Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

Now he knocked on the inside of the door.

Aed had knocked on the outside of the door, and now he knocked on the inside of the door, and still Congal did not so much as grunt.

But this time Aed was not going to content himself with coughing into his sleeve and scuffing his boots. When he made up his mind to do a thing, he suffered no delay.

He kicked aside a pile of dirty laundry and strode up to the bed.

“Wake up, Congal,” he growled, entirely unwilling to stand around watching yet another man sleep. Especially one who stank of sour wine and wet dog.

He kicked aside a pile of dirty laundry and strode up to the bed.

Congal’s only response was a change in the tenor of his snore.

Aed looked around for signs of life, calculating again. He poked at a stray slice of bread with a bite taken out of it and found it soft. Congal’s empty cup was still wet in the bottom with a trickle of wine. And the candle in the niche was much reduced, but it still burned, though the snowdrops Congal had plunked into the chalice—that was Congal, honoring the Virgin with handpicked flowers and stolen silver—were days old and had dropped their petals all over the lacy mat and the floor.

Aed turned back to him and barked, “Congal!”

Congal’s face twitched. Maybe. Or maybe it was just a flicker of the candle.

Aed tried telling himself that Congal couldn’t go anywhere till morning anyway—and that was assuming he stopped puking long enough to get up on a horse. Aed thought he might as well let him sleep off as much of his stupor as possible.

But then he thought of how many hours of night lay before him, and how he would have to go to his room and await the dawn, alone…

“Congal! The Devil eat your head!”


Aed leaned over the bed and grabbed Congal’s shoulders to shake him awake.

Congal snorted like a hog and his eyes went wide, but his panicked stare quickly wilted into peevish recognition.

Aed whispered, “Congal! I’m needing you!”

But Congal had not yet finished waking. His eyes narrowed, and his mouth twisted into a snarl.

That was the only warning Aed had, and he was too slow to recognize it. Congal’s left fist slammed into his belly, and while Aed was doubled over and gasping from that, Congal surged out of the bed to shove him over backwards.

Congal surged out of the blankets to shove him over backwards.

Aed landed on his tailbone atop a pile of Congal’s dirty laundry, and Congal’s legs tangled in the blankets and he fell over the side of the bed to land scrambling up onto his hands and knees.

“What the—devil?” Aed wailed. Too late he remembered Congal’s watery-​grave-​and-​privy death threat—too absurd to be taken seriously, for Christ’s sake!

Congal got up into a crouch, and his chestful of medallions hung tinkling below his twisted face. Aed floundered backwards through tangles of laundry, trying to get out of the range of his fists.

Congal panted, “Don’t you ever—”

His fist shot out, and Aed flung up his arm, but Congal was only grabbing a towel. Aed scrambled up onto his feet.

“—wake me up like that again!”

Aed scrambled up onto his feet.

“Jesus Christ!” Aed shouted, shivering. “What is the matter with you?”

“You’re asking me?” Congal countered. “What’s the matter with you?

Congal’s hairy chest rose and fell in gasps. Aed straightened his kilt over his legs, trying to compose himself, and while he was occupied down there he noticed that Congal was holding the towel over his naked groin. They had swum together, bathed together, visited whorehouses together…

He looked up and saw the sullen, red-​faced defiance on Congal’s face and knew that Congal had noticed him noticing. Then he understood.

“I see.”

Aed turned and slogged through drifts of laundry towards the door.

Congal said, “Aed.”

“Fuck you!”

Aed flung open the door and slammed it behind him. It was not so big a door as Gaethine’s but it boomed all the same. He shook off a dirty sock he had trailed out onto the landing and went to his room. He heard Congal shouting, “Aed!” before he slammed a second door between them.

He began to shake then, standing there in the dark with his back to his door. What was he going to do? What was he going to do? He was so furious he knew he was going to smash something, and yet his eyes were spilling over with tears.

He heard Congal open his door and shout out onto the landing, “Aed! Get back in here!”

Aed wiped his eyes and stayed very quiet. He wouldn’t give Congal the satisfaction of a reply, however crude.

Congal’s muffled voice shouted, “Get back in here, or you’ll regret it!”

Then Aed knew what he was going to do. He slammed his own door on his way out, and slammed Congal’s door behind him on his way in.

Congal was crouched over, his back to the room, clutching the towel around his waist as he dug through heaps of laundry.

Congal was crouched over.

“Would you care to tell me,” Aed asked softly, “what you mean by ‘regretting it?’”

Aed was still shaking, but it was something more than only anger now. Before this month he had done little he was ashamed to admit: the threat of blackmail was a new experience to him. First Eirik’s visit, then the brass dog, and now this. With his every step the earth seemed to crumble a little more beneath his feet. Soon he would be sinking.

“I mean,” Congal grumbled, “if we aren’t talking about this right now, we never will. And it’ll fester, and we’ll stop being friends, and I’ll end up going home, for I cannot trust anyone with my life who doesn’t trust me with his secrets. Got that?”

He stood, pulling a crumpled kilt up with him. After a tentative sniff he winced and held it out at arm’s length.

“Christ, lad, did you have to go and tear the place up? Now I can’t find anything.” He grimaced again and swayed. “Ach! The devil! Hold that.”

He tried to hand the kilt to Aed, but Aed refused to unfold his arms, and Congal let it drop. Then Congal dropped even the towel, and he scrambled on hands and knees over piles of laundry to drag the chamber pot out from beneath the bed and retch into it.

Aed tried to maintain his stony indignation, but it was difficult with Congal at his feet, naked and tangle-​headed and jangling with silver necklaces, cradling the chamber pot and whimpering, “Blessed Mother, look on me with mercy,” before retching again. This was more like old times.

Moreover, blackmail was apparently not Congal’s idea of “regretting it.” Aed was a little ashamed for thinking it of him.

Congal crawled out of the corner to wipe his mouth on the towel he had recently worn, and then he held up a pleading hand to Aed. Aed finally unfolded his arms so that he could help Congal to his feet. He pulled him up by main force, not only because Congal needed it, but because Aed wanted to feel the solid clasp of a friend’s trusting hand.

This time Congal did not take the towel, and he did not even bother covering himself with the dirty kilt until he was steady on his feet.

“I thank you,” he said as he clumsily started folding the kilt around his waist.

Aed grunted.

Congal’s head hung low, his face hidden by his rumpled hair. The awkward silence was unbroken until Congal abruptly lilted, “There’s just one thing I’m wanting to know, laddie.”

Growing wary, Aed folded his arms again.

“Which one of you,” Congal asked, “is the woman?”

Congal was busy with his fumbling, so another long and silent moment passed before he peeked up at Aed. Aed couldn’t tell whether he was smiling or sneering.

“Or are you taking turns?” Congal asked sweetly.

“Fuck you, Congal.”

'Fuck you, Congal.'

“Ach!” Congal chuckled and shook a finger at him. “That is just what you’re not going to do. Try it and I’ll pull out your guts through a hole in your knee, so help me God.”

“I was speaking generally, fuckwit. I have no desire to fuck you personally.”

Congal finished tucking in the end of his kilt and shuffled over to his bedside table. As he picked up his cup and pitcher, he glanced back at Aed and asked, “Why not?”

Aed let his arms drop. “What?

“Why don’t you, then? Something wrong with me?”

“The devil if I know! Are you wanting to fuck every woman you see?”

“Sure and certain I am.”

Aed clapped his hands over his head in exasperation. “You are not!”

“For sure and for certain I am!” Congal repeated as he filled his cup with a shaky hand. “Some of us aren’t wealthy, pretty little boy-​lords who have our pick of the girls. With a face like mine own, a man cannot afford to be particular.”

“There has to be a woman you wouldn’t fuck.”

Congal took a drink and wiped his mustache. “Unless you’re meaning my mother or my sisters—who are all perfectly fuckable, just not by me—I never met her.”

Aed shuddered, furious at his own competing urges to smash something and break out laughing. Congal always did this to him. He had a mission, and here he was thinking through the ugliest women he knew.

“What about the tanner’s mother?” Aed challenged. “Paralyzed on one side with bald patches on her head, and stinks of sheep guts and piss?”

“That’s not a woman! That’s an old crone!”

“You never said she had to be our age! She’s still a woman!”

Congal sighed. “Fine, you win.” He hitched up his crumpled kilt and sat gingerly on the edge of his bed. “No, I wouldn’t fuck the tanner’s old mother. Happy?”


“So what you’re saying is, I’m the male equivalent of a palsied old bald woman who stinks of piss. I’m a little hurt, Aed.”

Aed clapped his hands over his face and groaned. “No! Why do I ever try talking to you? Ever?”

“The devil if I know,” Congal muttered. He wrapped one arm over his belly and slouched, looking miserable and queasy. “Not that I want to fuck you, either. Know how I know? I can piss in front of you. Just wish I could find the strength to get up and demonstrate, for my bladder’s fit to burst.”

Aed sighed and shoved a pile of rumpled wool off the stool so he could sit. It was a fact well known to his friends that Congal was incapable of taking a piss within earshot of a female. They had tried everything—even enlisting the help of his sister, whom, as he had just pointed out, he did not even want to fuck. Aed could not help wondering whether Congal could piss in front of the tanner’s mother.

“How reassuring,” he grumbled.

Congal shook his head. “I thought better of you, man,” he said mournfully. “I thought you were liking women…”

'I thought better of you, man.'

“I do like women! What are you talking about? You’ve seen me! Even two at a time!”

“So you’re liking women and men. What you’re saying is, you’ll fuck anything. And I thought I was unparticular.”

“No! I don’t—like men!”

Aed thought through the men he knew and it was like his mental parade of the ugliest women all over again—Muirgius and Lord Colban and his stepfather, his old steward and Father Fergal—he did not want them. He did not think about them all day long or talk to them in his head or miss them so badly when they were far away that he had to hug his pillow when he slept to keep from aching.

“Right,” Congal said skeptically, “you don’t like men, but you’re in love with a man.”

“I didn’t—I didn’t say that!” Aed stuttered.

“You didn’t have to.”

'You didn't have to.'

Aed lifted his head, prepared to swear aloud, but Congal’s expression arrested him. Pity, sorrow, hurt, and a hint of reproach—Congal was being serious for once.

Love, Congal had said. If he lived a hundred years Aed did not think Gaethine would ever talk about this thing, but Congal hadn’t hesitated. Was it possible for a man to love a man?

“I was wondering,” Congal said, “why I’ve been so damned jealous of you two lately. Seems like you can take me or leave me these days. Then I figured it out. Just like my cousin when he got betrothed. Just like Eochaid when he started going around with that blonde lass of his. Except I’m losing two friends at the same time. For you two—” He pointed accusingly at Aed, and he pointed at the corner by the door, in the direction of Gaethine’s room downstairs. “—are not only friends.”

'You are not only friends.'

Aed sat low on his stool, chastened but grateful, too. Congal freely spoke of the things Gaethine refused to mention. Congal said the things Aed dared not even think.

“You’re as much my friend as ever,” Aed said. “Mine and Gaeth’s.”

Congal shrugged dismissively, clinking his medals. Then he shook his head and cackled. “You must be amazing in bed, Aed, to tempt Gaeth. He spends the whole morning in penance if he has a fucking wet dream.”

“Aye, aye, aye,” Aed panted, suddenly on the breathless verge of a sob. “You should see what kind of penance he does for me!”

Congal blinked at him.

“You’ve not seen his back yet.”

Congal touched his lips and went white. “He never did.”

“He did. He did while we were away.”

“Sweet Jesus.” Congal bowed over his lap and hid his face in his hands.

Congal bowed over his lap and hid his face in his hands.

Aed still breathed in shaky gasps, but he felt his resolve returning now that he had told. He had told, and Congal was with him. He was no longer alone.

Congal fumbled one of his medallions out from the tangle around his neck and kissed the silver. “Lord,” he prayed softly, “forgive us all our sins, especially your faithful servant Gaethine. And send one of your angels to tell him he doesn’t have to do this. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

The medallion fell back with a clink, and Congal crossed himself. Aed could not bring himself to move.

Then Congal lifted his face to Aed. “What are we going to do?”

'What are we going to do?'

A grim peace settled over Aed at last. The earth was firm beneath his feet. He had made up his mind, and he had men to lead.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said quietly. “I have a job for you.”

Congal frowned and tried to look skeptical, but his nervous hand slid up beneath his pile of necklaces to rub his breastbone, making a silvery, tinkling clatter like distant chimes.

“This time I pay in coin,” Aed said. “Silver. If you make swith, mayhap gold.”

'This time I pay in coin.'