Condal opened the door immediately after knocking, blushing at her own foolishness.

Condal opened the door immediately after knocking, blushing crimson at her own foolishness. One of the occupants of the room could not speak to bid her enter, and the other would never make another sound.

However, her cheeks paled as soon as she had stepped through.

But her cheeks paled as soon as she had stepped through. Even her own fervent imagination had fallen short of preparing her for this chilling scene. In spite of candles the shadow of death lay like the night over Flann’s narrow valley, making it seem a foreign land.

The baby and cradle were gone, and her sister was not there. The body of the troubled man who had loved her lay in her bed as he had long desired – one day after she had left it forever. His face was whiter than any corpse Condal had seen. He seemed more than merely dead.

His face was whiter than any corpse Condal had seen.

Malo fidgeted in the chair while she stared at Sebastien, but as soon as she turned her eyes to him, he began to rise, abruptly, as if he had made up his mind to flee.

Condal hastened to close the door and put herself in his way. “Don’t be getting up,” she blurted. “I mean – pardon me.” She stopped to curtsey. “I mean, you may be getting up, if you’re wanting to go lie down a while, or have a bite in the kitchen. I came to ask… to offer… to sit up with him.”

Condal clenched her sweaty fingers into in her sweaty palms.

Condal clenched her sweaty fingers into in her sweaty palms and tried to keep her breathing slow. She felt like a trespasser, or worse – like a spy trying to cross enemy lines with forged papers.

Now that she stood at the border, however, she felt her loyalty slipping to the other side.

He was not merely a loyal servant.

This young man was not merely “his secretary, his secretary” as her family had spoken of him all last evening. He was not simply a loyal servant performing a last duty before moving on to another employ. Condal saw in an instant that Malo had been Sebastien’s friend.

“I’m so sorry…”

'I'm so sorry...'

She bit her lip and watched for a telling reaction. What if no one had thought to say it to him at all – to “his secretary”–amongst all their talk of “arrangements” and “affairs” and “keeping it quiet”?

He closed his sad eyes and nodded slowly, each nod lifting his head a little less high than the last, though he never quite let it hang. Then he looked up at her.

Then he looked up at her.

He held her eyes for only a moment before looking back to the bed, but Condal knew precisely how much that glance had cost him.

The sympathy of others, however fervent, however well-​​intentioned, did not shine into the shadowy sorrow of those who dwelled behind the scenes of grand tragedies. For the overlooked, for the left-​​behind such as she and he, there was no comfort in being noticed when the drama was done and the actors were gone. But it was generous to lift a look of thanks, to pretend there was.

“Ach, but – I’m Connie,” she gasped. “If you’re not remembering…”

He nodded briskly to show he had.

She lowered herself awkwardly into the other chair, as if by not looking at it she could absolve herself of taking it uninvited.

She lowered herself awkwardly into the other chair.

“And you’re Malo,” she added faintly. “I heard… I wasn’t asking, I mean, but I heard the people saying…”

She thought she saw the corners of his mouth lift briefly in a polite half-​​smile.

“And you needn’t – you needn’t worry about me. I think I’m knowing why you can’t be my friend, and I think it’s a fine thing.”

He might have taken a sharp breath, but she was so nervous herself she could not be certain she had noticed.

“Guessing, I mean,” she corrected. “I’m thinking you’re learning to be a priest!”

'I'm thinking you're learning to be a priest!'

Even in these somber circumstances, she was a little pleased to be able to offer up this beautifully logical explanation for almost everything: for his frequent presence in the chapel, for his concern about her troubles, for his look of understanding, for his unwillingness to befriend a young maiden.

But he stared at her with such wide-​​eyed alarm that she feared she had smacked up against the one problem she had not been able to explain away: how a man who could not speak could be a priest.

He stared at her with such wide-eyed alarm.

“Or a monk, I’m meaning,” she added hastily. “Or a religious man. I think it’s a fine thing.”

He eased himself back into the chair so slowly, so carefully that he made not even an accidental nod or shake of the head. If he did not deny it, she thought, it must have been true.

She coughed politely into her hand. “If you’re not hungry or not tired, you might still be going up to the chapel a while to pray,” she suggested. “Father Matthew won’t be coming till after breakfast. It isn’t far if you take a light and go up across the downs.”

'It isn't far.'

Now he shook his head, slowly but perceptibly.

She leaned closer and whispered, “It’s all right,” as if the man on the bed could have overheard these negotiations. “I shall sit with him. I shall be a friend to him while you’re away.”

At this he looked up at her with eyes wondering and surprised, like a baby animal.

“I shall pray for him,” she said. “I already have. I know what Father Matthew said, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as a sin the Lord can’t forgive.”

He jerked back his head and squeezed his eyes shut, as if she had whipped away a curtain and shone the full glare of day on his private fear or hidden sorrow.

He jerked back his head and squeezed his eyes shut.

Condal took a breath and tried to make her voice sound firmer and older. “Malo…”

Then she hesitated, wondering fearfully whether he could hear how comfortably his name fit into her mouth, so often had she gone away in secret to see how it might be pronounced – softly voiced or in a whisper, on her lips, with and without her tongue.

“I’m certain you’ll be seeing him again in Heaven,” she said softly. “He’ll be awaiting you there.”

'I'm certain you'll be seeing him again in Heaven.'

He gasped, and then his pain rolled over his face in silence, bobbing in the taut profile of his throat, quivering in his lips, and shaking in the lashes of his tightly shut eyes until they grew darker with half-​​shed tears.

Condal had no brothers and did not know how to care for a young man; she could only do as she had done for her suffering sisters.

She reached over the arm of his chair and laid her hand over the back of his, as gently as she knew how, for something told her a boy needed greater gentleness still.

She laid her hand over the back of his.

Not until her palm began to grow warm did she realize she was holding a boy’s hand for the first time.

He made no effort to reclaim it, though he raised the other to wipe his eye – or perhaps a tear – on the side of his face she could not see.

“I’m… sorry I haven’t your handkerchief. I wasn’t expecting…” She glanced awkwardly at the body on the bed. “ – to see you,” she blurted. “It’s needing a washing… The handkerchief, I mean. I hope you aren’t minding…” She laughed weakly. “I was needing a boy’s sort of handkerchief yesterday. No frills – just good and sturdy for getting down to the business of – of – crying.”

'No frills--just good and sturdy.'

She caught her sob in time, but she could not help remembering why she cried – nor why she had come creeping into the room in the first place.

Malo was looking at her now, with his sad eyes shining strangely between his wet lashes. His limp hand came to life, and his thumb crept up to curl itself over her fingertips, with a light pressure that was more than the weight of a thumb. For the first time a boy was holding Condal’s hand.

“My sister Eithne ran off last night,” she murmured. “Perhaps you heard.”

He shrugged slightly and nodded slightly.

He shrugged slightly and nodded slightly.

“With the husband of her,” she added. “Cian. I think you’re knowing him.”

Condal lifted her head and waited. Now it could only have been said that he shrugged.

“Could you be telling us where he might have taken her?” When he did not so much as twitch, she asked, “Or where is his home? Or even who is his clan?”

He shook his head slowly, staring at the bed.

He shook his head slowly.

“It’s the friend of Bastien he was?” she asked.

Malo lifted a shoulder and sighed. All of his usual expressiveness had vanished, leaving him dull and dumb. Condal pulled her hand away.

“I hope you will be telling us if you learn anything, or remember anything,” she said curtly. “It’s more than the sister of me she was. She was my best and dearest friend.”

He lifted his freed hand and wiped the backs of his fingers over his cheek.

He lifted his freed hand and wiped the backs of his fingers over his cheek.

Condal had not seen the tear, but she realized abruptly that she was being cruel. She was cruelly speaking of a runaway friend who might yet return – who might even be happy where she was – when his own was lying white and dead and eternally damned before his eyes. She was ruthlessly sneaking her own grief into the breach made by his, like a spy.

“I’m sorry to be bothering you,” she murmured. “I’m certain you would be telling us if you knew.”

Malo only swallowed.

Malo only swallowed.

“I shall leave you with him, unless… If you’re needing anything, you’ve only to ask– Cousin Egelric,” she blurted, fearing the young man might rather silently perish than come ask a favor of her. “He’s sleeping on the couch in the front hall.”

Malo glanced up at her with sufficient surprise that it seemed he had not even known Cousin Egelric was there. But of course not, she thought, for “his secretary” deserved not even the politeness of a sympathetic word.

'His secretary' deserved not even the politeness of a sympathetic word.

“Wasn’t he coming up to say a word to you?” she asked, hurt and annoyed for his sake.

Malo shook his head, but he watched her face closely.

“Ach, but not a word was anyone saying to me, either,” she mumbled and slumped back against her chair. “I wasn’t learning till I woke. I got up to see… to see whether my sister came home in the night.” She pronounced every word with great precision to ensure she would not begin to cry. “And it’s gone away all I found them, and Cousin Egelric to guard me they were leaving. And he drunk, too, I’m thinking,” she whimpered miserably at this final sign of disregard.

'And he drunk, too, I'm thinking.'

After her moment of self-​​pity had passed, she noticed Malo’s eyebrows lifted in an eloquent question.

“Ach! But weren’t they even telling you they were leaving?” she gasped. “Paul and Cat and Rua?”

He shook his head and glanced worriedly at the bed.

He shook his head and glanced worriedly at the bed.

“It isn’t because of that,” she said quickly. “Something happened to Osh in the night. A terrible falling-​​down fit, like to die.”

Malo bit his lips together and stared at Sebastien.

“I know you’re probably not loving Osh over-​​much, for… for his sake, but I hope you’re not wishing him ill.”

He shook his head.

“I’m certain you aren’t, I mean,” she corrected quickly. “Nor thinking my poor sister meant for this to happen. She isn’t cruel, but she was hurting so. She might have…”

She did not finish her statement, but Malo’s eyes followed hers to the body on the bed.

Malo's eyes followed hers to the body on the bed.

“…too. But it will be better for her now,” she said softly. “Osh loves her so much, if only he’ll live. He painted all these fine walls, trying to give my sister a little sight of home, though he never saw Scotland in all his days. And it’s the saddest thing, too,” she sighed, “if he’s lost his sight as they’re fearing, and he a painter. Perhaps you’ll understand that. Now he’s blind as Paul was, but that where Paul was seeing all dark, he’s seeing all light.”

Malo bit the back of his finger between his teeth and scooted forward until one knee was nearly on the floor.

“Cousin Egelric is thinking it’s some sort of elf magic,” Condal began, but she was interrupted when Malo leapt jerkily from his chair.

Condal squeaked and shrank away.

Condal squeaked and shrank away, frantically trying to remember what she might have said to annoy him or alarm him.

When he saw her panic, he calmed and stood straight before her. He was not a tall boy, and unlike her Cousin Finn he was delicately built, but he seemed very fine and manly to her then.

He seemed very fine to her then.

She thought it would be a fine thing merely to be allowed to sit meekly before him and be looked upon with his sad and understanding eyes.

Then he lifted his hands and pressed his palms together prayerfully, and she was ashamed to have thought such a thing of a boy who wanted to be a priest.

“Ach! Are you wanting to go up to the chapel after all?”

'Are you wanting to go up to the chapel after all?'

Then it occurred to her that a desire to sit meekly and be looked upon – and hope to be understood – was just what a good priest ought to bring out in a girl.

“I’m thinking it’s a fine thing,” she said softly.

His legs crumpled beneath him as if she had driven a spear up through his heart. Though he landed gracefully on his knees, he caught her hands as he fell as if they were his last hope of clinging to earth. His forehead fell lightly upon the backs of her fingers, and then his cheek, and even his lips as he kissed both her hands.

He kissed both her hands.

The look on his face was so expressive and so unfamiliar to her that she waited breathlessly to hear what he would say. Whatever it was, it would be the first time a boy had ever said it to her.

But of course he could say nothing. He sobbed once, silently, or gasped, or simply took a deep breath before he ran away.

Of course he could say nothing.