Cnoc Leithid, Galloway, Scotland


Someone kept whispering: “Mama!”

Even in the depths of sleep, the mother in Maire knew the child at her bedside had been there a while.

She rose regretfully into drowsy shallows, mumbling, “What is it, love?”

“Mama, I couldn’t sleep.”

That, she thought, had been a powerfully big whisper. She frowned, but she was not quite curious enough to open her eyes.

Then the whisperer said, “I need you to tuck me in!”

She thought that had sounded like a grin. She heard barely repressed laughter whistling through a big mouthful of teeth. Still frowning, she opened her eyes.

It was Malcolm. Even in the dusky candlelight she recognized that most Malcolm-​like of faces in a heartbeat: her cheeky little boy, beaming over his own undeniable cleverness.

She opened her eyes.

Maire jerked once and lay still, pinned by both sheets and shock. “Malcolm!”

“Mama!” he countered. His eyes twinkled above his smile.

He was a cheeky man now, she saw with stabbing clarity; he had a man’s angular face, and a shadow of stubble beneath the scarf bunched up around his chin and ears. But he was still hers!


She flopped and floundered beneath the blankets until Malcolm helped her throw them back and freed her arms. She grabbed his laughing face between her hands and stroked his cheeks and hair, but this would never do—she had to get up at once! She slapped his shoulder and shoved him off.

“Go get Mama her robe and slippers!” she begged. Malcolm hopped up, and Maire tumbled herself out of bed after him. “Malcolm! Praise God! Did you come home with your father?”

“Aye, he’s downstairs yet.”

He tried to hand her robe to her, but she flung it onto the bed, and laughing and shivering she threw her arms around her boy.

She threw her arms around her boy.

How he had grown! Her arms judged him just as big around as his father, and her chin said his shoulder was just as high: not too high to reach, just high enough to be awkward.

“Ach, Malcolm, my child! What a man you’ve become!”

She squeezed him until she groaned, and she burrowed her face into his scarf, breathing in the perfume of his neck. It was a man’s scent now, but still quintessentially Malcolm’s, and as intoxicating as it had ever been twenty years before.

Then she turned her cheek against his and felt a chill that went deep into his skin.

“Ach!” She shoved him away again to hold him at arm’s length. “It’s frozen through you are! You’re only just arriving, then!”

His smile softened. “I came straight up to you.”

'Bless you, my child, but it won't do!'

“Bless you, my child, but it won’t do! Go put another log on the fire! Or does your father wish that we go down?”

Never taking her eyes from his face, she leaned aside to pat across the blankets in search of her robe. Malcolm picked it up and opened it out for her, but Maire snatched it away.

“Never mind that, go tend the fire and light the lamps that I may see your blessed face!”

Malcolm laughed at her and stooped to light a rush in the lamp he had kindled at her bedside.

“My blessed face is covered with three days’ beard, Mama,” he warned her.

“Fie and if it is!”

She pulled on her robe, fumbling her way into each sleeve, for she could not take her eyes from her boy. How like his father he looked from behind! They shared the same broad shoulders and meaty calves, the same top-​heavy bearing and solid stride.

She pulled on her robe.

And the mere sight of his big hands lighting candles smote her heart with love. Nothing those hands contrived could fail to fascinate her, not since his grandmother had first laid him in her arms and she had watched his wee red fingers curling and uncurling inches from her adoring face.

Having finally belted her robe, she looked away from Malcolm just long enough to shove her feet into her slippers. Then she followed him around the bed, begrudging even the bed curtains for blocking her sight of him for a moment. How grand he looked on bended knee, making a fire for his Mama!

How grand he looked on bended knee!

“What a man you’ve grown to be, Malcolm, my child! Where’s the brother of you hiding? I want to see you together!”

Malcolm did not look up from the fire. “He’ll be along. He only wanted to check on Sebdann and the babe.”

'He'll be along.'

“Ach!” Maire stopped in mid-​stride.

Malcolm glanced up at that. He had always been a canny lad, and he had guessed at once that something was odd.

But Maire was no goose herself, and by the time her foot hit the floor she already understood that her men had somehow traversed Galloway without hearing the news, which they could only have done if they had been avoiding it. And Malcolm had come up straightaway; and his father was downstairs at that very moment hearing how matters stood from his steward; and Colban would be along forthwith, in a rare pucker. This was going to take some finesse.

This was going to take some finesse.

She clapped her hands together. “But it’s your father I’m wanting to see you with!” she declared. “It’s plain as a pikestaff you’re a bigger man than the brother of you, but I would swear you’re your father in the dark!”

Malcolm stood the poker back in its stand and gave her his most Malcolm-​like smile of long-​suffering. “That’s what everyone keeps telling me.”

“Fie and a fine, big man he is! And so you are, Malcolm, my child! Come here and let Mama look at you!”

'Come here and let Mama look at you!'

She laid her hands on his shoulders, and Malcolm stooped until his forehead thumped against hers.

“So, do you like what you see?” he purred, his breath hot over her face.

He gazed at her with dark-​lashed longing, but a crinkle of fun at the corner of his eyes spoiled his seductive effect and proved to his Mama just what a tease he was. Maire could not fathom how any girl could resist him—broad shoulders, dark lashes, seductive teasing and all—but she’d heard ominous tidings from his father and brother.

Maire pulled back her head. “Pho!” she scolded. “And if your father were to come in just now? He’ll not have been so jealous of you since you were a babe, and I had a twin on each breast, and none left over for him!”

Malcolm threw back his head and let out a crack of laughter. Naughty boy! Maire pinched his waist to make him mind her. There was a handsome bit of flesh beneath his tunic, she thought approvingly. This Mother Curran kept him sleek but not overfed.

Maire pinched his waist to make him mind her.

“Whisht now and let me look at you!” she commanded, straightening him up between her hands like a gown in possible need of mending. “Ach! One would say your father at your age. Though your father would hold still for me when I was a-​looking him over.”

“You were a brat in pigtails when my father was my age,” Malcolm protested.

Maire pressed her palm over Malcolm’s mouth to silence him. “And a forbearing man he was! You’d have the look of him if you hadn’t your mother’s mouth.”

She cocked her head and tried to imagine her husband’s young face alongside Malcolm’s. No, Malcolm’s eyebrows were far too fine. She laid her other hand over his brow to hide them.

“Nor your mother’s brows,” she admitted. “Quit your grinning, under there!” she admonished the back of her hand. “I can see it in your eyes! The father of you isn’t smiling so much in the space of a week!”

Malcolm laughed out loud beneath her palm, and Maire dropped her hands in despair.

“Ach! Never mind! But you’re the image of your father below the neck.”

'But you're the image of your father below the neck.'

“And the image of my Mama above.”

She shrugged and sighed. “Your brother always was the handsome one.”

Malcolm smiled tenderly at her. “As if you weren’t the most beautiful woman in the world!”

There was that advantage to having sons! One would always be beautiful to some man. Maire savored the compliment for a moment before swatting it aside.

“Vain flatterer! You’re forgetting I’ve seen your wife! How is Iylaine? Ach! She must be a young woman now! I’m still seeing her as a girl!”

'How is Iylaine?'

A flicker of pain passed over Malcolm’s face, and Maire knew she had not taken the care she ought. His brother had long prophesied an explosive break-​up. And indeed, she had forgotten that if Malcolm had not visited her in three years, it was because something about his marriage to Iylaine meant he could not. When she remembered, she was stricken with fear.

“Ach, my child! Has something happened?”

Malcolm roused himself and gave her a wooden smile. “No, no, Mama, she’s in fine health, they’re all in fine health. She’s grown quite grand and tall. I—I wish you could see her…”

His mouth fell slightly open, and he stared at her, begging for her understanding—hoping for her to guess.

Little Colban had always stumped about proclaiming his injuries and ill-​treatment to all and sundry, but Little Malcolm packed every hurt away deep in his heart. Had he not had a sensitive, watchful mother plucking them out again, it must have burst long ago. Sometimes her only clue had been his lingering a minute or two at her side before going off to play. This raw plea exposed a terrible pain.

Maire laid an arm over his broad back and pulled him closer. “Have you quarreled, then?”

'Have you quarreled, then?'

Malcolm slumped against her, miserable but relieved. “Worse than quarreled!” he whimpered.

“Ach! Tell Mama what happened.”

She was grateful he had been able to come, even if she was uneasy about the reason why. If Iylaine was not taking care that his heart not get too full—and who knew for how long?—it must have been crazed and cracking.

He pressed his big hands against his cheeks and stared between his fingers as if dazed. “She doesn’t want me anymore. She doesn’t love me. She told me.”

Maire sighed. He had married far too young. “Ach, Malcolm, my child! We all say these things…”

“No, it’s worse than that! She never loved me! She never wanted me! She—” He choked and gulped down a sob. In a squeaky, shaky, broken-​heartedly outraged voice he continued, “She told me she only married me because she thought Vash was dead! She only married me because she thought she was going to die! And she—she said she wished she had!”

Maire wrapped her other arm around his breast and clasped her wrist on the far side, holding him tightly in the ring of her arms. His big body was stooped and shaking, and his shivering breath was loud in his cupped hands. Her poor child.

His big body was stooped and shaking.

She asked softly, “Just ere you left?”

He nodded.

“And you’ve not told anyone about this, have you, then?”

He shook his head. She had known.

She smoothed his hair back behind his shoulder. “Malcolm, my child, you may be certain she never meant it. You were quarreling when she said it?”

He nodded reluctantly.

“Aye, then, love, you may be certain she only said it to hurt you. When one is desperate enough and knows naught else to do, one will say the cruelest things. I misdoubt you said one or two ill-​intentioned things yourself, my boy.”

“I could have nothing to say!” he whined. “I love her, Mama! But she loves that—that elf. I saw them together. I saw the way they looked at one another!”

'I saw the way they looked at one another!'

Maire rested her chin on his shoulder and sighed. It was only adultery then—not this nonsense about marrying him because she expected to die. They had married too young. It was no great surprise.

“Aye, Malcolm, my child, and I saw the way you two nestlings looked at one another when you were here. So you needn’t mind anything she says about never loving you or not wanting to marry you. But you’ve been married these three years now, and you’ve the babies, and less time for each other. And just now you’ve hit a rocky patch with the plow. It’s no wonder if one of the oxen is a-​looking aside and thinking she sees a fairer furrow over yonder. But there are rocky patches in every marriage, my child. Are you thinking your father and I have never quarreled? Are you thinking we never said a word we didn’t mean?”

'Are you thinking we never said a word we didn't mean?'

Malcolm grumbled, “I never saw it.”

“Ach, well!” She sighed. “We never liked to quarrel before you children, but mayhap as that was our mistake. I’ve your brother and Sebdann here under my wing, but you, my chick…”

He shrugged his broad shoulders beneath her arm, snuggling under her wing indeed. He sniffled; he was crying at last. His Mama had often had to squeeze the tears out of him.

She lowered her voice and confessed, “I’m certain I’ve told your father I never loved him, which shows you how little such words can mean. I’m certain I’ve flung it at his head that his father chose me for him and no one asked how I should like it, as if I’d not flung myself around the room in glee and queened it over all my cousins when I learned!”

She propped her chin on his shoulder and smiled to herself over the giddy, frog-​faced little maid she had been then… and the victorious whoops of her red-​headed mother, her far lovelier sister’s acerbic congratulations, her brother’s teasing, and her father stomping out to the paddock with his hands over his ears, in search of peace.

Malcolm yanked her back to the present with a question posed in his most Malcolm-​like stubborn voice, “But were you ever telling my father you loved another man?”

Maire lifted her head, shaken.

Maire lifted her head, shaken by flickering memories of glances exchanged over plates and glittering cups and rows of candles… of watching for horses from the height of the tower… of being sick with fear at contests of pikes and swords when her husband was safe at her side…

She cleared her throat. “Was Iylaine telling you so, then?”

“Aye. She told me.”

He looked down at her. His broad mouth was grim.

Ach, he was so young! It was plain he thought he had won the contest of most miserable marriage. It was plain he expected her to admit she had never said any such thing. Well, she hadn’t, but it would do the bantling no good to let him win.

'It is no affair of yours if I ever did.'

“Malcolm, my child,” she said sternly, “I am grieved to learn she said it, but it is certainly no affair of yours if your mother ever did.”

A flash of surprise lit his eyes, and then his neat brows descended in a look of doubt and confusion: a rare sight on Malcolm’s face. For the first time he was inspecting the foundations of his parents’ marriage, for the first time detecting cracks and signs of foregone strain.

“But I know this,” she said, “and never you mind how I learned: that a body may believe he loves another body—and may say it to his wedded spouse, and may even love the other truly—”

She licked her lips, shaken as if it were yesterday by the memory of that other—that woman with her brats, first the one and then the other, after he had sworn…

“—but it isn’t being the death of his first love for all that. It’s never too late. Sometimes… sometimes a pair has to dig in and pull harder,” she said, falling back gratefully onto the oxen parable, “and sometimes…”

She closed her eyes.

She closed her eyes, remembering those long-​ago, miserable months at her brother’s, spent missing and hating the man at the same time.

“Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to lift the share and leave a stretch unplowed.”

She might have strained the metaphor still further and confessed still more, but the door opened suddenly without the courtesy of a knock.

Maire and Malcolm jumped apart like lovers surprised in the throes of passion. Maire’s heart pounded at the base of her throat.

Malcolm’s face was wet with tears, she knew. And she dared not guess what her lord might read on hers.

She dared not guess what her lord might read on hers.