Dunfermline, Scotland

They were not holding hands, they were holding fists.

For the first time Aengus’s fingers were twined between Lasrua’s, but they were not holding hands, they were holding fists. He only wished he knew whether she was clenching at him out of anger or out of fear. Holy God, but the girl could squeeze!

Worse, her grip on his hand prevented him from reaching around behind her and strangling Domnall with his own shirt collar before the lunkhead gasped, “The crown!”

'The crown!'

Aengus had to reach around with his other hand and grab Domnall by the front of his shirt. The snarl on his face would have silenced most boys, but Domnall whispered frantically, “It’s the crown! My father’s crown!”

Aengus pulled him nose-​to-​nose beneath Lasrua’s blanched face and hissed, “Shut up! You don’t even know what it looks like!”

“But it’s carved on my grandfather’s—”

“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!” Aengus shook him till his bobbling head stopped making sounds. If he’d had another hand free he would have smacked him.

He’d managed to petrify Domnall, but now the entire room was staring. Aengus let go of the boy’s shirt and looked around. His stomach sank.

Two guards had lifted crossed spears to block a flight through the doors. The royal bodyguards had slowed their pace and turned until they walked almost backwards, keeping themselves between Aengus and the King. And Thorfinnsson scowled over his shoulder, his eyes sparking with outrage.

Only the King seemed oblivious to the whispered outbursts and the shocked silence behind him. He lumbered up the stairs without a backwards glance, hitched up his pants, and thumped down onto his throne.

“Well well well!” he said, punctuating his thunderous exclamation by smacking both hands on his beefy thighs and rubbing them well in. “I ought to thank you lot for being so few today, but the folks who deserve the credit are the ones who aren’t here!” He tipped up his broad face and grinned.

A few men chuckled, and gazes began peeling away from Aengus, leaving only flickering glances from the wary and the easily amused. The bodyguards took up their stations at either side of the dais, and the other two laid aside their spears and squared off again before the doors, falling back into their erstwhile expressions of boredom. Thorfinnsson delivered Aengus a last look of disdain before turning away.

Thorfinnsson delivered Aengus a last look of disdain before turning away.

Aengus could finally breathe. His pulse pounded against Lasrua’s fingers, but he was already gripping her hand so tightly that he couldn’t give it a heartening squeeze. Holy God, they were in this up to their necks.

“What’s the business?” the King asked of an elderly scribe. “Important stuff, first! We are all going to Mass tonight.”

He leaned over the creaking arm of his throne to stare menacingly at the three princes arrayed to his right. The middle one rolled his eyes.

Then the King took in Thorfinnsson standing near the guard, and his face brightened.

“What ho, Orkney? Are you important stuff? Fie! I wager you’re not even on the list, are you?”

Thorfinnsson bowed. “I am first on the list, lord. But if it please you I would give up my place to another.”

He made a quarter-​turn and bowed again—right down the hall at Lasrua. A quiver ran through her body and up Aengus’s arm.

“We are having a lady among us,” Thorfinnsson explained.

“A lady among us!” the King echoed. “Ooh, goody! We aren’t often seeing one of those in here!” He leaned over the arm of his chair and pretended to confide. “But oughtn’t we save her for last? Dessert!”

Thorfinnsson smiled. “If it please you, lord, I cannot let you to save her for dessert. For I intend to have her for supper.”

Aengus jerked. Domnall made a snotty gasp that revealed him to be sniveling. And Thorfinnsson turned and made another bow.

“At Crossgate House,” he added. “My doors are open to you and your companions.”

A wave of cold sweat prickled out over Aengus’s body. Thorfinnsson folded his arms and smirked at him like a cat settling himself back on his haunches to wait out a cornered mouse.

The King sprawled against his throne, chuckling. “On Holy Wednesday? Tut tut! That’s being rich fare for Lent.”

“Savored slowly over several nights?” Thorfinnsson said. “I think she’ll keep till after Easter.”

The eldest prince crossed one long leg over his knee and slouched like his father. Royalty though he was, he was as grossly crude as any fifteen-​year-​old trying to impress older men.

“I don’t know,” he leered. “She’s looking ripe to me.”

Lasrua took a gulping breath, and Aengus shouted, “Enough!”

The echoes of his shout pounded off the vaulted ceiling. Spots of colored wool flickered around him as every man turned to look. In up to his chin!

“As my lord Orkney pointed out, we are having a lady among us! Not a piece of fruit. And she does have ears, you know!”

“Does she?” Thorfinnsson countered, quick as the crack of a whip. “I should like to see them.”

Aengus’s breath stopped in his throat. Christ Jesus, he had done it again.

It was the one thing Lasrua had asked of him—the one thing she’d admitted she needed to make her whole—and by God, he was fucking it up.

In his place his cousin Malcolm would have been winning over the whole room by now. Every man would have been smiling at him, admiring him, wishing they were he. Lasrua would have been drooping adoringly from his arm and not pulverizing the bones of his hand.

“Who are you?” the King asked with a skeptical frown. “Well, come here so I can get a look at you! I recognize your getup, but I don’t know you!”

Back in seventy-​nine, in distant, ravaged reaches of Northumbria, Aengus had made the King laugh so hard he’d had to wipe his eyes afterwards and even blow his nose. It was too much to expect he’d remember him from that. But by God it would have been convenient.

Aengus coughed to clear his throat. “Aengus, knight of Lothere, if it please you, lord!”

He’d be damned if he would remind these men who his father was.

He whispered aside at Domnall, “Stay with Marcan!” and tried to take a step, leading Lasrua along with him. But Lasrua remained rooted to earth, and Aengus was pulled up short like a dog running to the end of his chain.

“What the—”

“Please, let’s go,” she whispered when he turned back. Domnall sniffled.

“But, love—”

“Please! I changed my mind. I don’t want to do this at all. I don’t care what happens to Malcolm.”

“Don’t be afrai—”

“I am not afraid! I changed my mind.”

The men nearby tittered. Aengus closed his eyes and indulged himself in three seconds of wishing all womankind to the Devil. Now she changed her mind!

When he opened his eyes, he saw more moue of offended pride than panicked, pleading stare, and his heart hardened.

“Love,” he said coldly, “one does not disobey a royal command. Now come.”

He tugged on her hand and still she resisted. By God, she was ripe for a spanking.

“Come come,” the King said, waving an impatient hand. “Nobody shall eat you.”

“Come along!” Aengus whispered. “Don’t make yourself ridiculous!”

She might have countered that she could hardly afford to do so, since he had so far humiliated her every time he opened his mouth.

Instead she made up her mind to follow, and when she did she was magnificent. She released his mangled hand and slid her elbow through his; and chin high, lashes lowered, she walked Aengus to the foot of the throne—and not, he was fairly sure, the other way around.

The King sat back and slapped his thigh. “Now we’re getting somewhere! How do you do?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned to Aengus and said, “Sigefrith’s man, are you? What the devil do you have to say to me in here? I take Sigefrith’s letters in private!”

Aengus slipped his arm free of Lasrua’s and bowed. Steady, man, he told himself. This was no different from talking to Sigefrith. Malcolm had no more right to call himself King than Sigefrith did. They were both no more than grandsons of royal princesses.

'I'm not here on Sigefrith's business, lord.'

“I’m not here on Sigefrith’s business, lord,” he said. “I’m here on my own. That is, on behalf of this lady.”

“Eh? You’d best introduce us then. How do you do, lady?”

“Rua is being the name of her,” Aengus said, hoping to avoid uncomfortable questions by using a name that sounded like the Gaelic word for “Red”—however unlikely that sounded for a lass with black brows and thick black lashes. “And she’s kin to me by marriage.”

The middle prince chortled and asked, “Is that a fancy way of saying you’re married to her?”

“No, lord,” Aengus said gravely to the lad, “I’ve not that honor. I’m looking for the man who has.”

The eldest prince smirked. “Are you taking volunteers?”

Him again. Aengus stared at him, unsmiling.

The middle boy looked merely overfed and overindulged, and the youngster at the far end awkwardly endearing, with a broad mouth and a head of hair made for ruffling. But the rangy, big-​headed youth at the King’s right hand had a dangerous air.

King Malcolm had mellowed with age and marriage, but in the eldest prince Aengus saw the young man who had murdered his way onto his great-grandfather’s throne.

In the eldest prince Aengus saw the young man who had murdered his way onto his great-grandfather's throne.

“And so you came to ask me where he might be found?” the King asked with a frown that mingled annoyance with boredom.

“If I may humbly ask, lord,” Aengus said. “We thought you might know, seeing as he’s being my cousin Malcolm, called the Cat.”

The King did not so much as twitch. He sprawled still and silent in his throne for long seconds. His mouth still turned down in annoyance, but a new, keen look in his eyes dispelled his air of boredom.

His mouth still turned down in annoyance.

At last he spoke to Lasrua. “Lady, I fear you misunderstood Malcolm’s intentions. You know, you’re not the first woman to come here looking for the man. Most of them,” he added darkly, “with a belly like a ripe melon, or a brat fussing in their arms.”

The eldest prince snorted in amusement. Lasrua took a sharp breath, as if she might cry.

Aengus hurried to say, “There’s no chance of misunderstanding this time, lord. He married her before God. And a priest, and the father of her besides.”

'There's no chance of misunderstanding this time, lord.'

“He did that once before, as I recall,” the King mused. He folded his arms over his belly and tapped his lip. “I cannot remember what ever came of that… Ach, aye, but I do! A cousin of his ran off with the woman. I believe he’s living in Lothere now.”

The eldest prince spoiled the effect of his father’s bland smile by breaking into barking laughter. Some of the other men laughed softly, catching on to the joke.

A strangling knot of humiliation tightened around Aengus’s throat. He couldn’t run, and he couldn’t fling one of these men down onto the dirt to flail at him till the others drove him off with sharp kicks to the head and kidneys. And that was all he’d ever known to do.

“Perhaps you are acquainted with him,” the King added with a gracious nod.

Behind Aengus a man guffawed. The King allowed himself a chuckle. Aengus braced himself for the jeers that were surely building. Why don’t you say something? What’s the matter with you? You stupid or something?

“I am acquainted with him,” Lasrua said.

Above the rumbling of male laughter her lady’s voice was startlingly clear. It silenced the hall like the clang of a bell.

“King Sigefrith,” she said, “calls him his most valuable knight.”

Aengus’s heart warmed, though his head still hung low. God bless her for sticking up for him, but the men would only be amused by the contrast between “Sigefrith’s most valuable knight” and the incompetent ass before them.

“And,” she added, “his beloved friend.”

The King said, “Eh?”


Aengus lifted his head a little. Remarkably, Malcolm appeared to be at a loss for words. Perhaps he had not expected Lasrua to play the same game. Now he was obliged to keep playing it.

“I am certain,” the Prince taunted, “the Cat will be glad to know his wife was in such good hands. We’ll be sure to tell him when next we’re seeing him.”

His father silenced him with a wave of his jeweled hand. “Does Sigefrith know you’re here?” he asked Aengus.

“No, lord. I mean, aye, lord, he knows now, for I sent him a letter when we reached the border.”

The King grunted. On his broad face a frown was gathering.

“We weren’t meaning to be away long, lord,” Aengus hastened to add. “Only to Dunfermline and home again. We thought you might know where my cousin was, lord. For last we heard of him, he was here. A letter from his brother found him here, back in January.”

'A letter from his brother found him here, back in January.'

The King grunted again and laced his fingers over his belly. After a moment’s contemplation he said, “Malcolm never read that letter.”

Aengus’s mouth fell open.

Behind him a sound of murmuring voices arose as the men speculated about what this could mean. They’d all come to complain of fines or fishing rights, and here they were being treated to a right scandalous scene.

The eldest prince grinned with unholy glee, and even the two younger princes sat forward to listen, the middle one waking from his sullen torpor to stare, and the youngest watching with a look of wincing sympathy.

The youngest watched with a look of wincing sympathy.

After pausing to savor the effects of his words, the King added, “But he did get the important part of the message. ‘She’s alive,’ wasn’t it?” He turned to Lasrua. “That was you, wasn’t it? ‘She’s alive?’”

The poor girl! She could only nod dumbly. Her eyes had the dazed look of a dying deer struggling to stay on its feet. Aengus wanted to gather her up close and spirit her away, but she stood beyond the reach of the merest handclasp.

“Well!” The King coughed. “That was being enough for him. When he learned you were alive and he was, as you claim, married, he ran for the nearest ship. By the time we were looking for him to arrive at the castle to read his letter, he was already at sea.”

“An eloquent reply, at that,” the Prince said admiringly.

'An eloquent reply, at that.'

The King shifted on his throne and rubbed his pants.

“Surely,” the Prince continued, “nothing more need be said. Or would you have preferred a letter? ‘Dearest wife, pardon my absence, but I’d hoped you were dead.’”

Aengus shouted, “Enough!” before he recalled that the lad was a royal prince, and a boy besides—more of an age for a spanking than for the fist to the jaw that Aengus reckoned he deserved.

“It wouldn’t surprise me a bit!” Aengus continued irresistibly, for he was filled almost to choking with bitterness towards men who had lovely, living wives and publicly scorned them. His feckless cousin foremost of all.

“If he could trouble himself to write a letter, that is! If good and gentle folk have to die for Malcolm’s convenience, then so be it! I wouldn’t expect any better of him!”

“Malcolm,” the King said warningly, “is a friend of mine.”

“Good! Then mayhap as you know where he may be found!” Remembering himself, Aengus added limply, “My lord.”

'My lord.'

“I do not.”

Confounded, Aengus stuttered, “You—you don’t?”

“No, no, no, I do not!” The King reared up and whacked his hand on the arm of his throne. “That was months ago! And if he’s thinking his kin are hounding him all the way to Dunfermline, ’twill be months before he’s showing his face here again! Young lady, he doesn’t want you! Don’t make yourself absurd. You’re deserving better than that.”

“We’ve one of his by-​blows working at the stud in Edinburgh,” the Prince said. “Mayhap you’ll like him just as well. You’re closer in age.”

Aengus remembered himself just in time and barked, “My lord!” instead of “Cur!” Both his voice and the finger he raised to point at the boy were trembling, but he went on.

“I’ve heard plenty of slurs out of you and let them pass because I’m old enough to be your father. But that is a rank insult, and you shall apologize!”

The Prince glanced at his father. Malcolm sat stony-​faced against the back of his throne, too intent on watching Aengus to acknowledge his son.

“Now I understand,” Aengus said to them both, “why a lady in this chamber is such a rare sight! I had thought that I could safely bring a maiden into the house of a queen famed for her piety and virtue.”

The Prince sat forward. “Do you insult my mother, sir?”

“No! You do!”

An ugly rumble arose behind him. Aengus had done it again. It was too late, he thought, to tack on a humble “my lord.”

“If my sons,” the King said, glowering at Aengus, “are not treating ladies as they ought, the fault is not their mother’s, but mine.”

Aengus blanched. O Holy God, had he just insulted the High King?

“Apologize to this lady,” the King commanded his son.

'Apologize to this lady.'

“But, Father—”

The King slammed his fist on the arm of his throne. “Apologize!”

The Prince worked his mouth in a foul grimace, but at last he spat out, “I beg your pardon, lady.”

Aengus felt the first easing of the tension and indulged himself for a few seconds by closing his eyes. He was startled out of his relief by the King thundering just as loudly—at him, this time.

He was startled out of his relief by the King thundering just as loudly.

“Out of love for Sigefrith I’ll forget I ever saw you here! Swaggering into my hall with your paws all over Malcolm’s wife and presuming to give my sons lessons in morals! And as for you, young lady, get you back to the land from whence you came. I do not know where Malcolm is, and I would not tell you if I did! I know Malcolm, and he’s not the marrying kind. If he spoke such words before a priest, you may be certain, he was coerced by either threats or witchcraft!”

A shocked murmur rolled over the room.

A shocked murmur rolled over the room. Even the bodyguards came alert and sidled closer. Aengus’s heart pounded, preparing his body not for a panicked flailing this time, but for the very real combat that seemed to be brewing.

“Mayhap,” Thorfinnsson interrupted with his cavernous voice, “as the Cat had simply never met her equal before that day.”

The King snorted. “Mayhap not, but he thought better of it straightaway after, didn’t he?”

He turned back to Lasrua and for an instant appeared disconcerted by the sight. Aengus looked and saw her staring at the King—not with her chin lifted to its loftiest heights, as he might have expected of her pride, but with a thoughtful tilt to her head. It was just the sort of look that might worry a man who believed her capable of witchcraft.

O Holy God, she wasn’t about to make the High King of Scots piss himself, was she?

“What?” the King bellowed. “What are you staring at all gimlet-​eyed, woman?”

“I had thought,” she said in very precise, very pretty Gaelic, “that all kings must be like Sigefrith. But I see it is not so.”

'But I see it is not so.'

Thorfinnsson broke into magnificent laughter. There was silence all around him. Nobody else dared so much as smirk.

Aengus held his breath, waiting to see what the King would say next. Lasrua did not wait, but curtseyed as Hetty had taught her. Aengus, growing giddy from lack of air, followed her lead and bowed towards the throne.

“You lot,” the King growled through his teeth, “may go.”

'You lot may go.'

Lasrua curtseyed again and turned as gracefully as if her mud-​stained cloak had been swathes of swishy skirts. Aengus made another stiff bob and stepped up beside her, trying to walk steadily in spite of his instinctive cringing against the imminent pelting of kicks or stones.

“Crossgate House!” Thorfinnsson called after them. “I hope to see you all tonight.”

Aengus strained his head in urgent search of a parting shot: for one redeeming retort that might erase every idiotic thing he had said.

But it was Lasrua, once again, who found the most cutting reply. She merely turned her head away as she walked, and ran her disinterested gaze over the stony faces of saints on the walls. And she reached out and clasped Aengus’s hand.

And she reached out and clasped Aengus's hand.