Dublin, Ireland

'Cearball!  Sir!'

Cearball! Sir!”


Cearball pulled the door softly closed behind him and scurried into the kitchen: out of sight of the tavern, wherein a cold February night’s frolic was well underway. The last thing he needed was to be roped into a few rounds in celebration of his safe return. And as the owner of the establishment, he was obliged to buy.


The keeper’s wife began again, “Sir—”

Whisht!” Cearball whispered. “I’m not wanting it to get out that I’m home, aye? It’s on the sea I’ve spent the last two days, and I’m meaning to spend the next two in bed!”

He blew on his hands and rubbed them over the crackling fire. The smoky air was rich with odors of roasted fowl, stewed onions, and fresh, frothy ale. In his shivering misery he had forgotten to be hungry, but now that he was so close to relieving his other bodily discomforts, he thought it would be ecstasy to have a snack before bed.

He thought it would be ecstasy to have a snack before bed.

What’s the soup?” he asked, looking around for a rag he could use to lift the lid on the stew pot at his feet.

Eel and leek,” Ragnhild said. “But, sir…”

Aye, Hilda, aye, I’m home, I’m home, I know, I know.”

He pulled a goblet down from the shelf and took a whiff of the pitcher on the table before filling the cup with ale.

But, sir, I’m only wanting to tell you—”

'But, sir, I'm only wanting to tell you--'

A shout and a riot of laughter went round the tavern, and Cearball groaned, anxious to be gone. “Cannot it wait until tomorrow?”

He stuffed a chunk of cheese into his pocket and tucked a loaf beneath his arm.

You know I never discuss business on a Sunday. Bring up half of one of those chickens when they’re cooked, will you kindly, darling?”

He took a candle out of the chest and lit it on the chandelier.

But, Cearball, sir!”

Cearball grabbed his goblet and gave Ragnhild a peck on the cheek as he went by.

You’re a love, Hilda, but you had better not be trying to tell me the rats have chewed my boots again. I don’t keep cats because I have a surfeit of cream.”

'I don't keep cats because I have a surfeit of cream.'

That ain’t what I’m trying to tell you!”

Hilda.” He sighed and tipped his head back until he could just see her out of the corner of his eye. “Is what you are trying to tell me likely to be just as true tomorrow?”

Pfft!” Ragnhild turned her broad back on him and waddled over to her fire. “Knowing you, ’tis. Good night, you good-​for-​nothing. A thousand welcomes to you.”

Cearball gave her a last grin and tiptoed up the stairs, trying to keep an eye on both the dripping candle and the sloshing goblet, while still not tarrying so long that his disappearing feet would be seen from the tavern.

He was glad to find the door cracked open at the top, doubtlessly to give entry to the cats, and he squeaked his way through with his shoulder and pushed it closed with his heel.

Home. He set his bread and his cup on a table and lit the candle closest to the door.

He lit the candle closest to the door.

The twin points of light danced in the drafts. Tall shadows wavered across the room; and closer by, the starkly lit objects that cast them menaced him with their steely edges. Even a rumpled blanket on the floor appeared jagged, sharp as broken shale.

This was his room seen without the flattering fog of drunkenness and devil-​may-​care.

This, too, was his lonely life to date: shabby opulence, dirt and disorder, and an heirloom ivory crucifix brooding over scenes of sin. He saw now he could not have brought Condal into such a life, any more than he would have brought her to this inn.

The heat from the kitchen below took the edge off the February chill, but he decided to light a kindling fire on the hearth. Now that his comfort was assured, delaying it was an anticipatory pleasure of its own. He envisioned himself wrapped in a robe, sitting cross-​legged before the fire with a plate of chicken on his knee, a cup of good ale at his side, and his poor feet snug in a pair of warm, woolen socks—assuming he could find any that were clean.

Once the sticks were crackling, he took a deep breath and stood.

Once the sticks were crackling, he took a deep breath and stood. His room was so dank with the odors of mildew, onions, and kitchen grease that the smoke seemed clean in comparison. And worse: tendrils of women’s perfume met his nose in certain drafts, still bitingly fresh, though two months had passed since he had last brought a woman here.

The guttering candle made Christ appear to shake his heavy head mournfully upon the Cross. Cearball crossed himself and swore—as he had before Condal, as he had before Malcolm’s mother, as he had many times on his knees before God—that things would be different henceforth.

At last, having buckled it on in Dun Droma that morning, Cearball hung his sword on its bracket and took off his belt. He tipped back his head and stretched in feline ecstasy to feel that weight lifted from his hips.

He tipped back his head and stretched in feline ecstasy.

Hook by hook he opened his coat, savoring his weariness, wondering how he could make it last. After he took off his shirt, he would untie his hair and comb out the snarls. That would take a while. Perhaps Ragnhild would have brought the chicken by then.

Then he would take off his boots, and then his pants, and at last—his socks! His poor feet, clammy and waterlogged since Dun Droma that morning, were the very embodiment of all his bodily misery. He liked to save his feet for last.

He hung up his coat and scratched himself through his tunic, remembering the last time he had been interrupted while nursing his feet. He had come to look on Maire as a lesson, sent to him by God. He had narrowly missed losing everything because of her, but her smutty passage through his life had made his newly-​kindled love for Condal shine like a lodestar.

In fervent oaths he had promised himself, Malcolm’s mother, and God that Maire was the last woman besides Condal he would ever take to his bed.

And with his back safely turned to the crucifix he muttered, “Fuck the women, after all.”

A voice from his bed crooned, “That’s what you do so well, after all.”

Sweet Jesus!” Cearball reached for the sword whose phantom weight he still felt on his hip, and finding nothing there he drew his knife. His hair stood so stiffly on end that even his beard prickled.

She laughed and tossed off the blankets. “Ach, Cearball!”

'Ach, Cearball!'


You didn’t even know I was in there! I should have waited till you stripped.”

Cearball sheathed his knife. This was what Ragnhild had tried to tell him! He would never be short with her again.

'What are you doing in my room?'

What are you doing in my room?”

Morvel lifted her arms and trotted across the room to embrace him. “Waiting for you, love. Ach, Cearball!”

Cearball shielded himself with his elbow and stepped back. “How did you even know I was home? Cynan never left my side, and I came directly here!”

I was at the castle when you were announced, silly boy. I wanted to surprise you.”

'I wanted to surprise you.'

She tried to stroke his face, and Cearball jerked his head away. “You haven’t even seen your son!”

Ach! I shall see him tomorrow. Cearball, forgive me, lover. I didn’t mean to startle you. You weren’t doing anything you ought to have minded me seeing.” She laughed. “Except the praying part, perhaps. But you were too gorgeous there, before the fire.”

She slipped a hand into the armhole of his tunic and tried to straighten him before her. Cearball leaned his head away.

Let me look at you at last,” she said, her words softening to whispers. “My God, how I missed you!”

'My God, how I missed you!'

What now? He had hoped he would at least have had a good night’s sleep behind him before he had to deal with this. And his poor feet!

Please, Morvel, not tonight. It’s dead on my feet I am.”

He managed to turn away from her, but Morvel only pressed herself up against his back. He felt her soft breasts flattening against his shoulder, and… nothing more. Was his love for Condal so pure that it had cured of him of his lust for this sort of woman?

Morvel only pressed herself up against his back.

Come to bed and be getting off of them, silly boy. Let me be rubbing the kinks out of you.”

She tried to wrap her arms around him and lay her head on his shoulder, but Cearball twisted away.

Cearball twisted away.

I mean it. Not tonight.”

Like a purring, persistent cat, Morvel sauntered back to stroke herself against him. “Only let me lie down beside you, love. Let me watch you sleep. I’ve missed you so. Haven’t you missed me?” She ran her fingers lightly down his back, and her breath was hot on his neck. “Oh, but there have been other women I suppose…”

'Oh, but there have been other women I suppose...'

And what about you? You’ve had two months. Don’t be telling me there haven’t been other men.”

There haven’t.” She stabbed a single finger into his back and dragged it up between his shoulder blades. “But I forgive you, love. I know it’s different for men. I know how it is…”

'I know how it is...'

She stepped around him, sliding her hand around his waist and down his belly towards his groin. A throb of desire startled him more than her touch. His body had remembered what she could do with that hand: stroke him to higher and higher peaks and stop him each time at the brink, until he was sweaty and shaking and helpless beneath her, almost blind with need.

She whispered, “But now we’re together again…”

Cearball shoved her off and fled farther into the room. “I said not tonight, and I meant it, Morvel.”

'I said not tonight.'

His voice was shaking, and he was beginning to sweat. It was Maire all over again: not a lesson, this time, but a test. He took his coat back down from its peg and shoved his arm into the sleeve.

No right were you having to come into my room when I was away. No right!”

What does not love permit?” she asked softly. “Or is that love no more?”

I never—”

Cearball pulled the other sleeve up his arm and started closing the front of his coat, skipping every other hook in his haste.

You never loved me?” she suggested.

'You never loved me?'

No, I never—”

He had never told her he loved her. Or had he? He must have at least called her his love, his dear, his darling. The words had always come easily to him before he had learned what they meant.

I never told you you could come here alone. What if anyone saw you?”

I wore a veil.”

Cearball buckled his sword belt around his waist. “Even so! It’s foolish! It’s idiocy! What if Cynan finds out? What if Gruffydd does?”

Ach! Now you’re remembering I have a husband!”

I’d never quite forgotten,” he muttered. He slid his sword back into its scabbard, and found the courage to face her with its familiar weight lying on his hip. “I’m thinking we shouldn’t do this anymore.”

Morvel gasped. “What?”


’Tisn’t worth it, Morvel.”

Our love isn’t worth it to you? What’s happened to you? Whenever you’re returning to Dublin, the first thing on your mind is always finding your way to me! What happened out there?”

Nothing happened out there! Let me by!”

Where are you going? What are you trying to tell me?”

I’m trying to tell you goodbye! Now let me pass, please.”

Goodbye what? Goodbye forever?”

Goodbye goodbye!”

'Goodbye goodbye!'

Look me in the eyes and say it! Look me in the eyes and say ‘Goodbye goodbye!’”

Cearball stooped to her height to look her in the eyes, but he shouted, “Get out of my way!”

Morvel shied away from him, and Cearball slipped past her.

Where are you going?” she asked. Her voice broke into a sob.

'Where are you going?'

To Two Ladies! Mayhap Murchad will give me leave to sleep!”

You can’t go there tonight! Cearball, stay, please! Talk to me! You’ll never get a ferry this late!”

Then I shall swim!”

'Then I shall swim!'