Dunfermline, Scotland

They had kept Aengus awake so long.

When the Cat was away, it seemed the rats in his loft played tag.

No doubt the old lady was too deaf to hear their thumping and scrabbling overhead, but they’d kept Aengus awake so long that he’d already had occasion to toss another log on the fire. That last series of thumps had sounded like they’d begun a rousing game of leapfrog.

He wondered whether Lasrua would still find this place preferable to the noisy tavern by morning. He also wondered whether that was really why she had wanted to sleep in Malcolm’s house tonight. She hadn’t wanted to sleep in Malcolm’s bed. He didn’t know what to think about that.

Aengus had just flopped his head back onto his arm when he heard a scuffling that was due to no rat. More like a pair of feet scuffing up the dirt path out front. Marcan probably, he told himself, but still his breath came faster.

The person outside hesitated so long that Aengus began to doubt he’d heard anything at all. Then a fist pounded on the door, and Aengus was up and off the blanket before it had finished knocking. Definitely not Marcan.

He grabbed his sword and glanced at his boots and shirt. No, the sword would have to do.

No, the sword would have to do.

If the Law was after them for housebreaking or treason, then a voice outside would have been shouting for him to open in the name of the King.

No, it was Thorfinnsson, probably, who’d told them where to find the house in the first place: angry that his supper invitation had not been interpreted as a command. Since he’d not had Lasrua for supper or dessert, he thought he was going to have her as a midnight snack.

“The Devil you are,” Aengus muttered as he stalked across the dirt floor.

He pounded on Domnall’s door to wake him. Domnall was sleeping in Malcolm’s bed, since Lasrua had demurred.

The man outside must have heard the knocking, but didn’t make a sound.

Domnall’s door opened, and he looked out, bleary-​eyed.

“Get your sword.”

Domnall turned back into the room and came out again a few seconds later, sword in hand and considerably more alert.

“What’s going on?”

“Remember,” Aengus said low, “how I told you for some things a man turns the other cheek, and how some things are worth dying over?”

'Some things are worth dying over.'

“Who is it?”

“I’m not certain yet, but if he’s after Rua, then that’s worth dying over. And I’ve loved you like a brother, lad, but whatever happens to me, you stay with her.”

Domnall whistled through his teeth.

Aengus shouted, “Who’s there?”

A long hesitation. Aengus’s heart pounded just as it had in the King’s audience chamber, but by God, he wasn’t nervous now. Thorfinnsson might be clever enough to trip him up with his own words, but Aengus could say things with a sword that few men could answer.

Then a young, cracking voice called back, “Prince Ethelred, sir!”

Him again!

Aengus swung around to face Domnall. “The Devil it is!” he whispered. “If you even think about making your prophecy come to pass, the King is going to be walking over the graves of us all!”

Domnall lowered his sword point and sighed.

'It's Etbard you're thinking of.'

“It’s Etbard you’re thinking of. Ethelred is my age, I think. If not younger.”

Aengus gaped at him. “You don’t say!”

Then he turned back to the door.

“What’s the trouble, lord?” He had a rare cunning thought and added, “Are you alone?”

“Ah… aye! If you please, sir!”

Aengus turned to stare bug-​eyed at Domnall while he threw back the bolt. Fancy that! he was thinking. Domnall just looked tired.

Sure enough, there was the youngest prince on the threshold, looking so humble that one would have thought him a beggar child if he hadn’t been dressed so finely.

There was the youngest prince on the threshold.

“I’m sorry to wake you, sir,” the prince said.

His gaze traveled down Aengus’s front, and his eyes widened. Aengus glanced down at his naked chest before he remembered his weapon.

“Ach! Sorry about that.” He hurriedly leaned the sword against the wall. “Thought you were your brother, you see. Ah… not that I would greet your brother with a sword. Thought you were someone else entirely, in fact. How do you do? Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you, but I would rather not. That way if someone asks me whether I was here tonight, I’ve a little room to… not tell the whole truth.”

“I see,” Aengus said.

'I see.'

“How did you know we were here?” Domnall asked suspiciously. Aengus turned to frown at him, and with a note of resignation Domnall added, “My lord.”

“Where else would you be?” Ethelred asked softly, blinking as he looked from face to face. “It’s her house, too, isn’t it? The lady’s, I mean.”

Aengus hadn’t even thought of that. Was that why she had wanted to stay here tonight, even when she’d not had the stomach to help them look through the bric-​a-​brac in Malcolm’s room? Even when they’d found no clue? Did she want to lay claim to what was hers, if only for a night?

“I’ve been here before,” Ethelred added as if he felt an explanation was expected. “Colban was… I visited him here when he and his father were here.”

'I visited him here when he and his father were here.'

The poor boy looked as if he believed he was confessing to a crime.

“Made friends, did you?” Aengus asked cheerily. “A friend of Colban’s is a friend of mine. What can we do for you, lad?”

Ethelred peeked up and risked a quick smile. “I’m here to do something for you. For the lady, I mean. I have a… something to tell her. It’s a little awkward. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind passing the message?”

Aengus thought it likely Lasrua was already listening behind her door. But he said, “I’d be glad to.”

'I'd be glad to.'

The boy took a deep breath. “So. The truth is, I’m not certain Malcolm ever received that message.”

He peeked up at Aengus’s face. Aengus felt his cheery smile fading away.

“You see,” Ethelred said so quietly he could scarcely be heard, “’Twas I who brought the message that morning. ‘She’s alive?’ That was I.”

'That was I.'


“I told it to Colban, but the truth is… The truth is, I’m not certain he told his father, you see. I told him the message, and I told him his father had a letter at the castle, but when I asked him what the message meant, he said it was about a… a mare.”

Aengus choked. “A mare?

“I think he didn’t want to tell me the truth,” the boy hurried to explain, “and I don’t blame him at all. It was a confidential message…”

Ethelred trailed off, and Aengus heard a clink behind him: a door latch falling open.

He looked. Lasrua had stepped into the doorway of her narrow bedchamber, where the shadows of the house were deepest, but she shone out of them the way an unlit white candle will glow in a dark room. Her hair was loose and—O Holy God—she wore naught but her shift. Even at Drumdunaidh she’d been too shy to take off her gray wool gown.

And Malcolm never read that letter.

Aengus turned away.

“It’s all right, love. Come nigh,” he said. “This gentleman has something to tell you.”

'This gentleman has something to tell you.'

Seldom, he thought, had he said such poignant words.

“Good evening,” the Prince said, blushing and fidgeting. “How do you do?”

Lasrua padded up to stop just behind Aengus’s shoulder. He could hear her bare legs swishing against the linen of her shift. In spite of the night air he could smell her warm, sleepy-​girl smell, like the heads of his daughters.

Domnall announced, “His lordship says Malcolm mightn’t have received that message.”

His frank speech sounded relentless somehow.

'His lordship says Malcolm mightn't have received that message.'

“He says ’twas he who delivered it, and he told Cubby, not Malcolm. So we don’t know whether Cubby told his father.”

“It’s probably my fault,” Ethelred said miserably. “We quarreled when I stopped here, and I fear he didn’t tell his father about the letter because he didn’t want to meet me again at the castle.”

“It takes two to quarrel, lad,” Aengus said. “Besides, he could have told his father after they were at sea. Malcolm would have had plenty of time to return, or at least to write.”

Aengus hesitated. Was he trying to turn the blame back onto Malcolm? Perhaps this was one of those times when he had best keep his mouth shut.

“Mayhap he forgot?” Ethelred said hopefully. “Or mayhap he thought it truly was a mare. Err…”

'Or mayhap he thought it truly was a mare.'

He’d just remembered Lasrua, but it seemed he could only look at her in peeks and glances. Aengus wondered whether the lad had ever seen a young lady in her underclothes or her night things before.

Domnall saved the Prince from his self-​consciousness by saying flatly, “He knows it was she. He and Cedric overheard Sigefrith and Malcolm talking about the accident right after it happened. He knew exactly what that message was about.”

“Cubby,” Aengus said slowly, “wouldn’t have kept a thing like that to himself.”

He scolded himself for every word, but he simply couldn’t give Malcolm the benefit of the doubt if it meant maligning Colban.

“It’s not like Cubby,” he explained to Domnall. “He wouldn’t leave a man grieving just to avoid seeing a lad he’d lately quarreled with. Or even to avoid spoiling a trip with his father. ’Tisn’t like him. I’m not saying he never told a lie, but he has a good heart.”

'I'm not saying he never told a lie, but he has a good heart.'

Domnall countered, “Mayhap as he didn’t know how to tell him after a day or two had gone by. How could he? ‘Ach, sorry, Da, I forgot to tell you. Your wife is alive.’ The longer he waited the more impossible ’twould seem.”

Aengus inclined his head, allowing that. He hadn’t quite forgotten how impossible the impossible of twelve could be.

“’Twill be eating his heart like a canker by now,” he said softly.

'’Twill be eating his heart like a canker by now.'

And Malcolm’s heart? O Holy God. Had he truly believed her dead all this time? How would he feel when he learned?

Aengus closed his eyes, choked almost to tears by a surge of shadowy grief. He tried to push it back, to swallow it down before he had to look it in the face.

Lasrua padded closer, bringing her almost shoulder-​to-​shoulder with him. The cold night air billowed through the open door, chilling the sweat on his cheeks, and he opened his eyes.

“I wish I could tell you what really happened,” Ethelred said. “Mayhap as Colban told his father the instant I left, and he ran away because he wasn’t wanting to be found, just as my father said. But mayhap as he didn’t, and I thought you ought to know the truth.”

'I thought you ought to know the truth.'

Nobody answered. Aengus heard the thump-​thump-​thump of a rat somersaulting overhead.

Ethelred lowered his eyes. The poor boy looked like his heart had been gnawed to the quick by the fear he’d had something to do with Malcolm’s failure to return. Or maybe by disappointment in his friend. Either way, it looked like the nervous little fellow had mustered all his meager courage to come, and nobody would congratulate him for it hereafter.

“Thank you, lad,” Aengus said gravely. “You’ve done a good thing. The right thing.”

Out of his mind’s timeworn little deck of practical Bible phrases he drew the top card and quoted, “And ye shall know the truth…”

'And ye shall know the truth...'

But he had spoken without thinking, as was his way. He trailed off, but every one of them—every one except Lasrua—must have heard the rest in their heads. And the truth shall make you free.

Another throb of grief tightened his throat. The same one returning or another, he didn’t care to look. Only more dumb suffering. Only a reminder that he was all harrowed-​up inside, and not the sort of man to whom fairy tale happy endings were delivered by young princes with mouths like frogs.

“I brought you this, too,” Ethelred said.

He held out a folded and sealed parchment. Aengus swallowed, and as he took it, he asked mechanically, “What is it?” There was an address written neatly on the surface, but his numb mind could only stare at the letters without seeing the words.

“’Tis a letter to my father’s man in Paris,” Ethelred said. “He should be able to tell you where Malcolm is, or at least where he went if he didn’t stay in Paris.”

“In Paris, you say?” Aengus examined the letter more closely.

“That’s where he and Colban were headed. Malcolm buys horses for my father there. At least—” He caught himself and sucked in his breath.

'At least--'

“I know what he does there,” Aengus reassured him. He tapped the letter against his palm and went to tuck it into his purse before he remembered he was wearing nothing but a pair of trousers.

“I signed it with my own name,” Ethelred said regretfully. “I dared not sign my brother’s. But he might not notice. Etbard, Etmond, Ethelred, Etgair—even my father gets us mixed up sometimes.”

He and Aengus both glanced at Aengus’s sword propped up in the corner, and they exchanged sheepish grins.

Aengus flipped up the edge of the cloak hanging beside the door and slid the letter into the bag that was slung over the same hook.

“Thank you, laddie,” he said. “Er… my lord, that is. We shall treat this visit with the utmost confidentiality. If anyone asks I shall… not tell the whole truth.”

He winked down at the boy and busied his hands with the flap and straps of his bag. He realized he was going to have to look at Lasrua sooner or later. He had no idea how she was taking the news. She’d kept her emotions hid behind a stony silence, as was her way.

“Would you do one favor for me?” Ethelred asked meekly.

“I owe you one.”

“If you see Colban, would you kindly tell him I found his horse? That is, I bought him and brought him here.”

“His horse!”

“Aye, he had to sell his horse at Tynemouth when they took a ship.”

Aengus let the cloak fall and turned a grim stare onto Domnall. “Sigefrith gave him that horse. He loved that horse.”

'He loved that horse.'

Domnall’s flat mouth did not change its line. Perhaps a father who made his son sell a beloved mount could not impress a lad whose father had erased his very existence.

But Aengus thought a boy—even a good-​hearted little boy like Colban—might see fit to punish such a father by denying him some other sort of love.

“He’s a fine horse,” Ethelred offered weakly.

“Aye, that he is. We’ll be sure to to tell Colban. And it’s grateful he will be.”

Aengus brushed the cloak flat and turned. All this time he’d been standing so close to Lasrua that his bare arm felt the air she warmed, but the sight of her arrested him.

He had seen plenty of lasses in their underclothes and night things, but somehow this one awoke in him the old awkward eagerness, the humble unworthiness, that sense of miracles falling into his lap that he’d supposed he’d long since outgrown. Somehow he was thirteen again, beholding his first half-​dressed girl, and trying to fathom the idea that she was a feast all for him.

Only she was not for him. Malcolm had never read that letter.

Aengus slapped on a smile and said, “Fancy that! I always did say I was sorry to think so ill of my cousin.”

Lasrua answered his smile with one of her own, after a slight delay.

Lasrua answered his smile with one of her own.

“Mayhap as we maligned him,” Aengus said. “But we couldn’t know. That’s what comes of a bad reputation, eh? So keep your noses clean, laddies.”

He pretended to stare sternly first at Domnall and then at Ethelred, which gave him an excuse to stop looking at Lasrua and something to do with his mouth besides smile.

Ethelred blushed and grinned and fidgeted, but Domnall only looked mildly offended, as if his nose or his reputation could not be a matter of doubt.

“I shall try to keep it well-​scrubbed, sir,” Ethelred said. “I’d better go. I shall have to go search the taverns for one of my brothers, so I might have an alibi. And I shall have to get drunk to have an excuse for sneaking out.”

He so wrinkled his nose over the word “drunk” that Aengus laughed aloud.

“Have just a pint,” he advised, “and use the excuse that you wanted to look at some pretty girls. You’ll feel better for it in the morning. Unless you fall in love with one of them, in which event you’ll never sleep quite so well again.”

Ethelred wrinkled his nose a second time, but he grinned. Had an endearing smile, the lad did. Wriggly as a puppy, too.

'Perhaps I shall stick to the ale.'

“Perhaps I shall stick to the ale,” he said.

Aengus took a deep breath and turned to Lasrua. “Aye now, love,” he said with a slight note of admonishment, “it’s a handsome thing his lordship has done for us, for sure and for certain.”

She started awake and blurted, “Thank you.”

Her voice was weak and reedy for just that phrase. After that it lowered back into the mellow, almost mannish gravity of her guarded speech.

“Thank you for telling us,” she said. “And thank you for the letter. I hope you won’t have any trouble because of me.”

'I hope you won't have any trouble because of me.'

The poor boy tried to scoff manfully, “It wouldn’t signify,” but the effect was somewhat spoiled by his pink cheeks and foolish smile.

“God bless you, lord,” Aengus said. “Somebody’s raising sons the right way up at that castle.”

Ethelred had been backing through the doorway, but he stopped. “I apologize for those things my brother said.”

“Let your brother apologize for his own self,” Aengus said. “You’ve honored your mother tonight, and that’s what matters.”

Ethelred lowered his head and looked as if he might object, but instead he stepped back out into the night.

“Good night, and God bless you all,” he said softly as he began pushing the door closed after him.

'Good night, and God bless you all.'

From his deck of favorite blessings Aengus selected the one most favored by boys and called back, “Good night, laddie! May misfortune follow after you all your life!”

He waited for the flicker of confusion to cross Ethelred’s face, and swept in for the kill.

“…And never catch up!” he added brightly.

'...And never catch up!'

Ethelred broke into the most ridiculous grin, and the last thing Aengus saw before the door thudded shut was a mess of unruly auburn hair, pink cheeks, and a broad mouth panting with laughter. An endearing little mutt, was Ethelred of Scotland.

Aengus shook his head and went on smiling until the bolt had cracked back down and startled the rats overhead into a crescendo of scurrying and thumping.

Then an icy fist closed around his heart as he remembered what that had been all about.

“Aye, then,” he said, running his hand along the cold iron bolt in an attempt to steel himself for what came next. “Fancy that.”

He turned.

He turned.

She looked overwrought, poor girlie, and no wonder. She could dry her tears as fast as she cried them, but he was beginning to recognize that shattered look she forced onto her face when she did: an expression reconstructed piecemeal from bits of a smile and bits of a sob.

Aengus stepped closer, slid his hands down her bare arms, and gently clasped her hands.

“’Tisn’t much,” he said, “but it’s something. We know how we might get word to him. And you’re having a bit of hope kindled up again, after all, aren’t you, love? I wager you aren’t knowing quite what to think, are you?”

'I wager you aren't knowing quite what to think, are you?'

She shook her head. Her breast rose and fell in gasps, like the belly of a sleeping kitten. Malcolm’s necklace twinkled at her throat. She wore it still.

“We’re not quite where we were last winter,” he said, “when we looked for his return every day. But it’s something. Mayhap as he would be rushing home if only he knew. And what an Easter miracle that would be.”

She sucked her bottom lip and nodded resolutely.

“We shall let you get back to bed, love, to lie your poor head. You must be feeling as tossed-​about as a feather in a whirlwind.”

Her little jagged smile widened a bit and faded.

Her little jagged smile widened a bit and faded.

“Good night, then,” he said. “God rest you and counsel you.”

She nodded a last time, too shaken-​up for words. He told himself it was quite understandable. He’d wanted to spare her the need for speech, after all. And what could she have to say to him?

So he squeezed her hands conclusively and let them go, and she turned to walk back to her room.

She turned to walk back to her room.

Her bare feet padded across the dirty floor, and Aengus had the fleeting thought that he would have been content to lie down and be a rug for her, if only she would promise to tread on him all his life.

For what man wouldn’t have daydreamed a little? He wasn’t foolish enough to ascribe much significance to that stolen embrace at Drumdunaidh—she’d given her hand in marriage on the surety of nothing more than one slippery kiss in the rain, after all. She was young and yearning and dangerously susceptible: every nuance of attraction and courtship was wonderful and new to her.

But given time...

But given time… when he would no longer feel like he was betraying Maire with every smile he shared with her… when she would no longer be looking for Malcolm or an antidote to Malcolm but simply looking for love…

What man would not have thought of it, at least in dreams?

But in life, of course, Aengus was and always had been a rug.

'Only think, if we'd stayed at the tavern.'

“Only think, if we’d stayed at the tavern,” Domnall said ironically.

Aengus rubbed his hands over his face and sighed. How tired he was. How tossed-​about and tired.

“The truth is like the dust, lad,” he said. “It’s always finding a crack and blowing in.”

Aengus rubbed his hands over his face and sighed.