Vash had heard it often enough here to know it.

The shrill, two-​​note cry was tattered by the wind and muted by the brick and plaster of the walls, but Vash had heard it often enough here to know it: a kestrel was hovering outside, where kestrels should hover no more.

He closed his eyes and pressed his fingertips together to still his restless hands. The call came again. He began to imagine that his own brooding plucking at the past had opened a breach in the present, and the old barn and the grove and the wolf had been sucked back into the age of kestrels with him.

He began to imagine the yard outside filled with massive, three-​​hundred-​​ringed stumps instead of spindly new trees, and new grass in place of the bracken and dead leaves. He imagined voles and field mice of generations long dead, racing anxiously between the stems, torn between their hunger and their terror of the hovering bird.

Instead of the reek of smoke and drying paint he imagined the scent of fresh-​​cut oaken beams. Lying among the imaginary piles of shavings on the floor he imagined the men’s awkward tools, which had so fascinated the little elven boys.

He imagined the elven boys too: little Kiv with his flaxen, floating hair, and little tangle-​​headed Vash, sneaking in at night to swing from the rafters, and sneaking in of a morning to help themselves to bits of the workers’ bread and cheese.

He imagined the elven boys too.

In their eternal present of boyhood, little Kiv and little Vash had never stopped to imagine the barn sixteen winters on, with its oaken beams dried and seamed with cracks, its bricks eroded, its grain gone, its yard overgrown.

What neither could ever have imagined was the one boy’s father coming to live here with his woman bride.

The kestrel called again, just over the roof, but this time it was answered by a trilling whistle. It was for Osh, beloved of birds, that the little field falcon had come so far into the woods, leading him or following him or merely welcoming him home.

Osh trilled again, and the bird swooped past the door and chattered loudly. It was laughing. Farther off a woman laughed as if she knew.

At the sound Frost’s ears pricked up, wrinkling her brow into a look of very elf-​​like anxiety. She thumped her tail on the floor and whined.

Vash gently stomped on her nearest paw with the toe of his boot. “Stop worrying, young carcass. She’ll love you.”

Nevertheless, he stood and brushed the pale plaster dust from his sleeves. He was feeling unaccountably nervous himself.

They listened as the kestrel swooped away and back again, calling and being answered, each flight a little shorter than the last.

When the feet came close enough for the footsteps to be heard, Frost busied herself with a good scratch and another fine-​​toothed gnawing at the fur all down her flank, in search of unseasonable fleas that might offend a lady.

He was feeling unaccountably nervous himself.

Vash did not move.

He was a discreet elf and could ignore their half-​​murmured, half-​​giggled conversation, but he could not ignore the sound of their feet, tramping through the brush in a perfect plodding time: the light steps and the heavy steps as their shared center of gravity swayed between them. It was the sound of an elf walking with his arm over a lady’s shoulders, and her with her arm around his waist, and each so familiar with the other’s body that they could walk as one.

Vash had never learned to walk that way. He imagined he would seem an awkward, side-​​scrabbling, long-​​legged spider if he tried, attempting to escort a placidly marching ladybird. He might have found the image funny enough to share with her, making awkward things easy in his self-​​deprecating way, but even in his imagination ladybirds did not laugh at his bungling, and these days very seldom deigned to smile.

Vash had never learned to walk that way.

Flann was no haughty ladybird, however, and she was breathless with laughter by the time she and Osh reached the door.

“Are we supposed to be knocking?” he heard her giggle.

He heard Osh’s hand slide over the new wood of the door to steady it while he lifted the latch with the other.

“I say that is too much high and too much mighty for me,” he pretended to grumble, “if he makes me knock at my own door.

Flann laughed.

Vash had never before heard such a mingling of happiness and wistfulness in a lady’s laughter. The sound of it made his poetry seem empty. He did not understand it until he heard the whisper of her hand caressing the door as it opened–Her Own Door–and then it made his poetry seem dead.

Then his poetry seemed dead.

The dim light of day was to Vash’s bleary eyes painfully bright. To Osh and Flann, however, he knew the firelit room was dark as a cave, and in their moment of blindness they all had the time to compose themselves: Osh and Flann choking off their laughter, and Vash propping the corners of his mouth up into a smile.

Then Flann screamed.

Then Flann screamed.

“Bright Mother!” Vash gasped in his own language before remembering to shout in English: “It’s all right! She won’t hurt you!”

Frost yelped and threw herself onto her side, mortified by the panic she had caused.

Osh simply laughed.

“Didn’t you warn her?” Vash demanded shakily. “Didn’t you hear her in here?”

Osh ignored him and turned all his attention to his bride. He scoffed and clucked indulgently as he might have scolded a child who had fled his bed after a nightmare, but then his voice grew tender and strange, as Vash had never heard it, and he murmured off a jumble of words Vash that did not know.

Gaelic, he realized suddenly. Flann was teaching Osh her language. Perhaps Osh was teaching her his.

Gaelic, he realized suddenly.

It seemed to Vash a shockingly intimate thing – perhaps because for sixteen years he had imagined himself doing the same: in the dark, drowsily, warm skin against warm skin, whispering his most beloved words out over the little head that lay upon his arm.

“I’m sorry, Flann,” Vash interrupted. “I thought Osh would hear her whining in here and warn you.”

Flann’s hugged Osh’s arm protectively against her side, and she laughed. “Fie, now! The shame is on the head of me, for believing Osh would ever be leading me into danger. I forgot how the elves are keeping wolves like dogs.”

'I forgot how the elves are keeping wolves like dogs.'

“Not like dogs,” Osh chuckled. “More like guards and… nursemaids, isn’t it, Vash? Have you been naughty again?”

Arm over shoulder, arm about waist, they walked around the table to meet him, smiling. They seemed united against him. He had to tell himself they were simply united.

Frost made a cringing bow and whined. Flann cringed.

“I stopped at the house,” Vash blurted to distract her. “Paul’s, I mean. They told me you were on your way here. And yet I had enough time to get here before you, and make a fire and get warm.”

'They told me you were on your way here.'

He had intended to mockingly scold them, but instead he found himself slapping a smile over the sound of his own unaccountable annoyance.

Flann’s pink cheeks turned quite red, and she brushed one shyly over the shoulder of Osh’s cloak. “We were taking the long way…”

“Aye,” Osh sighed in feigned weariness, “we took Holding-​​Hands Lane, all the way around to Kiss-​​Me-​​Quick Bridge…”

Flann giggled and pretended to punch him in the chest. “Osh…”

“…then we stopped for a rest at the Sit-​​On-​​My-​​Lap Stone…”

'...stopped for a rest at the Sit-On-My-Lap Stone...'


“And then we make a wrong turn down the Kiss-​​Me-​​A-​​Long-​​Time Path…”

“Whisht!” She pressed her fingertips over his lips, and he kissed them.

“Sorry,” he chuckled. “That must have been the right turn.”

'That must have been the right turn.'

“I see,” Vash smiled painfully. “I don’t know that way.”

Osh gave him a look that Vash lacked the generosity to call anything but pity. Flann bit her bottom lip in a frantic attempt to dispel her foolish grin.

Vash found the generosity to add, “But I am so happy you have found it.”

He opened his arms wide, and Flann fell into them with such a rush that he felt her skirts thump against his legs only after her arms were already around his body.

Flann fell into them with such a rush.

“Last time I never had the chance to… to…” he fumbled. “What’s the word…?”

“Congratulate!” Osh grinned. He must have heard it a hundred times to find it funny now.

“We were so worried then,” Flann sighed – happily, because the worry was behind her. “God bless the Abbot!”

Frost could no longer contain herself before such raptures, and at last her silent squirming gave way to a girlish howl of joy.

Flann squealed and shoved herself away from Vash and into Osh’s arms.

At once she seemed ashamed of her fear. “It’s but a dog, it’s but a dog,” she panted to calm herself.

“She’s a wolf, Flann,” Osh corrected. “Her name is Frost. And she goes with Vash to keep him out of trouble.” He grinned at Vash over Flann’s shoulder. “So he must have been in trouble again!”

'So he must have been in trouble again!'

I’m not the one in trouble,” Vash sighed. He took out his agitation on the wolf, telling her curtly, “Sit and be still.” Then he took a deep breath and spoke gently again to Flann.

“That’s why I came – ”

Suddenly he realized that they must have been annoyed to find him there at all – they must have been expecting to have some time alone together, to go over their new house together. They did not see the old barn it had been. With their new doors and new bricks and fresh plaster, they had so well sealed off any breaches in the present that their pasts could no longer leak in.

Vash wanted to howl in outrage, and he could not understand why.

“About… about…”

'About... about...'

They smiled at him encouragingly. Frost stared up her nose at him and wagged her tail.

“To give you a wedding gift, let us say,” Vash continued, “or to ask you a favor, depending on how it is received.”

Flann looked uneasily down at the wolf.

“I would like you to take care of her.”

Osh laughed. “Very clever! And meanwhile what were you planning to do?”

“Nothing, Osh. She no longer watches me. I am trying to help her.”

Frost saw them all staring at her, and she knew that her moment had arrived. Nervously she licked her nose to smooth back her whiskers, and wagged her tail with all her might.

She wagged her tail with all her might.

“What’s being the trouble of her?” Flann asked.

Already her voice was softening. Frost found it so encouraging that she sat down and immediately stood up again in her confusion.

“She’s expecting pups soon,” Vash said simply.

Wolf pups?” Flann gasped. “Ach, Osh!” In her confusion she threw herself against him again.

“I thought you would understand better than anyone…” Vash faltered.

'I thought you would understand better than anyone...'

Flann gave him a look that seemed to say she did not find the comparison flattering.

Osh curved one arm around her body and smoothed her hair down over her little ear with his opposite hand. “Because she’s not a dog,” he said gently.

This was the voice of Osh that Vash knew: the gentle, patient voice that he offered children, and that explained ugly things so well.

It was Osh who had told Vash what had happened to his mother, and for the first time it occurred to him to wonder who had explained the death of Sora to Paul. For weeks afterwards Osh had not said a word to anyone; he had seemed so utterly, irreparably heartbroken at the time.

'You see, my darling.'

“You see, my darling,” he explained, “among wolves, it is as if only the great ladies such as Hetty may have children. All the other ladies, like Frost, unless a great wolf takes her for his mate, she may never have children at all. Isn’t it, Vash?”

Vash shrugged.

“She isn’t allowed to have puppies?” Flann asked dubiously.

Vash had taught Frost a few of the English words he thought she would need to know. At the sound of the word “puppies” the fur shivered all down her shoulders.

“Not among her kind,” Vash said.

Flann hesitated. “Ach, but Osh!” she wailed. “We can’t! The baby!”

Osh laughed at her silliness. “My darling, the elf babies have wolves for nursemaids!”

'My darling, the elf babies have wolves for nursemaids!'

“But Liadan isn’t an elf baby! She’s a Scot baby,” she said defiantly.

“Frost likes all kind of babies,” Osh told her. “Even this big baby here.” He threw up his arm and patted Vash’s shoulder without turning his eyes away from Flann.

Vash twisted his shoulder away. “She was supposed to be a nurse,” he said. “Instead she was stuck with me.”

Frost had learned “baby” too, and she was trembling to hear it spoken over and over and yet not understand the words around it. Finally she yelped, “I love babies!” as though she had.

'I love babies!'

Flann started and pulled the hems of her skirts away from the animal’s big paws.

“What will happen to her if I say you nay?” she asked nervously.

“Ah,” Osh sighed, “she will become the lowest of the low, the last of the last, and all the wolves will mock her and scorn her forever.”

He paused, and Vash wondered whether he meant to say more. Vash realized he could not say it himself, as he had planned; it was not for him to explain ugly things to this lady.

Osh put his arms around her as if to steady her, or to avoid looking into her eyes. “And they will kill her puppies when they are born.”

Osh put his arms around her as if to steady her.

“Ach, her wee puppies!” she cried.

Then she went still, only breathing, and her eyes looked far out beyond the walls of the old barn – not into the past, Vash knew, but into an imaginary world wherein the men would have slain her newborn daughter. Vash saw it too, so sickeningly that he wished Osh had not told her all.

Finally Flann squirmed free of Osh’s arms and turned to stare boldly at the wolf. She looked her over skeptically, judging her with the eye of a woman who was beginning her life and furnishing her first home, wondering how she would make the animal fit into life and home alike.

Frost knew her moment was upon her. Sagely she sat, silently fanning the embers with her tail, and watched the woman decide.

“How can I refuse?” Flann whispered.

'How can I refuse?'

“You need not,” Osh said. “You might like having a wolf here to watch over us, no? With her long nose and long ears? And long teeth?”

Flann took a breath. “She won’t hurt my baby, Osh? You’re trusting her?”

“I trust her, a cridhe. I know her. I knew her mother.”

Flann took another deep breath. Frost seemed to know she was making up her mind, and she stood.

“May I be petting her?” Flann asked meekly.

'May I be petting her?'

Osh laughed. “We do not pet wolves, my darling. Did I ask to pet Derbail and Muirenn when I met them?”

“You were probably thinking of it,” Flann pretended to grumble. Osh laughed again.

“I think she would like it,” Vash said.

“So!” Flann huffed. She lifted her skirts and dropped onto one knee. She hesitated, but she had her defiance to maintain, so she lifted her hand, and – doubtlessly for the first time in her life – gingerly patted a wolf’s expressive brow.

She gingerly patted a wolf's expressive brow.

“I told you she would love you, young carcass,” Vash muttered in his own language.

Osh took advantage of that opportunity to growl, “You are too soft-​​hearted for two, Vash, as the men say.”

Vash sighed impatiently.

“The society of elves, the society of men, now the society of wolves? What laws will you be ignoring next?”

'What laws will you be ignoring next?'

“The sacred laws of beetles,” Vash muttered.

“What will your father say?”

Flann stood and brushed her hands on her skirt. “What are you saying?” she chirped.

Her face was pink and fair, and Osh immediately took it between his hands and spoke in the strange, tender new voice he had.

“I am telling Vash how he is naughty. Now, why did we come here today?”

“My curtains!” she gasped.

“Your curtains. Go measure for your curtains, a cridhe. We talk in here.”

She hesitated a moment.

She hesitated a moment, merely to smile up at him: rapturous with the idea of Her Own Curtains, rapturous with love – rapturous, perhaps, merely to hear that word again in her own, beloved language.

Vash did not know what it meant, but he was poet enough to guess it meant a great many things he would never have occasion to say. He guessed it meant all the things that the man Malcolm said to Iylaine in his own, beloved language.

At last Flann giggled and skipped off, and Osh smiled dreamily at the fire, shaking his head. “She wants glass in her window, simply so she can cover it up again with a lot of pleated cloth!”

At last Flann giggled and skipped off.

“Let us suppose I give you the news,” Vash said coldly, “rather than receive a scolding.”

Osh blinked at him as though he had already forgotten their interrupted conversation. “I suppose I rather you did,” he smiled. “How is everyone?”

“The same as when last I saw you,” Vash muttered. “Everyone is well. You know how it is this time of winter. One can’t pry the couples apart now, since they know they will so soon be separated. And those who won’t be separated are spending all their time together anyway. Practicing, or something.”

'Practicing, or something.'

Osh licked his lips and hesitated, apparently searching a path through the thicket of bitterness Vash had just thrown up.

“So who is staying together this winter?” he asked delicately. “Shus and Dara? It’s about time for them to be thinking of their second,” he smiled.

“No, not Shus and Dara,” Vash said impatiently. “Someone you’ll never guess.” Nevertheless he paused to let Osh try.

Osh considered for a moment, but he quickly stumbled upon an idea that bleached his face white. “You, Vash?” he gasped.

“No, not I!” Vash barked. “Your sister!”

Osh’s face flooded with red. It seemed to Vash his own did as well. He was breathing heavily, almost shaking, and he could not understand why. His clearest desire was to pick Osh up and throw him out of the barn – out of His Own House.

Osh's face flooded with red.

Osh lowered his eyes discreetly. “The elf Ris and the elf Madra…” he mused. “Because they lost their son?”

“No.” Vash put on a sickening smile. “Not a son. The Shalla has decreed that the elf Ris and the elf Madra shall have another daughter. With fire nature.”

Again he paused to allow Osh to guess. Either Osh could not, or he dared not, but his face turned grim. At last he began to look as old as his years. To Vash, it was some small satisfaction.

“The elf Pol is gone,” Vash murmured breathlessly. “The elf Osh is gone. The elf Kiv is gone. The elf Ris and the elf Madra are the best and noblest blood we have.”

'The elf Ris and the elf Madra are the best and noblest blood we have.'

Osh rubbed his forehead between his frowning brows.

“I think they are making a wife for me,” Vash whispered.

Osh sighed, but he did not appear shocked or dismayed. Vash wanted to howl.

“How many winters have passed you by, my boy?” Osh asked him wearily.

“Twenty-​​three winters. Sixteen more must pass before I may take my new bride. I shall be nearly as old as you are now.” His laugh was so shaky as to almost hide its bitterness. “Fortunately I see that won’t slow me down!”

Osh’s hands jerked in a reflex of self-​​defense. His mild blue eyes hardened into the same glare of warning that had always sufficed to halt little Kiv and little Vash in the preparation of any naughty plans.

'It is never too late to be happy, my boy.'

“It is never too late to be happy, my boy.”

“Yes it is!” Vash howled.

Osh caught his arms to steady him. “Shhh…”

“For me it is,” he blubbered.

Then Osh hugged him, rocking him gently from foot to foot and rubbing his back, as he had the little tangle-​​headed boy.

Then Osh hugged him.

After that first sob, Vash could not cry. These days he seldom could; more often he would simply lie before the fire and watch it burn, his clasped hands clenched between his knees and his body curled up around his own dry, painful smoldering that seemed to be hollowing him out like a dead tree.

He was a husband still, but he had no wife. As Nimea had promised, he was finding it more than he could bear. He had comforted himself with the thought that he was one of such elves as his father, Pol, Tashnu, and others who had been violently bereaved – a cold comfort, but noble and pure.

And this, he realized suddenly, was what he could not forgive Osh: he was no longer noble and pure in his suffering – he was simply happy. And his happiness made Vash in his misery feel like a fool.

“Does it help?” he croaked.

'Does it help?'

“Does what help?” Osh murmured.

“This…” Vash waved a hand behind Osh’s head at the fresh plaster, the fresh paint, the new table and chairs and door. “Flann…”

Osh stepped back to look him in the face. “Does it help what?

“Does it help you… go on living?” he whispered. “Does it help you forget your pain and your – your wife?”

Osh licked his lips and brushed his hand over his mouth as though he had a beard long enough to smooth. “Vash,” he said delicately, “you don’t understand at all.”

Vash’s annoyance flared up a last time and flickered out. It was not Osh’s fault if he was a fool.

'This is not about forgetting.'

“This is not about forgetting,” Osh said. He flicked his fine hand at the air like the wing of a bird. “This is not about sex and companionship and surrounding myself with the trappings of marriage to make my miserable slogging towards death a little more agreeable, like the elf Tashnu with that Nina-​​creature.”

He paused to catch his breath, and perhaps to stop himself from sliding into sarcasm.

“This is not going on living, Vash,” he said softly, his gentleness renewed. “This is living. That is what you don’t understand. But I hope you will understand someday.”

Vash shook his head. It did not seem possible. He was being burned hollow, in the living image of his senseless poetry. In sixteen years he would surely be dead.

In sixteen years he would surely be dead.

Osh patted Vash’s chest – over his heart, so long had he lived with men.

“I know you will. There is enough love in you for ten, my boy. If you love even the little foolish creatures such as these.”

He waved at Frost, who was sitting so quietly she must have feared the woman and the barn and everything would vanish if she so much as scratched a flea.

“You have it in you, Vash. You always have. You only need to give yourself a chance.”

'You have it in you, Vash.'