Cnoc Leithid, Galloway, Scotland

Stay back when he growls.

Don’t wake him when he’s sleeping. Don’t bother him when he’s drinking or eating. Stay back when he growls. Cearball wondered whether Malcolm had realized how much his warnings made his father sound like a vicious dog.

The only piece of uncanine advice Malcolm had given him proved to be hard to follow: Don’t fail to meet his eyes.

'Come be greeting Malcolm's friend Cearball.'

“Father,” Lady Maire said, “come be greeting young Malcolm’s friend Cearball.”

“Malcolm’s friend?” Lord Colban’s eyes widened and flashed with gold. He tossed a glance over his shoulder at the young man following him into the hall. “I’d heard the cousin of Orlaith was here…”

“One and the same they are,” Maire said.

Colban grunted. His stare of wary befuddlement hardened into mistrust. The man behind him looked positively hostile.

The man behind him looked positively hostile.

Cearball bowed and said, “Bound to Orlaith by blood, but bound to Malcolm by affection.” He hoped his voice seemed so high-​pitched only by comparison with Lord Colban’s growl.

Maire laid one hand on Cearball’s arm and the other on her husband’s. “Cearball, this is Malcolm’s father and his twin brother, Colban.”

She smiled, but Cearball saw her fingers sink into Colban’s sleeve as she squeezed the biceps beneath. The gesture had no apparent effect on the man attached to it.

“My lord.” Cearball bowed again, an inch lower this time. “I’m glad to meet you all. Malcolm has told me so much about you.”

His father grumbled, “He hasn’t mentioned you.”

Maire released her husband’s sleeve and stroked her hand soothingly down Cearball’s arm. “They only just met. You know how quickly boys make friends.”

“I’ve a letter from Malcolm’s own hand,” Cearball said. He was glad to play the boy if Lady Maire was willing to play the mother. “I’m certain he mentions me…”

'I've a letter from Malcolm's own hand.'

“Fie now! Do you see?” Maire demanded of her husband. “He thinks you’ve called him a liar!”

Colban laughed, and his shoulders relaxed. “No, Mother, that I will not. But I shall be glad to see the letter all the same.”

“I’ve a letter from the King of Lothere, also,” Cearball blurted. “That is, I haven’t it, but I came with his messenger…”

“I know it,” Colban said. “I just read it upstairs.”

Behind him, Malcolm’s brother snorted and smiled to himself. Cearball did not know what was in Sigefrith’s letter, but he now feared it had not been flattering to him.

Colban smiled slyly at his wife. “But no letter of introduction were the two of you ladies needing, or so it seems to me.”

'But no letter of introduction were the two of you ladies needing.'

“Ach, letters!” Maire laughed. “What need have we of letters, when we’ve before us a lad who only ten days ago was holding our granddaughter upon his knee!”

Sebdann begged, “Tell him what she does when she sees you getting up in the morning, Cearball! All a-​dragging your sorry carcass out to the table!”

Cearball felt his cheeks grow hot. “Ah… she disapproves.”

Maire laughed. “She disapproves! Imagine a disapproving baby face, will you, Father? Ach!” She leaned her hand on Cearball’s shoulder and sighed. “How I wish I could see her! Cearball says the hair of her wee head has the same color as mine!”

“Ah!” Colban smiled. “Has it then?”

He lifted a lock of his lady’s hair, and for a moment his grim face was all tenderness. Cearball imagined himself in the same stance twenty years hence, fingering one of Condal’s soft curls.

Maire seemed to see her chance. “Be good to him, my dears. We surrender him to you. Don’t keep him up late, for he has ridden far today.”

She patted her husband’s breast and stepped between him and Cearball on her way to the stairs. Colban snatched her hand and pulled her arm taut. He gave her that hungry stare men tended to wear when they found Cearball in close conversation with their wives.

He pulled, but Maire stood firm. She waited in silence until he kissed the back of her hand and let it drop. Then she gave him that sly smile, full of promise, that women gave their husbands when they both knew Cearball was only a toy.

“And let the poor lad eat his supper.” Her stiff skirts thumped against a chair leg as she turned. “Sebdann and I have kept him talking without cease this last half hour.”

Cearball wished himself invisible, but courtesy obliged him to respond. He bowed to the ladies. “A great pleasure it was.”

Malcolm’s brother snaked an arm around Sebdann’s waist as she went by, and unlike his father he jerked his wife against his hip and kissed her. Sebdann giggled breathlessly in surprise.

Cearball had seen that often enough, too. The disadvantage of being so agreeable with the ladies was that it tended to make one unpopular with the men.

It tended to make one unpopular with the men.

Maire turned her head as she rounded the table, smiling at Cearball in particular. “Good night, gentlemen.”

“Good night, ladies.” Cearball bowed, allowing him to pretend to notice something worth inspecting on the toe of his boot.

Sebdann added, “We shall see your sorry carcasses in the morning!”

Maire caught her arm, and they laughed together as they strolled off.

Colban chuckled fondly and stepped past Cearball to pull out a chair. “You shall see from whom wee Maud gets her disapproving face.”

'You shall see from whom wee Maud gets her disapproving face.'

Heartened by the smile, Cearball said, “I was thinking mayhap Iylaine.”

Colban laughed. “Ach! Mayhap as that may be. Have a seat, lad, and finish your supper while it’s hot.”

Cearball awkwardly lowered himself onto his chair without looking down. Just when he had found the edge of his seat, Lord Colban asked, “The letter?” and Cearball hopped up again to find it in his purse.

Malcolm’s brother jerked a chair away from the table as if to protect it from Cearball’s proximity. He flopped himself down and asked, “So how’s Maire?”

“Ah…” Cearball fumbled in his purse to give himself a moment to think. Lord Colban had read Sigefrith’s letter. Sigefrith had surely mentioned Maire. Colban must have showed it to his son.

He handed Malcolm’s letter to Colban and eased himself back onto his chair. He bowed his head over his plate, but out of the corner of his eye he watched Lord Colban take out his knife and slide it behind the letter’s thick seal.

“When I left,” Cearball muttered as he picked through his stew, “she hadn’t said a word to anyone yet, to my knowledge. But that was nine days ago.” He stabbed a bit of beef on the tip of his knife and stuffed it in his mouth.

Behind him, young Colban’s chair creaked as he leaned forward. “I meant in bed.”

'I meant in bed.'

Cearball’s chewing slowed.

Lord Colban laid the two pages on the table and scratched his head. “Ask her husband.”

“Aengus would punch me in the mouth if I asked him.”

“I wouldn’t blame Cearball if he did, either.” Colban waved the back of his hand at Cearball without looking up from the letter. “’Twasn’t Sigefrith who told us. His new messenger believes he has the right to carry tales of his own. You may want to punch him in the mouth, too, while you’re at it.”

'You may want to punch him in the mouth, too.'

Cearball swallowed. His heart was racing. Tempting as the idea was, he would not be able to punch his way out of this situation.

He laid down his knife and turned to Malcolm’s brother. “Scratched and bruised and confused I found her.” His voice shook, and he clenched his hand around his knee in a vain attempt to steady it. “I told her to ask her family for help. I even told her family—I told Malcolm. I even met the man and blacked his eye and sent him away spouting blood from his nose. What more would you have had me do?”

'What more would you have had me do?'

Lord Colban raised his hand. “Eat your supper, lad. He never asked you what you did about her. He was only being rude.”

Malcolm’s brother snorted and tipped back his chair until it thunked against the wall.

Cearball turned around and bent over his supper. He was not entirely sorry the matter had come up. He did not know what Malcolm had written in his letter, and it had at least given him the opportunity to defend himself. But he had not anticipated that he would need defending. He had thought addressing himself to his sweetheart’s guardian would be awkward enough as it was.

“So you slept at my brother’s, did you?” young Colban asked. “If the baby was disapproving of you at breakfast?”

'So you slept at my brother's, did you?'

Cearball grunted.

The chair squeaked as Colban rocked slowly on its hind legs. “Iylaine must have approved of you a fair bit, then. For I was never asked to stay.”

Cearball grunted again and kept chewing. Then he laid down his knife and turned to see whether he had heard what he thought he was hearing.

The front legs of the chair clopped faintly to the floor. Young Colban leaned forward and mouthed, “How is she?”

Cearball’s chair squawked as he almost leapt out of it. Malcolm’s brother gripped the arms of his own chair, ready to rise.

Lord Colban lifted his head and glared at his son.

Lord Colban lifted his head and glared at his son.

“If you’re as rude a guest as you are to guests, it’s no wonder Iylaine won’t stand you.”

Malcolm’s brother sat back in his chair and attempted to look innocent.

“Don’t bother getting used to him,” Colban told Cearball. “He’s leaving in the morning.”


“You’re leaving in the morning, I said! You’re going to your Uncle Eochaid and telling him to fetch his boys home, for if I have to go after them, they’ll be learning they’re not too old to be whipped.”

“Lugaid and Ferdie?”

'Lugaid and Ferdie?'

“They’re in Lothere harassing poor little Connie. And if Gorman truly told them they were to bring Connie home with them, you tell her man she’s not too old to be whipped either. I wouldn’t trust those two with a she-​goat I liked.”

Malcolm’s brother laughed. “I wasn’t aware goat-​fucking was among their depravities.”

Cearball would have liked to share his own opinion of their depravities, but he was more interested in Condal. “Will you then be guardian to her, my lord?”

Lord Colban grunted and frowned at the parchment. “I suppose I must. I never understood why the father of her wanted Comgeall for it. Inheriting of a man’s house is one thing, but his wee daughters…”

Cearball sat forward. “Comgeall struck her sister in the face, you know. And Sir Egelric—”

'I know.'

“I know.” Lord Colban’s curt reply was like a dog’s soft bark of warning before teeth were bared.

Cearball sat back. His face tingled with sweat. Malcolm’s brother stared off between them into the shadows, flexing the corners of a thin smile.

Then Lord Colban looked up and asked mildly, “One of the Brians, then, are you?”

“Aye, my lord. Ah…”

Cearball realized that the mention of Condal must have made the man look at him with the eyes of a guardian considering a suitor. This was his chance.

This was his chance.

“Aye.” He smiled and tried to look at ease. “And my father’s mother was the daughter of the King of Osraige, and though I have houses in Dublin and Cill Channaig, most of my lands are—”

“Isn’t that a bit awkward?”

“Ah… what?”

“With King Enna and the High King?”

Cearball swallowed. He longed to pull out his handkerchief and blot his forehead, but he recalled Malcolm’s warning and dared not look away from Lord Colban’s eyes.

Colban asked, “The Brians are at war with the Cheinnselaighs, are they no?”

'The Brians are at war with the Cheinnselaighs, are they no?'

Cearball sighed in relief. The man simply misunderstood Irish politics.

“Ach, no, my lord. Or rather, not all of us. Brian Boru had the two wives, you see, and the two sons. The High King comes of his son Tadc. We come of his son Donnchad. Two families.”

Colban lifted his brows and nodded. It seemed he was after a political alliance. Fortunately Cearball had political allies.

“My father’s sister Mael Muire… that is to say, my aunt… King Enna’s wife…”

Cearball rubbed his sweaty palms together. Now what? Now that he had dropped the name? In truth, his aunt now detested him as much as she had once reviled his mother.

Now what?

“Ah… she is said to resemble Brian’s most beloved wife Gormflaith. Being her granddaughter, you see.” He grinned stupidly.

Colban grunted and turned back to the letter. Cearball whipped out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.

“And the Prince of Gwynedd is a… a good friend of mine. That is, Gruffydd son of Cynan. Ah…”

“He’s the one in prison, isn’t he?”

“Ah… aye, but I maintain close ties with his family.” Cearball glanced at Malcolm’s brother, fearful he was about to comment on the nature of these “ties.”

“What did you think of him?”

“Ach, he’ll rule again in Gwynedd. You’ve never seen the like of his patience or determination. The only force that can stand against him is treachery, and to fight that he only needs more friends.”

“Hard to come by in prison.”

'Hard to come by in prison.'

“Aye, but he has men working for him on the outside.”

“Such as yourself?”

Cearball paused to wonder whether Lord Colban might look unfavorably upon an alliance with the House of Iago. But there was no help for it; if there was one friend Cearball would not forswear it was Gruffydd.

“Aye, my lord,” he murmured. “For one summer he was the father I never had. I won’t forget it.”

Lord Colban nodded and smoothed a hand over one of the pages, flattening the crackling parchment against the wood. He read a few lines and asked, “So you’re acquainted with Domnall mac Lochlainn, too, are you?”

Cearball began to relax. His relationship with mac Lochlainn was simple and manly. It helped that mac Lochlainn had a very ugly, very devout wife.

“Ach, aye, my lord. I know him well. We’ve fought together many times, and won many cattle. I led threescore men into battle for him last year.”

Malcolm’s brother muttered to himself, “And they followed?”

His father shot him a sour look. He asked Cearball, “What did you think of him?”

'What did you think of him?'

This, Cearball thought, was a question with a right and a wrong answer. He cracked his knuckles one by one and considered.

“I think… he is a man who will either die in glory or become a great king.”

They were Murchad’s words, in fact, but at least Cearball believed them true.

Lord Colban said, “And I see you’ve made the acquaintance of our cousin, Young Aed of the Aenguses?”

Cearball looked up in alarm. The very name made Malcolm’s forehead wrinkle with worry, but Colban’s face conveyed only polite curiosity.

“Ah… aye, I did at that.”

'I did at that.'

“And what did you think of him?”

Malcolm’s brother crossed his ankle over his knee, sat back, and smirked. For this question, Cearball feared, there was no right answer at all.

“Ah… very polite, he seemed to me.”

Lord Colban chuckled and shook his head.

Lord Colban chuckled and shook his head.

“Doesn’t give you much to hang an opinion on, does the lad? Smooth as a serpent, is that one.” He shook his finger at Cearball. “But he’s another such a one as your mac Lochlainn, mark my words. He also owes me a favor.”

He straightened the sheets on the table before him and laced his hands together over his knee.

“I shall write a letter for you. Colban can take you there when he returns from his uncle’s. In this weather you’re obliged to go through Three Winds, but Diarmait isn’t there. Young Aed is the only man who can get you over the sea to Ireland before the spring. Unless you’ve some Norse friends Malcolm didn’t mention?” He smiled.

Cearball croaked, “Ireland?”


Colban cocked his head. “Isn’t that where you were heading?”

Cearball tried desperately to turn the question in a favorable light. “Aye, my lord, but surely not before the spring. That is… I wouldn’t take a young lady traveling in the winter on horseback, much less on the open sea.”

“Ach, have you a young lady with you?”

Cearball’s eyes smarted, but he dared not so much as blink. “Not… just yet, my lord. But… didn’t Malcolm mention that I had asked Condal’s hand in marriage?”

Malcolm’s brother clomped his boot to the floor and demanded, “Connie?”

His father lifted a hand to silence him. “Aye, he did mention it. But I did not think it worth mentioning myself.”

Cearball’s mouth fell open. This was worse than a refusal. This was an insult.

Colban stared at him for a moment longer.

Colban stared at him for a moment longer. It was evident from whom Malcolm had inherited his expressionless face. Then he shoved back his chair and stood.

Cearball leapt up after him. “My lord!”

Colban squatted and heaved a log onto the fire. His son slipped ominously close to the edge of his seat.

“You don’t even know me!”

Malcolm’s brother pounded his fist on the arm of his chair. “What else need we know? The first thing you did upon arriving in Lothere was lie you down with the wife of Cousin Aengus! And now you’re wanting little Connie for dessert!”

“Maire came to my room! Mine!”

'She came to my room!'

“And what? And raped you?”

Lord Colban slammed the poker into its stand to interrupt them with its clang. “From Maire, nothing would surprise me.”

He spun to face Cearball.

“Malcolm knows you, and he likes you. Shall we start from there? Hmm?”

'Shall we start from there?'

He paused, giving Cearball time to squirm. It was clear from whom Malcolm had inherited his uncanny eyes.

At last he laid a hand on Cearball’s shoulder and broke his own spell.

“Nothing against you, personally, lad, but she won’t be marrying anyone for a while. She’s but a wee girl yet. Only thirteen.” He patted Cearball’s arm and took a step towards the table.

Cearball cried out, “Fourteen! My lord… Please…”

Colban stopped and sighed. “Ach, Uncle…” He turned back to Cearball. “You ask me to be her guardian; behold, I am guarding. I must do as her father would have done. The youngest of her sisters to be married was sixteen, and her father always did say he wished he had waited a year. So, seventeen.”

“Seven—teen!” Cearball gasped. “But she’s only fourteen!”

'But she's only fourteen!'

Colban cocked his head. “That was my point.”

“But… three years!

Colban shook his finger. “Three and a half, for I won’t see a frail girl married in the winter time. But you may ask me again in three years.”

“But three years!” Cearball twisted his sweaty hands. He needed the mind of Malcolm. He would even have accepted the loan of Murchad’s. Instead he had the head of an idiot toddler. “Three years! We cannot wait so long!”

“Can’t you?” Colban’s brows lowered, shading his eyes until their rich gold had turned brown. “How long can you wait, then? Nine months?”

'Nine months?'

“No! No!” Cearball wailed. “I never so much as kissed her! I swear it!”

Malcolm’s brother snorted and chuckled to himself.

“But I might have!” Cearball shouted past Colban’s shoulder. “Condal is not a maiden lightly to be kissed! However, I assure you, we do share an undeniable bond of affection!”

'I assure you, we do share an undeniable bond of affection!'

Malcolm’s brother closed his eyes, leaned his head against the back of his chair, and smiled like a man basking in the sun. At that instant Cearball’s sole desire was to drag him to his feet for the pleasure of knocking him down again.

Then Lord Colban spoke softly and reminded him of Condal. “And any other bonds?”

Cearball’s cheeks warmed. “Ah… What?”

“I mean: Has she already promised to marry you?”

Cearball stood up stiff and tall. “Condal is too modest and well-​bred a young lady to do any such thing, my lord.”

'Condal is too modest and well-bred a young lady to do any such thing.'

He was as proud of Condal’s modesty and good breeding as if they had been his own. They also provided a gratifying explanation for her failure to accept his proposal.

“However, she has told me that she has an affection for me that is unlike her affection for any other man.”

The fact that she had likened it to a sister’s for her brother was, he thought, only further proof of her modesty, and was not worth mentioning.

“And she has promised me that she will not allow herself to be married to any man unless I have been informed and given the opportunity to plead my suit. So you see, my lord, while she has not promised she will marry me, she has not promised she will not.”

'She has not promised she will not.'

Malcolm’s brother laughed aloud.

Cearball lunged at him. “Do you mock the lady’s word, sir?”

Lord Colban flung his arm out between them and caught Cearball across the chest. He eased him back towards the wall until Cearball stood on his two feet again, and he concluded with a fatherly pat. Cearball’s eyes burned.

“No one who knows her would mock Connie’s word. And if I take you at yours, I admit it is a rare sign of affection on her part. But that does not change the fact that she is but a girl yet, and I will not let her go.”

'I will not let her go.'

“But three years!” Cearball whimpered.

Colban smiled wistfully. “Four years did I wait for Malcolm’s mother.”

He lifted a finger before Cearball’s nose. Cearball crossed his eyes and stared.

“A wee wisp of a girl of thirteen she was when she was betrothed to me, and I a man older than you are now. I promise you, you’ll both survive. And if you’re still wanting one another then, you’ll both be the better for having had time to ripen.”

He gave Cearball’s shoulder a friendly shake and turned to the fire. Cearball began to understand that he would be returning to Ireland alone, hunkered miserably in the bottom of a boat, soaked with winter spray and chilled so deeply he would never be warm until he saw Condal again. He would be returning to Dublin alone, to his cold, shuttered rooms that would seem more sordid than ever, and not the house he would have made for her. Surely spring would not return to Ireland so long as Condal was not there. Surely he would never be happy again.

“But… Lady Maire was your cousin!” he pleaded. “She lived just over the hills! You could see her from time to time! Couldn’t you? You could at least see her! Walk with her, and hold her hand!”

Colban chuckled, doubtlessly remembering.

“And I have to go to Ireland! And it’s a lucky man I’ll be if I see her three times in those three years!”

Colban shrugged. “You have my permission to correspond with her.”



Cearball imagined himself dictating love letters to Murchad, and listening to him read Condal’s replies. He would never be able to say what he meant if he had to say it to Murchad. And if he knew Condal, neither would she. And meanwhile there would be Lugaid and Feradach, there would be Eadred, there would be Finn… there would be all these other men who would sit beside her at table, dance with her, whisper with her, flirt with her…

“A betrothal!” Cearball cried. “You must allow me at least that! You had at least that! I beg you! Give me hope!”

Malcolm’s brother sat up. “A betrothal? Who do you think you are?”

His father waved him back. “Now, I would consider that—”

“Consider that?” Malcolm’s brother shouted. “Do you think Flann would have considered that? You don’t know this twit from Adam, but you get two pages from Malcolm and it’s a fucking Papal blessing!”



Malcolm’s brother sat back in his chair. His face was flushed and sweaty, but his lips were pale, the whites of his eyes wide. Like Malcolm, he must have known the warning signs of a dog angered to the point of savagery. Cearball stood very still.

As I was saying,” Colban growled over his shoulder. He turned back to Cearball. “I would consider that on two conditions. First, that Connie herself ask permission of me.”

Cearball nodded, though his head was heavy. Condal did not seem to see the urgency of the situation. But she had not realized they might not meet again for an entire year. He wished he could at least somehow witness her missing him.

'Second, I shall go to the men who know you.'

“Second, I shall go to the men who know you, and ask them, as I asked you: What do you think of him? Enna. Mac Lochlainn. Gruffydd. Sigefrith. Young Aed. Even Malcolm. So, if you believe I shall like the answers they would give me today, then tomorrow we may start writing letters. And if you aren’t certain…”

He pounded Cearball’s back, and Cearball swayed with the blows.

“Go back to Ireland and spend a few years practicing at being the sort of husband wee Connie deserves. Flann would not have given her up to mere titles or family, mere cattle or land, my lad. Flann wanted one thing for her. A good man.”

'Flann wanted one thing for her.  A good man.'