Condal had concluded Cearball was nowhere to be found.

Cousin Malcolm had so thoroughly failed to mention Cearball’s whereabouts this Sunday afternoon that Condal had concluded Cearball was nowhere to be found.

And yet there he was.

And yet there he was.

Malcolm went in as if he had not even seen. He calmly turned aside to unbuckle his belt and hang up his sword, though he had said they were only stopping for a moment. Stranger still, Cearball failed to greet them, and he did not move from the spot where he stood and had been standing—for how long?

There were no sounds in the house but the scuffing of Malcolm’s boot soles and the crackling of a fire. The candle was lit, but Iylaine and the children were not in the hall. There was neither a laden table nor the sound of cooking or washing up coming from the kitchen, but the clove-​spiced odor of a ham dinner hung in the air.

Condal began to have the weird sense that she had slipped only halfway into her imagination—that she was seeing only some of the people in the room, or that some of the people she was seeing were not there at all.

Malcolm stopped behind her and turned her towards the light of the window.

“I beg your pardon, Cousin,” he murmured, “but I lied to you about our reason for stopping here.”

Malcolm stopped behind her.

Condal tittered, “Ach!”

Malcolm untied her cloak with a fatherly hand. They would be stopping for more than a moment.

“We may still go look at the picture books afterwards if you like, for I wasn’t lying about needing to go to Sigefrith’s. But first Cearball has a few things he would like to say to you.”

He paused, and Condal obediently shrugged so that he could slip her cloak off her shoulders.

“That does not mean I agree with everything he says,” Malcolm grumbled near her ear. “But I believe he deserves a chance to say it.”

He left her to hang up her cloak, and until he returned Condal stood scrupulously still, her back to the room, studying the dents of the door.

Then Malcolm put a fatherly arm around her and led her in.

Iylaine and I shall be in the bedroom.

“Iylaine and I shall be in the bedroom,” he announced.

He spoke loudly enough for Cearball and Condal both to hear. To Condal it sounded more like a warning than a reassurance. Cearball’s smile did not waver, but it appeared forced.

Cearball's smile did not waver.

Malcolm squeezed her shoulder a last time and added softly, “Iylaine will hear you call if you need me.”

He stepped around Condal to lift her hand from her side and lay it solemnly in Cearball’s, as in the past he had often lifted her hand out of it when Cearball would not let go.

“My cousin,” he intoned in a last warning.

Malcolm stepped back and waited, but nothing happened. Cearball did not bow, nor kiss her hand, nor say “Good afternoon” or “How do you do?” Most remarkably he did not bend his head to hers and whisper “Connie!” as he did whenever they met: in that eager, slightly panicked way he had, as though he feared he would never have time to say all the things he meant. Perhaps he knew he would have the time he needed today.

'My cousin.'

The men both waited with such stubborn patience that Condal thought it prudent to settle her hand more comfortably over Cearball’s, lifting her sweaty palm from the back of his hand, and steadying it by curling her fingers over his. She was startled when his own hand shifted slightly at this slight pressure from hers. She was always astounded when his big body responded to some light contact with her own, no less than if mighty Devil had been made to obey the barest touch of her reins.

At last, defeated, Malcolm snorted and walked away. One of the tweaked-​up corners of Cearball’s mouth softened into a real smile as Malcolm passed behind, leaving him with an expression somewhere between roguish and wry.

One of the tweaked-up corners of Cearball's mouth softened into a real smile.

Condal giggled in spite of herself, and his entire mouth broadened into a proper grin. As soon as the door closed, he bowed his head to kiss the backs of her fingers. Then he planted his spare fist on his hip and trilled back over his shoulder: “A fine lot of good it does, drying one’s hands afore, if a man will be standing there gawking long enough for them to go damp again!”

“Ach! I’m so sorry!” Condal blurted, mortified. She tried to pull her sweaty hand away, but Cearball lifted it high and laughed.

“Connie, it’s my own hands I’m meaning! Why will you never hear a compliment to yourself, but if a man is speaking ill of anything, you think it’s you he’s meaning?”

“I… don’t know,” she tittered. She had never heard the question put quite so plainly before.

'I... don't know.'

Cearball released her hand and pulled out a handkerchief. The bone-​white linen was so fine that the weave could scarcely be seen, but it was unembroidered. Condal’s compassionate heart ached with the thought that it was because he had no loving ladies in his life to embroider handkerchiefs for him.

Cearball blotted his forehead and wiped his hands. “And if I were to say, ‘How beautiful you are today!’ would you be looking behind you for the mirror?”

Condal did look, for she was suddenly reminded of the state she must have been in. Cearball was finely dressed and smoothly combed, and his cheeks were so freshly shaven that they shone, but Condal had simply thrown on a cloak and skipped straight out the door, thinking only to spend an hour or two alone in perusal of Sir Sigefrith’s library while Malcolm scolded the servants.

But of course there was no mirror, and Condal could only clap her hands over her cheeks in dismay.

“Ach, I’m so sorry!” she whimpered. “I never brushed my hair…” A half-​hearted attempt to smooth back her curls only made them crackle and stand out from her head.

Cearball laughed and groaned together. “Connie!”

She pulled her dress away from her body and looked forlornly down at the dull wool. It was not even her Sunday best, for no one at Cousin Aengus’s manor had offered to take her up the hill to Mass.

“…And I never changed my dress—Ach! Du Himmel! I think that is gravy…” she whispered in horror.

Cearball laughed all over again, but it was a friendly laugh, and she did not much mind. Feeling foolish before Cearball was not much more painful than feeling foolish alone. Then she remembered they were not quite alone.

“I hope Iylaine doesn’t know the Gaelic for gravy,” she pouted. She let him lead her—still scraping at the gravy spot with her fingernail—over to the bench to sit, and she plopped herself gracelessly down.

“I happen to know that she does,” Cearball chuckled.

“Ach! ‘Pass the gravy’ and so forth. Of course she does…”

She scraped all the harder, more to hide her red cheeks than to remove the stubborn stain. The crust of gravy had rubbed away, but the round of grease would remain.

“That’s enough, Connie,” Cearball scolded gently.

He laid a hand over the back of her wrist to still it, and Condal shyly drew her hands away.

Condal shyly drew her hands away.

“You’re beautiful as you are. I swear it.” His voice had abruptly changed, and the very sound of it made her feel fluttery and nervous.

“Fie! With my hair mussed and my dress stained.”


He leaned his shoulder against the back of the bench. It brought him no closer to her, but it changed his mien from his usual slightly ridiculous blend of formality and fidgets to a catlike ease. Each time they met he reached that state sooner, and today he had needed no more than a minute or two of flustered giggling. And when his big body was in repose, she felt its nearness all the more keenly.

“How are you today?” she blurted. “Did you just have dinner?”

'Did you just have dinner?'

He had opened his mouth to answer, but he closed it again and made one swooping nod of his head and shoulders. She thought that might have brought him a little closer.

“We were having Malcolm to dinner,” she announced. “As you likely know, since he was not here.”

Cearball smiled.

“We had another goose—right after Christmas!”

He lazily lifted a hand and pointed at her gravy spot.

“Ach!” Condal giggled, and his smile widened. “And what would you say if I told you that was a spot of mutton gravy, good sir?”

“I would say mutton gravy becomes you, dear lady.”

'I would say mutton gravy becomes you.'

At last he had attained that incomparable grin she thought of as his “real smile”—the warm, twinkling, handsomely cheek-​crinkling smile that he could only make when he was not in the least trying: when all his honest pleasure and amusement shone out of his face. Condal forgot what she had meant to say.

After a moment spent simply smiling on her, he prompted, “And were you having a go at the wishbone?”

“Ach, no!” Condal tittered. “We let Cat and Paul have it, for they would both be making a handsome wish for their baby, and that way he’ll be sure to win something handsome. But Malcolm said my sister would be making a wish for a girl, and Paul would be making a wish for a boy, and somebody was bound to be disappointed after all. And Paul won, so we shall see.”

She clapped her hands on her knees and realized with a jolt of panic that she had nothing left to say on the subject of her dinner. In desperation she turned the subject to his.

“And what about you, did you win?”

He laughed. “We had ham!”

“Ach! I thought I smelled it too!”

'I thought I smelled it too!'

She laughed deliriously. She felt the sweat breaking out on her forehead.

Cearball pulled one leg up onto the couch, bringing him closer—if not in body then in knee.

“But I did make a wish…” he said gravely.

“Ach! What do you suppose a pig wishbone would look like, then?” she prattled. “Could two men even break it? On a person they say the wishbone is this part.”

She touched her naked collarbone with her fingertips, and she saw at once that the gesture had entirely captured Cearball’s attention. She attempted to casually let her hand fall, but that only made her fingers stroke lightly over the bone and down onto the slim crescent of her chest that her dress bared. She could not help but imagine how a man’s fingers would feel on her skin—and she wondered whether Cearball was imagining how her skin would feel.

Condal slumped back against the cushion, lightheaded.

Condal slumped back against the cushion, lightheaded. She had thought she could delay the inevitable, but the longer she delayed the more inescapable the inevitable seemed.

“Did you have something to say to me, Cearball?” she whispered.

He sat up straight. “Aye, Connie. I was wanting to say goodbye.”

Condal sat up slowly beside him. She had been so certain he was about to say something else that she could not yet grasp what these other words made her feel. A fluttering panic replaced her nervous dread.

'Are you going back to Ireland?'

“Are you going back to Ireland?”

“It’s to Scotland I’m going. To see the father of Malcolm. Lord Colban.”

“Lord Colban?” she echoed.

“We’re worried about you, darling. Who is watching over you? Malcolm might, but he’s not the guardian of you, and he’ll have to stand up to those who are claiming some other right to be—because your sister sent them, for instance.”

His voice remained even, but his fingers curled reflexively into a loose fist, and a furrow appeared between his brows.

'Who is watching over you?'

She knew he meant Lugaid and Feradach. Perhaps someone had noticed how the boys were plaguing her after all. Cat and Flann laughed off her complaints and scolded her for her pleas, and Hetty could no longer come to her aid; but it seemed that Cearball and Cousin Malcolm had been watching over her all this time. Condal’s vision wavered behind thick tears of exhaustion and relief.

“Only one man has the right to be the guardian of you,” Cearball said, “and as you’re having nor brothers nor uncles, that’s being the eldest nephew of your father.”

“Lord Colban,” she repeated softly.

“Lord Colban,” he agreed. “And tomorrow I ride to remind him of his duty to guard you.”

“Ach, Cearball! It’s so far! And so cold!” She added meekly, “Would you be doing that for me?”

'Would you be doing that for me?'

Cearball sat forward and smiled. “What would I not be doing for you, I wonder?”

His voice was soft and boyish again now that he had made his sober announcement. His warbling Irish accent was foreign enough to be exotic, but it was good, pure Gaelic he spoke, and Condal never had to labor to understand nor struggle to find words with him.

“I thank you, sir.”

He leaned closer still. His shoulders seemed more sheltering than menacing just then, and she bowed her head to consider what he had told her.

She bowed her head to consider what he had told her.

“Will he make me return to Scotland?” she wondered aloud.

She did not think she could bear living in Lord Colban’s house while her own beloved home stood empty only three skips away… but neither could she live in it alone. Her youngest sisters had gone to live with Gorman and her man… but Lugaid and Feradach lived with them, and there she could not go.

'I don't know about that, Connie.'

“I don’t know about that, Connie,” Cearball murmured very near to her head. “But I have another idea I was meaning to suggest to him.”

Cearball looked up. She knew at once what he meant to say.

“I was thinking mayhap Ireland would suit you better.”

He spoke his phrase evenly enough, but he concluded with a nervous laugh. He tugged his handkerchief out of his pocket and lifted it to his face, but Condal impulsively snatched it from his hand.

Cearball stopped still, with his empty fingers still clutching the air, his mouth slack, and his eyes darting all about, studying her face and hands. He did not understand what had happened, but he seemed to think it profound.

He seemed to think it profound.

Condal bit her lips together and lowered her head. For a moment she thought she would need his handkerchief to dry her tears of embarrassment. She did not know what had possessed her, if not that masculine handkerchiefs had become her own especial domain, and the comfort to which she turned when she felt alone and afraid.

A flash of inspiration led her to announce shakily, “The sister of me is saying how one can learn a lot about a man by looking at his handkerchief.”

She smoothed the big square of linen out across her lap and folded the four corners once together. In truth none of her sisters had ever said such a thing, but she vaguely recalled other flirtatious conversations on the subject of men’s noses, their middle fingers, or their swords. But she remembered nothing she dared repeat.

She remembered nothing she dared repeat.

Cearball wiped his forehead on the back of his sleeve and attempted to laugh. “Mine will be telling you I’m a fair bit nervous.”

Condal’s heart went out to him then—not because he was nervous too, but because he was not afraid to admit it to her. Perhaps Cearball did not mind feeling foolish before her, either. For weeks she had been drenched with praises of her modesty and beauty and charm, but here in Cousin Malcolm’s hall she thought Cearball had quietly paid her the finest compliment she had ever received.

“I’m not feeling all that canty myself,” she said shyly.

'I'm not feeling all that canty myself.'

Cearball cocked his head and gave her a fond smile. Condal bent lower over the handkerchief and folded it in half again, making a smaller square. The linen was white and pure as a night’s snowfall—not like Malo’s cloth, all crisscrossed with blue threads like the tracks of sleighs.

Malo’s handkerchief was still in her drawer at Nothelm for all she knew. It had lost its power to dry tears.

“What else does it say?” he prompted softly.

“Ach!” She smoothed the linen with both hands, opening them out like wings. “It’s a very… fine handkerchief. Good… and nice.” She giggled at her own stupidity.

“Does that make me fine, good, and nice?” he smiled. “Or are handkerchiefs to be read contrarywise?”

He was so near to her that the weight of his big body on the cushion drew her lighter body down towards his. He brushed his palm once over the cloth on her knee and then laid it on the back of her wrist. Her hands went limp.

'May I ask your cousin Colban for this hand?'

“May I ask your cousin Colban for this hand?”

She whimpered, “Ach, Cearball…”

He slid his fingers down the back of her hand and slipped them between hers.

“But I already have a sweetheart,” she protested.

“Ach, Connie!” he laughed. “A sweetheart of a single night he was—a boy! That’s not what I’m offering you. You’ll likely never see him again. He even told you you were free!”

'He even told you you were free!'

Condal pursed her lips in consternation, and then she remembered: of course, Cearball was Cousin Malcolm’s friend, and Cousin Malcolm knew everything—particularly everything that was shouted out in a courtyard full of people. She supposed he knew about the kiss too, if Conrad and the boys did.

She hung her head, but she peeked up at him from beneath her curls. His face was damp and red, his mouth trembling and uncertain and not tweaked-​up in the least. He looked just as she felt.

“But Cearball, I’m only a girl…”

“But you’re a big girl, Connie. You’ve had to grow up all at once, don’t you see? You’ve lost your dear father, and you’re having no brothers, and you’re needing a man who will love you above all others, and protect you and care for you.”

Condal looked at her lap—at their hands lying clasped together on a folded square of plain, pure linen.

“And… you’re needing a lady who will broider your handkerchiefs for you, Cearball.”

He laughed. “Is that what he’s telling you, the sly thing?” He squeezed her hand companionably, as though he thought it already won.

'Is that what he's telling you, the sly thing?'

“But, Cearball,” she protested, suddenly inspired, “perhaps it’s a sister you’re needing!”

Cearball reared back his head and laughed in astonishment. “A sister!”

“Aye! I’m needing a brother, as you said, and you’re needing a sister to love you as sisters do…”

“Ach, Connie!” His laughter faltered.

“And we could be brother and sister, and I shall have no other, nor you another one.”

His grip on her hand tightened.

His grip on her hand tightened.

“No, Connie,” he assured her. “It’s not as a sister I’m loving you.”

His voice was tighter too, and Condal felt as much in its grip as she did in his hand’s.

“But how are you knowing that?” she protested. “If you never had a sister?”

“Connie!” There was his panicked whisper at last. “I know.”

'I know.'

“Did you ever love a girl before?”

“Not like this!”

“But then how do you know it’s love?” she pleaded. “How does it feel?”

She flopped her free hand on her lap and sucked back her tears. Her face crumpled briefly behind her hair. She had not anticipated that love would be so difficult to identify amongst all her other jumbled feelings, or—if she had not even felt it yet—that it would be so easy to mistake so many other different feelings for love.

She had not anticipated that love would be so difficult to identify.

“It feels like…”

He began briskly but immediately faltered. His Gaelic was lovely and lilting, but it was not inspired.

“Connie,” he began again in his own way, “a man isn’t wanting to kiss his sister—that much I know.”

Condal looked up. His smile was teasing, but in his eyes she saw his plea of the night they had first sat together, when he had given Lady Gwynn the kiss he had hoped to give to her. Or had he saved her especial kiss all this time?

“But… you might not like it…” she protested feebly. “You never kissed me either.”

“Then we ought to find out at once.”

'Then we ought to find out at once.'

He squeezed her hand and leaned far down, trying to see up beneath her hair. Condal squinted up her face and retreated as far behind her hair as she could go.

She had saved her first kiss from ruin by giving it to Cousin Finn, but now she lay awake at night wondering what would have happened if Cearball had found her in the alcove instead. Was she such a hussy that she would have kissed him in the same way? Or was her heart hiding a special kiss she would want to give only to him?

And if she had, perhaps there would not have been this miserable Christmas, with Lugaid seated on one side of her and Feradach on the other, their knees so often straying beneath the table to bump into her thighs.

If she had trusted Cearball with her first real kiss, perhaps there would not have been all those waking hours spent imagining that every creak of Aengus’s house was the sound of a body before her own door, waiting only for her to drop into the helplessness of sleep. At her most anguished moments, when she was slick with sweat and racked with dread, she had sometimes even prayed Cearball would come creeping through her casement instead. At times she had imagined she could save her maidenhood by giving it to him.

'Look at me, please!'

“Connie! Look at me, please!” Cearball’s panicked whisper was so urgent that she feared he had been pleading with her a while. She had let her imagination run away with her again.

She tried to speak, but her mouth was so dry it seemed stuffed with shredded linen. She could not open her eyes. She managed to squeeze his sweaty fingers into her sweaty palm.


That whisper again! The silly boy did not realize they had all the time they would ever need. She lifted her head, smiling, and opened her eyes.

At once he broke into his real smile, and his twinkling eyes bloomed like early violets in his snow-​white face. He was as fine and good and nice a boy as any girl could dream.

At once he broke into his real smile.

They stood in a withy bower, so early in the year that silvery catkins still tasseled the twigs. Thin blue shadows crisscrossed their arms, which were bared to the elbows by their droopy sleeves. Their clasped hands were bound together by bands of rich fabric torn into strips.

Cearball noticed her looking at them. “May I ask your father for this hand?”

Condal solemnly nodded. She felt an unsteady weight atop her head, like a crown, and Cearball had a ribbon tied around his. He was cloaked and kilted in yards and yards of handsome cloth, belted with a sword, and on his neck he wore a torque fashioned from the curving tusks of a monstrous boar. He was just what little Eithne and Condal had always imagined when they played their stories of the ancient Kings of Tara.

He was just what little Eithne and Condal had always imagined.

“I was thinking mayhap Ireland would suit you better,” he explained.

Behind him a hill slope broke into undulating swards, all golden-​green with grass that the purring wind had licked flat with its tongue. Fluffy sheep strolled across the leas, and the shadows of clouds skimmed over the sunlit landscape, making the little lambs buck.

Overhead Condal heard a whirring like pigeon wings, and she looked up, careful of her crown. To her surprise she saw not birds but babies.

To her surprise she saw not birds but babies.

They were baby angels, but not the scowling, modestly-​draped, almost-​elderly baby angels of the Duke’s picture books. No, these baby angels were as fat and pink and kissable as babies could be, many of them topped with a precious cowlick of dark hair and sporting a tooth or two in their grinning gums. They were naked and unashamed—boy babies and girl babies alike. They whirred around Condal’s head with their little stumpy wings, and peeped at her with wide, curious, baby-​blue eyes.

“Sister!” they lisped with their baby tongues.

Condal giggled, and Cearball laughed as though they were lovingly teasing him for his love.

The angel babies fluttered to and fro, and gradually Condal felt the coolness of light shade. The babies were carrying in long bands of bone-​white linen, one angel to each end, and draping them over the willow branches to make a tent.

“I’m a fair bit nervous, you see,” Cearball said.

Condal smiled at him as if it were the most beautiful compliment she had ever been paid.

Condal smiled at him.

The sunlight grew softer as the babies built their bower, and Condal’s head nodded beneath her crown. Like a tired baby herself, she only wanted to curl up safe and snug on Cearball’s chest.

Then in the half-​twilight she heard a new sound, and she looked up to see two more babies buzzing towards the arbor, black and iridescent as wasps. Between them they bore a blood-​spattered length of linen.

They grinned and laughed and cooed, “Sister!” as they came. Her heart ached with the thought that they only wanted to join the party too, and did not realize how terrifying they seemed.

But as soon as they crossed into the tent, the other babies screamed and scattered. For a confused moment Condal was thumped and pummeled by babies, all of them purple-​faced, tear-​streaked, and howling as they fought to flee. Cearball’s face was as white and pure as a night’s fall of snow.

They did not realize how terrifying they seemed.

“Connie!” he whispered in panic.

And then the first lashing of blood spattered his cheek. Babies screamed as she had never heard a baby scream, and all Cearball’s fine garments and all the white linen were sprinkled and then doused and then soaked through and dripping with red.

Condal saw crushed and dismembered angel babies piling up limp and bloody onto the turf. She saw angel babies with their winged backs torn open and their ribs opened flat like squabs ready for the spit. She was battered by severed baby angel heads falling from on high; and fat baby angel legs torn loose at the hip flapped against her, with shreds of flesh still hanging.

Condal saw crushed and dismembered angel babies.

And the two black babies—a girl and a boy—flapped around her head upon the leathery wings of bats, still smiling, still calling, “Sister! Sister!” as though they had not even seen.

The bands that bound Condal and Cearball together were loosened by so much blood, and their sweaty hands slipped apart. She lifted her head and saw him looking as miserably resigned as a man caught outside in the rain—except that it was baby angel blood trickling down his face.

Condal lifted her arms to him and tried to call out his name, but her mouth was full of baby angel blood, and she choked and fell.

She choked and fell.