Glenncáenna, Galloway, Scotland

Sadb stopped to watch the wind tumble a speckled chicken feather over the dirt.

Sadb stopped to watch the wind tumble a speckled chicken feather across the path. She felt weightless and wind-​blown herself today, skimming in and out of conversations, skipping over whole parts of Mass, yet sticking at such grain-​of-​sand trivialities as a feather drifting across an empty court. Surely one good gust would simply blow her away.

She reminded herself she was going to visit Diarmait. She came unstuck and shuffled onward, head-​down, watching the dirt pass beneath her feet.

The air was golden and hazy, laden with an odor that would forever be the scent of mourning to her: a thin smoke, pungent and cold, wafted from a hill of Diarmait’s homeland whose name she did not yet know. That morning, after the men had ridden away, the boys had packed pails with hot coals and picnic lunches and tramped into the hills to burn off the windlestraw and the whins.

The men were riding to war, but the boys were burning away old growth to make way for new green life. Sadb stopped again and stroked her belly. She would remember this fact, so that she could tell her son what the world was like the day after his father’s funeral. Smoke, fire, shadow, feather, wind.

She would remember this fact.

Silence, too. She took another step and the crunch of dirt was the loudest sound. A breeze arose and blew through the rowan, and the court was so quiet that she heard the bare branches hum. It reminded her of Diarmait’s trick of pressing a blade of grass to his lips like a fairy flute and making it whistle and buzz.

Sadb smiled. Those mysterious boy things he knew! His talent for bird calls, for snare-​tying, for throwing a stone so it skip-​skip-​skipped over the water. The fishing poles he could make from a stick and the contents of his purse, and his knack at gutting a fish with two flicks of his knife and a twist.

But who would teach those boy things to his son?

And so the tears rose in her eyes again, and again Sadb chewed on her lip and waited until they sank back down.

She was going to visit Diarmait, she reminded herself. But before she worked up the strength to take another step, the sound of thumping feet arose from behind the church, and Diarmait’s younger brother burst into the court, lifting his knees high and waggling his arms in his little five-year-old’s run.

Diarmait's younger brother burst into the court.

The boyness of him took Sadb’s breath away. Then she heard his mother shout, “Sigefrith! Stay away from the horses!”

Sigefrith stopped and looked back. “I wasn’t going to!” he whined.

Sadb knew he was lying. She saw the body of a born horseman furled in the bud of his sturdy, bowlegged little silhouette. She saw a hint of Diarmait at five. She wanted to hold his tiny hand and take him to see the horses.

She wanted to hold his tiny hand and take him to see the horses.

But his mother called, “Return to my side!”

His mother! His mother had almost reached the corner of the church! Sadb tugged open the heavy door and ducked inside.

The door thudded shut behind her, and tears of frustration filled her eyes. She had thought herself so crafty, sneaking out directly after her nap without being detected by her mother-​in-​law. But her mother-​in-​law had not been in the house at all.

She had thought she would finally have a chance to visit Diarmait alone, and Orlaith had been in the kirkyard all the while.

She had thought she would finally have a chance to visit Diarmait alone.

Would his mother give him no peace? Would she not simply let him rest quietly, rather than incessantly praying that he would?

Sadb shuffled over to the stoup, but instead of dipping her fingers into the holy water, she held her hand up to the rays of hazy sunlight that streamed through the narrow window, bathing it in the slight, springlike warmth. Motes of ash glittered like gold dust around her fingers. This was true holiness, she thought recklessly. The water was cold and inert.

She heard Orlaith coming round the corner, speaking to some woman. They were not yet within range of the window, but Sadb thought it was Comgeall’s wife, Aibinn. She did not like Aibinn. Aibinn had informed her that being three weeks late was nothing to speak of, and it might turn out she wasn’t pregnant at all. Aibinn was smugly three months along.

What if they were coming into the church? Sadb could not bear it. More Aibinn, more Orlaith, more kneeling, more prayer—she could not.

Impulsively she snatched one of the lit tapers from the stand. Surely, she thought, Diarmait’s soul would spare her a light. As fast as she dared, she carried the fluttering flame past the window, then pulled back the heavy, drab brown curtain that hung before the crypt.

A gust of dank air flickered her candle and nearly snuffed her resolve. But then she imagined how Diarmait would have grumbled, “Dark as the Devil’s asshole down here,” and the funny thought bore her up.

She stepped down the two short steps and let the curtain fall behind her. She might as well have plummeted ten feet underground, for all the sunlight and shrub smoke that would reach her here. But ever since she had returned to Scotland, she had not once been so utterly, so gratefully alone.

She tiptoed inside.

She tiptoed inside, sinking into the cool, damp air. She was not afraid. The crypt was so small one could barely spread one’s arms without touching a tomb, and she had stood in it once before. There was no way to get lost and no place for monsters to hide.

Sadb ran her little orb of light over brick walls and polished granite surfaces until she found a low altar table and a couple of oil lamps in shallow bowls. There was even a pretty lace-​trimmed mat, and as she lit the lamps Sadb was surprised to see scarcely a speck of dust. Someone took care of this place. She hoped it was not Orlaith.

She hoped it was not Orlaith.

Sadb found no place to stand her taper, so she blew it out and laid it down for later. Then she folded her hands politely and looked around.

Diarmait was not here, of course. Diarmait was in the kirkyard, in a plain wooden box mounded over with the gravely soil of his homeland, in which only the hardiest plants could grow.

No, these were the tombs of his forefathers, the Kings of Strathclyde. The forefathers of his son, too, she reminded herself, patting her belly to make certain the small soul sat up and paid attention. They were all here, from Black Colin himself, down to Diarmait’s grandfather, whom King Malcolm had slain.

But the grandest tomb, she had learned, was not Black Colin's.

But the grandest tomb, she had learned, was not Black Colin’s, nor that of any other king. The bones of Black Colin lay in a simple grave beneath the floor, smoothed over with the same gritty soil that covered Diarmait. The towering monument beside him, which Sadb had assumed was his, belonged to Eva, his wife. Black Colin might have made himself King of Scots, Diarmait had said, but he had so loved Eva that his march of conquest ended here at Glenncaenna, where she had died.

Sadb understood. She too wanted to stay near her beloved. At the burial last night she had sized up the patch of earth beside the hole, knowing it would one day be her grave.

One day she would lie down beside Diarmait again: on his left side, as he had asked of her on their wedding night, so that when he rolled over to snuggle against her he would not lie on his sword arm and make it go all pins-​and-​needles, and he would always be ready to leap up and defend her.

Of course, he had not said “snuggle” then… but that was what he had been dreaming of…

Ach, Diarmait!

Ach, Diarmait! At last Sadb let her tears spill over. All that tenderness, cowering down inside of him! All those wasted months!

And she had thought him so brutal for thinking of sword arms when he had a naked young lady in bed with him—already nervous and fluttery enough without imagining rogues breaking into her bedchamber while she slept!

And she had thought him so puffed-​up and prideful for taking her into a crypt on her wedding day and introducing her to the family bones! Now she knew his pink-​cheeked stiffness had only been embarrassment and shyness—now she realized it must have been his father’s order, or Orlaith’s, and not his own idea.

But, ach! Diarmait!

Sadb spun about to face the row of tombs opposite Colin’s and Eva’s. What a sourpuss she had been, too! How she must have made him writhe! And truly, what had she been thinking? That if a man had kings in his family, it was only polite to pretend it was perfectly normal and not worth speaking of?

Sadb snortled and tittered, tearful and grieving but not precisely unhappy, imagining how Diarmait would have laughed. Sourpuss! Family bones!

Sadb snortled and tittered.

And she had tried so hard not to laugh when his sense of humor had gotten the better of him and he had told her the true stories behind the impressive names. Colin Stiff-​neck… Malcolm the Hammer… and Black Colin’s awful son Aed the Bald!

Sadb clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle her teary giggles. This was how she wanted to grieve!

And of course that was when the chapel door slammed.

Ach, Orlaith! Sadb knew it was terrible of her to be weary of a mother’s grieving—but she could bear no more of that kind today. This morning she had tried to share a funny Diarmait story, and Orlaith had listened stonily to her timid giggles, and Aibinn had looked pityingly on her, as if she were crippled in the head. She only wanted to laugh and cry! She did not want to pray and wail!

She did not want to pray and wail!

Sadb wiped the tears from her cheeks with her bare palms and looked around. Was there no place she could lie down and hide? If she put out the lamps, would the darkness and silence be enough?

While she wondered, some velvet-​footed person walked as far as the curtain, for suddenly a a triangle of hazy light flared out of the gloom. Sadb went so still—or the other girl was so distracted—that she only noticed Sadb standing there after the curtain had flapped back over the entrance, and she had stepped down into the crypt and nearly bumped into her. It was Diarmait’s sister Uallach, carrying what appeared to be a blanket.

It was Diarmait's sister Uallach.

Uallach said, “Ach!” and Sadb said, “Ach!” and then they stared at one another like two startled kittens with their tails puffed out like thistledown.

Uallach said, “I’m sorry—” and Sadb said, “I’m sorry—I was only trying to—”

“—hide?” Uallach suggested with a timid smile.


“…from my mother?” Uallach added.

There was such rueful fellow feeling in her voice that Sadb understood an “I, too.” Sadb smiled timidly and shrugged.

Uallach folded her blanket and tossed it aside. It landed with a blankety thump on the tomb of King Aed the Bald.

“It’s the perfect place for that,” Uallach said. “Mama never comes here.”

“Do you…” Sadb waved at the lacy mat, unsure exactly what she was asking.

'Do you...'

Uallach said, “I’m the only one who comes here, except on Easter and All Souls.”

Sadb did not yet know what to make of Diarmait’s little sister. Diarmait had called her “special” sometimes, and sometimes “odd,” but he had not spoken much of her at all.

But there was something poignantly Diarmait-​like about her, more than any of her kin. The beauty of Diarmait’s mouth hovered around her lips like a fog she breathed. Her skin had all the rose petal translucency of his, though in place of Diarmait’s flush of life, it revealed a sallow, blue-​tinged frailty.

But she did not have Diarmait’s golden eyes. Sadb had grown up on an island and knew every hue the sea could take on, but she had never seen a sea like Uallach’s eyes. Very special, very odd.

Very special, very odd.

“But you may come whenever you like,” Uallach added softly.

They had slept in the same bed last night, and yet Sadb had never heard her say so much all together. Uallach had an odd, feather-​light, floaty way of talking, too—so unlike all the pert young nieces and cousins surrounding her.

“Ach!” Uallach looked away, but her cheek proved she was capable of a blush after all. “You must think me morbid, coming here.”

Sadb said, “Ach, no! I’m not finding it morbid in the least. I’m not fearing old bones. And Diarmait was telling me funny stories about all the men…”

'And Diarmait was telling me funny stories about all the men...'

Uallach saw her gaze slip over to the tomb of Aed the Bald, and she laughed. “Ach, about the hair!”

Sadb giggled. “Aye, the hair!”

They laughed together. Sadb did not think Aed the Bald would be glad to know two young ladies were laughing over his tomb, but if he was off grumbling somewhere, it meant Diarmait would be there to laugh at him, too, and slap his old forefather on the back.

Uallach’s laughter faded into a soft sigh. “Aye, he was a storyteller, was Diarmait.”

'Aye, he was a storyteller, was Diarmait.'

“Aye, he was!” Sadb had a last, quavering laugh, and then she broke down into a sob.

Why had no one told her? Why had they wanted her to believe he was something he was not? That marriage was something it was not? When the truth was so much sweeter? All those wasted weeks!

Uallach laid an arm over her shoulders. “You must miss him so much.”

'You must miss him so much.'

“Aye, so much! And he never even knew about the baby!”

Sadb did not know why she blurted that out to his sister. She had been holding it back for so long, like these tears.

Uallach said gently, “He knows now.”

“Aye! But I wanted—I wanted to see his face when he learned!”

There was nothing to say to that, but Uallach did not try. She waited a comfortable while before saying, “He would have been so proud.”

“And who’s going to teach his son how to fish?” Sadb demanded, tearful and angry, as if it were all Uallach’s fault. “All those boy things? How to skip a stone?”

'And who's going to teach his son how to fish?'

Uallach sighed and looked away. “Aye, then, it’s not uncles the lad will be lacking…”

Sadb thought of Cathal and Comgeall and the others, and it troubled her to think that they would have the upraising of her son. Perhaps little Sigefrith… perhaps it was not too late for him…

Uallach roused herself and, mumbling at first, as though it was difficult to speak, she said, “I hope my brother Murchad will visit soon. You’re remembering him? From the wedding?”

'You're remembering him?'

Sadb remembered him. She remembered a big, slow-​moving man with a round face and coarse features. She remembered being grateful Diarmait had not been his twin, and a little annoyed because Murchad, so long as he was ugly, might have been short, too, and let Diarmait be grand and tall.

Such a crabby-​crab sourpuss she had been! Diarmait had loved Murchad, she had learned later. And Diarmait was just the right size, after all.

Sadb nodded. “Diarmait was speaking of him often.”

'Diarmait was speaking of him often.'

A smile flickered over Uallach’s mouth. “Ach, aye. They were very close. Murchad will be able to tell your baby about his father. Those boy things, I mean. How his da tied his bait, and so on. And those things boys will get to talking about when they’re lazing about fishing without any girls around. They were both a little shy, but not with each other, I’m thinking.”

Sadb nodded, sniffed, and swallowed. She did not think “a little shy” began to describe Diarmait, but what was the word? When a cuddly wee dormouse huddled deep in its burrow, one did not call it “a little shy.” What about “wary?” What about “terrified of hawks?” Why had no one told her?

“They were in prison together for a year,” Uallach said. “Were you knowing? Ach! Of course you were.” She pressed her hand over her cheek. Her fingers were spidery and long. “I’m talking like I’m forgetting you were acquainted with Diarmait.”

“He wasn’t talking about that time very often,” Sadb said, thinking to reassure her.

“No. Did he tell you…”

She trailed off, but rather than look away she scrutinized Sadb’s face, rousing her curiosity. Sadb asked, “What?”

“Did he… ever tell you why he never talked about it?”

Sadb gathered her wolfskin cloak closer around her throat. Torture? Brutality? All that her childhood ideas of prison had first led her to imagine? But Diarmait had never seemed troubled when he did talk about that year. Sadb shook her head.

Uallach began, “He told me once…”

She had such a delicate way of speaking, every word a feather or a fairy bubble she balanced on her tongue. Sadb held her breath.

'He told me once...'

“…how he was ashamed to talk of it,” Uallach continued, “because sometimes he wished himself back there. He told me it was being the happiest time of his life.” She added softly, “Sometimes I think of that.”

Ach, Diarmait! Sadb’s eyes spilled over again, and she wiped her face with a hand that seemed sadly plump, freckled, and ordinary in comparison with Uallach’s.

“He never told me that,” she squeaked.

“Ach! Sister!” Uallach stroked Sadb’s arm with the flat of her hand and gave her a lopsided smile. She left off with her delicate pronunciation, and mumbled over a string of taffy words. “It’s because he wasn’t knowing you then, silly. It means his happiest time was with you.

Sadb smiled and spluttered—laughing, but not precisely happy. Diarmait! Diarmait! If only she could be certain it was true!

Sniffling and smiling gratefully at Uallach, Sadb did not pay much attention to the first squealing whinny outside, nor to the distant answering cry.

'Thank you for saying that.'

“Thank you for saying that,” she whispered. Painfully, but because she was truly thankful, she added, “Sister.”

Uallach’s face was turned away, but she heard: she slowly smiled. Sadb was captivated by the blue vein that snaked up from beneath the girl’s jaw, fading out half-​way up her cheek. The poor thing’s skin was not merely pale like ordinary girls’—it was perhaps as brown as her brothers’, in fact—but it was almost translucent. She was like a little bird broken forth too soon from the egg. Sadb remembered Diarmait’s hungry hands and wondered how any man would ever dare touch her. She wondered whether Uallach would even live long enough to learn.

Then, at last, Sadb noticed the muffled thunder that rumbled both down from the roof and out of the earth beneath her soles. She heard a horse whinny and another respond, near and far—but getting nearer—and she remembered those earlier calls.

“Are you hearing that?” she whispered. “I’m thinking the men are home.”

'I'm thinking the men are home.'