Glenncáenna, Galloway, Scotland

Dust was the other thing Sadb would remember.

Dust was the other thing Sadb would remember when she spoke to her son of this day: the men and the horses, brushed to blinding in the morning sun, returning mud-​spattered, dirt-​clotted, and ashen, treading up a cloud of dust that would cast a pall over her world.

But for now she did not understand. A good eighteen miles separated Glenncaenna from Carn Liath, and the path—only a flattening of the grass, really, or bald patches in the lichen—struck through the heart of the Wilderness of the Winds. There were stones and sharp gravel, hoof-​sucking mud, the two Waters of Fleet to ford—and the wolves.

Riding hard, the men could scarcely have reached the sea-​mouth of the Cree before nightfall. Yet here they were back at Glenncaenna, and the sun’s yellow face still glowered through the smoke on the hills.

“Cathal!” Sadb lifted her hems and ran to the front of the pack where Cathal walked alone.

Cathal did not stop for her, and she jogged a few steps at his side, looking up into his dusty face—long enough for him to turn his head and growl, “Get in the house.”

Sadb stopped cold, and Cathal walked on. They all walked on, coming up two– and three– and four-​abreast behind her and marching past without a nod. The only courtesy shown her was the bare fact that nobody walked smack into her.

They all walked on.

Sadb watched the faces flicker by and tried to understand. The men were all gray with the dust of riders who have ridden behind other riders, but no one appeared to be injured—no one limped, she saw no bandages.

Then she saw Comgeall arriving on a course that would have taken him past her at a good arm’s length, but he glared at her as he approached, as if daring her to call his name. Sadb did better and stepped right into his path, forcing him to stop.

“Comgeall! What happened?”

“Get you girls home, the two of you! This is no time for women!”

'This is no time for women!'

The stream of men parted widely around the three of them: Comgeall and Sadb and Uallach behind her, tugging on the end of her cape, trying to pull her away. Comgeall stared a moment longer, daring her again. Then he walked.

Sadb said, “Tell me what happened or take me with you! In my son’s name!”

She grabbed Comgeall’s arm as he passed her, but yanked her hand back just as suddenly. He was a big man, an angry man like Muirgius, and she had already been burned.

Comgeall stopped again, so close to her now that he loomed.

He stopped.

“You had better be carrying my brother’s child, woman,” he said low. “And you had better pray to God it’s a son.”

The men tramped past on either side. Uallach dragged on Sadb’s cape, drawing it tight around her shoulders, but Sadb could not have moved a step. She could not even lower her arms.

And Comgeall stared. He was not even daring her now, for she had already gone too far.

“Nothing happened!” he told her. “No farther than Three Winds were we riding, for what did we find there? That young rat Congal of the Girics with his mangy wolf pelt”—he twisted the hem of Sadb’s wolfskin cape in his fist—“waiting atop the wall!”

Sadb gasped. Comgeall smirked at her reaction and released her cape. But Uallach still clung to it from behind, with one hand twisted in the fur and the other scrabbling at the waist of Sadb’s gown.

“Forty horses is he having in the fort,” Comgeall said, “and had I not counted them myself from a hilltop I’d not have thought they’d fit. Forty horses, not seven miles from here, Sadb! Courtesy of Aed of the Aenguses! And are you knowing why? Congal said the wolves have grown too bold of late, with no one at Three Winds!”

Donnchad's son Aed came up among the marching men and slowed, listening.

He laughed harshly. Donnchad’s son Aed came up among the marching men and slowed, listening.

“Aye, the wolves!” Comgeall said, leaning over the girls, his fangs bared. Black dust traced the creases of his leathery skin like an artist’s outlines, exaggerating his leer. “And the rats, too, I would have liked to tell him! But he!”

Comgeall straightened and pointed down the stream of men towards his brother’s back. He shouted so Cathal would hear.

“He would be coming home to ask our father what to do about it! Instead of making up his own fucking mind!”

Aed muttered, “Come along, Uncle. Grandfather’s a-​waiting.”

Comgeall whipped his head around and tried to glare at him, but Aed stared off towards the hall. Comgeall brushed off his arms and stepped up beside him, jostling Sadb, and the two men joined the ranks of warriors marching by.

But Comgeall turned to shout back to Sadb, “None of this would be happening if Diarmait had stayed put and minded our father!”

Uallach whimpered like a baby animal and collapsed against Sadb. Her frail body was not heavy enough to drag her down, but she trod on Sadb’s skirts and rooted her to the spot, preventing her from standing straight, forcing her to cower. And armed men marched past on either side, as if this crumbling pile of womenfolk were only an inconvenient rockfall upon the road.

Armed men marched past on either side.

Congal and his horde had descended upon Three Winds. Sadb imagined them swarming in—piling onto her bridal bed, wiping their noses on her embroidered linens, pillaging her silver chest, devouring her preserves. And her cat! Her fat gray dumpling! The only pet she had been allowed to bring from home! What would they do to her cat? Even Diarmait had admitted he secretly liked her cat…

Sadb’s head sank, and a pair of tears fell from her eyes, making two black spots in the dirt. Men’s boots trod past, kicking up skittering bits of gravel and raising a low cloud of dust that was already graying her hems and would soon hide the traces of her tears.

And something was wrong with Uallach.

Abruptly Sadb realized the girl was not merely clinging to her, she was tearing at her gown and banging her head against Sadb’s hip—not merely crying, but whining weirdly.

Sadb twisted around and caught a glimpse of Uallach’s face. She had never seen a color like the terror in Uallach’s eyes. For just that instant she saw Uallach alive and aware and helpless behind them.

Then the eyes rolled back.

Then the eyes rolled back. Uallach smacked her lips loudly a few times, stiffened, and fell over.

Sadb moved to help her, but Uallach jerked away from her hand, propelled across the dirt by her arching back and flailing limbs. Sadb looked around for help. The men that had already passed them glanced back and hurried onwards. The men that were coming up from behind hesitated and spread wide.

Sadb turned back towards the hall and screamed, “Comgeall! Help me!”

'Comgeall!  Help me!'

She heard Comgeall’s boots pounding back up the path before he burst out of the crowd of men. He had heard the fear in her voice and come directly to her aid. But as soon as he saw Uallach jerking about on the dirt, he reared back in outrage and bellowed, “Not now, Uallach!”

The men that had been hesitating hurried onward now, spilling past the new obstacle in the road, kicking up clouds of dust.

Comgeall leaned over his sister and shouted, “Not now, Uallach!”

'Not now, Uallach!'

Sadb could not believe it. Half of the girl’s face was gray and gritty from being dragged over the path. Her arms were twisted behind her back at an agonizing angle. And Comgeall was scolding her?

“Go on, Uncle,” Aed mumbled. “I’ll watch her.”

Comgeall made a barking sound and stormed off. Sadb looked gratefully at Aed, but Aed simply squatted over Uallach’s spasming body, with his mouth set in a glum frown.

“Aren’t you going to help her?” Sadb babbled. “Aren’t you going to hold her?”

Aed shrugged. “There’s no holding her when she’s fitting. A body has to let her thrash it out.”

'A body has to let her thrash it out.'

“You’re meaning to just let her lie there?” Sadb squeaked. “Her lips are turning blue!”

Aed only cocked his head and studied the girl’s deathly face. Uallach flopped like a dying fish. The blue of her lips spread onto her cheeks. On either side the last of the men were still coming up and passing by, and in spite of Sadb’s desperate glances, no one met her eyes.

Sadb could not bear it. All these men—all these so-​called heroes—and not one would stop to aid a real lady in real distress. A lot of strutting roosters they were: so puffed-​up and flustered about the activities of the neighboring cockerels that they would leave their lord’s daughter writhing in the dust like a worm.

Evidently this was a time for women. Sadb ran for Orlaith.

Sadb ran for Orlaith.

“Lady!” she shouted all the way across the court. “Lady!”

Orlaith must have heard her, for she was already getting up from her couch when Sadb burst in. Sadb caught a hint of a frown on her face. Aibinn looked up at her with one brow raised. Sigefrith held a limp stuffed toy to his breast and stared at her, with his mouth open in an O.

“Lady!” Sadb panted. “Something’s wrong with Uallach! She—she—she’s having a fit, and her lips are blue!” Sadb pointed back at the door with a shaking arm.

To her relief, Orlaith took this news with the seriousness it warranted. She belted her coat and said, “Aibinn!”

Aibinn rose and grabbed a scarf.

As Orlaith reached Sadb she asked, “Where is she? With Aileann?”

“Outside, lady. Outside—on the path!” she added in tearful indignation. “With the men coming in and walking almost over her, and not a one would be stopping for her! Not one except Aed, and he won’t even touch her!”

Orlaith gasped in outrage, and Sadb was grateful. At least the women were not out of their minds.

At least the women were not out of their minds.

“We were—” Sadb remembered just in time not to reveal Uallach’s hiding place. “—just talking,” she said shakily, “and we heard the men returning, and we went out—”

The last of the men had disappeared into the hall, and the court was eerily empty again. To reveal their passing there remained only a low cloud of dust catching the sun.

The two horses that had so enchanted little Sigefrith were still tied to their posts, tossing their heads and stamping the turf in their desire to join the clamorous herd that was being unsaddled and rubbed down before the Gate of Dee. And Aed still squatted over a prone figure in a sea-​green gown, motionless now.

“—and then,” Sadb gabbled, “I don’t know—she had a shock—and the next thing I’m knowing… Lady, she’s right over there.”

Sadb pointed past the tree to Aed and Uallach, but Orlaith kept to her straight path alongside the hall.

“I see her,” she muttered.

'I see her.'

Well, Sadb thought, Orlaith was a very formal, very superstitious lady. Perhaps such ladies did not quit a proper path to run kitty-​corner across the grass. Perhaps such ladies did not take shortcuts between ancient standing stones and a two-​hundred-​year-​old rowan with raven’s nests in its branches. Even when their daughters were lying unconscious in the dust.

Shaken, Sadb babbled on. “Congal of the Girics has taken Three Winds, Comgeall said, and that’s why the men are home—”

Aibinn’s head turned, and she looked behind Orlaith’s red head at Sadb. Her dark brows made an angry V over her nose, and Sadb was grateful to have a companion in her outrage.

“Now they’ve even taken my house!” she squeaked.

Aibinn turned her face away without a word nor even a glance of sympathy, and Sadb was no longer certain her anger had been directed at Congal of the Girics. She was glad she hadn’t mentioned her poor cat.

'She was glad she had not mentioned her poor cat.'

“Lady, they’re over there,” Sadb insisted when they reached the turning and Orlaith failed to turn. Sadb stopped there and watched bewildered as Orlaith and Aibinn veered off towards Lord Aed’s house instead. Were they going to fetch Uallach’s father? Was he not in the hall with the men?

Sadb decided she did not care. She turned and trotted up the path as fast as she dared without breaking into a run, in case her mother-​in-​law had eyes in the back of her head.

She turned and trotted up the path as fast as she dared.

Aed still squatted over Uallach, with one arm moving over her body, but he drew back so suddenly at Sadb’s approach that she stopped, startled, fearing he had been touching his father’s half-​sister in a lewd way. At the sight of her, however, Aed relaxed and pulled a clean handkerchief out of Uallach’s pocket to wipe her dusty face.

Uallach’s lips were no longer so very blue, but tiptoeing up to her, Sadb could not even see her breathe.

“Is she…?”

Aed said, “Ach, aye. She’s all right. She isn’t often waking up right away.”

“Has she—has this happened before?” Sadb asked timidly.

'Is she...?'

“Ach, aye.”

Why had nobody told her?

Sadb stepped closer. “I think—her mother went to tell her father.”

Aed looked up, his eyes wide. “I’m thinking no,” he breathed.

Then he bolted to his feet and stared off behind Sadb. Sadb turned and looked up along a pair of towering shadows that stretched from the corner of the hall almost to her hems. Above them the stouter silhouettes of Orlaith and Aibinn eclipsed the sun, their skirts swaying as they strode closer.

Aed stuffed Uallach’s crumpled handkerchief into his own purse. Sadb no longer felt so very relieved.

Uallach woke and whimpered as the shadows fell over her, though there was little warmth to be felt in the late winter sun. Aed comforted her with a quiet clucking of his tongue until Orlaith and Aibinn had drawn near enough to hear even that, and he fell silent.

Uallach woke and whimpered as the shadows fell over her.

Orlaith stopped at Uallach’s feet and stood over her without bending until Uallach opened her eyes. Uallach jerked, and Sadb feared she was going into another fit, but she went rigid and lay there with her eyes wide and her mouth clenched in a sickening grimace.

“Aye, then, daughter,” her mother said. “I congratulate you. The name of you will be spoken far and wide. More than your brother’s. More than Sadb’s. It takes a lot to turn the tongues of gossip from treachery and murder, but I daresay you’ve done it!”

Her concluding words were so loud and shrill that they echoed between the hills.

Uallach attempted to sit up but managed only to twist her shoulders into the dust. Her lips moved, but they never came together to make a word out of her whimpering. Her panicked eyes looked from face to face, and when she reached Aed he mumbled, “You had a fit, Auntie.”

“Aye, a fit!” Orlaith cried.

Aed cringed and Uallach flopped back.

Aed cringed and Uallach flopped back.

“A fit, outside in the open air, with your father’s every man walking by! And you looking up their legs, I venture to say! Vain hussy!”

Sadb croaked with shock. Uallach brought her lips together well enough to whimper, “No, Mama, no…”

“The earth’s not yet settled over your blessed brother’s grave, and here you are thrashing about before the eyes of the entire world! Not even your own dead brother is to be allowed to share the attention with you, it seems!”

'Not even your own dead brother is to be allowed to share the attention with you, it seems!'

Sadb looked to Aed, but his head hung low, and his stubbled cheek was all she saw behind his hair. She looked to Aibinn, but Aibinn stood rigid behind Orlaith, and with the sun at her back, her face was too dark to read. That left no one but Sadb herself.

“It was a real fit she was having, lady, and not any play-​acting. I was there.”

Orlaith looked up at Sadb. Sadb could scarcely read her face, either, but she was careful to meet her stare. At their feet Uallach stirred and mumbled, “No, Mama…”

Orlaith turned her attention back to Uallach. “If she is ill,” she said sharply, “then she needs to be treated.”

'No, Mama, no...'

Uallach sank back into the dirt as if it were a soft pillow. “No, Mama, no…”

Vain hussy her own mother had called her, and there she lay in the dirt, all limp and scuffed and stained. Even her delicate face was grubby, in spite of Aed’s furtive attempt to wipe it clean. Sadb noticed a scrape on her chin, beginning to bleed.

Sadb noticed a scrape on her chin.

“Aed!” her mother said.

Aed straightened and saluted her.

“Take her.”

Uallach bleated in panic and tried to plead. Her rubbery lips and tongue slurred almost every word, but Sadb understood her desperation.

“Where are you taking her?” she demanded.

Orlaith stared at her. Aed stooped over Uallach, mute and awkward now in spite of his gentleness and his clucking of before.

Orlaith said, “I believed you were resting.”

“I had a nap, and I just came out—”

“Go back to the house and lie down, daughter. This excitement is not good for your baby.”

“But, lady—”

Aed slipped his arms beneath Uallach’s shoulders and knees, and watching her, Sadb forgot what she was going to say. She was so pitiful: pleading incoherently, stirring and squirming, yet taking care not to whack her looming nephew in the face. In her place, Sadb thought she would have scratched and kicked and screamed.

“Are we going back to the house?” Sadb asked Orlaith, still holding out a slight hope.

Orlaith stopped and looked back at her, appearing surprised to still find her there. “I believe I said you are.”

Aed straightened his knees and lifted Uallach up off the path. Sadb saw her desperate eyes flash past, catching hers for only an instant. Sadb put out her hand in time to touch the dusty hem of her skirt and the thin, dangling ankle beneath.

Aed carried her off towards Lord Aed’s house, and Orlaith and Aibinn fell in behind him.

Orlaith and Aibinn fell in behind him.

Uallach was quiet now, her mouth open in a trembling O. Too frightened to plead, Sadb thought. Her own heart was pounding, her own stomach swirling with dread.

She watched them take Uallach down the slight slope to Lord Aed’s house, but instead of opening the grand door, they turned and went into a smaller door on the right, letting into a small extension of the house that gave it the shape of an L.

Sadb had never entered Lord Aed’s house at all—no women did, except for his wife, when he summoned her. But now she remembered something Diarmait had said: how his father’s doctor had his infirmary attached to the house, with a door cut through to his father’s chamber so that the old lord could be treated in secret.

Sadb waited until the door had banged shut, then ran down the path and thumped down behind the stone wall to watch. She could not quite see the window, but she could hear Uallach maundering half-​comprehensible protests inside—“No, Mama,” and “Please, Mama,” and “Mama, I promise.”

And she heard a man’s muttering voice that she thought was Aed’s, until the door opened again and Aed stepped out. She watched him flash past the gap in the wall, then he caught the sun and his shadow sprawled far down the path.

He caught the sun and his shadow sprawled far down the path.

Sadb held her breath and waited. Aed walked slowly, rubbing his fist. Sadb crouched down when he opened the door to the hall, but she listened. Inside an angry man was holding forth in a series of shouts, and dozens of male voices were rumbling their agreements and their protests. Then the door slammed, and the voices were cut off.

But there were other voices now, beyond the court: the men and boys bringing the horses back to the stables, the gossipy women already calling one another to the market square. Glenncaenna was coming back to life. Sadb could not stay here.

She hitched up her skirts and dashed around the wall. The curtain was pulled back from the infirmary window, so she hurriedly hunkered down and crept up to the sill from below. Inside she heard Uallach whimpering and crying in shivering sobs. She heard Orlaith say, “Hold her legs.”

Sadb’s heart was hammering. Uallach spoke her clearest phrase yet: “Please, Mama, I won’t do it again!”

Orlaith said warningly, “Hold her…”

Sadb thought she was about to be sick in the weeds. But if Uallach had to endure whatever was happening in there, Sadb told herself she ought at least to make herself look.

Slowly she rose up on her knees. No one remarked at her fiery hair peeking up above the sill, so she kept on rising until she could see into the room.

So she kept on rising until she could see into the room.

Uallach lay on a table with her back to the window. A man—the doctor, Sadb supposed—sat on the edge of the table behind her, and her mother stood before her face, looking utterly without pity in spite of her daughter’s whimpering pleas. Aibinn held Uallach by the ankles.

The man pushed Uallach’s bedraggled braid off her neck, and Uallach’s sudden desperate squirming made Sadb’s belly melt with nausea. And she did not even know what was coming.

The man lifted the lid on a ceramic pot and set it aside. Then he reached in and pulled out something dark and shiny that flapped from between his pinching grip, dripping a stream of dirty water. A leech.

Uallach shrieked through her teeth when the first drop hit the warm, sensitive corner of her bare neck and trickled around her nape. Her body bucked as if she were beginning another fit, but Aibinn held her legs, the doctor leaned heavily on her shoulders, and her mother smacked her face.

“Hold still!”

The doctor laid the leech behind Uallach’s ear. Uallach stopped squirming and went rigid. The only sound in that tense room was an animal moan so low that it seemed to be coming from beneath the table. But Sadb knew it must have been Uallach.

The doctor reached into his pot a second time.

The doctor reached into his pot a second time.

Sadb could not take any more. She flopped back into the weeds, no longer caring who would hear her, who would find her. She hugged her legs against her body and ground her knee into the corner of her neck, trying to remember Diarmait’s face pressed against it, his warm lips, his hot breath.

She tried to remember, but she could not. She felt only the kiss of leeches. She felt only cold, dirty water running down the back of her neck.

At last Sadb understood how alone she truly was, how dead Diarmait was, and how eternal it all was, and deep sobs tore out of her like scabs, ripping pieces of her away, leaving her bleeding and raw.

Sitting there in the dust, rocking herself in the weeds, Sadb understood why Diarmait had preferred a prison to this place, and why he had never told. Explaining the advantages of prison would have meant telling her the truth about his home.

Deep sobs tore out of her like scabs.