“The light!” Aengus croaked. “Get the light! Feels like you’re reaming out my eye sockets with a… a…”
Visions of everything that burned and scratched paraded through his pounding head. Stinging nettles… sizzling pine torches… besom brooms…
“…a hedgehog’s bum,” he whimpered piteously as he sank back into blessed unconsciousness.
A snort and a giggle jerked him awake again. His eyelids rasped over his dry eyes like cat’s tongues, and once he got them open he wasn’t certain he was seeing aright. Holy God! It was Lasrua. At his bedside.
“What did I just say?” he whispered fearfully.
Lasrua burst into a cheery smile. “I didn’t understand all of it,” she said, “but I think you just called me a hedgehog’s behind.”
“That’s what I thought I said. But I never meant to call you that. Or if I did, I never meant you.”
She graciously inclined her head and lowered her lashes. How easy she made it look! Aengus gave it a try, allowing his lids to droop, and sink, and finally fall shut. Eyes were easier to close than to open, he decided. He heaved a comfortable sigh.
Lasrua whispered, “Aengus!”
Aengus shot up onto his elbow and scrabbled through his throbbing head for a sensical idea.
“Cat!” he gasped, remembering the main event of the night. “The baby!” And finally, taking in the woolen headscarf that framed Lasrua’s face, he croaked, “You’re dressed to go!”
“Cat is fine. The baby is fine. Everybody is fine. They’re all sleeping.”
Aengus slumped. “Then why mayn’t I?” he whimpered.
Lasrua beamed at him again, much amused.
Such sweet mockery! Aengus knew he ought to take advantage of this novel situation, but he simply could not find the fortitude. And his stomach was waking to roil and churn.
“Rua,” he said ponderously, focusing all his attention on his tongue in a vain attempt not to slur, “I’m always glad to see you, but just now I’d liefer peer into the basin that’s under the bed there. Be a good girl and go back to bed, that I may puke up my liver in privacy. Thank you.”
Lasrua’s smile dimmed. “Are you terribly drunk?”
“Terribly!” he agreed, nearly slobbering with gratitude at her superior understanding. Bless her!
Lasrua frowned. “How can you get sober again?”
“Sleep! If you please. What are you—”
A spark of good sense flared up in his mind, warning him to keep his mouth shut and stick to the excellent resolution of going back to sleep. Unfortunately its light was lost in the fiery bursts and blazes rocketing around his skull.
“—doing all dressed up to go out?” he mumbled, lifting one eyelid high enough to look her over. “It’s too late to leave and too early to go.”
“I’m running away,” she announced. “And you’re coming with me.”
Aengus lacked the energy to get as outraged as he supposed he ought. “Not tonight,” he sighed, seeking a compromise that might lead to sleep. “Pr’aps tomorrow.”
Aengus opened both his eyes. There’d been a note of danger in that voice.
“I will go without you if you won’t go,” she said. “But I will go.”
“Where are you going? And why, then? Are you so very unhappy here?”
Lasrua lowered her lashes. A shadow stole across Aengus’s heart, immediately dispelled when he recalled that she had wanted to go with him. But it fell over him again when he remembered she was equally willing to go without him.
He drew up his knees beneath the blankets and settled himself squarely on his elbow, trying to at least appear alert.
Lasrua looked up again. “I will go to Dunfermline. The royal city. I want to find out where Malcolm has gone.”
Aengus sighed. Away down inside of him, a tiny, blind, tender-eared and tender-pawed bundle of newborn hope whimpered at the sudden cold. But all the rest of his heart ached for her. It seemed she was not as indifferent as she’d let on.
Even so, the tiny blind thing was relieved to know she could feel love, after all. But the rest of him was sorry she could feel pain.
“Rua, darling,” he said, slurring his gentle words, “it seems to me, if you can only get a man by running him to earth and dragging him home by the ear, it’s perhaps for the best if you don’t get the man at all. If he loved you, he would be here.”
Lasrua grimaced. “I do not want him! I want only want to make him repudiate me to my face!”
With one whack she’d overset the pile of thoughts he had painstakingly assembled and sent them clattering and skittering in every direction. He was going to have to start over. Holy God, he could not do it with such a pounding in his head!
He sank back onto his other elbow and lifted his chin towards the ceiling, desperate to keep the contents of his stomach down. Where to start? Lasrua did not want Malcolm—that was good. He was about to be sick—that was not good.
Lasrua asked, “Are you all right?”
Something was coming up. He prayed God it was only air, and attempted a quiet belch.
Praise God! It was only air!
“Rua,” he panted, shivering beneath the blankets, “bless you, but unless you catch me one of these days with my pants around my ankles, you’re seeing me at my worst!”
Lasrua snorted and silently chuckled. “That, I think, will depend upon the circumstances of the pants.”
Aengus grinned through his grimace. Lasrua! At his bedside! Making a questionable joke! He could not let this opportunity pass him by. He mulled over a broad hint about how he might be seen at his best… but he was conscious enough of his present condition to fear he would only be crude.
“O Holy God, O Mistress of Heaven, O Aengus,” he silently prayed, addressing higher powers and his better self alike, “do not fuck this up, man.”
He rolled back onto one elbow and attempted to look smart. “What were we saying just then?”
“You were saying you just needed a moment to get dressed, and then we shall go.”
Aengus smirked. “Nice try, but I am not that drunk.”
“You smell like it.”
“Well, I’m not. What were you thinking?” he asked shrewdly, looking over her heavy scarf and wool cloak. “You’d get up and get dressed and pop in to see me, and off we’d trot? Did it never occur to you I might say No?”
“Aengus, you said you would help me!”
“I said I would help you! I never said I’d fall in with any calf-brained scheme you chanced to dream up!”
“And moreover I call it unfair of you to spring this on me without the least discussion. And when I’m drunk, too!”
“But I only just made up my mind!”
“Aye, and if your mind is still made up tomorrow, we can talk about it then. After I’ve sobered up!” He picked up his pillow and thumped it conclusively down.
“But it must be tonight,” she pleaded, womanlike. “My father never has too much to drink, and Paul hardly ever does. They’ll never sleep so soundly again.”
Aengus leaned forward on his elbow. “Aye, and that’s another thing. If it’s such an excellent plan, why don’t you tell your father and brother about it instead of running away in the dead of night? By God, I don’t like it!”
“Because my father and brother won’t understand why I have to do it!”
“And I will?”
That stopped Aengus’s protest short, giving him the dizzying sensation of flying out of the saddle and vaulting clear over his protest’s head. “I will?”
“You know how I feel.”
In fact, Aengus had no idea how she felt, though he had spent many an idle hour trying to puzzle it out. Lasrua never talked about her feelings. Lasrua never so much as acknowledged she possessed them.
But the change in her voice just then—from her grave, almost gruff voice of everyday to this unwonted note of perfect, poignant sweetness—broke through his befuddled mind and struck straight to his heart. She was only a tiny, tender thing herself, and not the magnificent statue she sometimes seemed. Aengus was sorry she suffered. But he was also glad.
“Don’t you?” she asked. She leaned away. Her blinking lashes made her look skittish. Her voice was already lowering and going grave.
“Aengus,” he reminded himself, “don’t you dare fuck this up.”
“I know it’s terribly hard on you,” he said.
She sighed, apparently relieved by this proof of his superior understanding. She leaned forward and laid her arm across the edge of the bed to pick at the blanket—averting her eyes, but bringing herself closer to him.
“I can’t bear any more of this,” she said. “The gossip and the stares and the snickering.”
“Who’s been snickering at you?” Aengus demanded, outraged.
Lasrua gave him one of those looks women could summon almost from the cradle. He reminded himself to shut up.
“And it’s only going to be worse once it comes out that he left me,” she continued softly. “And I can’t bear pretending any more, either. Even with my friends. Even in childbed Cat couldn’t resist teasing me about Malcolm.”
Aengus scowled. “The devil take the tongue of that girl! I told her to stop plaguing you.”
“Yes,” Lasrua said, smiling wistfully, “but you never told her why. She thinks—” She sniffed and broke into a brittle laugh. “She thinks she’s helping me keep my hopes up! And if I tell her the truth—Oh! The pity will be worse!”
She laid her forehead in her hand. Her long fingers hid her eyes from him, but he could see her sickly smile.
“And how will I ever look Brit in the face?” she wondered, shaking her head. “He slept with her own mother—and yet she was so kind to me, and so happy for me! What will she say now? ‘Oh, dear!’” she said, copying Britamund’s prim Wessex accent, “‘He always was a little… So I suppose it is just as well!’”
She choked on a laugh and moved her hand to cover her mouth. Aengus laid his free hand on the back of her arm. His heart was almost collapsing out of pity for her, but he resolved not to show it, for it was what she did not like. And he swore he would never say anything was “just as well.”
“So I want to get away from here,” she concluded in a shaky voice. “Away from the mockery and the pity and the stares and—oh, everything! And try to save my pride.”
“The only person,” Aengus said, “who has any cause for shame is Malcolm.”
Lasrua lifted her fingers from the blanket and fluttered that objection aside. “Of course he should be ashamed of himself. I saved his life, and he couldn’t even stop to scrawl a line. ‘Sorry, lass, but I’ve changed my mind.’”
She mimicked Malcolm’s broad burr precisely, and it infuriated Aengus all the more, for he knew his cousin could speak excellent English when he chose.
“His guilt doesn’t make me look any more innocent, though, does it?” She propped her chin in her hand, and her long lashes shaded her eyes. “It only makes me look like a greater fool. For believing in him all these weeks. For wanting him—for thinking I was in love with him—and that he was in love with me!—when I knew perfectly well what he was. The worst thing—the stupidest thing!—”
She let her hand fall and forced out another laugh. It was plain she was trying to keep her voice light, but her fingers twisted in the blankets like claws. Aengus laid his hand on her arm again, and he could feel the tension in it even through her heavy sleeves.
“—the stupidest thing is that he never even had me! At least I might have been just another of his lovers. I’m certain I’m not the first girl to moon over him. But I’m not even that! I must be the only lady in Lothere he hasn’t taken to bed!”
She stopped with a sharp intake of breath and giggled shakily. Aengus whispered, “Christ!”
Aengus was looking forward to kicking seven shades of shit out of his feckless cousin, but even he could not believe Malcolm had any notion of the damage he’d caused. He must have thought no harm had been done, since he hadn’t taken her maidenhood. But maidens had hearts, too, and feelings, and self-respect and pride. And Malcolm had trampled Lasrua’s like a bull frolicking on a lawn, never noticing what he churned up or what he gored.
“I want to make him say it,” she said.
She looked up at Aengus. Her voice was deep and womanly again—almost growling—and a scribe could have ruled his parchment with her mouth’s grim line.
“At least make him write it. Silence isn’t enough. I don’t want Lord Colban to swear that Malcolm failed to reply. I want Malcolm to reply. I want to make him forswear himself. I want to make him take back his word. And I hope he chokes on it!”
She thumped her fist upon the mattress. Aengus’s hand, still gripping her sleeve, went along for the ride.
“Aye, then,” he whispered, overawed.
She sniffled and then, surprisingly, gave him a misty smile, making the grim-faced woman disappear again. She pulled her sleeve out of his grasp and laid her hand on the back of his arm.
“So you do understand,” she said.
“I must go now.”
Go! Aengus nearly groaned. He had forgotten about that part.
“I must do something,” she said, never guessing his despair. “I know it’s terrible of me, with my new little niece just arrived, and Cat and Paul so happy… But happy new families are just what we can’t bear, aren’t they?”
She paused and peeked up at him with wistful eyes. Her fingertips traced a spiral on the back of his arm. It was the sweetest, gentlest touch… but instead of savoring it, he had the queerest sense that she was stirring his stomach with a long spoon. Holy God, he was going to be sick.
“Let’s just go away for a while, Aengus. Nobody will know us in Dunfermline. Nobody will laugh at us or pity us.”
Us. She was right—he did understand. Had she truly noticed? Did she really pay him that much attention? Did she really think of his sorrows in relation to hers?
“So you understand…” she began.
She lowered her lashes. Her lips hung slightly parted, holding a word between them, ripe for the taking, like a cherry in the Midsummer games young lovers played. Her fingers teased the dark hair on the back of his arm, lightly combing it smooth with her nails only to twist it into tufts.
“O Holy God,” he prayed as a bead of sweat rolled down his temple and his stomach churned and bubbled, “do not let me move a muscle.”
“…why,” she continued, “now that I’ve made up my mind to go, I can’t simply go back to bed. I can’t go on like this, now that I’ve thought of a way out. Already I’ve scarcely slept in days. I can’t do anything.”
Aengus swallowed down a blob of nausea and ventured to say, “I’ve been thinking you aren’t looking too canty lately. You’re not meaning to go all thin and wan on me, are you?”
She lifted her lashes just long enough to flash him a smile that seemed a little apologetic, a little shy.
He sighed. “I knew I should have made you eat your cake today at the party. If a girl can’t eat cake…”
This time she looked up long enough to laugh. “You mean you shouldn’t have eaten it yourself, Aengus.”
“It was cinnamon cake,” he pointed out as if it explained everything—which, for him, it did.
“But for you, love,” he added generously and a little sloppily, “I would even forgo cinnamon cake.”
His stomach lurched. O God, what had possessed him to talk about cake?
Lasrua patted his arm, flattening the hair she had teased. “I would never ask such terrible sacrifices of you. But will you come with me to Dunfermline?”
“Ach! I’d forgotten about that again.”
Aengus sighed, and then he winced. Something was requesting an urgent exit from his stomach. He was not certain it was only air.
“Will you?” she asked.
Aengus grit his teeth. O Holy God! Was he agreeing to this two weeks’ toil in exchange for nothing more than the immediate luxury of puking up his liver in peace? Or was he really willing to go along with any calf-brained scheme the lovely creature dreamt up, only because she had stroked his arm and asked him?
“On—a few conditions,” he panted.
“I shall tell you—later. But first thing—would you kindly slide that basin out from underneath the bed before you go?”
He unstuck one of his eyelids to peer at her leery face. She leaned away from the bed. “All right…”
“And second thing, love. For the next few hours—could we not talk about cake?”