Glenncáenna, Galloway, Scotland

Aileann took a backwards-running leap and flopped back onto her bed.

Aileann took a backwards-​running leap and flopped back onto her bed.

“I hate Lent!”

Uallach was accustomed to being shocked at regular intervals by her seventeen-​year-​old niece—Cathal’s Aileann—but that did not allow her to be any less shocked when the time came.

“Aileann, really…”

Her twelve-​year-​old niece—Comgeall’s Aileann, called Lala—was scarcely out of the nursery and already following in the backwards-​running, flying-​leaping, regularly-​shocking footsteps of her elder namesake.

Especially on Sundays!” she added.

'Especially on Sundays!'

Uallach looked down at her, aghast. “Lala! The Sabbath day the Lord gave us to rest!”

Uallach did not hesitate to scold the younger girl. Someone had to. But she had always been a little in awe of the elder, even back when Donnchad’s Aileann was still unmarried and in possession of the name, and Cathal’s Aileann had gone by the unimpressive name of Pickle.

“That’s the problem!” Lala said. “I can’t even knit to pass the time! What are we supposed to do on a Sunday afternoon in Lent? Sit around and feel holy?”

'Sit around and feel holy?'

Aileann belched. Lala giggled. Uallach rubbed her forehead and sighed. Perhaps she should have stayed at home today after all. But there was such a thing as too holy even for Uallach: and that thing was her mother.

“Hark!” Lala said. “Aileann suggests we sit around and digest!

Aileann began kicking her foot against the side of her bed: thunk—thunk—thunk.

“Digesting takes a lot of effort this time of year,” she said. “Nothing left but gummy parsnips and salt meat from the bottom of the barrel. I swear, I would trade my firstborn for a roast leg of lamb and a plate of fresh peas with new butter!”

“Don’t say that!” Uallach cried. “If the fairies hear!”

'If the fairies hear!'

“Fie! If a fairy man can feed me on fresh lamb and peas before Lady Day, I shall marry him, and he can make my firstborn himself!” Aileann patted her belly.

“Aileann, please!”

Aileann only laughed. Uallach closed her eyes and inwardly recited a prayer of protection against fairy folk, focusing her thoughts by imagining her own voice speaking it aloud. But with her thunking foot Aileann managed to bother her all the way down into her skull.

Lala whined, “I wish one of you would get married.”

“To a fairy?” Aileann asked.

“No, to an ordinary man. Ach, do, Cousin! We’re so dull here! Then we could have the fun of planning for your wedding, and making nightgowns and things.”

Making nightgowns! That was Lala.

“Aileann,” Uallach said, “would you please stop tapping your foot?”

Aileann complied by pulling both her feet up onto the bed, soles-​down upon the bedspread. Uallach’s mother would have screeched.

Aileann complied by pulling both her feet up onto the bed.

“Count me out!” Aileann said. “I would much rather keep house for my father than some man.

Motherless Aileann was mistress of her house—hence her disregard for the bedspread. Uallach smiled, wondering whether her brother Cathal would be flattered or insulted to learn his daughter did not consider him a member of the contemptible tribe of men.

Lala asked slyly, “And I suppose you also prefer to share a bed with your sister, rather than some man?

That was Lala. She could turn any conversation to the subject of sex, though with considerably less finesse—and practical knowledge—than her mother.

“For sure and for certain!” Aileann said. “Sleep beside a big brute who snores and farts and kicks the night through? Fie!”

“Doesn’t Mairgread kick and snore and fart?”

'Doesn't Mairgread kick and snore and fart?'

“Aye—but an eight-​year-​old girl’s farts! Toot-toot—it’s almost cute. Whereas a man…” Aileann squashed her face between her hands and belted out a blare worthy of a fat man’s behind.

That was Pickle. Uallach flopped face-​first into a cushion to stifle her giggling.

“What about you, Uallach?” Lala asked.

Aileann said approvingly, “Nobody farts in her bed but her own self!”

Uallach rolled over onto her back and smiled up at the ceiling. “Mama says I’m getting spoiled sleeping alone. Why do you suppose she treats my bed like the local inn for unmarried female visitors?”

“To keep you well farted-​upon,” Aileann suggested.

“So why don’t you get married?” Lala whined.

“So she can be farted upon every blessed night?”

“Shut up!” Lala shouted at Aileann. “So she won’t have to sleep alone. Men can do more in bed than fart and snore, you know.”

'Shut up!'

Aileann smashed her cheeks together and heaved a flatulent sigh.

“So do!” Lala said, returning to pestering Uallach. “I think Lord Eochaid likes you.”

Uallach made a soft sigh of her own. Lord Eochaid did like her, she knew. His mother did not.

“Lord! What a wedding that would be!” Lala said. “We’d be a week at the feasting of it.”

'What a wedding that would be!'

“And think of the nightgowns,” Aileann said, smirking at Uallach through the gap in her embroidery frame. “There might even be bedsheets to embroider!”

Uallach mustered a weak smile. But she wished Aileann would change the subject again. Even to sex. Even to the passing of wind.

Lala simply laughed in her young girl’s delight at growing up. “Promise me you’ll let me help! I’m old enough to sit in with the women!”

“I solemnly swear,” Uallach said, “that upon announcement of my betrothal, you shall both be made slaves to my nightgown-​trimming and linen-​embroidering. And you may tease me about the removal thereof and the lying thereupon to your hearts’ content.”

Lala squealed in victory. “You too, Aileann! Promise me!”

“I promise,” Aileann said, with the dull carelessness of one who thought the event neither likely nor desirable.

'I promise.'

Uallach believed Aileann truly did not want to be married. Her father asked little and gave her everything she wanted in return. By marrying she would halve her rights and double her duties.

But more importantly Aileann had simply never been in love. Uallach expected it—they all expected it, Cathal with a quiet dread—but a pretty, healthy, vivacious seventeen-​year-​old granddaughter of Old Aed would have her pick of men. She had only to make up her mind.

Matters were different for a sallow, sickly, tongue-​tied fifteen-​year-​old daughter. Uallach’s fits were becoming known. Lord Eochaid’s mother had already shortened her son’s leash, and it was said Young Lord Aed had responded to one of Uallach’s mother’s pointed hints with pointed sympathy for Uallach’s uncertain health.

Comgeall’s wife Aibinn had already prophesied that she would be obliged to marry some aspiring commoner willing to overlook her defects, if her mother did not settle on a lesser nobleman’s son in a hurry.

Uallach did not want to marry at all if it came to that.

Uallach did not want to marry at all if it came to that. Indeed, she did not want to marry at all. She had been in love—was in love still. But the only man she wanted, she could never have. Married—married—married… The word clanged in her head like a door slamming over and over… like a foot thumping against the side of a bed…

“Aileann,” she groaned, “would you please, kindly, stop tapping your foot?”

Uallach did not like to reveal that she had a headache, but if there was such a thing as willfully thoughtless, it was Aileann.

Aileann, however, said, “I’d love to oblige you, darling, but behold my innocent foot.” She lifted her foot high above the bed, letting her skirts slip down to reveal a shocking length of bare leg. Lala whistled.

And meanwhile something went on thunking, thunking, thunking in Uallach’s head. Its rhythm was not in time with her heartbeat, so it wasn’t her pulse beating in her skull. Was it a new kind of fit coming on her? Dread rising, Uallach looked over the side of the couch for anything that might impale her if she fell.

Uallach looked over the side of the couch for anything that might impale her if she fell.

“I’m giving up stockings for Lent,” Aileann confided.

Lala hooted with glee. “You are not!

“Nothing like cold air blowing up your skirts to make you feel holy.”

“And if the wind blows your skirts up around your ears?”

“You shall see how holy I’ll be then! All the men will be shouting, ‘Hallelujah, praise the Lord!’”

Lala laughed until she had to hide her face between her knees.

Uallach smiled so as not to attract attention to herself and scanned the room. She would have to get out of the way of the embroidery frame or risk knocking it over. But if she went too far she might fall against the brazier and scatter burning coals across the floor—or even Lala or herself.

The safest place in the room appeared to be Aileann's bed.

The safest place in the room appeared to be Aileann’s bed. But if she lost control of her bladder! No, she would have to go outside. Perhaps she could make it to the church.

Aileann slid off the bed and looked Uallach over. “You all right, darling?”

“Ach! Aye… only a headache…”

Uallach cupped her forehead in her hand. The thunking was getting louder, but it kept its steady rhythm, like a slow march of booted feet inside her skull. No voices yet.

“I can hear it pounding from here,” Aileann said.

Uallach looked up, alarmed.

Uallach looked up, alarmed.

Aileann grinned at her. “It’s only the drummers drilling, I’m thinking. Shall I go out and distract them for you with my holiness?”

She made a little skip and deftly flipped up her skirt to at least knee-​height in the back.

Lala squealed. “May I come?”

“I was only kidding, chucklehead. Though they’ve no business disturbing my digestion on a Sunday afternoon in Lent.”

Aileann frowned and brushed off her arms, looking rather as if she meant to go “distract” the men with her fists.

Uallach said dazedly, “Surely they’re not… drilling on a Sunday?”

Aileann cocked her head and considered this.

'Surely they're not... drilling on a Sunday?'

Lala said, “Anyway, when they drill they don’t just… pound on their drums: dun—dun—dun.” She slapped her thighs in time with the pounding, rocking on the floor and rapt with her nonsense like a child.

But Aileann’s eyes met Uallach’s, and they were two women coming to a terrible realization. They had last heard that dire thudding of the drums on Saint Stephan’s Morn, when Donnchad’s Aed’s infant son had been laid to rest. They were funeral drums.

They both dashed for the door, leaving Lala squawking, “What?” and scrambling after.

Outside the drumming was louder: thud—thud—thud. Its percussive echoes ricocheted off the hills, making the location of the drummers difficult to guess. The court was almost empty beneath the lukewarm, late-​winter sky, but what people there were all converged towards the hall.

What people there were all converged towards the hall.

Lala asked, “Did someone die?”

Once they reached the hall the people were turning and heading northward, towards the Gate of Ken and the road that led down to the loch. Had one of Uallach’s brothers come to harm outside the fort? What could have happened in the hour since dinner?

In partial answer to her question, the door swung open behind the girls and Uallach’s brother Cathal stepped out into the light. He stopped at Uallach’s side and lifted his head, listening. Uallach looked up at his chin from beneath, trusting he would be able to reassure them.

Instead he asked in a high, hollow voice, like the wind’s, “Aileann, where’s your brother?”

Uallach shivered. Nephews, cousins…

Uallach shivered.

The drums were getting louder with every thump, with every measured step down the loch road, and their echoes clattered between cottages and byres to spill into the court through the narrow space between Donnchad’s stone house and their father’s.

Aileann said, “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him since dinner.”

Lala asked, “What’s going on?”

“Bide here, girls,” Cathal said as he went back into the house. “I shall be right out.”

'I shall be right out.'

“Where’s he going?” Lala demanded of Uallach and Aileann. “What’s going on?”

“We don’t know, darling,” Aileann said.

Uallach slid her hand into the slit in her dress and into the little pocket inside. She shoved aside the comb and kerchief and other bric-​a-​brac of her daily life and dug down to the bottom. Her fingers slipped through the soft, curling braid of her dead sister’s hair to find the weighty silver medal of Saint Columba nestled in the seam, which her brother Murchad had brought her from Ireland.

“Lord have mercy,” she whispered, caressing the grooved edge. “Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy…”

The people arriving from the eastern court had stopped walking down the road and begun gathering in the forecourt of the hall.

“Let’s go see,” Lala said.

Aileann hushed her, “Whisht!”

Uallach whispered, “Christ hear us. O Lord, graciously hear us.”

Beneath the beating of the drums there grew the thudding of boots, a jingling of buckles and harnesses, a creaking of wheels. Aileann’s dark-​skinned brother Malcolm came out of the hall and strode double-​time down the road. The crowd split for him and closed up behind him when he had passed.

“There’s the Moor,” Lala said. “I’m going!”

But she did not go.

The people gathered in the forecourt began falling back, some disappearing into the hall and others simply stepping off the road into the weeds. Uallach had never seen so many people so silent. Something was coming: some creeping, creaking, many-​legged beast with a drumhead heartbeat so resonant that it rang the bones of her face.

“Blessed Mother, pray for us. Mistress of Heaven, pray for us.”

The head of the train passed the corner of Donnchad’s house and came into view. Uallach squinted her weak eyes. The man in the lead was dressed in black like all her kin, but a red-​haired woman in a golden gown leaned on his arm, slouching, bent with grief.

A red-haired woman in a golden gown leaned on his arm.

Dear God, it was her mother! And who was the man with her, who walked without a limp? Who was on the wagon being pulled by those black horses? What was taking Cathal so long?

Uallach tried to focus on her own voice, praying in her head, but even her imagination was falling apart. “Queen of Angels, pray for us. Is my father dead? Queen of Saints, pray for us. What will become of me if my father is dead?

Abruptly the marchers stopped. The horses stopped. The drummers stopped. The woman in gold swayed against the man. And other men swarmed around the wagon. The creaking and cracking of boards sounded across the court as its side was lifted off.

Uallach heard another creak beside her and turned. The door to her house was open, and her mother stood in the doorway: her beautiful, red-​haired mother in her golden gown.

Her mother stood in the doorway.

Uallach lipped the word, “Mama…” The sight of her mother’s double in a funeral train seemed such a dire omen that Uallach believed for a moment that her mother was the one dead, or was about to die.

From the shadows behind her mother came the peeping voice of her little brother Sigefrith, saying, “It’s all over.”

Then sharp-​eyed Aileann said, “That looks like Sadb of Mull.”

Uallach turned her head and looked at the procession. Men were lifting a wooden box down from the wagon. But if that was Sadb of Mull, who was the man in black bearing her up?

Aileann whispered, “It’s Diarmait.”

Uallach turned to disagree with her. The man was too tall to be Diarmait, his hair too long. But when her eyes met Aileann’s pitying eyes she understood.

At the same instant, twenty paces away, her mother understood too. Her mother screamed once, and then she was running too fast across the court to scream a second time.

Sigefrith squealed, “Mama!” and ran after her, and then Uallach did, too.

Uallach ran, too.

Their world was falling to pieces: their dignified mother was galloping like a goose girl, with her long braid flapping, and her black stockings flashing as high as her knees.

“Mama! Mama!” At that moment all that mattered to Uallach was that she catch her mother, and cling to her, and keep their world together.

All that mattered to Uallach was that she catch her mother.

It was not until she stumbled to a walk in the forecourt of the hall, her lungs already burning, that she truly understood what was happening. In flashes she saw the drums laid aside in the weeds. She saw the black horses nodding before the empty wagon. She saw the end of a long wooden box disappear into the hall, borne up by her brother Donnchad and his son Aed.

Her mother reached out for it with the last strides of her run, but it slithered away. She lifted her skirts and hurried down the stairs, but Lord Lulach left Sadb’s side and prevented her from following.

“My son!” her mother moaned. “My son! You have taken my son!”

'My son!'

Uallach arrived in time to see the men carry the box down the aisle. Her little brother Cualann, barely ten years old and too short to help carry the coffin, nevertheless walked beside it with his upraised hand on the wood. Uallach spotted her father’s broad-​shouldered, black-​caped back in the center of the hall. The men were obliged to swerve around him, but he neither touched the coffin as it went by, nor even turned his head to watch it pass.

Uallach whimpered, “Mama…” but she was too in awe of the events to touch her mother. This was not like receiving the letter that told about Lathir. This was not a private, family scene.

Two grim-​faced, unshaven men of Mull were conspicuous in their colors of sky blue and flame. The men who had drummed and the men who had merely walked beside the wagon had all taken the time to arm themselves, and the silvered tips of scabbards glittered everywhere at the level of bare knees. And when Uallach’s brother Cathal arrived just behind her, she saw he too now wore sword and dagger, as if he had immediately known what the drums must mean.

Donnchad, Comgeall, and the other men carried the coffin up onto the dais. Uallach was sickened by its slant as it went up the stairs.

Men and women flooded into the hall behind her and trickled into shadows and behind columns. Nobody spoke aloud, but she heard a whispering like rushing waters, like the voices of her dreams, only they were saying things like “Diarmait” and “Brass Dog” and “Ramsaa” and “Young Aed.”

Once on high, little Cualann left his ceremonial station and removed the lamps from the table one by one. Uallach did not understand at first. Then, when the last was gone, the men heaved the coffin onto the table and stepped back.

Uallach was aghast. Her brother’s body—on the table at which she dined—slung up onto the tablecloth like a side of meat!

Uallach was aghast.

Donnchad stooped and kissed the lid of the coffin with such tenderness that Uallach broke down into a blubbering sob. But no one heard, for at the same moment her mother threw back her head and let out a long, keening wail of grief, concluding in a groan.

Uallach’s mother had been fifteen years old at Diarmait’s birth—Uallach’s age now—and virgin though she was, Uallach felt herself teetering at the brink of the greatest heartbreak of her life. Some night, not long hence, she would lie down with a man, rise up with a child in her belly, and begin that long fall.

The women allowed the bereaved mother the first cry. Then, while their lady was gulping for breath, they took up the blood-​chilling chorus together, dozens of voices in the court and a few inside as well, filling the hall to the rafters, and outside filling the sky.

Cathal bent to kiss the coffin. His lips were moving soundlessly when he stood, speaking words only ghosts or God could hear.

The women allowed the bereaved mother the first cry.

Uallach limped after her mother and found herself beside Sadb—Sadb, who was scarcely older than Uallach and already a widow. Would Uallach have this to bear too? Sister, daughter, mother, wife, losing everyone she loved? Was it sinful to be grateful she was sickly and might die first?

Uallach whimpered, “Sister…”

Sadb tipped her head to the side and looked at Uallach out of one dull eye. Her dirty hair straggled uncombed over the matted fur of her wolfskin cape. Her magnificent wedding gown, which had been the talk of all the girls last September, was wrinkled and torn, and salt-​edged stains on her skirts showed how high their hems had been wetted on several occasions.

And slung heavily across her hips was Diarmait’s own sword belt, which Uallach knew to the last buckle and stitch; and in the scabbard was Diarmait’s own sword. Buckles, belt, and scabbard had shredded gaping holes into Sadb’s lace shawl.

And slung heavily across her hips was Diarmait's own sword belt.

Sadb looked away. Comgeall kissed Diarmait’s coffin, and Uallach’s mother cried out for her son.

Her father never looked at her mother. He stood straight-​backed without his cane and stared ahead, but from below Uallach could not even be certain he was looking at the coffin and not merely studying the tablecloth’s embroidered hem.

She did not think he would gather her close and hold her against his side as he had when they had learned of Lathir’s death. She did not approach him. She did not dare.

Uallach bobbled after her mother—her proximity to her mother’s sleeves and hems was the closest thing she had to comfort in this crumbling world. Donnchad’s son Aed crossed himself and kissed the coffin. Uallach wondered: Would she have to kiss it, too? She could not!

Would she have to kiss it?

She looked around for someone she could cling to, but although Aileann and Lala had arrived, although she was surrounded by family and friends and members of her household, there was no one—they were all too far—no one even noticed her standing there. And toddling along behind her mother she was only drawing closer to her brother’s body, inescapably, like a floating leaf circling a drain.

Her mother sobbed, “Diarmait!” and hearing her brother’s name only made it worse and more real. Lord Lulach looked to her father, and when he saw her father would not help he tried to put an arm around her mother. Sigefrith wailed, “Mama!” and Aileann scooped him up and shushed him. Cualann kissed the coffin.

The sight of her own child bidding farewell to her eldest son seemed to break Uallach’s mother. She screeched and flapped her loose sleeves, battered Lulach away, and hurled herself at the dais. She did not even take the stairs, but attempted to clamber onto the low serving table and up from there. Donnchad reached for her arm, and Lulach pushed her up, and between the two of them they got her onto the dais, apparently preferring that to letting her injure herself in her struggles.

And Uallach shuffled after her, whimpering without a sound, invisible, as far as the edge of the serving table down below.

Her mother pressed her fists against her mouth and moaned at her first sight of the coffin lid, but then she snapped together, queen’s daughter that she was, and ordered savagely, “Open it! Let me see my son!”

'Open it!'

Confusion. Lord Lulach mumbled apologetically from below, Donnchad tried to soothe her, but everyone else—aside from Sadb, whose face was turned dully towards the floor—looked to Uallach’s father. But Uallach’s father stared straight ahead, as if he were alone in the great hall and only pondering whether it might be time to clean the chimney.

“Open it!” Uallach’s mother shouted.

Outside, unaware of what was happening, the women went on keening for their lord’s son. Men continued to gather in the court, curious and respectful, bowing their heads or wringing the ends of their scarves between their hands: dirty crofters and cowherds who had followed the drums.

Lulach looked a question at Sadb. Sadb did not respond, but Uallach saw a tear fall straight from the girl’s eye to the dirt, and her jaw working as she gnawed her lips. Her hands were white-​knuckled fists at her side. Diarmait’s widow was trying to hold herself together.

“He is my son!” Uallach’s mother howled.

Donnchad tried to calm her, saying, “Lady…” but Comgeall whipped out his long knife and slid the tip beneath the lid. He pulled back on the blade and Uallach heard a crack. Cathal joined him, and then Donnchad’s Aed, and Uallach heard the screech of nails being pulled. Lulach stepped up onto the serving table just below her mother, perhaps hoping to catch her if she fainted.

Uallach looked to her father. She could not believe this would be allowed. Comgeall and Cathal were opening her brother’s coffin like a barrel of salt meat upon the table. Did they even know what was inside? But her father stared at a point somewhere below the level of the lid, and made no protest.

With a last screech and crack the simple, raw-​grained lid was pulled back.

With a last screech and crack the simple, raw-grained lid was pulled back.

Uallach’s vision was spinning. Sadb, her face a ghastly blue-​white, tottered to the edge of the table and dropped. Uallach moved clumsily to catch her, but when she came nearer to the girl she felt waves of shuddering tension shoving her away. Sadb had not fainted—she had deliberately dropped to her knees in the dirt and was using all her coiled-​up strength to pray.

Uallach’s mother made a terrible sound then: a slow, ringing shriek, as if she had turned to stone and a long iron nail was being drawn out of her.

It was followed by a renewed wail from the women outside, and at that moment Uallach understood that the ritualized keening of her race had been modeled after a real human cry. Some ancient mother—perhaps Rachel herself—had grieved for her son, and since that day the sisterhood of women expressed their grief by copying the sound. But into the life of almost every one there came some portion of that Original Sorrow. The only escape was to love no one, or to die.

Uallach felt more girl than woman then.

Uallach felt more girl than woman then, and instead of keening she managed only a blubbering cry. But that was enough to get her mother’s attention.

Look at him!” her mother howled, turning to the hall. For a moment it was unclear whom she addressed, for she looked up to the rafters as when she prophesied. Then she lowered her head and stared at Uallach.

Even then Uallach was not certain she was meant, for her mother’s eyes were so wild that she might have been seeing straight through her. But then she cried, “Come look at your brother!”

“Mama, no!”

Uallach glanced back at her father, but her father saw neither her nor her mother. His chin might have been moving beneath his beard. That was all she saw.

Look at your brother!” her mother howled.

Donnchad tried to calm her, but her mother was becoming as blind to the other people in the room as her father was. Uallach, however, she still saw.

Look at your brother!”

“Mama, no!”

Her mother reached down for her, and Uallach pulled back her arms so that her mother could not grab a wrist and drag her. But her mother did not reach for her arm. Her mother stood back and pulled, and pain burst across the crown of Uallach’s head. Her mother was dragging her onto the platform by her scalp.

Uallach screeched and clawed at her mother’s wrist, but her mother’s hand had turned to iron, and it was tangled in her hair. Donnchad grabbed Uallach’s wrist and Lulach her opposite elbow, and they swung her up onto the dais to prevent a greater injury. Her mother let go as soon as she was on high, and the searing pain eased into a scintillating ache.

Look at your brother!” her mother snarled.

“No, Mama, please, no!”

'No, Mama, please, no!'

Perhaps she ought to have climbed up the stairs with Cualann and the others and kissed the plain wooden lid. Perhaps she ought to have come willingly at her mother’s command and looked into the coffin from a safe distance. She would have seen, but the memory would have faded over time. She would never have to look upon her dead brother again.

Instead, she smelled him, and she would smell him again many, many times, all the rest of her life. Every winter, every time someone opened a dwindling barrel of slightly rancid salt meat, Uallach would remember her brother.

Look at your brother!” her mother commanded.

Uallach stood quaking, expecting any moment to feel a hot trickle of urine running down her leg, expecting to feel her mother’s fingernails dig into her cheeks or clamp around the back of her neck and shove her face down into the coffin to look look look at her brother.

Instead her mother turned to the hall and howled, “Look at what your father let them do to your brother!”

'Look at what your father let them do to your brother!'

Even outside the women heard that their lady had addressed the assembly, and their keening fell silent.

“Look at what they’ve done to my son!” her mother shouted. “Look! Look at what they’ve done to your son!”

She pointed at the coffin. She was addressing Uallach’s father now, sobbing, her face wet with tears and slimy with snot.

“Look! Look at what you’ve done to your son! You gave my daughter to a Norseman so this would not happen! You married my son to a Norsewoman so this would not happen! And when you could have sent aid to Diarmait so this would not happen—! Monster! You black monster with your heart of coal!”

Uallach looked to her father, breathless with shock. She had hosted Lala and Muirgel in her bed when their parents’ midnight conjugal disputes escalated to shrieks and slams and crashes, but she had never seen her own mother raise her voice against her father. Her world was forever shattered.

“And when Domnall—my son Domnall! Aye, I’m saying his name! When Domnall called you for what you were, you monster! you stone-​hearted, graven image of a man! You sent him away! How many of my children must I lose before you’ll lift a finger? Her next?”

She grabbed Uallach’s arm, and Uallach squealed like a piglet strung up by its leg, expecting anything so long as it was bad. Her brother Donnchad sprang to her rescue, and, clucking and coaxing, convinced her mother to release her with surprising ease.

But her mother had gone out like a snuffed candle. She mumbled soundlessly with slippery lips and swayed her wet face blindly, seeking but not seeing—neither Uallach before her, nor Diarmait’s body at her side.


And just when there was nothing left to react to, her father came to life and roared, “Enough!”

Even the shocked whispering stopped then. Outside, Uallach thought, even the wind died.

Without his cane, her father was obliged to creep painfully across the floor, shuffling with one foot and hopping on the other. He stepped closer to the dais, closer to Sadb, who kneeled in a rictus of prayer before him.

“Diarmait was a grown man!” her father cried. “His life was his to live! His death was his to die!”

He stooped. Uallach thought that he meant to pull Sadb to her feet, and not knowing the reason, she feared for her. Instead he grasped the hilt of Diarmait’s sword.

He pushed down, sending the silvered tip of the scabbard skittering across the dirt until he could cleanly draw the sword from behind Sadb’s back. Startled, Sadb twisted around and thumped onto her behind.

Uallach’s father lifted the sword high. He was about to slay Sadb. Sadb knew it, too, and put up her hands.

Uallach's father lifted the sword high.

Or was her father about to kill her mother for dishonoring him before his household, his servants, and two men of Mull?

Uallach recalled a few words from months before, hanging together for an instant before they scattered, like beads slipping from a string: A man has no worse than the wife he deserves.

“And Aed of the Aenguses, too, is a grown man!” her father shouted, still holding the sword over his head. “And Eirik son of Olaf is a dog! Their lives are theirs to live, while they can! And their deaths are mine to deliver! By this sword, the sword of my son, on which I swear!”

Sadb said, “No!”

Uallach’s father’s eyes went wide. His cheeks turned purple above his beard.

“No!” Sadb repeated, her voice hoarse and shaking. “I claim that sword! I claim the right of vengeance—for my son!”

Uallach’s father’s arm sank. The tip of the sword slashed a long arc and finished hanging inches above the dirt. Her mother whimpered, “My son will have a child?”

Sadb sniffled and swallowed and sank back into a mound of stained golden skirts. She lowered her trembling arms until they lay in a protective curve over her belly: over Diarmait’s baby, and over the silver buckle of the belt that carried his sword.

Uallach’s father stooped and laid the sword in the dirt before Sadb’s tangled skirts, and creaking and wincing he stood tall again.

He stood tall, but Uallach had never seen him look so spent and decrepit. His mouth quivered beneath his beard, like a toothless oldster gumming bits of bread, and his cheeks sagged.

Uallach thought he might cry liquid tears, but instead he barked, “Boy!”

He looked at no one, but there were a number of sons and grandsons around him, all trained to answer that call. It was Uallach’s brother Cualann who arrived first at his side.

Her father clamped his big hand over her brother’s skinny shoulder and, shuffling, they turned. The people stepped aside to let their lord limp out of the hall, alone with Cualann, his living cane, now his sixth son left alive.

Cualann was now his sixth son left alive.