Dover, England

Malcolm was staggered by the funk.

Stepping in from the whistling draft in the corridor, Malcolm was staggered by the reek of female sweat, hair oil, and cheap perfume. It was an odor he well knew, but not in such concentrations. He had never slept with four whores at the same time.

He found Leofric sitting up on a bench at the foot of the bed, and two long lumps beneath the covers behind him.

He found Leofric sitting up on a bench.

Malcolm said softly, “Smells like a harlot’s armpit in here.” He wiped his nose on the back of his arm and held up the jug he had carried in. “I brought some wine.”

Leofric lifted his head slightly and grunted. Malcolm set the jug at Leofric’s feet and looked around for something they could drink out of.

“Seen anything like cups in here? Preferably clean?”


Malcolm poked around a bit, peeking into baskets and under scarves. Finally he stepped crane-​like over a pile of laundry to get at the tall chest in the corner.

'What do you suppose is in here?'

“What do you suppose is in here?”

Leofric said, “Didn’t see any cups in there. No corpses either.”

Malcolm grinned at him. “Did you check, then?”

Leofric snorted. “Had a bit of a scare. Turned out to be a blonde wig.”

“What sort of place do you suppose I brought you to?”

'What sort of place do you suppose I brought you to?'

“That sort.”

Malcolm chuckled and stepped broadly back over the pile. “Fie, you old biddy, do not be making like you’ve never spent the night in a whorehouse before.”

“My niece never did.”

“Ach! No more did my son ever, for that matter.”

Malcolm stopped at the foot of the bed and gazed past Leofric to the rounded forms of his boy’s body beneath the blankets. The top of the little man’s head was just visible: the nose, the dark lashes, the damp hair pasted to his forehead and spread out onto the rouge-​stained, perfume-​scented pillow.

Malcolm stopped at the foot of the bed.

They had not even crossed the Channel, and already Malcolm had dragged the boy down into the mire through which he swam when he was away. He had imagined vaguely that it would be different this time. But at the first trouble he had fled back to old haunts, old friends.

Leofric turned his head and glanced back at the boy and the girl. “Cute little beggars when they’re sleeping, aren’t they? Almost make you forget you want to strangle them.”

“Aye, they do that. Shall I go scrounge up a few cups? Or do you mind drinking out of the jug?”

'Shall I go scrounge up a few cups?'

Leofric teased a crumpled silk undergarment out from under the bench with his foot and lifted it on the toe of his boot for inspection. “It’s a bit late for me to be particular.”

Malcolm laughed, but he snatched the slip off Leofric’s boot and tossed it into the corner, flushing as if his own housekeeping had been found wanting. He thought the man might have remembered that without Malcolm’s help he might have spent his night in the garrison’s dungeon.

Malcolm sat beside him on the bench and hefted the jug. “I beg your lordship’s pardon, but I believe that etiquette in such a case requires that I do not allow the other fellow to go first.”

A wicked smile lit up Leofric’s face, making him seem to have been dead before, now that he was so startlingly alive.

A wicked smile lit up Leofric's face.

“There’s room in the cupboard for your body, anyway, if it proves to have noxious effects.”

“And a blonde wig if it proves to be good. Here’s to my health: may it survive the test!”

Malcolm balanced the round belly of the jug in his opposite hand and tipped it up until it flooded his mouth. He had not truly been worried; he knew the house, and Dover was a good town for wine. But he was a little relieved to find it was not bad at all, as if it were his own cellar that might have been found wanting.

He was a little relieved to find it was not bad at all.

He sucked his breath between his teeth to air out his mouth and passed the jug over to Leofric. “Good luck.”

Leofric lifted the jug. “Here’s to my niece: may she sleep well, and neglect to mention to her brothers that I tucked her into a whore’s bed between three wicked men.”

Malcolm smiled at him but watched him closely, waiting for his pronouncement. The man closed his eyes and shuddered after he had swallowed, but he came up wearing that wicked grin.

“Tastes like a harlot’s armpit.”

'Tastes like a harlot's armpit.'

Malcolm laughed and pulled his foot up onto the edge of the bench, the better to slouch. The man had passed.

“It’s all settled, then,” Malcolm said after their grins had faded, speaking softly on account of the sleepers. “Wald will take you wherever you’re wanting to go. He’ll get you away before dawn. Mind you, the farther you go, the more he’ll ask. You must pay his return trip as well.”

Leofric passed the jug back over. “Naturally.”

“But he never remembers a face and never recalls a name. Only see that you do not recall his. He’s a good man if he decides he likes you. And I told him to like you. See that you like him.” Malcolm gravely winked.

“I thank you, Malcolm. I pray I may live long enough to return the favor.”

'I thank you, Malcolm.'

Malcolm shrugged a dismissive shoulder and turned his face away to drink another slug of wine. He swallowed and breathed. Gossamer ideas glittered for a moment against the shadowed backdrop of his mind: Find her grave for me, if you make it home. Lay no cut flowers upon it, but plant it with clover, cranesbill, and thistle for butterflies to feed.

He scuffed his foot on the floor and said, “I suppose you’ll have to head up the east coast, such as we only just came down. No use risking going back the way you’ve come, even if you’ll be safer in Wales. But avoid Yarmouth if you can. I doubt they’ll be looking for you there yet, but by God, in Yarmouth they’ll find you anyway. Christ! Cannot stand that town.”

He reached his foot far enough to give the skimpy rug a kick.

Leofric asked softly, “What about to the south?”

“Eh? Here.” He handed the wine across. “What south? Calais?”



Malcolm blinked in surprise. “That’s where the lad and I are headed. But the odds are against you getting across the Channel tomorrow, and I’d not advise you to wait. Colban and I have been waiting for days for the wind to calm.”

“I know this sea, Malcolm. I spent half my life here. I know the still, gray days like today, and the dawns that follow them. I like the odds.”

Malcolm snorted. “Aye, then, I hope you’re right, for I’m nearly as eager to get out of this town as you are. We might travel together. Where are you meaning to go?”

Leofric sighed.

Leofric sighed. “Lille. One more time before I die, I would like to see the place where my mother was born. Inch’allah.” He lifted his face briefly to the ceiling. “I’d been thinking of visiting Flanders before I found Gunnora in the straits she was in. Then I meant to get home just as quickly as I could, to warn her brother, but now that I have her with me—I realize I might go. Our cousins are there. The Count is on his way to Jerusalem with her brother, but his son was made regent and can act in his name. I don’t want to drag Sigefrith into this, and if I can get Flanders involved straightaway then no one will even think of Lothere.”

“Is the man that much of a monster, then?”

Leofric sighed. “I don’t know. Never met him. But I’m that much of an old fool.”

He set the jug on the floor between their feet and laid his forehead in his hand.

He laid his forehead in his hand.

Malcolm waited for a while, but Leofric said no more.

“Why don’t you get some rest, man?” Malcolm suggested. “You’re needing it. I shall sit up until it’s quiet down below, and sleep with the one eye open. The devil knows I’m rested enough. We’ve done nothing but rest the last three days.”

Leofric slowly shook his head upon his hand. In a dull, ragged voice he said, “I cannot go home.”

“Beg pardon?”

Leofric went on shaking his head.

Leofric went on shaking his head.

Malcolm looked left, right, and down the crooked passage to the door, but no easy escape presented itself. He swore softly towards the wall and stooped down to pick up the jug.

“Say again?” he prompted. Then he took a drink.

Leofric’s arm flopped onto his lap. Malcolm almost expected to see his head tumble down after it.

“I said I cannot go home. I’m bound to do something stupid if I go back now.”

'I said I cannot go home.'

Malcolm wanted to get directly to the point. “About Hetty, is it?”

Leofric grunted in agreement. “Don’t know what I’ll do. But it will be stupid.”

Malcolm had been thwarted once in his sage intention to get away from Lothere, and as a result he had done something stupid. Out of fellow-​feeling he handed Leofric the jug.

Leofric took a drink and wiped his beard on his coarse sleeve. “And it isn’t only that,” he muttered. “Eadgith knows when I’m thinking about her. She can tell. And the look she gives me…”

'I know the one.'

Malcolm said, “I know the one.”

“Hmph.” Leofric lifted his head and peered closely at him. “I suppose you might, at that. I’m sorry, Malcolm. There’s something about suffering that blinds a man to the suffering of others. I am sorry.”

Malcolm leaned his elbows on his knees and cracked his knuckles one by one.

When he had finished one hand and started back up the other, Leofric said, “That smile of hers! That ‘Oh, no, you don’t, sir!’ smile.”

Leofric chuckled fondly.

Leofric chuckled fondly.

“She always did seem a wise little thing. Peaceable, in a way. At least to her friends.” He shook his head. “I cannot believe I’ll not see her again. God rest her.” He crossed himself and fell silent.

Malcolm sat with his fingers laced together and squeezed to the point of pain. He knew the man was speaking of Maire, and he knew the man thought it was Maire he mourned. He was angry at himself for begrudging poor Maire that, and nevertheless it drove him wild that no one spoke of Lasrua. He thought Colban might have mentioned her death as a footnote to their flight. It was as if she had never happened. But Malcolm could not bring himself to speak her name.

“Does it help?” Leofric asked mournfully. “Going abroad? To forget about a woman, I mean. Or, at least—”

Malcolm gasped, “Christ! I hope so!”

He hunched himself up and tensed his body, shutting in any further outbursts. He was aware that Leofric was staring at him. He tried repeating the Lord’s Prayer in his mind to steady himself, but he continually faltered and started over: Our Father who art in Heaven… Our Father… Our Father who art…

He hunched himself up and tensed his body.

“I am sorry,” Leofric said. “I shall speak no more of it. My woman lives and fares well, and I would do well to be grateful for that.”

Malcolm heard the clay foot of the jug clunk softly onto the floor, and the bench squeaked as Leofric prepared to rise.

“I shall go to bed after all.”

“Not Maire,” Malcolm whispered. “God rest her, aye…” He crossed himself hurriedly, impatient at the long distance between head and heart and shoulders. “But it’s the elf lass I’m thinking of.”

The bench squeaked no more. Malcolm peeked up at Leofric. He saw a quiet, godlike gravity on the man’s face, as reassuring as a hand on his shoulder.

Leofric seemed to have been awaiting that glance. He asked, “Have you no hope?”


Leofric grunted and lowered his head to busy himself picking at his fingernails.

Leofric grunted and lowered his head.

After a while he said, “I’d heard she was quite fond of you. A young girl such as she, I would have thought she’d have you, brother or no.”

“She did have me.”

Malcolm peeked. Leofric was watching him patiently out of the corner of his eye. The very wrinkles on his forehead were smooth.

Malcolm whispered, “She married me.”

At last Leofric’s gravity was disturbed. He sat up, and his face came alive with evanescent ripples of expression.

At last Leofric's gravity was disturbed.

Wonderment, wariness, and unvoiced questions spread in rings across his stillness and faded like water into water. He quickly grew grave again, but something had changed. She had happened.

Leofric leaned low and spoke in a voice that was remarkably gentle for one so deep. “When was this?”

“Half an hour before she died.”

“Dear God.”

“An hour before I left the valley for the last time. It’s in the churchyard you’ll find her, if ever you’re making it home. It’s in my own arms she was baptized a Christian, like a wee baby.”

Malcolm leaned his elbows on his thighs.

Malcolm leaned his elbows on his thighs and slid his hands up his arms to his shoulders, trying to find something to hold.

“No more than a baby could she lift the weight of her head,” he said. “I gave her to God, so all this was not for nothing. And then… I took her to me.”

He stared into the candle flames and let his eyes drift out of focus until he could almost see her eyes against the blurry backdrop of light. He rocked himself, half-​dreaming, like a gull on the waves.

“And she, she took me to herself. ‘I take you, Malcolm.’ You’ve never seen lips so white.”

Suddenly he remembered himself and looked at Leofric. The man’s lips were not so white, but his face was ghastly. She had happened. Malcolm had more proof than he needed, now. But raindrops could not be picked out of a pond.

His face was ghastly.

Then he remembered the jug of wine at his feet, and he swung it up gratefully: an excuse to turn his face away, something to do with his mouth, something to swallow. Leofric sat back and sighed, as if he too had been released from a spell.

Malcolm breathed over his tongue like a cat until the fumes had faded. He belched, and felt a little more like himself.

“Do not be mentioning it to the lad,” he said softly to Leofric. “He knows she’s dead, but no more. It cannot matter to him if he had a… sort of stepmother for half an hour. He’s been wanting to take this trip with me since he was knee-​high, and I do not want to spoil it for him by making him think it isn’t for his sake I go.”

Leofric said, “Understood.”


“And it is for his sake I go. He’s the only reason left me for anything.”

They both looked back at the bed. Leofric nodded slowly.

“I am sorry, Malcolm. Terribly sorry. I had no idea.”

Malcolm shrugged.

Leofric turned his back to the bed and opened out his empty hands. “I,” he said with godlike gravity, “I simply want a woman I cannot have.”

Malcolm said, “I too.” He held out the jug.

He held out the jug.