Dunfermline, Scotland

Lasrua could not fathom the logic of the carpenter who had built the old woman's bed.

Lasrua could not fathom the logic of the carpenter who had built the old woman’s bed.

She lay flat with her legs stretched straight out before her, and tall as she was, there was room enough for someone to sit on the mattress without squashing her feet. Meanwhile the bed frame was only two planks wide, and if she were to lie on her side and draw up her knees, she would have to press her behind against the clammy wall to keep her legs from flopping out.

She knew, because she’d tried it—and many other positions so far.

The hour was so late even the rats had finally fallen asleep. But Lasrua’s blanket was too scratchy, her pillow as lumpy as a sack of turnips; her head ached, and O Mother, she could not stop thinking that coming to Dunfermline was the most boneheaded thing she had ever done in her life.

This was getting her nowhere. She kicked the blanket off her legs and got up.

She kicked the blanket off her legs and got up.

She had dried more of her tears than was good for her eyes, she thought, or else she’d simply been staring at the rat-​infested ceiling for too long. Her eyelids scratched like they were lined with scraps of the blanket.

She shuffled all the way down to the foot of the ridiculous bed, took a drink from one of Malcolm’s chunky ceramic cups, and splashed the remaining water into her hand to bathe her eyes.

She was careful not to let it splatter into the basin, but she heard a sound from the front room all the same. A startled sniff? Was Aengus sleeping fitfully too?

She set down the cup and listened. The sniff was followed by a definite sniffle. And then the unmistakable trumpet blast of Aengus blowing his nose.

Either Aengus was crying, or Aengus was coming down with a cold.

Lasrua picked up the towel and wrung it between her hands. Her heart flapped and fluttered.

Go to him, it said.

He’s not crying over me, she replied.

What if he is?

He isn’t.

Lasrua dropped the twisted towel and lifted the latch so carefully even she could scarcely hear its clink.

She paused in the doorway, giving her dry eyes time to adjust to the firelight and the stark shadows it cast.

Aengus had pulled a chair up before the hearth. It was one of a pair of richly carved, heavy oaken chairs that proved a nobleman owned the house, and not the little grizzled woman who had knitted the rugs, embroidered the bread cloths, and scoured the roughhewn trestle tabletop until the wood had the velvety texture of a peach.

Lasrua wondered for whom Malcolm had bought the other carved chair. She did not think it had been for the little grizzled woman.

She padded through the entry and into the center of the firelit room, but Aengus seemed not to have heard.

Aengus seemed not to have heard.

He sat slumped over his lap, his arms dangling between his knees, but his shoulders shifted and his arms flexed. She guessed he was abusing his handkerchief just as she had been twisting her towel. Oh, he had been crying! His heart ached just like hers.


“The Devil!” Aengus shot up straight and looked around before slumping over again in a pantomime of panting relief.

Lasrua said, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sneak.”

“One of these days I’m going to put a bell around your neck, like Ete’s cat.”

His voice was thick. He tossed a smiling glance over his shoulder, but he seemed unwilling to turn all the way around. He rested his head on his hand for a moment, but it looked more like an excuse to furtively wipe his cheek with the heel of his hand.

He’d been crying, thinking he had a moment of privacy. She knew men hated to be seen to cry, and she had come breezing in to catch him in the act. How sickeningly selfish she was. Why didn’t she realize these things immediately before doing them, instead of immediately after?

“Can’t sleep either?” he asked stuffily. “Pull up a chair.”

She shuffled closer. “I’m not bothering you?”

“You, love?” he asked in weak astonishment. “Anyway, I could use the company.”

And what else was he supposed to say? No, woman, in fact, I wish you’d leave me in peace. Not Aengus.

But she couldn’t think of an excuse for coming out here. A midnight snack? He would just invite her to have a snack with him.

Lasrua picked up the chair and marched it over to set it beside his, with the two front legs on the rug.

Lasrua picked up the chair and marched it over to set it beside his.

“Sleep at all?” he asked.

“I don’t think so. Not for long if I did.”

He grunted. “Think I must have. One minute the rats were having wrestling matches above my head, and next thing I knew they were quiet.”

“You heard them?”

“Heard them? Love, I was keeping score!”

That was Aengus: cracking jokes even while tears were drying on his face. Lasrua laughed to please him, but it wasn’t easy with the ache that was tightening around her chest.

Aengus chuckled a little, too, but that seemed to unset his hastily constructed composure. He turned his face away to hide it in his handkerchief and played another toot on his nose.

“Sorry,” he mumbled afterward. He dropped his arms again and folded his handkerchief between his knees, as if there were a point in hiding it from her any longer. “I was just sitting up and thinking. A dangerous thing to do at this hour.”

'A dangerous thing to do at this hour.'

Lasrua hesitated behind her chair. She could not think of a single discreet excuse that would allow her to leave him in peace. Probably because she was too busy wondering whether he had been thinking about her.

He said, “I cannot help imagining how Malcolm’s going to feel when he hears the truth, if he isn’t knowing.” He shook his head over his lap. “It’s many a departed soul I’ve resurrected this night.”

So he had been imagining himself in Malcolm’s place… but not because he wanted to be Lasrua’s husband. He wanted to be a man whose wife came back from the dead.

He twisted stiffly and reached back to her. He was shirtless still, and the muscles of his shoulder bunched around his lifted arm. She felt the urge to lay her hand on them and sense her own delicacy, as she did with the war horses.

She, meanwhile, was still wandering around in her shift, and she was chilled and fluttery enough that her nipples were hard against the linen. But she saw she might have spared herself the discomfort of sleeping in her wool gown this past week, for all Aengus had noticed.

“Sit down, won’t you, love?” he said. “You make me feel like you’re sitting in judgment of me back there. Or standing, rather.” He snorted wryly.

Lasrua stepped around the chair. Aengus took her hand as she passed and gave her something to lean upon as she sat. Her heart trilled at the attention and the brief contact with his skin, but he let go right away. They would not, as she had scarcely had time to hope, sit before the fire hand-​in-​hand. In fact, Aengus had never tried to hold her hand.

Lasrua propped her chin on it instead.

Lasrua propped her chin on it instead.

They were silent for a while. The night wind sighed across the shingled roof. Wisps of flame fluttered over the surface of the coals.

Aengus shifted in his chair and asked, “You weren’t, were you?”

“Weren’t what?”

“Sitting in judgment back there?”

For what? she wondered. For wishing his wife were still alive?

“Who wouldn’t imagine that?” she asked. “Only someone who has never loved anyone, or never lost anyone.”

Aengus made a companionable grunt, and sat back, satisfied.

“Anyway,” she added, her pulse quickening with her daring, “I do not blame anyone for what he dreams. Even if he dreams of impossible things.”

Now say something, Aengus, she thought. Say something that will make the thing possible.

“It’s a bad habit of mine,” Aengus confessed. “Used to do that a lot, when I was a lad.”

Lasrua tucked her hair behind her ear and tilted her head to look at him, distracted from her own thoughts. He so rarely talked about that time.

“Used to imagine my mother coming home,” he said. “I thought of everything. Imagined she had run off with another man, and they all pretended she was dead to hide the shame. Or she’d been kidnapped, or had quarreled with my Da and gone home, or ’twas all some incredible mistake and they’d buried the wrong corpse.”

'It was all some incredible mistake and they'd buried the wrong corpse.'

He laughed a brittle laugh.

“I figured it was the only thing that might fix things around home, if my mother came back. Wager it was, too. We might have had three hot meals on the table every day. We might have been able to find the table, beneath the mess.”

He cackled again. Lasrua blinked at him, growing a little breathless. The little she knew about his childhood had mostly come to her thirdhand from Cat, who’d heard it from her older sisters. And Cat could say things with an air that made it seem Aengus was somewhat to blame, simply for being Aengus.

Aengus prodded at the rumpled blanket with his toe. “Might have had clean laundry on a regular schedule, and stockings without holes, and sweaters knitted just for me. Might have had brothers and sisters to lord it over. And my Da might have been that jolly fellow our kin were always saying he was, before he lost my mother.”

He paused and held Lasrua’s gaze, looking a little breathless himself. Lasrua watched as his eyes grew shimmery with tears. When he spoke again his voice cracked.

“Do you suppose my babies will be getting into that imagining habit, too, because of me?”

'Do you suppose my babies will be getting into that imagining habit, too, because of me?'

Poor Aengus! Lasrua’s heart told her to reach across the empty space and touch him. But what if he gently plucked her hand from his arm and pushed her away, as he had at Drumdunaidh?

“Well,” she said in her prosiest voice, “you’ve the servants, and Cat knits…”

Stupid! Stupid! He wasn’t talking about clean laundry or hot meals or sweaters.

Aengus bit his lip. Lasrua leaned over the arm of her chair, desperate to erase her mistake.

“Aengus,” she said, introducing the emptiest, vainest advice she would most likely ever speak, “if you don’t want to be like your father… don’t be like your father.”


Aengus turned to look guiltily at the pitcher and cup that stood on a stool beside his chair. She hadn’t even thought of that!

“I only poured the one cup, I swear,” he said. “I wouldn’t leave you undefended.”

“That’s not what I…”

“I wouldn’t…”

“I meant…”


Their stare felt as intimate as nudity once their babble of words dried up and nothing remained to distract them.

Reach out, Lasrua pleaded, and I will take your hand.

Aengus turned away and plunked his elbows down on his knees.

“Anyway, love, it’s kind of you to listen to me when you’ve your own cares, but I should be listening to yours. What a day it’s been, eh? Everything’s changed. Again!”

Aengus glanced up at her, probably smiling, but Lasrua could not look. She flattened her hand against her mouth and waited out the tears that were shimmering in her eyes. Aengus had unclosed his heart to her for just a moment—shown her some of his boyhood unhappiness and begged her advice about his present grief—and she had botched it. She feared he would not soon make the attempt again.

She feared he would not soon make the attempt again.

More gently he said, “I wager you were wondering what we should do next.”

Lasrua uncovered her mouth. She must at least seem collected.

“I don’t know what we can do,” she said. “Or what we ought to do.”

Aengus grunted. “Me neither. But I am wanting to get out of this town as soon as ever we can, if you aren’t minding. There’s aught but trouble for us here. As soon as Marcan returns I’d like to pack up and go.”

Lasrua attempted a smile. “Marcan might mind.”

“Ach! He knew ’twas a doomed romance. I daresay he made the most of it though. And from the looks of that lassie, so did she. He’ll have slept no more than we this night.”

With a hint of a suggestive drawl, Lasrua said, “And we haven’t even made the most of it.”

'And we haven't even made the most of it.'

Say something, Aengus, she pleaded. Wriggle your eyebrows and make a ludicrous proposal. Say there’s an hour yet to dawn.

Instead he pronounced an “Ach!” thick with disgust. “Unlike our man Marcan I want nothing more than to see the end of it! I daresay ’twill all seem simple in the morning. Things often do. But just now—begging your pardon—I’ll be damned if I know what to do.”

Lasrua sighed.

“We cannot send a letter from the Prince’s hand by any merchant ship or roundabout way,” Aengus said. “‘Twould have to be hand-​carried by a messenger, aye? The sort of messenger one can send across the sea. And that’s hard to come by.”

He sat back and clasped the finial of the chair behind his head, sprawling without self-​consciousness as he mused.

He sat back and clasped the finial of the chair behind his head.

The muscles of his chest stretched flat, making deeply sculpted hollows of his armpits, lined with silky hair. The two dark circles of his nipples lifted high, and were transformed from insignificant spots into the center of Lasrua’s attention. Who had ever decided that it was perfectly all right for men to go around shirtless?

“I can’t imagine Sigefrith would lend us one of his envoys,” Aengus said. “Begging your pardon, love, but Sigefrith wouldn’t piss on Malcolm if he were on fire. And that’s nearly the nicest thing he’s said about him this year past. You’ll be understanding why.”

He turned to her, and Lasrua nodded, attempting to look serious.

He turned to her, and Lasrua nodded, attempting to look serious.

“And I’m not trusting his brother,” Aengus continued. “Seems to me his messenger didn’t try very hard, leaving his work to a gawky young lad such as we met tonight. To be honest, it’s a fair bit surprised I am, to learn that it happened just as Colban told us. I wasn’t convinced he didn’t make the whole story up to give Malcolm a chance to get away. May he forgive me for doubting him. But I still think he’d rather Malcolm never married at all.”

He tapped his head against the finial a few times and sighed.

“No, love, Colban might help us out of duty. But I misdoubt he wouldn’t try very hard.”

Aengus rolled the back of his head against his fists and lazily rocked his crossed legs on one heel. He was not slouching but stretching. He was power in repose. Glimmers of tension flickered down the long lines of his arms, down his chest and flanks, and could even be guessed at in the thighs that rounded the loose fabric of his trousers.

His stomach was not flat, but gently domed from a slight clenching of the muscles, and a shadowy gap could just be seen where his waistband stretched over the hollow between belly and hip. The discovery made Lasrua’s belly feel heavy and her head feel light. O Mother, would she ever dare slide her hand down that soft trail of hair and into that beckoning darkness? Cat said it could be done.

“If we had all the time in the world,” Aengus said, “it seems to me the right thing to do would be to go and find him ourselves. Mayhap as I ought not take you, for it may be dangerous, but I ought to go. He’s my cousin, and I—”

The crack in his voice brought Lasrua’s attention back to the conversation.

'I owe him one.'

“I owe him one,” he concluded shakily. “But I gave Sigefrith my word we would be home by Low Sunday.”

He released the finial and sat forward again, propping his chin on his hand. His powerful body fell into a slouch. His belly softened and filled the waistband of his trousers.

Lasrua remembered she would never be allowed to touch him at all, and she turned her face away, letting her lids slide low over her eyes.

“So in conclusion,” Aengus muttered, “I’ll be damned. Begging your pardon.”

They both stared morosely into the fire. In the loft, a couple of rats woke to scuffle and thump, and Aengus swore and Lasrua giggled, but their merriment lasted no longer than a sigh.

Finally Aengus said, “Nothing for it but to go home again and try to think of what to do.”

'Nothing for it but to go home again.'

Lasrua leaned her head far enough to the side that she could peer at him through her drooping lashes.

“Go home,” he said, “and leave Malcolm not knowing. For how much longer, the Devil only knows. And leaving us not knowing, which is killing me, too, for your sake, love.”

Lasrua tried to will him into saying, ‘And for my sake, too.’

He must have noticed her staring oddly at him, for he blinked his dark eyes and said, “Say something. It’s I have been doing all the talking.”

Lasrua sighed. “Perhaps,” she mumbled, too tired and too unhappy to lift her head from her hand, “Malcolm knows perfectly well that I am alive. And we’ve both wasted our night lying awake.”

When we could have spent it doing other things, she added in her head. Domnall’s sleeping, Marcan’s making the most of his short-​lived love affair, the old lady is visiting her daughter, and everyone we know is a hundred miles away…

Aengus made a troubled frown. “Perhaps,” he agreed finally. “But we must give him the benefit of the doubt. Are you knowing that phrase?”

'But we must give him the benefit of the doubt.'

Lasrua looked away and scratched her knee. “More or less.”

“It means, if one isn’t knowing the truth, one assumes the best of the other fellow. Now, I’m not denying that an inconvenience of a bad reputation is that other men will tend to think the worst of a body. But what a man thinks says as much about the man himself as about the fellow he’s thinking of. So as Christians we ought always try to think of the best of people, and to forgive them when they do their worst. ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ Ach! That gives me an idea!”

Lasrua did not think his idea—coming after such a prelude—could be all that agreeable, but she looked up.

“We could ask the Church!” he said. “It’s the Church’s affair, after all, who marries whom. We could trust them with the Prince’s letter. And the Church is sending messengers every which way at every season of the year.”

He paused, waiting for Lasrua’s reaction. Lasrua was silent, for a chill was oozing through her blood. Aengus had thought of something. Malcolm might learn. Malcolm might return.

A fat rat lumbered from one end of the loft to the other in a slow-​motion gallop, thundering over the dry wood. This time neither of them laughed.

“The only inconvenience with the Church,” Aengus said, “is that it takes them halfway to Judgment Day to get anything done. It took Maire’s father over a year to get her free of Malcolm.”

'It took Maire's father over a year to get her free of Malcolm.'

Lasrua lifted her head from her hand. “Over a year!” she echoed.

Aengus winced. “Mayhap as ‘inconvenience’ was understating the matter.”

“I couldn’t wait another year!”

“Well… no,” Aengus said softly. “I’m not seeing how you could.”

Overhead the rat pounced on a sleeping acquaintance and the two rolled over and tussled.

Lasrua paid them no heed, but Aengus shot out of his chair, grabbed one of his boots off the hearth, and slung it up to crack against the ceiling. Startled, Lasrua jerked back against her chair, and a herd of rats scrambled and scattered to the four corners of the loft.

“A pox and a burning on this house!” Aengus cried.

His boot thumped harmlessly onto the blanket, but he stood a moment longer, all taut tendons and hard muscles and streaming hair. The coals flared orange behind him, fanned by something more than wind.

Lasrua lay back in the corner of her chair, both frightened and fascinated. Her arms and legs were tense, ready to sprint her to safety, but her belly was full of a languorous weight. In one swoop he could have swung himself around and swept her up.

But he did not even look at her. He kicked his boot aside and flopped down into his chair, landing with his forehead propped up on his two hands.

“Must be coming on towards dawn,” he said hoarsely, “if the rats are awaking.” After an awkward silence, he added, “I couldn’t take any more of that.”

Slowly Lasrua sat up again and leaned her elbow on the arm of the chair. “No,” she said. “I don’t see how you could.”

Aengus slid his hands down his face and blew a blast of breath between them. “So where do we go?”

“I don’t know. Where can we go?”

“Nowhere,” he muttered. “Home, I suppose.”

Home. They could go home. She would see him every second or third day, or at parties or tournaments, where everyone would be watching. Her life would consist of boredom, uselessness, and waiting, and of being the subject of gossip and snickering for miles around.

She could go home to Nothelm.

She could go home to Nothelm, and live a constricted, arrested life for a year: prisoner to a vow she scarcely remembered she’d made.

Aengus could go home to his manor, where everyone from cooks to maids to ladies-​in-​waiting was laying out lures to catch him. His friends, family, and priest were already pressuring him to marry again.

“How far is Paris?” she asked.

Aengus sat for a while with his face propped in his hands. Lasrua watched his belly rise and fall as he breathed.

Then he sat back and slapped his thighs. “By God, I haven’t the slightest idea! If we leave at dawn, we ought to make it to the harbor in time to catch a ship heading seaward. God willing we might make it as far as the Tweed tonight. We could be at Dover in five days. Six, if we stop a day for Easter. Then we would have to cross the Channel, and that’s a entire day, plus the time we wait for the seas to calm. And once we made land on the other side? Damned if I know. Ten days’ ride to Paris? Two weeks? Three weeks altogether? And that’s just getting us there. Then we have to find Malcolm. Then we must reckon another month to get home.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Ten days.”


Aengus snorted. “You said it.”

He plunked his chin onto his fist and stared at the fire.

“But it’s far less than a year,” he added.

“I couldn’t wait a year.”

“Neither could I.”

'Neither could I.'

Lasrua dared not move her head, but she looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He had said it so quickly. Had he spoken without thinking?

Her heart said, He wants to know whether to rejoice or mourn. He wants you to be free.

She told it, He only meant he couldn’t wait either, if he were in my position.

He said he can’t take any more of this.

He was talking about the rats.

Aengus sighed and rubbed his pant legs over his thighs. “There’s being another problem, love. I could not take you to Paris even if I thought we ought to go.”

“Why not?”

“Because I haven’t enough coin for the four of us to eat and sleep for two months, much less travel.”

Seeing her despair, he admitted, “I have my silver armbands…”

Lasrua sat up and slapped her hand on the arm of her chair. “You cannot sell your armbands, Aengus. You won those.”

She was absurdly proud of those armbands, though he’d won them long before they’d met. She had gotten over her initial fear of robbery when she’d seen with what respect the petty lords of the hills and farmlands had looked upon them, and with what fear the peasants and the crofters. They were not money: they were battle-​glory.

Aengus shrugged and scratched his bare arm. “It’s many a time I’ve tried to pawn Domnall off on some unsuspecting soul, but I’ve never found a taker…”

“I have money.”

Aengus stared at her before breaking into a crooked grin and dismissing her with a sniff. “You have money? I grant you, a lass who has to ask a man to sew up her ripped sleeve will not be spending her pin money on pins—”

Lasrua reached across the empty space to give his bare arm a slap. “I don’t mean pin money. I mean a sack of coin.”

Aengus shoved her back, still grinning, but a flicker of doubt crossed his eyes. “Have you then, my fair cutpurse? And pray tell from whom you were lifting a sack of coin?”

“From my husband.”

Aengus’s grin fell flat. Lasrua did her best not to break into a smug smile.

“There’s a sack of coin in the loft above the old woman’s bed. I can hear it clinking when the rats are scurrying around over there.”

“I’ll be damned…”

'I'll be damned...'

“I do not know Scots law,” she added primly, “but I believe I am in my rights to take it.”

“Aye, well… If Malcolm is believing you dead, he’ll think it’s the best money he ever spent if we can get you to him alive. And if he knows you’re alive?” Aengus sat back and slapped his knee. “Then by God—begging your pardon—it would serve him right! Are you certain about it, though? ’Tisn’t a sack of horseshoe nails?”

They both glanced up at the horseshoes Malcolm had nailed to his mantel. There were ropes and halters and curry combs all over the house. Even a spare saddle by the door.

“Knowing my cousin,” Aengus said, “’tis as likely to be the one as the other.”

“I can’t be certain,” she admitted. “But I thought it was coin.”

“Then here’s the plan. If it’s horseshoe nails, we go home and show the Prince’s letter to the Abbot, and ask for the Church’s help. And if it’s being coin enough, we go to Paris and find Malcolm by our own selves. What say you?”

Yes, she said inside. Take it out of our hands. Let some higher power decide for us.

Her heart leapt up and said, A whole month more! It has to be coin!

'A whole month more!'

“I agree,” she said.

Aengus slapped the arms of his chair and scooted to the edge of his seat. “Where were you saying it was? Above the old woman’s room?”

“Above the bed.”

He got no farther than lifting his behind from the chair. A swarm of rats scurried from the back of the house to the front, just over their heads, in such number that it seemed the house must tip on its foundations.

Aengus settled his behind back into the seat and clasped his hands over his knee.

“Then we shall ask Marcan just as soon as he returns!”

'We shall ask Marcan just as soon as he returns!'