Cnoc Leithid, Galloway, Scotland

Only yards short of the bridge, Malcolm's brother stopped for a beat.

Only yards short of the bridge, Malcolm’s brother stopped for a beat, letting Malcolm and his father get ahead of him. Then he slipped behind and strode up towards the burnside path.

Without looking back he announced, “I’m running home.”

Malcolm was startled at first, until he reminded himself that his brother was married now and had a house of his own, and Lulach had the room they once shared. Malcolm would probably be put up in one of the guest rooms downstairs.

“You’re what?” their father asked. He tried to keep his voice down, but in the midnight silence his anger filled the empty court. “What about greeting your mother?”

'What about greeting your mother?'

“Tell her I’ll be along. I’m only wanting to look in on Sebdann and the babe.”

He mounted the bank and hurried down the gravely path with long, scuffing strides, kicking stones ahead of him.

Malcolm caught himself dawdling and trotted a few steps to catch up with his father as he stepped onto the bridge.

His father chuckled, his voice low and fond. “One would think he was a newlywed.”

Malcolm did not think it. He thought his brother had found an excuse to absent himself from witnessing their mother’s raptures when she first beheld Malcolm. And Malcolm had been imagining a homecoming wherein his mother would fling one arm around the neck of each of her eldest sons and embrace them both together.

Malcolm's father seemed to catch himself.

Malcolm’s father seemed to catch himself and said more grimly, “Sebdann won’t be pleased above half to see him, if he’s fool enough to wake her in the middle of the night. The babe can get away with it—once—but she’ll not be so lenient with your brother.” Brightening abruptly, he said, “Look! There’s Finnchad trying to believe his eyes.”

Malcolm’s attention was beginning to feel rather mercilessly jerked around. But the stupefied grin of his father’s steward made him smile.

The stupefied grin of his father's steward made him smile.

The old retainer was dutiful enough to bow first to Malcolm’s father and say, “Welcome home, my lord.” Then he turned to Malcolm, grinning that foolish grin again. “Malcolm, it is you! How big you are! You’re the twin of your father in the dark!”

Finnchad’s hands reached hesitantly towards Malcolm, as if unconvinced Malcolm wasn’t a ghost after all. Malcolm proved his existence by pulling the old man into a solid hug.

There had been a time when Malcolm could not rest his chin on Finnchad’s shoulder unless the man swung him up into his arms. That time was long past, but it was still the same warm shoulder and still the same dear man. It was the same rough woolen tunic scratching Malcolm’s cheek, with its scent distilled from kitchen smoke and beef tallow, dried apples, and beloved dogs: the smell of home.

Malcolm’s father trudged past and into the entry, sighing, “The twin of my twenty-​year-​old self.”

He smelled just like home.

“The very image!” Finnchad agreed. He pulled back, and Malcolm was touched to hear him sniffle and see him wipe away a tear.

“Don’t tell Mother Eithne I’m here,” Malcolm begged him. “I want to surprise her in the morning!”

Finnchad put an arm around Malcolm and led him into the entry, pulling the great door closed behind them. “You can tell her right now yourself! She got up with me when they told me your father was riding in.”

The door clanked shut, and Malcolm was truly home. Home was damp stone and old wood and the soot of a hundred years. His father’s boots creaked up the four short stairs, playing a tune as familiar to Malcolm as any lullaby.

His father's boots creaked up the four short stairs.

Malcolm let him go and stepped farther into the entry. The hall below was dark beyond the glow of the banked fire, but he remembered every stone, every socket, every crack in the wall. Countless dinners, interminable prayers, seeming mountains of dull food that had to be devoured before he could be excused to play. Kicking his brother beneath the table. Helping his late sister cut her meat. The pint-​sized tyranny of Cousin Gorman at the children’s board, and Cousin Cat’s chatter, and the bumps of Cousin Girl-Flann’s bony knees.

Then he heard another unforgotten voice—the steward’s wife greeting his father and pressing a cup of warm milk on him in the same breath. Malcolm turned and bounded into the anteroom, skipping half the creaking stairs and playing another of his boyhood’s most familiar tunes.

“Mother Eithne!” he cried, startling that lady almost into dropping a mug.

She spun to face him, swinging out her crinkled curtain of hair. She kept it braided by day, but its swaying length called to mind memories of a cool hand laid upon late-​night fevers, of a gentle voice in the dark.

She spun to face him.

But there were strands of gray now amid the crinkles. She seemed smaller. Her wide eyes were the same burnished gold as ever, but they were surrounded by new lines.

For three years Malcolm had been away. Worse, time would go on passing even if he stayed. The house might endure unchanging and the four front steps play the same tune for generations, but the home Malcolm had known was passing away.

He recovered quickly after a first twinge, and he fell back on a habit of blunt gallantry to declare, “I’m away for three years and you’ve aged three days!”

'I'm away for three years and you've aged three days!'

“Malcolm!” she gasped, pressing a shaky hand to her heart. Then, “Malcolm!” and she lifted her hands to the heavens in thanksgiving before bounding up to wrap them around Malcolm’s neck.


Just as suddenly she bounded back again to look him over.

“Malcolm! Look at yourself! You’re as big as your father! Where’s your brother? I want to see the two of you side-​by-​side!” She stepped closer to straighten his sword belt and tuck in the end of his scarf. “Look at him, Finnchad! Isn’t he tremendous?”

Finnchad went on speaking in a hushed tone to Malcolm’s father, but Eithne never noticed and gabbled on.

“Just like the father of him at that age! Colban must be a wee slip of a man next to him! Where is he? Back in Lothere? Did your woman trade in her twin for the other?”

She cackled at her joke and brushed dust from Malcolm’s belly and arms. Malcolm heard his father gasp, “What? God, no!” and Finnchad murmur an agitated reply.

'He'll be along...'

Listening with one ear, Malcolm answered Eithne, “He’ll be along…”

Eithne scarcely heeded him, either. She wrapped her arms around his waist and squeezed him, with the side of her face pressed tight against his breast. Out of motherly habit she swayed her weight from foot to foot as if her slight form could still rock Malcolm’s big body.

Malcolm settled his arms across her shoulders and stared off over her crinkly head at his father’s back. Finnchad had mentioned the name “Diarmait.”

“How is your woman, Malcolm?” Eithne gabbled into the end of his scarf. “How about those babies of yours? I hear you’ve the two now! The Disapproving Baby!” She paused, perhaps trying on a stern face he could not see from above, before breaking into laughter. “I wonder where she got that from, my Disapproving Boy?”

She gave Malcolm’s back a few scolding pats and fell silent, squeezing and rocking, and then Malcolm could listen with both ears. He heard “Diarmait” again. He heard something about “Young Aed.”

He returned his attention to Eithne and gasped, “What?” in mock outrage. “I was the most obliging baby you ever saw!”

Eithne’s laughter loosened her hold, and Malcolm gently peeled her off. He patted her shoulder as he passed her by. “How could I be otherwise,” he asked, “when you gave in to my every demand?”

He strode up to his father’s side. His father’s conversation immediately stopped.

He strode up to his father's side.

“Malcolm,” his father said, holding Finnchad’s gaze until Finnchad’s gaze dropped, “why don’t you run upstairs and wake your mother? She’ll be strangling me if she learns I’ve kept you above a minute in this house without waking her.”

Angry tears welled in Malcolm’s eyes. His father had taken him along, but he had not yet taken him into his confidence. Malcolm had been holding out hope that it would be different once they were home.

“And why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” he asked. “Are you thinking I won’t find out? Are you thinking I didn’t notice how surprised you were at the lads who were watching the gate, as if we were all out of guards?”

Malcolm’s father tossed back his head, and his nostrils flared. Malcolm knew these signs, but he pressed on, his voice rising and growing shakier with every line.

“Are you thinking I didn’t notice there’s nary a horse in the upper barn? Are you thinking Devil will walk past even a single stabled horse without insulting his mother, his country, and his household gods?”

“Malcolm,” his father said in that warning way he had, slowly, through gritted teeth, “go up to your mother.”

Malcolm wailed, “Why won’t you tell me the truth?”

His father made a sharp quarter-​turn to face him and snapped his fingers beneath Malcolm’s nose, startling him into whipping back his head. Finnchad and Eithne cringed on either side.

'You will oblige me by allowing me to learn what the truth is.'

“You will oblige me by allowing me learn what the truth is before I tell it, will you not?”

Malcolm’s chin quivered like a thwarted toddler’s. It had taken nothing more than stepping into this house to turn him back into a little boy.

He said peevishly, “If my brother were here—”

His father cut him off. “I have no secrets from your brother because your brother is always at my side! Now go up to your mother! That is my command.”

Malcolm muttered, “Aye, lord.”

'Aye, lord.'

“I am not your lord! I am your father.”

His father took a step around him, cloaked and booted and creaking with leather, and enormous in spite of Finnchad’s and Eithne’s declarations that father and son were just the same size. He stopped at Malcolm’s side to speak at him in that killing, crosswise, lordly way of his that just preceded a dismissal.

“And you may honor me,” he said, “by believing me capable of deciding whom to tell what, and when, and why. And, dare I ask, considering the possibility that I might know better than you. Now strike the woe from your face and go up and make your mother rejoice.”

For the moment Malcolm could do nothing about his face, but he was almost grateful to be dismissed.

He was almost grateful to be dismissed.