“Rua? Are you feeling ill?”

Lasrua was not listening. She paid no attention to any of the voices in the room until she noticed they had all fallen silent, and then—what had Edris said? Was she ill? She shoved her tingling arm off her lap and looked up.

Gwynn’s face was white. “Should we send for help?”

'Should we send for help?'

“No, no!” Lasrua shook her head until her beaded tassels of hair battered her ears. “I was…”

She was ashamed to admit she had been listening, but she wanted to hear another’s opinion.

“…simply listening to outside in the court. Gilpatrick is speaking Gaelic to some little girls. I think Aengus’s girls…”

Gwynn smiled in relief and looked away, apparently of no opinion at all. Lasrua pulled her arm back onto her lap and smoothed out her sleeve. Beneath it her numb flesh felt like a second sleeve over her bones.

Gwynn smiled in relief.

Edris said, “Oh, good! I hope Aengus is coming tonight after all. He needs to get out a bit. And his girls are too small to grieve the way a man does, the poor dears.”

“Domnall said he was coming tonight,” Margaret reminded her. “Perhaps it’s only Domnall coming early, and he brought them. Is Domnall here, Rua?”

Emma said, “Ha! It would take more than elf ears to hear Domnall.”

'Is Domnall here, Rua?'

Lasrua whispered, “I think I heard him.”

Baldwin ducked and clapped his hands atop his head. “He can’t come! He’ll see me without my mane!”

“Oh, forget your mane for five seconds, you big ninny,” Emma groaned. “Tell him we’re rehearsing!”

“But if everyone sees us rehearsing, no one will be surprised by the play!”

“Who’s everyone? Only your mother, Gwynn, Rua, and Domnall.”

“And Ete and Aileann!” Baldwin protested. “And Bruni!”

Brunhilde sat up and demanded, “What?”

Lasrua blurted, “And Aengus!”

'And Aengus!'

All eyes looked to her again.

She added softly, “And some men.”

Edris’s hands flopped onto her skirts. “Some men with Aengus, you say?”

Then Gwynn’s face began to glow like an ember, casting the others into shadow. She whispered, “Gaelic-​speaking men?”

Lasrua bit her lips to prevent a smile.

Gwynn hopped up and thumped down closer to Lasrua’s hips. “Oh, Rua! Is it Malcolm? Has your husband returned?

Lasrua had been asking herself the same question all along, but it was only upon hearing it spoken by another that a rush of giddiness tore through her. It could be he!

But she must not allow herself to appear excited. “I have not heard his voice…”

She closed her eyes and listened.

She closed her eyes and listened through the hush that had fallen over the room. The castle was a noisy, chattery place, and the shouts outside were muffled by wood and stone and distance. Surely that velvet voice could not carry as far as Gilpatrick’s braying laughter and the girls’ indignant squeals. It was too soon to expect to hear.

But it was never too soon to hope—so did Britamund remind her every day.

Margaret took a sneaking step backwards. “There’s only one way to find out…”

'There's only one way to find out...'

Gwynn gave Lasrua’s good hand a squeeze and hopped up. “And I shall be the one to do it,” she announced as she sidled past her sister. “During Hetty’s quiet time, I am hostess here, and I must welcome our guests—”

“Only if you beat me to it!”

Margaret hefted her peasant skirts up past her calves and dashed for the door, with the others right behind her.

Edris shouted, “Meggie! Not in your bare feet!”

“Not dressed like a slave girl!” Gwynn wailed. “Margaret!”

But Margaret’s bare feet easily outpaced Gwynn’s heeled boots, Emma’s sultan robes, and Baldwin’s usual half-​walking, half-​trotting state of indecision. Margaret flung the door open with her body, and it slammed shut upon Gwynn’s fruitless commands to walk like a lady, and Margaret hooting at the cold as her bare soles slapped across the flagstones.

Brunhilde sat back and huffed. “Where are they going?”

Edris snuggled the girl against her hip. “They’re simply going out to see who’s here, sweetie.” She looked up at Lasrua. “You haven’t heard him?”

Lasrua shook her head.

Edris shrugged, her smile unperturbed. “Perhaps he isn’t talking much. He’s bound to be nervous. Ah, men!” She sighed and settled back against the cushion. “They snort and they swagger, but there is no more skittish creature than a bridegroom on his wedding day. And night! Cenwulf was whiter than the sheets!”

She leaned her head back against the wall and smiled up at the ceiling. Lasrua heard laughter and commotion as Margaret ran through the gate with a ginger-​haired sultan and a maneless gladiator lion at her heels, but not the soft, sly chuckling she sought.

Edris sat up and looked keenly at her. “Has Hetty or Brit or someone talked to you and told you what to expect? In your bed together?”

'Has Hetty or someone talked to you?'

Lasrua felt a blush rising, and she hesitated to give it time to cool. “I… know all about that, of course. Cat talks… a lot.”

Edris laughed. “Doesn’t she? But I daresay even Cat may hold a few things back from a maiden that one ought to tell to a bride. Have you talked to anyone since you were married?”

A bride… married… Inside, the words stirred up glittering motes of secret delight every time she heard them said, but she meant to keep her outside blank. She shook her head too slowly to make her tassels do any more than sway.

Edris shrugged. “No matter. You and I shall have a talk with Hetty and Brit and Leila before anything happens. It’s a pity Eadie can’t come tonight.” She snorted and laughed. “Welcome to the world of wifehood! You are about to discover entire topics of conversation you never knew existed, when all the matrons gaggle together without the girls. Simply put a few cups of wine into Eadie, and you’ll learn the most surprising things about Sigefrith!”

Little Brunhilde looked up at her. “What things?”

“Ach! I forgot you were here, sweetie. Such as… ahh… how he can whistle with stones in his mouth! How very surprising!”

I can whistle with stones in my mouth!” Brunhilde countered.

“You can’t even whistle!”

The door opened.

The door opened.

Lasrua was not ready. She had envisioned the commotion as still standing in the gate. Her heart was suddenly pounding, and she tried to relax her shoulder, fearful of a patched-​up artery giving way.

But the door only opened a crack and slammed immediately after. Margaret’s bare feet pounded across the floorboards, followed by Emma’s slippers and Baldwin’s leather boots.

“False alarm,” Margaret panted as she scuffed her soles over the floor to warm them. “Sorry, Rua. He isn’t here, but you know, it’s too soon to look for him anyway, if he made it all the way home to Scotland.”

Emma said, “But guess who is here…”

'False alarm.'

“It’s his family,” Margaret explained. “Everyone in Lothere, that is, with Sir Malcolm leading the charge. And Connie’s here, so don’t expect to see Gwynn again today. They heard you came downstairs today, so they’re here to call on you, all kilted up and looking fearsome and hairy. But since you like that sort of man…”

Emma cried, “And Iylaine!”

'And Iylaine!'

The outburst was somewhat irrelevant, but it had its effect. Lasrua stiffened in shock, startling herself with a jolt of tingling pain from the arm she had carelessly lifted from her lap.

So encouraged, Emma turned to Edris and crowed, “And Colin!”

“Ach! Good heavens!” Edris groaned. “I knew it! And today would be the day I didn’t wear my hair in a scarf!”

'Good heavens!'

Margaret attempted to reassure her. “At least you didn’t leave any curls hanging down beside your face this time. At least he won’t try to touch it.”

Lasrua slid to the edge of the cushion and steadied her feet on the floor. She wished her father had not gone out for the afternoon. She needed him there. But perhaps that was why they were coming now, if the elf Iylaine was with them.

Edris patted her neck, searching for stray locks of hair. “And if he tries to touch it anyway?”

'And if he tries to touch it anyway?'

Emma laughed. “Baldwin will defend you! A pity you forgot your mane!”

“He only needs his roar,” Margaret said. “I’m certain he’s been saving up his first roar for just such an occasion!”

The door opened again, but it behaved more like a door slamming shut, cutting off the muffled giggles and shouts Lasrua had heard welling up behind it. Only the clacking of booted heels continued unabated, crossing from flagstones onto wood. The swish of kilts and the tinkling of buckles sounded like a stray shower of sleet that had slipped indoors before the great door swung closed.

Lasrua stood.

The men filed in.

The men filed in: Malcolm’s godson and namesake, his cousin Aengus, his uncle Colin. Their wordless, gravely glittering entry awed even Brunhilde into an open-​mouthed silence… even Aengus’s little daughters peeking past their grandfather’s kilt… even the black-​haired baby Lasrua glimpsed in the arms of a tall blonde.

The men filed in.

Malcolm stopped before Lasrua. He leaned forward as if to bow, but instead murmured near her ear, “We are come to take you into our family. Malcolm would not want to leave you unprotected. We must take out our knives. You will not be afraid?”

Protect her from whom? Do what with their knives? Lasrua dared not ask—any more than she had during the wedding ceremony—for fear she would lose something important by admitting she did not understand. She shook her head, and was reassured by the faint clacking of her familiar elven beads.

Malcolm stepped back and laid his hand on his hip. Aengus and Colin stepped up beside him and did the same. All together, they drew their knives from their belts and flipped them point-​downwards, the blades laced between their fingers and their thumbs on the hafts, making them all but useless as weapons.

They drew their knives from their belts.

Lasrua shuffled back. Was she supposed to take them?

Then Malcolm spoke. She understood nothing of the Gaelic but her own name at the beginning and the oath at the end, the three men swearing together: “by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Flann had taught her several Gaelic prayers, but the middle part had resembled none of these.

Only at the last did Lasrua notice that the gleaming knives with their long blades and their iron guards had the form of a Christian Cross.

The men kissed their knives where the blade met the handle, and all three together sheathed them at their hips. Lasrua heard Gwynn whispering something to Condal in a breezy sibilance like blowing rain. Everyone else was so quiet.

Malcolm stepped up to Lasrua and laid his hands on her elbows. “Cousin.”

He kissed her cheek and then the other, clattering her beaded tassels with his nose.

He kissed her cheek and then the other.

Hearing her father’s handiwork of the morning, she was reminded that this was the man who had cost the elves so much, caused so much suffering—but it had been through no fault of his own: only by being alive, only by falling in love.

And as her tassels quieted she reminded herself that the same elves had turned their backs on her, through no fault of her own. She was free to live and love as she chose.

“We have taken you unto us,” he said. “And sworn to defend your life and your honor with our honor and our lives. Malcolm must have sworn the same thing. Did he?”

She drew back her head and looked over his face for signs of his namesake. Aside from the nose they did not look much alike. This young man was neat everywhere her husband was shaggy, and broad where he was lithe. But it was said that Malcolm was very fond of her husband, and she felt a surge of fondness for him.

“He said some things in Gaelic… it must have been that. Without the knife!”

'He said some things in Gaelic...'


He looked down at her a little longer than seemed necessary, smiling a thin, slight smile. His gaze never came to rest on any part of her face, but it flickered over and over her eyes and—she thought—the tips of her ears.

At last he squeezed the elbow of her good arm and released the other to step to her side.

“You know his Uncle Colin—his mother’s brother.”

'You know his Uncle Colin.'

Colin stepped up and said something of which Lasrua understood only “Malcolm” and great enthusiasm.

But Condal gasped and pressed her hand over her mouth. Aengus tipped back his head to grimace at the ceiling. Lasrua looked to Malcolm.

His eyebrows were too sleek to ever resemble caterpillars, but for the moment his forehead was wrinkled enough that they bristled all the same. “It doesn’t translate, but I assure you he meant it for flattering.”

Before she could brace herself, Colin grabbed her shoulders and pulled her close to plant a wet kiss on both of her cheeks. He did not reek of drink this time, but it seemed that even sober Colin had a smell.

“Bless her!” he cried.

That much Gaelic Lasrua understood. She unstuck her rigid jaw well enough to whisper, “Bless you.”

Colin laughed. “Ach! Bless me! Bless me!” The louder he said it, the louder he laughed.

Malcolm slipped himself between them, freeing Lasrua to swipe at her face with her sleeve. He smiled, but he said something over his shoulder at Colin that involved the Devil.

He smiled.

Colin’s reply to this was a swift smack to Malcolm’s behind and a hooting “Bless him!”

But as soon as he spied Edris on the couch, he pulled himself up, put on a dour face, and bowed. “Goot day, my lay-​dee.”

Edris blanched, but Brunhilde laughed with wicked glee. “Did you just spank Malcolm?”

'Did you just spank Malcolm?'

At last the frigid solemnity was shattered, and people began to titter and stir out of their places.

No longer the center of attention, Lasrua rubbed her arm and sent a few cautious glances around at her new family. She looked up at Domnall standing beside Gwynn and Condal, chewing his bottom lip and looking no one in the eyes. She looked at Aengus’s daughters fidgeting behind their father, not quite touching, but clinging as close as a girl and her shadow. She looked as far across the floor as the hem of Iylaine’s black dress.

Then a pair of black boots stepped across her gaze. For an instant she thought…

Then she looked up into Aengus’s face.

She looked up into Aengus's face.

“God bless you and keep you, darling.” He laid a hand on the curve of her waist and leaned in to kiss her cheeks. “We do rejoice for you.”

The deep laughter and girlish squeals of the others closed around the sound of his soft voice like a shell. Lasrua leaned her head near his and shut herself up with him inside. Malcolm turned his back to them, but he kept close, serving as a shield.

“In the Bible,” Aengus said, “it is written: To every thing there is a season—a time to mourn and a time to dance. But sometimes those seasons are being a bit like the spring—storms one hour and rainbows the next.”

He tried to give her a wry smile, but he could not help his eyes. Whatever he might do with the rest of his face, it seemed that look of sorrow was there to stay. And it seemed he knew it, for he did not hold her gaze long.

He worked up a weak laugh. “One day, I’m a-​swearing I will never dance again. And the next, I swear…” He lifted her hand and kissed the backs of her fingers. “…I’ll never dance again until I dance with you, on the day your man returns. If you will?”

He looked up. On an impulse, Lasrua said, “And I swear I will never dance again until I dance with you.”

“Ach!” He looked down and looked up again at her, and his eyes grew dim above his brightening smile. “Better let your man have the first go. Even before he limped, I always was the better dancer, and he’ll be sore.”

He winked without thinking, and batted a tear loose from his lashes. He dropped her hand to rub it away, shy as a boy, and the sight of him made her own eyes flood over before she could dry them.

When she looked up again she found him staring just below her eyes: at her cheeks, where her tears had abruptly vanished. His shoulders sagged.

Tears were nothing.'

She imagined he was wishing she could teach him the trick—as if that were all it took to be happy! Tears were nothing, she wanted to tell him, no more than rain falling from on high.

But he whispered, “So you do cry.”

Lasrua’s face crumpled, and she swayed as her carefully erected wall of indifference collapsed upon her. She felt his hands on her shoulders, and she longed to go limp and let him hold her up like an empty dress. But she had to get her face under control. She had to start stacking her bricks again straightaway.

“Let them come, darling,” he said when she opened her dry eyes. “Every tear you cry now will be redeemed by his joy when he learns you’re alive.” His voice cracked, and he stepped away from her. “How I envy him…”

'How I envy him...'

No messengers on fast horses raced towards Aengus from the land where Maire lay. Lasrua lifted her hand, and Malcolm turned to reach out to him, but Aengus slipped past them both. He did not stumble or stagger, but simply walked to the fire, his shoulders stooped and his head bowed. A nervous hush ran through everyone’s chatter, and their laughter ebbed into self-​conscious tittering. The sound closed up around him, leaving him alone inside. Lasrua almost envied him his shell.

Malcolm said, “Baby?”

He laid a hand on Lasrua’s back, and she jumped and whipped her head around, coming face-​to-​face with a blonde beauty with pointed ears.

She came face-to-face with a blonde beauty with pointed ears.

Vash! Poor Vash! Lasrua’s braids clattered around her head like the Temple’s beaded curtains. For an instant she imagined she could grab Iylaine and drag her out the door—kidnap her and take her back where she belonged. Both of them! Back where they belonged!

Malcolm said, “Cousin, meet my wife Iylaine and my son Duncan.”

Lasrua gasped and came back to her senses. She looked aside, hoping to compose herself, but her gaze met another that set her beads clacking again.

Sir Sigefrith!

Sir Sigefrith! With a stare so steady that he must have been staring a while, waiting for her to look up, and a face that was sad until he caught her eye and smiled.

“How do you do?” Iylaine asked.

Lasrua looked over in time to see her bob in a slight curtsey—when it should have been Lasrua to bend her knee to the floor for her!

“We are so glad to meet you at last,” Iylaine said. “Unfortunately I could not bring our little Maud with us, but I hope you will soon be well enough to call on us at home and meet her there.”

'Thank you...'

Lasrua said, “Thank you…”

Iylaine turned abruptly to Aengus’s daughters and chirped, “Your turn!” She strode past them to join Aengus beside the fire. Lasrua heard Malcolm suck in his breath and hold it. She supposed Iylaine heard it too. Still, his smile held fast.

Aileann darted past her sister and flung her arms up into Lasrua’s skirts, reaching as high as she could.

Aileann darted past her sister and flung her arms up into Lasrua's skirts.

“I’m so glad you can be our cousin now!” she said as Lasrua bent to kiss her. “You’re so pretty!”

This brought chuckles from most of the crowd, and once it had been explained to Colin, an exclamation of apparent agreement that nevertheless made Malcolm wince.

Colin made a exclamation of apparent agreement.

“Being pretty is not a good enough reason to be our cousin!” Ete protested after she had had her kisses. “She ought to be clever too! And nice!”

Domnall said, “I’m your cousin, and I lose on all three counts.”

“But you’re nice, sometimes!” Ete pointed out.

“And stupid and ugly therefore?” Malcolm asked.

'And stupid and ugly?'

Ete laughed, quick to see the joke. “And you’re clever!”

Domnall pretended to grumble, “I wasn’t aware we needed Ete’s approval before choosing a bride.” He stood on tiptoes to kiss Lasrua’s cheeks.

“Why not?” Aengus asked. “Surely you’re having someone nice, pretty, and clever in mind?”

Domnall dropped back onto his heels, red-​faced and wide-​eyed. Condal stepped past him, ready to take her turn.

Condal stepped past him.

“Welcome to the family, Cousin,” she said shyly between kisses. “I’m certain Cat’s so happy for you. We all are.”

Poor Cat! Cat had not doubted Malcolm for a minute, not since that kiss in the rain. And Lasrua did not know when she would see Cat again to thank her. She closed her eyes, intending to wait until the need for tears had passed, but then she remembered everyone was watching her. She opened her eyes and simply blinked.

Malcolm touched her shoulder. “Have you kissed everyone who needed a kiss, then?” he asked, smiling as he stepped around her. “Mind, it’s but a taste of what’s awaiting you back home.”

He did not ask to be answered, but Emma answered anyway. “She never kissed Iylaine!”

'She never kissed Iylaine!'

Malcolm kept smiling, but his eyebrows bristled. Malcolm’s smile was beginning to seem a remarkably durable thing. He did not look at Iylaine, and so long as he did not, Lasrua did not dare. But everyone else was looking that way. Their chatter died off in receding waves.

Then Gwynn laughed, tossed back her bouncing hair, and skipped away from the wall. Her smile and her dancing step transformed her from a slouching, pale form, half-​hidden behind a dark curtain of hair, into an almost luminous figure. Now no one was looking at Iylaine.

“Sigefrith hasn’t had a kiss yet!” Gwynn said. She hooked her arm through Condal’s and danced her half-​way around to curtsy at Lasrua and gesture gracefully back towards the pillar. “And I bid you note he is conveniently standing beneath the mistletoe at the present time.”

Everyone laughed, and Sigefrith loudest of all, looking up. “Good Lord! I never noticed! And I’ve been standing here the entire time!”

Gwynn turned up her nose and perched prettily on the sofa, followed soon after by Condal’s thump and awkward giggle.

“Why, Sigefrith!” Gwynn scolded. “What an unintentional hussy you are!”

'What an unintentional hussy you are!'

Sigefrith said, “You might have kissed me, since you noticed my predicament and were standing right there.”

“No, sir, I could not, for brides come first in all things, including kisses.”

Brides… kisses… Lasrua could almost see the glittering sparks whirling up inside of her like dust before a storm, but she gave Gwynn merely a polite smile.

Then Malcolm brushed her arm and leaned over her shoulder to whisper, “Sigefrith wanted to have a word with you…”

He touched the small of her back, giving her the gentlest of pushes. Lasrua took a small step, and then another, treading softly. Her braids swung in silence past her ears.

A word with her… She knew that Sigefrith was her husband’s friend, but Sigefrith had always shied away from speaking of him. Now, however…

She forgot her resolution not to smile.

Perhaps Malcolm had headed east instead of north that night, passed through Raegiming, and seen Sigefrith. Perhaps Sigefrith knew something Malcolm’s own family did not. Or perhaps… perhaps… Malcolm was waiting for her, and Sigefrith could tell her where…

She forgot her resolution not to look too hopeful.

Sigefrith said, “I swear I’d forgotten about the mistletoe. But as long as I’m here… Don’t mind if I do.”

'I don't think I rubbed any of the kissable off.'

He gently pinched her chin between finger and thumb and kissed her smile. His fingertips were broad and rough, like a man’s, but he laughed like a nervous boy.

“Mistletoe or no, somehow I fear I oughtn’t kiss a man’s wife before he has kissed his fill of her!” He stroked her chin and rubbed his fingertips together. “Oh well, I don’t think I rubbed any of the kissable off.”

Lasrua giggled—a silly sound, but all her giddy excitement was sparkling very close to the surface.

“Have you had word from him?” she whispered.

'Have you had word from him?'

At once she knew he hadn’t; his face went from boyish to sad. Her excitement vanished like sparks from a doused fire.

“No, I haven’t, I’m sorry,” Sigefrith said. He lowered his voice and added, “But he has been known to write to me when even his family did not know where he was. And I promise you, the moment I hear from him I will be in the saddle and on my way to tell you. Even if it’s the middle of the night.”

Lasrua thought she ought to smile in gratitude, but she found she could not. Sigefrith spoke as if he did not expect anyone to hear from Malcolm for some time. She hung her head, shaking it slightly until her beads clicked—left, right, left, right. Her good arm hung as limp as the numb.

“But I do have this for you,” he said.

His hands dropped into her field of vision. Too weary to look away, she watched them open the purse on his belt and unfold the little linen-​wrapped packet they found inside. She saw a spark of light and a tumbling black cord.

“Here.” He lifted the cord by its ends and held it up. A silver disk swung between their faces for a moment before his shyness seemed to get the better of him, and he dropped his gaze and lowered his hands to her shoulders. The cold disk clapped against her breastbone, and she noticed then that he was not wearing the necklace he had always worn.

He interrupted as soon as she said, “But—” He must have prepared for her protest ahead of time.

“I know, but I think you should have it. He gave it to me when I was young and stupid and needed a big brother… Not to say that you are young and stupid, or… well…”

The more he fumbled for words, the more he frowned and fussed with the clasp behind her neck.

“Or that I am no longer young and stupid. Uh… though hopefully not so much.” He peeked around her head to give her a rueful smile. “Not so young in any event.”

Finally the clasp caught, and he let the necklace slip to its proper length around her neck.

He let the necklace slip to its proper length.

He rubbed his forehead and laughed. “Let me start over. He gave me that necklace to protect me, in case we were ever separated. We were surrounded by a lot of bad men in those days, but if anyone saw this necklace they would know I belonged to him. So this way… Well, not to say you’re in danger here, but you are separated. And I think he would be glad to know you have it.”

Lasrua’s mouth was stuck in a smile as pained and as inflexible as Malcolm’s. Like Aengus’s, her eyes swam with tears that never flooded high enough to fall or be dried.

Sigefrith stepped closer to whisper a secret. “He used to chew on it when he was a boy. If you flip it up, you can see the marks of his teeth along the bottom. In case you ever fear he might have been a dream.”

Lasrua choked. Her rigid smile contorted into a grimace, and a pair of tears squeezed through her lashes.

Lasrua choked.

“He isn’t, you know,” Sigefrith said. “Oh, God, I’m sorry, Rua.”

She shook her head, but that made her beads clatter, and the sound made her sob like a little girl. She wanted her father. She wanted her old family—she wanted Cat and Paul, she wanted Vash and Aunt Madra. She wanted to go home—to a house burnt to ashes, to a gate that was barred.

She wanted to go home.

Her new family had a language and a religion she did not understand. Her new home—if she had one—was six days’ ride away in a country she had never seen, and she did not know whether her husband of half an hour would ever return to take her there.

And still she wanted to go. She wanted him. One minute she wanted Malcolm to be a dream, and the next she wanted him to come true.

She almost envied Aengus and his steady hours of grief. Her seasons were not even spring storms with patches of rainbows, but like dodging between raindrops falling from on high.

She almost envied Aengus.