Drumdúnaidh, Srath-Easg, Scotland

There had to be a mistake.

There had to be a mistake. Aengus had warned her that his Uncle Oenucan was as bad-​tempered as a bag of weasels, but this man’s seething hostility did not seem a matter for jokes.

“Who do you think you are,” the man asked in a low growl, “a-​walking into my house in the dark of night and making yourselves at home?”

Lasrua discreetly retied the belt of her cloak and patted her purse to be certain she still had her gloves.

“And who do you think you are,” Aengus countered, “a-​calling this your house?”

'And who do you think you are?'

The red man’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

Aengus must have found the right farm, Lasrua decided, but someone—this man—had chased Aengus’s uncles out of it. Or perhaps killed them and hung up their bodies for the ravens to pick, like those corpses she had seen at Canonby. It was a savage country. She’d had no idea.

“You have until I’ve counted unto two score and ten,” the man said, “to leave this house in peace, and I’ll swear I never saw you.”

He still kept his voice down, for all its menace, but there were other people wakening in the depths of the hall. Behind the ragged, sooty hangings that divided it, Lasrua heard blankets being tossed back, shirts being slipped over heads, arms being thrust into sleeves. She listened in dread for the jangle of sword belts, or the hiss of knives.

“Nothing,” Aengus said, “would give me more pleasure than to cleanse my eyes of the sight of you. But I’ve a lady here who rode from Leol this day, and just as far the day before, and I will have a bed for her.”

'I will have a bed for her.'

Lasrua whispered, “Aengus!”—trying to get his attention so she could shake her head. What was he thinking? She could sleep in the saddle if she had to. Domnall had been nodding off and on for the last hour.

But Aengus didn’t look at her. The red man, however, did.

Lasrua braced herself, expecting a lascivious appraisal—followed by a sidelong glance to size up Aengus and his sword arm. How she wished Marcan had not tarried outside to see to the horses!

But the man only frowned at her and muttered, “Lady, for one who’s ridden so far, you might have spared yourself the last five miles. It’s in Langholm you should have bode.”

'It's in Langholm you should have bode.'

“So I see,” Aengus said, “but it’s too late now to ride the five miles back. In my grandmother’s name, Uncle, make her a bed! My men and I will sleep in the byre if that suits your own scrimping notions of hospitality, but the curse of your mother will be on your head if you’re turning out this lady tonight!”

'The curse of your mother will be on your head.'

Uncle! Good gravy!

“Besides,” Aengus added mildly, taking a moment to brush off his sleeve. “I’ll pay you.”

The man—Uncle Oenucan presumably—sucked in a great lungful of air and bellowed, “You will what? You brass-​faced little good-​for-​nowt! Just you try it, Aengus, and you’ll be finding it hard to wipe your ass without any bloody arms!”

“Oenucan! You’ll wake the babe!” a woman’s voice cried out from behind the curtain. Lasrua heard frantic hands tightening laces and tying a belt.

“Auntie!” Aengus laughed triumphantly. “We won’t be sleeping in the manger tonight, lad!” he told Domnall.

“Auntie, now?”


The curtain parted, and the woman stepped through. She was small and squat, with the broad, soft breast and bobbing walk of a pigeon. Her dress was coarse and drab, but she was clean as a freshly-​peeled egg, and that sufficed to make her beautiful to Lasrua’s eyes. It was a filthy country. She’d had no idea.

“Aengus!” the woman cried. “By the long arm of Lugh! What are you braying for, man?” she scolded Oenucan. “It’s Aengus!”


“I’m a-​braying,” Oenucan said, “because this brat is showing up in the dark of night, looked-​for like a turd in the butter churn, waking God-​fearing folk from their beds—and then he’s having the gall to offer to pay for his lodging, like as if his own blessed grandmother’s house was a bloody inn!”

This from the man who had given them fifty seconds to leave the premises! The Scots, Lasrua decided, had strange notions of hospitality.

From the depths of the woman’s soft-​breasted embrace, Aengus protested, “I thought silver was the only language you understood, Uncle! I never see you but you’re reminding me how many cattle my kin have stolen from you. And every time you’re doubling the number!”

'And so I'm right to do.'

“And so I’m right to do,” Oenucan grumbled. “For I’m counting all the calves they should have had, and the calves’ calves!”

He looked to his right as if expecting to find an ally, but he was startled at the sight of Lasrua, and the angry red of his cheeks spread as far as his hairline in a pink blush. He and Lasrua both quickly looked away.

Lasrua looked to where Aengus was being engulfed by the little woman’s hug—just in time to hear the woman murmuring something about “sad news about Maire.” Lasrua discreetly turned her head and tried to occupy her attention by looking around the hall.

Lasrua tried to occupy her attention by looking around the hall.

How dirty it all was! The hall was very old—Aengus said it had been built by Norsemen—and she wondered whether it had ever been cleaned. The beams were black with soot in the center and white with bird droppings and bits of bird nests at the sides. The straw beneath her feet was filthy and matted, and she could hear rats scrabbling through the tunnels their sleek bodies had worn through the straw heaped up against the walls.

And would she be expected to sit on one of those stools? They looked as if they served more often as muddy boot rests than as a place to rest one’s behind.

But in spite of her despair at her surroundings, she could not help but notice—with an oddly euphoric relief—that Aengus did not break down at this fresh reminder of Maire’s death.

Lasrua’s Gaelic was not yet good enough for her to understand everything he murmured at this distance, but his low voice had just the notes of gravity and compassion to do a man’s feelings honor, and scarcely a trace of the misery that had overflooded it when he had first given Lasrua his oath a season ago.

And in spite of noticing this—or perhaps because of it—Lasrua was startled when she heard the woman say something concluding “…introduce me to your lady, Aengus!”

'...introduce me to your lady, Aengus!'

Lasrua stiffened. She thought she ought to correct her, but now that she was expected to speak, her Gaelic failed her.

She had been playing the part of Aengus’s lady for the last two days, as her first attempt to correct such a misunderstanding had caused more trouble for their little party than her scruples were worth. The safest thing for her to be in this savage country was the lady of the warrior on the towering gray warhorse, flanked by his men-​at-​arms, who rode, at times, carrying their spears.

With her exotic beauty, Lasrua was accustomed to being the most conspicuous person in a crowd, but here all eyes went to Aengus, and anyone bold enough to study Lasrua’s face was nevertheless quick to reassure himself that Aengus had not seen. And men studiously regarded their boot toes when he rode by fully armed, for his helmet’s silver face guard cast a deep shadow over his eyes, giving him a spectral air of seeing everywhere at once. Even Lasrua became a little awed by him then and lowered her gaze.

But this was Aengus’s family, she told herself, and there was no need for awe or ruses. If ever there was a time for the truth, it was now. She expected Aengus would set matters straight. But he did not.

She expected Aengus would set matters straight.

“Rua,” he said, “it is my pleasure to introduce you to the sweetest-​hearted little lady in Scotland, my Auntie Cainnech.”

“Ach, Aengus!” the woman scolded as she drew Lasrua against her soft breast. “Will you stop calling me Auntie? You’re ten years older than I am, if you’re a day! Glad to meet you, dear love,” she cooed into Lasrua’s ear.

She followed this up with a few hearty pats to Lasrua’s back and such a warm rub that Lasrua began to relax. She could not remember the last time she had been so thoroughly hugged.

Lasrua began to relax.

“If you’re old enough to marry my uncle,” Aengus said, “you’re old enough to be my auntie! I’m part of the deal!”

“I was too young to know what I was getting into, to be certain!” she scoffed. “With the whole lot of you!”

She gave Aengus a teasing shove from the safety of Lasrua’s arms before releasing her and stepping back to look her over. Her soft-​cheeked face wore a motherly smile, but she truly did seem young—scarcely more than Lasrua’s age. Her eyes were a little tired, but her skin was silky and unlined.

“Ach, Aengus!” she said in wonder. “She’s being the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”

'She's being the most beautiful girl I've ever seen.'

“Aye, she’s a jewel, isn’t she?” Aengus agreed. “She was a-​worrying when I was wearing my silver armbands on the road for all to see, but not a word was she saying when I put my most valuable treasure on the back of a bay mare and led her into the Borderlands of Scotland!”

Lasrua felt light. She knew that “my treasure” was an endearment of rare affection in Gaelic, but she did not believe she had ever heard Aengus—who generously distributed “loves” and “darlings” to every female person who crossed his path—use it in that sense.

Of course, he was not using it in that sense now, either, she reminded herself. Even if she did ride a bay mare, and even if he was talking about her. It was a joke. He was laughing. It was simply so strange to hear the words on his voice. Mo stór is miadhaile. Said softly she thought it would sound like a line of poetry. Not that she was a fool for poetry.

“I took the bands off before we came here,” Aengus added, twisting around to point across the hall at his uncle, “fearing you would be tearing my arms off to get at them. But then you threatened to do it anyway, so I needn’t have bothered!”

“And so I will straightaway, if you don’t quit pointing at me, Aengus!” his uncle growled. “’Tisn’t polite!”

Lasrua turned her head to stare at him. She thought Uncle Oenucan had peculiar notions of politeness as well.

Aengus’s hand on her elbow brought her attention back around, and she heard him saying, “Rua isn’t speaking the Gaelic very well.”

Aengus’s tone was apologetic, and the woman’s unlined brow wore a little crease of confusion. Lasrua realized abruptly that she was being rude again. She hadn’t yet spoken a word.

Lasrua realized abruptly that she was being rude again.

“I can!” she blurted. “I do! I… God be with you,” she stammered, breaking into a formal greeting and a wobble-​legged curtsey.

Cainnech’s face softened, and somehow that look smoothed all of Lasrua’s awkwardness away. “God and the Blessed Virgin be with you, dear love. Welcome to Drumdunaidh. Aengus’s mama was a girl here long ago.”

“Not that long,” Aengus protested. “I’m but four and thirty, and stout as a seal.” He pounded his chest with the side of his fist to prove his soundness.

Cainnech turned up her little nose at him and laid her hands on Lasrua’s shoulders. “Aye, but not everyone is being as sturdy as you, Aengus, as you would notice if you stopped admiring yourself and looked about you. This young lady is a-​wilting like a mown daisy, and I spy Domnall back there falling asleep against my doorpost.”

Aengus gave Lasrua a sheepish smile, and Cainnech led her away.

“I’m coming for you next,” she warned Domnall, startling the sleepy lad with a tone that suggested a scrub behind the ears might be in the offing. “But first,” she warbled at Lasrua, “we’ll be sitting you down by the fire while I’m making beds up for the three of you.”

'We'll be sitting you down by the fire.'

“Make it four, love,” Aengus called after her. “My man Marcan’s still outside helping your lad bed down the horses.”

“Aye,” Oenucan grumbled, “I’d forgotten I’ll have the pleasure of feeding your fat horses, too.”

“It’s the least you can do,” Aengus said, “considering how much fodder my kin have saved you by stealing your cattle.”

To Lasrua’s surprise, the red man broke into rasping laughter. “Brass-​faced whelp!”

“Don’t be minding Oenucan,” Cainnech said close to Lasrua’s ear, startling her into stumbling on her wobbly legs. “Ach! My poor love! You’ve ridden all day and into the night, haven’t you?”

She helped Lasrua sit on a woolen rug that was draped over a low chest near the fire. The light was too dim for Lasrua to see whether the rug was brown with dirt or whether it was simply supposed to be that color. Anyway, she had little choice but to sit on it.

Cainnech bent over her to straighten her scarf, but while their heads were bowed together, she confided, “I ought to do my auntly duty and take that man outside for a whipping—making you ride late into the night as he did! But he had his heart set on biding here tonight, hadn’t he?”

She picked up Lasrua’s chilly hands from her lap and clasped them between her own.

“Bless him!” she whispered, with the warm smile of one whose blessings were not given in vain. “Like unto a good horse is a good man. Once they’re getting wind of their own pasture, the weariest among them will be finding the strength to make it home.”

The lady’s fervent voice and the tight clasp of her hands seemed to be tugging something out of Lasrua—something wonderful and fierce that was stuck in her throat and making it ache.

She managed to speak, but the words were not at all what the trapped thing was trying to say.

“He thought it—it would not be so long. We were leaving Langholm after supper. But the—the road was washed out, and it’s through the hills we had to ride.”


Cainnech looked out to where Aengus appeared to be entertaining both Domnall and his uncle, but her eyes had the distant expression of one who saw beyond: to the muddy slopes and steep banks, to the loose stones, to the single file of weary horses, picking their way along cattle paths by the fitful light of a cloudswept moon.

“Then we must be gentle with him,” Cainnech said. “How he must have suffered these last hours, thinking on what he was putting you through when you might have stayed at the inn!”

'How he must have suffered these last hours.'

Lasrua leaned out of the shadows to watch Aengus across the hall. The joke he was telling required such broad gestures that his heavy gear clinked against his hips. She remembered his demonstration of swishy skirts, and she had to bite her lips together to stop a smile.

But the smile quickly faded as Cainnech’s words sank in. Had he been suffering for her sake all this time, while she’d been feeling sorry for herself in ostentatious silence, blaming him and his poor judgment for every stumble and every splash of mud?

Lasrua had not even thought of it, and Cainnech had seen it at once. That was the sort of heart she had. Hetty and Gwynn had it too. Lasrua wondered what a lady had to do to become good. She would have traded her exotic beauty for that.

Cainnech stepped back and asked her brightly, “You’ve had your supper then? But you’ll be wanting a wee bite anyway, it’s been hours!”

“No, I—I—” Lasrua fumbled for a polite way to refuse.

'No, I--I--'

“Ach, you’re just wanting a pillow and aught else, aren’t you, dear love?” Cainnech beamed softly at her as if her awkward refusal were a fine compliment. “Anyway I’ll just pour you a mug of ale.”

She saw Lasrua open her mouth and silenced her with a sly wag of her finger.

“You may drink it or no and never think of the waste, for Aengus is ever my helper when it comes to emptying mugs and cleaning plates, bless his soul!”

Lasrua looked back to Aengus. The thing that was swelling in her chest was trying to say, “He is mine too,” but nothing came out except a painful smile and a couple of unexpected tears, which she immediately dried.

Cainnech bustled off to find a mug, but she called over her shoulder towards the back of the hall, “Artur! What’s keeping you, man? Come greet our guests!”

Oh! Lasrua had forgotten there was another uncle. She had just started to feel at ease, too.

Lasrua had forgotten there was another uncle.

A timorous male voice called back, “But Magnus is scared!”

Cainnech shook her head while she poured the ale. “Then put Magnus in his basket and come by your own self!”

The man hesitated. “Who is it?”

“It’s your nephew Aengus and his lady! And he brought Domnall! You’re remembering Domnall, the lad?”

That seemed to decide the man. Lasrua heard a scuffling of small limbs and a male crooning over what she supposed was the baby whose sleep Cainnech had been worried about in the first minutes, and whose rest had been utterly disregarded in the clamorous greetings that followed.

Lasrua was a little ruffled, for she had been supposing all along that Oenucan was Cainnech’s husband. She made up her mind that if Uncle Artur was in charge of the baby, he was presumably the father. But Lasrua was about to get more than a little ruffled.

A burly blond man stepped through one of the hangings, carrying not a baby, but an animal—a big animal—the biggest hare that Lasrua had ever seen.

The biggest hare that Lasrua had ever seen.

This monster, Lasrua decided, could only be the result of taking a hare when it was just a kit and thenceforth feeding it absolutely everything it desired. It was no wonder Oenucan begrudged Aengus his horses’ fodder.

The biggest hare that Lasrua had ever seen.

“Ach, Artur!” Cainnech sighed. “I told you to leave him in his basket!”

“He’ll behave,” Artur promised, but the hare was already squirming in his arms and drumming on his belly with his hind feet. Lasrua could not imagine what sort of basket could hold the animal when the big man plainly couldn’t. In a flash the hare slipped out of Artur’s arms and bounded to the floor.

The hare slipped out of Artur's arms and bounded to the floor.

“Magnus!” Domnall cried, finally awake. “You still have Magnus!”

He dropped to one knee, perhaps hoping he could catch the hare on his mad dash through the hall, but the hare had one idea in his little brain, and that was Lasrua’s lap.

He was so heavy that he slid her a few inches to the right when he landed—rug and elf and hare and all—and the weight of his fat body on his little feet made painful dents in her thighs.

“Artur!” Cainnech wailed. “Now look what he’s done!”

“Magnus!” Artur pleaded. “What’s got into your head?”

Lasrua could not think of any polite, good-​hearted thing to do besides smile and say, “Ach, I love animals!”

'Ach, I love animals!'

She heard Aengus choke beside her. She looked up and caught his eye, and his grimacing face turned purple with the effort of holding in his laughter. Henceforth she knew she would be hearing his falsetto, “Ach, I love animals!” every time she stepped in dog droppings or she turned up the edge of her mattress to find a rat. She would make him pay for this. Somehow the anticipation of that made her present discomfort almost bearable.

“What’s the matter with you?” Artur asked miserably of his pet, though he made no attempt to retrieve him.

'What's the matter with you?'

Meanwhile Magnus turned around and around in Lasrua’s lap, sniffing her from chin to knees—no doubt astounded by his first contact with an elf. Lasrua gingerly patted him with the flat of her palm. Magnus was a buck in his prime, and his fur reeked of male musk. She knew her cloak would be the center of attention of every hound in Scotland for days.

“I never saw him do that before,” Artur whimpered, unmanned by the treachery of his pet. “He never likes strangers.”

Magnus planted his front paws on Lasrua’s bosom so he could reach high enough to sniff her forehead. Lasrua smiled as if she were delighted and discreetly wrestled him back down.

“Rua has a way with animals,” Aengus said, having made a miraculous recovery from his choking mirth. “But it’s an odd thing, I’m not denying,” he added thoughtfully. “For it’s usually cats and dogs who take notice of her. I’ve never seen a hare who was guessing she’s a friend to small creatures.”

'But it's an odd thing, I'm not denying.'

Artur thought that over for a moment before turning to Cainnech and saying smugly, “That is just what I’m wearying myself to tell you, woman: Magnus is as clever as any dog. He’s knowing things, he is.”

Magnus turned himself around on Lasrua’s lap and stooped over to smell down the front of her knees—thereby lifting his rump to her face and showing off a pair of testicles so prodigious that she could almost believe a single buck had repopulated the world with hares after the Flood.

“It’s but one thing I’m knowing,” Cainnech retorted from behind the curtain, where she was stripping a bed, “and it’s that Magnus is knowing his manners better than you are, man.”

Lasrua patted the hare’s hind end, trying to squash his rump back down. The Scots, she decided, had fearsomely strange notions of manners.

Aengus must have noticed her predicament, for she could hear him wheezing in his attempts not to laugh out loud, but he made no move to rescue her. She resolved to smother him with a pillow when next he slept.

“And you, Aengus?” Cainnech warned. “How are you wanting your uncle to greet your lady if you aren’t introducing her?”

“Ach! The magnificence of Magnus has rendered me speechless as usual!” Aengus said in a suspiciously shaky voice. “Rua, love, this is being my mother’s eldest brother, my Uncle Artur.”

'Rua, love, this is being my mother's eldest brother.'

The big man folded his arm over his belly like a boy and bowed to her. “God be with you, Rua. Welcome to Drumdunaidh.”

Magnus flopped his hindquarters down on Lasrua’s lap and scratched his ear.

Lasrua smiled stupidly up at Artur, trying to summon enough dignity to hazard a Gaelic reply in spite of the long ears flapping before her face.

But Aengus interrupted her with an “Ach!” that she had come to recognize as his “Ach!” of dismay. Cainnech was just coming out from behind the curtain with an armful of rumpled blankets.

“You’re not making up your own bed for us, are you, love?” Aengus asked her.

“Fie! And where else should I be putting you?”

“I was thinking Rua might have my uncle’s bed. And Domnall and I shall take the bunks.”

Cainnech stopped and stared at him, stroking the blankets over the back of her arm as she reflected.

Lasrua looked up. Aengus was scrupulously looking anywhere but down, and she could not see much of his face from this angle. But she could see that it was red.

Meanwhile Artur sat down on the bench beside her, making it creak and quake.

“You’re knowing,” Cainnech said thoughtfully to Aengus, “that in this house we don’t hold by eating supper before saying grace.”

“Aye, love,” Aengus said in a tight voice. “No more do I in mine.”

“It’s glad I am to hear it.”

'It's glad I am to hear it.'

Cainnech turned away with a satisfied smile—suddenly looking less like a pigeon than like a cat with a few feathers still clinging to its chin—before slipping behind the curtain to dump her armful of blankets back on the bed.

Lasrua was a little dizzy. She had not understood much of that exchange, except that it had seemed for a moment she was to have been bedded down beside Aengus. What a misunderstanding that would have been!

“I never knew him to do that before,” Artur said mournfully at her side.

She blinked at him, trying desperately to guess what had just happened, before she realized he was talking about his hare.

“Would you like to have him?” she asked. Oh please, oh please?

'Would you like to have him?'

Artur turned to her. His broad pink face wore an expression of bovine stupidity, but the lines around his small eyes were ever-​changing and unreadable—now sad, now wry, now wise. The color of his irises shifted as she stared.

Lasrua remembered Cainnech’s long look at Aengus, and she wondered now whether any of his kin had the celebrated “second sight.” She had always scoffed at the notion—if the elves did not have it, surely men could not—but she had the uneasy sense that Artur was seeing down inside of her, past all her defenses, as easily as Cainnech had looked upon distant hills through wooden walls.

What he said next would long make her believe he had.

“If he’s loving me,” he said, “he’ll come back to me on his own.”

Lasrua lowered her eyes, preventing him from seeing any more. Domnall was kneeling at her feet now, roughing up the hare’s fur with a boyish disregard for the gamey stink. She could see Aengus’s boot toes just beyond him. Had Aengus heard? Or was she simply so self-​absorbed that she imagined every word ever spoken in her presence had something to do with her? She dared not look up.

“How long are you staying, Aengus?” Artur asked. “I could butcher a lamb or a kid tomorrow.”

“Aye,” Oenucan snarled, “and why not a bloody calf while you’re at it?”

“So I will,” Artur said placidly, “if they’re staying long enough to eat it. How long, Aengus?”

'How long, Aengus?'

“Ach, I wouldn’t butcher more than a couple of old hens,” Aengus said. “It’s but a day or two we’re thinking to spend. We’ve business in the King’s city. I was wanting to ask for the loan of your banner and shield, Uncle. It’s our best chance of making it through the hills unmolested.”

Domnall’s head whipped up at this revelation. He and Aengus had already quarreled when Aengus had made him remove his black and gray scarf at the border. Now Aengus would be asking him to ride under the colors of an enemy clan.

Lasrua looked at Domnall’s hand where it lay still on Magnus’s fur. It was a boyish hand yet, but it was a big hand, out of proportion with the rest of him. Domnall would be a big man.

“Of course you may have them,” Artur said, as easily as he had offered to slaughter one of his flock to feed them.

“Fie!” Cainnech called as she tramped past with an armful of dirty blankets. “What you shall do, man, is ride with them.”

“Of course I shall ride with you,” Artur amended.

“Aye, and leave me with your work as well as my own,” Oenucan muttered.

'Aye, and leave me with your work as well as my own.'

Aengus waved at Artur’s broad belly and said, “But think of all the fodder you’ll save!”

This time Oenucan did not laugh.

“You needn’t ride all the way to the city, mind,” Aengus said to Artur. “But if you could get us safely through to the coast, Uncle, it’s grateful I would be.”

“And it’s grateful I would be,” Cainnech said as she tramped the other way with an armful of creamy white linens—blessedly clean!—“if you would take Magnus away, Domnall, and Aengus, if you would give that poor young lady the cup of ale I poured for her ages ago.”

Domnall scrambled up and heaved Magnus off Lasrua’s lap, and Aengus gave her a most winsomely sheepish smile before fetching her cup.

“And might I be helping myself now that I’ve done my duty?” Aengus called back to Cainnech.

“What’s ours is yours,” Artur replied, neither gravely nor heartily nor lightly, but simply, as if such things went without saying but were the better for being said.

Lasrua decided Artur was Cainnech’s husband. Two such good-​hearted people were made for one another—even if that fact did not promise much happiness for her.

Artur caught her staring at him, and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkled deeply in a smile that scarcely touched his mouth.

Lasrua hurriedly hid her face in her cup of ale.

Aengus and Artur fell into a discussion of roads, bridges, tolls, and the names of towns she did not know. Domnall sat on the dirty straw and pulled Magnus onto his lap to be petted and ruffled. Oenucan fed sticks to the fire—the spindliest ones, Lasrua thought sleepily, as if he begrudged them even the heat.

Lasrua blinked her heavy eyelids and swayed with every jerk of Artur’s big body on the chest beside her. Somehow his warm presence relaxed her—even his heavy odor: male sweat and musk and fur, mingled man and hare.

And Aengus stood above her, so Aengus-​like, with his brisk movements and his chatter, his clinking hips… so like the tinkling of bridles and bits…

“Whoa!” Aengus halted her dream horses in mid-​dream and lifted the half-​empty mug of ale from her slackening hand. Lasrua sensed that she had been dozing off and sat up straighter than ever, blinking wildly in an attempt to appear alert.

Aengus gave her a quick smile, but he turned to explain to Artur, “She’s not had a proper night of sleep since Saturday night, poor love.”

“Then she shall have a proper night of sleep here,” Artur said to him, working up a very small frown in a warning that he would not be gainsaid.

'To be sure.'

“To be sure,” Cainnech said as she returned from the back of the hall, “we won’t let her go until she’s had at least two. For we can hardly count tonight.”

“Hardly!” Oenucan huffed.

Aengus grinned down at Lasrua, cheerfully admitting himself outnumbered. He held out his free arm to her, helping to pull her to her feet.

“Go with Cainnech, love, and I’ll come to see you’re good and snug in just a short while.”

“Good night, Rua,” Artur said with his usual simplicity. Domnall waved Magnus’s furry paw and squeaked, “Good night, Rua!” and Marcan—who had appeared out of nowhere with their saddle bags piled around his feet—added a shy “Good night” of his own. Oenucan never stopped scowling, but even he smoothed back his hair and muttered, “God rest you, child,” in a voice that was oddly tender beneath its rasp.

Cainnech put her arm around Lasrua and pulled her through the vaguely human-​shaped hole that thousands of comings and goings had worn through the tattered curtain. Lasrua’s last glimpse of Aengus was of him draining the cup of ale he had rescued from her limp hand.

“But first,” Cainnech whispered eagerly, “let’s just peek at the babe!”

She stopped Lasrua beside the big bed. Enough firelight shone through the holes in the curtain to reveal the outlines of a surprisingly handsome cradle beside it, and a small bundle inside. Lasrua could scarcely see which end was its head, but she could at least hear its deep breathing, like an endless succession of tiny sighs.

“Muirchertach is being the name of him,” Cainnech whispered. “Born in the harvest-​time, and already crawling like a bug!”

Lasrua remembered the dirty straw on the floor and thought the comparison was apt.

'He sleeps well.'

“He sleeps well,” she ventured.

“Aye,” Cainnech giggled, “just like his Da. In this house a body has to sleep with his ears closed!”

She passed an arm around Lasrua’s waist and pulled their bodies tightly together. Her honey-​brown head rested on Lasrua’s breast, for it reached no higher.

“Thrice was I brought to bed before my time,” she said, “before the Blessed Mother sent my little lad to me.”

Lasrua felt the fierce love trembling through Cainnech’s body. Certain of nothing except that she was likely to do the wrong thing, she laid her arm over the woman’s shoulders and gave her a tentative squeeze. Cainnech nestled closer.

“I pray you never know my sorrow,” she said, her voice dark and deep. “But I pray you know all my joy. I can wish no greater blessing on you than that.”

Lasrua did not know what to say. She did not know what she had done to deserve such confidences. She feared Cainnech still believed she was Aengus’s lady. She had not understood everything about the bed.

“But you will!” Cainnech said abruptly, laughing and sniffling at once.

She tugged Lasrua back into the farthest corner of the hall. A little roomlike space had been made out of a rickety dividing wall on one side and a tall wooden cupboard on the other. A lamp burned, revealing a freshly made bed behind a moth-​eaten curtain.

“You’ll be happy,” Cainnech said, smiling up at Lasrua with a birdlike tilt to her head. “You’ll be blessed.”

'You'll be blessed.'

“How do you know?” Lasrua asked. Oh, if she had the second sight after all!

“I’m not needing the second sight to see that,” Cainnech twinkled, startling Lasrua into a jump she tried to smooth over with a cough. Had she said that last bit out loud?

“With Aengus the first sight will do,” Cainnech explained. “Some men are a-​wearing their hearts on a silver chain around their necks for all to see—or putting them on the backs of horses,” she added, nudging Lasrua with the back of her hand, “and parading them up and down. And some men—like that man of mine—are a-​locking them up in a chest, and burying the chest beneath the hearth. And then pulling down the house on top of it and standing guard on the pile!”

She laughed at her little joke, and Lasrua smiled stupidly. So was Oenucan her husband or was Artur? By now it would have seemed rude to ask. And anyway, her more pressing problem was that Cainnech was mistaken about her and Aengus!

“But we’re—we’re not…” Lasrua attempted to explain. Not what?

Cainnech patted her sleeve to silence her.

Cainnech patted her sleeve to silence her. “It’s being soon, it’s being soon,” she soothed. “But if there’s one thing that father of his”—she drew a cross in the air—“taught him, it’s how to get back up as soon as he’s knocked down.”

She turned away from Lasrua and went to the little chest in the corner, shifting the lamp and basin and other things upon it for no apparent reason, for they had already been tidily arranged.

“And it’s a good thing,” she added in a darker tone. “Look what grieving has made of his father.” She traced another cross in the air.

Then she turned back to Lasrua and said brightly, “Here’s water for washing your face, and I’ll just go get your bag so you may be brushing your hair. Are you having a nightgown?”

She pursed her lips and looked Lasrua up and down—mostly up—as if wondering whether anything she owned would fit her.

'I have.'

Lasrua assured her, “I have,” though she doubted she would dare change into it, considering that only an awkward corner and a tattered curtain separated her from a hall full of male eyes.



Cainnech gave her another squeeze as she bustled past, and she cracked open a cupboard door as she went out. “I cleared off a shelf for you in here. Make yourself at home!”

Lasrua remembered to say, “Thank you!” before it was too late.

Then she was alone, after a fashion, though there was no door to close, and she still heard the peaceable rumble of voices around the fire.

She removed her headscarf and cloak and laid them on the bed. The linen was as clean as it had appeared in Cainnech’s arms, but now Lasrua saw that it was coarse stuff, and little rips and holes had been neatly stitched shut. The blankets were of rough wool, with patches. No one had even bothered to stitch up the moth holes on the bed curtain.

No, she told herself firmly. She turned away from the bed and closed her eyes. The old ugly thoughts were beginning to seep out of her again like the black smoke that wreathed the rafters of the old hall. She had such a habit of feeling sorry for herself, they could always find a crack.

She went to the chest and poured water into the little basin Cainnech had provided. She tried not to notice that it looked more like a cooking dish than a wash basin. She told herself that her water would be no less refreshing if her drinking cup had a chipped rim. The handle of the old pitcher had been repaired sturdily enough to let her pick it up and pour, and that was all that mattered.

It was the pitcher that did her in.

It was the pitcher that did her in. It was the little flowers etched into its surface and colored with a wash of pale, chalky paint. Someone, long ago, had been moved by the same spirit that moved her father, and had painted these tiny blooms on a clay pitcher that was not worth a bent penny before it had been so consecrated. They clustered around the base, like the shy, low-​growing flowers they depicted, so that one was likely to miss them unless one picked up the pitcher and poured.

Perhaps it was Cainnech’s prettiest piece of pottery, and that was why she had been given it. Perhaps Aengus’s mama had filled it and carried it as a girl, when it was new, and now, for a night, it was hers.

Gasping, face quivering, Lasrua braced her wet hands on the edge of the chest and let her braid swing low. She had to let the muscles of her throat clench and spasm, for it was that or sob.

She was both revolted by this place and ashamed to sleep within its love-​hallowed walls. The bed was not fine enough for her and the pitcher was too holy for her to touch. She was so tired. She was so confused. O Mother, she wanted to go home!

Just when she thought she would sob aloud, she heard a slight commotion by the fire: a conclusive male grunt and a body heaving itself off the creaking chest. The conversation closed its ranks, with Domnall’s high voice at its center now that he was the most honored guest remaining by the fire.

She heard the curtain with its man-​shaped hole flap against the body of a man, and a pair of boots ambled through the dirty straw towards her corner. Aengus was coming.

Oh, she had forgotten Aengus had promised to check up on her! She had forgotten he had not yet said goodnight! She still had that to look forward to. A fierce elation rose up in her, mighty as a wild goose flapping its wings.

Aengus tapped his knuckles against the side of the cupboard and called softly, “Are you awake?”

Lasrua called back, “No!”


Aengus sighed. “Love, I was telling that joke when I was four.”

Lasrua pressed her fist against her mouth to stifle her convulsive giggles.

“Only tell me,” Aengus said wearily, “are you decent?”

She could not resist. “No!”

Aengus thunked his elbows down on the low chest outside and rested his forehead in his hands. “Blessed Mother, grant me patience!” he prayed.

Lasrua laughed and flounced out of her corner to join him.

Lasrua laughed and flounced out of her corner to join him.

“There now,” he said approvingly. “You’re looking a mite raffish, but not what I’d call indecent.”

“And you?” she asked, swatting at his coarsely stubbled face.

He had removed his cloak and his gear, and he was only everyday Aengus again, but something about him, she thought, had changed. Some of the majesty of his silver helmet had remained behind after he’d lifted it from his head. Some of the thing that made her want to lower her eyes.

“Your job is to look beautiful,” he said, deftly deflecting her swatting hand by raising his forearm like a shield. “My job is to look mean as sin. Speaking of, my Uncle Artur wanted me to tell you he thinks you’re very pretty.”

Lasrua laughed, but the simple compliment warmed her heart.

“I told him to tell you himself,” Aengus shrugged, “but you’d have thought I was asking him to shove his arm into a fire. I told him sending another man to flatter a pretty girl was like sowing a field for another man to reap, but he wouldn’t see reason. So here I am to make hay.”

“And he hasn’t even seen my long ears and my tail yet.”

'And he hasn't even seen my long ears and my tail yet.'

Aengus laughed, and Lasrua was delighted. Aengus laughed easily, but there was laughter, and then there were jokes he wished he’d thought of first.

But when their laughter had faded, he lifted his hand to her chin, turning her head this way and that in the lamplight. Her pulse beat high in her throat until he dropped his hand.

“You might leave your hair braided so, aye?” he said softly, with a pained frown between his eyes. “’Tisn’t that they wouldn’t love you just as much as ever, but it would be ill for them if the neighboring folk knew they’d been entertaining an elf in their hall. An elf is the next thing to a fairy.”

“I don’t mind,” she assured him. They’d already planned to hide her ears throughout this journey. But they hadn’t planned on visiting his family.

“’Tisn’t that I’m ashamed of you, love,” he added, looking genuinely worried that she thought so. “You’re knowing I’m not.”

'You're knowing I'm not.'

She laid her hand on the back of his arm. “I know.”

“I’d be showing your lovely ears off like jewels, if it were up to me,” he said. After a moment’s thought he added, “But not your tail.”

Lasrua laughed and smacked his shoulder, and this time he let her blow fall where she aimed it.

“I deserved that,” he admitted, grinning. “But you still owe me for the compliment.”

“You may tell Artur that I am flattered, and I think Magnus is a remarkable hare. I suppose he should like that better than a compliment for himself.”

“Eh,” Aengus said thoughtfully. “You might be surprised.”

“That reminds me!” Lasrua leaned close to him and whispered, “Please tell me which one of them is married to Cainnech! Every time I start thinking it’s one, I think it must be the other.”

'Every time I start thinking it's one, I think it must be the other.'

“Oenucan, to be sure. Didn’t I mention it?”

“You never told me anything about them before tonight.”

Aengus looked down and traced the wood grain with the tip of his little finger. “I know.”

“Why was Oenucan so determined to get rid of us before Cainnech saw us?”

“Ach! He isn’t wanting the expense of us, mostly. But he has to be that way. Artur would give away his last crust of bread to a mouse who looked a mite thin, and Oenucan wouldn’t give a rind of cheese to a starving mother if the Lord God asked him as a personal favor. But they’re doing well enough with the two of them yoked together, and Cainnech’s hands on the plow.”

Aengus frowned and gouged at the old wood with his nail.

'I shouldn't have teased Oenucan about paying him for our lodging as I did.'

“I shouldn’t have teased Oenucan about paying him for our lodging as I did. I was angry at him for being rude to you. But it’s true about the cattle. My kin have treated him and Artur unfairly. There couldn’t be a raid into these lands without they came down the strath to rob my grandfather and my uncles. ’Twasn’t worth the trouble, for the little they came away with—and there was less every year—but they were punishing them because my mother had presumed to marry my father. The lord of the Eochaids had just married a red-​haired woman, but she was daughter of a lord, and never met her man till the day they wed. And my mother was… what you’re seeing here.”

He shifted his shoulders and glanced up at Lasrua through his hair.

“If his family didn’t like it,” she said, “it seems to me they should have punished your father for it instead.”

'It seems to me they should have punished your father for it instead.'

Aengus lowered his head. “Aye, they did,” he said quietly. “And their women punished my mother. But little they cared, the pair of them. They were mad with love. They didn’t need anyone else. Eh, perhaps little me, when I came along.” He looked up at Lasrua, wearing a thin smile. “I was a dapper wee man in those days, and I’m told they doted on me. Only long enough for me to develop a taste for being doted on, though.” He gave Lasrua a weak grin, trying to tease. “I don’t remember her, I mean. I was barely walking when she died. You would have to ask my father about her.” He lowered his eyes again and picked at the wood grain. He added, “If you care.”

'If you care.'

Of course she cared! She wanted to know everything about her. She wanted to know everything about the dapper wee man he had been, and the parts of his past that he was proud of, and that parts that made him sad.

But instead of saying so, Lasrua only said, “Or I could ask Artur. He must remember her, mustn’t he?”

“Ach, aye! But if you’re wanting to know the story of their love you’ll have to ask my Da. I’m thinking a love story is best told by the man who lived it. I know it’s difficult to imagine, but my Da was quite a dashing fellow in his day. If you’re catching him in just the right mood… Ach, what did I say?”

Lasrua pressed her hand against her mouth and shook her head. He’d reminded her of the last “love story” she had heard from the mouth of the man who was supposedly living it. One had to admit that Malcolm lied in grand style.

Aengus rubbed her arm. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking how you’ve lost your mother, too. And you remember her and grieve for her. That’s so much harder, to be sure.”

Lasrua was relieved to be given an excuse. And then she realized she was hiding behind the memory of her mother to avoid admitting Malcolm had broken her heart. She was abominable.

“If it’s any consolation,” Aengus said with exquisite tenderness, “your father is still a remarkably dashing fellow.”

Lasrua choked and burst out laughing. Aengus leaned lazily upon the chest and grinned up at her.

She gave his shoulder another smack, complaining, “You never let me wallow in my misery!”

“And you’re walloping me for that, young lady?”

'And you're walloping me for that, young lady?'

“No! The smack,” she said after a flash of inspiration, “was for not warning me about Magnus!”

Aengus laughed.

“You warned me about Oenucan’s temper, and you warned me that Artur isn’t as simple-​minded as he seems, but you never mentioned Cainnech, and you never said a word about that hare!”

Aengus laid his head down on his folded arms to stifle his laughter. “The look on your face!”

“I love animals!” she squeaked. “Even Domnall knew about Magnus. You must have sworn him to silence.”

“Now, that isn’t true,” Aengus said, still chuckling. “I never made up my mind to come here till we were finishing our supper and I saw there was still light. Domnall was just too tired to get excited about anything, I daresay.”

Aengus was still wearing an easy smile, but Lasrua’s mouth fell flat. She felt only a cavernous stillness inside herself where there had been such fluttering tumult only moments before. Now there was only the lonely beating of her heart. She didn’t understand. Until abruptly she did.

Lasrua's mouth fell flat.

“But you’ve never mentioned them to me at all. I’d supposed they were almost strangers to you when you said we’d come here tonight.”

Her voice sounded plaintive to her own ears, but she couldn’t help it. All those hours spent sitting side-​by-​side on the turf or at the dinner table, all those walks, all those rides… and he had never mentioned his mother’s family, whom he evidently loved. There were whole parts of him she didn’t know.

He was only everyday Aengus after all, with his easy laughter and his easy smile, who never refused a request for a favor, who liked to flirt with pretty girls, and who called every female person “love” or “darling” with real but impersonal warmth. Lasrua wondered how well Cainnech truly understood him. Aengus wore his silver on his sleeves, but he kept his heart locked away from inquisitive eyes.

“Mayhap as I thought they are better appreciated in person,” Aengus said. He was no longer smiling.

'Mayhap as I thought they are better appreciated in person.'

“They’re lovely in person,” Lasrua assured him. Aengus relaxed a little. She added, “Except perhaps for Oenucan.”

Aengus chuckled. “Oenucan is best appreciated upwind and from a great distance, I concede.” Then he licked his thumb and rubbed it over the wood he had gouged, sighing. “Love, I never heard aught but ill of my mother’s family all my life. I never knew them at all till I was thirteen and ran off the first time.”

He leaned back on one elbow and turned to look up along the rafters of the old hall.

“My grandmother was still alive then. She was stone blind, but no one was ever so happy to see me as she was to put her hands on my face. I thought I’d fallen through the earth and come out the other side, where everyone had red hair and I was everyone’s favorite boy.”

He swallowed loudly and fell silent, and Lasrua let him reminisce in peace. She heard Domnall talking and laughing by the fire, emboldened by his lapful of hare. Lasrua could imagine it was young Aengus’s voice she was hearing. Perhaps Aengus was imagining it too.

“Then my Da found me.”

Aengus turned back to Lasrua and leaned both elbows on the chest, but his head hung low between his shoulders.

“I told him I wanted to stay here.” He snorted, and a strange smile was just visible behind his hair. “Thought he was going to kill me. Took Artur and Oenucan both to drag him off me. So happened he beat me so hard he broke my arm.”

Aengus smoothed his hair back on both sides of his face and then propped his hand on his chin and smiled up at Lasrua. Not an easy smile.

“And so happened my Da came home with one less tooth than he set out with, aye? And that summer my kin came down the strath, and they rounded up the cattle, slaughtered all the sheep they couldn’t carry, burned the hayricks, and flattened the corn. That was the summer my old grandmother died. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have anyway, but we’ll never know. All over a tooth one of my uncles knocked out. And because they’d presumed to offer me a home.”

Aengus straightened and folded his arms over the edge of the chest.

“So there’s why I don’t talk about my mother’s family, love. Not because I’m ashamed of them. Not because I’ve nothing to tell. Because they’ve come to so much sorrow because of me and mine.”

'So there's why I don't talk about my mother's family, love.'

Lasrua nodded mutely, mortified at her childish pique of a few minutes earlier.

Aengus laid his fingers on the back of her arm. “And that’s why you’ll be forgiving my Uncle Oenucan for his rudeness, won’t you, love? He’d rather entertain a pack of ravenous fairies than me, I daresay.”

Lasrua nodded again.

“If they knew you were Malcolm’s wife…” His face paled, and he laid his forehead in his hand. “Christ Jesus…” he whispered.

“I am not Malcolm’s wife.”

“You’re right,” he said shakily, and then he lifted his head and managed to smile. “No more than I am, by God. And I don’t like to speak for other men, but I’m thinking Marcan and Domnall aren’t Malcolm’s wife either. So I expect we’re safe.”

Lasrua tittered, and Aengus laughed.

“Mind you, I’ve had my doubts about Marcan…” he teased. Then, in an impulsive motion, he grabbed her hand. “You’re not sorry I brought you?”

Lasrua shook her head. At that moment she wanted to be nowhere else.

At that moment she wanted to be nowhere else.

“I know it’s an ungodly hour…” he said.

“But you had your heart set on sleeping here.”

He grinned suddenly, pleased by her quick understanding. Lasrua only wished she had understood on her own.

“You do like them?” he asked.

“I think they’re all lovely. Even Oenucan. A little.”

He squeezed her hand and let it go, evidently relieved. “I’m glad. They’re all fond of you already.”

Lasrua lowered her eyes for a moment, wondering whether Aengus had cleared up the confusion about their relationship. It seemed he had not mentioned Malcolm. She feared they were fond of her under false pretenses.

“Aengus, I think they would like anyone you brought to meet them.”

“Mayhap they would. But they know I wouldn’t bring just anyone.”

'But they know I wouldn't bring just anyone.'

Lasrua chewed her lip and risked peeking up at him.

“But they’ve seen enough of you to start liking you for your own sake,” he said. “Cainnech is beside herself, and my Uncle Artur is fairly smitten.”

“And Oenucan can just about tolerate the sight of me,” Lasrua teased.

Aengus smiled. “Fie! He said you were a fetching thing, which means he’s liking the sight of you just fine. And he said you’re a saint for putting up with Magnus the way you did. They’ll all be fast in love with you by morning. I don’t know who wouldn’t be.”

The comment might have passed once over her like a rough hand, leaving her but slightly ruffled, if only Aengus hadn’t seen her lashes flutter.

“Ach, I’m sorry!” he said with real tenderness, and his impulsive hand went out to touch her arm again. This time Lasrua pulled away, and his hand flopped onto the wood.

This time she had no excuse, however craven. This time she could not hide the wound behind another. She drew back, out of the lamplight, but Aengus had seen.

“I’m sorry, love. I’ve done it again!” he sighed. “I should learn to keep my mouth shut when I’m tired.”

He staggered after her, but he followed only as far as the corner of the tall cupboard, respecting a door that was not there. He leaned one arm against it, but the other he stretched out to her, reaching through the invisible doorway. Lasrua let him touch her sleeve.

“It’s not because of you if he doesn’t. He isn’t capable of loving anyone.”

“I wish—I’d never met him!” Lasrua whimpered.

Aengus closed his eyes. “So do I!”

She no longer even wanted Malcolm, but he was still spoiling moments like these. She wanted Aengus to go away so he wouldn’t see her blubbering. And she wanted Malcolm to vanish from the earth so that Aengus could come inside.

He reached out to her.

Aengus leaned his shoulder against the sharp corner of the cupboard—the farthest he seemed to think he could go—and reached out to her. He was near enough now that he was able to pull her closer and gather her against him with one arm, tight against his side.

Lasrua shuddered with relief—with ecstasy—with joy. She had not known it until now, but this was just what she had wanted for days and days and days. Sheltering shadows and distant sounds and this intimacy, like nothing friendship or courtesy or gallantry had offered them before. They’d had to ride hard for two days to take this single step.

Lasrua wriggled her arms free and wrapped them around him. She laid her head on his shoulder, and then she was just where she had wanted to be for days and days.

But innocent maiden that she was, she’d been so far from guessing how it would feel. She marveled over how perfectly they fit together and how acutely she could sense his body through his clothes. How different it was from hers! How hard where she was soft, how broad where she was slender, how narrow where she was broad. She even had a strange, diffuse awareness of her own skin: a flush of warmth stealing over her breasts and belly and thighs; a sensitivity to the weave of her linen shift, which suddenly seemed so coarse.

Aengus still held her with one arm, but his muscles were rigid as she draped herself and clung. He leaned his shoulder against the corner of that cupboard like it was the last thing holding him to earth. Lasrua leaned away, trying to drag him free, but he seemed to think she was losing her balance and clutched her tighter.

Oh, then her legs wobbled truly. For a moment she let him hold her there, helpless and crushed, simply savoring the pleasure of surrendering to his strength. But she felt a sway in his hips when she shifted her weight, and she knew the next time she moved he would come away with her. She stepped back firmly on one heel, and away he came.

O Aengus, O Aengus. He was in her room, and nothing was holding them back now. His two arms were tight around her, and his breathing was heavy—and even his breath was so different from hers! A man’s breath, loud and deep.

His two arms were tight around her.

She turned her head on his shoulder and brought her lips up against his collar, her nose up against his neck. She was dizzy with his scent, suddenly sensitive to all its layers—salt and dirt and sweat, horse and leather, oil and iron, and some acrid smell, like pollen or sap.

She nuzzled closer until her lips brushed the skin of his neck. It was hot and damp and covered with goosebumps. He gasped, and his fingers twisted into the clingy wool of her gown.

She wanted to kiss him but she did not know how to start. She stroked her soft lips over his neck, but she was afraid to form them into a kiss. She did not know how to kiss a man’s neck, either, but she knew it was more intimate still and ought not to come first. She needed him to help her. He had only to turn his head.

“Rua,” he whispered.


His beard brushed her cheek, and she wondered how his stubble would feel rasping over the skin of her breasts or belly—those places Cat and Flann complained were so very sensitive to beards. Goosebumps prickled over her as she wondered, and she wriggled within her shift to scratch herself with the linen—but she thought she would not complain.

“Rua,” he repeated. His fingers twisted in her gown again, but now his strong hands were trying to pull their bodies apart. He leaned his head back as far as it could go—away from her breath and her lips—and Lasrua finally wilted away from him. Cold air soaked through her gown and into her breasts and belly and quaking thighs.

“Rua, love,” he whispered, still breathing deep.

Now that his hand was free, he pushed his hair away from his eye and looked steadily at her. His face was red and damp.

“You’re being tired, and I’m being tired, and I’m thinking it’s past time we should both of us be abed.”


'You're tired.'

“You’re tired,” he repeated, “and I’m tired, and we’ve had more adventures and less sleep in the last three days than we’ve had in the last three months. We don’t know what we’re about.”

He was pushing her away. Gently rejecting her. Offering her the excuse of overwhelming fatigue.

“You’re right,” she said, forcing a smile. “Either one of us could be Malcolm’s wife and we wouldn’t even know it right now.”

“Or both of us.”

“Or both of us.” She spluttered with half-​fledged laughter. “Or all four of us.”

“Or Magnus,” Aengus suggested, working up a lopsided grin.

Lasrua grit her teeth and smiled. “If Magnus is Malcolm’s wife, I wish them all happiness!”

'I wish them all happiness!'

She thanked the Christian God she still had her pride to see her through this. And she was grateful she didn’t know how to kiss. He would never know she had wanted to try.

Aengus chuckled. “Aye, if it comes to that, I wish them well. Go to sleep now, dear love, in the warm bed Cainnech has made for you. She’ll be scolding me for keeping you.”

He lifted her braid away from her breast and ran his hand down its length, straightening it senselessly, as Cainnech had straightened the basin and the lamp.

“God rest you and keep you,” he said. “And I promise you, you’ll be feeling better tomorrow. For weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Lasrua nodded. She sucked on her lip to keep her face from quivering, and she tasted the sweat of Aengus’s neck.

Only a minute more of this and she could be alone. To weep. To weep. She might yet find satisfaction in Dunfermline. But Cainnech lacked even the first sight. She had little hope of joy.

Whatever had risen up in her breast was falling now, broken-​winged and battered. But the fierce, wild thing it was still tried to hang on by its talons, and it was ripping her up inside, all the long way down.

It was ripping her up inside, all the long way down.