“Malcolm!” Maire cried, nearly in a sob. “Praise God!”

Malcolm had at least the advantage of not being surprised, as well as the momentum that had carried him through the door and would permit him to cross the room, swaggering in spite of his limp.

'The devil take me if that's not the first time you're saying those three words together.'

“The devil take me if that’s not the first time you’re saying those three words together,” he muttered.

“Malcolm!” Catan echoed. “Is my father here?”

“Only Colban and my own self,” Malcolm replied. “And what are you having here, Maire?” he asked, coldly sneering. “I see we’re not the first unexpected guests of the day.”

'And what are you having here?'

Eithne had risen upon his arrival and taken a few tottering steps forward, limping more than he. Nevertheless, she stood squinting up her face and cringing as if she expected blows.

It was an insult to his honor.

It was a craven, submissive attitude that angered Malcolm more than outrage or defiance, in part because it was an insult to his honor. Malcolm did not hit women. Maire could have told her so—the Lord knew she had tested him often enough to know.

While Malcolm stood glaring at her, Colban stepped forth to throw his arms around his quaking cousin.

Colban stepped forth to throw his arms around his quaking cousin.

“Eithne! It’s thrice glad we are to find you safe!”

“Cousin!” she gasped, stiffening in surprise, as if she thought his hearty squeeze was only meant to punish her by cracking her ribs.

But she knew Colban, and after a moment she relaxed and hugged him in return.

Where Colban loved, he did not ask questions. It was not how Malcolm loved, and it was not how Maud had loved, but Malcolm knew where Colban had learned it: it was how Sigefrith had loved him for so many years.

His father knew where he had learned it.

“Aye,” Malcolm growled, “safe and snug. God grant we may say the same of your father and your brothers and all your cousins on this night, when the wind begins to howl.”

Colban stepped away, and Eithne ducked her head again.

“What about my father?” Flann asked.

'What about my father?'

“It’s far from home he’s riding,” Malcolm barked, “into the Highlands, where the frost already falls!”

Eithne twitched as if she had been struck, though Malcolm was not even addressing her. He turned on her in fury then—he would give her a reason to cringe.

He turned on her in fury then.

“Were you never thinking of that?” he demanded. “Married! And the father of you fearing you’d been stolen! His ‘pretty, simple-​hearted girl,’ says he! Leaving her shutters open to all and sundry and the winter gale! Aye, now we know why! Harlot!”

“Malcolm…” Maire murmured.


That infuriated him beyond any power of Eithne’s to infuriate him. “You! Shut the puling maw of you!”

Maire choked and stepped back to Eithne’s side.

Malcolm slipped his long knife halfway out of his kilt and pressed the flat of the blade against his stomach where Eithne could see it shine.

“Where is the man?” he asked. “This is the one chance you’ll be granted to tell me he stole you away against your will, to save your father’s pride of you; and the one chance you’ll have to be avenged.”

'Where is the man?'

Eithne balled up her hands and pressed them against her mouth in whimpering anguish. A cat squirmed free of white-​faced little Aileann’s arms and trotted up to mew at the hem of Eithne’s gown until Egelric slipped his foot beneath its belly and tossed it away.

Egelric slipped his foot beneath its belly and tossed it away.

Malcolm slid his knife back into its sheath. “If you’re telling me you love him—or even if you’re not saying a word,” he warned, “though the devil himself come snapping at your heels, I lock my door to you forever.”

“She’s a married wife!” Catan cried. “She’s not what you’re saying she is!”

'She's a married wife!'

“She ran off to be married,” Malcolm shouted over Eithne’s shoulder, “and never minding what she left behind! The father of her, bleeding his heart out! And your sister—Connie! Aye!” he crowed when he saw the name had made Eithne sob. “Swearing she saw you in a dream, lying mid the Highland thorns! Raped and battered and bloody, aye! With the throat of you laid open like mac Crinan’s!”

'With the throat of you laid open like mac Crinan's!'

“Malcolm!” Maire snarled.

“Ach! If she can leave her sister such a dream as a parting gift, she can bear to hear it told, I’m thinking!”

“No!” Flann leapt at him, thrusting Egelric aside as brusquely as Egelric had tossed away the cat. “I think not! No! Not before Cat! Not before Maire’s girls! You man!” she sneered. “It’s certain I am you’ve been chewing on that line for days, waiting for your chance to spit it in her face!”

'I think not!'

“Chewing on that line?” he howled. “It’s staring at that sight I’ve been, behind my eyes! I’ve looked beneath every briar and thorn from here to Scotland, against the chance that Connie was meaning to dream southward, and fearing what I would find! Woman!

“And to show your joy at finding her alive, you call her a harlot!”

'And to show your joy at finding her alive, you call her a harlot!'

“No joy shall I have until I may be telling the poor father of her! And Gorman, and Connie, and the girls! And God grant he come home at all from that savage country!”

Eithne choked and sobbed again. Malcolm took a step to the side so that he could shout at her past Flann. “Aye, you weren’t thinking of that, were you now? What will you be saying to your sisters if it’s because of your folly their father never returns?”

'Aye, you weren't thinking of that, were you now?'

“Malcolm!” Maire wailed. By the time he felt the hand she laid on his arm, he had already reflexively knocked it aside.

“Running off!” he accused the girl. “Never telling a soul where you were going, or what you were doing, or when you would return! And never minding if they cried! And never minding if they feared!”

This time he could not swat away the hand that grabbed a fistful of his sleeve.

This time he could not swat away the hand that grabbed a fistful of his sleeve.

“You dare!” Maire snarled. “When it was what you did to me!”

Malcolm drew back his head, startled. “That was nothing like,” he said shakily. “I am a man.”

“You were my husband!”

'You were my husband!'

“Ah ah ah!” he smiled and shook a finger at her. “Your father disagrees. Either I was and am, or am not and never was.”

“It’s the way of them!” Flann cried before Maire had a chance to answer. “What crimes will they not forgive themselves in their name of men? And what—what sins will they not be finding in a fond heart,” she sobbed, “only because it belongs to a woman!

'And what--what sins will they not be finding in a fond heart?'

Malcolm yanked his arm free of Maire’s clutching hand and turned to Flann. “It is the way of you, young mother! Where is the husband of you hiding?”

It was an unanswerable question, but Flann spoiled his victory by letting it drop. She wrapped her arms around Eithne’s shaking shoulders and cried, “God bless her! No sin is on her! She would not lie with the man ere he married her!”

Malcolm attempted to glare at Maire, to try to get some sort of reply out of her, but she had turned away. Catan had risen, and she and Flann were leading their sobbing, shivering little sister away, followed by Maire, her daughters, and the small black cat.

Malcolm attempted to glare at Maire.

“Come along with us, darling,” Flann soothed. “If your Cian is no better than that man, you’re well rid of him, I’m thinking.”

“And if he is better, then he shall surely return,” Maire added.

“And my door is open to you forever!” Flann cried, just as she slammed the hall door behind her, shutting away all the women from all the men.

Paul stared forlornly at the door for a moment before looking up at Egelric and Malcolm. It seemed unlikely he had understood a word, but he appeared to disagree with whatever Malcolm had said.

Malcolm thought it unlikely he had understood a word.

Meanwhile Domnall and Colban were silent and blushing with the self-​consciousness of young boys before passionate adults.

And Egelric, Malcolm slowly realized, was chuckling softly to himself.

Egelric, Malcolm slowly realized, was chuckling softly to himself.

“What are you cackling at, you old biddy?”

Malcolm swung himself down to spit into the fire, but Egelric’s heavy hand fell on his shoulder as he stood again.

“Never mind, Malcolm. You can always say they had you outnumbered.”

'You can always say they had you outnumbered.'

“The devil!” Malcolm kicked the leg of Eithne’s chair, knocking it back against the bench. “Just the sort of women I can’t stand! And three of them!”

“What sort of woman?”

That sort! The jumping, snapping, biting, barking sort! Give me a nice, quiet little woman… give me a nice, quiet little woman for ten of that sort! The devil take them!”

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head briskly, like a sheepdog.

'The devil take them!'

“Malcolm…” Egelric sighed.


“That is the only sort you have ever liked.”

“What? Bitches?” He laughed grimly until he noticed that Egelric was not laughing, but only shaking his head slowly, like an owl.

Egelric did not answer at all, but his eyebrows spoke eloquently for him—and did not even do him the indignity of looking like caterpillars.

His eyebrows spoke eloquently for him.