near Calais, Flanders

Aengus was just drunk enough to watch without fully grasping what he was seeing.

Aengus was just drunk enough to watch without fully grasping what he was seeing. To be sure, he knew there was a female ass staring him in the face, but it didn’t strike him that there was anything wrong with this until the female had thumped down the stairs and onto the grass, stretched her arms high behind her head, and sighed, “Vain Dieu!

'Vain Dieu!'

That was just what his friend Baldwin often said. Then he figured out what wasn’t right.


She squawked and spun around.

She squawked and spun around.

“And just where were you going?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your affair, sir! And just what were you doing, hiding behind the door?”

“Simply doing my duty, love,” Aengus said, his tongue slow from drink. “A woman out a-​wandering in the midst of a moonless night? Could be dangerous men abroad.”

“Pooh! This far out of town!”

“What do I look like to you?” Aengus opened wide his arms and found himself a bit wobbly.

Gunnora pouted. “I don’t believe you’re dangerous.”

“Eh? Just now I am feeling none too reputable.”

'Just now I am feeling none too reputable.'


She showed how little she feared him by stomping back up the first two stairs, spinning around, and thumping her female ass down on the top step beside him.

“If you must know,” she said, “I am taking a little break from my bedmate.”

“Ach! Are you now? Isn’t she sleeping?”

'I am taking a little break from my bedmate.'

“No, she is, and that’s just the problem. She’s lying smack in the middle of the bed, and she is sprawling. She is far too tall to sprawl, in my opinion. And if she’s only feigning sleep, knowing she was practically shoving me off the bed, then she is unspeakably rude!”

“There, there,” Aengus soothed.

“Well, I did give her the benefit of the doubt. Some people have yet to learn how to share a bed, that’s all. And here I thought I was being kind, huddling over on my side! Best be sure to get there first and stake out a claim, if you’re ever stuck sleeping with her, that’s my advice.”

Aengus snorted and scratched at a flea bite on his bare leg. “Doubt I’ll be having the occasion to use it, love, but I thank you anyway.”

'I thank you anyway.'

It was so late that all was still, aside from a few sleepless crickets who chirped in the high grass that grew up against the farmhouse. The crops were not yet tall enough to rustle in the breeze, but the hiss of the sea, half a mile away, was like the wind through fields of ripe wheat back home.

Aengus sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Gunnora said in a small voice. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”

'I didn't mean it the way it sounded.'

“No harm done.”

In a still tinier voice, she asked, “You really love her, don’t you?”

Aengus winced. He hadn’t known Baldwin’s sister for long, but he’d already determined she had a disconcerting habit of saying absolutely anything that crossed her mind. If only she’d had red hair, he might have pitted her against his father.

'That obvious, is it?'

“That obvious, is it?”

She shrugged. “To a woman.”

“Aye, then,” Aengus grumbled, “that’s being a problem. For she’s a woman, too.”

“Oh, no,” Gunnora reassured him. “That’s different. She’s only a girl. And she’s on the inside, so it’s hard for her to tell. When I was her age, I watched every move a certain man made, and pondered every word he said, trying to figure out whether he loved me. It was all I thought about, night and day. And I still got the wrong answer.”

'I still got the wrong answer.'

She spoke lightly, but all at once she stooped over to brush bits of grass from the bare soles of her feet, resting her chin on her knees. Her arm was thin, and her jabbing elbow sharp as a little girl’s. Even if Aengus hadn’t known Baldwin’s family history, he might have guessed she’d had no father. She was a heartrending mix of naive and battle-​scarred.

“Anyway,” she said, “I think you hide it well when she’s around.”

“Thank you, love,” Aengus said wearily. “But it’s being a bit more complicated than Do I love her, aye or nay. Do you mind if I drink?”

'Do you mind if I drink?'

“Not if you share.”

Aengus’s hand started for the pitcher, but halfway there he grasped what she’d said. “Ach! It’s being on the wrong side of rancid, is this cider.”

“I don’t mind.”

Aengus’s thoughts stuttered and staggered. He couldn’t suggest out loud that the both of them drinking might lead to a disastrous loosening of collective morals. Worse, the mere thought of it caused a faint tightening in his groin.

The best he could do was, “But I haven’t a cup.”

Gunnora didn’t even bother answering. She simply twisted around and slid the pitcher over to her hip before hefting it up.

'Here's to your horses.'

“Here’s to your horses,” she said. Then she tilted back the pitcher and drank.

Aengus was already too besotted from cider to look away, and his eyes drank in her ghostly silhouette against the night: her thin fingers cupping the heavy, round base of the pitcher, and the other hand wrapped around its narrow neck as she brought it to her lips.

Holy God, they’d collectively had too much to drink already. He had to get her turned around and headed back to bed. Her own.

Gunnora swallowed, grimaced and shuddered, and wiped her mouth on her bare arm.

Gunnora wiped her mouth on her bare arm.

Aengus asked sourly, “You’ll do anything you can get away with, won’t you?”

She laughed. “And some things I can’t. Here.”

She handed him the pitcher. Aengus took it and tipped it back, but merely wet his lips. He only stopped glaring at her long enough to do that.

Apparently she found this amusing, for she laughed again. “Oh, let me live a little. It’s probably my last night on the Continent. Within a fortnight I shall be in Lothere, and my fun will be over. I shan’t get away with anything.”

In spite of her initial laughter, she concluded with a tone that was neither flippant nor petulant, but sounded genuinely aggrieved.

Aengus set the pitcher aside, out of her easy reach. “I don’t see why,” he said. “Seems to me you’ve your ‘Dear Uncle’ wrapped so tight around your little finger, he’ll be curly as a pig’s tail for years to come.”

'I don't see why.'

“Perhaps so, but I shan’t be living with my uncle. He hasn’t even asked me. He has always assumed that I shall live with my brother.”

Aengus shifted his seat on the dusty porch and unfolded his legs, taking care of the lay of his kilt in case he would be needing it for a curtain.

“Don’t worry yourself,” he said. “A body is certain to have fun when Baldwin’s around.”

Gunnora might have rolled her eyes, if her tone of voice was any indication. “You might think so. You’re not his sister. You get to drink and gamble and sit up all night with him. I shall have to stay upstairs and darn stockings with his wife: the world’s most perfect woman.”

Aengus could tolerate a certain amount of feminine ill humor, but the disgust with which she spoke of poor Affrais was more than he could swallow.

“Now, that’s plain unkind!” he said. “Baldwin’s wife is positively charming! Give her a chance, love. You’ve never even met her.”

'Now, that's plain unkind!'

Gunnora twisted around to flash at him. “I certainly have! Baldwin brought her home for a visit when he married her.”

Aengus winced. “Ach, that’s right, he did.”

“And they showed up just when… when…” Gunnora pursed her lips—prudish for once—and said, “When my baby was beginning to show up, if you understand my meaning, sir. My family simply reveled in singing her praises to me, just to rub my nose in how wicked and depraved I was. Oh, isn’t she lovely! Oh, isn’t she gracious! Oh, isn’t she perfect! Till I wanted to spit at her! And she wasn’t so perfect and lovely as all that once the bedroom door was closed, let me tell you. My room was next to theirs, and I had to hear them in there.”

She slapped her hand on the wooden step and turned around to goggle at him.

She turned around to goggle at him.

“And, do you know the most abominable thing? My uncle told me they eloped. She didn’t even have her family’s permission, and they probably slept in the same bed on the road, even before they found a priest. So the only difference between Freya and me was that Guillaume didn’t run away with me. But Baldwin never said a word about any of that to Mother. And Mother gave her a lot of jewelry I was supposed to have had—not just her own, but things she had from my father’s family, too—and I had to hear about Saint Freya till she died!”

Aengus blinked at her, overwhelmed by her catalog of grievances. Holy God, he needed another drink.

“Well, love,” he ventured, “that was all a few years ago, and it’s always best to let bygones be bygones. The Freya I know is a kind and thoughtful lady, who loves your brother, and takes good care of your nieces and nephews. She would be the last woman to think herself perfect.”

'She would be the last woman to think herself perfect.'

Gunnora huffed and turned away to play with her bare feet again, twining her fingers between her toes.

“I know,” she grumbled, “I’m certain she is, but there’s perfect and then there’s perfect. What I mean is, all the women in Lothere are such perfect ladies. Imagine me with my Aunt Eadgith, and Sigefrith’s wife Wynflaed, and my cousin Eadie who is the bloody Queen, and Baldwin’s wife, and everyone. My uncle has tramped all over Flanders and Saxony with me, and let me drink and belch and chew with my mouth open and have all sorts of fun, but when we go back to Lothere he expects me to be a perfect lady, just like they are.”

Aengus sniffed. “Aye, that is rather foolish of him.”

Gunnora tossed him a dazzling smile over her shoulder. “You understand.”

'You understand.'

“Aye, I do, at that. Mayhap as you would be happier where I’m from, Scotland. Our ladies are ladylike in their way, just as you are, but they do seem rather heathenish compared to the Lothere ladies. I wager you would get along just grandly with my cousin Cat, for one. You should hear how she can belch.”

“Isn’t she the one my uncle seduced a little bit?”

Aengus smiled, amused by this characterization. “I don’t think she’ll hold it against you. Here, now!” He slapped his knee, delighted by his sudden idea. “When you’re in Lothere, pay a visit to my house. Tell them Aengus sent you, and stay as long as you like. No perfect women there, just Cat, and her sister during the day, and my wee girls. And the whole lot of them are just as naughty as naught can be. You may wear your hair down and go barefoot and drink up all my cider and belch as loud as ever you can, with my blessing. Just promise me you’ll put a robe on over your nightgown, and stay clear of my old father, aye? A lass can outrun him, but she mustn’t let herself be caught.”

'She mustn't let herself be caught.'

Gunnora folded her arms over her knees and laid her cheek upon them, with just her eye peeking up at him from beneath her hair. “Do you mean that?” she asked.

“Eh? What now? About my father?”

“No, about the invitation.”

“For sure and for certain I do. But I mean it about the robe, too.”

He saw her cheek rounding with a smile before she turned and propped her chin on her arms, and her long hair slid forward to hide her face.

She had a lot of hair, to be sure, but not enough to make a robe. The hair that was now draped over her arms had left her shoulder bare. In the starlight, her pale skin was almost phosphorescent, gleaming through the thin cloth of her nightgown… or so it seemed to Aengus.

So it seemed to Aengus.

Even the parts the gown hid were revealed to his experienced eye, and in his mind he could trace the contours of her body, from where the cloth was stretched revealingly tight over her shoulder blades, to the soft, ticklish curve of her flank, hidden beneath the baggy folds of her belted gown. He could even dip beneath her slightly lifted arm, skim along the sensitive side of her breast, and glide around front to cup it where it hung warm and heavy over her lap.

O Holy God, it had been too long. It wasn’t even sex he wanted, quite, though the Lord knew he wouldn’t have turned it down. But truly he just wanted to pull her up onto the porch between his legs, lean her back against his chest, wrap his arms around her, and hold her, and hold her, and hold her. He wanted to feel the weight and warmth of another body. He wanted to cradle a head in the hollow of his neck, lay his cheek against sleek, sleep-​scented hair, and rock another person with the rise and fall of his breath.

The most damnable thing about trying to remain virtuous, he had learned, wasn’t the problem of pent-​up lust. He had a decent remedy for that in his hand, if he could just get a few minutes of privacy. It was the lack of human touch. He needed to feel skin against his skin. At home he had his babies to cuddle, but he wasn’t meant to live like this.

He wasn't meant to live like this.

Gunnora yawned. “I should probably go to my brother’s first,” she mumbled against her arms.

It took Aengus a good while to remember what they’d been talking about. He carefully straightened his kilt over his lap.

“Aye,” he said, “that’s only polite. But you’re welcome to come whenever you like. Tell your brother I made you promise you would pay a nice long visit to poor Cat, who isn’t getting about much just now. I wish you would, too.”

She sat up and rocked herself lazily on the top step. “When will you and Domnall be home?”

She sat up and rocked herself lazily on the top step.

Aengus grimaced behind her back. He plucked a blade of grass and picked it to pieces while he talked.

“That’s more than I can tell,” he said. “First we have to get to Paris. Then we have to find Malcolm. Then we have to journey home. God help us. I just pray I’ll see my babies again on this earth.”

“I wish my uncle and I could go with you to Paris,” she said softly.

'I wish my uncle and I could go with you to Paris.'

Aengus brushed the bits of grass off his bare legs. “I wish you could go in my place! How dearly I would love to say I should be home in a fortnight.”

“I don’t understand. Why are you doing this, if you don’t even want to?”

“Ach!” Aengus laughed bitterly. “I knew there was being a reason why I wanted to laugh out loud when you told me Rua was only a girl. What a childish question! Are you thinking a body need only think of what he should like to do in life?”

'Are you thinking a body need only think of what he should like to do in life?'

She turned her head and gave him a look of feminine disdain, her little jaw set just as hard as iron. “That is not what I meant.”

“Then for Christ’s sake, say what you mean!”

She snapped back, “Why are you doing this, the end. Wanting to is only one possible reason.”

Aengus grunted. “I owe him one, is why. Wasn’t your uncle telling you who my wife was?”

“She was Malcolm’s wife, first.”

“That’s right. I took his first wife away from him. Now I’m giving him his second wife back.”

Gunnora stuck out her bottom lip and furrowed her brow, like a five-​year-​old deep in thought. Finally she announced, “That is the most bacon-​brained thing I have ever heard.”

'That is the most bacon-brained thing I have ever heard.'

Aengus tipped his head back and nearly groaned, but on second thought he picked up the pitcher and took a swig of cider instead.

“Wives are not interchangeable,” Gunnora said. “It isn’t like borrowing a man’s plow and buying him a new one if it breaks. And anyway, that seems awfully unfair to Lasrua.”

Aengus choked on his cider as it burned its way down. “Un–fair?

“Yes. It’s unfair to Lasrua if you give her up now, simply because you didn’t give up another woman ten years ago. That had nothing to do with her, and now she’s paying the price.”

Aengus plunked down the pitcher and flung out his arms. “What price? She’s his wife, not mine! I’m not trading him my new plow for the old plow I broke, I’m bringing him his other bloody plow! Sweet Jesus, why am I arguing this with you?”

'Sweet Jesus, why am I arguing this with you?'

“Because this is your last chance to have some sense talked into you by a woman. I am a woman, and I see things. And I think Lasrua is in love with you.

“No, you are a girl, and so is Rua. And I’m a man, and I’m kind to her, and I’m with her every day, and her poor heart was broken, and of course she has some feelings she can’t quite put her finger on, but it isn’t love, my dear. It isn’t love. I’ll be just as kind to her as ever I can, but part of that being kind is holding her at a distance. And you’ll see. An hour or two in Malcolm’s company—if he’s been grieving for her as your uncle says he has—and she’ll forget she ever knew the name Aengus. And God bless them, ’tis as it should be. I wish them all happiness. That’s what I want to give to my cousin.”

Gunnora pulled her feet up onto the top step with her, making herself smaller and even softer somehow. She looked so like a sad, fatherless little girl that Aengus was sorry he had snapped at her. It was no wonder if she “saw things” she couldn’t understand. She’d had her girlish infatuation, but she’d never been loved by a man.

Gunnora pulled her feet up onto the top step with her.

“But what about you?” she asked.

Aengus sighed. “What about me, love? I’m in no condition to love anybody just now. My wife’s not six months in the tomb. I’m just a big, drunk, bacon-​brained mess of feelings I cannot put my finger on, either. Sigefrith wasn’t in his right mind the morning he sent us off together. Sometimes I wonder if he didn’t do it on purpose.”


“You ask a powerful lot of questions. Are you certain you’re not six?”

'Are you certain you're not six?'

She grinned at him, but she unconsciously played her hand over her bare foot, sliding her fingers between her clenching toes. The gesture so reminded him of his little girls that he longed to give her a hug. He might have done it, too, except her feminine presence was troubling enough that he mistrusted where that might lead.

Aengus spotted her stifling a yawn, and he said, “Hark! Are you hearing what time it is?”

She lifted her head and listened for bells. “What time is it?”

'What time is it?'

“Bedtime.” Aengus patted her knee. That was as much as he dared.

She tried pouting at him, but she could not hold back a second yawn.

“Past bedtime,” he said. “Go on with you, love. Mayhap as Rua got cold without you and curled up into a ball.”

Merde! I forgot about her. Oh, well, it’s only one night. I pity the man who gets stuck with her.”

She watched him for signs of getting riled up again.

She watched him for signs of getting riled up again, but Aengus shook his head No. A father of little girls was up to all the bedtime stalling tricks. She could not help but smile.

“Thank you for putting up with me, though,” she said.

“Any time.”

She clambered up. Her bare feet swished over the dusty wood beside his knee. When she turned, her swaying nightgown wafted the warm scent of a woman to his nose before a wind from the fields whisked it away. Aengus breathed deeply, trying to find it again amidst the odors of grass and manure and cold dew. It had been too long.

Aengus breathed deeply.

“Good night,” she said, her hand on the door.


She stopped.

“You won’t mention any of this to Rua, will you? Nor your uncle, nor anyone. This was—”

He waved wordlessly at the empty yard—at the silent trees overhead, and the stars; at the crickets singing in the grass, and the dim shapes of barns, and at the sea swooshing half a mile away, out of sight. He waved at the night.

He waved at the night.

She cracked open the door, and her hips swayed as she stepped aside. “It never happened,” she said in a low voice.

She stepped behind the opening door but paused to peek back, smiling like a mouse peering out of a cheese.

“Besides, I didn’t tell you what Lasrua said, did I?”

Aengus blanched. “You and Rua talked? About me?”

“Good night, Aengus.”

“Eh… Good night! God rest you!”

She slipped inside and closed the door. Aengus stared at it even after she’d gone. The traces of her touch lingered on the wood, almost phosphorescent, like the brush of a moth’s wings.

Aengus stared at it even after she'd gone.

He pulled a swig of cider into his mouth, flopped back against the farmhouse wall, and swallowed. The smoldering ache behind his breastbone flared up as it scorched its way down. He was tired, too, and in spite of the cider he was getting cold. The night seemed darker and emptier than ever.

But he would stay out a while longer. The bare sole of his foot had found its way to the warm spot Gunnora had left on the top step. It was almost a human touch. It had been too long.

It was almost a human touch.