near Tigh Choluim, Galloway, Scotland

Malcolm kept his suspicions to himself at first.

Malcolm kept his suspicions to himself at first, for he did not know this road, and he was unwilling to risk looking foolish before his brother. For a good part of the day’s journey they had not followed a road at all, and if not for his earlier sighting of Carlinwark Loch off to the north, Malcolm would not have been able to guess where he was. He would not even have known the Loch if not for Sigefrith’s map of Galloway.

But at last, as the trees thinned ahead of them and the mist turned into a drizzle, he saw plainly what he had only caught in gray glimpses so far: a low, level plain of water, wind-​ruffled and stippled with rain. It could only be the River Dee, and she was fast and swollen with the melting snow of Malcolm’s mountain home.

They had come upon the river just below Lord Lulach’s island, almost within shouting distance of a few straggling cottages that stood wetting their hems in the flood. Malcolm looked eagerly for the fort as they rode. His father and brother blocked his view ahead, but at a crook in the path, he sighted the toothed silhouette of the palisade wall in flashes through the dripping trees. Now Malcolm knew precisely where he was.

“This is how I know I’m home,” he announced to his father, his brother, and his father’s men. “When I’m having my first glimpse of the Dee.”

'This is how I know I'm home.'

His heart was swollen to overflowing with contentment to be where he was, mingled with an eager thrill sweeping him on. To his own ears his voice sounded thick with it, like the Duke’s when he was moved by his own poetry; and he imagined the men accompanying him would understand.

But his brother, without glancing back, said, “Ach, not yet. I’m never knowing I’m home till the Water of Dee tastes not of silt but of stone.”

'Ach, not yet.'

That was, even Malcolm realized, a more poetic way of putting it. It was also a subtle way of saying Malcolm was too indiscriminate in his definition of home.

Their father chuckled and said, “That’s one way you and I think alike, lad—with our gullets. Only I’m not knowing I’m home till I’ve had a mug of your mother’s ale, tasting of meadowsweet and yarrow.”

'Only I'm not knowing I'm home till I've had a mug of your mother's ale.'

Colban lifted his elbow to point beyond the screen of trees at the milky gray river rushing by. “And of the water of the Dee before she’s gone all to mud.”

“Aye,” their father said vaguely, but his voice was warm and fond. From behind Malcolm watched them relax in their saddles, each unconsciously leaning towards the other.

In Lothere Malcolm had been so sensitive about his father’s attention and his brother’s jealousy that he was bewildered now to so often feel jealous himself. Since the beginning of their journey, he was the one who felt second-​best and left-​out.

Perhaps his charm had only ever been due to the glow cast by his clever little son and his pretty daughter, whose fame as The Disapproving Baby had—thanks to Cearball—already been made before his father and brother had ever arrived. Perhaps his father had forgotten he had once called Malcolm his finest son.

I know I’m home,” his father’s man Faelan said ruefully, “when I hear a smash and first thing I think is: ‘God, what’ve the twins gotten into now?’”

They laughed. Malcolm did not know the man’s twins, but he knew little boys, and he laughed too.

He laughed too.

His father said, “Lucky you are! That never told me a thing. God knows I’ve had that thought in the thick of battle a hundred miles from home.”

Another laugh rumbled over the riders. The other man, Cellach, said slyly, “I know I’m home when the old mothers see me coming and bustle their daughters indoors.”

Malcolm’s father burst into laughter. “And I know you’re home when I step outside in the morning and half my goats are wearing garters!”

This cryptic statement was met with wild laughter from the others. Malcolm, mystified, could only smile. He did not know these men of his father’s. He did not know their history together. He did not know their jokes. He only knew that they did not include him.

He only knew that they did not include him.

Malcolm left them to their banter and watched the landscape coming into focus through the mist. A sputtering wind tossed the drizzle like a fairy farmwife winnowing the rain.

Lord Lulach’s flat, grassy country was not like Lord Colban’s mountains, but there were already sure signs of home in the low-​slung form of the cottages, the arched withy hurdles that penned in the sheep, and the shape of the cattle that drifted across a foggy field on the far bank of the river. Square, shaggy beasts they were, whose heads could scarcely be told from their rumps at this distance unless they lifted their horns. Whatever his brother had to say about it, Malcolm was seeing home.

The path veered around an overgrown barrow.

The path veered around an overgrown barrow, opening up a view onto the fort through the spindly trees. The horses had passed paddocks enough without stopping to have lost the habit of perking up at every sign of habitation, but even they seemed to sense that their riders were welcoming the end of the day’s journey. Cellach’s gelding was giddy enough to pick up its pace and crowd Devil from behind.

“It’s glad I’ll be to have a mug of ale of any flavor,” Faelan sighed. “I’m wet through and through.”

“You’re wet through and you’re wanting a drink?” Cellach asked, amused.

“The Devil! There’s nothing left of me to wet but my throat!”

The men laughed. Miserable as the ride had been, the anticipation of fires and dry stockings, warm soup, good company, and ale had put them all into a weary good mood.

Malcolm eyed the wet palisade wall.

Malcolm eyed the wet palisade wall and wondered who was behind it on this night. In the last three years, many of the boys his age had married, become fathers, moved into their own homes. There had been deaths, too. He feared how much he would find changed. Even Lulach’s fort did not look the same.

“Did Lulach have work done on the wall?” Malcolm asked aloud. “It looks different.”

His brother snapped back, “Or mayhap your memory isn’t as flawless as you thought it was? He hasn’t touched it. Three years is a long time, brother.”

'Three years is a long time, brother.'

Their father sighed. “You’re likely thinking so because the river’s in flood, Malcolm. Everything looks changed. The water’s high this year. We had a lot of snow.”

“Are you thinking to ford it, lord?” Cellach asked plaintively.

“Nay, not if there’s a ferryman about. The poor beasts would be all but swimming ashore.”

Malcolm was grateful for the change in subject and determined to say no more of his suspicions before his brother. He lifted his head high, into a wind that lashed his face with rain, and stared at the distant wall. He would hold his tongue until he was sure.

He did not believe that the strangeness came from the flood altering the shoreline of the island, but he could not say what it was. Even wet, the trunks were visibly bleached with age, but palings could be dug up and shoved into new holes. It was not that the wall appeared to be in a different position—it was that it appeared to have been moved.

Malcolm looked for a trunk that was darker than the others.

Malcolm looked for a trunk that was darker than the others, stained with traces of moss to prove it had once faced northward and had been turned. But all the palings had the same color: some shade of gray at the pointed tip, darkening for a fair space below, and growing pale again towards the earth. The dark band was broader on some trunks than on others, and when he studied the whole from this distance, it looked like the shadow of a string of beads.

Then Malcolm knew what had struck him.

Then Malcolm knew what had struck him.

“Father, didn’t Lulach always hang his shields from the walls when his troops were at home?”

His father’s horse strolled another two steps and stopped. Colban turned his head and stopped his horse half a length beyond him. Devil came to a foot-​stamping, head-​tossing halt behind the leaders, and Cellach’s gelding wisely stopped well behind the range of the stallion’s heels.

In the space of two breaths, the thumping of hooves and the creaking of saddles ceased entirely, leaving only the patter of rain.



Malcolm did not ask again, though his father was silent for a long time. Malcolm watched his brother watching their father, but his brother did not look back at him. An oblivious bird twittered off in the woods, welcoming spring.

Finally Malcolm’s father said, “Cellach, you and Faelan will accompany Malcolm back to Lothere.”

Malcolm wailed, “What?”

His father did not look around and did not let himself be interrupted. “Take the same route back, but return overland through Dun Gallagh.”

'Take the same route back.'

Malcolm cried again, “What?”

Cellach, ignoring him too, said, “Aye, lord.”

Sensing his rider’s mood, Devil lashed his tail and danced in place until his tack jangled. Malcolm said, “I am not going back to Lothere!”

His father finally turned his head far enough to look at Malcolm out of the corner of his eye. “Aye, Malcolm, you are.”

'Aye, Malcolm, you are.'

“The devil I am! What’s this about? What’s going on?”

“I do not know that yet.”

“Then Cellach and Faelan and I shall wait here! You and my brother can go to the fort, and if all’s well you can send for us!”

His father turned away. His horse, perhaps reacting to some unconscious signal from its rider, lowered its head and backed a step.

“We are not going to the fort, Malcolm.”

“What? Where in the devil are you going? I’m coming with you! What aren’t you telling me?”

'What aren't you telling me?'

His father did not answer any of these questions. Malcolm dug in his heels, and Devil charged, slamming his way between the two horses that he had been forced to meekly follow for hours. Once through, Malcolm swung him around, and Devil shook his mane and stamped the earth in a fiendish dance to show the startled horses what he thought of them.

Malcolm’s father settled his horse and glared at Malcolm. His brows lowered blackly over his eyes, and his mouth clenched like a fist.

Malcolm's father settled his horse and glared at Malcolm.

“What’s going on?” Malcolm demanded from the height of Devil’s back. “It’s time you told me!”

Colban said, “Brother, I believe you forget you are speaking to a lord!”

Malcolm ignored him and simply met his father’s stare. Cellach and Faelan exchanged a leery glance in the back.

Finally Malcolm’s father asked, “Is this how you behave with Sigefrith, or do you only so dishonor your father?”

'Is this how you behave with Sigefrith?'

Malcolm was stricken. “That’s—being different,” he gasped.

Colban looked smug.

“You are Sigefrith’s man, Malcolm,” his father said, “and I doubt Sigefrith wants any part of this.”

“With what?” Malcolm wailed. “What’s going on? Where’s Lulach?” Malcolm hit upon another thought. “Where’s Young Aed?”

'Where's Young Aed?'

His father’s horse lurched and earned a savage jerk on the bit. Colban’s horse was still except for its swishing tail and swiveling ears, but Colban himself looked ready to lash out and kick or bite.

“I don’t know, Malcolm,” his father said. “I don’t know. But I don’t want you there when I’m finding out. You’re Sigefrith’s man, and he won’t thank me for dragging him into this.”

You’re not dragging anybody anywhere! I am not Sigefrith! And this is not Lothere!” Malcolm pounded his breast with his fist, thoughtlessly mimicking the salute of one Gaelic lord to another. “Here, I am my own man!”

His father’s horse bobbed its head and chomped its bit, and his father mulled thunderbolts in glowering silence. But he had not once repeated his explicit command, and Malcolm thought this a good sign. His brother was beginning to look uneasy, and Malcolm liked this too.

His brother was beginning to look uneasy.

“You need me,” Malcolm said. Correcting himself quickly, he said, “You could use me now, I daresay. You would have ridden right up to that fort if I hadn’t noticed the shields were missing, and what then?”

His father sighed and lifted one hand from his reins to rub his forehead with his fist. “Likely nothing but a warm welcome from Lulach’s lady,” he said. “I misdoubt I’m being too wary.”

“That’s where I can help you, father. Leave the wariness to me. And you may need me at home. Malcolm’s abroad, Flann’s gone to the Lord, and even Colin is in Lothere. If nothing’s the matter, then it does me no harm to come. And—God forbid—” Malcolm crossed himself. “—if something is wrong, then you’ll be needing your sons.”

Malcolm’s father looked up at him. His face was no longer knitted in anger, but it bore wrinkles now that never went away. The rain pooled in the pouches beneath his eyes and flooded over onto his cheeks, making him look sadder than sad.

“You gave your oath to Sigefrith, not me,” he said.

'You gave your oath to Sigefrith, not me.'

His voice was gentle, but the simple words were like a slap. Malcolm turned his face aside and glared out through trees and tears at the Water of Dee.

A few half-​submerged fences were choked with sticks and shredded weeds, but a floating branch managed to avoid being snagged and skimmed past, making a journey to the sea that had begun untold miles upstream. Perhaps it had even fallen from one of the trees at home.

What were oaths to this? Malcolm did not care about Sigefrith or Young Aed. This river was in his blood. His mother had drunk of this river and fed him with her body. She had weaned him on the ale she brewed from this same water, flavored with meadowsweet and yarrow and the granite of the mountains. His very body was crystallized from this river. If a man ever cracked him open, he would find pure Galloway quartz in his bones.

Malcolm looked back. His brother’s expression hardened at once, but Malcolm was quick enough to catch him in the act of watching him watching the river. In that unguarded instant Malcolm saw a kindred yearning to go home and be made whole.

His brother's expression hardened at once.

Malcolm looked to his father. A weary patience drooped over his father’s face, and rain dripped from the corners of his beard. It was plain he wanted Malcolm to have the last word. And Malcolm took it.

“No oath was I ever owing you,” he said. “My oath to you is in my blood. You are my father. He is my brother. And this is my home.”

This is my home.