Kraaia counted four on her way down.

Kilts. Kraaia counted four on her way down. She knew the one soft Gaelic-​speaking voice for Aengus’s, but she did not think she had heard the others before. Then again, she had never learned to distinguish pigs by their grunts.

Her first gleeful guess of Derbail’s “that Malcolm” was spoiled by the sight of Paul standing harmlessly but cheerily uncomprehending in the corner. There would be no fight.

She padded up behind him.

As she padded up behind him, she guessed by the age and the ominous mien of one of the Scotsmen that he was Aengus’s notoriously unsmiling father. He met with a scowl of grudging patience Lena’s attempts to extract Benedict’s face from her shoulder. Kraaia sided with Benedict.

Kraaia sided with Benedict.

The other two kilted men were young and loud and boisterous, and each had stopped at the side of one of the young and loud and boisterous Scottish sisters. One was tall and scruffy, and the other still taller and sleek, but they were both perfect specimens of their race—which was to say that Kraaia immediately thought them the most abominable of creatures.

In Kraaia’s cosmology there was a special plane of Hell reserved for the men of the Gaels. They were the noisiest, the rudest, the most vulgar of all—the pimpliest, sweatiest, hairiest, smarmiest—and still they stamped and swaggered more than ordinary men, as if to make up for their toddler-​like habit of going about in short skirts with bare knees.

Kraaia felt almost nauseated at the thought.

Worst of all, unlike toddlers, they proudly wore nothing beneath. Kraaia felt almost nauseated at the the thought of the four floppy things that were at that very moment dangling naked over the floor like ugly, absurd little vestigial tails—in her very presence, as it were: in the same air.

Then amongst the Gaelic gabbling Kraaia heard Flann squeal, “Ach, Ferdie!” and she determined who these two superfluous young men must have been. If anything she was more disgusted than before.

Lugaid and Feradach were the two younger brothers of the ladies’ elder sister’s husband, and they had attained the status of imperishable stars in the cosmology of Catan and Flann, by virtue of having tried and failed to win their hands years before.

She wished Osh had been there.

Kraaia decided on the spot that the only thing more detestable than continuing to boast about lovers of the past was to continue to flirt with them in the present. She wished Osh had been there to remind Flann that she was a married woman—or failing that, to witness just what sort of woman she was.

Kraaia leaned past Paul.

Kraaia leaned past Paul, trying to witness in his place. Was Flann deliberately rubbing herself against his chest? Was it her arm or her breast he was nudging?

She jolted to attention as Paul turned slowly around. She thought for an instant that there would be a fight after all—Catan was giggling almost as foolishly as Flann—but he only shook his head ruefully and whispered, “Kakalík!


Kraaia’s face broke into an immediate grin, and he winked at her before turning just as slowly and ruefully back to the room.

Kakalík” was, she knew, the elven word for “Gaelic”, but alone among men she had been privileged to learn the hidden meaning behind its phonetic resemblance: something like “the guggling of grouse”. Kraaia could think of no more fitting emblem for the strutting Gaels than these ludicrously prideful birds.

She thought quickly through her little vocabulary and countered with “Llakhalík!”—dearly hoping he would understand something like “the grunting of pigs”.

Lena made a slightly piggish yet endearing snort.

Lena made a slightly piggish yet endearing snort, and tried valiantly not to giggle before her son’s scowling grandfather. She understood!

Paul turned back to smile and shake his finger at Kraaia, as if willing to grant her the joke, but he said softly, “Llakhalín ní tshúm—tshúmín ní mavín.

Kraaia did not understand, and Paul turned away without explanation. Meat? Something about pigs and meat? Her first flush of mortification smoldered into anger… and then faded imperceptibly into a blush of pleasure.

It faded imperceptibly into a blush of pleasure.

Paul had spoken to her as if she did understand—as if she might or soon would understand—and she decided this was a far finer thing than understanding in unsung obscurity. In this crowd of Gaels she was on the side of the elves!

She rummaged through her vocabulary until she had cobbled together a question, and she stepped out of the doorway and leaned towards Paul to ask it—

She stepped out of the doorway.

He was staring at her. That abominable Feradach was staring precisely between Flann and Paul into the shadows of the entry, as if he had known that sooner or later Kraaia would poke her head out into the light again.

At once the corners of his mouth slanted up into a smile, and his eyebrows slanted slyly down over his eyes. He chattered on with Flann without faltering in a word—or a grunt, or a gobble, or whatever passed for words in their hideous language—but he stared straight down the room at Kraaia.

Kraaia ducked back behind the door frame.

Kraaia ducked back behind the door frame, horrified. She had already seen enough of Cearball to have decided that there was no more detestable man among that detestable race than one who could flirt with one woman while making eyes at another, but she thought now she would have to revise her definition. She had not counted on Gaels who made eyes at her!

Kraaia had not been invited; she did not think she needed take her leave. She stepped back, but in trying to eclipse herself she passed a last time into the bright snow-​glare of the window, and she glowed like a tall flame in the entry.

She glowed like a tall flame in the entry.

Feradach clapped his hands softly and cried out in English, with the sort of crooning voice big men reserved for small dogs: “Come in now, sweetie, don’t be afeared!”

Everyone turned to her. It was what Kraaia most hated: the eyes of a crowd, like a gathering of lanterns searching into her shadows. They all smiled expectantly—expecting to laugh.

Everyone turned to her.

Feradach strutted closer, shaking his pleats and his tassels like a grouse his tail. Every clack-​and-​scrape of a boot heel was followed by a tinkling clatter from the silver buckles on his swaying hips and the medallions on his puffed-​out chest. He was revolting. In the brief quiet between steps Kraaia could not help imagining the dangling thing that swayed in silence beneath his kilt, and she felt sick.

She felt sick.

“Don’t be minding old Colin, now,” he smiled. “He always makes that face when he’s dry.”

“Harmless as a lamb in pattens!” Lugaid announced from across the room, making Catan erupt into a fit of giggles that Lugaid attempted to cure with tickles.

Old Colin made a particularly savage face, but all Kraaia understood of his Gaelic reply was the menacing English “Old Colin” in the middle.

“Harmless to ladies, I’m meaning!” Feradach crowed. “Old Colin would step over ten naked girls to get to a jug of wine!”

'Harmless to ladies, I'm meaning!'

Most everyone besides Colin himself laughed, though Paul made an odd face, like an elf discovering too late that one in his handful of berries had been sour.

“Ach, and what would you do with them?” Cat teased.

Work my way to the wine!”

Flann replied still more saucily and somewhat savagely in Gaelic, but Feradach ignored her as though he understood no better than Kraaia. Indeed he had not turned his eyes away from Kraaia all this time. With his back to everyone but her, he seemed intent on putting himself on her side.

He tapped Paul’s breastbone with the back of his wrist and asked, “Won’t you introduce me to your sister, man? I swear I’m harmless to ladies—unless they’re naked or I’ve had too much wine.”

'I swear I'm harmless to ladies.'

“That’s not my sister,” Paul said.

“‘Tisn’t?” Feradach gasped, briefly startled out of his swagger. At last he looked away from Kraaia, but only to glance between her and Paul to compare their faces. “She’s blonde and beautiful enough to be.”

“My sister has black hair.”

Feradach paid him no more mind, but leaned down to Kraaia’s height and crooned, “Whose sister are you then, sweetie?” with a weird emphasis on the “sister.

Paul slipped gracefully between them to force Feradach to stand back from her, and he came to a stop at Kraaia’s side.

He came to a stop at Kraaia's side.

“This is our friend Kraaia,” he said gravely. “She lives with us.”

“Ach, you wouldn’t be Connie’s friend would you?” Feradach grinned. He planted a fist on his hip, making his many buckles tinkle. “Mayhap you’ll come with her to live with us!

“What about Connie?” Paul asked.

“Lugaid and I are here to take her home to Gorman and the girls,” Feradach said. His eyes occasionally made flitting glances at Paul as he spoke, but into Kraaia’s face he stared and stared.

“Who says you may?” Paul demanded.

Without looking up, Feradach flicked the fingers of his other hand almost in Paul’s face. “Gorman says, and Comgeall says, and my father says, and my brother says bring her home and welcome.”

“And Egelric says?”

“Egelric may say his piece to the devil,” Feradach snapped.

He looked up, and this time something on Paul’s face held his gaze. His body straightened with a slow, soft clatter as his buckles fell back into place. He was tall, but no amount of stiff-​backed pride could lift his head into the realm of Paul’s.

No amount of stiff-backed pride could lift his head into the realm of Paul's.

“Egelric is her guardian,” Paul said. “He will not let her go alone with you and your brother, if that is what you have planned.”

Paul’s voice was deepening as it rarely did. His ordinary anger was a shrill, hot-​tempered sort—this soft smoldering Kraaia had never heard.

Feradach smiled faintly, but Kraaia could hear his breath coming quicker through his big nose. His buckles jangled from some slight motion of his hips. His fingers curled.

“Then she’ll take a friend,” he said softly, deliberately misunderstanding.

'Then she'll take a friend.'

Behind him the people burst into laughter, as though they had heard the phrase and found it droll. Each made the other seem chilling.

Feradach smiled more widely at Paul until his teeth were just bared, and then his gaze dropped suddenly to Kraaia’s face. “Who’s the guardian of you, sweetie?”

At once Paul’s hand settled on Kraaia’s shoulder from behind. Feradach had overstepped some bound only men could see.

“Lord Hingwar is the guardian of her,” Paul said, “but my father will serve as her guard.”

His fingers slipped into Kraaia's hair and stroked through it.

His fingers slipped into Kraaia’s hair and stroked through it, expertly teasing out the snarls that grew up where her hair rubbed the back of her collar.

“Ach, your father!” Feradach laughed falsely and glanced over his shoulder at Flann. “He cannot be taking every pretty girl in the valley unto him!”

Her partner in flirtation gone, Flann was not laughing with the others—she looked rather like a girl who has bit into her handful of berries and found them rotten. But Feradach did not even look at her long enough to see.

“Kraaia is only twelve years old,” Paul said warningly. “He is not taking her that way.”

Kraaia tried to slip away, but she found herself backed up against Paul’s chest as snugly as Flann had been against Feradach’s a few minutes earlier. A few minutes earlier she had been hoping for a fight, but she had not counted on males who would fight over her.

'Then another man may.'

“Then another man may,” Feradach replied pertly. He was no longer looking at Kraaia at all.

“Elven ladies do not marry until they are sixteen.”

Feradach started with a jingling of buckles and blinked uneasily at Paul. Then, without shifting his feet—and boldly, in spite of the looming presence of Paul—he leaned over Kraaia and stared down into her face.

Paul caught a handful of her hair and pulled it tight around her head like a scarf. Feradach reared back his head. Kraaia realized the man was trying to see her ears, and the elf was trying to hide them.

Feradach reared back his head.

Out of frustration or in retaliation, Feradach leaned so close and sighed so deeply that Kraaia felt his breath on her lips. He cocked his head to the side and stared appraisingly down the slight, foreshortened curves of her body. Kraaia’s hair fell loose and Paul’s long fingers tightened around her shoulder.

“Is she an elf, then?” Feradach asked mildly.

Paul’s tense body uncoiled itself abruptly like a snake, so startling Feradach that the man leapt back, though Paul had moved not to strike but only to snarl.

“It does not matter to you if she is,” he whispered fiercely. “We are.”

He held Kraaia like a dagger, gripping her shoulder so tightly she could feel her own pulse throbbing against his fingertips. Only his thumb moved: gently, firmly stroking the top of her spine through her hair like an elf testing the edge of his blade.

Only his thumb moved.