Domnall had not seen Lord Colban since his brother's wedding.

Domnall had not seen Lord Colban since his brother’s wedding five months before. He had not remembered him so tall, his shoulders so broad, his arms so big around.

He looked up at Aengus and saw his Adam’s apple bob in a taut swallow. Aengus had been dreading this meeting, too.

Colin endured his nephew’s embrace, blessed him and said his surly piece, and then stomped off to greet with better grace the pitcher on the table, as well as Sir Malcolm and his twin sitting behind it.

Lord Colban turned to Aengus, and his expression of amused long-​suffering softened into a tender smile. Domnall was surprised. As long as Domnall had known him, Colban had never even spoken to Aengus except when duty obliged.

Now he opened his arms and said, “Cousin!”

And Aengus stepped right into them, as if the last eight years had never been.

Aengus stepped right into them.

Colban spoke a monologue of soft, short phrases that Domnall heard only as a comforting murmur, and Aengus nodded, nodded, sniffed, and nodded again.

So Lord Colban could forgive when he chose. Domnall did not know what to think of that. Colban still hated Domnall’s father for kidnapping his sister nearly twenty years before, though her forced marriage had not been unhappy by her children’s account. And eight years after her tragic death, Colban’s blood-​threat of vengeance still stood, and Domnall’s brother Cathal dared not meet him on neutral ground.

But Lord Colban could forgive when he chose. Maire was dead, and it was as if she had never been. Domnall decided that he did not approve.

With a last cousinly clap to his back, Lord Colban turned Aengus loose, and Aengus stepped back smiling and blinking wet eyes, disoriented as a newborn foal.

Colban noticed Domnall standing there before Aengus did. “God be with you, Domnall,” he said, lordly and solemn. “How are you, lad?”

'How are you, lad?'

Domnall bowed. “Well, lord.”

Aengus smiled on the both of them, lumping them together with the same fond gaze. Domnall did not like it.

Colban’s hand fell heavily on Domnall’s shoulder. “You have my sympathy.”

Domnall nodded.

Colban’s hand grew heavier. His fingers began to bite. “I’m knowing what it is to lose a beloved sister.”

Domnall did not move. Five months ago he would have thrown the hand off. Perhaps he would have said something cuttingly defiant, more likely he would have run and hid; but now he had to stand there and take it, because he had no father.

Colban released his shoulder and patted his arm, gently urging him aside. “Why don’t you go get warm by the fire? Have a snack if you like. I need to have a talk with Aengus and his father.”

Aengus snapped out of his smiling, teary-​eyed daze. “Let him sit with us.”

'Let him sit with us.'

“This is a family matter, Aengus.”

“He’s family.”

Colban lowered his head and stared at Aengus. “Our family.”

Aengus stared back. “He’s my brother.”

Colban’s belts creaked and his buckles tinkled, like a set of pipes filling with air. Aengus lifted his chin and drew his fists up beside his hips. Domnall considered admitting he preferred a warm fireside and a snack.

'Colban gave Aengus an ugly scowl.'

Then Colin smacked his empty cup down on the tabletop and belched like an angry bull-​calf. Colban gave Aengus an ugly scowl, but he exhaled harmlessly and turned back to take his chair.

He said to Colin, “You always were a fool for red-​headed women, Uncle.”

Colin made a sloppy snort and picked up the pitcher. “Reckon it was the first time the poor woman ever saw a bare prick, God bless her, without the beard curtain in the way.”

Aengus’s hand lit on Domnall’s shoulder. Domnall did not look up. He knew what he would see there: an apologetic smile and a flush of elated relief. Aengus endured any number of cuffs so long as he was tossed the occasional bone. Like an exiled wolf, Domnall too would henceforth have to live this way to survive. A new pack had let him in, but he knew where he stood.

A new pack had let him in, but he knew where he stood.

Malcolm flashed him a sympathetic smile as he dragged his over-​tall chair up to the table, but young Colban simply stared at him, one brow raised ironically. “Not when I’m lord,” he seemed to say.

'Not when I'm lord.'

“Quit your gawking and get the lad a cup,” Colin grumbled. “And better get another pitcher filled. You haven’t seen this kid drink. A fucking sponge.”

He winked at Domnall and nodded knowingly, as if to say, “Stick with me, lad, and we’ll both do fine.” Domnall almost forgave him the comment about his mother.

Colban turned his lifted brow towards Colin and raised it higher. Colin slid his arm perilously close to tipping over the pitcher and leaned over the table, staring bug-​eyed at Colban. Malcolm hastily called for another pitcher and a cup.

After Colin’s cup had been refilled and he had gone a fair ways to emptying it again, he sat back and said, “God bless you, men! The last time Aengus sat with us in council, you two lads were just a couple of booger-​faced kids. Not that he ever says anything worth hearing, but God bless him, at least he gives me something to rest my eyes upon that doesn’t make me want to puke.”

'God bless him.'

At the far end of the table Lord Colban lifted his cup. “We’ve missed you, Uncle.”

“Not as much as I’ve missed your wife. But it’s glad I am to behold us all come together again before I die. Even if, God bless me, to my mind the table will never more be full, with Flann gone.” Colin pressed his meaty hand against his heart and sighed. “God bless him.”

The men raised their cups, and Domnall, too, for he had liked Flann very well. There had been no such thing as shyness with Flann.

After they had drunk to his memory, Aengus pointed out, “Malcolm isn’t here, either.”

'Malcolm isn't here, either.'

Colin sighed. “See what I mean?” he asked young Colban beside him. “A waste of good air, telling us what’s plain to see. The thing about worthless fuck-​ups, Aengus, is that they’re like worthless coins: I don’t fucking count them. But notwithstanding that,” he called down the table to Lord Colban, “where is that sorry excuse for mucus? He has a wife here a-​waiting for him, God bless her. The elves plugged up the one hole that was a-​leaking, but she has a few more that could stand to be filled.”

'She has a few more that could stand to be filled.'

Lord Colban rubbed his hand over his face and patiently waited for Colin to finish. At last he said, “Aye, that is one of the things we need to discuss here.”

Colin nodded and picked up his cup. “Start discussing, then, for I’ve better things to do with my mouth than yap.”

He applied his mouth to his goblet, and a ripple of relief passed over the other men. Colin had said his surly piece.

Aengus asked Colban, “Where is he, then?”

Colban frowned at him and looked away. “He’s not here.”

Then Colban began to speak, and lacking a better audience, was obliged to address Colin. “The boys and I have just been to see the girl. A very ladylike, very lovely creature.” He shook his head. “A pity all this should have happened to her.”

'A pity all this should have happened to her.'

To Domnall it sounded as if he thought the true pity was that she was ladylike and lovely. Had he hoped to find her ugly and vicious?

Aengus asked, “What did you tell her?”

Colin said, “Aengus, shut up and let the man talk.” Before he sat back, he peered into Domnall’s cup and peered into the rapidly-​emptying pitcher, then peered into Domnall’s face with an ominous eye.

He peered into Domnall's face with an ominous eye.

“I also spoke with the priest,” Lord Colban said. The corner of his mouth twitched. “It appears he truly did marry them. But the marriage was never consummated.”

Colin threw back his grizzled head and laughed. “Malcolm? Our Malcolm? Nine times out of ten he consummates before asking the wench her name!”

“They were never left alone afterwards.”

“Aye, but surely—surely they were going out of order, and saving the formalities for last! Malcolm! God bless him!”

'God bless him!'

“No, they didn’t, either,” Colban snapped. “The marriage has not been consummated, neither before nor afterwards. She swore it.”

Aengus banged his fist on the table, or sat up so suddenly that he seemed to. “You asked her? You made her swear?”

Colin laughed. “That’s one way to find out! Should’ve asked her for proof, man! I shall find out for you, if you’re wanting to be certain!”

Young Colban finally found his great-​uncle funny and began to chuckle along.

Aengus repeated, “You asked her?”

“You will admit I had to know,” Colban said. “Everything depends on that.”

“What depends on that? He married her before God and witnesses!”

'What depends on that?'

Domnall scarcely knew this Aengus who could face down Colban’s thundercloud glare. He was nervous for Aengus’s sake. He looked to Colin and saw a gathering storm.

“And nevertheless,” Colban said, “if the marriage is not consummated it can be annulled.”

“The Devil! He would have done! Are you mad? He thought she was dying! He thought she was dead!”

Colin shouted, “Aengus, will you shut up?”

“Aengus,” Colban said with a patronizing tone of patience, “I know he thought so. Perhaps he married her out of sympathy, to grant a dying girl her last wish. But he knows now that she lives. For five weeks has he known.”

'For five weeks has he known.'

At last Aengus shut up.

“One of my messengers found him in Dunfermline, on the day he was leaving there by ship. He was told that she still lived. And he left anyway. Never even went to the castle to get my letter. Left no message. Simply left.”

Colban lifted his hands and let them fall back into his lap. His hard, almost triumphant tone had dissolved into a mumble of helpless confusion.

Domnall looked around at the other faces. Malcolm picked at the stem of his goblet. Colban stared mildly at his father. Colin wiped his mouth on his sleeve and grumbled, “What did I tell you? Worthless fuck-​up.”

Aengus asked meekly, “Did you tell her?”

'Did you tell her?'

“No, I wasn’t telling her anything. I wanted to see her first. And now, men, we need to decide what to do about her.”

Colin hefted the pitcher and topped off his cup. “I know what I want to do about him, God bless him. Geld him and stuff his empty ball sack full of burrs. Shabby son of a bitch.”

Young Colban glanced sideways at his twin and then leaned across the table to stare into his cup, raising a shoulder between them. “I doubt she’ll ever care to leave the valley. I say pension her off. Sell a few of his cattle. And give her Maire’s horses. It’s high time they were of use to someone.” He lifted his yellow eyes and blinked at Domnall.

Colin snorted. “Good luck driving half-​wild horses through Congalach’s country. You’ll lose them all, unto the horse you’re riding.”

'You'll lose them all.'

Colban smiled. “I shall be glad to try.” He truly did look glad: like a cocky young man who deliberately raised devils for the glory of laying them. Any son of Aed would have known him for a fool.

“But what about her?” Aengus asked. “What will you tell her?”

Lord Colban rubbed his forehead.

Malcolm said, “Nothing right away, I should think. Let her begin to understand on her own that he’s not coming back. Then, when we tell her, she will already be accustomed to the idea.”

Let her begin to understand.

Aengus’s face was a sickly pale. “Tell me you’re joking.”

Malcolm said, “Perhaps knowing for certain will come as a relief, by then, Aengus, rather than a wound. They’re hardly acquainted with one another. It can’t be love.”

Young Colban leaned across the table and gave Aengus the same “Not when I’m lord” look he had aimed at Domnall.

“Perhaps she’ll even find another man and be grateful to be released,” he said. “It happens sometimes.”

Aengus pressed his lips together and looked between Lord Colban and Malcolm, ignoring Malcolm’s brother. “Aye, then. It’s sounding to me as if you’ve already decided what to do.”

'It's sounding to me as if you've already decided what to do.'

“We’ve been talking about it while waiting for you,” Lord Colban admitted. “Are you having a better idea?”

Splashes of red were rising to mottle Aengus’s pale face, a heritage from his red-​haired mother. “Better than wearing poor Rua’s heart down to powder until she begs for release? I’m hoping we can think of something.”

“We are trying to think of what’s best for her, Aengus. She’s young. She scarcely knows him. Now, I don’t begrudge her the price he would have paid her. Let us—”

Aengus slammed his fist down, for certain. “The Devil take the price! He’s owing her a lot more than a handful of silver!”

Lord Colban sat back, simply frowning, as if it were not worth arguing with a mere Aengus.

Lord Colban sat back.

“He swore he would be a husband to her! The Devil take his silver! Let him be a man for once! Let him come back and keep his word! Or at least come back and forswear her to her face!”

“Aengus,” Colin said ominously, “shut up. You got your way once today. Don’t push your luck.”

“No! I shut up when it was Maire’s heart he was a-​breaking, and I’ll not do it now! He’s the only one you’re trying to protect,” he said to Colban. “Why won’t you tell her, and let her get accustomed to the idea all at once instead of letting her waste her youth and her health waiting for him? Because you don’t want to admit what a selfish prick he is, that’s why!”

Colin banged his fist down between pitcher and goblet. “Aengus!”


“How do I even know he got that message? Eh? That would be just like you, Colban. Trying just hard enough that you can look me in the face and say you tried. Every time it ever looked like he was getting fond of a girl, you had to come along and fuck it up. You forced him to marry Maire because he didn’t like her, and when it started to look as if he did, you had to fuck that up, too!”

'You had to fuck that up, too!'

It was plain from Colban’s thunderstruck face that Aengus had gone too far. Domnall knew that there were things Colban could never forgive.

“Aengus!” Colin bellowed. “Shut up!”

Aengus hopped down from his chair. “Aye, Da, I’ve finished. I want no part of this.”

'I want no part of this.'

“Then Aengus,” Lord Colban said, “you are excused. But do not defy me. I shall know who told.”

Lord Colban’s excused was a dismissal that would stand for all time. Any son of Aed would have recognized the tone. Domnall best of all.

But Aengus laughed as if he had been liberated and seen his captors locked up on the wrong side of the bars.

“Aye, you would! For I’m the only man capable of speaking ill of him outside the family. You’ll all say he’s a fucking saint for marrying a dying girl, and a fucking hero for abandoning her, as if he’s only giving her time to come to her senses! Aye, well, I’ll have no part in it. If you aren’t telling her the truth, you shall see Flann returning to your table ere I ever sit with you again.”

Aengus walked out.

Aengus walked out. He gave Domnall no glance that might have been read as an invitation to follow. When Domnall looked back to his pottery cup, as being the closest object without eyes, he ran into a blearily sympathetic look from Colin instead.

Colin muttered, “Aengus Aengus Aengus,” and shook his head with every repetition of the name. His words were beginning to slur, his slack lips to be wet with spit as much as ale. “Now you see why he used to get his runty ass kicked all the time when he was your age. Waste of good air.”

'Waste of good air.'

Domnall wondered whether Colin realized how often Aengus used to get his runty ass kicked in attempting to avenge insults to his drunken father.

Young Colban asked, “You a gambling man, Domnall?”

'You a gambling man, Domnall?'

Domnall stared at him. Colban ran his finger around the rim of his pewter cup and leaned closer.

“I’m taking bets. How long before he’s fucking her.”

Domnall hopped down from his tall chair and ran out after Aengus. He did not have to take it. He had no father, but he did have a brother.

Domnall hopped down from his tall chair and ran out after Aengus.