Dunfermline, Scotland

Aengus was nervous.

Aengus was nervous. The fire was hot at their backs—an entire log burned to warm the echoing chamber—but his sweat was due to something other than the heat. It had a sharp, sour odor Lasrua had learned to recognize. She was getting used to his human scent and even found herself sniffing after it sometimes, but her elven nose still wrinkled at the stench of a nervous man.

Marcan, rocking toes-​to-​heels behind her, was closer to the fire but did not smell as bad. Lasrua envied him at times. Most of the unpleasant tasks fell to him, and he was always last to bed and first to rise, but he was unconcerned by the outcome of this expedition. He had only to follow orders. To Marcan this was only an adventure.

She’d thought Domnall would see it so, too, but that was because she’d not previously been in the habit of attributing any depth of feeling to other people. His grandfather’s assassination had seemed like a family legend to her—an impersonal, “In the year of Our Lord such-​and-​such” entry in the historical chronicles Dunstan liked to read.

By now she wondered what Aengus had been thinking.

By now she wondered what Aengus had been thinking. He’d brought Domnall all the way to the chamber in which his grandfather had died.

“Why do you suppose that carpet’s there?” Domnall muttered to Lasrua.

“I beg your pardon?”

“The carpet.” He jerked his chin at the long, patterned rug that stretched from the dais almost to the doors.

Domnall did not smell nervous, exactly, but he was jittery, bouncing his legs or knocking his knees together.

He whispered, “Do you suppose anyone would notice if I flipped up the end and looked under?”

'Do you suppose anyone would notice if I flipped up the end and looked under?'

Lasrua gasped, “What? Yes! Why?”

“To see whether it’s covering bloodstains. They say my grandfather died at the foot of his throne. I expect it was right there.”

Lasrua shifted her stare of shock into a warning scowl. “And I expect they’ve managed to clean the stone after five-​and-​twenty years!”

Domnall leaned closer, chin-​up and defiant. “He murdered three kings!” he whispered harshly. “There are stains that God alone can wash out.”

Aengus peered around Lasrua’s shoulder and asked, “What’s that?”

'What's that?'

Lasrua blurted, “Nothing!”

She and Domnall sank back like naughty siblings. Aengus grunted and returned to kneading his sweaty hands together.

“Heard anything?” he muttered out of the side of his mouth.

Lasrua let out a sharp sigh of frustration. “I don’t believe so. Those men over there,” she said, tilting her head to the left, “are either speaking Norse or talking about hunting. And across the hall—”

“Cannot you tell the difference?” Aengus teased.

Lasrua rolled her eyes. “I meant: the man in red is speaking Norse to the man at his left, and having a conversation in Gaelic, about hunting, when he talks to the other. Is that better?”

Aengus chuckled, but his smile did not reach his eyes, and three seconds too late Lasrua felt terrible for being curt with him.

Three seconds too late Lasrua felt terrible for being curt with him.

“Those two by the stairs,” she continued, more softly this time, “are discussing church matters, and the two half-​naked men are talking about sheep, and the men across from us are exchanging recipes for brewing ale.”

“Eh?” Aengus scratched beneath his chin. “If those are my only choices, I suppose I should like to know what they’re saying about the ale.”

Lasrua smiled slyly. “But I haven’t told you yet what they’re doing with the sheep.”

Aengus chuckled again, and this time his eyes twinkled the way they ought. “Highlanders!” he whispered. “You aren’t having to tell me.”

Lasrua snorted and choked on a stifled laugh. It was like wine, the warmth and the excitement that raced through her blood when she exchanged naughty jokes with Aengus. It was a thrill to lean closer and bask in his nearness—even if he smelled.

But the twinkle quickly died out of his eyes, and he leaned away, hunching himself over his lap again. “Better pay attention all the same, love,” he whispered. “I’d hate to go back to Sigefrith none the wiser.”

'Better pay attention all the same, love.'

Lasrua sighed and applied her ears to listening. It had been a frustrating effort so far. For one thing, she did not particularly care what the King of Scots was plotting, and it was difficult to pay attention when her mind roiled with confusing thoughts of her own.

But even when she listened, she’d found that Dunfermline was not like Lothere. In Sigefrith’s court the men trusted one another and worked together. Plans and concerns were shared. But in Scotland’s royal city every man kept his thoughts to himself.

Either the Scots—like the elves—lived with the constant awareness that private conversations might be overheard, or else no man trusted any other. An honest, open-​hearted man might well be nervous here, she realized. She scooted a little closer to Aengus in silent sympathy.

It was not long, however, before she heard a far-​off something that woke a nervous flutter of her own. Outside the audience chamber she heard conversations falling silent and boots shuffling to get out of the way. Murmured greetings of “My lord.” And in the silences between, a pair of leather soles slapping against stone floors in a long, powerful stride that neither hesitated nor swerved.

“He’s coming,” Lasrua whispered.

Aengus’s shoulders stiffened, and the tension flowed down his arms into his clenching hands. Domnall’s legs stopped bouncing. And Lasrua? O Mother, why was her heart leaping all of a sudden? Why did she feel sick? What reason had she to be terrified of the man?

Why did she feel sick?

The feet stopped outside, and the doors creaked open. All around the hall men fell silent and sat up to listen, inching towards the edges of their seats so they would be ready to stand.

The guards behind the doors stepped aside with a synchronized clack of their boot heels, and the slapping feet resumed their tread.

Lasrua’s first impression was shock and relief at the insignificance of him, in spite of the grandeur of his garments.

Then she realized—of course—it was not the King at all. It was only a boy. Only another prince joining his brothers who already sat to one side of the empty throne.

Lasrua heard a breath of relief blow over the entire hall as the boy came into sight. Aengus’s head swung low as he exhaled, and seats creaked all around the hall as men relaxed. The tread of the leather-​soled shoes was muffled into insignificance as they stepped onto the long carpet.

He was a tall boy, easily adult-​height, though only a year or two older than Domnall, Lasrua thought. The muscular forms of manhood were only just beginning to swell his calves and thighs in their tight hose. There was no grace in his walk, only a swaggering sense of power that repulsed Lasrua like a bad smell. And his head, when he turned it to run his disinterested gaze over the four of them, looked comically big on his adolescent neck. He looked like a fairy godmother’s practical joke involving swapped skulls.

Only Domnall did not relax as he entered. Lasrua noticed it when Domnall sat up even straighter at her side and took a sharp breath as the prince passed.

Lasrua noticed it when Domnall sat up even straighter at her side.

She’d not thought the sound loud enough to carry, but the boy’s gaze lingered on Domnall’s face before he strode out of staring distance and snapped his attention over to the men farther on. Lasrua watched him exchange nods of recognition with a towering, dark-​haired man who stood apart before the Norse-​speakers.

The man was simply and soberly dressed, but somehow managed to be the most impressive man in the room, notwithstanding the burly Highlanders across from her, flaunting their muscled arms and hairy chests. Again she wondered who he was. If he’d been dressed more formally she would have assumed he held a ceremonial role in King Malcolm’s court. She’d thought she’d glimpsed him looking at the four of them a few times, but whenever she stared he proved himself stonily uninterested.

Again she wondered who he was.

With her attention thus occupied and with the scarves swathing her ears she almost missed Domnall whispering to himself: “I’m going to kill him.”

A moment passed, and Lasrua wondered whether she’d heard aright. She was considering asking him to repeat himself when he did: he whispered again, “I’m going to kill him,” as if tasting the odd flavor of the words.

Lasrua stared at him while he tilted his head thoughtfully to the other side and added, in a gesture of fairness, “Or he’s going to kill me.”

Lasrua bent to his ear and hissed, “What are you talking about? Who is?”

“He is,” Domnall whispered, cocking his head towards the dais, where the tall prince was taking his seat beside the throne.

“What has he done to you? Do you even know his name?”

“He’ll be the eldest son of Malcolm and Margaret the Queen,” Domnall replied slowly, staring off at nothing. He shook his head. “And I’m not knowing what he’s done or will do to me. But I will surely kill him. Or by his hand I will die.”

'But I will surely kill him.'

Lasrua gaped at him, waiting for him to come to the realization that he was speaking utter nonsense. Domnall blinked his golden eyes once and made to turn back towards the dais, but Lasrua grabbed his arm.

“Do you have any idea what you are saying?” she whispered. “Does everyone in this ridiculous country believe he has the second sight?”

“’Tisn’t the second sight,” Domnall said, offended, but the words stopped in his mouth when Aengus leaned heavily past Lasrua’s shoulder and whispered, “What’s being the trouble now?”

Domnall clapped his mouth shut and sat back. This time Lasrua was too ruffled to let matters lie, and fell back on her old habit of tattle-​telling.

This time Lasrua was too ruffled to let matters lie.

She turned to Aengus and whispered, “Domnall says he is going to kill that prince who just—”

Aengus didn’t even let her finish, but reached around her breast to grab Domnall by the collar and yank him down into hissing range. Lasrua leaned back so far her head thumped against Marcan’s belly and sent him scuffling away.

“What did you just say?” Aengus whispered in a ferocious Gaelic.

Caught, Domnall steeled his face to a look of calm defiance and replied, “I said I would kill that man or he would kill me. I knew it as soon as I saw him. Like a body walking over my grave, but a hundred times harder.”

“The only body who’ll be walking over your grave is my own self, dimwit, after I’ve wrung your neck and buried you in it! Watch your tongue in this hall, for the love of Christ!”

He shoved Domnall off and sat back on the bench beside Lasrua.

He shoved Domnall off and sat back on the bench beside Lasrua.

“What did I tell you,” he muttered as he wiped off his hands and cracked his knuckles, “if I was to bring you into this hall…”

It did not sound like a question that awaited an answer, but Domnall’s blood was up and he replied to it, muttering beneath his breath on his own side. “‘Behave yourself,’” he quoted, “‘or you’ll have my boot so far up your ass you’ll be tasting the fucking leather.’”

Lasrua wouldn’t have thought Aengus could even hear him, but Aengus’s arm flew up behind her and grabbed Domnall by the back of the collar. Lasrua hunched forward over her lap.

“Is that how we speak before ladies?” Aengus demanded, switching back to English for her benefit.

He gave Domnall’s collar a last jerk and smacked the back of his head before sitting back beside Lasrua.


“Why?” Domnall growled. “I’m certain she overheard you saying it the first time.”

“Mayhap as she did,” Aengus snapped, “and I’m grieved to think it, and—I apologize, love.” He strained to make his voice gentle for those few words, but it was too shaky to sound soothing. “Now you,” he added gruffly.

“I apologize,” Domnall said, not addressing Lasrua at all but staring past her breasts at Aengus, “for repeating Aengus’s obscenities in front of you.”

'I apologize.'

Aengus sat forward again. “Would you like a taste right now?”

Lasrua felt hot and queasy, as if the fire at her back now surrounded her on all sides. “Gentlemen,” she said hoarsely.

Aengus’s expression changed in an instant, but not because of her. He was looking up beyond her, and she saw his pupils dilate and his face flush. Then she felt a shadow fall over them from above.

Then she felt a shadow fall over them from above.

The dark-​haired man had come upon them while they squabbled. The moment their eyes met, Lasrua knew this man was King Malcolm. Aengus must have forgotten his face, or had never really met him at all. He was the King, and he’d been standing in this chamber all along.

“Pardon me,” he said. He spoke low, but she knew that when he shouted he had the deep, bugling voice of a stag. “I thought I hear speaking English, and so, I come speak with you. My daughter she married an Englishman. So. I like to hear.”

He smiled apologetically, crinkling his eyes into catlike slits.

Aengus said weakly, “Aye then?”

'Aye then?'

Then he pulled himself together and stood.

Lasrua thought he tried to maneuver himself between her and the man, but the man hadn’t left much room between Lasrua’s toes and his own.

“Your English isn’t so bad either, sir,” Aengus said warily.

'Your English isn't so bad either, sir.'

The man sniffed. “The words, which are like Norse, those I speak good, ja? My name is Paul, Thorfinn’s son. Nobody here introduce us, so.”

Domnall sat up straighter at this one-​sided introduction. Lasrua could sense him trying to catch her eye, but she was afraid to look away from this man. If he was not King Malcolm then he was some other earthly power. He had the slow dignity of Pol and the breath-​tightening physical presence of Leofric.

“I do not know you,” he said, shaking a massive finger at Aengus’s black tunic and silver medallions, “but I know a man of your clan.”

“Malcolm, called the Cat?” Aengus guessed.

“That is the man. If he was here, so…”—he stole a glance at Lasrua—“I ask him to introduce.”

Lasrua’s stomach flopped over. This man knew Malcolm. This man of Dunfermline… Her mind fluttered between thoughts, afraid to light on any. Perhaps he and Malcolm had stood in this echoing hall together… Perhaps he knew… Perhaps she was about to learn…

“Aye, then,” Aengus said softly, “we’re being cousins, at that. The mother of him was my father’s sister. Aengus, son of Colin, I am, lord, and it’s an honor to meet you. And if you’ve any idea where the Cat is today, we’d be glad to know. He’s owing this young lady here an explanation.”

Paul Thorfinnsson looked down. His stare ran over Lasrua’s face and down into her garments, slow and thick as honey. His jaw moved, as if he were turning over a candy on his tongue. She knew what sort of “explanation” he assumed she needed. And he was thinking that if she had spread her legs for one enterprising older man, she might yet do it for another. Her pride could suffer no such misunderstanding.

Lasrua rose to her feet with an almost too-​elven majesty.

“He married me,” she said. “Before a priest and a witness. Then he told me a bedtime story. And left as soon as I fell asleep.”

Lasrua rose to her feet with an almost too-elven majesty.

Thorfinnsson’s brows shot up, and a light came into his hard eyes. Lasrua counted a point in her favor.

Meanwhile Domnall had risen belatedly beside her and hovered close, his arm brushing her sleeve.

“That,” Thorfinnsson said dryly, “does require explanation. Lady…?”


He held out his arm as if he thought her a falcon and expected her to perch on it. His wrist was slender, making the blocky hand and the swelling muscles of his forearm appear all the larger. His tanned skin was streaked with scars—some of them perhaps from talons.

Lasrua felt a fluttery unease at the idea of touching him anywhere, but Aengus had called him lord, so she lightly lay her hand over the back of his. Thorfinnsson stooped to brush it with his thick lips and let both their hands fall, but he still stared at her expectantly.

“Lasrua,” Aengus supplied.

Lasrua flushed.

“Las-​ru-​a,” Thorfinnsson repeated thoughtfully. “So, it sound Gaelic more than English?”

'So, it sound Gaelic more than English?'

Lasrua blurted, “It’s very old,” at the same moment Aengus said, “It’s Spanish.” Lasrua winced. Unfortunately Aengus’s outburst was the one Thorfinnsson heard.

“Spanish?” he asked Aengus, looking impressed. “So, I think, her English, it is better than mine, but an odd sound, ja? A Spanish lady?”

“From Todela,” Aengus added.

Lasrua stiffened. They had discussed this—and discarded it—as a possible explanation for Lasrua’s exotic beauty and the cadence of her speech. She’d thought it too complicated to maintain… and what if King Malcolm had a Spaniard in his court? But now Aengus was clinging to the stupid story, and blethering it quite unbidden—and getting it all wrong.

“Toledo,” Lasrua corrected in a warning tone.

“Ach, that’s it!” Aengus said brightly. “Toledo!”

O Mother, he was nervous. Lasrua dried a bead of sweat that was running down his temple.

Lasrua dried a bead of sweat that was running down his temple.

“A Jewess?” Thorfinnsson asked. He glanced at Lasrua, but he was addressing Aengus, and Aengus promptly replied.

“Ach, no—a Moor. But she’s being a Christian lady now. So the marriage was quite legal.”

“A Moor?” Thorfinnsson repeated, wondering. He looked Lasrua over as if he wished he’d let her perch on his arm after all. “I thought, the Moorish people, they are black or so?”

“Not in Spain,” Lasrua muttered.

“Not in Spain,” Aengus repeated. “Do you know, lord, the Moors cover their women head to toe in veils? Their skin is never touched by the sun.”

“That is too bad,” Thorfinnsson said, “if they are all so lovely.”

Lasrua dropped her lashes in what she hoped was a modest gesture, but she tried to shoot an angry glare sideways at Aengus.

“And how she did come to Scotland?” Thorfinnsson asked.

Aengus took a breath, but Lasrua cut in to tell the truth, or close to it. “I live in Lothere, not Scotland. My family was exiled because my brother married a woman not of our people, and my father refused to shun him.”

'I live in Lothere, not Scotland.'

Thorfinnsson did not appear daunted by the coldness of her tone, but it did give him pause. Finally he said, “You have a lovely way of speaking English, Lasrua. But so, I never hear a Moor speaking Moorish before.”

His eyes narrowed into catlike slits again. This time he was not smiling. Was he testing her? Aengus was sweating like an icicle in the sun.

Inch’allah, ya habibi,” Lasrua said, flinging together all the Moorish words she knew from listening to Joseph and Leila. “Alhamdulillah Ramadan. Salaam alaikum.

Thorfinnsson nodded. “Lovely. What it means?”

“It is only a greeting.”

“And how I reply?”

'And how I reply?'

Alaikum salaam.

Alaikum salaam,” Thorfinnsson repeated, bowing his dark head.

Aengus sighed in relief.

“A lovely greeting, my lovely lady,” Thorfinnsson said to Lasrua, his deep, sonorous voice almost caressing. “And a sad story. So.”

'And a sad story.  So.'

The word hung in the air like a tendril of smoke from a snuffed wick. Then he stooped over Lasrua.

“Too bad,” he breathed hotly across her face, “it is mostly lies. Elf.

Lasrua’s heart stopped. Paul Thorfinnsson had swept all her frantic, calculating thoughts away with one swoop of his bulging forearm and left her stupid and helpless as a newborn.

“Do you think,” he whispered, “Lothere is so far, far away, we never hear about the Cat and his elf wife?”

'My lord.'

Aengus croaked, “My lord,” but Thorfinnsson swept out his stare like a dark wing and silenced him.

“Aengus, son of Colin the Cunning,” he muttered in Gaelic. “How you do take after the father of you.”

He looked back to Lasrua. “Do not lie to the King,” he said coldly. “There is nothing he like less. If he ask you, so, are you an elf? You say, yes, may it please Your Majesty, I am. But so, he will not ask, because he know already. Malcolm he like to keep what he know to himself, ja?” He tapped the side of his head with a thick finger.

Lasrua managed an almost imperceptible nod.

“Where you sleep?” Thorfinnsson asked roughly.

'Where you sleep?'

Lasrua shriveled still farther down inside herself, down to where her stomach was turning liquid with fear. Her legs were growing wobbly and she didn’t know where she would find the strength to squeeze them together. The man was more Leofric than Pol. He was going to blackmail her into spreading them.

“Say again?” Aengus demanded.

Simmering at her side, he felt like that shadow-​faced warrior who had guided her through a dangerous country—that half-​stranger whose commands she minded and whose judgment she trusted. Lasrua felt for his arm and wrapped her fingers around his biceps.

“Where are you sleeping?” the man barked, switching to Gaelic out of frustration. “Are you at an inn here in town or are you knowing of the Cat’s house?”

Aengus’s fist unclenched and the hard knot of muscle beneath Lasrua’s hand relaxed. He was only Aengus again, slightly stupefied, asking, “The Cat has a house here?”

“That answers that question,” Thorfinnsson muttered to himself.

'That answers that question.'

“Aye,” he said, “and if you’re looking for him, you might start there. It’s on the second road south of the wall, the last one before the fields. Ask after it at the baker’s. There’s an old woman keeps it for him when he’s abroad, though she’s deaf as a stump. And I’m not saying he’s stupid enough to leave a map of his route behind, but then again he was in a devil of a hurry to leave Dunfermline the last time.” He folded his arms over his chest and looked Lasrua over, scowling. “God only knows why. If he’s being too flighty to wear that leg-​shackle, nothing on earth can hold him.”

He started to back away.

“Get free from that man,” he advised Rua in halting English. “You,” he said to Domnall, “watch your tongue if you’re being fond of the head you keep it in. And don’t tell the King I told you about the house,” he warned, unfolding his bulging arms long enough to point a thick finger at Aengus. “Nor the Cat!”

“We… thank you, lord,” Aengus said dazedly.

'We... thank you, lord.'

Thorfinnsson grunted and paused a few steps away to look Lasrua over: one last slathering stare from her toe to the crown of her head.

“Paul, Thorfinn’s son,” he rumbled, determined she would remember his name. “Alaikum, salaam.

He was almost gone, but Lasrua couldn’t bear another instant of him. She turned blindly to Aengus, grabbed his shoulder, and smashed her forehead down on the backs of her hands.

He put one arm about her, but she felt none of the melting thrill that had run over her when he’d held her against his side at Drumdunaidh. She didn’t even feel safer. She felt like a baby hare trying to shield herself with grass. If a hawk decided to carry her off there was nothing the grass could do.

“I’m so sorry, love,” Aengus whispered.

“Who is that man?” she whimpered.

“Ach! That must be the Earl of Orkney. The Whitehand of the North, one might say. Paul, son of Thorfinn the Mighty. Never met him, but I’ve heard of him.” Aengus snorted and patted her shoulder absently. “Takes after his father.”

“Let’s go, Aengus. This was a mistake.”

“There there, he was only trying to help after all…”

Lasrua’s fortitude was falling apart. She sniffled before she even noticed she was crying tears. “He knew precisely who we were! The King will know who we are, too!”

“There there…”

Aengus gave her what was probably supposed to be an encouraging little shake. If he had wrapped both arms around her and squeezed her against his heart he might have reassured her, but she felt like he was only comforting her distractedly while he continued to watch for danger. And his armpit reeked of nervous man.

What had she been thinking? What had she been thinking? For it was her idea, all of it. It was her fault, all this senseless danger—all the cares she was heaping on Aengus, the risk she was raising for his uncles, and the anguish she was causing Domnall. All this—to save her pride? This tattered, unredeemable, worthless thing? She did not even really know why she was here.

“Let’s go,” she pleaded.

Aengus held her away and looked at her with a fatherlike wrinkle between his brows. “Now, love, you know tomorrow’s Holy Thursday, and if we don’t see him today we won’t get another chance till middle of next week—”

“Let’s go home,” she said. “I don’t want to see him.”

“But—Rua…” He shook his head.


“Take me home, Aengus. The whole idea was a mistake.”

Aengus blinked his dark eyes at her, uncomprehending. “But… aren’t you wanting to at least check his house?”

Lasrua moved her lips to say “No,” but Domnall laid a hand on her arm. Beyond Aengus’s shoulder she saw a flash of torchlight slide across the hinges, and the great doors began to creak open. Aengus’s shoulders stiffened, and his gaze drifted aside to settle on nothing she could see. The rug? The second sight? Only a blank, bottomless stare?

A man in bright uniform slipped through the opening doors as soon as the crack was shoulder-​wide. He rapped a staff on the floor and bellowed, “All rise! All rise! For His Royal Majesty, Malcolm, High King of the Scots!”

'All rise!  All rise!'