Tynemouth, Northumberland, England

The dog wheeled and dashed back to him.

Colban called out, and the dog wheeled and dashed back to him in a spray of sand. The mutt had been tagging along with them since Hexham, and Malcolm had let him, because the dog was someone Colban could play with and talk to. That meant Malcolm could keep to himself.

While Colban dug bare-​handed through the muck left by the falling tide, Malcolm shivered on the dock. He still had a few days to run before he would be forty—five; he was counting—but the inner fire of youth that kept Colban warm and impervious to rain had burned out in him. He was sodden straight through. He was ash.

Malcolm shivered on the dock.

A sailor rumbled past with a barrow so heavily laden that the boards of the dock flexed beneath Malcolm’s feet. He failed to catch the man’s eye. The man was not on the lookout for anybody. Perhaps he was not from the same ship, though on a Sunday there could not have been many. Malcolm was growing tired of waiting.

He looked out onto the beach again to be sure Colban had not wandered out of sight.

He looked out onto the beach again.

The steady rain of the night was slackening into a misty drizzle that blurred the edges of everything and refracted the silvery light of morning into sheens of pearl. Colban’s laughter was muffled by the roar of the surf, and its highest notes mingled with the cackling of shorebirds who gathered on rooftops Malcolm could not see. He might have been looking onto a dream of a boy and his dog. Nothing beyond the boards of the dock seemed real.

But the dock was real, the leaking roof was real, and the salt-​spray cold was real enough to soak through layers of clothing and chill Malcolm’s shivering skin. He blew on his fists and lifted them to the weakly glowing pine torch that sizzled in the fog. His numb hands were slow to reassure him that the flame was real, but at last it seemed it was.

And then a denizen of the sparkling dream-​world soared up to the edge of the dock, flapped her broad wings to slow her descent, and settled on a fence post. It was a gull, big-​breasted as a hen, and silent as a breeze.

It was a gull, big-breasted as a hen.

Her webbed feet trod in place until she had found a comfortable perch on the rough-​topped post, and then she turned her head towards Malcolm and studied him with her shining black eye.

Malcolm had seen countless gulls on his way back from Brittany, and countless more as he and Colban had approached the eastern coast of Britain. Still, he never failed to glance at their legs. Hers, like all the others, were straight and clean and unscarred.

Meanwhile the bird looked Malcolm up and down as if she expected to see some noteworthy feature on him. Finally she cocked her head and stared him in the eyes. The fixed expression of her beak seemed to be a disapproving frown.

Malcolm whispered, “Caterpillars!”

He did not know what had possessed him. A bolt of pain tore through the fog of numbness he had nursed for days. He pressed his fists against his brows and focused on his breathing until it had passed.

When he lowered his hands the gull was still watching him.

When he lowered his hands the gull was still watching him.

The wind ruffled up the feathers over her breast, but she stood serene and looked as if she thought she did the wind a favor. Malcolm felt an urge to laugh that turned into another clench of pain. It was so like her!

The gull spread her wings, and without thinking Malcolm lifted a hand to stop her from leaving. But the bird simply hopped down onto the deck and folded her wings again. She padded across the boards and turned over a few bits of rubbish with her bill.

“Lost something?” Malcolm asked her softly.

The gull tossed a shell aside and lifted her head to look at him. Malcolm squatted down. Both his knees cracked, and the bird drew back her head. The expression in her wide eye looked more like wry amusement than fear. So like her!

The bird drew back her head.

A fhaoileag mo ghaoil,” he murmured. “My beloved gull.”

He wished he had explained the words to her while she could still hear. He had pretended not to know enough English, but in truth he had lacked the courage to say them in a language she would understand. Such were his pride and his cowardice that he could refuse to unclose his heart even for half an hour, even to a girl who already had the chill of death in her hands.

But she had said she loved his voice—like velvet, she had said—and begged him to talk to her in Gaelic so that she could lie back in his arms and listen. She could understand his voice, she had said, regardless of words. And he had told her in words she could not have understood that he understood the voice of her eyes. Then her eyes had fallen silent forever.

The gull dipped her head and trod a careful path through the rubbish, a few steps closer to Malcolm. Such a dainty way she had of walking, in spite of her webbed feet!

Slowly, so not to startle her, he moved his hands to his side and untied his purse.

He moved his hands to his side and untied his purse.

“Are you looking for something, my treasure? Have you lost something, my pet?” She loved his voice, she had said. “Come nigh to me, then. It happens I’ve something that isn’t mine.”

Creaking as he had become in the knees, Malcolm still knew how to move his body in purling waves. A skittish animal, watching for the first sudden movement as her signal to flee, would never see one; and before she knew it, Malcolm’s hand would be rubbing her neck.

He pulled the butterfly from his bag and held it out, the pendant pinched between his fingers, and the chain clasped in his fist so that it would not swing in the wind and startle the bird. His arm was steady, but his heart pounded; he was nervous as a boy. He scarcely felt the cold.

“Is this what you’re seeking, my jewel?”

'Is this what you're seeking?'

The gull padded closer, her head high. Her eyes were fixed on the butterfly, and she scarcely glanced at the sharp bits of shell she stepped around.

“Are you knowing it?” he asked her.

His arm was steady, but his voice began to waver. The gull stopped and stared up at him with her black eyes. They spoke with a voice he did not understand. The fixed expression of her beak now seemed sad.

“Is it even yours, then?” he whispered. He leaned closer. “Is it you, lass? Is it you, my own love?”

Countless Celtic romances crowded into his mind: selkies and swan maidens, tales of lovers changed into animals to be kept apart or to be reunited forever. Only stories, he had always thought—but then he had never believed in elves, either.

“Come nigh to me,” he pleaded. “Let me touch you.”

'Let me touch you.'

Would she change? Would he?

The door swung open behind him and cracked against a barrel. The gull spread her wings and flapped away, shrieking in alarm. She wheeled back off the dock and flew straight up to disappear above the eave of the roof overhead.

Malcolm howled, “No!”

An old woman plodded through the door behind an enormous basket of rags. Celtic romances were crowded out by the shouts of men farther down the dock, the hollow thudding of cargo into an empty hull, the roar of the surf, and the high-​pitched laughter and ecstatic barks of a boy and a dog. It was all very real, and not a dream.

Malcolm straightened his sore knees and bounded off the dock to run limping out onto the sand.



There were dozens of gulls on the ridgepole of the roof, all alike; and at his sudden, staggering appearance and his shout, they rose up in a swirl of flapping wings, caught the sea breeze, and soared inland.

In an instant they were gone, and he could only hear their outraged screes fading into the dockside cacophony. He staggered back a few steps, but the tall roof hid the sky. He did not even know where she had flown, north or south or west.

He did not even know where she had flown.

He only knew that she had not gone out to sea. And it was out to sea he was going.

Behind him, the dog gave an exuberant bark, and Colban a boyish laugh. With their different voices they spoke the same language.

At that moment it occurred to Malcolm that Colban had not even given the dog a name. At twelve the boy seemed to understand that some loves were not meant to last.

Malcolm heard a boyish panting, and boyish feet jogging up to him in the sand. “Da!”


On this trip Colban had taken to calling him “Da” rather than the more respectful “Father,” as if they were pals, as if they were both boys together. In his childish way Colban was trying to hold on to something that was no longer there. Five more days still had to pass before Malcolm would be forty, but he was a boy no more. He had not grown up—he had simply grown old.

“Look what I found!” Colban held up a wet, scaly, black and orange thing. “It’s a dagger! Look! It just washed ashore in the storm! I think it’s Viking! Or Roman!”

Malcolm snorted and tried to smile.

Malcolm snorted and tried to smile.

He could see it now: the vague silhouette of the short blade, no longer than a man’s middle finger; the crusted protrusions of the guard; and the skinny tang. His own boyhood was not so distant that he had forgotten the fascination of such worthless treasures, and his father’s heart soaked up some of his son’s delight and warmed.

“The handle’s gone,” Colban said, “but we could have a new one put on. And I wager it could be polished right up. Don’t you think?”

Malcolm thought that the thing would fall into a heap of flakes if applied to a whetstone, and he knew the corrosive powers of seawater too well to believe the knife could have dated from any period but the reign of the Normans.

But he said, “It’s worth a try.”

Colban grinned at him and slipped the rusted blade into his belt.

Colban grinned at him and slipped the rusted blade into his belt.

The dog trotted up, wagging his tail and lolling his tongue, and Colban turned and flung his arms around the dog’s neck. They growled and wrestled, barked and laughed, and a chill crept over Malcolm’s fatherly fondness—a bitter envy of his son who knew, already at twelve, how to love freely and let go.

“You cannot be taking that dog with you!” he warned, more harshly than he had meant.

Colban smiled up at him, his head beside the dog’s slobbering head. “I know, Da. But it was fun to have him while it lasted.”

Fun while it lasted! Malcolm nearly howled. Colban had had his dog for four days, Malcolm his wife for half an hour. Osh and the priest had not even allowed them a few minutes alone together.

And nevertheless Malcolm had allowed her father to be alone with her at the end, though he would have liked to have held her hand as long as she lived.

A strange voice intruded into Malcolm’s skull—a shout: “Are you the two looking for a ship to Dunfermline?”

Malcolm grudgingly opened his eyes. They were wet, but it might have been the rain.

The man plodded over the sand to meet them.

The man plodded over the sand to meet them. Everyone looked to Malcolm. The dog panted and wagged his tail in encouragement, blissfully unaware his heart was about to be broken.

The man stopped and sniffled and wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. He was not weeping; he was simply cold. “Well, are you?” he demanded.

The man waited. The dog grew bored and wandered aside to sniff and snort at the seaweed, unaware that he was living his last moments with his new friend. Blissfully unaware.

The dog grew bored and wandered aside.

What if they turned around and rode west and north, back up the Tyne? A young mutt could trot as far as Galloway if they went slowly through the Borderlands. Malcolm could let Colban explore the old wall and the ruined forts to his heart’s content. He might find a real Roman knife.

And they could go home, to the low-​slung, thick-​walled house that his father had built for his bride. Malcolm did not think it had been opened in years: not since Maire had fled, and Malcolm himself had not stood in it for some time before that. All told he had scarcely slept more nights in it than his father had—his boy-​father, who had never grown up because he had died at nineteen.

As he had seen the stones laid, his love-​struck, sensitive father must have dreamt of a little boy playing there one day; perhaps a boy and his dog. Malcolm had preferred horses, and he had grown up in his uncle’s house in any case. But it was not too late to make his father’s dream come true. The first thing they would have to do was give that dog a name.

The first thing they would have to do was give that dog a name.

“Da?” Colban’s voice was high-​pitched as a girl’s with anxiety. “I think he’s meaning us.”

Malcolm’s startled heart clapped shut, squeezing out childhood and fatherhood alike.

He frowned at the stranger and lifted his head to a nobleman’s height. He waited until the man’s expression had shifted from annoyance to apprehension.

“Aye,” he growled. “It’s about time.”

Malcolm tossed his wet hair over his shoulder and set off towards the end of the dock, limping over the sand as fast as his aching knees would carry him.

'I'm in a hurry!'

“I’m in a hurry!” he shouted over his shoulder as the man jogged up behind him. “There’ll be a reward for the crew if you get me there as fast as you can!”

Faster than dogs could trot, he might have added. Faster than gulls could fly.

'I'm in a hurry!'