Cnoc Leithid, Galloway, Scotland

Colban stared past her at Malcolm.

Maire stepped forward, but Colban stared past her at Malcolm. Malcolm was wooden behind her, in spite of the tears drying on his cheeks. Colban’s face was rapidly darkening into a look of outraged disbelief.

“Bless you, Father!” Maire laughed. “Never have I been so glad to see one of my babes peeping over the edge of the mattress in the middle of the night!”

Colban asked Malcolm, “You’re not bothering your mother?”

Malcolm muttered, “No, sir.”

Why this stiffness? Maire risked a glance between their faces. Had Colban forbidden Malcolm to wake her? Or rather—she felt a flash of maternal insight—had Malcolm been preemptively ordered upstairs?

“Bothering me?” Maire cried. “Fie, because we’re weeping?” She laughed and wiped her cheek with the heel of her hand, brushing away tears that were not there. “If there are no tears in Heaven, then there can be no such joy there as my son and I have just known!”

Colban finally turned his attention to her. Maire held out the back of her hand for him to kiss, but he turned it over and kissed her palm, lingering with his lips. His hot breath on her wrist reminded her how cold her bed had been these last weeks, but she was flustered by the sly glance he flicked up at her just before he let her hand drop. Had he been tasting for tears?

“Bring hither the fatted calf,” he said dryly. He straightened, then made her a proper bow. “God be with you, Mother.”

Maire bent her knees and inclined her head. “God and the Blessed Virgin be with you, my lord.”

Colban sighed and looked down to pat over his breast in search of the end of his scarf. Maire spotted it and helpfully tugged it out for him.

“I daresay you’re powerfully glad to see me, too,” he grumbled as he took a shuffling step towards the corner, unwinding his scarf as he went. “Even with this handsome young lad in my train.”

'I daresay you're powerfully glad to see me too.'

Was that irony? Ach, what had Finnchad told him? This was going to take some finesse.

“To be sure I am!” she said brightly.

She plucked the scarf from his hand as soon as his neck was freed and tossed it into the basket of dirty laundry. Colban shuffled onward, unbuckling and unstrapping.

She asked, “And how were you finding Sigefrith and his kin?”

“All well. His compliments, et cetera. His eldest girl’s increasing.”

'His eldest girl's increasing.'

“Ach! Isn’t that fine!”

His cape slipped from his shoulder, revealing his sword belt and his sword still strapped to his hip. Maire’s heartbeat quickened again, just as it had begun to calm.

“And Cat and the girls?” she asked.

“Ach! Cousin Cat may have a babe in arms since we left, bless her. And Flann’s girl’s just as saucy as you’d expect a love child to be. Took a rare liking to Colban.”

Maire decided he had not guessed what she had been thinking of when he came in, if he could speak of love children so lightly. She was relieved. She was a little angry, too.

“‘The Approving Baby’ is he calling her,” Colban said, chuckling, as he looked down to lay his hands on the buckle of his sword belt. When they found it he looked up—and then he let his hands fall.

Then he let his hands fall.

Maire crossed her arms tightly over her breast and waited.

“Why,” he asked finally, “is my father’s sword hanging here?”

“Because I’ve been wearing it, to be sure.”

Colban slowly turned his head.

“Well, what would have you?” she demanded, flustered into replying to a question he had not yet asked. “You left me with none other, and with no other man to wear it but Lulach, and him eleven!”

'You left me with none other.'

Her husband did not object to this argument and returned his attention to his buckle, one ear cocked in her direction. He did not, at least, appear to consider this use of his father’s sword as trespass upon sacred ground. Maire relaxed a little, and folded her hands.

“And to be sure I did try it on him at first,” she said. “And a right handsome lad he looked, Father, but I saw it simply wouldn’t do! For it’s one thing to look handsome with a sword, but more to the point is a sly tongue and a clever head. And since I had to do the talking, I foresaw I ought to wear the sword, too. The sword only serving to lend countenance, after all.”

Colban looked up at her again, one brow cocked high. “Indeed?”

“To be sure.”

She tested a tiny smile on him, but he looked down to slip off his belt before he saw.

“Hmph!” he said as he hung his sword on an empty bracket beside his father’s. “I wonder you didn’t put on your mother’s armor, too.”

Maire tittered and peeked at Malcolm. He looked so grim!

“Ach! You flatter me, Father, if you’re believing I could squeeze this matronly body of mine into a byrnie fashioned for a maid. And besides…” she added meekly. “Sebdann was wanting it.”

“Sebdann was!” Colban whipped up his head. His brows were bristling, and his face was turning an ominous red. “Did you ladies have nothing better to do all this time than play dress-​up?”

“Dress-​up!” Maire gasped.


She remembered Malcolm’s presence just in time and caught a tart reply on her tongue. Indeed, she wondered that Colban would scold her so before their son.

“Fie for shame!” she cried. “If we had, you might have come home to find not your wife in your bed, lord, but Comgeall or Cormac or Young Aed! And if it’s for dress-​up, Sebdann and I will be donning our prettiest gowns to be sure, and not these—these swords that bruise our hips, and helmets that dent our foreheads, and byrnies that squash our bosoms! Pardon your mother, Malcolm.”

Colban’s mouth was level and grim, but the wrinkles on his cheeks appeared to be deepening in the direction of a smile. Maire felt a queer urge to laugh, which, she assured herself, only served to make her angrier at him.

Maire felt a queer urge to laugh.

He turned aside to unstrap a flask from his belt, or perhaps to give himself time to suppress the smile. He said dryly, “Your mother’s helmet, too? That must have lent her some countenance, indeed.”

Maire pouted, certain she was being mocked. “She looked very handsome, to be sure.”

“Then I beg your pardon, Mother: I expect we shan’t see Colban until breakfast, after all. If I came home after three weeks to find my wife in possession of a silver-​gilt war helm, you may be sure I would be asking her to try it on. Though I think we would skip the byrnie.”

He hung up his flask and shot Maire a sly look that made her flush up to the roots of her hair. She wondered at him being so forward with Malcolm in the room, but she could not help toying with the thought that her hip was growing accustomed to the weight of a sword by now, even if she did not have a helm.

She could not help toying with the thought.

Then she winced, struck by another thought that spoiled that plan.

“I expect he’ll be along any moment now,” she said quietly. “For he won’t be finding Sebdann at home.”

“Eh?” Colban propped his foot up on the chest and slid a knife out of his boot. “Is she sleeping here, then?”

“Ach, no… She’s being at Black Craig.”

Colban whirled about. His foot slammed onto the floor, his kilt flapped against his legs, and then he stood stiff and grim as a thunderstruck tree, with the sheathed knife clenched in his fist.

“Black Craig! Where is the babe?”

Maire was not afraid of him, but she was in awe of him, and she was grateful when Malcolm stepped up behind her, sheltering her with his height.

She quavered, “Why, with his Mama, to be sure.”

She watched Colban’s breath rising into his broad chest. He shoved the knife into his belt, as if he did not mean to undress after all.

“Sebdann,” he said, “is presently at an abandoned fort with her suckling babe for company, and your mother’s armor to lend her countenance?”

She watched Colban's quickening breath rise into his broad chest.

Maire lifted her chin. “’Tisn’t abandoned any longer, since she leads twenty horse, besides Lugaid and Ferdie. And she’s armed because she rides at the head of her men, for I would not have it be said that Lugaid commands any fort of ours. And how, pray tell, sir, did you make it all the way to this room without learning any of this? Did you not stop at my brother’s? He carried the babe on his own horse for half the ride!”

Colban was neither mollified by her explanation nor daunted by her challenge.

“We kept to the hills and slept outside,” he growled. “But, by God, I begin to wish I had called upon your brother! For months he has been urging me to garrison Black Craig, and I am most sorry to learn he took advantage of my absence to impose upon you!”

“Impose upon me he did not!” Maire cried. “It was my idea, with Sebdann, and if you will bear reproach, Father, I hope it will be towards me!” She thrust out her breast, inviting dagger thrusts and arrows.

Colban’s shoulders relaxed at the news that it had not been Eochaid’s doing. His bristling brows looked thoughtful, but while his brain was busy, his gaze lingered on Maire’s bosom. Her flannel nightgown and her robe suddenly seemed a filmy barrier. She could almost have wished for a thickly padded tunic and a byrnie of mail.

She crossed her arms defensively over her breast, and Colban turned away. He slipped the knife from his belt and hung it on its bracket.

“I wonder what Young Aed had to say,” he grumbled, “when he learned you had garrisoned a fort not ten miles from his home.”

“Ach! He thanked us.”

Colban cocked an eyebrow. Maire smiled.

Colban cocked an eyebrow.

“Aye, he’s a sly one,” she said approvingly. “For he’s knowing full well I did it to keep his own self out of it! To be sure he would be telling us the fort had to be manned on account of wolves!

She made a farcical bow and began to laugh, but pulled herself up short.

“Ach! You men aren’t knowing about that, either, are you?”

Colban snapped a glance past Maire at Malcolm. “I know young Congal used that excuse to make himself master of Three Winds,” he said icily. “And I know Earl Eirik had Diarmait killed, and Old Aed is blaming Aed of the Aenguses. Finnchad told me what’s been happening elsewhere, Mother, but I misdoubt he meant for me to learn what has been happening here from you.” He made her a slight, sharp bow. “And an amusing story has it been so far! Pray continue!”

Maire smiled weakly, uncertain how annoyed he truly was. “I shall have to thank Finnchad. Where was I?”

Colban batted his lashes at her and prompted, “Wolves!

“Ach!” She tittered. “To be sure. Aye, if Young Aed tries to enter into Black Craig fort now, he’ll find an angry vixen guarding it!”

Colban added drearily, “And two mean-​tempered curs.”

“And twenty warriors, to press home the point,” Maire agreed. “But the canny lad smiled and thanked me for it, Father, telling me how reassuring it is to have a friendly force garrisoned so close to home!”

Colban sighed and briefly lifted his eyes heavenward in a prayer for forbearance.

Maire could not resist adding, “And you may be sure Aed respected Sebdann just as if she were her man, and no different. When he called on me, he made first to bow, but when he saw your father’s sword on my belt, he saluted me just like a fellow lord. Just as if I were you.”

Colban slitted his eyes and smiled. “I call that countenance indeed.”

'I call that countenance indeed.'

She was fairly certain he was teasing her now, and could not have been so very angry. She wanted to give him a playful little shove, but she thought she ought not with Malcolm in the room.

The moment passed, and Colban pulled a pair of crumpled gloves out of his purse and tossed them onto the chest.

“What’s this about Comgeall?” he asked. “Don’t be telling me he was here.”

“Ach, never! Never would I be allowing a man of that family into your house in your absence. Sword or no sword. Donnchad did try to meet with me, but we turned him back at the border. I… fear I offended the family, Father, but I knew naught else to do.”

“I am heartily glad you did.”

Colban sifted a handful of coins from his purse and handed them to her. Buoyed with relief, Maire took down her keys and went to her trunk to lock them up, chattering all the way.

Maire took down her keys and went to her trunk to lock them up.

“That did not stop that family from trying to enter this fort, however,” she said. “Would you believe Aibinn? She sent me word, not three days after Diarmait was in the ground, saying how she wanted to look in on her father’s house to see were there any repairs to be done after the snows. Which was all pretense, for you may be sure Comgeall would escort her, and here would he be! Smug as a mouse in a cheese!”

She slammed the trunk and turned back to Colban, awaiting an exclamation of outrage. Colban was occupied with fishing bits of masculine rubbish out of his purse, but he dutifully replied with a grunt. Malcolm did his Mama the courtesy of looking put out on her behalf. Maire swept back around the foot of the bed.

“So I sent word to Aibinn, telling her: either she’s a damned fool for wanting to go gaindering about the countryside at a time like this—pardon your mother, Malcolm—or she thinks I’m a damned fool if she’s believing I’ll fall for such a clishmaclaiver story as that one!”

She stopped before Colban and awaited his pronouncement.

Colban was busy untangling the cord of a pendant he’d pulled out of his purse, but he said, “Not terribly diplomatic of you, Mother.”

Maire gasped. “Here’s a nice turn! Aye, then, my lord, you’re welcome to stay home henceforth and be as diplomatic as you please. But if you’re going off and taking Colban with you, and with your brother abroad, and Flann gone to be with the Lord, and Colin in Lothere, and no man above the age of twelve abiding—”

“Come, Mother!” Colban said, interrupting her tirade. “Would you have me entrust my domain to the diplomacy of Colin?”

Maire was almost certain he was teasing her, but just then she was in no mood to be teased.

She drew herself up and lifted her chin. “No, my lord, to be sure. Colin could tell Aibinn to go to the Devil well enough, but I would certainly speak with the likes of Young Aed myself. However, it’s grateful I would have been to have even Colin at my side.”

Her abominable husband looked her in the eye and said gravely, “To lend you countenance.”

A strangled laugh broke out of her. Colban’s eyes were twinkling beneath his shrubby brows, and he leaned closer, about to pounce.

Then, in the same instant, they both remembered Malcolm and drew back. Maire wondered again why Colban had allowed Malcolm to remain at all. Did he want him to see how a man and wife behaved in the privacy of their room? Or did he simply want Malcolm to hear the news?

While she stood wondering, Colban bethought himself of something else and asked softly, “Have you not heard from my brother, then?” He kept his head down, busying himself with the task of rolling up his cuffs, but Maire knew he was hiding his face.

In many things Maire’s husband preferred always to expect the worst, for his heart was not of the sort to bear disappointments without getting scarred. But he could never quite bring himself to believe the worst where Malcolm was concerned. Always, beneath his icy crust of indifference, there trickled a rivulet of hope.

Privately Maire believed that Malcolm’s decision to take his son abroad with him was an ominous sign. But whatever she privately thought of his feckless brother, she did her best to keep her husband’s hope alive.

Her husband’s absence, however, had obliged her to be ruthless with Malcolm’s memory. In his absence, knowing naught else to do, she had trampled sacred ground.

“So soon?” she asked. “To be sure, no. So many things to show the lad! But, Father, you put me to mind of another thing I meant to tell you.”

He looked up from his cuffs, his mouth grudging, and his brow wrinkled into an expression of wary attention.

She asked, “Mightn’t you have wondered where your horses are?”

“Black Craig, I had been led to understand?”

“Only the twenty, and one for Sebdann, and her mare in case she wishes to ride out unarmed. For the mare was spooked by the clinking of her mail.”

“I must provide her with a battle-​hardened war horse, I gather. But, forgive me, Mother, I wasn’t stopping in the stable to count my cattle. Are there more than two-​and-​twenty lacking?”

“Aye, my lord, and still more from the hills.”

“This story begins to get interesting again.”

He still grumbled, but his expression was softening into a look of wry amusement. Maire realized this was the worst tack to take, considering the news she was about to deliver. She had to make him expect the worst.

She had to make him expect the worst.

“To say the least,” Maire said grimly. “My lord, I must tell you that I’ve garrisoned eight-​and-​thirty horsemen at Loch Dee, against Cormac of the Cormacs. Well you know he’s wanting nothing more than for Old Aed and Young Aed to make war with each other, that he may come along after and sweep up the pieces.”

Colban dropped all pretense of adjusting his sleeves and gave Maire his full attention. “Is it war then?”

Maire sighed. “Aye, that’s what nobody’s knowing! At first it was looking to be naught but a blood feud between Old Aed and the Aenguses, but Sadb of Mull stopped the old crawker in mid-​oath and said he had no right to start a feud in Diarmait’s name, as that was up to the wee bannock which Diarmait left to brown beneath her apron. And she took Diarmait’s sword away from him, too, and they even say she snapped her fingers beneath his nose, but that I’ll not advise you to believe, even if I am well knowing how hippertie-​tippertie a lass may be when she’s increasing, particularly when it’s her first.”

She turned to nod astutely at Malcolm. Only then did she notice how far she had wandered from her original subject, and she stopped short, surveying the strange landscape, with no clear idea how she had come to be there, and still less how to get back.

“Ach… what was I saying?” she asked meekly of her husband.

'Ach... what was I saying?'


“Ach, aye! Well, no one can tell me what Old Aed had in mind after that, but he sent a troop of horse to Carn Liath with Cathal at their head. But Young Aed had already sent Congal to Three Winds with forty horse, and cheek to jowl they must have been, but however that was, Cathal turned around and went back to Glenncaenna without loosing an arrow. And since then we wait for someone to make the next move. The poor lad, I think, has been praying for your return, Father, and my brother won’t budge, so I misdoubt Old Aed is waiting to see what you will do. So the next move may be yours. But while awaiting your return, I had to defend our lands from all directions, and that is why I sent Sebdann to Black Craig, and that is why I sent Gorman to Loch Dee.”

For a moment it appeared that talk of war had prevented Colban from hearing the most shocking part of this speech. For a still briefer moment, Maire hoped that the possibility of war would even make her trespass seem a necessary evil in Colban’s mind.

But after mulling over all she had said, Colban looked up and snarled one word: “Gorman!”

Maire lifted her chin. “I could have sent them with some man of ours at their head, I’m not denying. But I would not put it past Cormac of the Cormacs to charge right through a fort full of ordinary men. The Devil knows he has the men and the horses to do it. Such an outrage against his wife’s sister, however—not to mention Flann’s daughter and Lord Eochaid’s daughter-in-law—even he would not dare. And if it came to palavering, I know few men whose diplomacy I would match against Gorman’s tongue and Gorman’s wit!”


Colban’s breath had moved up into his chest again, making him seem to swell. The trembling in his voice showed just how close he was to bursting. And Maire had not even reached the most offensive part of her story.

“You,” Colban growled, “and Sebdann, and Gorman—and Sadb of Mull bespeaking blood feuds on behalf of children not yet born? Is it the women now who are making war for the men?”

“Now that you are returned, my lord, you are welcome to make all the war and peace you like, and I shall gladly retire to the nursery. But I must tell you one last thing which you will not like. I could not have Gorman sleeping in the barracks at the fort, since she is a grand lady, for one, and since her man could not stay with her, for another, and it would not have been proper by any means. Therefore I have lodged her at your brother’s house.”

Therefore I have lodged her at your brother's house.

She made a slight pause, but Colban did not speak. He did, however, level on her such a white-​hot glare that she broke out in a sweat.

“And I will not say it has been more comfortable than sleeping in the barracks,” she added shakily. “Damp and fusty as she found it, I only pray she does not catch the ague. I know I had no right to do it, Father, but Malcolm had only to be here when we needed him—for once in his life!—and it would not have been necessary. And Maire is dead and in the ground, and he has a new bride besides. It was time and more that house was opened. And if I’m knowing Malcolm, it’s glad he’ll be to have that decision made for him, and to find an ordinary, homelike, unhaunted house when he returns.”

Colban leaned down to her height, until his sparking eyes were on a level with hers and she felt his hot breath on her face. Maire was quaking.

“You,” he snarled, “do not know Malcolm!”

Maire felt the heat leave her face when he drew away from her. Afterwards she felt nothing but a snow-​swept numbness until Malcolm wrapped his arms around her from behind.

Malcolm wrapped his arms around her from behind.

She only saw Colban’s half of the look he and their son exchanged, and on his surface Colban was icily indifferent and noble as ever. But he left them without another word and strode over to the fire.

Maire relaxed into Malcolm’s arms, and he cuddled her close in silent sympathy, his nose nestled warmly in her hair.

She did not know why Colban had allowed Malcolm to remain. But he could not have meant for Malcolm to see his father speak to his mother with such livid wrath. Even she, who knew that Colban had lashed out in pain, had still felt his reproach spearing through robe and nightgown and splintering ribs, straight down to her woman’s heart. The worst of it was that she feared she had made matters worse between father and son.

Again the door opened abruptly behind her, without the politeness of a knock. Malcolm’s brother stopped on the threshold for but a moment before spluttering, “Father! Sebdann isn’t even here!

Colban turned away from the fire.

“Finnchad said she’s at Black Craig with the baby and her brothers! Mama, how could you?”

“Colban!” his father barked. “Is that how you’re greeting your mother?”

“Pardon me, Mama,” Colban said contritely, and he kissed her cheeks. “I hope we find you well?” He stepped back and wailed, “But how could you?”

'But how could you?'

Maire knew that the lad liked to be outraged, so she patted his breast and said, “I know it was dreadful of Mama, but you’ll be glad to know Sebdann was very brave and unflinching in her duty, and she only hopes you’ll be proud of her. So I pray you’ll forgive Mama and not be angry at your poor wife.”

'I pray you'll forgive Mama and not be angry at your poor wife.'

“To be sure I won’t be angry at her,” he said, somewhat mollified, “but you can imagine my fright when I found the house cold and dark and the bed and cradle empty!”

“Ach! my poor lad,” Maire clucked, hugging him around his middle. How slender he seemed, after Malcolm! Perhaps he had finished growing, after all. “How thoughtless of me! I should have left a maid in the house, against you coming home in the night. Forgive me, darling, you’ve such a goose for a Mama!”

“There now, Mama,” he soothed. “No harm done. You’re only a little goosey around the edges.”

He kissed her hair, then clutched her against his side to talk past her at his father.

“I’m going to Black Craig. If I cannot have Cellach and Faelan, I must wake someone to ride with me, or take the men who are on duty and wake someone else to man the gate.”

“You’ll wake no one,” his father said. “There’ll be men enough awake in the morning.”

His father’s voice admitted no argument, but that rarely stopped Colban.

“No, I am leaving now! Are you thinking I could sleep a wink knowing my wife and child are sleeping in that rotten old fort, listening to the howls of the wolves?”

'No, I am leaving now!'

“And are you thinking your mother could sleep knowing you’re crossing the wilderness in the dead of the night? That fort is quite snug, and her brothers are there with her, and twenty men besides. You’ll not leave until your mother has had a chance to see all her babies seated round the breakfast table, from Eadgith unto you. That is my final word.”

'That is my final word.'

At twenty Colban had finally learned not to challenge his father’s final word. But he was not yet too old to storm out of the room when he was thwarted, and close the door more loudly than necessary behind him.

His father gave the door a sour look, then turned away with a lordly sweep that showed he still felt a phantom cape on his shoulders.

“Malcolm,” he said with his back turned, “please go after him. I shall not need you again tonight.”

Malcolm stared at him for a moment, his face a hard mask hiding every emotion but anger. Then he spoke as stiff a phrase as he had when his father first came in: “Aye, sir.”

He turned for the door, but Maire caught him with a gentle hand.

Maire caught him with a gentle hand.

“Let your brother rant,” she advised softly, “but don’t let him do anything absurd.” She patted his arm. “Stay with him tonight. He’ll listen to you. He has always looked up to you.”

In a small, shaky, hesitantly hopeful voice Malcolm said, “Mama…”

In a flash of maternal insight Maire understood that she had said the right thing then.

Maire understood that she had said the right thing then.

“Good night, Malcolm, my child. God rest you and keep you.”

He whispered, “Good night, Mama of mine,” and kissed her cheek. She caught his head between her hands and held her face against his for the space of a sigh, savoring the coarse skin and the stubble just as much as she mourned the chubby, silken cheeks of long ago.

Then she swatted his hip and shooed him through the door.

“Be getting on with you now,” she said, “before your brother paws up the paddock and tips over the trough.”

She leaned against the door after she had pulled it gently shut behind him, lingering to listen to his feet thudding up the narrow hallway, and then the ancient joists creaking beneath his weight, and finally silence when he reached the stone stairs.

Colban asked, “What was he crying over when I came in?”

Maire turned and leaned back against the door, reckoning the distance between them as if she was about to loose not words but arrows.

“You thought he’d come crying to me,” she accused, “because he thought himself ill-​used by you.”

Colban continued poking at the fire, but he flicked an uneasy glance at her through his hair.

She stepped away from the door. “You don’t know Malcolm if you can think—”

She froze, one heel lifted.

She froze, one heel lifted. They were the very words Colban had said to her. A numbing chill ran through her. She felt she had gotten herself shut out of the warmth of her own marriage, and in the driving snow she feared she would not even be able to find the door.

Colban stooped to toss another log onto the fire. He seemed intent on keeping his shoulder raised against her.

He asked, “Was he telling you he’s unhappy at home?”

Maire swallowed. “Did he tell you so?”

“No. But his brother does. And I have eyes.” He poked moodily at the new log, feeding it to the flames. “I always knew he would come to grief if he married that girl. I ought to have done more to stop it.”

'You could hardly have stopped it without making the lad hate you forever.'

“You could hardly have stopped it without making the lad hate you forever. He’s not the sort of man who will forget a first love and be just as happy with another. He’s had his heart set on Iylaine ever since he was a boy of eight and talked of naught but ‘my cousin Baby.’ This is Malcolm, love. In fifteen years he hasn’t even changed the way he does his hair.”

Colban snorted. Heartened, Maire crept up behind him, close enough that she could feel the heat of his back soaking into the collar of her robe. He did not draw away from her, but he made no move towards her, either.

He did not draw away from her.

“Is that what he was crying over?” he asked.

She had thought that much was clear. She surmised Colban was pressing for details.

She countered, “What passed between the two of you to make you think he had come up here to bewail himself to me?”

“What passes between a man and his son ought to remain between a man and his son.”

Maire switched her chin to his other shoulder and wrapped her arms around him. Colban shuddered and went stiff. Maire feared he felt her heart hammering at his back, shielded by naught but a robe, a flannel gown, and a delicate brace of ribs. Nevertheless, she did not let him go.

Maire wondered whether he felt her heart hammering at his back.

“Do you not think,” she asked softly, “that what passes between a boy and his Mama ought to remain between a boy and his Mama?”

Colban grunted in grudging agreement. “You’ll take care of him, Maire? The Devil if I know what to do for him.”

“I’ll take care of him,” she promised.

Colban sighed, and his stiff back relaxed. His shoulder slumped to just the right height for her chin—not too high nor too awkward—and she nestled her cheek gratefully against his warm neck.

“I know I’m a bit goosey round the edges, Colban,” she murmured, “but I did as I thought best.”

Colban took one of the arms that was wrapped around his body and lifted it up to cradle her hand beneath his chin.

He said, “Then it was the best thing to do.”

'Then it was the best thing to do.'