'What are you waiting for?'

“Connie!” Flann cooed. “What are you waiting for?”

Condal ducked her head. Her first impulse was to hide herself beneath the arm of the man beside her, but she shied away a second time when her face swung near his shoulder.

This was not her father’s black plaid, but a strange, red-​​brown tunic. This was not her father’s lanky body, whose every crook and curve she knew from a lifetime of cuddles; it was the strange body of a strange man, and she could not guess how her own little body would fit against it. Her own little body was growing crooks and curves she no longer knew.

She could not guess how her own little body would fit against it.

“To be asked, maybe,” the Captain said for her.

“Ach!” Flann cackled. “In our country the men aren’t asking the girls to dance. They’re dancing, and if a girl is bold enough she may join one of them.”

“If she’s wanting a dance,” the Captain said coolly. “Or thinking she has something to – to prove.”

Condal looked up at Flann just in time to see her insolent smirk replaced by one of her black stares.

Hurriedly she whimpered, “But my shoes are pinching me, sister.”

“That’s not the only thing that’s pinching you over here, I’m thinking,” Flann said darkly.

Condal twitched with a jolt of embarrassment, and then her body stiffened from face to feet as her blush flooded over her. She braced herself for the outraged denial, for the sassy reply, for the argument – over her, though it would no longer truly be about her any longer.

She braced herself.

It did not come. It could not begin without that first outraged denial. Even without opening her eyes, Condal began to understand that the Captain was not blushing, he was not fidgeting, and she suspected that he was holding Flann’s stare. His stillness seemed the strength of a pillar, and Condal longed to lean.

Farther out, beyond his sheltering presence at her side, the music was starting, and Condal heard a pair of boots scuffing on the floor. Cearball would be beginning the slow, solemn part of the dance, when the men glared out challenges at the other men and smoldering invitations at the clapping girls.

Cearball would be beginning the slow, solemn part of the dance.

Not so long ago Condal and Eithne had stood shyly watching together, wishing they were already big girls being looked at in such a way by such fine men. Now Condal was a big girl, and she was afraid to open her eyes.

Still farther out, in a ring around the scuffing soles and clacking heels, the people were laughing uneasily and cooing and calling at one another in English like strange doves. Who would dance with him? they must have been asking. Cat could not; Flann would not; he lacked a girl.

Only one familiar word came sometimes unmistakable to her ears, for it was her very name: Connie, Connie, Connie, like the faint, staccato clapping of distant hands.

Then Gwynn’s clear voice piped up hopefully above the others: “Is it very difficult a dance?”

'Is it very difficult a dance?'

Condal opened her eyes.

“Difficult!” Finn howled. “You wouldn’t last a minute out there with your pussy-​​footing! Rua can dance it!”

'You wouldn't last a minute out there with your pussy-footing!'

“Rua can dance it!” Cat echoed from the far side of the room. “Can she ever! Go on with you, sister! You’ll have to be learning the habit sooner or later!”

Cat leaned over the arm of her chair to catch Lasrua by her sleeve and tug her onto the floor. Impossibly strong though elf maidens were supposed to be, and sober as Lasrua always was, she nevertheless flounced gracelessly into the room and laughed like a little girl.

She nevertheless flounced gracelessly into the room and laughed like a little girl.

“Can you keep up with an elf lass, sir?” Cat demanded of Cearball.

Flann snarled, “Connie!” and grabbed Condal’s arm to swing her around her body and onto the floor.

Condal stumbled and reached blindly for the man at her side. The curling fingers of a strong hand stroked around her waist as she turned, but the Captain had moved to steady her and not to stop her, and Flann yanked her away.

Nevertheless Flann had moved too late. Cearball cracked his heel down beside the hem of Lasrua’s gown and asked, “Can you keep up with an Irishman, girl?”

Everyone laughed, a little nervously – even Condal – and then Cearball and Lasrua kicked their feet out together, and they were dancing.

Then they two were dancing.

At once the pipers overhead played faster, and Cat and Flann and Leila began to clap their hands in time.

Condal stepped back, but there was no comforting wall behind her. In her awkwardness she stepped almost into the Duke, and her shuddering hand slid briefly not across wood, not across her father’s coarse woolen plaid, but across the fine cloth of a strange man’s tunic and the hard muscle of a strange man’s thigh.

In her awkwardness she stepped almost into the Duke.

The Captain stepped out after her, and he stood a moment inside the ring, alone among the others watching something besides the dance.

Condal did not have to look at him to know what he was watching, though she could have just glimpsed him if she turned her eyes aside. She had scarcely known he existed an hour before, and now she felt his absence like a missing limb.

The Captain had stepped up after her.

But Cearball and Lasrua danced near, and the Captain was forced to step back.

As they passed, Cearball lifted his head and taunted in Gaelic, “Who’s piping up there – my Granny? In Ireland we play this tune for a lullaby!”

Gilpatrick’s pink face and black beard appeared briefly above the low wall of the gallery overhead, and when he disappeared again the musicians played alarmingly faster. But what Lasrua lacked in practice she made up for in elven grace, and if she missed a step as she followed Cearball back down the floor, she laid a grand flourish on the next.

What Lasrua lacked in practice she made up for in elven grace.

Cat stomped her feet and laughed delightedly. “Just what will warm the heart of a Scotsman, sister! Put the nice Irishman to bed now! He’s had his lullaby, and it’s past his bedtime!”

Lasrua laughed deeply, as she rarely did, proving how little winded she was next to the panting man. “Faster!” she demanded, and the musicians obliged.

Cat trilled with her tongue as the ladies did in their country, and Leila replied with a weird ululating cry from hers.

The English people laughed nervously, but the little German lady among them slapped her hands upon the arms of her throne and accused with a breathless giggle: “That was almost a leap! I saw it!”

'That was almost a leap!'

Cearball responded with a proper leap, kicking both of his heels high, and Hetty clapped her hands and shook with proper laughter.

“Clap for the man, sister,” Flann hissed through her smile. “A fine dancer he is!”

A fine dancer he was. He danced as well as some of the best dancers Condal knew: boys who danced whenever presented with an occasion, whatever else they shirked; boys who got very drunk, raced their horses down the road in spite of travelers, and beat each other with their fists over the outcome; boys who stayed up long after Condal and Eithne went to bed, or else disappeared early with the sort of girl who would go off alone with a boy – or alone with several boys.

There was something thrilling about him when he danced.

And nevertheless there was something thrilling about him when he danced, like the sight of one of Lord Colban’s prancing young stallions – something that made Condal’s face grow hot and her heart rise up in her breast like a fluttering meadow bird fleeing hooves.

Oh! not so long ago she and Eithne had leaned against a fence, watching a horse run skittishly across the field and wishing he would come nigh. They had said they would brush his long forelock smoothly down his cheek, stroke his soft nose with their little hands, hug his thick neck, and perhaps even throw a leg over his naked back and ride him, as only the bravest, strongest men would dare. Timid, tiny Condal had dared dream she could tame him with tenderness enough.

She clapped.

She clapped.

As Cearball and Lasrua danced beneath the open end of the hall again, Cearball shouted up, “Who’s dying up there? In Ireland we play this tune for a dirge!”

Gilpatrick took his pipe out of his mouth long enough to lean over the wall and laugh, “It’s your funeral, lad!”

Then he piped on, alone, for only a Scot who had heard it from the cradle could play the tune faster still. Even the drummers and Cat’s stamping foot could scarcely follow, but Cearball still danced without fault, seeming like a hot-​​blooded horse to snap his knee up for the next step even while he was setting his foot down.

Almost at once Lasrua began to falter.

Almost at once Lasrua began to falter, often dancing two steps to his every three. She managed to follow him as far as Cat’s chair, but then she planted both feet flat on the floor and stopped with a sobbing laugh. Cearball bowed quickly before her and danced away alone.

Cearball bowed quickly before her and danced away alone.

Cat took Lasrua’s hand and shook her arm. “Fie! Never mind you, sister! You’re needing only dance fast and fine enough for a limping man! If you can’t keep up with a mad Irishman, I’m not knowing who could!”

“Connie could!” Flann called.

A confused murmuring rippled around the room like a wind through many leaves, but Condal understood not a word of the English. She only heard the Captain’s growling, spitting Gaelic aside to Flann: “She has nothing to prove!”

'She has nothing to prove!'

The glimpse she stole of his face was frightening; its natural warm, crinkly expression had disappeared, and it was red and taut with simmering anger.

Then Cearball came dancing near.

Then Cearball came dancing near.

“Go with him, sister,” Flann whispered and nudged her. “He’ll be taking care of you, and never letting you trip nor fall.”

Behind her the Duke murmured something in English that Condal did not understand, and Hetty interrupted him with an anxious cry: “Go slowly with her, Cearball, dear! She is only a girl!”

Cearball slowed abruptly, dropping out of the galloping time of Gilpatrick’s piping into a solemn tread, one step for every two beats, like the unearthly, floating gait of the little Moorish ponies from Spain.

Cearball slowed abruptly.

Everything and everyone around them still moved at an ordinary speed, and Condal had the queer sense that she was alone with him, that together they had dropped out of the world and out of time. Even the thudding of his boots on the wood fell into step with the pounding of her heart, or her heart with his dancing feet, until they were one.

He was close enough for her to feel the animal heat that radiated from his working muscles, to hear the catches of his panting breath as his body jerked and leapt, and to see the dripping sweat run down his temple and into the scratchy stubble of his beard.

In his nearness she felt his body bearing down on hers.

He did not touch her, but in his nearness she felt his body bearing down on hers until she felt it inside hers, until they were one.

And his eyes looked into hers however his head turned, and in their evening blue-​​violet she saw what she had seen in their midnight blackness of the night before: “Come be my closest girl,” they said still.

'Come be my closest girl.'

Eithne had flown, and Condal was standing alone; she was a big girl now, and a fine man was looking at her in a new way. She felt something she had never felt before: a heat tearing over her like a meadow on fire, and a queer fluttering low in her belly like a wounded bird.

She kicked off her pinching shoes and leapt up.

She kicked off her pinching shoes and leapt up.