Flann did not know whether to sneak or to make noise.
It was not that she thought she could sneak up on Osh – he could hear Liadan throwing off her blanket from the far side of the house. She simply did not know whether it would be easier to pretend slyness or boldness, neither of which she truly felt.
She had never had to do more than let a door slam shut behind her. After that, it had been Brude who led.
It had always been Brude who led. It was he who had delivered the first squeezing of the hand, the first caress, the first kiss, the first embrace that had fit her body snugly against the length of his, the first nibbling kisses down her neck, the first hand sneaking into her gown and cupping her naked breast–
She had told herself she would not think of Brude, and already she was thinking of Brude. She tried to convince herself that it was only because Brude was all she had ever known. It would be easier once she had known something else. Perhaps it would be quite different with an elf. She hoped it would.
She closed the door carefully behind her. It did not make a sound.
So far, neither had Osh. Flann could only suppose that an elf who heard everything had to learn to ignore certain sounds if he wanted to sleep at all.
She stopped at his bedside and stared down at him. The corners of his mouth drooped sadly without his usual teasing smile to prop them up. She tried to imagine those lips on her neck or naked shoulders – or kissing their way down her belly. Brude’s beard had always tickled her belly so that she could scarcely bite back a scream, but if he stopped it only tormented her more…
Osh did not have a beard. He had shaved it off for her.
What she wanted more than anything was to slip in beside him, twine her legs up with his and her arms around his body, and sleep. She had done many surprising things with Brude, but she had never slept beside a man. It seemed one of life’s great luxuries. And Flann was so tired.
At last she lifted her hands to touch him.
She managed no more than an awkward caress of his hair before she had to clamp a hand over her mouth against the giggles that were welling up inside of her.
She seemed to have a fever. Otherwise she could not explain the heat of her cheeks, startling enough that her fingers arched away from her skin. She could not explain why she was laughing. Nothing about the situation would seem funny until Osh woke to smile, to tell a joke, and to make everything easier.
But Osh did not wake.
She nudged his body with both hands, and when that had no effect, she shoved him hard enough that he rolled over onto his side with a snort. But he did not wake.
At last she dared whisper, “Osh!”
If anyone else heard her and came, it would not be too late to say that she had been worried about the baby. So long as Osh did not wake, she could use that excuse. Afterwards Osh himself would explain, or tell them to go to hell, blithely, for he did not believe in such a place.
But Osh did not wake.
Flann giggled in embarrassed desperation. Surely he was only pretending to sleep. Surely it was a joke. He was only waiting to see what she might not do to wake him, and they would laugh about it later.
Still, it seemed hard of him to make her go so far alone. Perhaps he thought her a more wicked woman than she truly was.
Well, she would show him. She dropped to her knees and slid her arm beneath the edge of the blankets.
Her hand had only a narrow space of sheets to cross before encountering his back. At first she only stroked her knuckles across it, merely inspecting the make and material of it. His skin was smooth and fine, hot, and still a little damp from having been pressed against the bed.
“Osh!” she whispered.
Her hand had met his body just at the base of his ribs. She slid it up and over, crossing the mountain from one valley into another.
Though he always dressed when he rose to help her with Liadan in the night, she had already seen him without a shirt. He had the body of an elf of his age, perhaps, but for a man it would have been young and strong.
Still, curled up on his side, asleep or feigning sleep, all the tension had gone out of the muscles of his chest and flanks. He was soft and strokable, like a lion in repose. Flann simply did not know whether to stroke up or down.
“Osh!” she hissed.
What would he make her do before waking?
She would show him. She thrust her arm farther beneath the blankets until her fingers met the fine, dark hair on his belly.
Brude’s stomach had been overgrown with a thicket of hair of every color, from white to black, passing through every shade of ginger in between, so coarse that when she tickled him, she could hear her fingernails scratching through his curls.
Osh scarcely had more hair on his belly than on the backs of his arms.
Suddenly her stroking, tickling fingers balled themselves into a fist, and she pounded it on his hip.
“Osh!” she whispered hoarsely. “Wake up! It isn’t funny!”
Osh did not wake.
By now she was so angry that even if he did wake, it would not matter. She was so angry she would simply go back to bed – and so angry she probably would not sleep. If he did not want her, he could have gently told her so.
She was so occupied being angry that she pounded on him and shook him longer than any man or elf would tolerate, whether teasing or truly sleeping.
As soon as she realized it, she squealed and leapt away from the bed with all the horror of a girl who has found herself caressing a corpse.
Nevertheless, he was alive: he was warm and relaxed, and she had felt his slow and steady breathing when she had laid her hand on his side.
Now she tried to slow and steady her own, talking herself out of her fright. Perhaps it was simply the way elves slept. What did she know about elves, anyway?
Cat would know. And if she did not, Paul would. She still had the excuse of an imaginary worry about the baby.
But Cat and Paul could not be woken either.
She shook one and shook the other, but she was rewarded with no more than a sleepy moan from her sister. Flann had slept beside Cat nearly all of her life, and she knew how she slept. Something was wrong.
Had they been poisoned? Were they all ill? Would they die?
“Eithne!” she shrieked, no longer caring who heard – hoping someone would hear.
She fled to Eithne’s room and threw open the door, fearing to find her little sister in a similar condition, or worse – already dead.
What she found so startled her that she forgot her terror for a moment in her confusion. A well-tended fire was burning brightly despite the late hour, the little cat was calmly washing her face on the floor before it, and Eithne was awake and rushing to close the door again – and naked.
Flann choked, “You’re – ”
She nearly said “naked.” It seemed the more surprising thing, and nor was it the relief it should have been.
“ – awake!”
“Aye…” Finding Flann unmovable, Eithne abandoned her attempt to close the door and hurried to paw through the sheets and blankets that tangled on her bed and draped onto the floor.
Flann watched her for a moment, bewildered. She did not know what game involved romping naked in one’s bed at midnight with no more company than a small cat. The few such pastimes Flann knew suddenly seemed tame in comparison, despite their generally accepted sinfulness.
As soon as Eithne pulled her nightgown out of the pile, Flann’s first fear seized her again and shook her in its fist.
“Eithne!” she sobbed. “I can’t wake anyone! I tried to wake Osh! and I couldn’t! and Cat! and Paul!”
Eithne wriggled into her nightgown, her back to her sister, as if covering her nakedness were more important than anything Flann could tell her, or as if she simply thought Flann mad.
“Are you hearing me?” she howled. “Eithne! Help me!”
She flung out her arms, but one of them smacked into a body. She shrieked with the horror of a girl who bumps into a walking corpse.
But it was only Paul, alive as ever, and Cat quaking behind him.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “What’s this screaming?”
Cat wailed, “Liadan!” and ran down the hall.
“No! I couldn’t – wake you!” Flann whimpered, dizzy with confusion. Perhaps she was mad after all. “Or Osh!”
As if to prove her insanity, Osh arrived just as she spoke his name. Flann clamped her hand over her mouth again, this time trying and failing to hold back tears.
Osh strode calmly up to her and pulled her close, hushing her and clucking at her as he did before Liadan’s inexplicable fits of tears.
She realized then that she should have known something was wrong from the first instant. Osh would never leave her to fumble around alone. He would have found just the right proportion of jokes and strong arms to soothe her. He would have known what to do, known what not to do.
So why had he not?
“I couldn’t wake you!” she bawled. “I tried and tried!”
“Shhhhh… did you have a nightmare?” he whispered.
She only realized then that she had been speaking Gaelic all the while.
“No! I couldn’t wake you,” she sobbed in English. “I couldn’t wake you at all!”
With her eyes closed and her cheek against his warm skin, she could imagine that the entire world was scarcely bigger than her head and reposed on his shoulder.
She was dimly aware of Eithne behind her cuddling and talking baby-talk to her cat. She vaguely noticed her other sister returning to announce that Liadan was well, thank you, and inquired what the fuss was all about. Lena and Lasrua too seemed at last to have made an appearance.
But all Flann knew for certain was that she was safe, she was not alone, and his strong arms embraced her like horizons.
“Did that cheeky baby do something to frighten you?” he asked.
“No,” she whimpered. “I couldn’t wake you.”
“Did you have a nightmare?”
“Then why do you try to wake me? Here, I am awake now.”
Flann drew back her head. All of her sniffling and sobbing suddenly seemed mere show – a child’s tantrum born of frustration and fatigue. Something more real and more somber rose up like a storm tide, sweeping and scouring it all away, and leaving her bared to his eyes.
“I do not sleep so very hard…” he mused. “I think you don’t try very hard to wake me.”
“I did – I did – ” she shivered.
“Noooo… I think you don’t truly want me to wake,” he smiled.
“I d – ”
He passed his hand over her mouth to close it, as he did over Liadan’s eyes.
“I think you don’t truly want,” he whispered.
Perhaps there was some special elf magic in his hand. Flann said no more.