She was too shy to look at him.

She was too shy to look at him, but he could see how she breathed, and how her heart must have been pounding.

He had forgotten how breathtaking she was—or no, he hadn’t forgotten, but he hadn’t believed his memory after a time. Women were women after all. Could one of them be so much more beautiful than the others? But she was.

She yelped when he pulled her against him.

Maud yelped when he pulled her against him, but if she had wanted to say something, it was too late now. She could be rather too talkative at first, but he knew how to make her forget what she had been meaning to say.

But she squirmed away after a breathless moment and gasped, “Malcolm, your sword is hurting me.”

'Your sword is hurting me.'

“Which one?” he asked, hoping to see her blush.

And so she did, but she also gave him a wicked smile and said, “The big one.”

He laughed. “My God, you are without peer!”

He laughed.

“Why did you wear your sword? Did you think I planned to hurt you?” she cooed, wrapping her arms around him again.

“You? I hope you try. I wore my sword because there is but one door out of this room, and your husband’s sword is hanging in the room behind it.”

'You don't think he'll come?'

“You don’t think he’ll come?”

“’Tisn’t likely,” Malcolm said, unbuckling the belt on which his weapon hung. “With all he drank. But I’m no madman.”

“You said you were once.” Maud was already unlacing her gown, unbidden. He liked to see how her hands trembled.

“I’ve grown wise, though you haven’t. You were mad to bring me here.” But he admired her for that. She was a bold one.

“I’m mad,” she agreed, laughing deep in that long throat of hers. “For you, I’m mad.” She shrugged her arms out of the sleeves of her gown and let it slip down her body to the floor. And then she began undressing him, which he willingly allowed.

“Was it your idea?” he asked when she had finished.

“I wanted to see you.”

“At any cost?” he asked, pulling her down onto the bed with him.

'At any cost?'

“At any cost,” she agreed.

“You’re mad,” he said again, admiringly, but didn’t wait for a reply.

He didn't wait for a reply.

It was not for this that Colban had allowed him to come tonight, though surely Colban knew that there would be this as well. There would be time for the rest later.

Truly Malcolm had not expected that the child would so resemble him. Their family had been marrying cousins to cousins for so long that there was little chance for the babies to look like anyone but Black Colin. He had thought that since the child would not have red hair or anything outrageously incongruous, any resemblance would be vague enough to admit the possibility that Sigefrith was the father. He should have known, having seen Egelric, who had only one grandfather of the clan, that Colin’s mark went deeper than that!

Colban had taken one look at the baby and seen his own sons at that age. Malcolm had never paid much attention to his cousin’s babies, but the similarity struck even him. The audacity of the woman! She was either mad or magnificent.

He had suspected that it might be more prudent to stay away. He had been somewhat curious to see the child when he had learned that it was a boy, but mostly he had been tempted by the idea of seeing Maud again. There had been plenty of women before and since, but he had an odd feeling that there was something special about her, and he wanted to know whether it was simply due to his having left her before he had tired of her, or whether there was something more.

It seemed that there was something more.

It seemed that there was something more.

Was it because she was so beautiful? Was it because she was a queen? Was it because some women were born to be queens, and this made them special in some way he could but dimly understand?

It was not because she loved him. There were plenty, he thought, who had—as annoying and inconvenient as that had been at times.

It was not because she belonged to another man. He was usually more than happy to take them as he wanted them, and leave their husbands to deal with the moodiness and the nagging and the jealousy and all the rest of the baggage that went with a wife.

It was not because she had had his child—there were, so far as he knew, several of those, though in the heart of Black Colin’s country it was always difficult to tell who was whose.

What was it about her? He suddenly realized that he wanted her—for him. Colban could go to hell.

'You're mine!'

“You’re mine!” he whispered, clutching her against him. “You belong to me!” Sigefrith could go to hell along with him.

“Yes, yes!” she whispered into his neck.

She whispered into his neck.

“You’re mine,” he repeated, surprised at himself.

“Yes, we’re yours, he and I!”

Ah, his son. He would see his son. “Show me him,” he demanded.

Maud leapt to her feet with delight. “Won’t you build up the fire?” she asked, clapping her hands. “It’s cold in here for him. And I want you to see him.”

He was happy enough for the moment to see her. She had lost all but a trace of her shyness, and that trace consisted of hiding behind her hair what she could, which was altogether more charming than complete shamelessness would have been.

“Come!” she said, dancing with the chill and her eagerness to show her son to him.

He went slinking across the room to add a log to the fire.

And so he went slinking across the room to add a log to the fire, smiling at her. She was as pretty as a child.

“Show me,” he said after the fire had begun to blaze again. He would look at his son, and then he would figure out what he was to do.

She lifted the sleeping baby from the cradle and stood before him with a smile of such triumphant pride that he was almost intimidated by the sight of the two of them.

He was almost intimidated by the sight of the two of them.

He wondered whether he had been as careful with his wine as he had thought.

“Hold him! Your son!” she whispered, passing the blinking baby over to him before he could think of a reason to protest.

She passed the blinking baby over to him.

He didn’t like babies, but this creature too was different. Because she was its mother? Normally, upon being handed a baby, his only hope was that it would not cry or piss or break before its owner took it back again. But this one—despite the fact that it was drooling drowsily on his chest—was different.

It was drooling drowsily on his chest.

He remembered that Sigefrith had said the baby had been ill. “Will he live?” he asked, suddenly alarmed.

“He’s perfectly well. I kept him in this room for you.”

“You’re mad, a chagair,” he began, but then didn’t know what to say.

He didn't know what to say.

“I must be,” she agreed.

Malcolm patted the baby’s back awkwardly. This was very bad. It had been a mistake to come. His curiosity had been replaced with a terrible certainty, and if he did not allow himself to think like a madman, then he could find no solution.

Malcolm patted the baby's back awkwardly.

“My son,” he whispered to the baby in his Gaelic, “must I leave you for another man to raise?” He had done it before—but suddenly it was a crime.

Colban had told him that his best hope was to leave the baby with Sigefrith, not show the damning evidence of his own face again, and pray that Sigefrith should so love the child by the time the truth became plain that he could not forsake him. But that meant forsaking him himself.

Better still would be the possibility that Sigefrith remain blind for enough years, and then be convinced to send the child north to be raised among them, just as Colban—all unknowing—had taken young Malcolm to be brought up as a page in Sigefrith’s court.

They would have to hope that Sigefrith saw their relationship as one of peers and brothers, not as a king to minor and foreign nobility, even though he owed them a debt. It was rather much—to ask a man who called his sons princes to send the second of them to be raised in the house of the seventh son of Black Colin. Proud as they were, he was not certain the English saw them in the same light.

“You must send him to me as soon as you can. Send him to Colban.”

'You must send him to me as soon as you can.'

“Send him away?” she gasped. “Never!”

“Send him to me. He is my son.” Here were four words he had never before said.

He was mad. He suddenly had the mad idea that he should simply take his sword and go tell the truth to Sigefrith. If he died—as he very likely would, knowing Sigefrith’s skill—his problems would be over. If he lived, he would take Maud and the baby and ride home tomorrow. Madness.

“He’s all I have of you!” she protested.

“The cuckoo’s chick looks more like his foster father than does this squab, a chagair. Your husband will know him for mine before long.”

“I don’t care,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

Malcolm sighed and prepared to argue with her, but his words were cut off by an ear-​splitting crack as of thunder, though the night was cloudless, and the ground seemed to lift and heave as if a massive creature awoke momentarily and turned fretfully over in its bed below the earth. The window across from the bed must have shattered as well, for they heard the sound of falling shards of glass a moment after the boom. And then Maud and little Colban both screamed.

Maud and little Colban both screamed.

“The Devil!” Malcolm swore, pushing the baby back into its mother’s arms. “I must go, they’ll come for you.”

He pulled his clothing back on and grabbed his sword, not even taking the time to buckle it around his waist. He prayed he would be able to slip out towards the stables or the servants’ quarters before he was spotted coming out of this part of the castle. If he were not found in his bed, they would surely look for him there, he thought with a grim smile.

Once he had sneaked around the back of the stables and strapped on his sword, he walked boldly out into the court, where a small crowd had already gathered.

The old stone pavement of the court had been split by a long crack that ran from the gate to the kitchens—very much as if a beast had rolled over beneath the earth and lifted it, and it had been more than the stones could bear.

“The Devil!” he swore again.

He noticed at his feet a few shards of glass from Maud’s room just overhead. And then Sigefrith ran past, shirtless, heading for the stairs Malcolm had only just descended.

She was safe, he already knew, but frightened. And it would be Sigefrith to comfort her. He kicked angrily at the glass and then stalked off looking for Colban, who would no doubt be looking for him.