A moment ago Lasrua had clung to Malcolm with both hands. Now she could only find one.
“Daddy! I can’t feel my hand!”
“Hmm hmm…” Her father’s fluttering hand stroked her good arm from elbow to wrist and cradled her hand in his palm. “Can you feel this one?”
“I mean the other one!”
She tried to lift her injured arm at the shoulder, but another blast of pain knocked her flat, and she keened through her teeth. A warm gush tickled the nape of her neck on its way down to soak the cushion.
“Shh shh, don’t bleed, now…” Her father feathered his fingers over her cheek and bent his head to kiss her good hand. “This hand, I mean.”
“Yes… But, Daddy! Daddy!”
He stroked her wrist with his fingertips. “And can you feel my hand?”
She whimpered. “Yes…”
Her father pulled Malcolm’s arm down and pressed Lasrua’s hand between their palms. Malcolm sucked in his breath and held it.
“And Malcolm’s hand?”
Lasrua looked up, but Malcolm’s wide eyes watched her father. “Yes…”
Her father smiled. “So, dídíla, that is three hands you can feel, greedy girl. How many hands do you need?”
Lasrua giggled and choked. Another surge of blood soaked her dress. Her shoulder felt shattered, too full of cracks for her to stop them all.
“Careful…” Her father clucked his tongue. “Your brother has gone for Shus, now, did you hear? Only lie still for a while and try not to bleed, and he will soon be here.”
Her father’s eyes looked into hers, steady as his smile.
But Malcolm’s hand was damp and shaking. He asked her father, “What are we doing?”
Her father replied in purling English. “She says she cannot feel her hand, so we try: can she feel some other one?”
“Ach! She cannot feel this one, either?”
Malcolm’s fingers tightened around her hand. Her heart throbbed, and she strained to hold back the blood it squeezed towards the air. She watched his face, waiting for a glance.
Her father said, “That one she feels.” His hand dropped out from beneath theirs, and Malcolm was left holding her hand alone. “One moment. I hear Alred coming.”
Her father stood, and Malcolm squatted by the couch in his place. He lifted her hand and stroked the backs of her fingers across his softly bristling beard before he pressed them against his lips. His gaze never left her shoulder, making the kiss seem unconscious, and it thrilled Lasrua more than the most gallant ritual politeness.
He did not release her hand when he let their arms fall, and he simply held it then – simply held it. His hand was hairy and callused and sweaty, and she had never felt anything so fine.
She said, “Do not worry. I can stop the bleeding. And my friend Shus will be coming soon. He is the elf who saved Cat when she was hurt.”
“Ach! Is he, then?”
Lasrua heard the galloping boots that had alerted her father, and she glanced at the door. Malcolm looked back and balanced himself on the balls of his feet.
Lasrua relaxed and studied his profile: sharp-edged and savage as an axe. Its extravagant ugliness made it a thing of beauty – so unlike Lor’s bland face, flawless save for that bump on the bridge of his nose.
The boots were coming. Lasrua squeezed Malcolm’s hand, and his hand squeezed in reply.
The door cracked against the wall and Alred stopped in the doorway, white-faced, his hair wild. “Rua!”
Lasrua smiled at him, but her father moved between them, blocking her sight of Alred’s reaction. Dunstan came in behind him. Another hot trickle on her neck reminded Lasrua that she had little attention to spare, and she returned what she had to Malcolm’s face.
Malcolm rocked between his feet and stared at her wound. His mellow voice took on a shrill note, like a summer breeze blowing through leafless ruins.
“How long is your friend like to take? I’m thinking we ought to put a bandage on that.”
“No, it is easier so. I can stop the blood better than any bandage.”
Across the room she heard her father’s strange, staccato English, and Alred’s whuffed replies. She did not bother trying to understand.
Malcolm settled his weight on his haunches and propped his chin on his free hand. His eyes narrowed, and he stared at her shoulder like a cat at a mouse hole, determined to wait out its prey. Lasrua wanted him to look at her face.
“I can dry my own tears when I cry, also.”
She slowed her breath to quiet pants. Did he wonder whether she had ever cried for him? Would he tell her she would cry no more? He did not look away from her wound.
“But you shall never see me cry over spilled milk. I can pour it right back into the pitcher.”
Malcolm’s brows lifted, and he lowered his hand from his mouth and looked into her eyes. It seemed as if he might speak.
Just then Dunstan walked behind him and asked, “What is this about spilled gravy?”
Lasrua giggled until the shaking hurt her shoulder. “Spilled milk! Why does everything turn into gravy with you two?”
“Ah! If only everything did! What a wonderful world it would be.”
Dunstan smiled down at her, and Lasrua smiled up at him. She wanted to shake Malcolm’s hand triumphantly beneath his nose. He had been right. Malcolm had returned.
Instead she said, “You might enjoy it for a time, but soon you would feel like King Midas.”
Dunstan laughed. “King Dunstan of the Gravy Touch! But you speak truly: I would be most grieved if dear ladies turned into gravy at my caress.”
He stroked her forehead, and Lasrua’s head relaxed onto the pillow. Her gaze returned to Malcolm’s face like a river settling into its bed. The one caterpillar brow visible behind his hair was cocked high.
Dunstan said, “No no.” His low, lovely voice brimmed with music. “Fortunately they only become more dear.”
Lasrua smiled, but she did not bother tipping up her head again. She felt ever less inclined to struggle against the pain. She only wished it were Malcolm stroking her hair in that way.
“But you see,” Dunstan explained to Malcolm, “if she cannot be made to cry, neither can she be made to blush.”
“Ach! Cannot she? I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
Dunstan laughed. “I shan’t believe it until I’ve seen it.”
Lasrua whispered, “When?”
She tried to slow her panting breath so she could hear his reply. She wanted to know which moments he remembered. Perhaps he even recalled things she had forgotten, and all these months she had been richer than she had realized.
Malcolm grinned and leaned close. “Every time I call you Lass.”
She huffed and tried to turn a scornful cheek, but the tendons of her neck wrenched at her wound, and her giggles turned into a yelp of pain. The pillow warmed against her neck as it soaked up another gush of hot blood.
Malcolm squeezed her hand. He lifted his other to stroke her hair over her temple, and she turned her cheek to it, seeking a caress. She had it, though his fingers shook.
He glanced up at Dunstan. “Believe it now?”
Dunstan stepped back. “I stand corrected.”
Malcolm smiled. “She pretends to hate that, but blushing cheeks do not lie.” He leaned closer and whispered, “Lass.”
Lasrua supposed she was blushing. Her face was so warm. Malcolm’s fingers relaxed from awkwardly rubbing her cheek into silken caresses.
“Finn was telling me how that word means moon.”
Lasrua closed her eyes and smiled. Malcolm’s thumb brushed over her lips. Perhaps, if she lay quite still, he would kiss her next. She felt so cozy, but for the wet pillow pressed against her neck. She felt so happy and complete.
Alred’s hushed conversation with her father took on a conclusive tone. Malcolm squeezed her hand and whispered, “Look at me, lass!”
He wanted her to look at him! Lasrua smiled and fluttered her eyelids.
Alred said, “Dunstan, I need your help.” Dunstan’s boots tapped across the floor.
Malcolm whispered, “Look at me!”
Then Alred’s honeyed voice soured into venom. “Malcolm, you shall come with me. You have done enough here.”
“No, no!” Lasrua opened her eyes and struggled to sit up. She lifted her head and her good shoulder. “Let him stay, please. He hasn’t told me…”
Malcolm laid a hand on her forehead, and she flopped down onto the cushions, panting.
Her father said, “He may stay if she likes.”
Lasrua closed her eyes. Bodies moved around her, speaking a few last words in short phrases. Only one did not move. She could feel his hand and her own. That made two.
“Open your eyes, lass.”
Lasrua was content to listen, content to feel the warm weight of the hand on her forehead.
Then the hand lifted away and tapped her cheek. “Look at me!”
She scarcely recognized the voice beneath its film of frost. The room had grown chilly, and her father’s footsteps echoed in the wintry silence, tapping around Malcolm to stop beside her head. His voice was cold.
“My daughter, you have not been paying attention.”
Lasrua cracked through the ice and broke the surface, spluttering and struggling like her brother when Vash used to pull him into the water. Malcolm’s hand on her forehead pushed her back down. He murmured sweet and incomprehensible things until the wave of pain crashed and subsided.
She opened her eyes and saw her father standing straight beside her, his hands clasped behind his back. His far-off face was grim.
“What did I tell you?”
She sobbed. He could not understand. He took things so easily: he was an elf of wind and air. She had to force a river at its highest flood to leap a chasm and reenter a hole she could not even see.
“Daddy, I can’t help it! I can’t find my arm!”
“Forget about your arm.”
“The elf Shosudin will heal your arm when he comes. Do not try to save your arm.”
She tried anyway, but with her first glance inside herself she saw the horrors again: her body brought whole to table, as the men liked to enjoy their meat. Knives carving, juices dripping, greasy hands twisting her joints until her bones popped out of their sockets. Her arm ripped away, dangling strips of blackened skin and shreds of meat… and there: the hollow gray tubes, drained of blood. She would never fill them again.
She shrieked. Every throb of her heart splattered the pillow with blood. Malcolm’s soothing Gaelic stopped short, and she heard his shaky breathing.
“Daughter! Do not disobey me!”
She wanted to hear him cluck and croon and admit that it was very hard, that she was very brave… but her pitiless father did not reply. She bore down, and the bleeding subsided.
At last her father spoke, but not to soothe or praise her. “Do not disobey me again. For if you do…”
He crouched beside Malcolm, as if his threat were so dire it could not be spoken aloud.
Instead, he spoke it in English.
“Do not disobey me, daughter. Stop to bleed, or I shall tell Malcolm every silly, and funny, and adorable thing you ever did or said, starting from when you were a tiny baby. And that is a lot.”
Lasrua opened her eyes and worked her grimace of pain into a frown. Her heart beat faster with love, but she obeyed her father and stopped the surging blood inside.
Malcolm spluttered with laughter. “You cannot be so cruel, sir!”
Her father shook his head, unsmiling. “Alas, I can! Do not think I forget even one, my daughter. And I remember me some things you do not even know that I know.”
Malcolm pressed his fist to his mouth and wheezed. Her father stood and patted the back of Malcolm’s head.
“May I get you the chair?”
“Ach!” Malcolm sat up and looked around, panting for breath, his mouth slack and gaping. “Is there no more than the one? You may have it, sir.”
“I sit on the floor, like an elf, for the long time.”
Her father shuffled around the Duke’s table to fetch the chair. Malcolm watched him until he could crane his neck no farther. Then he wiped his face on his sleeve and turned back to Lasrua.
“So.” He coughed to clear his throat. “I’m hearing you’re a cute, adorable, funny little thing.”
She attempted her sourest scowl. “That is a lie.”
“‘Tisn’t either!” He looked back at her father. “Wouldn’t you know, I’ve heard her say a few adorable and funny things myself!”
Lasrua squeezed his hand until he yelped.
He shook his finger at her. “Do that again and I shall tell him one!”
Lasrua laid back her head and grinned. They were both adorable and silly and funny, though they did not deserve to hear her say so.
Her father pulled up the chair for Malcolm and sat on the floor beside him. He folded his legs and sighed.
“Ah, my children, it is a long time since I sit at night beside my daughter and try to make her not to sleep.” He scratched his beard and frowned at the ceiling. “I think I did not ever try this with Rua. She did not have the habit to get the big bumps on her head, like – ” He stopped with a hiss and sighed.
Malcolm frowned and lowered his head.
Her father lightened his voice and continued. “So, nobody must sing, because that is how I made her to sleep so many times. Also, nobody must pick her up in his arms and carry her up and down, up and down, up and down…”
He swayed his body in time with his weary chanting. Lasrua giggled.
“On second thought, that did not work so often.”
“My father! You must do the thing that never worked!”
Her father leaned over her and wiped the blood from her breast with a folded handkerchief. “What was that thing, my daughter?”
“You must tell me a story. I always stayed awake to hear the end.”
Her father chuckled and leaned back towards Malcolm. “So she thinks.”
Lasrua gasped in pretend outrage. A throb of blood ran down the back of her neck in spite of her attempt to dam it up, and she nestled her shoulders in the pillow so that they would not see.
Malcolm gave her a sly smile. “Now that is beginning to sound adorable.”
Her father sighed. “Ah, you may think so, sir, but you never had a baby daughter yet. They can be powerfully cute by day, but at night, when you have not had a good sleep in many weeks, upon my honor, adorable is not the first word who will come in your mind.”
Lasrua snorted. “You know you would give anything to have that annoying baby daughter back again.”
“Ah, dídíla…” Her father stroked her forehead and smoothed her hair back on either side of her face. He took a breath as if he would say more, but he did not.
Lasrua closed her eyes and relaxed, letting her head rock beneath her father’s stroking hand. The weight of her shoulders squeezed a slick of blood to the surface of the soaking pillow.
Malcolm murmured, “Don’t fall asleep, now, lass.”
“Then you must tell me a story.” Lasrua smiled at the sound of her own voice: high-pitched and petulant as it had been half a lifetime ago. The drowsy warmth was like her childhood bed.
Malcolm sat up. “Ach, I?”
Lasrua opened her eyes to gloat over his dismay. “Yes, you.”
“But I’m not knowing any stories for wee girls. Are you wanting a story with bandits and pirates and horses and wolves? For I’ve a few of those.”
Lasrua snorted. “And you call yourself a Celt. Eithne had a romance for every night of the year.”
“Ach!” Malcolm rubbed his knees. “It’s a love story she’s wanting.”
He bit his thin lips together and looked down at her father. Lasrua was too tired to turn her head and see what her father’s face said. She only saw Malcolm’s caterpillar brows almost meeting behind his stringy curtain of hair.
“Aye, so.” Malcolm lifted his head. His features relaxed, but his voice remained tight. “I’ve only the one. And I promised to tell it one day. But you’ll have to stay awake until the end, lass. It’s a long story, as it was told to me. And the love part isn’t coming in till the end.”
Lasrua’s father said, “That is what we try to do.”
Malcolm lowered his head and muttered, “Aye, I’m not forgetting.”
Lasrua saw her father’s hand settle on Malcolm’s knee. “With the bedtime stories for little girls, there is a trick, which I tell you. When you see she is almost asleep, you must skip to the end. That is how they grow up to believe they stay awake as long as they like.”
Malcolm seemed to nod, but he then wrapped his arms around his middle and rocked himself as if he had a stomachache. His hair waved, flashing glimpses of a face contorted by pain.
Lasrua tried to lift her hand to his knee to comfort him, but like the pillow, her arm had grown heavy. She lifted her fingers.
Malcolm swooped down and snatched up her hand. He stroked it between his palms and lifted it to his lips, thrilling her with a kiss that was neither unconscious nor polite. Then he leaned over her and began his tale in a voice that caressed her like velvet curtains floating in a summer breeze.
“Not once upon a time – for my story is true – but a score and ten years ago, in a fisher-wife’s bed a wee baby girl was born. Drileu was the name of her, of the land of Brittany.”