Lasrua is the ghost of a girl

April 10, 1086
Calais, Flanders

The port city of Calais had dispelled that illusion.

Lasrua had believed she would never again know a cacophony like the cacophony of Dover, but the port city of Calais had dispelled that illusion the very next day. Worse than the clamor of more conversations than she could follow was the clamor of equally many conversations in languages she could not understand.

She was grateful for the snatches of English she heard now and then from across the market square, even if they seemed to consist mainly of a whiny woman attempting to wheedle a grouchy man into buying presents for her.

'I think I smell baking.'

“I think I smell baking,” Domnall said beside her, sounding a bit whiny himself. They were all exhausted from travel, and famished after yesterday’s seasickness.

Lasrua muttered, “Congratulations. I can only smell rotting fish.”

“Now, now,” Aengus said. “A body can trust the nose of a young lad when pastries are in the offing. Lead on, young lad! I could eat a horse and chase the rider, but I’ll settle for an apple turnover.”

'I'll settle for an apple turnover.'

His sleeve brushed against Lasrua’s sleeve as they walked, and sometimes, when she swung her arm just so, the back of her hand would whisper across the back of his hand. She knew he wouldn’t let her hold it, but he would allow their hands to touch, even if he pretended not to notice.

A wheeled cart rattled across their path, forcing them to slow. To pass the time, Lasrua turned to Aengus and remarked upon the shout she had just overhead.

“That’s funny,” she said. “I just heard somebody say ‘Son of a serpent.’”

Aengus grinned.

Aengus grinned. “That is funny. I thought Leofric was the only man on earth who ever said that. Even his children don’t. No, on second thought, I believe Leia does…”

“You don’t suppose it’s he?”

The cart rattled away, and they resumed walking towards the bridge that crossed the harbor road, following Domnall’s lead.

Aengus chuckled. “No, love. You mayn’t have noticed, but the world is a powerfully big place. You might chance to meet Leofric in Wintermere, say, but Calais…”

They resumed walking towards the bridge.

“But didn’t the King get a letter telling him he was in Flanders?”

Her fingers brushed his fingers.

“Aye, but that was a month ago, and Flanders is a big country in its own right. And you know, as I recall, his mother was from here. ‘Son of a serpent’ must be a thing they say here.”

“But wouldn’t you like to look?”

He laughed and shook his head. “I haven’t any objections. But what’ll you wager me it’s he?”

Lasrua answered without hesitation, “A kiss,” proving herself light-​headed from hunger and fatigue.

She tensed, startled by her own stupidity, but Aengus didn’t take it badly at all.

'She tensed, startled by her own stupidity.'

“Oh ho!” he chuckled. “Those are high stakes. Is that a kiss you’re wagering or a kiss you’ll be demanding if I lose?”

Why not both? she wondered.

She never found out what he would have said, for just then Domnall announced, “Pastries! I knew it!”

“Praise God!” Aengus said. “I’ll have a dozen. Where’s that English fellow you overheard, love? Mayhap as he speaks enough Flemish to ask the woman which ones are made of apples.”

'Pastries!  I knew it!'

The market was nearly empty so early in the morning. The merchants were still setting out their wares. It was easy for her to locate the Englishman across the square as he moaned, “Baby, you cannot take a clay mask on the ship! It will break as soon as you put it in your bag!”

“I can wear it on my face!” the woman answered.

“Not in my company, you can’t!”

'Son of a serpent!'

Lasrua said, “It’s Leofric.”

“What? Where?”

“Straight ahead.”

Aengus tensed beside her. “O Holy God. That does look like Leofric.”

'That does look like Leofric.'

“I told you!”

“Sweet Jesus. Domnall!”

“She has pastries!” Domnall cried.

“Forget the pastries! That’s Hingwar there across the square! Sweet Jesus! Sigefrith is never going to believe this!”

He caught Lasrua’s hand, and for a few glorious strides they ran hand-​in-​hand. Even after he remembered himself and let go, Lasrua’s heart kept singing. She had won her wager! He would have to kiss her!

As they clattered across the square, Leofric interrupted his conversation and spun around to face them, his hand on his sword. But his menacing glare fell away, leaving a ghastly pale expression of open-​mouthed shock.

“Son of a serpent!” Aengus crowed. “Sweet Jesus, man! We haven’t seen you in months! I’m glad to tell you your family are all quite well.”

'We haven't seen you in months!'

Aengus grabbed Leofric’s limp hand and gave it a hearty shake. The crimson-​clad young woman beside him asked dubiously, “Do you know these people?”

Aengus answered, “Does he! We’re from Lothere! Fancy, meeting you here!” He reached past Leofric to take the woman’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, love. I’m Sir Aengus, son of Colin, and—ah!”

He saw the woman’s face light up, and he said, “I can see your uncle has told you all about me!” He released her hand so he could wag a finger at her. “Don’t believe a word of it!”

'Don't believe a word of it!'

The woman—she was scarcely more than Lasrua’s age, really—threw back her head and laughed, and Lasrua took her in instant dislike. She was a flashy piece. Wrapping her head in a crimson scarf and fastening it with a string of pearls, indeed. As Britamund would say, it was not the thing.

“And you must be Baldwin’s sister, Gunnora,” Aengus continued. “Baldwin’s a great friend of mine.”

The girl smiled slyly and swished her skirt, and Aengus said, “Ach! Please say you’re this man’s runaway English niece. Don’t tell me I’ve put my foot in it again!”

“No, sir, I’m afraid I’m his runaway English mistress.”

Leofric croaked, “Baby…” and Gunnora made a little shimmy and patted his shoulder.

Gunnora made a little shimmy and patted his shoulder.

“Now, he didn’t believe me for a second. We look so much alike in the mouth and eyes that it’s quite obvious we’re related.”

“You could be his illegitimate daughter,” Aengus deadpanned, to Gunnora’s open-​mouthed delight.

“Oh! I know!” she said. “His illegitimate daughter who is also his mistress!”

Leofric grimaced. Aengus laughed and said, “You win! I fear the consequences if I attempt to top that.”

“No, sir,” Gunnora admitted with a contrite moue. “I am merely Baldwin’s baby sister, and if he told you anything about me, I swear it isn’t true!”

She and Aengus shared a laugh, and Lasrua dug her fingernails into her palms.

Lasrua dug her fingernails into her palms.

“On the contrary,” Aengus said, “you just proved it! But I’m being remiss in my introductions, ain’t I? This young runt is my brother, Domnall, and this…” He paused and turned to Lasrua as if she needed a special announcement. “Is my kinswoman and dear friend, Lasrua.”

Gunnora gasped, “Oh! Isn’t she—”

Aengus cut her off. “Aye, she is! But let’s keep that to ourselves, shall we?” He winked. “At the customs house I never declared I was importing any mythical beings. Heaven knows what the taxes may amount to.”

“No,” Gunnora said breathlessly, “but I mean, Uncle, isn’t she—”

'Uncle, isn't she--'

“Gunnora. Quiet.” The dire tone of Leofric’s voice silenced them all. Aengus attempted a last titter, but it went flat.

Leofric rubbed his face and the back of his neck. “Aengus,” he said, “just what are the three of you doing in Flanders? Looking for someone?”

Aengus attempted another laugh. “Funny you should ask! We’re looking for my cousin Malcolm. Don’t tell me you bumped into him this morning, too!”

'Don't tell me you bumped into him this morning, too!'

“No,” Leofric said. “It was two months ago.”

Aengus’s shoulders slumped. Lasrua swallowed back a wave of fish-​flavored nausea. What boneheaded thing had she just done now?

“Might I have a word with you?” Leofric asked Aengus. Then he laid his hand against his brow and shook his head before looking up at Lasrua. “Never mind, that isn’t possible, is it?”

'Never mind, that isn't possible, is it?'

Lasrua bit her lips together and hoped she didn’t look too green. She’d always had a faint dread of Lord Hingwar, and now it felt like she’d had the gift of second sight all along.

He sighed and stepped past Aengus to face her, and he softened his voice to a gentle rumble. “My dear, I met Malcolm and Cubby a few months ago in Dover, and we traveled a short ways together in Flanders. And wouldn’t you know, he told me two things that surprised me very much.”

'He told me two things that surprised me very much.'

Lasrua gulped and turned a mute appeal to Aengus. There was still time for him to stop this. He just had to snatch her up and run away with her, hand-​in-​hand. He had done it for Maire.

“One,” Leofric continued, inexorable as Fate, “that he had married you. Two, that you were dead.”

Then he stared at her, as if expecting her to answer for the crime of being alive. Lasrua gave her head the tiniest of shakes.

Lasrua gave her head the tiniest of shakes.

Aengus asked, “Are you certain he really believed that, or was he only making excuses for running away? We have reason to believe he may have had word of her recovery last January.”

“Aengus, the man enacted me a scene of rare grief that first night at the inn, which nobody asked him to play. He may be a professional liar, but a professional liar knows better than to answer more questions than he’s asked.”

“He seemed quite heartbroken to me,” Gunnora added, “even though my uncle never told me why he was sad till after he left us.”

'He seemed quite heartbroken to me.'

You, Lasrua thought savagely, only thought so because he must have failed to flirt with you.

The idea fell like a single drop of soothing balm on Lasrua’s ravaged pride, but even that relief was dispelled by the smile that began to spread over Aengus’s face. As if the sight of Gunnora made him glad, on balance, to learn that Lasrua might be lawfully married after all.

“Well, love, fancy that!” he said to her. “He’s been true to you all along. I told you I hated to think so ill of him.”

Yes, yes, he had told her that several times.

Leofric looked between their faces. “You seem just about as stunned as he’s going to be, my dear. Going in search of him to make him answer for running away, were you?”

'Going in search of him to make him answer for running away, were you?'

“Aye,” Aengus said, “that or give him his bride back from the dead. We weren’t sure he’d had the message after all, and when he left, matters were looking grim for Rua. He stayed with her till she couldn’t be awoken, and then Sigefrith fairly chased him out of the valley with a pitchfork, so we could hardly blame him for not sticking around to learn of her death. We didn’t want to judge him ere we knew the truth of it, did we, love?”

He went on smiling stupidly at Lasrua. It wasn’t Aengus’s usual grin. He looked distracted. Probably thinking about getting to know Gunnora.

Leofric grunted. “In that case, I don’t mind telling you he was headed for Paris. He told Nora and me, if we should happen to go to Paris, look for him near the Saint Christophe church. Ask in the taverns for the Castilian, and tell him you’re looking to buy a horse. He’ll know where Malcolm’s to be found.”

'Why, thank you, man.'

Aengus said, “Why, thank you, man. That will be a great help. Might be less awkward than what we had planned.”

“Dare I ask?” Leofric asked dryly. “Aengus, just promise me you won’t surprise the man as you did me, chasing him across the square at full gallop, followed by the ghost of a girl he’d given up for dead. You’ll make a widow out of that young lady. You nearly made one out of poor Eadgith.”

He turned back to Lasrua and added gently, “I forgot to congratulate you, my dear. You’ve had a rocky start to your marriage, but it seems to me you have a husband who loves you. All this will soon be nothing but a story to tell your children on a stormy night. My blessings on you both, in Christ’s name.”

'My blessings on you both, in Christ's name.'

Lasrua swallowed and nodded. Children! With Malcolm! And stormy nights! With Malcolm…

Leofric turned. “And, Aengus, I’m sorrier than words can say about Maire.”

Aengus choked, startled as he always was by a mention of her name.

“And you, too, Domnall. Where are you, runt?”

Leofric caught Domnall in the crook of one arm, and laid the opposite hand on Aengus’s shoulder. Lasrua broke away from the others and shuffled towards the wall.

Lasrua broke away from the others and shuffled towards the wall.

The wind billowed her veils behind her head and filled her nose with the tang of the sea. Even high above the port the air was damp with spray, and she hated the filthy feeling it left on her skin. After weeks of traveling she felt like one of the monsters on the carved prows of the ships: a miserable mythical creature, salt-​encrusted, spray-​worn, bleached and gray.

You have a husband who loves you. She repeated the words to herself and waited to see what would kindle in her heart. Only a thread of smoke.

She was married—to an inscrutable, flighty stranger, and not to the gentle, generous man she knew so well. There would be no annulment. Malcolm wouldn’t sign the documents forswearing her. He wouldn’t let her go.

But would Aengus?

But would Aengus?