Cearball wiped and spat and blotted.

Cearball wiped and spat and blotted, but he could do no more without water. He could not determine the state of his teeth unless he rinsed them of their red, and his chin and cheek were streaked with dried blood that could not have been removed without rubbing – and rubbing was the last thing his chin and cheek could bear.

Rubbing was the last thing his chin and cheek could bear.

Finally, when he thought he had struck a balance between giving Egelric time to get away and hiding in his room, he snatched up the pitcher and stomped for the door. At least the heavy earthenware jug could serve as a weapon, and he would not hesitate to use it against such a man’s head.

And as sick as it made him to think of seeing her, as a gentleman he thought that Maire had to be warned.

He made it no farther than two steps outside his door. This time it did not occur to him that he could run. He stood in the doorway, pitcher in hand, stunned with despair like a man who falls back to sleep and plunges into the same nightmare.

This time it did not occur to him that he could run.

This time it was the man’s son-​​in-​​law coming down the hall, stalking silently like a cat on the prowl, and with all the grace of the cat.

“Cearball!” Malcolm called. “I was looking for Egelric!”

Then Cearball remembered he could run.

He moved as quickly as he could without appearing to duck and hide, but Malcolm snuck through the door before it slammed.

“Looks like you found him!”

'Looks like you found him!'

Cearball ventured a snarling sound.

“Know where he went?”

“Follow the trail of blood,” Cearball mumbled. Every consonant he tried to clip snapped back and struck his tongue like a lash.


“Follow the – fuck it!” He grabbed the basin between his practiced hands and spat. Simply talking seemed to have started his swollen tongue bleeding again.

Malcolm peeked into the bowl and winced. “Follow the whom?”

'Follow the whom?'

“The trail of blood! It’s the last I saw of him!”

Malcolm’s broad mouth widened slowly into a smile. “I thought that was your blood!”

“His more than mine,” Cearball slurred.

“The devil!” Malcolm gave him a congratulatory slap on the back. “Say, that’s going to be quite the black eye in a few hours.”

'Say, that's going to be quite the black eye in a few hours.'

“The devil take my eye! It’s my teeth I’m trying to find!”

“Did he knock any out?”

Cearball picked up the pitcher and slammed it down on the table. “If I had some water to rinse my mouth I would tell you!”

Malcolm swept it up and danced with it to the door. “Be right back.” Cearball heard him laugh, “I thought that was your blood!” as he danced down the hall.

By the time he returned, however, he had sobered into a thoughtful shuffle.

“There weren’t any blades involved, were there?” he asked worriedly.

Cearball glared.

Cearball glared.

“It’s rather a lot of blood, you see…”

Cearball snatched the pitcher out of his hands roughly enough to splash water down the front of Malcolm’s tunic. Malcolm pretended not to notice.

“He has a rather large nose, you see!” Cearball growled.

Malcolm laughed and pinched the tip of his own between finger and thumb. “You make an unarguable point, sir!”

Cearball grunted and turned back to the basin. He rinsed it into the chamber pot and filled it with water, and while he splashed and washed and spat, Malcolm discreetly studied each corner of the room in turn, concluding with the bed.

“You’ll be needing a place to sleep…?” he ventured. It sounded strangely like an offer.

“Aren’t you his son-​​in-​​law?” Cearball muttered.

'Aren't you his son-in-law?'

Malcolm shrugged. “I’m not his son. I owe him only the respect he earns.”

For reply Cearball bent his head over the basin and spat.

“How about the teeth?” Malcolm asked hopefully.

'How about the teeth?'

“I don’t know!” Cearball barked at Malcolm’s reflection in the mirror. “I can’t feel a thing and I can’t see a damned thing in there by this light!”

Malcolm’s hand fell upon his shoulder and turned him around. “Come here by the window.”

“And why in the devil are you being so kind to me?” Cearball whined.

He knocked Malcolm’s hand away in irritation, but Malcolm clapped it down again and held on. “Come here by the window,” he growled out of the corner of his mouth, “or I knock out the teeth Egelric missed.”

His golden eyes glared until Cearball finally choked on a laugh. Malcolm grinned at him and dragged him to the window.

Malcolm grinned at him and dragged him to the window.

“Why are you, though?” Cearball asked him.

“Ach!” Malcolm lamented, “because I too was young once! Open up.”

“You’re not a day older than I!”

'You're not a day older than I!'

“Quit talking – you’re spitting on me,” Malcolm grumbled as he lowered his squinting eye to the level of Cearball’s mouth. “I’m also a husband and a father to two young runts, which makes me ancient compared to you. And it’s never more I’ll be leaving this valley,” he added darkly, “any more than a gouty old man.”

He stood and patted Cearball on the arm.

“If you were a horse, I would buy you, sir.”

“Are they all there?”

“No, I mean there’s room for a bit now.”

'No, I mean there's room for a bit now.'

Cearball squawked, “What?” and spun around to gape at the mirror.

Malcolm laughed. “A man could have fun with you! They’re all there, calf-​​wit. Just don’t be eating any sticky candy till they’ve decided whether to stay or go.”

Cearball gripped the edges of the table and hunched his shoulders defensively. He had never learned to tell the difference between cruel mockery and affectionate teasing. He had not had many friends.

“Come home with me, lad,” Malcolm added gently. “Mother Curran will patch you up, and we’re out of the way enough that you won’t have to see anyone you’re not wanting to.”

'Mother Curran will patch you up.'

Cearball took a deep breath, but he said nothing. He had to accept, for he could not stay here. Nevertheless, he had never learned how to be grateful gracefully.

“Don’t be holding Egelric against me, now,” Malcolm said after a while. “For that matter,” he added thoughtfully, “don’t be holding Egelric against Egelric. He just lost his wife, you know, and he can be a bit… surly at the best of times…”

Cearball lifted his head and stared at Malcolm in the mirror. The young man appeared to be telling the plain truth – or to believe he was.

“And our family is a bit sensitive when it comes to little Connie, after what happened to her sister – ”

'And our family is a bit sensitive.'


Cearball could not release the table fast enough as he spun around, and it splashed the wall with a swirl of bloody water from the basin as it clattered back onto its four legs.

“What about Connie?” he snarled.

Startled, Malcolm lifted his hands and took a step back. “Isn’t that what you and he were fighting over?”

'Isn't that what you and he were fighting over?'

Cearball yelped “Connie!” and squeezed his eyes shut against the blow.

Her neck! In a flash he saw her frail little neck, with its baby-​​soft tufts of wispy curls – and that brutish, hairy hand closing around it, crushing her windpipe closed and gouging bruises into her spotless skin.

Blindly his own hand went out to clasp the hilt of his sword, and an instant later Malcolm’s hand clamped down upon it, driving the rounded pommel cruelly into the tender flesh of his palm.

“No blades!” Malcolm warned.

'No blades!'

The man was right-​​handed, Cearball now well knew: if he held a girl’s throat with his left hand, it was so he could do ungodly things with the right.

“What has he done to her?” he sobbed.

His body was blazing with a terror that surpassed anything he had ever felt for himself. For the first time he understood how it was that a man could die for another – how it was, perhaps, that a man could die for love. Die, or kill.

“Nothing!” Malcolm wailed. “He’s her guardian, for Christ’s sake! What’s this about?”

Cearball gasped, “Her guardian? Egelric’s her guardian?”

'Her guardian?  Egelric's her guardian?'

“Aye! I thought you knew!”

Cearball stumbled against the table, sloshing more bloody water out onto the floor and only barely managing to keep himself on his feet. His head was reeling.

Now that he knew it had not happened, his mind perversely invented it all. In a flash he saw a flickering, frenetic series of images – not of Condal’s neck, but of her entire body squirming and struggling – or rather only her slender arms and legs, thumping helplessly on the mattress or the floor or even the bare earth, and the man’s naked back obscuring the rest of her.

He leaned heavily over the basin, his mouth drooling and his eyes wide, trying desperately to vomit up the contents of his imagination.

Malcolm begged, “What were you fighting about if it wasn’t Connie?”

'What were you fighting about if it wasn't Connie?'

“That monster – that ogre – that – that devil is the guardian of that little girl?” Cearball panted.

“He wouldn’t hurt her…”

Wouldn’t he?” Cearball snarled. The inside of his cheek was bleeding again from so much grimacing, and he spat it into the bowl.

“What were you fighting about, then?”

Cearball spun about to glare at him, but he could not prevent himself from looking at the bed as he turned. Somehow Malcolm saw it and whipped a quick glance back over his shoulder.

“It’s Egelric will be needing to find a place to sleep,” Cearball said grimly, “ere Sir Aengus is coming home.”

'It's Egelric will be needing to find a place to sleep.'

Line by line the wrinkles of confusion on Malcolm’s brow lifted and rearranged themselves into furrows of dismay and despair. Behind them, Cearball knew, his mind was busy imagining it all.

Cearball turned back to the basin.

“Maire?” Malcolm whispered.

Cearball spat and watched as the streak of blood unfurled, spread itself translucent, and vanished into the murky water. Only then did he realize what all this meant for him.

Cearball turned back to the basin.

“Her guardian?” he gasped. “Sweet Jesus and M–Moses!” he whimpered. “He’ll never let me near her again!”

Maire?” Malcolm repeated, with the vanquished air of a man who denies and yet cannot disbelieve.

Cearball squeaked, “Connie!

“I’m thinking it’s for the best if you’re forgetting about Connie while you still can,” Malcolm sighed.

'I'm thinking it's for the best if you're forgetting about Connie.'

“I cannot!”

“It’s a cursed house, Cearball,” Malcolm said dazedly. “I should have… I don’t know why I didn’t see it,” he whimpered.

He passed his hand over his face, smoothing away the wrinkles, but leaving it grim.

“It’s a cursed house. No one in it ever wants the one he has. Ever since Maud and Malcolm… and Maire, and Aengus, and Lena, and, now… Some even say her mother murdered her first husband to marry Aed. But you weren’t hearing that from me.”

“But what shall I do about Connie?” Cearball begged.

Malcolm sighed and patted his shoulder with a limp hand. “We shall see what we can salvage. Let’s be getting you out of this house for now, lad. While we still can.”

'Let's be getting you out of this house for now, lad.'