Cearball understood at once.

At once Cearball understood Malcolm’s frowning failure to identify the owners of the palfreys stabled at the roadside. At last, too: he had perhaps five seconds to prepare himself – and he spent them all staring.

Condal! Her face shone straight through to him like a spot of bright sky peeking out through somber clouds.

Condal here!Condal here! He would have a chance to speak with her before Egelric did! Surely the gods were smiling upon him this day – though as his eyes adjusted to the firelight it became clear that Condal was not.

Then Cearball remembered the state of his face. “You don’t want to know” was all Malcolm had dared say.

'You don't want to know.'

“Ladies!” Malcolm cried, frowning no more. “I never expected to find so much beauty foregathered in my own humble home! Fortunately I have brought me some ugly to stand me in company!”

Malcolm threw his arm around Cearball’s shoulders and dragged him forward. Cearball’s spot of sun dimmed, and he found himself in the heart of the storm.

Lady Gwynn was there, standing between him and Condal, and at the sight of his stumbling she giggled as loudly as some girls laughed.

There was a baby in her arms, too–a baby!–and a tiny boy scrambled up from his spot before the fire and launched himself towards the entry, growling and snarling and laughing through his little teeth like an indeterminate wild animal. In his haste to be away from Egelric and Maire, Cearball had forgotten there would be small children to please.

And then there was Malcolm’s wife.

And then there was Malcolm's wife.

“Baby, come meet my friend Cearball!”

It was all Malcolm managed to say, for he had to hurry to scoop up the snarling animal – just in time, Cearball thought, to prevent the little cub from gnawing on the stranger’s ankles.

Cearball smiled weakly, crinkling his swollen eye into pleats of pain, and straining the raw skin inside his cheek until he tasted blood.

Cearball smiled weakly.

“Cearball,” the elf woman said coolly. “I have heard so much about you.”

From whom? Cearball panicked. From Malcolm? From Condal or Lady Gwynn? From her father?

She put out her delicate hand.

She put out her delicate hand, and Cearball took it in his before he had the chance to reflect on what he was about to do. Was it proper to kiss a lady’s hand with the mouth her father had just smashed with his fist?

“My lady,” he said in his most careful English, “I have heard so much about your elven beauty, but now that I have seen it, I’m thinking there’s no word to tell it in any language of men.”

He had thought it a clever compliment, but Lady Iylaine twitched her hand free of his grasp and said, “I don’t know any elven words, so I can’t say” – not coolly now, but coldly.

'I don't know any elven words, so I can't say.'

“She’s the most beautiful lady I ever saw,” Gwynn said reverently. “Don’t you think she is?”

She was beautiful, it was true, but it seemed the hard, angular beauty of ice crystals. Her hair might have been soft and thick, but it was pulled too severely away from her face, and even the lushness of her full lips was spoiled by her habit of pressing them into a thin line.

If Cearball had not already been forcing his face into a smile, he would surely have grimaced in despair of finding the right thing to say. But before he could speak and say the catastrophically wrong, Malcolm laughed and came to his rescue.

Malcolm laughed and came to his rescue.

“There’s no right answer to that question, Gwynn! If he says she is, I shall clobber him, and if he says she isn’t, I shall also clobber him, and if he fails to follow it up by saying you are, you’ll never speak to him again!”

Gwynn giggled. “I hadn’t thought of all that, I swear.”

“A man has no business finding any lady the most beautiful but his one true love,” Malcolm said ponderously, “and until he finds her, he’s wise to keep his opinions to himself, lest she overhear them meanwhile!”

Iylaine finally smiled, and her face went from icy to misty. “Even with my ears I never did.”

'Even with my ears I never did.'

Malcolm winked at her. “I found my one true love early.”

Truly she was beautiful then – still beautiful and flawless as a crystal, but the firelight rimming her cheek made her seem round and soft and warm.

Cearball was both moved to touch her and sickened with dread of her, and his throat contracted painfully until he remembered why – and then the dread and desire both dissipated like a cold fog, leaving only a slight dew of disgust on his tongue.

Then the dread and desire both dissipated like a cold fog.

Her hair was fair and had briefly fooled him, but her forbidding, tight-​​lipped beauty was no more or less than his mother’s at its youthful climax, when Cearball had been too small to reliably remember that beautiful things were not to be touched by clumsy, sticky hands. That was all.

Cearball peered past Gwynn to reassure himself that there was indeed soft, sweet, gentle beauty in the world, as he had begun to believe.

Oh, there was!

Oh, there was! And was not beauty more real if it was greater in a modest wool gown than in a fine silk? And fairer with rumpled curls than with knot and plaits or smoothly combed hair?

She was even more beautiful somber than when she smiled and smiled and smiled at him. Was she the one? Was it true? Was it love?

Was it love?

Gwynn tilted her head and tilted her hip and blushed as though she thought he was staring at her instead.

“Suppose he says the baby’s the most beautiful lady he ever saw?” she asked coyly. “Is that safe?”

Malcolm grunted and pretended to ponder. “I suppose that’s the only safe course a man may take, and it will earn him favor in the eyes of her mother besides. But if he repeats it when Maud gets to your age, then by God I shall clobber him for that too.”

“Then you had better come flirt with her while you have your chance, Cearball,” Gwynn giggled.

'Then you had better come flirt with her while you have your chance, Cearball.'

“Ach, no!” Cearball protested, but Malcolm’s knuckles jabbed him between the shoulder blades and knocked him forward.

“Go greet the wee dear baby, lad,” Malcolm murmured.

Cearball could not decide whether Malcolm truly meant to help him salvage his chance with Condal, or merely to laugh at the wreck he made.

He was well aware of the trick of fussing over babies to earn favor in the eyes of their mothers, and he had observed that mothers seemed to find a certain amount of male awkwardness with children more endearing than not.

But Condal was not a mother, and she was not even old enough to be looking to become one. He was bound to be awkward, but endearing seemed more than he could hope.

“Good day, wee dear baby!” he squeaked.

'Good day, wee dear baby!'

Then he realized that Gwynn’s precarious hold on the baby was in fact an attempt to hand her to him.

“Ach, no!” he whimpered.

He dared not risk dropping her, however, and it took only a shove and a nudge before Gwynn had dropped her squarely into his hands.

Gwynn’s last caress of the baby’s head continued around to become a subtle stroke of the back of his left hand, and it was all he could do not to wince as her palm dragged over his torn knuckles like a swipe of flaming claws.

It was all he could do not to wince.

“But the babies are always crying when I’m holding them!” he pleaded.

“Maud’s an elf baby,” Gwynn reassured him. “She’ll never cry, unless you drop her on her head or something dreadful. The worst she might do is look disapproving.”

Malcolm and Iylaine both laughed aloud at this compliment of their daughter, and Gwynn was emboldened enough to peer straight up into Cearball’s eyes from beneath her dark lashes.

Gwynn was emboldened enough to peer straight up into Cearball's eyes.

Cearball did his best not to look away, but he had not heard Condal laughing, and he could not bear to think that she would not even laugh at others’ jokes so long as he was in the room.

He peeked. Her gaze had been on him all along, unfelt, like the cold light of a moon.

Her gaze had been on him all along, unfelt, like the cold light of a moon.

Her smile was dimpled and impish and might have satisfied him, but when she looked at him her eyes were all he ever saw. They were dim and sad, and the misty shadows she peered out of made Gwynn’s heavy lashes seem crude and pasted-​​on like dyed plumes. Her eyes seemed to say that the baby had every right to disapprove.

Condal did not need Egelric to tell her he was no good.

Ashamed, Cearball dropped his gaze, and found himself looking straight into the face of a scowling baby. In a creaky voice he managed to say, “The devil take me if she’s not the disapprovingest baby I ever saw!”

'The devil take me if she's not the disapprovingest baby I ever saw!'

Malcolm, Iylaine, and Gwynn laughed. Condal, meanwhile, had lifted her hand to her neck and was giggling shyly into her sleeve.

With his own joke he had made Condal laugh! Or with his creaky awkwardness – he scarcely cared which.

Before he could think of another clever or creaky thing to say, however, Gwynn blurted, “Can we blame her, though? What happened to you, sir? Waylaid by a band of marauding chairs?”

'What happened to you, sir?'

Waylaid? Marauding? Chairs? Cearball could not decide whether his English was worse than he thought, or the young lady had received a graver injury than he knew.

“Ahh… how’s your head?” he asked gently. Fortunately Egelric had not punched him in the forehead, and he could comfortably arrange his brow into an expression of concern.

A heavy hand fell ominously upon Cearball’s shoulder. “Speaking of heads…”

Iylaine hastened to extract her baby from Cearball’s grasp.

“It feels much better than it looks, thank you,” Gwynn said politely. “I hope – hope you can say the same!” she called out as Malcolm marched him away.

“Mother Curran!” Iylaine called out. “Malcolm brought home a project for you to patch up!”

A fat old lady hustled out from the kitchen with such promptness that she must have been listening all along.

A fat old lady hustled out from the kitchen.

“You didn’t tear a hole in your pants again, did you, Sir Malcolm?” she scolded.

Then she saw Cearball’s face.

“Oh! Oh my stars! What has he done to you, my poor lamb?”

What had he done? For the tenth time Cearball fought down the urge to pat and prod his cheekbone to guess what might be happening there. The stable had been too dark to let him see his face in the trough, and he had not found a puddle along the path.

I didn’t do it, Mother!” Malcolm yapped. “I found him like that. May I keep him?”

'May I keep him?'

Mother Curran clapped her hands against her skirts and lamented, “Oh, my poor boy! Never fear now, Old Mother Curran has just the thing for you!”

Cearball protested feebly, “But I don’t need anything…”

Malcolm followed the old lady back into the kitchen, abandoning Cearball in the doorway. “It’s too late for that slab-​​of-​​meat trick, Mother,” Malcolm was saying.

'It's too late for that slab-of-meat trick, Mother.'

Cearball saw his chance. He dashed back to the fireside and pretended to warm his hands, but it was at Condal’s side he truly wanted to be.

He whispered, “Connie!”

It was his one chance!

“Ach, Cearball,” Condal murmured sadly and shook her pretty head beneath its rumpled curls. “Fighting on a Sunday.

'Fighting on a Sunday.'

She was sorry he was bad! If she was sorry he was bad, surely he could make her proud if he was good!

“Forgive me, Connie!” he whispered.

“It’s the Lord you must be asking, not me,” she said gravely. “I don’t like fighting any day of the week.”

Her lashes fluttered, and then she was staring not into his eyes but at his eye. She lifted her hand as high as his shoulder before she remembered herself and hid it in her skirts. She had almost touched his face!

She had almost touched his face!

Cearball’s heart was pounding as it had not since he was her own age and could still lie awake half the night wondering whether he would find the nerve to kiss a girl on the morrow.

Now it beat faster for less: he did not know whether he would dare touch so much as her hand – for his hands seemed clumsier and stickier and sweatier than they ever were, and truly she was the most beautiful lady he had ever seen.

His hands seemed clumsier and stickier than they ever were.

The people behind him were laughing at something the old woman had said, but to Cearball their voices seemed like shouts heard underwater. All he could determine was that they were coming closer.

“Don’t believe everything you’re hearing about me, Connie!” he whispered desperately. “Even from people you think you trust! And don’t trust them, either, please!”

Connie squinted dubiously up at his face for a moment before her brow wrinkled into an expression of compassionate concern. Perhaps she was wondering how gravely his head had been injured! He had had his chance, and he had made a wreck of it!

He had made a wreck of it!

Suddenly Connie looked past him and grinned – just before Malcolm turned him around and shoved a plate of cake into his hand.

“Mother Curran says Eat!” Malcolm commanded. “And watch you aren’t biting down on a plum with your loose teeth.”

Cearball protested weakly, “But I cannot…”

“What will cake fix, Warty?” Gwynn laughed.

'What will cake fix, Mother?'

“Must he be putting it on his face?” Condal asked.

The girls peeked past him at each other, and they both giggled.

“The cake is for his belly, what!” Mother Curran scoffed. “It’s not the cake that’ll fix him, my chickie, but the coddling! That’s what a boy needs, as you would know if you’d ever had a brother, poor child. We shall fix him up!”

She patted Cearball affectionately on the arm before shuffling back towards the kitchen.

“Sir Malcolm!” she squawked as she rounded the corner. “What are you doing to my poor cake!”

Cearball stared dubiously at his plate. It seemed a very nice, very plummy cake, but there was the matter of his shredded cheek and sliced tongue…

Condal saw him hesitate and twisted her lips into an adorable little scowl. “I do not suppose you deserve it…”

'I do not suppose you deserve it...'

“Oh, but we must let him!” Gwynn gushed. “He can’t help it if he was born a boy! Trust me – I have brothers!”

Cearball murmured, “Only if Connie is saying I may…”

Condal flicked her hands at him. “Tss! Eat your cake, lad. No brothers have I, but a father who comes home often enough with his head tied in a rag. And – ”

She stopped and hissed her breath through her teeth, as though she had bitten down upon an already wounded tongue.

Cearball took an enormous bite of his cake and shielded her from sight with his body as she bowed her head and shuffled hurriedly over to a chair. As soon as she sat, he stationed himself beside her against the wall. No man would move him, and for her, he would lose his every tooth on a plum.

Gwynn’s carefully averted eyes came to rest on his face, but Iylaine looked past him towards the kitchen.

“Malcolm!” she cried. “What did you do to deserve some cakey coddling?”


Malcolm hustled past with an enormous slice of cake of his own. “We didn’t get any dinner, that’s what! Tell her, Cearball.”

Cearball could not tell anyone anything, for the right side of his mouth was packed with cake he scarcely dared chew. Earnestly he shook his head.

“We tried to get a bite at Sigefrith’s,” Malcolm grumbled through a mouthful of cake, “but they conveniently lost the pantry key. Which means they have already stripped the place bare. Didn’t they, Cearball?”

Cearball clamped his lips together and nodded.

“Ach, Malcolm!” Iylaine groaned. “They just left!”

“I know! Just since breakfast they went the place over. Like a swarm of locusts they are! If Sigefrith is so certain his servants are stealing from him, I don’t see why he can’t do something about it.”

“He was probably hoping you would, Malcolm.”

“Perhaps I shall,” Malcolm said thoughtfully. “Would give me something to do this winter.”

'Perhaps I shall.'

Iylaine laughed. “Wouldn’t it be funny if they came home after three months and found the place in better shape than when they left it?”

“Where is Sigefrith going for three months?” Gwynn asked, mystified.

“Ach!” Malcolm’s fork clattered onto his plate.

“Didn’t you know?” Iylaine sighed wearily. “I thought I never heard the news out here. Sigefrith and Wyn and all the children are going out to Raegiming for a few months while Leofric’s away.”

'I thought I never heard the news out here.'

Gwynn looked over the faces of everyone in the room. “But where’s Leofric going?” she asked softly.

“On a pilgrimage,” Malcolm said curtly. “To Winchester.”

Gwynn looked at her lap and carefully folded a wrinkle in her skirt into a proper pleat. Then she lifted her head and smiled brightly at Cearball.

“What a pity! Unless you stay until spring we aren’t likely to have Sir Sigefrith to dance, and you’ll never know what fine dancers we have here in Lothere. Even if he does often spoil it at the end by doing something silly.”

“That’s the best part!” Malcolm laughed more loudly than necessary. “Spoiling it! The devil!” He shook his head in amusement and took a bite of cake.

To the surprise of everyone, Condal lifted her head and peeped, “Where is Winchester?”

'Where is Winchester?'

Malcolm was too busy chewing to reply, and he only grunted.

In his stead Gwynn said primly, “Winchester is a very large English city, approximately three hundred miles to the southeast of Lothere. My mother was born there, you know.” Then she lifted her nose very high and sniffed for no reason that Cearball could see.

Condal sat forward on her chair and called anxiously over Gwynn’s head in Gaelic: “Ach, Cousin Malcolm, are you thinking he’ll be looking for Eithne?”

Malcolm hesitated. “I’m certain he’ll recognize her if he sees her,” he said warily.

Condal sat still farther forward, and her voice rose in pitch into a little girl’s. “I know, Cousin, but are you thinking he’ll be looking for her and asking about her in the towns on the way?”

Malcolm sighed and put down his fork again. Cearball hurried to finish chewing his bite, and the devil take his tongue.

Condal explained quickly to Gwynn, “I’m asking him: Will Leofric be looking for my sister on the roads?”

'I'm asking him: Will Leofric be looking for my sister on the roads?'

Gwynn lowered her head and muttered, “Probably.”

Condal was already calling out in Gaelic to Malcolm. “Are you thinking he’ll remember how she was? A beautiful girl, with hair so dark and long? And the green cloak of her, with the beads on the bodice, will he be remembering to tell?”

At last Cearball managed to swallow, preparing himself to say anything that needed said. If only he could find her sister for her! Surely she would forgive him anything then!

If only he could find her sister for her!

“Connie…” Malcolm sighed.

“But if he’s going to the south and east!” Condal whimpered. “I’m thinking my sister is going there!”

Malcolm hesitated a long, silent moment. Then he pushed his chair away from the table with an ominous scrape.

Condal sat well back in hers, with eyes wide like a frightened child.

Cearball glanced around for a place to stash his plate. He could not imagine why Malcolm would be angry at her, but he vowed he would defend her, though Malcolm knocked out every tooth Egelric had missed, as he had sworn.

Malcolm walked around the bench without a word, making plain from whom baby Maud had inherited her disapproving scowl. Condal hopped up like a child expecting a scolding, and Cearball darted behind the bench to deposit his plate on the table beside Malcolm’s. He would have both fists, if necessary.

He would have both fists, if necessary.

“You weren’t telling us that, young lady,” Malcolm growled. “It’s to the north we were sending men.”

“I know it, Cousin,” Condal squeaked, “but then I was thinking she would be going to the Highlands with her man.”

“And now you think otherwise?”


Condal glanced up at Cearball in search of reassurance.

From him! Had anyone? Ever? Cearball put on the most reassuring expression his bruised and swollen face could make. He feared he appeared terrifying.

“I had a dream two nights ago,” Condal said softly. “Telling me my beloved was in the south and east.”

'I had a dream two nights ago.'

“A dream!” Malcolm scowled.

“A dream?” Iylaine repeated in English.

“Aye, a dream!” Malcolm told her. “Connie had a dream and now she thinks Eithne went southeast.”

“Oh, Connie, a dream!” Gwynn sighed ecstatically.

“What if she did?” Cearball ventured.

'What if she did?'

Gwynn grinned broadly up at him, and Condal sent him a shyly grateful glance over her shoulder.

“I’m not asking you to send men again, mind, Cousin,” Condal begged, “but if Leofric is going all that way anyway…”

“Has he left already?” Gwynn asked.

“You could send him a letter, Malcolm,” Iylaine said.

'Aye, and the letter fairy shall be taking it to him!'

“Aye, and the letter fairy shall be taking it to him!” Malcolm groaned. “First I miss dinner and now I shall spend my evening filling my collar with snow! I was just about to tell you ladies you had better hurry home before it starts, and now!”

“Please, Malcolm?” Gwynn asked sweetly. “If a lady asks you?”

“I shall go!” Cearball blurted.

'I shall go!'

You shall go!” Malcolm laughed like a braying mule.

“If a lady’s asking me,” Cearball added humbly.

“Ach, Cearball, will you?” Connie breathed. “For me?”

Strangely he could not tell her so, though for her eyes he would have performed far greater feats than riding a ways in the snow.

'Nothing like snow to take the swelling down.'

“Nothing like snow to take the swelling down,” he said. “Works better than cake. Trust me!”

“Best keep a pail on hand, Connie,” Malcolm said airily, “in case any of his swellings ever get out of control.”

Cearball whipped his hand back against Malcolm’s chest, forgetting its raw knuckles until they grated over coarse wool.

'Best keep a pail on hand.'

“It’s far, Malcolm,” Iylaine said anxiously. “He doesn’t know the way.”

“You made it when you were six years old, Baby! In the dark and snow!”

Iylaine shrugged and turned to the fire, already convinced.

“So generous!” Gwynn sighed rapturously.

'So generous!'

“You’ll take him the letter and tell him everything, won’t you Cearball?” Condal babbled at him in Gaelic. “How the hair of her is growing all down her back, except she wears it in twin braids down her breast, and about her dark green cloak, and how tall and slender she is, and how she looks a little like me, except her eyes are black like the night, and she’s ever so much lovelier? Won’t you?”

“I shall tell him everything but that last part,” Cearball said.

“Why not?” Condal whimpered.

“I’ll not be lying to the man,” he smiled. The words clicked so neatly into place, he wondered what master had fashioned them. “You’re the loveliest girl I ever saw.”

'You're the loveliest girl I ever saw.'

“But you never saw my sister!” she said earnestly, still too determined to convince him of her sister’s beauty to hear the compliment to herself. She was the very opposite of the sorts of women he knew.

He waited and watched her, until he saw by the sudden, blushing solemnity of her face that she had understood. He had not wasted his chance.

She had understood.

“But I hope I shall soon see you together,” he added gently.

He caught only the first glimmer of her radiant gratitude before Malcolm grabbed his elbow and yanked him away.

“Come along, lad! Let’s be speeding you on your way! I think it is an excellent idea.”

Cearball stumbled along after him, almost slack-​​jawed with astonishment at what he had just accomplished.

Cearball stumbled along after him.

Then Malcolm sat down and whipped out a sheet of snowy parchment, and the cold, dark, windy, and damp reality of what he was about to do struck Cearball like a gale.

“Sweet Jesus and Mai – Moses!” he whispered. “Where in the devil did I just promise to go? How far is it?”


“Four hours on a bright, dry, summer’s day,” Malcolm said grimly as he sharpened his pen. “Tonight, if you’re lucky, you’ll make it before the lord’s abed.”


“Simply head east – across the hills if you can, but if the snow starts getting deep, go down to the road. Never let the river out of your sight. Until it’s too dark to see, that is. And if it gets still deeper, make your own shelter, for there’s not so much as a homestead to be found for a good ten miles after Goldmaed.”

'He'll be leaving at dawn.'


“And don’t bother stopping there for the night, for you’ll miss Leofric if you do. He’ll be leaving at dawn. But it’s for a lady, remember,” Malcolm chuckled as he prepared to write. He paused to ask, “Will you be needing a white horse, too, sir?”

'Will you be needing a white horse, too, sir?'

“No, I’ve already a good – ”

Cearball stopped himself in time and whacked the top of Malcolm’s head with the back of his hand – this time carefully choosing his right.

Malcolm laughed to himself for a moment before bending over his parchment. He hesitated, however, lipping the feathered tip of his quill until his face had grown as somber as the stormy sky.

“And, lad,” he said softly, “if you make it to Raegiming, stay the day tomorrow and don’t come back until it’s too late for you to go anywhere but to bed. And by God, come directly here!” he whispered harshly. “And don’t move until you’ve seen me!”

Only then did Cearball begin to see the dark and menacing reality of what he had already done.

Malcolm shook his head in disgust and sighed through his nose. “And I shall see what I can do here.”

He dipped the sharpened tip of his quill into the ink.

'And I shall see what I can do here.'