If Lasrua had been the sort of girl who believed in omens, she might have had an inkling.

If Lasrua had been the sort of girl who believed in omens, she might have had an inkling her life was about to turn the moment she dismounted at the gate. There she had been met not by Garalt—dear, dependable Garalt, uniformly discourteous to babies, dogs, grandmothers, grown men, and beautiful girls alike, and during whose morning watches Lasrua timed her visits—but rather by Marcan—her round-​faced, red-​cheeked, stolid and stammering, not-​so-​secret admirer.

If, like Cat, Lasrua had been a girl who looked for signs, she might have felt a pricking in her thumb when she had met Domnall coming out and seen him stop short in surprise and consternation before recalling his manners and offering to see her into the hall.

She might have noted it was her left thumb—very bad, Cat always said: a sure sign of mischief—when she had heard Derbail’s drawl ahead, punctuating Aengus’s girls’ simultaneous chatter.

She might have been forewarned. She might have pleaded urgent business with Cat, asked Domnall to make her excuses, and run up to see her sister-​in-​law without stepping into the hall. Perhaps nothing would have happened, or not on that day, or not in just that way. She might have had a very different life.

But Lasrua was a girl who prided herself on her lack of superstition. And thanks to a few hints from Hetty—all the more excruciating to her pride for having being so delicately expressed—she was trying to be a more gracious, more congenial young lady. Smiling prettily, she went in to meet her fate.

“Good morning, everyone.”

“Rua!” Five-​year-​old Aileann scrambled up off the rug and flung herself against Lasrua’s skirts.

Derbail heaved herself off the bench to curtsey, smiling with hard dimples and slitted eyes. Ete simply stared.

“Rua, please please take me up to see Cat!” Aileann begged. “Ach! Is that a new dress?” she asked reverently once Lasrua had removed her to arm’s length.

'Is that a new dress?'

“Yes, it is, and I’m here to show Cat, so perhaps you shall come up with me, and you two may tell me what you think.”

Aileann pulled up armfuls of Lasrua’s sweeping skirts and let them whoosh back through her hands, sighing in rapture.

She doesn’t want to go up to talk about dresses,” Ete said direfully. “She wants to show Cat her horrible dead bird wing!”

Aileann snapped out of her reverie. “Mayn’t I, Rua?” she begged. “I found a whole bird wing with all the feathers on it, and I want to show Cat but Derbail won’t let me!

Lasrua glanced up at Derbail. Hard dimples, steely smile. Of course Lasrua could overrule anything lowly Derbail said. Derbail was only waiting for her to do it. Lately they could not meet without Lasrua being forced to squirm out of a showdown.

With Cat confined to her room except for the dinner hour, Derbail was all but mistress of the manor. She met with the housekeeper. She chose the menu. She poured the ale at breakfast and supper. She tucked in the girls when Aengus was away. A very knacky, very comfortable young woman for a widower to have around, was Derbail.

But Lasrua had only to stride through the door, and Derbail was a mere serving-​woman again, curtseying to a grand lady. And still—as Lasrua had overheard her confiding to a crony—unlike Lasrua, she’d had the pleasure of bedding Lasrua’s husband.

“We shouldn’t like to scatter bird feathers all over Cat’s room,” Lasrua told Aileann, careful to neither affirm nor oppose Derbail’s authority. “Not now that she has it all fixed up and ready for the baby. But you may show me! I should like to see it.”

Ete said awfully: “It’s really because if Cat sees it, it might make the baby come out with feathers all over it, or no arms!”

“What?” Lasrua laughed. “Because of a little bird wing?”

Ete must have been waiting for just that. A slight smirk curved her mouth, and her weird eyes flashed with defiance. “Derbail said so!”

Lasrua had been trapped. Fortunately her pride saved her from stopping in mid-​titter and looking aghast. She smiled indulgently at Ete and said, “That’s only a superstition, but Cat believes in all sorts of superstitions, so we mustn’t do anything to frighten her.”

Ete said, “I believe in superstitions too!”

Domnall came to Lasrua’s rescue then, telling Ete, “I used to have a turtle with two heads. What do you suppose the Mama Turtle saw to cause that to happen?”

'I used to have a turtle with two heads.'

“You did not!” Ete said, irresistibly turning her love of contradiction against Domnall instead.

“I did, too! I traded a whistle for it, but it only lived for three days, so I wished I’d kept the whistle.”

I want a turtle with two heads!” Aileann whined.

“There is no such thing!” Ete said.

Lasrua was beginning to plot how she might escape—preferably alone, but in a pinch she could have borne Aileann—when the curtain flapped open and Aengus came bounding into the hall.

He started out saying, “Domnall! Are you ready?” but then he took in Lasrua across the room, and his jaunty step faltered, and he pulled up behind the bench, looking dazed.

He pulled up behind the bench, looking dazed.

Nervously Rua touched the neckline of her gown. It was still so new and strange that she imagined it might have torn open, or that the cloth was so thin that her nipples were standing through, or… she did not know what, but she did not know why her mere presence could make Aengus fumble and flush in that way.

Domnall whipped around and said, “I’m ready! Shall we go?”

“Now, just a moment!” Aengus said. He strode around the bench, still red-​faced, but at least master of his feet. “A good morning to you, Rua! Here to see Cat? Your brother’s out.”

“He—he is?” Could she claim she had come to see Paul? Would it be too discourteous to flee?

'He--he is?'

“Aye, a sick woman down at the village. How are you, darling? You’re looking blooming.” He took her hand to kiss it, but when he drew her arm away from her breast, he forgot what he was about and held it out to her side. He said admiringly, “Why, that’s a new dress, I daresay!”

“Yes, it is. I promised Cat I would show her as soon as it was finished. She wants one like it, but she’ll have to… to wait a bit…”

Had Derbail just sniffed? Doubtlessly the afternoon’s gossip would now consist of how Lasrua had dolled herself up in a fancy gown and “just happened” to run into Sir Aengus. She wished she had stayed at home.

Had Derbail just sniffed?

“Ach! Let’s see here…” Aengus stepped back to inspect her at full length. “Aye, that looks to be a swishy one. Cat will approve.”

Lasrua smiled nervously. “A swishy one?”

“That’s the only kind of skirt for Cat: skirts that swish! You know. The hips go one way, the skirts go the other.” He lifted his arms and waggled his hips, his drollery undimmed by any hint of self-​consciousness.

In spite of herself—and in spite of Derbail, Domnall, and Ete—Lasrua giggled. Still, she was careful to hold her spine straight as a rod. She would not be seen to shimmy.

“I knew what swishy meant,” she said, “but I never knew gentlemen noticed such things.”

Aengus gasped. “The Devil you girls don’t! I thought that was the whole point!”

Lasrua laughed. She could never long withstand Aengus’s good humor, no matter how determined she might be to sulk, brood, or feel sorry for herself—or even, as today, to give no food for gossip to the likes of Derbail, or raise no ire in little Ete.

“When I’m grown,” Aileann announced as she flung her arms around Lasrua’s legs, “I shall wear swishy skirts every day, and not just to parties!”

There was not a particle of ire in Aileann. Aileann adored her. Aileann liked everyone she met, but for the last few months, the star in her heavens had been Lasrua.

“Isn’t she pretty, Da?” Aileann asked with all the aching wistfulness of five.

Aengus smiled not at Aileann—who could not have seen it anyway, with her face pressed into Lasrua’s gown—but at Lasrua herself. And she thought there was an aching wistfulness in his smile. It was not the first time she had thought so these last days.

“Aye, she is,” Aengus said simply. Then he held out his arm. “Could I trouble you to step out with me a moment?”

He bit his lip and hesitated. In her confusion Lasrua reflexively laid her hand on the back of his arm.

“I’ve been swearing I would have a word with you the very next time I found you alone,” he explained, his head close to hers. “Without your brother or your father, I mean. There’s something I must tell you.”

Derbail did not sniff, but it didn’t matter. Whether she had heard the words or only the softly confidential tone of Aengus’s voice, the gossip would be the same.

Something I must tell you. Lasrua could not think of a courteous way to wriggle out of a showdown with Aengus. Her hand lay limp upon his arm.

And Aileann clung silently to Lasrua’s legs, content to remain attached to her idol. Lasrua began to feel the warmth of her damp little hands through layers of swishy skirts and flannel petticoat and shift. She feared Aengus would soon feel hers through his sleeve.

Aengus seemed to take her silence for acquiescence. He patted Aileann’s hand on Lasrua’s hip. “Let Rua go, love, I want her for just a short while.”

Aileann lifted her head. “And then we can go up and show Cat your new dress?”

“Aye, maybe, if you’re good,” Aengus said. “Let go now.”

Aileann stepped back, pulling Lasrua’s skirts away with her to release them in one last whoosh. Lasrua was so stunned that their swishing made her sway.

“I’ll be right there,” Aengus called aside to Domnall. Lasrua took in his face with a glance as Aengus led her away. Domnall was looking resigned.

“Shall we go to our spot?” Aengus asked her.

'Shall we go to our spot?'

They had a spot. Lasrua saw now how foolish that had been.

For too long she had supposed the female jealousy she inspired was due to having won Malcolm to husband, whom so many had failed to catch. It was only in the last weeks that she had understood the truth: the women believed she was trying to catch the widowed Sir Aengus as well, whom so many were plotting to win.

But it was on this fateful morning that she first feared she had succeeded.

They had a spot. They had shared jokes, shared habits. He never passed Nothelm without asking whether there were any favors he might do her. He squired her to every party and on every hunting trip; and until Lent had made it unnecessary, they had sat out every dance side-​by-​side, true to their word.

She lacked a husband; he lacked a wife. It had seemed so natural—so safe. Now she saw how risky it all was.

Aengus let her hand fall from his arm and threw back the heavy bolt. Watery light spilled through the doorway, followed by a gust of fresh air. The music of unmuffled birdsong broke over them—and then the high-​pitched, affected laughter of Muirgel, one of the manor’s cooks.

Lasrua heard Aengus swear under his breath. He struck out on his own a few steps ahead of her.

He struck out a few steps ahead of her.

“What’s with all these doings, ladies?” he called cheerily. “Domnall and my Da and I won’t be home for dinner!”

Muirgel and another of the cooks were taking advantage of the sunshine to do their work out on the weather-​beaten table in the court. Muirgel’s delight at the arrival of Sir Aengus visibly soured when Lasrua stepped into the court behind him.

While the other cook protested that the rest of the family had to eat, and Aengus negotiated for the choicest leftovers, Muirgel sauntered around the table to glare at Lasrua. She folded her arms—careful to shove her formidable breasts up and together—cocked her hip, and deliberately looked Lasrua up and down, taking in the new dress.

She deliberately looked Lasrua up and down.

Lasrua knew she would soon be trading her impressions with Derbail. Fortunately, Lasrua’s pride was immune to the slurs of a woman who thought she could catch a highborn husband by squeezing her breasts together and wearing bodices cut down almost to her nipples.

Still—as Muirgel liked to cackle to her friends—unlike Lasrua, she’d had the pleasure of bedding Lasrua’s husband. Several times.

Lasrua strolled off alone while Aengus dispatched the cooks to the kitchens, but her progress was slowed by her efforts not to swish her skirts. He joined her just as she was sitting herself down in a small hollow between the roots of a young birch tree. This was her spot. His was right beside hers. The steep bank of the moat was at their feet.

He joined her just as she was sitting herself down.

“Sorry about that,” he said as he stepped up beside her. “They couldn’t have heard us, but I especially didn’t want to hear them. All settled in?”

He thumped down beside her and looked her over. His grin abruptly vanished behind a look of dismay.

“Ach! I didn’t think about your dress. Is it all right? You see, we gentlemen don’t notice everything!”

Lasrua laughed and fluffed her skirts out around her legs. “It’s fine. I’m wearing a shawl, since I rode.”

'It's fine.'

“Ach!” He smiled again. “That must have been a fair sight.”

He folded his legs and rubbed his pants smooth over his knees. Or perhaps, she thought, he was drying his sweaty palms. Her heart was beating fast. She thought she could hear his shallow breathing beneath the twittering of the birds and the breeze whistling through bare trees.

“You must be wondering what I was wanting to tell you,” he began stiffly.

Lasrua offered him only a silence, and he rushed to fill it.

'I know, this doesn't seem at all the way to do it.'

“I know, this doesn’t seem at all the way to do it,” he said, lifting his hands and looking around the deserted court. “But I couldn’t think… It wouldn’t have been any better, you know, if I’d made an appointment to call on you at Nothelm. First the guard, and then the steward, and… And I… I would have lost my nerve just like I’m doing now. Christ!” He laughed weakly and rubbed his face. “Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you at all.”

He peeked up at her, as if looking for a clue in her reaction. Was he offering her an escape route?

“Perhaps not,” she agreed.

He looked up, startled. That seemed not to have been the reaction he had hoped for.

'You don't think?'

“You don’t think?”

“If you don’t think so…”

He sighed. “’Tisn’t that. I think it’s the right thing to do. And I can hardly stand to see you for thinking of it, and that’s no good at all, for I do like to see you! But your brother is always around…”

Lasrua tried to tease. “Oh, I’m certain it isn’t proper, if it’s something you wouldn’t tell my brother.

Aengus hung his head and ripped up a pinch of tender weeds to shred between his hands. “He’s bound to find out sooner or later,” he muttered. “So are you.”

Aengus hung his head and ripped up a pinch of tender weeds to shred between his hands.

Lasrua listened to the tiny snaps and cracks as Aengus methodically tore up his handful of weeds. The stems were new and young and stiff with sap. The acrid scent of green misted through the air and clung to the back of her throat. Aengus’s heedless hands would reek of it. They would be sticky and cool with it. But inside he swelled with fire.

“I think,” Lasrua said in a thin voice—she felt a weight on her chest, and a tightening low in her belly—“you should tell me.”

'You should tell me.'

Aengus stopped tearing.

She faltered, “Now that I know there is… a thing unspoken between us… we won’t be able to see one another until it’s said. And once it’s said, we may discuss what we shall do about it.”

Aengus tossed away a sprinkling of torn weeds and wiped his hands on his pants. He looked up at her with a slight smile. “That’s you all over. Wasting no time a-​worrying yourself, but already wondering what’s to be done.”

Lasrua shrugged, but she was pleased to hear this praise of herself. If Aengus believed she wasted no time worrying, she was hiding the truth well indeed.

“Aye, then,” Aengus said softly.

He pulled up his leg and leaned closer. Lasrua imagined she could feel his hot breath on her cheek, and she leaned away, panicked and shy.

The water rippled in the moat.

The water rippled in the moat, reflecting flashes of sky through the young leaves that drooped from the bank. Lasrua closed her eyes and savored its cool green light on her skin. She was safe; she was near water. She would focus on the water when Aengus said the fiery things she feared.

“I’m thinking you have some idea already,” he said, sounding less passionate than mournful. “It grieves me sore to tell you this, darling, but the man whose duty it was refused to do it, and I’d not have you hear it from anyone else but me.”

Lasrua looked up, confused. Aengus’s gaze was earnest, imploring, and once hers was tangled in it she could not look away.

“Malcolm knows you’re alive. He’s known almost since the beginning. Mayhap he always knew. And still he went away.”

Lasrua’s mouth fell open, and she heard herself take a sharp breath before she snapped it shut again. She had been prepared for anything Aengus might have said—about himself! What a fool she had been!

“One of Colban’s men found him at Dunfermline. That’s—that’s the Royal Seat of Scotland,” he explained.

'That's--that's the Royal Seat of Scotland.'

“I know, I’ve heard of it.”

Aengus nodded, and they both sighed, as if this stupid digression had come as a relief.

“Colban sent him a letter,” Aengus continued, “and he never went to the castle to retrieve it. But he got the most important part of the message: ‘She’s alive.’ The messenger told him that. So he knows. And nevertheless he got on a ship and left the same day. And we’ve not heard a word from him since. I’m sorry, love,” he added, glancing up at her again.

Lasrua scrabbled through her thoughts in search of a practical question. She must not appear affected. “When was this?”

“Not three weeks after he left here. He’s known for months.”

She nodded.

She nodded.

“I’d hoped, you know… I’d hoped for your sake that he’d changed. And it grieves me to speak ill of him to you, but that’s Malcolm all over. He’s never been true to anyone in his life. Not to a woman. Not to his family. Not even to his own son. He thinks of nothing but his own self, and whenever there’s something or someone he doesn’t care to face, he runs away. Never says goodbye to anyone. He can be a charming devil when he’s with you. But you mustn’t let him steal your heart away when he goes.”

Aengus paused and looked at her. Lasrua stared across the moat at a tree. She knew Malcolm hadn’t stolen her heart away, for it was hammering away at her ribs until she shook.

'Did he, then?'

“Did he, then?” Aengus asked.

Lasrua turned her head. “I beg your pardon?”

“Steal your heart away?”

Lasrua blinked and studied his face. There was a concerned wrinkle between his eyes. But the eyes were wistful.

She looked away. “Oh, no,” she said, shrugging her shoulder beneath her braid. “I hardly knew him, after all.”

'I hardly knew him, after all.'

A lump rose in her throat like a bubble of molten lead. She could not have said another word. It took all her attention to dry the tears that sprang to her eyes.

Fortunately Aengus’s tongue had been freed. “Ach! I’m so glad. You already had some idea how it was, hadn’t you? Bless you. It was breaking my heart, thinking of what awaited you if you’d loved him.”

Aengus rubbed his knee, then gave it a conclusive slap.

“But still, they’ve treated you abominably! Malcolm, and all the rest of them! Colban didn’t want to tell you. He said it would be easier for you if you’d forgotten him a little first. But that isn’t why. It’s because he couldn’t look you in the eyes and tell you his brother’s a scoundrel whose word is worthless.”

'It's because he couldn't look you in the eyes.'

Aengus ripped up a handful of new stems and old thatch and tore away at it, spilling scraps across the hem of his tunic.

“You could have an annulment for the asking, I daresay, but I fear he would have made you wait the seven years rather than admit Malcolm got the message. It’s seven years a man must leave his wife before she can get free of him. But I couldn’t do that to you. Seven years! At your age—you’re seventeen? Twenty-​four you would have been before you could have looked to marry again. Seven years of your life!” He waved his bundle of thatch at her. “I was with Maire for eight, nine years. If we’d had to wait seven years for that—that bastard—” His voice broke, and he sucked his lip for a moment, gathering his strength before continuing. “We—we would have just been getting started when she died!”

He hurriedly brushed aside his handful of weeds and pressed the back of his hand against his mouth. Lasrua hugged her legs and stared into the moat, trying to make out the rocky bed through the gleaming reflection of sky.

What a fool she had been. What a vain, conceited fool. She had believed the notorious Malcolm—lover of cooks and queens alike—had changed his ways for little her. Then, not content with this triumph, she’d supposed a grieving husband had already forgotten his beloved wife in his adoration of her, and taken her aside at the first opportunity to tell her so. Doubtlessly she had even imagined the affections of Marcan. She disgusted herself. She was grateful no one would ever know just how revoltingly conceited she was.

She disgusted herself.

“Forgive me,” Aengus said shakily. “I’d not meant to speak ill of him to you. Not even now. But he broke her heart, you know. I had to… to witness that. And I thought… Ach, thanks be to God, if he never had the chance to break yours!”

“He certainly shall not!” Lasrua said, startled by a spurt of anger.

Aengus smiled at her. “Bless you! You’ll be all right. I’m so glad.” He laid a hand on her knee for a moment, leaving behind a few flecks of grass on her skirt. “I only wish I’d told you weeks ago! How I’ve worried about you. I’ve not been looking forward to breaking your heart, not even by proxy.”

“Nonsense,” Lasrua said airily. “There was never any danger. There’s only my pride that’s been damaged, and that will heal soon enough.”

'There was never any danger.'

“Ach, you’ve nothing to be ashamed of! You’ve been wonderful, Rua. Lovely in love, dignified in disappointment, and your honor is spotless. You’ve awaited him without a word of complaint or regret. I assure you, it’s not gone unnoticed.” Aengus shook his head. “He’s not even worthy of the handsome way you’ve behaved since he left you. Be proud of yourself. I’m proud of you.”

Lasrua managed a slight smile. Poor Aengus. Perhaps he had made it his mission in life to patch up the broken hearts his dashing cousin left behind.

“And, Rua.”

'Whatever happens, you'll always be kin to me.'

He leaned closer to speak softly to her, balanced on one hip, his sleeve almost brushing hers. Her heart began to pound again, almost before she noticed he was near. Abruptly he was “Poor Aengus” no more, and she was not simply Malcolm’s latest victim.

“Whatever happens,” he said, “you’ll always be kin to me.”

His black eyes looked up at her through his lashes and his loose hair. Lasrua drew her legs closer to her chest, but squeeze as she might, she could not get at the thing in her belly that was tightening like a bud about to burst. Her skin shivered over her shoulders.

“I meant what I swore,” he said. “My honor and my life.”

Lasrua blurted the first thing that came into her mind: another oath they had sworn. “And so it seems we shall never dance again!”


Aengus sat back, and Lasrua could breathe. She turned her face towards the cool water, but she stared without seeing. Aengus ran his fingers through the grass, combing last year’s thatch out of the spring’s pulsing green.

“To every thing there is a season,” he finally said. “When the time for mourning is done, there will come the time to dance. For both of us. And I swear I’ll never dance again until I dance with you.”

'And I swear I'll never dance again until I dance with you.'

He held up his hand, palm-​upward, until Lasrua drew her arm out from beneath her knees and laid her hand into it. His hand was cool from the grass.

“And you?” he asked.

“I swear it, too.”

He squeezed her hand and let it go. He brushed off his lap, looking as if he was about to leave.

Lasrua blurted, “You won’t tell anyone?”

“Ach, no. Wouldn’t dream of it. Unless there’s someone you want me to.”

Lasrua hadn’t thought of it, but she knew at once whom she wanted him to tell. “Would you tell my father? Next time you see him…”

'Next time you see him...'

His smile softened. “I shall do better than that and make a point of seeing him today. He’ll know what to do, won’t he, my poor love?”

Lasrua swallowed and hurriedly dried a few unexpected tears. She was so selfish she had not yet considered how her father would be hurt. She knew he had not approved of Malcolm, but he had opened his heart to him anyway because Lasrua had loved and wanted him, and she had already been denied so much. If she had not been so vain and foolish, she would spared her father this pain, too.

“Perhaps you’ll like to sit here a while,” Aengus offered gently. “Think about what’s to do. There’s no hurry, you know. It’s all up to you.”

Lasrua nodded.

He pushed himself to his feet. “I shall tell the girls to leave you be.”

He checked himself at some sound or gesture from her and squatted on the bank before her, bringing his head back to the level of hers.

He squatted on the bank before her.

“You’ll be all right?” he asked. “I can stay, or take you home.”

Lasrua mustered a smile to reassure him. “No, go on to your tournament.”

“Ach, aye! Poor Domnall! I’m keeping him not only from a tournament but from his sweetheart, too!”

He smiled at her with all his characteristic good humor, and Lasrua could not help smiling back—a real smile.

He smiled at her with all his good humor.

“Disreputable-​looking sort of chaperone, ain’t I?” he said. “Care to come along and lend us countenance?”

“No, thank you. I had my fill of tournaments yesterday. That should be enough for a while.”

“Ach, if you’re sure. If you change your mind, I promise I’ll find you a seat, by hook or by crook. Come and find us.”

She nodded.

She nodded.

He patted her hand where it lay on a pile of swishy skirts. Then he seemed to have another thought, and wrapped his fingers around it.

He had small, square hands, but they were strong for a man’s. Lasrua’s thoughts scattered at his touch. The late winter sun might have warmed the back of her neck, the breeze ruffled her hair, and the green light of the moat lapped at her cheeks; but the only thing she could feel was the pressure of his thumb.

“But you’ll come when it’s my turn to fight, won’t you?” he asked.

“When will that be?”

'When will that be?'

“Ach, not till next month. Put a sword in my hand and a worthy foe before me, and I’ll show you something not fit for Lent.”

Lasrua smiled and lowered her head. Again he read her silence as acquiescence. He dropped to one knee to keep his balance on the steep bank, and bowed over her hand to kiss it.

“Good,” he said. “Every knight needs to be some lady’s champion.”

He let her hand fall and stood straight. She looked up in time to see his knees swish past her head as he returned to the house. He did not say goodbye, or anything at all.

He did not say goodbye.

If she had been the sort of girl who looked for signs, this oversight must have lent a striking significance to his final words to her.

Lasrua stared determinedly into the water, but its green light failed to cool the flush on her cheeks. The scent of scraped earth reached her nose after he had gone, and the acrid tang of the weeds his boots had crushed. She rubbed the sticky spot pressed onto the back of her hand by his thumb.

She had not foreseen how risky it was to unclose her heart to a man, even for the merest flash of furled petals. She was not certain she knew Aengus’s feelings after all. She was not certain she knew her own.

She was not certain she knew her own.