Colban slowed to a creeping walk as he stepped out of the stairwell.

Colban slowed to a creeping walk as he stepped out of the stairwell, preparing himself to press his back against the wall and listen. After a peek around the corner, however, he simply strode in. The Countess sat alone outside the chapel, and if the Countess was outside, it stood to reason that someone else was on the other side of the door.

Colban selected a winsome smile, but he tempered it with the lifted brows and faintly furrowed forehead of a young man sensitive to the solemnity of the situation.

“Good evening, Edris. How are you?”

'Good evening, Edris.'

“Oh! Cubby! A little chilly, but well.” She sat forward and brushed a wrinkle out of his tunic. “How are you, dear?”

She took his hands and silently clapped them together, as one did the hands of babies. Colban twisted them out of her grasp. He hoped she did not think he had anything special to be unhappy about tonight.

“I’m well, but your hands certainly are cold! Wouldn’t you like to go up and sit where it’s warm for a while? I shall sit here for you. I don’t mind.” He concluded with an irresistible grin.

“Oh, Cubby…” She glanced past him at the heavy doors. “Malcolm’s in there right now. I mean, your…”

She flopped her hands in her lap. Ordinarily Colban was careful to steer conversations through the awkward shoals of his paternity, but tonight he only wanted Edris to leave.

Tonight he only wanted Edris to leave.

Finally Edris settled on a name that was merely irreligious. “…Magog. He’s… well, he’s here.”

Colban shrugged grandly and let his arms flap against his sides. “That’s all right. I shall wait here for him.”

He took Edris’s hand and stepped back. Edris leaned forward on her stool, hesitant to rise.

“Oh, Cubby…”

“You should go up in the hall and get warm. Baldwin and Emmie are up there. I think they were going to roast chestnuts or something.”

That did the trick.

“Chestnuts? Right before bed?”

Colban lifted her arm, drawing her off the stool as lightly as a tuft of down from a thistle.

“I think that’s what they said. They ought to. One shouldn’t drink hot wine on an empty stomach after all.”

“Hot wine? Oh, Baldwin…”

Edris turned towards the stairs.

Edris turned towards the stairs. In spite of his desire to be rid of her, Colban could not resist reminding her that he had already been forgotten.

He tugged on her hand and peeped, “Good night, Edris.”

She turned back to him and gave him a guilty smile.

She turned back to him and gave him a guilty smile.

“Good night, Cubby. Don’t sit up too late. Come find me or a grown-​​up if you get too tired.”

Colban rubbed her hand between his palms and gave it a last pat before letting go.

“I will!”

'I will!'

He dropped his treacle smile as soon as she turned the corner.

Too late? How long did she expect his father would want to stay in there? The last time he and Maire had been together, they had never lasted a quarter hour before one of them stormed out of the room. They had scarcely even spoken except by passing messages through Cousin Egelric.

Colban snorted a cloud of steam through his nose.

Cousin Egelric. Colban snorted a cloud of fog through his nose. She had gotten him, too.

Colban nudged the stool closer to the door and flopped down onto the creaking seat. He tucked his hands into his armpits and hunched over, preparing to outlast the cold that was already seeping through his clothes.

Colban nudged the stool closer to the door and flopped down onto the creaking seat.

He would have grabbed a coat and gloves had he known, but he could not go back now. That would surely be the moment his father chose to slip out of the castle. Colban would wait. There was no way out of the chapel but through that door.

He did not move when it opened, other than to clench his cold hands into fists. He kept his head down.

He kept his head down.

He wanted to know whether his father would walk right past him. He would run after him, of course, before he had gone too far – but he wanted to know.

His father took a limping step through the doorway and stopped. Colban watched his mud-​​caked boots scuffle sideways, turning towards the stool.

Colban stared at the mud-caked toes of his boots.

Colban pulled his fists out of his armpits and polished his knuckles in the palm of his hand. Aye, he thought, look at your son. Your living son, who comes second, after your dead former wife. Or perhaps third, after pretty young elf maidens. Or perhaps not at all if I hadn’t met you here.

“Colban?” A keen edge of fear strained the velvet of his father’s voice almost to tearing, like his first cry when once Colban had thought it would be funny to hide himself at a crowded fair.

Colban leapt off the stool, looking up only in time to aim his body between arms that were already open to catch him. He never again wanted to hear a voice like the cries that had followed.

'I wasn't even seeing you there!'

He laughed. “My Father! I wasn’t even seeing you there!”

His father squeezed him against his chest. Colban felt silent laughter tremble through.

“Dreaming, were you? Not about a lass, was it?”

Colban groaned, “No!”

“Plotting up new schemes for making trouble, then?”

“Hmm! May hap as that may be!”

His father shuddered with another laugh and rocked back on his heels, pulling Colban off-​​balance but holding him close.

“Weren’t working too much deviltry here, were you, scamp?”

'I wouldn't say that...'

“I wouldn’t say that…”

His father’s low laughter rumbled like a purr. “Not getting caught, anyway?”


“Ach! That’s being the son of me!” He smacked Colban’s behind and then tightened both arms around him, crushing the air out of Colban’s lungs in a contented sigh.

Colban pressed his face into the damp coat and strained against his father’s strength to breathe. He mumbled, “Like a sheepdog steeped in the Devil’s dish water are you stinking, Da.”

Soft laughter hissed through his father’s teeth. “Ach, what else am I? And you’re smelling like…”

He leaned his cheek against Colban’s head and stroked his hair. A shiver ran through him, and Colban snuggled closer, thinking to warm the tall body with his shoulder-​​high self. But the tighter he squeezed, the more his father shook, until he clasped Colban’s head against his neck and shuddered with silent sobs.

Colban could not lift his head.

Colban could not lift his head. “Da?”

“Your own self!” his father gasped. “God love you!”

His father sniffled and shoved Colban away. He cupped a hand over his mouth and nose until he had pulled out a crumpled handkerchief with the other.

Colban watched him blow his nose, wondering what had seemed odd in that first glimpse of his face. But when his father lowered the handkerchief he saw nothing strange. Only a few weeks’ beard and a dampness beneath his eyes that might have been tears.

His father sniffed and chuckled as he stuffed the dirty cloth away. He clapped a hand down on Colban’s shoulder and leaned close. The velvet of his voice was ragged and worn.

“Now listen up, laddie. I want you to go up and pack your bag. I’ve the one more thing to do tonight, and then we’re leaving.”

'Now listen up, laddie.'

“Are we going home?”

His father stooped to Colban’s height and patted his arms. “Aye! Are you glad?”

Colban slapped on a grin. He did not yet know what he was.

“It may be quite late when I come, but I shall want to be off at once, whatever the hour. So have your bag packed and your clothes and boots and sword all laid out, will you?”

'So have your bag packed and your clothes and boots and sword all laid out, will you?'

His father ought to have known that Colban’s bag was never unpacked, even at home, and he always slept with his clothes, boots, and sword neatly stationed at the foot of his bed. He would not be left behind because his father had no time to wait.

He nodded.

His father straightened and took a sidling step towards the entry, as Edris had done. “That’s a good lad, now – ”

“Where are you going?” Colban flashed an irresistible grin. “I can come with you, and then we might be leaving straightaway and not wasting any time!”

'I can come with you.'

“Ach!” His father pushed his sheepdog hair back from his face with both hands. Again Colban thought he glimpsed something odd on his father’s face, and again a close study revealed nothing.

“Is it to see Cousin Aengus you’re going?”

“I already saw Cousin Aengus, Colban…”

'I already saw Cousin Aengus.'

“Is it to Nothelm?”

His father sighed and rubbed his eyes with his fingertips. Colban saw then that it was not his father’s face at all – it was his father’s hand that had struck him with its strangeness. The tawny skin of his father’s ring finger was creased with a stripe of damp, pale skin: the ghost of a band.

His father’s hands dropped, but his eyes remained closed. “Aye, Colban. I’ve the one thing to do there, and then we shall be leaving. And God grant I never enter into this accursed valley again.” His right hand traced a cross through the air. “Aught but sorrow is it bearing our kin, and mayhap for all men.”

'Aught but sorrow is it bearing our kin, and mayhap for all men.'

Colban’s stomach felt sick. He had feared his father would leave without him, and now he was afraid he would take him away forever. He feared his father would be cold and cruel to poor Lasrua as much as he feared he would invite her home to Scotland. He even feared Maire had simply made him forget.

Colban feared he would never know what it was to want something with all his heart.

His father opened his eyes and squeezed Colban’s shoulder. “This one thing must I do, and then we will be free to go. Will you be ready when I come?”



His father nodded solemnly behind his sheepdog hair and stooped to kiss Colban’s cheek. His nose was wet and cold against Colban’s face.

“Best be saying goodbye to your brothers and sisters and friends tonight, as we shall likely be gone by morning. And… to Sigefrith. And…” His father stood tall and stepped back. “Greet him for me. I doubt we shall meet.”

He took another step. Colban nodded. His father turned away as if it had been a dismissal. He tossed his hair behind his shoulder like a cape and staggered off, his limp worse than ever.

He tossed his hair behind his shoulder like a cape and staggered off.

Colban would check his bag, and he would set out his warmest clothes if his father did not return before bedtime, but he would not say a word to Cedric or Sigefrith or anyone. Too many times he had announced to his friends he was departing with his father in the morning, and his father had disappeared in the night. At twelve his father had already taught him to leave without saying goodbye.

The door creaked open, and Colban heard the hiss and splatter of rain falling into the court until the sound was cut off by a slam. A gust of clammy air fluttered the banners and blew away the scent of damp wool and unwashed man.

Colban turned on his heel and marched into the chapel.

He lit a taper and whispered a prayer.

The water in the stoup was so cold it stung his fingers, but he crossed himself with great care. He lit a taper and whispered a prayer.

Then he was ready.

Colban had never seen a dead woman.

Colban had never seen a dead woman. He had long believed he had seen his mother lying on the ground, limbs askew, with the gaping mouth and dull eyes of a baby bird, but Sigefrith had told him it could not be so. Sigefrith had cradled him close to protect him from that sight. But this woman he had to see.

He crossed himself a last time and stepped up to the dais. There she was.

There she was.

Her skin was yellow-​​white, the color of cold mutton fat. Her cheeks were striped with black scabs, as if a child had painted crude cat whiskers on her face. She looked too small to be real; her head appeared smaller than Colban’s twelve-​​year-​​old head. He wondered why they had not dressed her more warmly, and realized that, summer or winter, it made no difference to the dead.

Colban did not think Maire had ever liked him.

Colban did not think Maire had ever liked him. He was the son his father ought to have given her. He was the son of the woman his father had loved.

But then Colban had never liked Maire either. She was the only ghost he knew who could haunt a house while still living. She was the rooms that were never opened. She was the shaggy horses that none were permitted to ride, and the overgrown garden where little boys were not allowed to play. She was the ring that for eleven years had imprisoned his father’s hand, and driven him all over the world in search of peace.

Her right arm was crossed over her breast, as the boys had used to lie when they played at being dead, but the left lay at an awkward angle over her belly. Colban leaned forward and peered down into the shadowy space between the casket and her body. He could just see the gleam of a ring on her finger.

He could just see the gleam of a ring on her finger.

He stood and looked back, but he saw no sign of Edris. The pews were empty. He looked up into the sanctuary. The lamp burned beside the tabernacle. He was alone with the Lord, a dead woman, and Aileann’s favorite doll, propped up against the casket.

The pews were empty.

He leaned aside and turned the doll’s floppy head until its button eyes stared at the carvings on the wall. With his right hand he made horns to ward off evil. There was not much he could do about the Lord.

He bent near the casket until the scent of fresh-​​cut wood was thick in his nose. He decided the ring on her finger was too small. It must have been hers. Then he cocked his head and saw the ring on her thumb.

Then he cocked his head and saw the ring on her thumb.

Colban’s heart pounded. In his twelve years he had done many things he ought not, but he had rarely been so frightened. He took a deep breath and held it. Then he reached in.

Maire’s hand was cold as stone. Her stiff fingers were strangely elastic: he could move them, but they immediately curled back. A nudge to her hand traveled up her entire arm, and Colban nearly lost his wits.

But his father’s ring was too big even for her thumb, and it slipped off into his cupped hand.

He reared up and clasped the cold metal in his fist, panting clouds of fog as he caught his breath. His galloping heart beat hot blood to his face and limbs, making him feel strong and alive.

He reared up and clasped the cold metal in his fist.

The ring seemed to warm faster than Colban’s skin, as if it still carried in its core the heat of his father’s hand. He imagined he could even feel the faint forty-​​year-​​old embers of his tragic boy-​​grandfather, for whom it had been made. 

Colban slipped the ring into the bottom of his purse and pulled the cords tight.

He whispered, “Witch, you shall not take him with you to the grave.”

'Witch, you shall not take him with you to the grave.'