Donnchad lifted the other hand for silence.

Donnchad clasped his unbuckled sword belt against his hip with one hand and lifted the other for silence, though no one had said a word in that frigid room for some time.

Outside a heavy tread of boots crunched through the gravelly patches of the yard and splashed through the puddles, with frequent pauses to kick up an angry spray of stones and water.

Donnchad did not think it was the watch: he had convinced each of two men that the other had decided to take the morning shift, and the court would remain unguarded through the dawn. Moreover, halting as they were, the feet seemed to be headed straight for his own door.

They scuffed to a stop on the mossy flagstones, and a key clanked in the lock. Donnchad held his breath. Only two men could have let themselves into his house with the key, and both of them were named Aed.

Donnchad let out his breath in relief. It was only the younger.

It was only the younger.

Aed stepped in out of the drizzly fog, all damp and awkward and blinking in confusion like a new foal. His shoulders slumped and his sleeves drooped over his hands, reminding Donnchad of the little lad whose mother had always knitted his sweaters a year too big for him.

“You’re already up…”

“Shut the door, lad,” Donnchad sighed.

Aed turned and pulled the door softly closed, but in so doing he saw the saddle bags lined up against the wall.

“You’re going somewhere…”

And when he turned back, he looked past his father and saw Domnall sitting in the glow of the few burning sticks on the hearth, and Domnall’s man on the bench across from him.

“To Lothere,” he concluded.

Donnchad folded his belt and draped it over a stool. “Aed…”

“Has Grandfather changed his mind?”

'Has Grandfather changed his mind?'



Donnchad laid an arm over his son’s stooped shoulders and turned him towards the shadowy far corner of the room.

“Has he ever?” he asked wearily.

Aed made a small snort that he might have meant for wry. Donnchad sent him up the four short stairs ahead of him, into the alcove where the lad had always slept until not so many years ago. At the top, he put his arm around him again and led him to the window, as far from the fire and as far from unhappy Domnall as they could go.

At the top, he put his arm around him again.

“Is it to Lothere you’re going?”

“Aye, lad.”

“But Grandfather said – ”

Donnchad turned him around and pushed a lock of wet hair back from his forehead, silencing him as effectively as if he had pressed his fingertips against his lips.

“I know what your grandfather said. He said it again to your uncles and me when we returned. But Maire is still my sister, even if he has no daughter by the name.”

'But Maire is still my sister.'

Aed nodded as if he saw the rightness in this. Then he glanced across the room at Domnall, whose hunched body cast a tall black shadow in the flickering halo of light.

Donnchad had not returned in time to see it, but the shy, submissive boy had been outraged enough to have had the last word – “You have no son named Domnall!” – before he stormed out of the hall. Donnchad feared it would remain the last word forever. Their father was getting old.

Donnchad tapped Aed’s arm and turned his attention back to himself.

Donnchad tapped Aed's arm and turned his attention back to himself.

“Your cousin Aileann hid him in her room,” he explained brusquely. “Now listen to me, Aed. I left a letter for you upstairs on my bed, and another for your uncles. I didn’t want you to catch any of the blame for this. But I’m glad I had the chance to talk to you – to tell you a few things I couldn’t write.”

“But what are you meaning to do?”

“I’m not knowing that yet, lad. I want to see what… to see what,” he sighed. “But meanwhile I don’t want your uncles going to Ramsaa without me. If you find out they’re meaning to go, you stop them, do you hear? Tell your grandfather if you must. I want to learn what happened first.”

'But Domnall said he saw the bruises on her...'

“But Domnall said he saw the bruises on her…”

Donnchad squeezed Aed’s arm until he fell silent – squeezed the way he would have squeezed a wound until it stopped bleeding. Aed’s shadow on the window erased the mirror-​​like reflections of the glass, giving Donnchad a glimpse through to the dark yard outside. In a puddle he saw the lurid purple of a lightening sky.

“Listen to me,” he whispered. “I haven’t time to argue. Right now I’m only thinking of what I can do for your Aunt Maire. We can deal with the man later. He clearly isn’t going anywhere.”

Donnchad squeezed his eyes shut and lifted his fist to his wrinkled forehead, trying to force his own straying thoughts back into line.

“If he had only confessed!” he whispered hoarsely.

He pounded his fist on the damp wood of the window frame, scarcely making a sound, but his frustration was satisfied. He opened his eyes, ready to go on, but found himself staring into the direful face of his son.

He found himself staring into the direful face of his son.

Donnchad realized he had just dropped a seed of hatred into the heart of one of his clan: the only crop that ever flourished in that stony soil. He would have to pluck it out before it took root.

“Nay, lad, he could not,” he murmured. “His king had sent him on a task. He could not be risking strife with us only to ease his conscience.”

Aed frowned.

“Your Uncle Diarmait needs peace now,” Donnchad warned, “not vengeance being taken in his midst.”

'Your Uncle Diarmait needs peace now.'

Aed nodded slightly, convinced.

“Now, you must return home until they find the letter. You’ve not seen me this morning, and you had no idea, and it’s none of your fault. If your grandfather decides he has no son named Donnchad, then don’t let him forget – ”

Aed clutched his arm with fingers that bored into his biceps like talons, but Donnchad kept talking, patient and calm as he had always been through tantrums, through feverish ravings, through spasms of pain.

“Don’t let him forget he has a grandson named Aed. He loves you, lad, even if he never will tell you so. It’s you he wants as his heir.”

Donnchad chuckled fondly and patted his son’s belly. 

“If only so that he can have the wee laddie to succeed him. How is he, then? Feeling any better?”

Donnchad chuckled fondly and patted his son's belly.

Aed made one sharp nod. Donnchad studied the long profile silhouetted against the light of the pine torch, the fluttering of the lashes, the bob of the Adam’s apple as Aed thickly swallowed. An icy fear prickled over him like frost on cold glass.

“No, he isn’t,” he whispered.

“No, he is,” Aed muttered. “The fever passed in the night.” He sniffed, either from the cold or from tears that his father had not seen him cry.

'No, he isn't.'

Donnchad lifted his fingertips to his baby’s face, to the illuminated side he could not see, but Aed’s neck was strong and stubborn as all the necks of his race, and his head would not be turned.

Donnchad stroked the stubbled cheek, remembering its unhewn infant fatness as clearly as he now felt the young man’s chiseled features, savage and sharply hollowed as the flint head of a spear. And Aed would never see his own first-​​born son’s true face.

Donnchad stooped to lay his head upon Aed’s shoulder and wrapped his arms tightly around him, pinning Aed’s arms against his sides like a swaddled baby’s.

“That’s why you were coming here so early,” he whispered shakily. “Oh God! And I never even wondered… My sweet boy…”

Aed sniffled again and relaxed enough to rest his cheek against his father’s hair.

“How is his poor mother?” Donnchad asked, offering what ease he could by letting his boy’s grief repose in the shadows of another’s.

“We stayed alone with him a long while,” Aed said. All at once he had the husky voice of a man who had cried many tears. “She would not be laying him down. I wasn’t knowing… was it wrong to let her hold him, then?”

“There’s no right or wrong at those times, laddie. Only what she’s needing. And what you’re needing.”

He let his arms fall and stepped back to a distance that felt far enough.

He let his arms fall and stepped back.

“I shall not go.”


“I’m needed here.”

Donnchad tried to stroke his son’s face, but Aed pulled his hand away.

“There’s nothing more you or anyone can be doing for him, Da.”

“I meant for you, lad.”

'I meant for you, lad.'

Aed snorted dismissively. “Auntie Maire is needing you more than I now. What if it were my own sister? I would go. I would go, even today. I would go.”

Their thoughts ran together like droplets of water, and both looked to Domnall, still sitting in his firelit corner. Though he propped it up with both hands, his head hung almost between his knees.

“God grant he find his sister again,” Donnchad muttered. “She may be all the family he has.”

'God grant he find his sister again.'

Aed shook his head slightly as they stared, and slowly, so that he would not be noticed, Donnchad turned his head to look back at him.

For as long as Aed’s thoughts were elsewhere, Donnchad studied his unguarded face in the clear light of the hissing torch. He pressed every facet of it into the soft clay of his heart for the thousandth time, knowing it might be the last.

Donnchad studied his unguarded face.

Perhaps he too had had the last word with his obdurate father; perhaps he too would never more be welcome here again. So many times he had acted in kindness where his father would not, and always Aed had silently forgiven him for it, because he had done what Aed wished he could do. But he knew the day would come when he would be kind where Old Aed wished to be cruel.

Then his son looked at him again, blinking wet eyes.

'How can he do it, Da?'

“How can he do it, Da?” he whispered. “Harden his heart against his own children?”

Donnchad laid his hand on his son’s breast and stroked it gently across the wool, tilling that gravelly ground with tenderness as he always had, trying to make it bloom with what wildflowers he could.

He might have explained that years before his father had verily moved heaven and earth for Maire, sending all the way to the Pope to absolve her of her great folly with Aengus of the Domnalls and erase the dishonor she had done her clan. Aed had told her then that he would never lift a finger to save her again, and Maire ought to have known not to doubt his word.

He might have explained that a great lord could not overlook so brazen a disavowal as Domnall’s from anyone who had sworn an oath to him, and least of all from his own son. He might have explained that Old Aed was troubled by the timidity of all the sons of Orlaith, and was trying to harden them up in his own hard way.

But Donnchad did not say any of those things. His son’s heart was bleeding for his first-​​born son, and that raw ground might never be so fertile again.

“I don’t know, laddie. I don’t know. God knows I never could.”

'I don't know, laddie.'