No one had yet sent for Eithne.

No one had yet sent for Eithne; and they had been speaking softly enough that without Lasrua’s ears, she would not have known anyone had come at all.

By their sudden silence she knew they had been talking about her. By their looks of annoyance she knew they had not been ready to see her. Even Lasrua had better have stayed upstairs: Malcolm was not there.

But Condal was.

But Condal was.

They saw one another at the same moment. Each cried aloud the other’s name, and they leapt like deer, bounding through the thickets of deception and despair that had grown up between them since they had last met. It was Eithne’s first moment of pure joy since Cian had claimed her for his.

They did not touch. Comgeall barked, “Connie!” and her sister stopped short like a deer shot in flight.


Eithne stopped as suddenly and plummeted back into the thicket, tangling her legs in the briars forever. She had lived the last moment of pure joy of her life.

“You may be having your happy reunions out of my sight,” her brother-​​in-​​law growled.

Something was terribly wrong – something worse than the renewed abuse she expected from this man of her clan who had not yet had the chance to tell her what he thought of her.

Something was terribly wrong.

Her own shame alone did not explain Cat’s muffled sobbing. It did not explain Flann’s red eyes and her bitter frown. Was it Condal? Had Condal come to shame as well? Had some other angel molested her baby sister? Had she sacrificed herself for nothing?

She squeaked, “Connie!” and reached out a groping hand between them, but Comgeall yanked Condal away and swatted the hand down.

“It’s as your father’s heir I’m come, lass. To tell you of his death.”

At the terrible word, Cat threw back her head and wailed at the top of her voice, as the grown women of her country cried for the dead: a long, rolling keening that went on and on until she was out of breath, and even after, as it died off into a low moan and into a croak.

He stood grimly by and waited.

Comgeall could not have asked for a better introduction to his speech. He stood grimly by and waited, glaring at Eithne until Cat had fallen gasping into Paul’s arms and a hideous silence had fallen over them all.

He leaned so close to Eithne that she could feel his hot breath on her face.

“While you were off playing Eithne of the Glass Tower, your father lay a-​​dying of a broken heart. The day of your wedding was the day he died, little mistress. Your sister Gorman wanted me to tell you that.”

'Your sister Gorman wanted me to tell you that.'

Cat, it seemed, could not even bear to look at her, but everyone else was staring at her – even Paul and Osh and Lasrua, who could not have understood the Gaelic. She was standing alone, and they all surrounded her, like soldiers before a massacre, like a mob before a hanging.

“He died looking for you, lass, and it’s far from home his body lies. To the end he thought you good and true, and he died thinking you innocent, and he died trying to save you from a kidnapper. And so you may be thanking God he never learned the truth. Your sister Cainnech wanted me to tell you that.”

'Your sister Cainnech wanted me to tell you that.'

This time no one leapt up to plead for her. Flann’s face in the firelight looked old and wasted and impassive, hinting at the bitter old woman she would grow to be. Cat was mumbling something about her baby. Condal wavered behind Egelric like the shadow of a statue.

“And he died blaming himself for what happened to the three of you here, for he had not known how to be mother and father both to you. Cainnech wanted me to tell you that, too.”

From behind Eithne there arose a quavering wail like the tiny, belated echo of Cat’s keening. Sweetdew had come anxiously trotting in from parts unknown.

Sweetdew trotted in from parts unknown.

Somehow Sweetdew always knew when Eithne was troubled – no remarkable feat, perhaps, since she was troubled most of the time. As she always did when her life blurred into nightmares, Eithne turned to her little cat for comfort. Without thinking, she cooed, “Sweetdew!” and began to stoop.

Catan screeched, “No!” and shoved Comgeall and Egelric aside in her rush to get to Eithne. “No! There shall be no Sweetdew!

Even Paul was frightened, and he dared pat only the air behind his wife’s shoulder, murmuring, “Mina…”

'It's all you're caring about, is that cat!'

“It’s all you’re caring about, is that cat!” she shrieked. “No more! All the grief you’ve caused, and it’s only ever been Sweetdew, Sweetdew, Sweetdew! No! May the devil take that cat and roast it in his fires! Our father is dead, and all she’s caring about is Sweetdew! The devil take her!”

Cat lunged for either Sweetdew or Eithne herself, claws bared, but Egelric came to life at last and neatly caught her.

Eithne had not even cringed.

Eithne had not even cringed.

Some part of her believed she deserved the punishment, and the rest of her was simply paralyzed with the savage panic that never left her long in peace. Her arms and legs were growing numb, her palms sweaty, and her stomach pitched and heaved. Worse, her vision had narrowed to a distant point surrounded by dark blur, and her ears filtered every sound through a curtain of confusion until human speech was like the senseless babbling of low-​​voiced birds.

Sweetdew hopped onto the nearest chair and began to fiercely purr.

Sweetdew hopped onto the nearest chair and began to fiercely purr.

Eithne tried to calm herself by concentrating on the rhythm, but hearing her cat would not be enough. Stroking Sweetdew’s silky fur was the only peace she had.

As soon as Egelric had returned Catan to Paul’s arms, Comgeall stepped forward again, apparently deeming this quarrel between women unworthy of commentary or even of notice.

“And as for your big sister Aibinn,” he announced, “there’s but the one thing she wanted me to tell you.”

'There's but the one thing she wanted me to tell you.'

He lifted his right hand grandly, as if he were about to begin a speech, but then he whipped it down and smacked it across Eithne’s face, nearly knocking her over.

Egelric exploded. Eithne was vaguely aware of a scuffle and a shove in the dark periphery of her narrow world, but Egelric’s voice cut cleanly through the buzzing in her ears.

“What the devil was that?” he roared. “You never told me about that!”

'What the devil was that?'

“My wife has lost her Da because of her!” Comgeall snarled. “My babies have lost their Grandda because of her!

“Then you tell your wife to smack her sister herself! Or tell your own sister to do it! The devil! No men shall be striking ladies before me!”

“She is no lady!” Comgeall hissed through his teeth.

'She is no lady!'

“No! It’s a little, motherless girl she is, led astray by some man! The devil knows I’ve done it often enough myself to know what slim chance she had.”

Gradually Egelric had turned himself around until he was standing at Eithne’s side and faced the others with her. He was an unlikely ally, this man who either glowered or leered. She had always been frightened of him and his smile, almost since she had been too tiny to see that high – of his teeth that seemed so sharp and so many when they gleamed out of the blackness of his beard.

He was an unlikely ally.

Now that she was old enough to know men, she knew it for the lamb’s instinctive fear of wolves. But only a wolf could defend a lamb from other wolves, and Comgeall’s teeth were bared. Egelric was glowering and on guard.

“How often have you led her astray?” Comgeall taunted.

'How often have you led her astray?'

“Never,” Egelric replied coldly. “But one man did. And I’ll not let you give her his punishment simply because you can’t find him.”

“And I’ll not let you stop me! I’m her guardian now.”

“And I don’t give a damn. You’ll not touch her.”

“Ach… but I think you will…” Comgeall smiled.

“Take her!” Cat cried shrilly. “Take her away! And take her cat!” She turned back to Paul and fell heavily against him, whimpering in English, “We should have been so happy, so happy, so happy…”

Eithne watched her sister's back, slowly understanding that she had just been cast out.

Eithne watched her sister’s back, slowly understanding that she had just been cast out, along with her cat, with no more ceremony for one than for the other.

“Will you leave her to the man who guarded you both so well?” Comgeall sneered.

Egelric remained ominously calm. “If she hasn’t learned the lessons of her sisters’ errors, I have.”

'Will you leave her to the man who guarded you both so well?'

“Ach, you may have her, then!” Comgeall snorted. “You may be having the plague of her! Her shame shall be on your head. She’s no more the kin of me.”

Egelric nodded his head slightly, lifting it still higher. Such a head could hold shame enough to crush Eithne flat.

The room brightened at its edges, and Eithne could hear the familiar sounds of a crackling fire and a cat’s purring again, in spite of Catan’s sniffling.

Even when she stroked Sweetdew, she had not felt such a peace since she had left her father’s house for the last time. Once again a strong man was taking care of her.

Once again a strong man was taking care of her.