malcolm is?”

“I’m doing it for Rua! Rua alone! She loves him! And he…”

'And he...'

“And he!” Alred sneered.

“Listen, I’m not saying they will or have to marry or be together, but we owe them at least the truth! And let them do with it what they will.”

“She has the truth! Now she has the truth about that man, and thank God it didn’t kill her!”

Matthew’s head hung low, and he stared at a fixed spot on the floor, as if intent on overhearing a conversation in another room. He seemed not to realize the conversation was taking place only five feet above his fascinating floor. Or perhaps he did, but did not know what to do.

Dominic knew Matthew would never look to him for help. He would have to offer it unbidden. He bobbed his head and tried to catch Dunstan’s eye.

“Is that the man you want for your friend, Dunstan? Is that the sort of man that poor girl deserves? So abominably selfish, so utterly unwilling to inconvenience his precious self that he would not even abide an hour to hold the hand of a love-​​struck girl as she lay dying! No!”


“We don’t know why he left…”

“No! I forbid it! That man is not worth a hair of your head! Nor Bertie’s! I will not allow you to risk your life chasing that serpent across the border in the dead of winter!”

At last Alred paused long enough to give Dominic a chance to intervene. “Gentlemen, please. We will hear more if we shout less – ”

Alred simply shouted louder to drown him out. “I do not care what you promised your wife! I do not care what you think best for that poor child! And I insist that you cease nourishing any of Lasrua’s hopes and fantasies in that regard. You and your wife have done enough harm already. When the two of you have a daughter of your own, I daresay you will learn that a dose of truth is oftentimes kinder than liberal application of fairy tales.”

'I daresay you will learn that a dose of truth is oftentimes kinder.'

Dunstan’s lips quivered until he bit them between his teeth.

Alred wiped his hands on the front of his tunic and brushed off his sleeves, tidying himself up like a man standing over his sprawling opponent at the end of a fistfight. He was winded and sweaty, but he had had the last word.

Then Matthew spoke up and snatched it away from him.

“I beg Your Grace’s pardon, but I believe Malcolm should be told the truth of Lasrua’s condition.”

'I believe Malcolm should be told the truth of Lasrua's condition.'

Alred clapped his hands atop his head. “You believe? You?

“Yes. A message must be sent. Perhaps not by your son personally, but he must be informed nevertheless. He must be allowed to return.”

Matthew’s shoulders straightened, and he regained all his strapping height. Alred stomped past Dunstan to stare up at him.

“Forgive me, Father, if I seem to doubt the sanity of a priest, but have you lost your mind? You? Of all people? Who have inflicted grievous penance upon my person for no greater sin than kicking up my heels during Advent? You?”


Matthew shook his head. “It is not I who ‘inflict’ penance upon you, but your own – ”

“I know! I know! Never mind that! Simply give me one good, Christian reason why that – that adulterer – that fornicator – that scoundrel should ever be allowed into the presence of that dear, unhappy maiden – ever again! Why?”

Matthew lifted his brows and looked Dominic in the eyes, one man of God to another.

“Because, my lord, I married them last night.”

'I married them last night.'