Malcolm was torn.

Malcolm was torn between regretting ever having awoken and thinking that this was the best idea either of them had had in many months.

Iylaine had insisted they come to “their” hidden lake in Selwood, where Malcolm had always liked to swim and Iylaine had always liked to sit watching. It was a long walk, but on the other hand it was far enough from any farms that even shrieks of laughter would not carry to other ears.

Iylaine had not remembered until they reached the lake that she had no idea what a young person was supposed to wear while swimming.

In Malcolm’s country, the boys and girls swam together naked and without shame, and one winked at the occasional, inevitable consequences. Here, though, while young children and boys amongst themselves might swim together unclothed, the older peasant girls would often put on a shift-​​like garment of coarse linen.

The young ladies were a different story.

However, the young ladies were a different story. Young ladies of the rank of Synne or Iylaine simply did not swim. If the idea ever did get into their heads, and if they had indulgent fathers, they might be allowed to go to a secluded pool and bathe with other young ladies, perhaps fully clothed for all Malcolm knew, and with their maids to watch over them and keep peeping eyes away. He knew that Lady Gwynn and Lady Margaret had, at least, been granted this privilege, but of course Iylaine had never wished to join them.

It would have suited Malcolm to swim as they did in his country, but he did not have the boldness to suggest it. In most circumstances, Iylaine was acutely embarrassed by the merest hint that there were such things as breasts and thighs and ankles in the world.

The best idea he had found was that she remove her dress and leave her shift, and he had almost expected their swimming lesson to come to a halt at that moment. But she had complied without hesitation, and Malcolm was permitted to watch as she calmly removed her little boots, her stockings, her corselet, her chemise, and her skirt, and then stood expectantly before him clad only in her underclothes.

She stood expectantly before him clad only in her underclothes.

He had not realized before that moment that a shift was not the same thing as a nightgown. The mystery of how Iylaine could wear so many layers of clothing and still appear slim was revealed to him: a shift of such fine linen scarcely had any thickness at all, and beneath it he could see precisely how slender was her body.

But Iylaine had not noticed his discomposure, and she had not forgotten why they had come. She wanted to swim.

“Let’s get in!” she said eagerly. “Do you think it’s cold?”

'Let's get in!'

“It’s always cold. I shall make a fire afterwards. But didn’t you say you would kiss me first?”

“Did I?” she giggled. “I think I said after. Can one kiss in the water?”

“There, too.”

“Then come on!” She tottered gingerly down to the water’s edge.

“Careful, Babe,” Malcolm cautioned.

She tottered gingerly down to the water's edge.

He had taken her to the one spot in the lake where there were shallows. Here the rains had washed the dirt and gravel down from the rocks above to form a steep slope leading into the water. It was an awkward descent – he always preferred to dive from the height of an overhanging rock – but it seemed the safest for her.

He had thought she could go down gradually and wet herself in stages from ankles to shoulders before letting herself float free of the bottom, but she went bounding into the water like a giddy dog. And then she panicked.

“Malcolm!” she wailed as she had done a year before when she had stranded herself in the surf.

Then the roar of the sea had nearly drowned out her voice and made her seem tiny and helpless, but now, in the great stillness of the night in the hills, her voice echoed against the sheer cliffs of dark stone until it seemed the cry of a hundred frightened Babies in the water. Malcolm’s fright for her was multiplied a hundredfold.

But once again he was at ease as soon as he had her in his arms. If it took her longer to calm herself, it was so much the better for him who held her.

If it took her longer to calm herself, it was so much the better for him who held her.

He even dared to laugh at her once she had stopped her breathless sobbing. “Quit your shivering, skeerie girl. I shan’t let you sink, and your feet are on the bottom anyway.”

“But I’m not frightened!” she protested through chattering teeth. “It’s cold!”

“Well, and what did you expect? I told you it was. I suppose you’re surprised because it’s wet, too!”

“No, I learned that the last time,” she giggled.

“That’s my brave girl, if you can laugh,” he smiled.

'That's my brave girl, if you can laugh.'

Her wet shift was coarse against his bare skin and tangled itself around their legs. He regretted now not having asked her to remove it entirely. He was not certain she would not have done it. Certainly the way she kissed him suggested that she might not have minded that and more. It was true, he reminded himself, that she was his, or practically his. What mattered a few years and a few formalities?

And indeed she kissed him for a long while, until she had grown accustomed to the cold water and stopped her shivering, and until the moon had risen high behind his head, perfectly round and perfectly bright like a new coin.

She allowed him to run his hands over her body, but her shift infuriated him. He knew she must have been as slippery as a fish beneath the cloth, but he couldn’t quite get to her skin. This thin linen was worse than all the layers of shift and chemise and corselet and cloak.

However, he noticed as her bare legs brushed his own that the hem had gradually floated up as high as her knees. It occurred to him that cunning hands might coax it still higher. He set his hands to work, and it seemed at first that she did not notice, or did not mind. Then his knee brushed the inside of her bare thigh, and she gasped and lifted her head.

'Look at the moon, Malcolm!'

“Look at the moon, Malcolm!” she said in a tiny, childish voice.

“What?” he croaked, half-​​stupefied.

“Look how pretty!” She planted her feet on the gravelly bottom and turned him around to face the moon. “Look how pretty!” she insisted and wrapped her arms around his shoulders from behind.

Malcolm looked up, but he was only dimly aware of the bright moon.

Malcolm looked up, but he was only dimly aware of the bright moon. He was more acutely aware of her breasts pressed against his back, and the maddening shift between her skin and his.

“You see?” she chirped. “I told you it would be pretty.”


“You see? You were right to listen to me.”

“Aye. Baby…”

“But this isn’t swimming!” she said. “This is standing in the water. I want you to teach me to swim.”

'This is standing in the water.'

“But, Baby…”

She let go of him and pushed herself away from the sloping shore. “Oh oh oh!” she gasped and then she laughed a wild laugh as she beat and kicked herself afloat. “I’m swimming!” she announced and laughed wildly again.

“That’s not swimming – that’s flopping around like a giddy-​​gaddy,” he said, trying to give her a look of scornful disapproval, but her wild laugh was infectious, and he soon laughed it too.

He left the shore and swam a circle around her, and she turned in place to follow him with her eyes. Her bright, bobbing face waned, went dark, and waxed bright again like a laughing moon. She had been right – it was pretty. It was heartbreakingly pretty. It was too pretty to merely look at.

She had been right--it was pretty.

“Babe, don’t you think your shift is getting in your way?” he asked solemnly.

“No!” she laughed and tried to swim away. “I’m swimming! I’m swimming!” she cried.

“You swim like a drunken three-​​legged dog,” he teased.

“And you swim in circles like a two-​​headed turtle with a tick on his behind!” she taunted.

'And you swim in circles like a two-headed turtle with a tick on his behind!'

He laughed. She was magnificent. “Swim faster, doggy, or we shall learn how a drunken three-​​legged dog swims with a two-​​headed turtle on his behind!”

He had only swum one stroke towards her before she did something quite unexpected: she went down, plunging abruptly like a grebe.

Malcolm stopped and stared. He had not taught her how to hold her breath. She had not even wet her hair yet except through her splashing.

Now the water sparkled a moment with the disturbance she had made.

Now the water sparkled a moment with the disturbance she had made and then went dark, as if she had never been.

He swam a few hesitant strokes, and stopped again. Surely, he thought, surely she would come up again. What he had just seen was inconceivable. She had always seemed so afraid of the water, except for tonight, and the one time she had dared to walk into the sea before panicking and calling for him…

And the time when she had fretted and paced on the rooftop at Thorhold and told him that she did not want to swim, but wanted to go down.

“Baby!” he called once, stupefied. His cry went up the dark walls as rippling echoes, multiplied into the cry of a hundred frightened Malcolms in the water.

His cry went up the dark walls as rippling echoes.