'They're not here!'

It seemed no one would speak. Finally Kraaia shouted, “They’re not here!”

Maire lifted her chin slightly. If it was enough for her to spy Kraaia over Lena’s tall shoulder, then she must have been holding her head terribly high before.

“They’re all at Nothelm!” Kraaia added.

She had once had a sneaking admiration for the woman. Maire’s self-​righteous rejection of Aengus seemed a metaphorical taking of the veil, all the more noble outside a convent, for it endured in the face of temptation—and in spite of what Kraaia supposed a man’s insistence on “his rights” could be.

Then she had met Lena.

“The only… person I am come to visit is right here,” Maire said.

Kraaia did not like the way her tongue lingered on the word.

Kraaia did not like the way her tongue lingered on the word.

Lena stepped aside and murmured, “Won’t you please come in?”

“You don’t have to let her in!” Kraaia shouted.

It was too dark for her to see Maire’s face, but it must have twitched. She felt its seething glance strike her face like a whip.

“Don’t act like you’re here on a friendly visit!” Kraaia snapped. “Lena doesn’t know you from Eve! If you want to make friends, you come another day when Cat and Flann and Paul are here—or else you’re just here to make trouble, and I won’t have it!”

Maire stepped inside. The clacking of her hard-​soled boots echoed strangely in the dark house, making it seem empty of furniture, empty of soft curtains, empty of people.

Maire stepped inside.

“Little girl,” she said with a cruel softness, “you are not mistress here.”

“Neither is Lena, and she’s not allowed to let anyone in when no one’s home, so you’ll just have to come back another time!”

“Kraaia…” Lena murmured. “Please take Penedict upstairs…”

Maire glanced over her shoulder at Lena and back at Kraaia. She did not seem to find Kraaia important enough even to be worth a smug half-​smile or dismissive remark.

She took two steps closer. Her feet all but clip-​clopped upon the wood; she sounded as if she were shod with iron. Beneath her heavy woolen cloak she might have been striking sparks.

She took two steps closer.

“So this is… Penedict,” she murmured. “Will you look at his ears…”

Kraaia did not like the way her tongue lingered on the name.

“Kraaia,” Lena repeated softly, “please take Penedict upstairs.”

'Please take Penedict upstairs...'

Lena’s tongue too moved slowly around the name, reminding Kraaia that she was not standing up to Maire alone.

She was a very defiant, very disobedient girl, but at that moment she had her first inkling of what it was to be responsible for someone else. She walked around the railing—as far from Maire as she could distance herself—and lifted her foot onto the stairs.

All the way up she felt Maire's narrowed gaze upon her.

All the way up she felt Maire’s narrowed gaze upon her, like a noose tightening with every step.

At the top it seemed to snap like a spider’s thin strand and dissolve into the air. Maire must have looked away. Kraaia took a deep breath, and Benedict glanced worriedly up into her face, and then aside.

Never had a room looked so narrow.

Never had a room looked so narrow. She had never noticed how Osh’s mountains almost scraped the coffered sky; how they darkened at their summits; how narrowly they closed her in, more canyon than valley.

She had never noticed how the far wall was blank and gray as sheer rock: there was no getting out.

The far wall was blank.

She looked around for a stray toy or something she could use to amuse Benedict. Her gaze passed over and over the dark shadow of her own blood on the wall, drawn back and back with the same sickening, obsessive fascination that made her reopen wounds on her own body every time they began to heal. Her half-​hearted scrubbing had not removed the stain from the little house, and now nothing ever would. She had painted a scar.

She did not find a toy, but Benedict did not seem to want to be amused. His little face was grim as his grandfather’s.

His little face was grim as his grandfather's.

He seemed to be listening to what was being said downstairs, and though he could not have understood, Kraaia could not bear to have him hear.

She was not accustomed to caring for small children, but she had been one once, and she still remembered songs she had heard but never sung. She brushed her hand over Benedict’s little ear to turn aside his attention and began.

She brushed her hand over Benedict's little ear.

Winter snow is on the ground, and Robin Redbreast grieves,” she sang in the high, creaking, elderly-​lady voice that was the only lullaby-​singing sort of voice she knew. “For no berries can be found, and on the trees—

She heard a crack like a bough breaking beneath the weight of ice. At the same instant Benedict stiffened in her arms and opened his mouth, but instead of crying, he thrust out his tongue and gasped, and gasped, and gasped, his eyes wide with fright.

Kraaia did not give the sound a second thought—Benedict was choking to death.

Benedict was choking to death.

Panicked, she shouted, “Lena!”

She heard another crack, and a clatter, and a distant howl and sharp cry, and then Benedict arched his back and screamed.

Kraaia had scarcely heard Benedict cry in all the time she had known him, but neither he nor any baby she had ever heard—nor even Liadan at her most purple-​faced furious—had ever made a sound like this shrill scream.

Benedict stiffened his legs, banged his forehead blindly against Kraaia’s shoulder, and screamed again. He was stronger than any baby had any right to be, and she only just managed to drop him into the big chair before he kicked his way free and fell.



As soon as Kraaia ran out onto the landing, she saw the weird flickering of untamed fire below, and the first dim haze of smoke.

As soon as she started down, she saw the flames spreading across the floor like spilled honey, blackening the wood just beyond their reach and oozing brightly into the hollows.

She howled, “Lena! Fire!” as she skidded down.

She made it halfway to the floor before she made out the dark forms of flailing bodies through the glare of the flames.

She made it halfway down.

Something ropelike swung wildly around Maire’s left hand, and its glowing tip seemed to write brief, incandescent letters in the air that Kraaia was too stupid to read.

Meanwhile Maire’s flashing right hand went up and down, and up and down, tracing the same arc over and over, striking Lena over and over, and every time it struck another gout of flame spurted out of Lena’s breast.

In an instant, like an egg smashing open, Kraaia saw the sense and the insanity of everything: the horsewhip, the flashing knife, the blood, the fire.

From that instant time moved slowly, like a smashed egg oozing itself flat, bearing its broken bits of shell away. Any elf—any ordinary person—would have been nimble enough to dash in between those ponderously swaying bodies and put a stop to it all…

But Kraaia was glued to the spot. She was not that person.


Lena turned her head and cried, “Kraaia, take Pen—”

Maire raised her knife and slammed it down into the angle of Lena’s neck with such brutal force that it stuck.

Maire raised her knife and slammed it down into the angle of Lena's neck.

Kraaia thudded back up the stairs, forgetting in her blind terror that there was no way out on high—no door, no window, no exit.

She returned to her room blindly, out of less than habit: she had not been in the house long enough to feel safe anywhere.

She returned to her room blindly.

Then she saw Benedict. How tiny he looked upon the big pillows! One thrust of a knife would spear him clean through. She saw it. Even the strength of a woman’s hand could pierce his little skull. When she looked away she still saw it.

Even when she looked away she saw it.

Maire would be coming for Benedict next, if she did not burn up first. And she would be coming for Kraaia afterwards, if the house did not burn down around their heads beforehand.

Kraaia squirmed into her cloak out of blind habit, sleeve by perniciously flailing sleeve, as if it were impossible to leave a house without it.

She did not know where Benedict’s little coats were kept, and she did not think she could have forced him into one if she did. She picked him up, and held his jerking body against her breast with all her might, whether it hurt him or no, and ran for the stairs.

She ran for the stairs.

By now the fire had spread across the floor from wall to wall and crawled up onto the chairs. In another minute it might have reached the first steps. Already the air was stifling with smoke and heat and the reek of burning wool.

Maire’s cloak and Lena’s gown hung in black shreds from their knees to the floor, and brighter than anything but the fire were their white legs flashing out of the tatters. Lena’s apron was peeling away from her burning breast. Maire’s arms were on fire and still slashing, as if she knew this for her last act, and intended to act it to the end. The horsewhip was burned to the handle, and she battered Lena’s head with that.

Maire's arms were on fire and still slashing.

Kraaia stepped into the hall, into the narrow river of uncharred wood left her, and swung so closely around the railing that she bruised her hip. Benedict screamed and reached for his mother.

Kraaia ran down the dark hall and past the bright kitchen to the door. She remembered their half-​made supper as she went by—the round of dough, the sliced onions, the smashed pears, the dropped doll at the bottom of the big copper kettle—but from much grim experience with running away she was wise enough not to look back.

She did not look back.