Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

Gaethine was fast asleep.

Aed had clanked the bolt, scuffed his boots, and coughed into his sleeve, but Gaethine was fast asleep. So much for coming home a day early.

He dawdled and fidgeted at first. Checked the sputum cup for blood and found only spit. Wondered vaguely why Gaethine had taken his small shrine down from the wall. Noticed the votive candle had been burning a while.

The votive candle had been burning a while.

Aed sized up the puddle of congealed wax and attempted to calculate how long Gaethine had been abed. He pictured him sitting up on his elbow and lighting the flame with that funny little frown of concentration between his eyes, and then cuddling down beneath his blankets to lie as Aed found him now: sprawled on his belly, with his arms cradling his pillow and his face turned towards the twinkling light.

He would have prayed for a while with his eyes open, Aed supposed, and then his heavy lids would have drooped…

Aed leaned closer.

He leaned closer to look at Gaethine’s lashes, so thick and black they might have been wet with ink. Close enough to feel Gaethine’s licorice-​scented warmth against his face. Close enough that Gaethine’s slumbering breath hissed past his ear like wind-​driven sand.

Aed stood back. He didn’t want to wake him after all. Gaethine needed his sleep. It was nonsensical, but it had been worth riding all evening and into the night just to see him getting it.

He didn't want to wake him after all.

Still, he didn’t like to go away without touching him. Just a brush of his hand over the dense curls piled on the back of his neck, warm and fragrant from sleep. Just a caress of the blanket—not even the body beneath, merely the blanket that sheltered it…

But that feathery touch was enough to wake Gaethine. He gasped, and his head flew off the pillow and hung there shaking. His eyes were pink and blinking and confused.

His eyes were pink and blinking and confused.

Aed’s heart seized with tenderness. “’Tis only my own self,” he whispered. “I wasn’t meaning to wake you.”

“What are you doing here?” Gaethine asked him hoarsely, still blinking. He breathed in startled pants.

“Decided to come home a day early. Thought I’d see what the mice are getting up to while the cat’s away. Congal back yet? I’ve not been down to the harbor.”

Gaethine slid one arm out from the beneath the blanket and rubbed his face. Afterwards he looked more like himself again, guarded and frowning. Aed felt a little pang of loss at the disappearance of the fawnlike creature he had startled awake.

“Showed up just after supper time,” Gaethine grumbled. “So drunk it took two men to push him up the stairs to bed. Maundering something about drowning you at the bottom of the sea and constructing a privy over your grave, with no indication he saw any flaw in this plan.”

'Showed up just after supper time.'

Aed grinned. “What did I do now?”

“Apparently you promised him there would be silver. Had to content himself with stealing a few kegs of wine.”

“I never promised him anything, the gowk. It’s up to him to win what he can.”

“He’ll have forgotten all about it in the morning,” Gaethine muttered. “What are you doing here? Didn’t you go to Ailen Dhuin after all?”

“Of course I did. Move over and I shall tell you all about it.”

Gaethine did not move. “How did you ever go all the way there and come back in three days?” he asked, scowling.

“Easily. A body could do it in two if he’s traveling light and can change horses. Lord Colban’s lady scraped up an early supper for Cuan and me, and we rode out straightaway after.”

“That was very rude of you. And dangerous.”

Aed laughed. “Fie! I’m not denying she was an impressive sight that one time with her sword belt and kirtle, but I think I could take her if it came to a duel.”

'I think I could take her if it came to a duel.'

Gaethine snorted but his scowl only deepened. “I don’t mean Lady Maire.”

“What? The wolves? Why, I could have had a wolfskin coat of my own!”

Gaethine closed his eyes and sighed. His face was lined with fatigue, but his scowl finally softened. His head wobbled over the pillow.

“If the pair of you are to be strutting around in unwashed wolfskins,” he grumbled, “I am moving out.”

Aed laughed. He considered telling Gaethine he’d hurried home simply because he’d missed him, but in spite of this glimpse of Gaethine’s grouchy good humor, he decided not to risk it. Gaethine did not let him talk about this thing between them at all.

Instead, he wheedled, “Supposing I had it washed every Quarter Day?”

Gaethine shook his head and coughed as if this hypothetical hide was already polluting the air.

“Ach, go on with you,” Aed said. “We never even saw a wolf. And I’m here now, so you might as well make use of me. Move over and let me in, man.”

Gaethine sighed. “Go up to bed, Aed.”

'Go up to bed, Aed.'

Aed was hurt. And it was hard to say what he said next, because it was like talking around those things he couldn’t say, hinting at their form. But he wanted it so badly.

“Only to talk,” he whispered.

“We can talk in the morning.”

Aed drew back. Gaethine would not meet his eyes, but he added grudgingly, “Tonight I’m tired.”

Then Aed knew Gaethine had not missed him as much as he had missed Gaethine. He could not imagine a state of fatigue that would make a lonely pillow his greater need. Even if he were dying.

Then Aed knew Gaethine had not missed him as much as he had missed Gaethine.

He swallowed in an attempt to strengthen his voice. “Aye, and you’re reminding me I never even meant to wake you. Forgive me.”

“You are forgiven,” Gaethine said, not unkindly.

He remained propped up on his elbow, looking awkward and exhausted. Was he waiting for Aed to leave before he would even allow himself to get comfortable again? Was this the same man who had lain back in his arms, unashamed and unguarded, in utter repose?

Aed could not bear it. He could not bear to walk out of that room as if last week had never happened—without the least act of tenderness—since acts were all they had.

“Good night, then,” he said.

'Good night, then.'

He leaned over the bed and tried to pull the blankets up cozily over Gaethine’s shoulder, tucking him in as best he could so long as Gaethine insisted on sitting up on his elbow.

But Gaethine hissed as soon as he gave the blanket a tug, and he hunched his head into his shoulders, as if Aed’s gentle touch—not even his hands, but the blanket beneath his hands!—tore at him like flaming knives.

Aed drew back, mortified. Then, hard after, came a boiling anger. He was going to make Gaethine talk about this. He just needed to catch his eye.

But Gaethine writhed his face into the pillow, as if the knives still sliced and the fires still burned. And Aed had a third thought that walloped him so hard he couldn’t spend a second considering it, but lunged at the bed and whipped back the blankets.

Gaethine hissed and writhed, but it was Aed who let out a howl of pain and staggered into the room, clutching at his head, trying to unsee the unspeakable thing he had just seen.

It was Aed who let out a howl of pain and staggered out into the room.

He’d seen men wounded in battle and how their wounds healed, and he’d seen the scars on Gaethine’s back, but somehow he’d never combined the two in his mind. He’d not thought how the skin would be violet and blue with bruising. How the stripes of the lashes would stand out in swollen ridges, or how the torn flesh would be choked with crusted black blood and watery ooze, or how the sheets would be spotted with red and brown where they had soaked and clung.

“You swore you wouldn’t do that any more!” Aed wailed, his voice ragged.

“I never swore anything,” Gaethine muttered.

Aed whipped around to face him. Gaethine was sitting up on his elbow, white-​lipped and shining with sweat.

“How long did you wait? The first night? The moment I crossed the hill? After everything I have done to try to save your life, the first thing you do once my back is turned is whip yourself half to death!”

'The first thing you do once my back is turned is whip yourself half to death!'

“You cannot fuck me back to health, Aed.”

“That is not what I’m trying to do!”

Gaethine leaned forward on his elbow. “What are you trying to do?” he shouted.

Aed panted. The anger of his first outrage was flagging now, and his legs were going shaky. He thought of what he’d seen and he felt like everything below his ribcage had dropped right out of him. He only wanted to fall to his knees beside the bed, lay his head on the blood-​spotted blankets, and sob.

“What are you trying to do?” Gaethine shouted again, unmoved.

'What are you trying to do?'

“I am trying to save your life!”

“And I am trying to save my soul!”

Aed drew his anger up beneath him again, but it was wobbly as a newborn colt. He was going to pitch face-​first onto the bed.

“What are you trying to say? That I seduced you, Saint Gaethine?”

'I seduced you, Saint Gaethine?'

Gaethine recovered some of his usual passionless composure, and it was more infuriating than that brief glimpse of his fury.

“No,” he said. “It is I who have introduced you to such sins as you were never even imagining. If I didn’t seduce you, I at least indulged you in lusts I should have been condemning.”

'I at least indulged you.'

“Who the devil are you to be indulging or not indulging me?” Aed howled. “You’re not my father!”

“I am the closest thing to a spiritual father you have! For there’s not another man of God whose word you’re heeding. Not Father Fergal. Not even the Archbishop!”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Gaeth! You are not a fucking priest!”

'You are not a fucking priest!'

“No,” Gaethine said quietly. “I am not good enough for that. I wasn’t even a good monk. I wasn’t even a good friend to you.”

“You are the best friend!” Aed cried, almost in a sob. “You are the best fucking friend I’ve ever had! And I am not going to let you die!”






“Aed, if you are my friend—”


“—you will let me die in peace.”


Aed’s anger collapsed flat beneath him and he broke down in a sob. Half-​blind with tears, he shoved his way out of the room and slammed the door behind him.

The hall rang as high as the rafters with a boom loud enough to wake the dead, and perhaps even a drunken Congal. But no one came out to see him stumble halfway up the stairs and collapse on one of the dusty treads.

He stumbled halfway up the stairs.

Shouts and bangs and mortal oaths could be heard at all hours of the day or night in this castle inhabited by uncouth young men. Nobody here fretted himself enough about Aed to check on him. Nobody but Gaethine.

And tonight not even he.

And tonight not even he.