She was not dead, but sleeping.

She was not dead, but sleeping. Donnchad wrapped his hand around her wrist and tugged gently in time with the rise and fall of her breath, seeking to ease out one of the fists she clenched beneath her chin. He wanted his sister to awake with her hand clasped in a loving hand.

But her arm slipped free unexpectedly and brought her body with it, like pond weed ripped up with its roots, spreading a silty cloud of confusion through her wakening. Her eyes flashed and darted.

Her eyes flashed and darted.

“Maire, darling, it’s your old brother Donnchad.”


Donnchad’s face creased into a real smile. Her voice was as ragged as her scabby cheeks, but this was the first word she had spoken in thirteen days.

“Aye, love—”

Maire grasped a fistful of his sleeve and pulled herself up to peer over his shoulder.

“Is Aengus here?” she rasped.

“No, love. Aengus is at home with your pretty little girls and your baby boy.”

Her strength drained from her shaking arm, and she sank back onto her elbow to look him in the face.

Donnchad brushed back her hair and fingered the curve of her jaw.

Donnchad brushed back her hair and fingered the curve of her jaw, studying the beady scabs that striped her cheeks. They would soon heal. His beautiful girl had not been mutilated, as he had feared, and the pain he saw in her eyes was not madness but helpless heartache. His sister had awoken crying out her love.

“And in the morn Domnall will be coming to see you—”

“But Aengus!”

She twisted away from his stroking hand and leaned towards the door, the empty room, with wide eyes that had seen but did not believe. Her unsteady breath became gasps for air.

She twisted away from his stroking hand.

If she was not mad, she had spent the last thirteen days watching that door, waiting for a man who had never made up his mind to come. In thirteen days she had never asked. That was Aengus and his indecision. That was Maire and her pride.

“Aengus is at home with your babies, love. I just left his side. Come nigh to me now.”

Donnchad lifted his hips from the bed and swept Maire’s legs out over the side. He sat and pulled her close.

“Come lay your head now,” he murmured, stroking her hair down her stiff neck. “Be laying your head on my shoulder and tell me if it’s not still damp from your man’s tears.”

Come lay your head now.

Her head flopped over into the crook of his neck, and she rasped her cheek over the wool of his tunic, blindly seeking traces of her husband. Long ago she had rooted through her skinny teenaged brother’s shirt in this way, pawing vainly after the comfort of their dead mother’s breast.

Maire had never had a mother—Donnchad would not let it be forgotten. No mother could have loved her more, but her father and brothers had crushed her a little with every caress: wee Maire had been the ball of fluff they pressed to their own bleeding wounds. Donnchad could not blame her for anything her suffering had driven her to do. With her life she had stanched an entire family’s pain.

“Do you know where you are, darling?”

“Sigefrith’s castle,” she whispered, panting.

“Aye. And do you know for how long you’ve been?”

She hesitated: perhaps to count the days, perhaps because she did not want to know. Donnchad heard a rhythmic rustling, louder than the steady drumming and dripping of the rain outside. He realized he was rocking them both on the edge of the mattress.

She hesitated.

Maire breathed, “How long?”

“Almost a fortnight. And are you remembering why you’re here?”

She wriggled one hand free and slid it around his back, lacing their bodies together by the arms: his over, hers under.

She asked, “Does Aengus know I’m here?”

“No. But I shall tell him.”

It was not a lie. So far as Aengus knew, his wife was gone. Donnchad had just spent an hour preparing him to dispose of her empty shell—to surrender her to her brothers, who would take her away and treasure the precious pieces.

But this shell was not empty. The coiled bird stirred inside, flexing its limbs against the cracks. The little heart drummed. Donnchad squeezed her to his breast and nestled her against his warmth.

“Are you remembering why you’re here?” he repeated.

“I… I must have killed that elf.”

'I must have killed that elf.'


“They… said I did.”

Donnchad rocked her, waiting to learn how much she would say on her own.

She whispered, “I don’t remember.”

She wrapped her other arm around his belly and clasped her own hand on the far side. She swayed her body in time with his.

“I only remember… I had to do it. I had to do it.”

“Why, love?”

“Aengus isn’t coming, is he?”

'Aengus isn't coming, is he?'

It was not truly a question. She rubbed her face against his shoulder and pawed at his tunic, kneading the cloth between her fists until his belt hung crooked.

“Now now…”

“Is he?” she demanded. “Is he? It doesn’t matter if I die.”


Donnchad tried to draw back his head and look into her face, but her twisting arms tightened around his waist. He hugged her instead, crushing her a little more. For thirteen days she had lain helpless and unloved like an abandoned child in its cradle. He would not allow this to happen again.

“He will come, Maire. He will come.”

Donnchad did not like to make promises on behalf of other men, but he knew Aengus would come. A man who grieved as Aengus grieved would endure anything to win his wife back from the dead.

“Didn’t he tell you?” she squeaked, shivering. “About… the Irishman?”

Donnchad sighed. That was “anything.” That was nothing.

“Aye, love—”

“I told him it was Cearball who hurt me. But it was a lie. I knew it was… I knew it was all over as soon as I said the name!”

She smashed her scarred face into his neck and sobbed. He felt her hot breath against his throat, and then her hot tears.

“I knew he would learn the truth! I went in to Cearball! I went in to Egelric too! Sss—”

She hissed like a snake and shook her head.

She hissed like a snake and shook her head, banging her cheekbone against his shoulder. Donnchad tried to hold her head down.


She bit his tunic and moaned into the wool. Her body bucked as if she had taken poison. Donnchad squeezed her shoulders and grabbed the back of her thigh to pull her writhing legs against his hip, quieting her with force, since gentleness was not enough.

“Sister, sister,” he whispered. “Maire, Maire.”

She tried to turn him inside out, to twist him to pieces, to climb down inside of him, to swallow him whole. Unlike his brothers, he had always had the patience to hold her until she wore herself out battering herself against him.

And unlike Aengus, he never lost faith that her storms would pass, and there would be rainbows on the other side. Aengus never saw farther than the rain or the sunshine that was presently falling on his head. A man had to reason with him for an hour merely to point out a break in the clouds.

“He’ll never love me that way again! I had to kill her! I couldn’t bear to have that creature raising my babies! My babies! Brother!”

“Ach, no!” he groaned. It was too late to tell her that the idea was absurd. The grandchildren of Aed were not raised by base-​born mistresses, whatever their religion, whatever the shape of their ears. “Lay your head now, love…”

At last she relaxed, whimpering, “I want to go home. I want to be with my babies.”

“There’s nothing your babies are wanting more this night than their mama. They want you home. Now, let’s talk about that, sister. You’re in a bit of a fix just now, my own love.”

He grasped her shoulder and reared back his head, seeking to look her in the eyes at last. Maire sobbed and whipped her arms away from him, as if offended, and drew herself up into a ball.

Maire drew herself up into a ball.

“Maire, Maire,” he sighed.

He stroked his hand down her back, feeling the ridge of her spine beneath her heavy robe. In thirteen days she had scarcely eaten. Until he had come she had not said a single word.

“You’re a brave lass, sister, and you’re knowing it’s true. Now, I’ve just talked to your man, and I’ve talked to Sigefrith, but I was fearing I wouldn’t have the pleasure of talking to you. Let’s decide what’s to do together, darling. Talk to your old brother.”

'Talk to your old brother.'

Maire sniffled. She had stuffed her hands into the pockets of her robe, so he stroked her sleeve.

“Now, there’s a man who hurt you, isn’t there? Wherever you may have gone, whatever you may have done. Isn’t there?”

She nodded. The veil of hair hiding her face swayed in the draft. He coaxed her hand out of her pocket and squeezed it.

He coaxed her hand out of her pocket and squeezed it.

“What’s the name of him, sister?” he whispered. “Tell me the truth, and all will be put to right.”

The rain thrummed on the roof and dripped and plinked and splashed from overhangs, muffling all sound outside the room. Donnchad measured the seconds that passed with his own breath. It billowed almost as a fog in the frigid air.

“He’s far away across the sea, love. You’ll never see him more. Tell me the name of him.”

“But you’re already knowing…”

Donnchad released her hand to tug on each of his fingers in turn, cracking his knuckles one at a time. Women did not understand.

'Name him.'

“Name him.”

Maire hesitated only a moment more. “Egelric.”

“Aye.” Donnchad took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He wanted his lungs clear. “Egelric.”

He sat in contemplation of the name. So did he linger over the letters he sealed with his father’s ring, waiting for hardening wax to make them irrevocable.

He sat in contemplation of the name.

“Was it before or after you went in to Cearball?”

“Before. And after.”

Donnchad took another deep breath. Creeping roots of wrath threaded his lungs with an unfamiliar ache.

“Why did you not tell Aengus his name?”

She made some movement—a shrug or a toss of her head—that Donnchad saw only out of the corner of his eye. He decided it did not matter now. She had ceded the name to him. It would be his to hold.

It would be his to hold.

“I think I’m knowing why, Maire. I think he threatened you. I think he told you he would hurt you badly if you ever spoke his name. Isn’t it so?”

Maire made no reply at all. Donnchad stroked his hand down her arm and out to the tips of her cold fingers. Her hand flopped back onto her robe.

“Leave the fear all unto him now, sister. I swear to you: we will make him curse the cradle that rocked him. Your brothers will make him hate the sound of his own name.”

'We will make him hate the sound of his own name.'