Icy drafts knifed through the ramshackle wooden shutters.

Lady Gwynn had thought there would be a poetic rightness in holding this meeting at Gunnilda’s old house on the hill, but she had not reckoned on the prosaic passage of time.

Three years on, the thatched roof had thinned, and water stains spoiled Gunnilda’s spotless kitchen floor. Patches of mildew mottled the plaster. Wintry sunlight and icy drafts knifed through the ramshackle wooden shutters, while Gunnilda’s fine glass windows lay dust-​covered in the loft of the Ashdown barn.

An air of desolation hung over the place.

Men still lived in the house, and fires were still lit in the hearth, but an air of desolation hung over the place, chill and damp and musty with mold. Gwynn believed that houses had hearts, and this one had died from lack of love.

But three years later some things were eerily almost the same. Iylaine had again invited young Gwynn instead of Gunnilda, without explaining why, and now sat shut up inside herself, brooding, as good as alone.

Iylaine now sat shut up inside herself.

Gwynn’s father paced about and occasionally made some trivial remark, which Gwynn answered with exaggerated good cheer.

Vash and Kiv were on their way, though she knew Kiv as Paul now.

And Egelric. No, Egelric was not there, but Malcolm stood in his place as if it had been pointed out to him: before the fire, his grim back to them all.

Malcolm stood in his place.

Gwynn feared he would not move from the spot, in defiance of courtesy. She would soon come to wish he had stayed put, as Egelric had.

He turned before Vash and Paul had even arrived. “They’re coming,” he said accusingly to Iylaine.

Iylaine only lowered her head.

Gwynn heard a scuff in the weeds before the creaking of the stairs outside announced their arrival to her ears. Elves moved silently over the earth, but they could not hide their weight from the aged wood.

Behind the door Vash said something in his lovely rippling language, and Gwynn shivered in delight. Then she heard Paul’s first hesitant creak, and she concluded it had probably been nothing more poetic than a warning about the missing step.

Vash tapped on the door and pushed it open himself.

“Sorry,” he said breathlessly as he squeezed inside. “There is no room outside for two.”

'There is no room out here for two.'

He flashed a brief smile at no one in particular and turned to guide Paul in through the door. He could not have seen the grimace of pain on Iylaine’s face. Perhaps Malcolm did.

“It’s no trouble, gentlemen,” Gwynn’s father said cheerily. “Come in, come in! Though you’ll find we haven’t much room inside, either. Take care. There seems to be a… wagon wheel against the wall here?”

Her father babbled, while Malcolm simply adjusted the weight of his sword belt on his hip.

Malcolm was armed.

Malcolm was armed. Gwynn’s father was, too. Her father was not merely armed but armored, and not merely in his serviceable leather and mail but the magnificent ceremonial armor of a lord, last seen at Dunstan’s wedding.

He had just taken it out to be cleaned, ahead of the tournaments that would begin as soon as the turf dried, and Gwynn had supposed he was as eager to strut about in it as she would be to inaugurate a new dress. Now she was not certain. The shabby, cluttered kitchen was no place for such martial glory. It seemed poetically wrong.

And Vash and Paul were unarmed.

Paul said, “Good day, everyone,” weakly smiling, and then he waited, tilting his head like a blackbird in search of sounds. Gwynn, like all his friends, knew that he was waiting for everyone to greet him in turn so that he would know who was there and where they stood. But Malcolm and Iylaine seemed not to know. Thus Gwynn, who had promised her father she would remain meek, was forced to take matters into her gracious hands.

“Good day, gentlemen.” She scooted her chair back roughly across the uneven floor, so that Paul would be sure to hear her rise. “How is Cat, Paul?”

Paul’s smile broadened and became real. “Gwynn! You’re here! Cat is just the same and looking forward to a change, thank you for asking.”

“Excuse me, Malcolm,” Gwynn said as she squeezed past. She jostled him a little more than necessary, both to alert Paul to his location and to disturb his direfully rigid stance. “Tell Cat I shall pay her a visit tomorrow forenoon if it doesn’t rain. Pardon me, Iylaine,” she murmured as she passed her friend.

She stroked her hand up Iylaine’s arm, and without seeing quite how it happened, found the same hand clasped within Vash’s.

She found the same hand clasped within Vash's.

Paul said, “I shall warn Domnall to sprain his ankle after breakfast and take up a station on the couch.”

Gwynn ignored that.

Vash bent down, down, down to kiss her hand. “My lady. Friend of my friend.”

That smile! That earnest, gentle voice! Gwynn was melting.

But Malcolm snapped, “Who are you calling your friend?”

Vash stood up straight, far above Gwynn’s height, but she could see he stared Malcolm in the eyes. “Paul.”

Paul tugged on Vash’s sleeve and reached past him in search of Gwynn’s hand, putting his arm between Vash and Malcolm.

“Gwynn!” Her hand in his, he smiled his boyish smile. “Friend of my wife and slipper-​embroiderer of her poor feet! You were here last time, weren’t you?”

Gwynn did not think it wise to speak much of that. She simply answered, “I was.”

“That was the first time we met, wasn’t it?” Paul asked, smiling dreamily.

Paul’s face alone was not strained, but Gwynn forgave him, because he could not see the others.

He asked, “I wonder what you thought of me that day?”

Gwynn had thought him very handsome and had wished he would fall in love with her. She had also thought him angry and rude. But she said the one thing she remembered most: “I thought you a good friend.”

She squeezed his hand, hoping he would say anything he had left to say by squeezing her hand in reply. He squeezed and fell silent, and her hand slipped free. Gwynn turned and laid her hand on Vash’s elbow, which was nearly as high as her shoulder.

Gwynn turned and laid her hand on Vash's elbow.

“Won’t you come in?” she asked. “Kindly close the door, Paul.”

“One moment,” Vash said. “I left something outside.”

Gwynn did not quite see what happened next. Vash made as if to turn for the door, and she thought his hand might have brushed Iylaine’s chair. Perhaps he even touched Iylaine’s back. She only knew that Malcolm exploded.

“Keep your hands off my wife!”

She only knew that Malcolm exploded.

Malcolm leapt at Vash, and Gwynn was flung back and clattered against the wagon wheel. She shrieked, and Iylaine sobbed, and all Gwynn saw then was a flash of winter sunlight on a polished breastplate, and all she heard was the slithery clinking of mail jouncing against steel.

all Gwynn saw then was a flash of winter sunlight on a polished breastplate.

So heavily armored, her father might have been slow to start, but now he kicked Malcolm off-​balance, swung the taller man around his body, and slammed him against the wall, scattering baskets and stacks of kindling.

“Don’t you ever,” her father shouted, “try a stunt like that before ladies again!”

Malcolm tried to barrel past him, but Gwynn’s father—she could scarcely believe it then or thereafter—punched him in the face. Gwynn had never heard such a crack.

Malcolm looked as if he would swing back, but her father held his face up within punching range and said, “Try it, Malcolm! Strike a lord and see where that gets you!”

'Try it, Malcolm!'

Malcolm did not try. “He is here for one thing only!” he shouted, pointing savagely at Vash. “Let him get on with it!”

“And you are here for nothing at all, sir!”

Gwynn had never heard her father speak with such fury. Her gentle, poetic father!

“This has nothing to do with you, Malcolm, in truth! And you swore to act with honor!”

“There is nothing dishonorable—”


“There is nothing dishonorable about defending one’s wife!”

“Sir!” Gwynn’s father shouted. “When a lord asks for silence, what do you say?”

Paul's fluttering hands finally found Gwynn.

Paul’s fluttering hands finally found Gwynn and pulled her against his side. The wagon wheel wobbled against the wall. Vash slipped outside.

“What do you say?” her father repeated.

Malcolm muttered, “Nothing.”

“Nothing, what?

“Nothing, lord.


“Good! I was beginning to think you had forgotten every courtesy you had ever learned. Now, I expect you to stand over there, and say nothing, sir, until we have finished here. And if you so much as touch the hilt of your sword, on the Holy Cross I swear it will be the last time you ever wear a sword in this valley!”

Gwynn’s father stepped away from the wall, and for a moment he only stood panting. The heavy loose hems of his mail swayed, clinking softly against his plate with every breath. Perhaps this was why he had put on his finest armor when Malcolm had shown up in his kilt and clattering with medallions. Her father looked still more fearsome and magnificent: a true lord.

He asked, “I pray no one is injured?”

'I pray no one is injured?'

He was looking especially at Gwynn, so Gwynn shook her head.

He bowed. “I humbly beg your pardon, ladies. I am aghast and ashamed on behalf of all men.”

Vash stepped inside carrying a stone tray. His face was a sickly color.

His face was a sickly color.

“And, Vash,” Gwynn’s father said, “I apologize to you as well. Your friend will tell you that I have an unfortunate habit of taking gentlemen at their word when they swear there will be no violence.”

That was meant for Paul. Paul was welcome at Nothelm again, but only barely. Gwynn’s father scarcely spoke to him at all.

Vash shrugged and looked around the dim room. The watery rays of sunlight and the flickering fire only highlighted the unpoetic ruin.

He said, “We need not do this now.”

Iylaine spoke at last. “No! Do it now!”

'Do it now!'

Vash looked stricken. Gwynn did not blame him. She was three years older now and knew better than to look for romance in tragedy, but she still thought their story deserved to end with dignity. Gwynn had done her gracious best, but the scene was spoiled. Jealousy was the ugliest thing. Like a blight on love. Like mold.

Vash recovered his gentle expression before turning to Iylaine. “As you wish.”

He laid his stone tray on the table and neatly stacked a small pile of kindling atop it.

“Malcolm has explained to you?” he asked. Before Iylaine could answer, Vash began to explain. “My blood seeks to be united with fire, you see. As yours does with water. So, I shall make my blood, which is in you, go to the end of your finger. And we shall make a tiny cut, and it will come out into the fire, and it will be at peace. It is only a few drops. It will not hurt you much. Only a tiny cut.”

'It will not hurt you much.'

Iylaine said, “I have a pin.”

“A pin! Yes, that will do.”

Vash’s voice was gentle, in spite of its trembling nervousness. Iylaine’s voice was soft as a child’s.

Vash asked, “Do you have any questions for me, first?”

Any questions! Gwynn imagined a dozen poignant questions on the spot. But they were not the sort of questions one could ask before witnesses. Least of all one’s husband. This meeting was all wrong.

Iylaine hesitated, but in the end she only shook her head.

Vash leaned lower over the tray of kindling. Malcolm moved to the side so that he could keep an eye on the proceedings, but he said nothing now.

'We shall need a fire.'

“We shall need a fire,” Vash said to Iylaine. “Would you like to make it? Or should we ask Paul?”

“I want to do it.”

Vash nodded. “Yes. When you are ready.”

Iylaine stared at the kindling. Gwynn stared at Iylaine.

Iylaine was swathed all in black, in a scarf and cloak her mother-​in-​law had sent from Scotland. It was fine cloth, but black was not Iylaine’s color. Her glorious golden hair was hidden away. Her cheek was pale. The lovely crescent of her face was only a waning moon against a night sky.

One of the sticks began to smolder at the end. A tiny flame seeped out of it, and grew and grew until a pale yellow spire guttered high above the stone.

Iylaine mumbled, “It’s only the fire that is in the wood.”

'It's only the fire that is in the wood.'

Vash drew back. He looked at Iylaine until Iylaine looked down at her lap. Then he fumbled for the chair opposite her, uncharacteristically clumsy, still watching Iylaine while he groped at the air. He looked like he was crying, except there were no tears on his face.

Abruptly Gwynn realized that with Paul’s blindness and Malcolm’s and her father’s positions by the fire, she herself was the only witness to his anguish besides Iylaine. And this was not a sight meant for her eyes.

This was not a sight meant for her eyes.

She stepped back to join her father, but Iylaine caught her wrist. “Please sit with me,” she begged in her little girl’s voice.

Gwynn looked to Vash. Vash waved her into the chair beside Iylaine and finally managed to drag out the other chair and sit.

Vash braced himself against the table, took a sighing breath, and slid his hand out across the knife-​scarred wood.

“I must touch your finger for a short time.”

Iylaine drew back her hands.

Iylaine drew back her hands.

“This is magic, Iylaine. You can make the fire go to the end of the branch without touching it, but without touching you, I cannot make my blood go the end of you. I am sorry.”

“For how long?” Iylaine asked. Gwynn wondered how it could matter.

“Not long,” Vash said. “A time measured by the beats of your heart, kón’anín. Touch your finger to mine. It won’t hurt. I am sorry.”

Iylaine put out her hand.

Iylaine put out her hand.

Vash laid his hand on the table and let Iylaine’s finger come creeping up to touch his own.

Gwynn did not know what she had been expecting, but nothing extraordinary happened. There was only the small fire beginning to take, and the sticks cracking and snapping as kindling will do.

She heard a tinkling of mail as her father flexed his arm, and she looked up. On Malcolm’s face she saw such raw hatred that she was sorry she had ever wielded the word “jealous” against poor Finn. She felt embarrassed for Malcolm for letting his ugliness show.

Gwynn looked back at the hands on the table. Iylaine’s finger was moving slightly, stroking Vash’s fingernail, as if polishing its surface. She was crying, or nearly so: her mouth quivered, her eyes squinted, her breaths were sometimes interrupted with gulps, but she was somehow holding back her tears. And Vash…

She was somehow holding back her tears.

What Gwynn saw on Vash’s face reminded her that this was not a sight meant for her eyes. Thenceforth she vowed to stare strictly into the fire.

Finally Vash asked, “You said you have a pin?”

Iylaine withdrew her hand. She dug through her heavy cloak to find her purse. Vash braced his folded arms against the table and waited.

“Any finger?” Iylaine asked in a tiny voice.

'Any finger?'

“The ring finger, please,” Vash said. “There is a vein which goes to the heart.”

“I prick myself all the time when I’m sewing,” Iylaine said shakily. “I never got any good at it. And I’m always losing my thimbles.”

She winced, and Gwynn realized she had pricked herself. She squeezed her finger and then thrust her hand out into the tallest tongues of fire. “Do it!”

Vash caught her hand right in the flames. They seemed to struggle. It happened so quickly. Gwynn could not tell whose hand was fighting whose.

Paul shouted, “Vash!” and a panicked elven phrase Gwynn did not know.

Vash whipped back his hand and cradled it in his lap, rocking in his chair and hissing a few words that Finn liked to employ when he was beside himself. And Paul went on ranting at him, and Iylaine sucked on her finger and finally sobbed out a few real tears.

Gwynn’s father stepped closer. “Are you injured?”

Vash savagely shook his head, flinging his long hair away from his eyes. When it fell back it hid more of his face than before. “No, I am not.”

'No, I am not.'

Malcolm asked, “Is it done?”

Vash leaned against the table with his other arm and pushed himself up. “It is done. You may put out the fire, Iylaine.”

Iylaine sobbed again, and the fire went out in a single breath. The last tendrils of smoke faded out towards the sooty rafters. The blackened kindling was all but cold.

Still holding his burned hand against his belly, Vash bowed slightly to Iylaine and said some solemn thing in his language. Malcolm exploded again.

“If you have anything to say, say it in English!”

Vash stood so tall that his hair fell back from his face on its own. “I was only saying goodbye.”

He strode between Malcolm and Iylaine without a glance for either.

He strode between Malcolm and Iylaine without a glance for either.

Malcolm said, “Aye, elf, aye! Let that be your goodbye forever! And now I shall say my goodbye to you!”

Malcolm said his goodbye in Gaelic. Gwynn understood only parts of it, but she knew the word for “curse.” She understood that if Vash ever came near Malcolm’s woman or children again, then Vash’s woman would be the something of a hundred Danes, and his children would rot to death in their own excrement—though the word he used was not so polite—and something would happen to Vash that involved dogs.

Gwynn was petrified. She wondered whether Iylaine had understood more of the Gaelic than she.

Iylaine did not seem to be listening.

But Iylaine did not seem to be listening. Instead she was sifting through the blackened sticks and ashes, and she came up with a lump of charcoal.

Vash opened the door, and Gwynn twisted her head around to wish him a hasty farewell, or at least give him a look of goodbye. But Vash went out with his head high and never saw her.

Vash went out with his head high.

Malcolm spat into his palm and drew a cross in it with his finger. He held it up to the door before it slammed.

Oblivious to her husband, Iylaine polished her sooty lump with the end of her black scarf and tucked it into her purse with the pin. Gwynn only caught a glimpse of it, but it looked less like charcoal than like a smooth, dark stone.

It looked less like charcoal than a smooth, dark stone.