Iylaine burst into laughter.

Iylaine burst into laughter, startling Malcolm into the uncharacteristic act of lifting his pen in the middle of a word. What had Mother Curran said?

“I’m sorry!” Iylaine giggled. “It wasn’t what you said. I was just listening outside. Cearball’s coming up the path… singing!”

“Oh—oh my stars!” Mother Curran’s face lit up with fond laughter. “That boy!”

“Drunk, is he?” Malcolm muttered.

“Of course he is, Malcolm,” Iylaine said primly, as if it were an incurable disease of Cearball’s, known by all but not to be mentioned in polite company. “But there’s someone with him, and I can’t guess who it is.”

'Is it a man voice or a woman voice?'

“Is it a man voice or a woman voice?” Mother Curran asked.

“A man voice,” Iylaine said, “but they’re singing in Gaelic, so I can’t figure out who it might be. It isn’t Aengus or Colin.”

Malcolm grunted. He could not hear a thing, but he could have told her that much himself.

“Oh, I hope it isn’t Lugaid or Ferdie,” Iylaine said wearily to Mother Curran. Malcolm noted that she combed her fingers through her loose hair nevertheless.

“I wouldn’t mind if it were,” Malcolm grumbled. “If he’s made friends with one of the boys, at least I could stop worrying that he’s going to get himself killed whenever I let him out of my sight.”

'I wouldn't mind if it were.'

Malcolm would not have let him go out alone tonight at all if he had not had the reassurance that Lugaid and Feradach had left for Raegiming that day—doubtlessly in search of new faces to bruise and new females to fondle.

“I wish they would just go home,” Iylaine pouted as she straightened her collar and kirtle.

“It’s probably only Cynan, Babe,” Malcolm sighed.

“It is not Cynan. His voice sounds a lot older and deeper than that.”

'It is not Cynan.'

Malcolm capped his inkwell and began wiping his pen, letting his last word lie half-​written. “Gilpatrick, then.”

“Malcolm! As if I wouldn’t recognize his voice! Gillie Patrick can’t sing a note anyway, so that shows what you know. And it isn’t Father Faelan either.”

“Fancy! If it was!” Mother Curran tittered.

“Probably the new silversmith, then,” Malcolm said. “He speaks Gaelic. Or do you recognize his voice, too, Lady Baby?”

He spoke teasingly, but he glared at his scowling reflections in the new pair of silver candlesticks on his desk. Two days after Christmas, their like now graced the desks and dining tables of nearly every man in Lothere who possessed a wife or daughter of sufficient means.

He glared at his scowling reflections.

Iylaine and Mother Curran giggled together, but Iylaine quickly put on a haughtier voice and informed him, “Cearball would not associate with a tradesman, I am certain.”

Malcolm scraped back his chair and stood. “What do you suppose he does in the tavern, Baby? Sit alone in the corner and not associate?

'What do you suppose he does in the tavern, Baby?'

“Well, he ought not to bring him back here if he does. Fancy!” She leaned towards Mother Curran and giggled, “And suppose he isn’t wearing a shirt?” She stood up far enough that she could sweep her skirts neatly beneath her thighs and brush out the wrinkles when she sat.

Malcolm was beginning to wish it was Lugaid or Feradach after all—at least Iylaine had admitted she found the two of them rather frog-​like in the face. By now, however, even he could hear their caterwauling coming up the path, and he did not believe either of the boys were possessed of such a bass to accompany Cearball’s baritone.

“I know!” Mother Curran cried. “It must be Fergus!”

'It must be Fergus!'

Iylaine gasped, “Fergus!”

Mother Curran chortled “Ferrrrrgus!” to herself, and then collapsed in matronly giggles against the back of her chair.

“Well!” Iylaine said with scintillating false cheer. “I shall be glad to meet him, if it is! It will be the first time he’s ever come to the house when he’s had a chance of meeting me. One would think he fears I hold a grudge against him for looking so much like my Da!”

She laughed falsely, hinting that she did.

She laughed falsely.

“I told you, Babe,” he said warningly, “it looks like old Duncan might have had a little sweetheart in Leol before he ever married your great-​grandmother. That’s all. At most he’s only your Da’s half-​cousin, and even that’s not certain. And Fergus isn’t ashamed of who he is, either, so you had better not act as if he ought to be.”

“Now, why should I?” Iylaine demanded. “I’m sure a man can’t help it if there is illegitimacy in his family. Some of my own father’s children are bastards, after all.”

Malcolm turned to her, his eyes wide and his nostrils flaring, but Mother Curran clapped her hands and heaved herself up off her chair.

“Oh, my stars! The poor lambs! Their throats will be that raw from singing out in the cold air!”

Iylaine turned to her and hastily advised, “You should warm up a pot of cordial for them, Mother.”

“So I shall, dearie,” Mother Curran agreed as she bustled into the kitchen. “So I shall.”

'So I shall.'

Malcolm snorted and stood the poker back in its stand.

By now Cearball and a man who sounded very much like Fergus had reached the obstacle of the front stairs. Bass and baritone together, they hooted and hawed as they thumped and scraped and skidded their way up, each so eager to help his companion that he could spare no attention to his own feet, it seemed.

Malcolm stopped at a respectful but unhelpful distance from the door.

Malcolm stopped at a respectful but unhelpful distance from the door as they wrestled with the handle outside. Fergus finally seemed to remember where they were and reminded Cearball to keep his voice down, which only prompted Cearball to declare—loud enough for Malcolm if not Mother Curran to hear—“You aren’t knowing the ears of the mistress! A body can fart five miles from home, and when he returns she’ll be asking him was dinner too rich for him!”

Iylaine choked and laughed breathily behind Malcolm on the couch.

Iylaine choked and laughed breathily behind Malcolm on the couch.

Meanwhile the handle was finally lifted, but from the sound of it Cearball flung his body against the door, apparently forgetting that it opened outward instead of in.

“Jesus Christ!” he groaned.

After a final scuffle, Fergus whispered sharply, “I cannot stop you from blacking your own eye!”

He pulled the door open, and for an instant Malcolm had a glimpse of the big man holding Cearball upright by the back of his collar, all but dangling him over the porch like a kitten being carted about by its scruff.

Then Fergus spotted Malcolm himself, as well as Iylaine convulsing behind him, and in the time it took him to slap a broad grin on his face, he had shoved Cearball through the doorway and thrown a friendly arm around his shoulder as though the two were only coming in from a brisk after-​supper stroll around the property.

He had shoved Cearball through the doorway.

“‘Evening, darlings!” Cearball slurred. “How’s the weather?”

“You should know,” Malcolm said dryly.

A gust of cold air blew in after the men, bringing such a stiff odor of alcohol to Malcolm’s nose that one might have supposed it was snowing ale.

“‘Evening, ’Laine,” Cearball said, tipping over in a gallant bow from which Fergus dragged him up only in the nick of time. “’Low me the honor of introducing a gentleman.”

'Evening, 'Laine.'

Malcolm glanced back to see Iylaine looking cool and white—as majestic as Queen Maud, and utterly unlike her hot-​tempered self. He feared she was greatly upset.

“Fergus being the name of him,” Cearball added as an afterthought. He caught hold of one of the pillars and swung himself unsteadily halfway around. “Come nigh, laddie, she doesn’t bite,” he crooned. “Or if she does, Malcolm isn’t saying!”

'Come nigh, laddie, she doesn't bite.'

Fergus stepped in and pressed Cearball face-​and-​breast up against the pillar until it looked as if he would stick. Then he touched his hand to his forehead and bowed humbly to Iylaine, peasant to princess.

“My lady,” he said low.

But as he stood he pressed his lips together and exhaled audibly through his nose, startling Malcolm with the likeness of the gesture to one of Egelric’s own.

Iylaine appeared petrified. If she had once meant to lift her hand to be kissed, it was now clamped tightly over her knee.

Fergus turned his head and gave Malcolm a meekly apologetic glance before looking up towards the kitchen and crying, “Editha!”

Mother Curran scolded, “Oh, no you don’t!”


Fergus threw wide his arms, and Mother Curran hurried across the room to meet them.

Fergus threw wide his arms.

“Fergus!” she crowed.

Fergus cupped a hand to his ear. “What’s that?”

“Oh, no you don’t!” she cackled, red-​faced.

“Who’d you say?”

“Oh!” Mother Curran stopped just before him and twisted her face as if working out a melon seed to be spit.

Fergus gave her a grin of encouragement.

Fergus gave her a grin of encouragement but leaned teasingly away.

“Oh!” Mother Curran clapped her hands against her apron in frustration, but at last she trilled, “Ferrrrrgus!” Then she fell laughing into Fergus’s strong arms.


Malcolm took the opportunity to look back at his wife. Cearball’s hand fluttered gallantly open before her as she sat forward to stand, but she was wise enough to lay her hand weightlessly upon it as she helped herself to her feet. Cearball himself clung unsteadily to the pillar like a drunken monkey, laughing at the entire enterprise.

Iylaine lifted her hand out of Cearball’s and walked between him and Fergus without turning her eyes aside, tall and regal as a queen. Malcolm knew she had a certain proprietary indulgence for Cearball’s nonsense, which proved that she was displeased about something else.

“Pardon me, I think I hear the baby stirring,” she said coolly as she glided past the men to Malcolm.

Cearball clapped his hand over his mouth and mumbled dramatic apologies behind it, but Fergus sent another meek glance over Mother Curran’s head to Malcolm.

Iylaine stopped before Malcolm and leaned in to give him the barest peck upon his cheek, so tiny that he could not even feel the coolness her damp lips ordinarily left behind on his skin.

'I am going to bed.'

“I am going to bed,” she whispered. “I do not feel well at all.”

And without another look—neither at their guests nor at him—she strode majestically back to their bedroom.

Malcolm clenched his jaw and stared after her. He knew she would sit and seethe until he joined her, and he did not even have the advantage of knowing why. Because Cearball had taken the liberty of inviting a friend into her house? Because Mother Curran had made Fergus’s acquaintance before she had? Did she truly hold a grudge against the man for looking so much like her banished father?

Had his face simply reminded her of the grudge she held against Malcolm?

But no, Malcolm supposed Fergus’s face had simply reminded her of the grudge she held against Malcolm himself. And Malcolm could not even defend himself with the truth about Egelric’s supposed crimes, for Sigefrith was waiting to learn what Aed would do, and Iylaine’s temper was not to be trusted with secrets.

“I’ll get a cup for you, too, Sir Malcolm,” Mother Curran assured him as she shuffled by, pink-​cheeked as a maiden who had just squirmed free of her lover’s arms. “You been working too hard, that’s what!”

Malcolm stared blearily down at the parchment on his table, upon which he had written no more than “Tunc primo requir…”—hardly work enough to give a man the headache he felt coming on.

He pinched his nose between his eyes, and looked up—directly into Cearball’s grinning and all-​too-​near face.

“Hope we weren’t waking the baby, lad,” Cearball tittered. “You’re looking like a man could use some sleep.” He gave Malcolm’s shoulder a solid punch, though it was himself he knocked off-​balance.

Fergus caught him beneath one arm as he skidded back and added softly, “Sorry.”


“It’s nothing,” Malcolm sighed. “The children are well-​used to sleeping through any kind of racket around here. Simply keep it down for my own self, if you would.” He pulled his chair away from the table. “You’ll excuse me, for I’ve work to do before morning. We never expected you back so soon, or I would have started earlier.”

“Ach! Writing a letter to your old father, are you?” Cearball asked.

Malcolm heard the subtle sharpening in his friend’s voice—felt the first prick of a claw coming unsheathed—and he stopped with his hand on the back of his chair.

'No, you aren't, then, are you?'

“No, you aren’t, then, are you?” Cearball smirked. “Why would you, then? What is a promise made to unworthy me?”

He steadied his feet beneath him and managed a gallant bow without assistance from Fergus. His cheeks and neck flushed red with heat. Malcolm could almost smell the fumes of alcohol burning away.

“I said I will write to my father,” Malcolm muttered, “and so I will.”

“Aye, you said it and so will you say it again!”

Cearball brought his face so near that his violet eyes were black in the shadow of Malcolm’s head.

Cearball brought his face so near.

“What will it be this time, mac Colbain? First it was wait until Egelric is away, and so did I wait. Then it was wait until Young Aed is gone, and so did I wait. Then it was Christmas, then it was Stephan’s Day, and now it will be what, lad? Twelfth Night? Lady Day?”

“Not tonight,” Malcolm said warningly.

“No! Tonight! Or are you looking to save yourself a piece of parchment, you damned stingy Scot?”

Cearball’s voice was shrill and shaking, but his arms, ominously, were not.

'You damned stingy Scot!'

“Waiting until you may be adding for postscript how Connie was stolen away like the poor sister of her? That’s three nights she’s slept under the same damned roof as Lugaid and Ferdie, and none but a grieving man and a filthy old sot to defend her—”

“Lugaid and Ferdie just left for Raegiming this morning.”

“Nor did they!” Cearball howled, pointing at the door. “They’re up at the Swinging Gate, pitcher in hand, as we speak!”

Malcolm was startled enough to suck in his breath.

Malcolm was startled enough to suck in his breath. Now he understood how Cearball had come to return so early, and why in the company of Fergus. Fergus caught his eye and shrugged helplessly.

“That’ll be four nights!” Cearball sobbed. “And the two of them in their cups, and Aengus and Colin passed out in the fucking kitchen! And it’s here I’m lying, awake half the night listening for horses—for the men coming to tell you she’s gone! And you tell me not tonight! And you tell me to wait! Fuck it—I’m going back there!”

'I'm going back there!'

He tried to bolt for the door, but he stumbled over his own drunken feet, and Fergus caught him in a bear hug and held him fast.

“That’s just what they’re hoping you’ll do,” he growled through Cearball’s struggles.

“So let’s do it, then!” Cearball cried. “Come with me!”

“No, you’re staying here…”

“If they don’t get to me through me, they’ll get to me through Connie!”

“…and I’ll go back up there,” Fergus soothed, “and I’ll see to it that they’ll be in no condition for trouble-​making by the time they get home tonight. If they ever get home tonight,” he chuckled wickedly.

'If they ever get home tonight.'

Cearball’s arms and legs stopped beating, and he tipped back his head as he considered this. Then he dropped his chin and glared at Malcolm with all the blackness of his eyes.

“And he shall write a letter to his father and tell him what is happening here!”

Malcolm inclined his head in agreement.

“And he shall take her away from her sisters,” Cearball continued, “if they think those two scoundrels are fit company for a young girl!”

Malcolm waved a hand between their faces to waft away the reek of ale, as well as to shoo Cearball back to a polite distance.

“I will see what I can do,” he grumbled.

“And then you shall fucking do it!” Cearball spluttered. “Are you a man or no?”

'And then you shall fucking do it!'

“And you,” Fergus crooned, “shall go to bed and sleep it off.”

“I am not in the mood to sleep!” Cearball announced, straightening his arms at his sides and stretching himself out head and neck like Mother Curran’s addlepated gray cockerel.

“Don’t make me knock you out,” Fergus cautioned with a smile. “I promised you no black eyes.” He shrugged a shoulder at Malcolm and mouthed, “His room?”

Malcolm tossed his head back towards Cearball’s door.

He turned and watched as Fergus pushed Cearball along ahead of him, grunting patiently in agreement with Cearball’s every protest, until the door had muffled the sound.

Fergus pushed Cearball along ahead of him.

Then Malcolm clenched his jaw and marched to the fireside. He drew the poker with a flourish more becoming of a sword and stabbed it into the flaming throat of the fire. He did not care if Iylaine heard his clattering. He did not even care if he woke the children. He needed to stab and beat and batter, and by God they had all better be grateful he contented himself with the logs.

He needed to stab and beat and batter.

After a short while, Cearball’s door opened and softly closed again, and a cautious tread started across the floor towards the fire. The boards flexed and squeaked in spite of the man’s evident attempts to go quietly—a sound eerily like Egelric creeping around after the children were abed. The tip of the poker sprang up out of the flames as Malcolm’s grip tightened around the haft.

“Sorry about all this,” Fergus murmured.

'Sorry about all this.'

Malcolm squeezed his eyes shut against the pain exploding in his forehead. It was not Egelric’s cavernous voice of today, but the sorrowful, gruffly gentle voice he had had when Malcolm had first known him, when Iylaine had been a floss-​haired little mite and Elfleda not long in her grave. It was no wonder Iylaine could not bear to hear it.

“It was looking like trouble up there,” Fergus explained. “I had a feeling they were there looking for him.”

Malcolm grunted.

“I know this isn’t any of my affair…”

Malcolm grunted again and flipped the end of a log back onto the pile with the poker.

'I know this isn't any of my affair...'

“But you know, he may be drunk, but he’s not only drunk. You know how young men are. It’s personal now. I don’t like to speak ill of men I don’t know, but there’s a young lady involved, so I must. I fear there’s a chance your young cousin Connie will get hurt by someone looking to hurt your friend.”

“I said I’ll take care of it.”

“Right. But if you don’t, you probably ought to let him have it out with them so they’ll move on to some other fun. I’ll stand up with him if you won’t.”

“I said I’ll take care of it!”

Malcolm felt a hand on his elbow and knocked it away.

Fergus took a step back.

Fergus took a step back. “Nothing personal, friend…”

“I am not your friend!”

“Maybe not,” Fergus said patiently, “but Cearball is, and I promised him I would have a word with you. And if you’re his friend you’ll listen.”

“Don’t bother. I’ve heard it all from him before.”

'Don't bother.'

“I’m not telling you what Cearball thinks. I’m telling my own opinion. Now, I don’t know your cousin Connie, but I know some who do, and she sounds to me like a girl in danger. There are girls who know how to stand up for themselves and girls who need someone to stand up for them.”

As if to demonstrate his intentions, Malcolm stood the poker up in its stand.

Fergus only glanced at it and continued, “And there are men who can sense that—who can smell that. And I think what Connie needs is a man protecting her. One whose greatest concern is her welfare, and with all the respect due you, sir, I do not think you are that man. You have a family of your own.”

“And so… what? You want me to simply… give her over to that clodhead in there?” Malcolm pointed with his finger towards Cearball’s door, and when that failed to satisfy him, he stabbed at the air.

Fergus lifted his hands in a gentle sign of submission. “A good man, is all I’ll say, and I think Cearball is. They’re both very young in the head, but they won’t have material troubles, so they’d only have to learn to live with one another.”


“Only!” Malcolm laughed bitterly. “Only! You think that’s the easy part, do you?”

Then he understood that he was speaking from experience, and he glanced uneasily at his bedroom door.

“Is it hard?” Fergus asked mildly. “I’ve never had the chance to try.”

“And then the babies come,” Malcolm muttered, unwilling to answer.

“Well, I don’t know anything about being a husband,” Fergus admitted, “but I know how to be a bachelor, and I’ve known a powerful lot of men in my time. And I can tell you, a pretty young orphan with a herd of cattle to her head hasn’t long to be a maid. She’ll soon be gone, with or without your blessing.”

“What is this?” Malcolm hissed. “Is this a threat? Or have you heard something I ought to know?”

'What is this?'

Fergus shook his head. “It’s only a warning. I don’t like to see girls married so young, but there’s worse than marriage. I can smell that sort of man, and I know where two can be found tonight. But if the worst happens, God forbid, Cearball would marry her even if she were ruined. Lest you think the only way to save your family’s honor is to marry her to her rapist,” he added darkly. “I thought you should know.”

Malcolm’s hand closed over the haft of the poker. “Get out!” he snarled. “Let not it even be said!”

“I’m no prophet, sir,” Fergus said as he backed away, speaking in Egelric’s sorrowful voice of thirty years. “Only a man. Only a man who knows what beasts men can be.”

'I'm no prophet, sir.'

It was Egelric—it was the voice, the face, the lips of Egelric at thirty: his own ghost prophesying his doom. It was Egelric but for the cloud-​gray eyes. If Malcolm looked away from those eyes he would be swept away too: the ghost of a homesick little boy into the ghost of a past.

Fergus murmured, “You look very tired, Malcolm…”

“Out!” Malcolm whispered.

He released the poker and raised a shaking hand to draw a cross before this apparition, a simple X in the air.

He let go of the poker.

Fergus responded by lifting three fingers and making the sign of the cross over Malcolm like a priest giving his blessing, gracious and graceful as Egelric had never been.

“God be with you and yours,” he said softly. “Good night, sir.”

He bowed as he turned, and walked off alone. Malcolm collapsed onto Iylaine’s bench and listened to him go, quaking in body and soul. Louder than any ghost he sounded now: an ordinary man in ordinary boots, creaking over the floorboards to the door.

Malcolm listened to him go.