Ráth an Bheirt Bhan, Leinster, Ireland

On the surface Murchad's dream seemed much like the sort he often had.

On the surface Murchad’s dream seemed much like the sort he often had. He was naked and shame-​​faced in a public place, and aside from forgetting his pants, he knew he had done something terribly wrong and dreaded being discovered. Eirik was there, too: ever a sure sign of his imminent humiliation in life as well as dreams.

But this time Eirik had not come merely to make Murchad feel foolish before his father or his uncle or his friends. Murchad had not merely failed to keep a promise or forgotten to perform a task, and he was not standing in some mere shifting patchwork proscenium dreamt up from bits of his father’s hall and Enna’s and Sigefrith’s. Nor was he merely naked.

Nor was he merely naked.

No. He was wearing a little fig-​​leaf apron, which was arguably more embarrassing than nudity. He was standing in a garden he had never seen. His dread secret was the commission of the one act absolutely forbidden him. And Eirik was the Lord God.

Somehow Murchad had gotten himself into Adam’s fix, but Murchad-​​like he had managed to make a still more catastrophic mess of things: he was not even married to Eve.

Murchad had surpassed Adam's folly and tasted them both.

It was Sigrid who stood at his side, wearing nothing but a tattered belt of leaves she was hurriedly trying to smooth flat over her thighs. Her giggling mouth was still damp and sticky from his hungry kisses. Her bare nipples were hard and pink and still shining-​​wet, plucked only a moment before from Murchad’s mouth.

There were two forbidden fruits in the Garden of Eden, and Murchad had surpassed Adam’s folly and tasted them both.

Still, he sensed that one was more forbidden than the other, and like Adam he might yet escape with his manhood if he could convince Eirik he had only committed the lesser crime.

One had been sweet like apples and the other like pears, but what did that tell a man? And why had they to look so much the same? And would Sigrid never stop giggling and let him think?



So many things were not as they should have been that it took Murchad a long, breathless moment to understand what was happening to him: why he was sleeping fully clothed on the bench in the hall instead of naked in his own cozy bed… why Sigrid was in his house, and why she was dressed as his maid… and why she was holding a baby he was certain he had not had time to sire…

Why was she holding a baby?

The baby!

He sat up in a rumple of plaid wool.

“Sweet Jesus!” he whispered. “She did it again! I mean I did it again! Is it all over already?”

'Is it all over already?'

Sigrid hefted the baby away from her breast. “What does this look like to you?”

“No, I mean – ”

He stopped his tongue before it blundered into mentioning twins. Of course the odds had been against it, enormous though Synne had grown… and anyway, he decided, it was rather a relief there was only one: what he recalled best of the babyhood of his own twin brothers was each trying to out-​​scream the other.

“I mean, I never heard her crying out?” he concluded weakly.

Sigrid snorted. “Your wife’s more of a moaner than a screamer, skipper. As… you… ought to know,” she added with an Eirik-​​like grin.

Murchad leapt straight up from the bench and hastened to fuss over his new baby, as was only proper, and which easily justified his idiotic smile.

It easily justified his idiotic smile.

He patted gingerly at the tiny head and limbs, but he was too shy to take the baby and risk brushing the back of his hand over Sigrid’s breast – the left one, he could not help but notice. Had that been the apple or the pear?

“Which is it, then?” he quavered. “Boy or girl, I mean,” he added hastily, lest she think of fruits.

But why would she think of fruits?

She tipped the baby up into the light. “Guess!”

“Ach, no, Sigi!” he moaned. “I’m certain to be wrong, and you’ll tell Synn…”

'I shall tell everyone.'

“I shall tell everyone,” she chirped. “Now guess.”

At last she held the baby far enough away from her body that Murchad was able to scoop it up. The little one’s squinty eyes widened in surprise as its head slid into Murchad’s palm, but it fit so neatly the baby found no reason to cry. Instead, it laid its fist against its curved cheek and pursed its pretty lips with such feminine coyness that Murchad was certain it was a boy.

“A son!” he guessed.

“Your first-​​born daughter!” Sigrid corrected.

'Your first-born daughter!'

“A girl!” Murchad giggled. “I knew it! I knew it!”

Sigrid groaned. “Then why did you say a boy, you big looby?”

“Because I was certain to be wrong! But secretly I was right! Doesn’t she look just like a girl?”

Sigrid laughed – at his foolishness, he thought, but at that moment he did not care.

“My mother’s first granddaughter!” he gasped. He shuffled his feet and cleared his throat and tried to compose himself into sufficient dignity to proclaim: “And in my mother’s honor Orlaith shall be the name of her… but fancy that!” he grinned. “She always was Mother’s first granddaughter! Ever since – ” He paused to lift the baby onto his shoulder to free one of his hands. “ – the instant I made her!”

He snapped the fingers of his free hand in honor of that long-​​past but fondly-​​remembered instant, making Sigrid giggle, and the baby start and snuffle in an attempt to turn her eyes towards this unusual sound.

The baby started and snuffled in an attempt to turn her eyes towards this unusual sound.

“She always was Orlaith!” he said. “Fancy that! We simply didn’t know it yet! But you were knowing it, weren’t you my little love?” he crooned into the baby’s magnificently whorled and deliciously lobed little ear. “You always were knowing you were your own self,” he gabbled, “for who else could you be?”

Sigrid smiled and gave his belly an affectionate and indulgent pat. 

Sigrid smiled and gave his belly an affectionate and indulgent pat.

“Mayhap she wasn’t making up her mind to be Orlaith till the last – ” She snapped the fingers of both hands, almost precisely at the same time. “ – instants.”

“I don’t know,” Murchad mused, “I suppose the babies always are what they are even before they’re born. No matter how early they come they’re always a boy or a girl, aren’t they?”

Sigrid stepped back and nodded gravely. Murchad had the old familiar sense that he had just said something wrong.

Sigrid stepped back and nodded gravely.

As he tried to guess what it might have been, he realized that there were a number of things that could have been going very, very wrong at that very, very moment. And all the while he had been congratulating himself over the feat of fathering this pretty little child – an exploit that had taken little more than the instant his snapping fingers had signified when measured against the nine months’ travail of his poor wife. And he had even slept through her labor!

“Ach, Sigi,” he whimpered, “but how’s Synn?”

“She is perfectly well,” Sigrid assured him. “It takes more than a mere six pounds of baby to wear out your wife. Now you just hold that little girl for a few minutes while we get her freshened up and ready to receive you both…”

'Now you just hold that little girl for a few minutes.'

She had already snuck past him, and Murchad had not guessed what was wrong. He moved to catch her arm, but the memory of her nudity paralyzed him. How had he managed to imagine it in such perfect detail?

He snorted and shook his head dazedly like a man just coming out of sleep. Just what in the devil’s name had made him think he had?

“And don’t let her wear you out!” Sigrid advised as she turned away.

“Sigi, wait!” he pleaded. “How are you, then, a mhuirnin?

Sigrid dragged her hand along the top of the mantel as she walked, until she reached the end, and her arm fell. He saw her glance at her palm and wipe it on her borrowed skirt. His real maids had not done their jobs.

“Sig?” he called softly. The baby was beginning to squirm and fuss, and he bounced her awkwardly.

The baby was beginning to squirm and fuss.

“I’m fine,” Sigrid said.

Murchad knew well by now that a woman who called herself “fine” never was. He also knew that a “fine” woman who walked out on a man was certain to return before long, to say out-​​loud all the things she had expected him to guess with her “fine”.

But Sigrid was not quite like other women.

But Sigrid was not quite like other women, he thought worriedly. Sigrid could sneak into a den of pirates with a knife hidden between her legs to free her condemned husband. Sigrid could make a killer like Skorri Snake-​​Tongue fumble with his hands and blush like a boy. Sigrid could silence Aed’s blubbering with a look. Sigrid could make Cearball cry.

Therefore Murchad was rather relieved when Sigrid proved her ordinary, petulant womanhood by walking back into the room almost before the echo of her “fine” had died out of his ears.

Then he saw what she was carrying in.

Sigrid proved her ordinary, petulant womanhood by walking back into the room.

“I forgot to mention something,” she chirped.

Murchad wailed, “Sweet Jesus and Mary! Twins!” He stomped his foot petulantly. “I knew it!”

“Then why didn’t you say anything, you big looby!” she groaned. “How many hints did I give you?”

“How many pounds of baby does that make?” Murchad asked in wonder.

'How many pounds of baby does that make?'

“Enough to wear out your wife, skipper. You may have to butter your own toast for at least the first half of breakfast!”

Murchad laughed aloud out of glee and love and pride.

Sigrid bowed like a serving-​​man and offered the baby out on her arm. “Your second-​​born daughter, sir.”

“Wait, I can’t hold two babies at once!” Murchad whinnied.

“You had better learn!”

“I shall practice later with Aed and the cat. Wait – ”

“I hope you first get the approval of the cat!” Sigrid laughed.

Murchad bent over the bench – and how strange and how familiar it felt to once again hold a tiny newborn against his chest with one arm! – and pushed the rumpled blankets out of the way to make room for his eldest baby girl.

“I wish I asked my father how he did it,” Murchad confessed breathlessly as he laid her down. “I never thought I would have twins someday.”

'I wish I asked my father how he did it.'

“How did you do it, if you don’t even know?” Sigrid snickered. “I always supposed they went in the regular way…”

“I mean hold twins!” Murchad gasped. “Sweet Jesus!”

Somehow the simple presence of Sigrid in the room made him foolish and almost dizzy. He had been quite calm in the minute she had stepped out, but now…

“I imagine your father simply stashed them both in his beard,” she mused as she pulled up his hands, one after the other, into baby-​​holding position. Murchad obediently let her pull and prod and finally deposit his youngest baby girl into his open palms.

Murchad obediently let her pull and prod and finally deposit his youngest baby girl into his open palms.

Murchad held his breath and tried to look important, for his second daughter was clearly sizing him up. After a brief but serious inspection, she abruptly turned saucy enough to pinch her own fat cheek and stick out her tongue at him.

At the same instant, another hand playfully pinched Murchad’s scruffy chin, startling him into a pounding-​​heart panic. It was Sigrid, touching his face again.

It was Sigrid, touching his face again.

“Should have thought of that, skipper,” she chortled. “But you’ll have a chance to get ready for next time. After that experience I don’t think Synne will let you anywhere near her for at least a little beard-​​growing while.”

“Not until at least after breakfast,” Murchad joked feebly.

“Perhaps not even before supper,” Sigrid said.

'Perhaps not even before supper.'

She paused, awaiting perhaps a laugh, perhaps something else, but Murchad only ventured a grunt. As was only proper, he turned his eyes to his daughter alone.

Still, even as he studied her rosy, elfin little features – even when he closed his eyes to try to stop the spinning of his head – he was mysteriously aware of Sigrid’s pale face hovering beside him like a low moon, haggard in the light of the smoldering fire: the elder sister, tonight old.

Finally he drew his courage together and looked directly at her.

Finally he drew his courage together and looked directly at her.

She was not looking at him, as he had imagined. She was merely making silly faces at his baby. Merely. She whose babies were far away and perhaps in mortal danger. She whose coming child lay perhaps dead in her womb, whatever Murchad’s stupid dog had to say about it.

Murchad was abruptly angry. He was angry at the fire for making such cragged hollows of what he knew to be a pretty face. He was angry at Whitehand and his savages for drawing her into danger. He was angry at Eirik for making her lead the hard life he led. He was angry at the Lord God.

“Now you take good care of Papa,” she was babbling, “and don’t play any mean tricks on him while I’m gone. I know you two will be up to no good the instant I have my back turned.” She snapped the fingers of both hands.

“Sigi…” Murchad whispered.

“I’m turning my ba-​​a-​​ack,” she cooed.

'I'm turning my ba-a-ack.'

Murchad swallowed. Sigrid would make him cry.

“I’m turn-​​ing!” she sang softly as she danced on tiptoes towards the door.

Murchad was too shy to do anything but watch her go. The door closed, and he stared at the door, too, because Sigrid had closed it.

Then his first daughter whimpered from the bench, reminding him what he was doing there. He turned and knelt beside it, jerkily and carefully, because he was cradling his second daughter’s head and back in his two hands.

'Well, I don't know what to do about that, girls.'

“Well, I don’t know what to do about that, girls,” he confessed in a shaky whisper. “Except take care of you two.”

He lay the one beside the other, and as their bodies nestled together they both stopped squirming and mewling and settled into a rapt peace.

They both stopped squirming and mewling and settled into a rapt peace.

“Your Mama doesn’t remember her Da at all,” he murmured, “and that’s probably just as well, since Auntie Sigi has some memories that she would rather be forgetting. But I want you sisters to know what a father’s love is. And all the men who will be trying to love you hereafter, they’ll have to measure up to that. And if some man tries to trick you, you shall say, ‘No, sir, I don’t know what that is you’re promising me, but it isn’t love.’”

The girl on the right watched him gravely.

The girl on the right watched him gravely, but the girl on the left stared dreamily into the fire through the narrow gap between her sister’s fat cheeks and round breast. Murchad wondered whether this was a sign of things to come, and he was afraid. For both of them.

He was afraid.

He cupped his hands over their fuzzy heads and whispered, “Your father’s seven blessings on you, sisters.”

He kissed their fat cheeks with great care, on account of his beard, and then lifted a hand of each of them to kiss and kiss with great abandon. He had forgotten how intoxicating was the scent of new babies; their ephemeral perfume so unmanned him that he supposed it struck straight down into his deepest memories, to a time when he had lain sighing in infant beatitude on his mother’s breast or father’s beard, and the baby he had smelled was his own self.

“Can you babies believe I was ever as small as you?” he squeaked.

“You men grow big, all right,” Sigrid drawled, “but you never do grow up.”

'You men grow big, all right.'

“Ach, Sigi!” He smiled foolishly. “Don’t be sneaking up on a man!”

“And catch you wooing not one but two beautiful girls?”

“Don’t tell Synn!”

“Something tells me this love affair of yours is going to be hard to hide, skipper. Come on, now, Synn wants to meet her rivals.”

“Will you kindly carry one?” Murchad asked her. “I haven’t yet arranged matters with the cat…”

“With pleasure,” she curtsied. “I shall leave you the honor of carrying Orlaith. Synn says you wanted to name the other girl Temair.”

Then her eyes narrowed, and she drummed her fingers on her arm.

“Something tells me you knew all along they were going to be twin girls,” she accused. “Synn didn’t even know what you were planning to call the second if it had been a boy.”

'Something tells me you knew all along they were going to be twin girls.'

Murchad smiled sheepishly.

“Did Cúcú tell you?” she asked.

“Sigi…” he said gently. “Cúcú can’t count. He’s a dog.

She tossed back her head and laughed aloud. Murchad grinned at her. He had done that much. It felt good to make her laugh.

“Come on, skipper.” She clapped her hands softly, attracting the attention of both babies. “Now, think this thing through. First pick up Temair and give her to me, and then pick up Orlaith, or you’ll end up in another situation with a chair in front of a table in front of you! I didn’t tell Synn about that incident, by the way,” she confided.

“Bless you, Sigi!”

Murchad stood and bent over his babies – and stuck there.

Oh, sweet Jesus, which one was Orlaith?

Murchad stood and bent over his babies--and stuck.

“You all right, skipper?” Sigrid asked after a moment.

“I’m – fine!” he choked. “I mean – it’s only – I think I hurt my back…”

“Oh, poor boy,” she cooed. “When you fell on your head?”

She was coming at him, and he was panicking. One of the babies was dreamy, and one grave, but what did that tell a man? And why did they have to look so much alike? And Sigrid was running her hand up his spine!

Murchad stood straight up and declared, “That did it!” His heart was pounding, but the hand fell away.

“I shall just pick her up myself,” Sigrid offered. “Or shall I carry both of them?”

“No, no, I can take her,” he panted. “I can take both…”

“Better not risk it, with your back,” Sigrid said. “Which one’s Temair?”

Murchad scooped up the closest baby to his hand. “This one’s Orlaith.”

“Then by process of elimination I name this one Temair!”

'Then by process of elimination I name this one Temair!'

Murchad laughed weakly and prayed God she was right.

“Come along, girls and boy,” Sigrid said. “Mama is expecting us.”

Oh, Synne! Poor Synne! If he had gotten her girls confused in the first five minutes of their lives!

He tried plain masculine reason: Would he not have laid the second one to the right of the first, nearer the edge of the bench? He was certain he had – he remembered explicitly that he had…

And then the baby he held wrinkled her nose wryly, pinched her chin between her chubby finger and thumb, and stuck out her tongue at him.

He was certain he had.