Catan hears a voice

December 20, 1084

Catan and Flann were the last to arrive in the hall.

Catan and Flann were the last to arrive in the hall, but the entire household appeared to have been roused from sleep.

Maire was there in her nightgown, standing near the wall with her hands on her hips and her head high. Aengus was nearly naked, awoken for some crisis too urgent even to allow him to pull on a pair of leggings, and his young squire Domnall stood by him in a similar state of undress. Even the maids whispering in the shadowy screened passage beyond the hall were hoary ghosts in their nightgowns.

Only the two guards were fully dressed, and the dark leather and glinting rings of their armor made everyone else seem frail and childlike in their linen underclothes and their bare feet.

The naked skin of Aengus and Domnall also served as a pale backdrop for the one person who was not of the household. The girl wore a heavy, golden-​ochre gown with a filthy hem, at once rich and bedraggled. She was sobbing now, but Catan supposed it was her screams they had heard.

The woman wore a heavy, golden-ochre gown.

Nevertheless, Cat was surprised to find no one else in the hall. Her head was roiling with fever, the hair stood up on her arms and shoulders, and her legs had nearly buckled under her as she and her sister came down the stairs. Though she had never felt quite well in all the weeks since her attack, she had only felt such turmoil once.

She was so surprised to find only the sobbing girl here that she was oddly unmoved by the strange scene. After a moment, however, she realized that the girl’s sobs were not merely incoherent but in a foreign language. She saw also that her belly was slightly swollen beneath her golden gown, as if she were in the early months of a pregnancy. Cat thought briefly of Aengus’s elf before remembering that she should have been nearly due to bear her child by now.

Then she understood.

Flann, who had never been told about Aengus’s elf, did not. “Maire?” she called softly.


Maire did not even turn her head.

Catan turned to her sister and began whispering to quiet her, though not to explain. She only managed a few words before she felt a burning nausea, as if she were about to vomit fire.

She felt a burning nausea.

She was still reeling from this when she heard the great door creak open beyond the hall. She did not feel the gust of cold winter air she craved, but a blast of scorching heat. The guard had opened the door of Hell. Cat stared at Flann’s anxious face, astonished that her sister’s flesh had not melted from her skull.

Then the guards and all the maids began chattering like a flock of startled birds, and the word she heard over and over was not “fire” but “elf”.

When she turned to look, he was already in the hall. He seemed to be staring at her, and she had to remind herself that he was blind. She did not know whether he even knew she was in the manor.

When she turned to look, he was already in the hall.

They all scattered away from him except for Aengus and the girl, though the girl began squealing in terror and clung to Aengus as she had not before. When Aengus at last noticed the cause of her new fright, he gasped, “Please! Can you help?”

“I came to help.”

Cat had not heard his voice in many months. The calm assurance of it now was like a cool breeze on her face. He had spoken so to her when he had healed her finger. Then that voice had been enough to make her trust him, a gentle stranger, even with a knife. Now she wanted that voice to go on talking and talking until it had quite cooled the fever in her.

She wanted that voice to go on talking and talking.

She realized she had taken a step towards him only when she felt Flann’s hands on her shoulders, holding her back. Then she shuddered in horror and fell back into her sister’s arms.

“Help her!” Aengus pleaded. “Do you know what she’s saying? I can’t understand.”

The girl fell to her knees at the elf’s feet, and it seemed to Cat it took him some time merely to convince her that he was not there to harm her, before she would begin to tell her tale.

The girl fell to her knees at the elf's feet.

After a while, the elf began interrupting the strange, rippling cadence of their language to speak to Aengus. He said that the girl had borne her baby only a few hours before, but it had been stolen by elves. He said that it had been a boy, and though he had been careful not to mention the father, still Maire stiffened as if she had been struck by an arrow—Maire, who had borne Aengus four daughters.

Aengus was squirming with anxiety.

Aengus was squirming with anxiety, and he never looked at Maire, but between him, the elf, and Domnall, they were already planning to go out in search of the baby. Aengus and Domnall soon left him to go up to dress.

As they passed, Aengus’s hand closed over Cat’s arm in a tight grip. “Take care of her when I’m gone,” he whispered to her in Gaelic. He did not look her in the eyes, and something desperate in the voice, the words, or the gesture—or perhaps simply in her own knowledge of how savage elves could be—made her understand that he feared he would not return.

Once they had gone, the elf pulled the girl to her feet and continued talking to her.

Once they had gone, the elf pulled the girl to her feet and continued talking to her.

That calm, almost lordly assurance was still in his voice, but Catan realized with a strange thrill that there was none of the gentleness in it that she had heard when he had asked her in the past, “Are you hurt?”

She remembered their every conversation in exquisite detail, and she remembered that voice. Even after shouting at her and mocking her and calling Wulf and Gils and Duncan monsters, he had spoken with that gentleness when he had guessed her hand was hurt on that dreadful summer’s day. Sometimes she thought that caressing question had been the only thing that had kept her love for him alive.

She wanted to hear him speak it again.

She wanted to hear him speak it again, and she took a step towards him before Flann pulled her back into the corner.

Soon afterwards, he left off talking to the girl, who sank to her knees again and sobbed softly. She was, at least, no longer hysterical.

The elf stood by the fire for a while, but then he abruptly turned and began a slow progress across the hall, feeling his way between the benches and chairs. He walked so slowly that it seemed aimless wandering, but it was clear he was coming to her.

Cat was nearly doubled over with a searing nausea.

Cat was nearly doubled over with a searing nausea. She did not know whether his approach was the cause or the cure. She did not know whether she wanted him or hated him.

“Halt!” Maire snarled. “Stay away from her.”

The elf stopped. He turned his blind face towards Cat as precisely as if he could see her. She was stunned. From halfway across the room, he could find her even if she did not make a sound.

He did not speak.

He did not speak, and Cat did not know what to say. Language was a thicket of unmeaning. She knew no words to express what she was feeling, and so she could not make him understand. She felt Flann’s fingers plucking at her sleeve, trying to coax her back into the corner. She could not find the words.

Then Aengus and Domnall returned. The elf did not turn his face to her again, and, in a whirl of unimportant words and a brief kiss from Aengus to Maire, they were gone.

When the great door had closed again, Maire let out a moan and came stumbling towards the sisters, bent over double like Cat and feeling her way between the chairs like the elf.

Maire let out a moan and came stumbling towards the sisters.

“Come back,” Cat whispered.

Flann’s hands danced between them as if she was afraid to touch her sister. “Cat?”

“Come back…”

The elf girl continued her soft crying on the floor before the fire, and Maire muttered in Gaelic, “Take care of her, Flann. I shall take Cat up to bed.”

It was too late. He had gone out to help her cousin find his half-​elf child, and she feared she would not see him again. She knew how savage elves could be. It was too late to tell him what she wanted to tell him—too late even to tell him to wait until she could find the words.

But it was not too late to help the elf Lena.

“I shall take care of her, Maire,” she murmured. “You go up to bed.”

'I shall take care of her, Maire.'