Lady Gwynn was in Malcolm's hall.

Wherever Lady Gwynn might be, there was Condal certain to be found—and Lady Gwynn was in Malcolm’s hall.

Cearball’s powers of deductive reasoning, while admittedly not among the mightiest of his powers, nevertheless moved more quickly than his powers of observation when given a head-​start or a kick in the rear by his heart.

Tragically, it was therefore Lady Gwynn alone who saw his foolish grin, for Condal was nowhere to be seen. Lady Gwynn’s self-​centered logic necessarily concluded it was meant for her.

“Why, Cearball!” she crooned. “What a handsome surprise!”

'What a handsome surprise!'

“My—lady!” he panted. “What a lovely one, I was just meaning to say!” He bowed and smiled sheepishly, and immediately turned his attention to unbuckling his coat.

“We weren’t expecting you here in the middle of the afternoon!” Gwynn said, pretending to scold him for this unfathomable crime.

She had said we! Who was we?

“Nor—we you,” he grunted as he jerked one arm and the other halfway out of his sleeves.

Gwynn chose precisely that moment to lift her hand to him to be kissed, obliging him to be awkward in one way or another.

Gwynn chose precisely that moment to lift her hand.

Cearball was confounded. Thoughtlessly, his arms all but tied behind his back at the elbows, he bent stiffly at the waist and kissed her hand in mid-​air.

Gwynn blushed and giggled—not at him, but in self-​centered delight.

It was not awkwardness she had forced him into, he realized too late, but intimacy: the same sort of breathless, hurried but heartfelt, husbandly little doorway greeting that he had witnessed hundreds of times at Murchad’s side, and several already at Malcolm’s.

Cearball was annoyed.

Cearball was annoyed.

He turned his back to her abruptly and finished pulling off his coat.

“Connie here?” he grunted, for once deliberately unsparing of her feelings.

“She and Iylaine are just putting the children down for their naps,” Gwynn said brightly. “Baby Maud fell asleep on Connie’s lap, and you know how she feels about being woken once she starts to sleep.”

'You know how she feels.'

“She disapproves!” Cearball replied.

Gwynn laughed a harshly high-​pitched laugh. She followed close behind him as he stalked past her to the fire.

“Does she still disapprove of you, sir?” she asked him pertly.

“Aye, but just as often is she smiling most generously upon me.”

'Aye, but just as often is she smiling most generously upon me.'

Baby Maud!” Gwynn gasped, again pretending to scold. “At six months already an accomplished flirt!”

The log Cearball tossed onto the fire lay awkwardly with its heel upon the fender, but he let it lie a moment, and he leaned his arm against the mantel as he pondered what she had said.

There was a certain sense to it: this feminine fashion of blowing hot one minute and blowing cold the next, now sunshine and now squalls—it was very much the pattern of every flirtation and every love affair he had ever had. What troubled him was that Condal herself was very Maud-​like when portioning out her frowns and smiles.

For the first time Cearball considered the possibility.

For the first time Cearball considered the possibility that he had stumbled upon such an accomplished flirt that he had not even noticed he was being flirted with.

“Beware you don’t get your heart broken,” Gwynn advised slyly.

Cearball bowed his forehead to the warm stone slab of the mantel, shaken. The poker slipped through his sweaty hand until the tip clunked upon the hearth. Somehow Gwynn knew the secrets of his heart, and if she was not actually conspiring with Condal to crush him, she was at least planning to poison Condal’s mind against him out of spite.

“Malcolm may like you as a friend,” she tittered, “but I don’t think he wants a son-​in-​law his own age.”

'I don't think he wants a son-in-law his own age.'

Cearball gulped a sigh that mingled his pain and its relief. She had only been speaking of Maud—a mere baby—proving she thought only of him and herself.

He glanced over his shoulder and saw the slitted-​eyed, serpentlike smile he knew he would: the same from every flirtation and every love affair he had ever had, excepting one. He saw at once that Condal’s smile was sweet and shy and true beside such simpering. He saw at once that Condal’s frowns were real, too, when she scolded: she was genuinely grieved that he was bad.

He tapped the poker smartly on the hearthstone to knock it into his grip again, and nudged the wayward log onto the fire. It hissed and spat up a spray of angry sparks, which somewhat satisfied him, since he could not.

“You haven’t seen Rua or Kraaia out this way, have you?” he asked grimly to stop Gwynn’s giggling.

'You haven't seen Rua or Kraaia out this way, have you?'

Gwynn’s giggling stopped. “No… why?” she asked.

“They’ve run off, and everyone’s beginning to worry.”

“Together?” Gwynn asked in disbelief.

Cearball shrugged. “Mayhap Rua’s knowing the ways and Kraaia’s knowing the means. They’ve not been seen since the morning, and it’s all the men will be out looking before long.”

“In the snow!” Gwynn whispered fearfully.

'In the snow!'

Cearball snorted. “Malcolm’s to be meeting me here, and we’re going out again if they haven’t been found. It’s a dangerous valley for young ladies, I’m finding.”

He glanced anxiously aside at the door to the bedroom where the babies would be napping and Condal was hiding. He did not have much time.

“It is so—very generous of you to help us look for them!” Gwynn gushed. “And poor Eithne, too!”

Cearball made a manly grunt and stretched out on the rug to bask in the heat of the fire and her praise.

Cearball grunted and stretched out on the rug.

“Rua might have run back to the elves,” Gwynn said thoughtfully, “and Kraaia might have run to Ced—to anywhere. But together?

She delicately rubbed one ankle with the toe of the opposite foot, and when she put her slippers on the floor again they were noticeably closer to Cearball’s arm.

“Let’s be hoping they’re together,” Cearball muttered. “Two girls take twice as long to find as one.”

'Let's be hoping they're together.'

“I hope they are, too,” Gwynn said, “but I cannot imagine where they would go together. I did not think they were particularly… fond of one another…”

“Mayhap they made friends.”

Gwynn asked softly, “Kraaia?” but the question seemed addressed to herself, and she leaned back against the cushions and folded her hands over her lap to ponder in silence.

She folded her hands over her lap to ponder in silence.

Meanwhile Cearball strained his ears for a sound of Condal, but it seemed the sweet softness of her voice was no match for walls and doors. He was only vexed for a moment before he considered just how sweet the softness would be wherever there were walls and doors and they two alone on the same side.

A tendency to chatter had prematurely tired him of a number of past lovers, but strangely he could imagine himself lying awake all night beside Condal and never touching her—only talking to her. He had already told her things he had never told anyone. He had not had many friends.

He had already told her things he had never told anyone.

More than that, he realized abruptly: he would tell Condal things he had never dreamt he would even want to tell anyone. The idea made him breathless, like great heights.

No—like nothing. He had never felt anything like this.

“I can’t help but feel sorry for her,” Gwynn said softly.

Cearball grunted in alarm and lifted his head. Had she been talking to him? About Condal?

“She makes it so impossible to like her, but it isn’t because she doesn’t care. If she didn’t care, she wouldn’t try so hard.”

“Beg pardon?”

'Beg pardon?'


Cearball let his head drop back upon his fist.

“I can’t help but think it isn’t quite her fault,” Gwynn murmured. “She’s an orphan, you know. It must be difficult to love again when one has lost the people one loved. Life is so tragically cruel!”

Cearball grunted and scratched his chin. Already his attention was trickling back into himself.

“I know how it is to lose a mother,” Gwynn said. “But poor Kraaia has never had a father either, and I cannot imagine that. I think a girl needs a father’s love.”

She twisted her feet back and forth as she spoke, scuffing her soles across the floor until they were as near Cearball’s arm as the length of her little legs would take them. Cearball began to sense her nearness creeping into his, and he was annoyed.

“Don’t you?” she asked.

'Don't you?'


“Believe a girl needs a father’s love?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Cearball said curtly, “for I never was a girl and I never knew my father.”

“Oh,” she breathed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Cearball rubbed his bristly chin and snapped, “I was thinking it went without saying.”

'I was thinking it went without saying.'

She stared wide-​eyed at him until he took pity and winked at her to efface his sarcasm.

“About your father, I meant,” she explained.

“I was only teasing, my lady.”

She grinned at him, and seemingly much heartened by this slight attention, she slipped awkwardly off the bench and thumped down onto the floor beside him. Cearball drew his arm tightly up against his body, but he could almost feel her toe brushing his biceps. The hem of her skirt lay over his sleeve.

He could almost feel her toe brushing his biceps.

“Did he die before you were ever born?” she asked breathlessly. “Your father?”

“A babe I was when he was killed. In battle.”

“Oh, how sad! Was he very young?”

Cearball hesitated. He knew precisely how old his father had been—by now he carried that count without counting, like the number of his fingers—and yet he did not want to reveal that mystical number to Gwynn, nor even that he knew.

“Two-​score and five, or so,” he muttered.

“And you were his only child! How tragic! And your poor mother—his young bride!”

Cearball turned his head to stare blankly at her, though it twisted his shoulder into nudging his arm against her toe. Her hands were clasped against her breast and her face lifted to the ceiling like a gaudy angel painted on a chapel wall.

Cearball did not like this giddy girl peering up into Heaven at his own mother, and all the less because he was not certain she would find her there. She looked down at him again before he could hide the expression of raw annoyance on his mouth, but she seemed undaunted.

“Do you look very much like him?” she begged.

“I’m not remembering his face.”

“But your mother must have told you? Oh, how she must have searched your baby face for hints of his!”

'Oh, how she must have searched your baby face for hints of his!'

Up tilted her face again, seeking the rays of a gilded sun that did not shine.

Cearball swallowed in a vain attempt to wet his rapidly drying mouth. In her hunger for romance, Lady Gwynn was prying open his sealed past in search of tragedies pressed between the leaves, and he did not know a polite or even a rude way to stop her.

“But I am certain his last thoughts were for her!” she said fervently.

Cearball had sometimes liked to think that his father’s last thoughts had been for the beloved little son he would never see again. It appeared that Gwynn in her lust for love stories would not leave him even this.

Cearball was more than annoyed. This girl was more than giddy, she was grotesque: ravenous like a fairy lover living off the sorrows of a man. She was trying to force him into intimacy, into telling things he had never wanted to tell anyone.

He decided he would. He would turn the dull edge of his own banal tragedies against her, and if she could make romance out of such ugliness, she was welcome to it.

'Never was a man loving a woman as my father loved my mother.'

“Aye, sure and certain they were,” he sighed dreamily, though his eyes were dark and coldly glittering as a winter night. “He thought of aught else from the day he was meeting her. Never was a man loving a woman as my father loved my mother.”


Her red lips hung open.

Her red lips hung open, and he could imagine the breath she blew over him desiccating him into a lifeless, loveless, secretless mummy as she breathed it back in.

“Aye—the young fool he was!”

He laughed cruelly. He could dare: his unhappy, heroic, beloved father reposed in peace beneath a shield, both in the fields of Connacht and in the heart of his son. Cearball’s laughter flew like arrows through empty air.

He laughed cruelly.

“Did she not love him too?” Gwynn asked softly. Her disappointment shifted imperceptibly into excitement, like hues of the same rainbow. She bent her head low and whispered, “Was it unrequited love?

“Ach, no,” he chuckled, “she was loving him for a quarter and sometimes half an hour at a time. And a lucky man did he think himself, for the men were doing mad things in those days for one of her smiles.”

“Was she very beautiful?”

“Aye, my lady—almost as beautiful as you. You’re reminding me of her in certain ways.”

Gwynn smiled and blushed quite prettily, mistaking this statement for praise.

Gwynn smiled and blushed quite prettily.

“And how did he ever win her?” she asked slyly, doubtlessly expecting to hear how she would be won.

“Why, by being the grandest fool, I’m thinking,” he replied. “When once he heard her say she liked the look of a fair man, he would be coloring his fine dark hair all yellow like to straw, and his mustache too. And when once he saw her a-​laughing at a juggling man in the street, he would be dropping his every duty and learning to juggle.”

Gwynn laughed, as his mother doubtlessly had.

“And when once she said she was liking a little dog the Queen had as a gift from the Queen of Scotland, why, he would be sailing all the way to Scotland and paying a fortune for another such a puppy—and paying another to make a captain take a dog upon his ship. And making his King angry, for he had not been granted leave to go.”

'And making his King angry, for he had not been granted leave to go.'

“Oh, a puppy!” Gwynn squealed. “I’ve always wanted a puppy of my own!”

Cearball turned his eyes aside to stare at her, disbelieving.

“Such a thoughtful, romantic gift,” she sighed. “‘Pray you, love at least this little dog, if you won’t love a cur like me,’” she quoted grandly on behalf of his dead father, her head high, her hand posed upon his dead father’s heart.

Cearball turned his face away and closed his eyes. Trapped between the heat of the fire and Gwynn’s rapacious fervor he was growing dizzy and beginning to sweat. If only Condal would come out and put a stop to it all! If only Condal would lay her cool hand upon his cheek and look down at him with her cool, green eyes.

If only Condal would lay her cool hand upon his cheek.

“He must have won her then,” Gwynn said. “I would have swooned!

“Mayhap he did,” Cearball muttered. “She was marrying him soon after, though it may have been for having seen how much of his silver he was willing to spend.”

“Certainly not!” Gwynn huffed in defense of his dead mother. “No lady would be insensible to such proofs of affection. I imagine he saw how much she loved the little puppy, and it gave him the heart to ask for her hand just one last time!

“If he saw how she loved the little puppy, he might have been forewarned,” Cearball said bitterly. “For a few days was she smitten with it and carried it all around—and ever after was she sending it from house to house for other people to be caring for it. And so was she doing with me!”

'And so was she doing with me!'

Either his bitterness or the bald ugliness of his speech finally scraped through Gwynn’s shallows and seemed to touch her. Cearball wished desperately he could take it back: grimly amusing as it had been to watch his story bounce off her vacuous imagination, uncomprehended and refashioned into some garishly romantic ideal, it was terrifying to see some part of it stick. Like a spider she could now reel him in. She could suck him dry.

“I’m so sorry…” she breathed.

He watched in paralyzed panic as her hands fluttered towards his arm, moved by that familiar vampiric longing to “make him better” that had animated so many of his past lovers. Women all believed they were The One who could make him better. They all wanted to be The One.

“Did you never have a true home?” she asked. Her face was growing dreamy again, shifting imperceptibly like oily rainbows in a puddle.

'Did you never have a true home?'

“I’ve a home,” he said hoarsely, “but never was I living in it. My first sixteen winters were spent in sixteen different towns.”

“But it is not a home if you never lived in it!”

He frowned at her. “What are you calling it, then? A kennel?”

“A house,” she said firmly.

“What’s being the difference?”

“A house is just a building,” she explained. “A home…” She smiled vaguely into the fire. “A home is the end of all the world’s roads. A home is the place such that, when you’re there, you need go no farther.”

Cearball snorted sarcastically. “That’s being my house, then. Never was a place more at the end of the road.”

'Never was a place more at the end of the road.'

“No! I mean poetically speaking. There must be a place where you feel as if you are not travelling now, but arrived.

“Ireland, then.”

“No, not a country. A house—but a home also.”

“I don’t know,” he said wearily, “Murchad’s house, then.”

“Thus you have no home of your own!” she said triumphantly.

'Thus you have no home of your own!'

He grumbled, “If you insist.”

“How terribly sad,” she whimpered, instantly, imperceptibly maudlin again. She laid her hands on her knee and rested her chin on her hands, staring over his body into the fire.

“Why do you not live in your house now?” she asked softly. “Now that you are a man?”

He knew she was expecting him to say that he had not found a bride to bring into it yet.

“Because I’m not liking a wet head, is why,” he grumbled.

'Because I'm not liking a wet head, is why.'

“Oh, is it a ruin?” she asked breathlessly. “Is it abandoned?

He grunted.

“Oh, how very tragic! I have always believed houses can feel, you know, a little,” she said earnestly. “They can feel the love within their walls, and the sorrows, too, and they ache when they are left alone for so very long without laughter… without the sound of little running feet…”

'Without the sound of little running feet...'

This time he did not even bother with a grunt.

“Where is it?” she asked softly. “In Dublin?”

“I’ve a house there, too, but it’s not the one I’m meaning.”

He paused to look her over—to imagine her following him to Dublin and surprising him there as by past lovers he had sometimes been surprised. He wondered what this sheltered, prissy, pampered girl would say when she saw the stacks of sticky plates and the shirts slung over chair backs. He wondered what she would say when he tossed her down onto the dirty sheets.

“Which one are you meaning?” she asked innocently.

'Which one are you meaning?'

“Far to the south of there, my lady,” he sighed. “A way to the north and east of Cill Channaig, at Inis na nGedh.”

It was his father’s house: the bright home they might have had together if he had understood the English rightly—just they two, and his mother be damned. Now it was the bleakest place in all of Ireland, and he scorned it. He hoped Gwynn was right: he hoped it knew. He hoped it ached and mourned.

“Inish—na—nee,” Gwynn repeated awkwardly. “What a handsome name!”

Cearball rolled his eyes.

“Does it… but does it mean anything?” she peeped.

“Hill of the geese,” he muttered.

“Oh, how lovely!” she moaned.

Cearball rolled his entire head wearily back and forth atop his fist, until he chanced to look up into her rapturous face, and he saw what she was seeing as clearly as if he could peer through her slitted eyes into the depths of her skull.

He chanced to look up into her rapturous face.

She was seeing his house—his abandoned, overgrown home—only she was shrouding it in her own insipid ideals, wrapping it round and round as rapidly as a spider its future feast.

She was seeing tidy green swales and trig little crofts along the road, flocks of snow-​white sheep, fat ponies, and strolling geese. She was seeing dewy roses beside a red-​painted door and glinting glass windows with curtains she herself had sewn. She was whitewashing the hall and retreading the stairs and setting the table for two and then three and then four. She was making violet-​eyed babies to run about in the footsteps of his baby father. She was sitting herself down where never his mother had deigned to sit, and making herself the Lady of Inis na nGedh.

Suddenly, possessively, Cearball loved that house and hill, and all the more for all their dreariness. He wanted to take back all his words: she had ripped away an entire hunk of his bleakly tragic life and made a plaything of it, a bauble. Such dross was all the treasure he had, but it was real and hard-​earned, and better than her fairy-​tale tinsel.

“The ugliest place on earth it is!” he laughed cruelly. “Why are you thinking the geese are coming to it? In the middle of a bog it is, and the moss a-​growing on every up-​and-​down thing, and puddles and slime on everything flat!”

'The ugliest place on earth it is!'

She swallowed and blinked her eyes rapidly at him, as if to clear them of her lovely vision.

“The biting bugs will drain a horse dry if he’s left out at night,” he continued, “and every morning the ague is roiling up and slipping in beneath the door. It’s there the roads are ending for me and mine,” he concluded grimly. “No man but an Irishman may live in or love a home like that.”

He stared into her dark eyes, daring her to protest that she could. She did not.

He stared into her dark eyes.

He let his head roll back onto his fist until he stared up at the paneled ceiling. His eyes were wet. They were filling like cups. He felt feverish and bruised, as when he was beaten in drunken brawls and lay late into the night, his head in the mud, his face turned up to the stars, crying into his hair and bleeding into the ditches of Dublin.

Thus could a mere giddy girl lay him out, with nothing more than her battering attentions.

“No woman but a Gael,” he added softly, pleading with a ceiling that did not shine. He wanted Condal to come and lay her cool hand over his eyes.

Suddenly Gwynn leapt up like a spring and thumped awkwardly back onto the bench.

Suddenly Gwynn leapt up like a spring.

Cearball sat up, fearing he had offended her more gravely than he had meant, but she only laughed and squeaked over her shoulder, “Connie!”

Connie! Cearball scrambled up, nearly tripping over his own hands in his hurry.



“Cearball!” she smiled as she stepped up to him—straight up to him, scarcely glancing at Gwynn. “We were hearing you here, but Baby Maud will not go to sleep, and she would not be letting me go! Though Iylaine is saying she no longer disapproves so much of you,” she added impishly.

“Do you still?” he asked hoarsely.

“Ach, no!” she gasped. Her right hand slipped neatly into his left and squeezed. “I was wanting to thank you,” she murmured, “but Malcolm is coming—”

'I was wanting to thank you.'

Gwynn interrupted to announce, “We were just discussing the difference between a house and a home!”

Condal faltered in her phrase, and her hand relaxed. Cearball did not let it go, and she did not fight to take it.

“What is the difference?” she asked softly, looking to Gwynn for an explanation and to him for—what? The answer?

He squeezed her hand.

“A house,” Gwynn explained ponderously, “is only a building in which people may or may not live. But home is the place one wants to return to, whenever one is far away and weary of wandering.”

'Home is the place one wants to return to.'

“The end of all roads,” Cearball added in Gaelic. Now he could see the poetry in the phrase.

“And Cearball has never had a home,” Gwynn concluded mournfully.

“Ach…” Condal glanced between Gwynn’s face and his again. “I’m thinking I have no more home neither,” she whimpered. “My old home is my sister Aibinn’s now, for her son.”

'My old home is my sister Aibinn's now, for her son.'

Cearball thought he heard the creak and clank of a saddle as a man dismounted in the yard. With all his heart he wished poor Devil would choose that moment to announce a spavin or a loose shoe, and keep his rider outside.

“I have a house…” he mused.

Of course you have a home, Connie!” Gwynn gasped. “You have a home with us! A home with me—forever, or for as long as you like!”

Condal glanced between Cearball’s face and hers. She looked as if she wanted to disagree, and Cearball nearly rushed in to do it for her—to protest that Gwynn’s home could not be Condal’s if Murchad’s could not be his—but he heard Malcolm’s boots crunching the snow on the steps outside.

“Connie!” he whispered.

Condal smiled graciously at Gwynn and said, “Thank you.”

'Thank you.'

Malcolm opened the door.

“Cousin Malcolm!” Condal grinned.

“Cousin Connie!” Malcolm replied wearily. “Just the girl I wasn’t looking for!”

'Just the girl I wasn't looking for!'

Condal walked past Cearball, but she made no particular effort to release his hand, and only turned him round.

“Haven’t they been found?” Gwynn asked sadly.

Malcolm bowed to her in mid-​stride, tipping over on one leg like a crane. “No, my lady, and you both had better be getting home before long, so every man can have his girls safely counted before setting out to find those two.” He kissed Condal’s cheek and said gruffly to Cearball, “Get your coat, lad.”

“Cousin,” Condal begged, “Gwynn was just trying to tell Cearball and me, and could you explain us in Gaelic, what is the difference between house and home?”

'Could you explain me in Gaelic?'

Malcolm patted her cheek and shoulder, and then craftily slid his hand down her arm until her hand fell out of Cearball’s.

“Love is the difference, Connie,” he replied gravely in Gaelic, though it was Cearball’s face he fixed in his golden stare. “Cearball’s still learning it. I said get your coat, lad.”

'I said get your coat, lad.'