Joseph's stride was long and light.

Joseph’s stride was long and light, and in the silence between his steps Malcolm could almost hear the swishing of the robes he no longer wore. When he was not scrambling to assist in an emergency, his quietly majestic gait was always the same, and it told Malcolm nothing.

Malcolm waited just until Joseph took a breath to speak, and then he rose from the bench, matching his forward movement to the other man’s to keep his face out of sight.

“I believe she will fully recover…”

No longer at a disadvantage, Malcolm turned his head.

Malcolm turned his head.

“…God willing,” Joseph concluded in the same breath. “And – if you follow my instructions without fail,” he added sternly, as though his own will were of greater portent than the Almighty’s.

Malcolm crossed himself and whispered an audible Deo Gratias. The doctor politely paused but continued in the same tone.

'And if you follow my instructions without fail.'

“She must remain in bed at least until tomorrow noon, or, I prefer, until I have seen her again and find her fit to rise.”

He waited until Malcolm felt obliged to nod.

“She must eat only good, clear broth, and to drink she may have an infusion of mint or chamomile, not too hot.”

This time Malcolm met his pause with stubborn immobility.

“Tomorrow she may try dry toast. And afterwards…” Joseph began with an ominous darkening of his voice. 

Malcolm turned and looked up at the young doctor from beneath his perpetually scowling brows, refracting the intensity of his glare through the otherworldly prisms of his eyes.

Malcolm lowered his head and stared up at the young doctor.

For a moment Joseph’s briskly scolding manner was shattered. His forehead wrinkled in consternation, and he turned away, lipping the end of some phrase he no longer dared speak. With nothing more than his eyes, Malcolm had made more majestic men than Joseph stutter and squeak and sweat like bashful twelve-​​year-​​olds.

Joseph hooked his thin fingertips over the edge of the mantel and let his arm hang. His sleeve slid back to his elbow, revealing a flaccid wrist and sparse hair.

Suddenly he pushed himself off and leaned low enough to slip beneath Malcolm’s scowl and stare unblinking into the golden glare of Malcolm’s eyes.

Suddenly he pushed himself off and leaned low.

“And afterwards,” he whispered harshly, “no parties! No candy! No dancing! No gossip! And no young men!”

Malcolm reared back his head, hearing the reproach to himself.

“Condal is a very delicate girl. Another spell like this one, and she might never recover.”



“No! Listen to me now. I wish I had spoke before, but I was only a man who saw, and not family to her. Now I speak as a doctor, and you shall listen.”

Malcolm attempted to scowl a warning, but Joseph pressed on.

“She risks a fever of the brain. One time, she will go into a dream, and she will not come out again.”

At the mention of Condal’s so-​​called dreams, Malcolm snorted in exasperation and looked down at the hearth. If she had not been physically ill, he would have suspected she had feigned the episode to evade Cearball’s question.

Joseph must have seen the skepticism cross his face, for he smacked his forearm down upon the mantel and slid his slender body between Malcolm and the fire, putting himself closer to both of the dangerous forces than most men ever dared go. His swarthy face was almost black in the shadows, golden only in the throat like a quietly smoldering coal.

“Do I understand correctly?” he whispered. “Connie did not know that Cearball was here?”

Malcolm sighed, “He wanted to say goodbye to her…”

'He wanted to say goodbye to her...'

“That is not the only thing he wanted to say. Did you know?”

Malcolm took a breath to begin some coolly rational reply, but his throat burned, and a taut fury seized his jaw and shoulders. He closed his eyes. Something was about to tear out of him: something he – Malcolm – could not control. 

He slammed his fists down on the mantel top, startling Joseph into jerking his arm away. The most he could do was hold back his roar, out of love for Cousin Condal lying back on the pillows of Cearball’s bed – delicate and white as the linen handkerchief he had pried out of her spastic hands.

“I knew!” he snarled. “I knew what he meant to say! It was stupid of me – is that what you want to tell me? Is that what you want to hear me say?”

Joseph gaped at him, stunned and sweating.

“It was stupid! Only the hundredth stupid, stupid, stupid thing I’ve done in the last days! Is that it? I already know!”

Malcolm dropped his head onto his arms and shuddered, weak and spent.

Malcolm dropped his head onto his arms.

For a moment he felt relief, but as his senses returned, he only felt worse for having lost his self-​​control. He wondered uneasily whether a moment of imprudence before a Mohammedan doctor was as confidential as the same before a Christian priest. He did not wish to be at a disadvantage before this man.

“I agree, it was unwise…” Joseph faltered.

Malcolm snorted and lifted his head, master of himself again.

“She is a very delicate girl,” Joseph said. “She must not be shocked, surprised. This is what I want to tell you.”

“That much is clear.”

“And… I believe she is not so healthy to have so much attention from young men – ”

“That is over with and done,” Malcolm said grimly.

'That is over with and done.'

He indulged himself in a few seconds’ fantasy of brutalizing the next man who importuned his baby cousin. A scintillating heat rushed through his shoulders and arms, reassuring him of a savage bodily strength he rarely had occasion to use. No one would control him then – least of all himself.

“Even if the King commands it,” he whispered, fueling the fire with seductive thoughts of rebellion.

“Very well…” Joseph murmured.

“Is that all, Doctor?”

Malcolm turned his head abruptly and watched in satisfaction as Joseph shuffled back a step or two.

Malcolm turned his head abruptly.

“That is all,” Joseph agreed. “I will come again tomorrow in the afternoon.” He moved subtly towards the door. “I have only some things to say to her sisters…”

“Say them to me.”

Malcolm watched the tension fall out of Joseph’s arms. He could almost see the robes swish around his feet and fall still.


“Say them to me.”

“But it is a… matter for women…”

'But it is a... matter for women...'

“Say it to me. Connie has had too many women looking after her, and not enough men. That too is done.”

Joseph lowered his gaze to the fire that burned at their feet: the only flame lit in the empty house, for the candle in the window was out. For a few hours Malcolm would be alone with a fragile, frightened little girl of his clan, who hearkened to his every phrase with the obedience of awe.

“Half of my family is in this valley,” Malcolm continued, intoxicated by the quiet majesty of his own voice. The house was so silent it seemed to be straining to hear.

“And none knows what any of the others are doing, and the women are ruling – and that too is done, by God’s name I swear. Nothing will be decided in this family without my approval, or upon orders from my father.”

With the instinctive yearning of a king for his throne, Malcolm looked back at the bench upon which he had just made this resolution: only minutes before, as Joseph had tended to the little girl who might – for all Malcolm had known – never have recovered from the effects of his folly. He felt the very weight of her life upon his head like an unsteady crown.

'Tell me what you wanted to tell her sisters.'

“Tell me what you wanted to tell her sisters,” he commanded. “I shall tell them if they need to be told.”

Joseph glanced between the fire and their toes, but Malcolm’s golden glare was steady as the sun’s. He had broken men more discreet than Joseph with nothing more than this – he knew how to make it burn until they would say anything only to have it turned away.

“Very well, Sir,” Joseph said briskly. “I wish to tell her sisters: watch Condal for symptoms of pregnancy…”

Joseph spoke a few more words, but Malcolm heard nothing through the gale of anger that seared through him. He had made up his mind too late – but not too late to turn his wrath against some man. Muscles he scarcely knew he possessed ignited like tufts of dry down.

“Who?” he snarled.

Joseph faltered in whatever he had been saying. Malcolm wrapped his hand around the haft of the knife at his belt, seeking to cool himself with the touch of cold steel.

Malcolm wrapped his hand around the haft of the knife at his belt.

“She does not know,” Joseph admitted. “She thinks, perhaps while she slept…”

“When was it?” Malcolm demanded.

For four nights she had slept in Aengus’s house, and Lugaid and Feradach were there. Even Colin was there. Even Aengus. Even servants and guards.

Before that there had been Nothelm with its rowdy inhabitants. There had even been a night at the royal castle, with Young Aed of the Aenguses sleeping only a flight of stairs away.

“She does not know,” Joseph repeated. “She does not know at all. I did not examine her.” He sighed in exasperation. “Do you see? I wished to tell her sisters to show her how to examine herself. Even this, it is not proof. It happens sometimes, a virgin has not this sign – or, sometimes, she has, and she still conceives.” His thin hands made fluttery, incomprehensible gestures. “The man, he does not need to… to go in…”

He laughed nervously and swatted Malcolm’s arm with the back of his hand. Malcolm did not react, too afraid of admitting that he knew even less about sex than he had thought.

Joseph gave him a devilish smile.

“Ah!” Joseph gave him a devilish smile. “I thank you for offering to explain to her sisters. Difficult for my English.”

Malcolm snorted and drew himself back to a haughty distance. “Tell me, then: if she isn’t knowing who, and she isn’t knowing when, then why does she think she’s… ah…”

“Pregnant,” Joseph supplied calmly. “I do not say she is, but if she can have such a spell, when she can not be woken – especially at night, if she sleeps alone – she might not remember if injury is done to her.”

Malcolm breathed deeply, filling his lungs and emptying them fully in an attempt to stay calm. And nevertheless he almost heard the ghostly voice of Fergus – of Egelric – telling him, “I know where two such men can be found…”

Nevertheless he almost heard the ghostly voice of Fergus.

Joseph continued, “It is for her own comfort that I ask – she is very troubled about this thing, and she must – not – be – troubled.

He smacked his small fist into his cupped hand with every word, unconsciously making a more suggestive gesture than anything he had managed thus far.

He explained, “It is because of her dream that she thinks – ”

“Ach, her dream!” Malcolm groaned. He slammed his own fist flat down upon the mantel. “Her dreams never come true, but somehow it never stops her from believing the next one to come along!”

He glared angrily at Joseph out of one eye before remembering that he ought to at least learn the substance of the dream.

'What was it?'

“What was it?” he grumbled.

Joseph hesitated, looking back with fluttering eyes to the door that stood between them and Condal.

Malcolm warned, “If this has anything to do with her health, safety, or happiness, I need to know it.”

Joseph blurted, “She dreamt…” He hesitated a moment longer before continuing in his customary quiet, patient tone. “She dreamt she was being married to Cearball, and many pretty babies were flying above. With wings. Baby angels, you see?”

Malcolm grunted.

“Then two more babies flied to the place, but these babies were ugly and were black. These babies killed the other babies, and cut them up, and Connie and Cearball were wetted with blood of babies. And so she thinks: she will not marry this good man, and she will not have these good babies, because the babies of an evil man will prevent her. And so she thinks: perhaps the evil man has already come in to her. This is the only… the only reason why she thinks this,” Joseph soothed. “I think it not likely, God willing. However, she must be taken seriously – but not too seriously… Only to calm her fears, but not to… how do you say?”

Malcolm waved the backs of his fingers at him in impatience.

Malcolm waved the backs of his fingers at him in impatience, lost in thought.

“Dismiss them,” Joseph concluded with a satisfied sigh. “So… I will talk to her sisters…”


Joseph stopped before he had scarcely begun to sidle away, and he flopped his arms helplessly at his sides.

Malcolm said, “I don’t want her sisters to be told. If it isn’t true, then they don’t need to know. And if it is true…”

He ran his thumbnail along the unpolished underside of the stone mantel. Lugaid and Feradach had shocked him at dinner by crooning flirtatiously over Condal while Malcolm sat glaring at them both across the table, but he had been even more astounded later when Condal had shyly thanked him for coming and making them meek. If that was what she called meek, then he could scarcely imagine what her last days had been. And Cousin Catan had been presiding over the table all the while, and doubtlessly thought it very cute and cunning of the boys.

“…then they’ve some responsibility in the matter, and I shall tell them later: that, and other things they will not like to hear.”

'I shall tell them later.'

Joseph pushed up his sleeves and shrugged, immediately letting them slip down his arms again.

“And I do not want anyone to be told about this dream,” Malcolm said. “Is that clear? I shall tell Connie, too.”


“I shall tell you what it was. Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents – the first Christian martyrs. When King Herod learned a new king had been born to the Jews, he ordered every male baby in Bethlehem be put to the sword. But an angel warned… Joseph…”

Malcolm faltered, feeling his grasp of his own religion slipping before the keen blue eyes of this Saracen man, named for the foster father of the Lord.

Malcolm faltered.

“And Christ was taken to Egypt and saved,” he concluded briskly. “And so, I’m certain Connie went to Mass this morning and learned what day it was, and she was thinking of that story today, and that was why she had the dream she did. Thoughts of slaughtered babies, all mixed up with thoughts of Cearball.”

Joseph nodded, looking relieved himself.

“Do you see? All her so-​​called dreams can be explained that way. Too much imagination, too much worrying. But I don’t want Cearball learning of it. His…”

Abruptly Malcolm returned to scraping the underside of the mantel top with his thumbnail.

“His mother died in the middle of an abortion. And it wasn’t her first.”

His mother died in the middle of an abortion.

Joseph folded his hands together and nodded, disarmingly priestlike.

“He takes it a little… hard,” Malcolm stammered. “He went up to the abbey to Mass today himself. And anyway, the Irish are a superstitious, sentimental lot, and you can be certain he’ll think the dream was of his own… brothers and sisters, or whatever one may call it, and we should have to tie him to the gate to keep him away from Connie then. So no. I forbid it.”

Joseph’s calm was unnerving. His eyes were eerily blue in his brown face, flickering only slightly as they studied Malcolm’s scowling brows, his flushed cheeks, the beads of sweat on his upper lip. Joseph was coming to his own unfathomable conclusions, and Malcolm was powerless to stop him.

“Don’t tell me you think he should be told!” Malcolm whispered angrily.


Malcolm turned his face away, annoyed at himself. He laid his forehead against the mantel, and in spite of the fire the stone felt gratefully cold.

In spite of the fire the stone felt gratefully cold.

After a moment, Joseph prompted, “And you do not think her sisters should be told?”

“No.” Malcolm threw back his head.

The fire at their feet made a towering shadow out of Joseph’s slim body, nearly ceiling-​​high. In it Malcolm almost saw his own father’s silhouette staring down at him: awe-​​inspiring as it had seemed to him as a boy, when the only weight upon his head had been his father’s hand. Malcolm straightened his shoulders and tried to make his body fit.

Malcolm straightened his shoulders and tried to make his body fit.

“I shall certainly tell them about her illness. And the rest…”

While he sought after the most dignified words, Joseph’s forehead slowly creased itself into disapproving wrinkles, making the hair of his bushy heathen brows stand on end. 

“The rest, Doctor, is none of your affair. Clear broth and mint tea, you said?”

Joseph shook his head slightly, but he whispered, “Yes, sir.”

'Yes, sir.'