Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

Swathed, spiced, perched on pillows and tucked into the alcove like a statue in a shrine.

Swathed, spiced, perched on pillows and tucked into the lamplit alcove like a statue in a shrine. Gaethine had been shaken awake from a much-​needed nap only to endure this. It was a wonder Aed hadn’t sent for bolsters to prop him up on either side. He could not even see the door from here.

But he did not need eyes to recognize Lord Colban by his voice, with its thrum of thunder threatening a storm.

“Aye, now,” Colban said, sounding disagreeably surprised. A scuff of boots and a creak of leather brought him closer to the fire, but he remained hidden from Gaethine. “I won’t even bother asking you if your lord knows what you’re up to, Eochaid. But does your father know where you are?”

Mael Muad made a short crack of laughter, showing whom Colban had been addressing with this last. “No, but he’d be relieved if he did!” he answered cheerily. “Thinks I’m at Three Winds!”

'Thinks I'm at Three Winds!'

“That is some consolation,” Colban said dryly.

He stepped closer. Gaethine leaned back into the alcove, changed his mind, and sat forward again. He stared at the curved rim of the arch, waiting for that first exchange of glances.

“How do you do, lad?” Colban asked. The warm rumbling of his voice and a sudden straightening of Aed’s posture indicated to whom he had next turned his attention.

'You find me well.'

“You find me well,” Aed said coldly.

“Do I?” Colban purred. “It seems to me I find you in more trouble than a pregnant nun.”

Colban’s slow advance had brought him past the edge of the alcove, and, perhaps diverted by thoughts of cloisters, he glanced aside at Gaethine. Gaethine had been waiting for that glance, and he snagged it like a flitting insect in a web.

Unblinking, he stared back along Colban’s gaze, drawing him in. He saw the jerk of Colban’s head, the catch in his breath, the flutter of his lashes: the flash of shock. Gaethine had found out what he wanted to know. He took pity on the old lord’s embarrassment and bowed his head, snipping the strand.

“How are you, lad?” Colban asked with gruff gentleness. “Didn’t see you there.”

'How are you, lad?'

“You’ve found me better,” Gaethine admitted. O God, the mere act of moving words through his chest was rousing a tickling urge to cough. But he could not resist adding, “And my father knows where I am. Not that he cares.”

After a silent moment he realized he was staring moodily at the lamp beside him, and he looked up at Lord Colban. The man was watching him. His forehead was wrinkled and his brows all abristle, but the amber of his eyes was bright with fire. This time it was Gaethine who could not look away.

This time it was Gaethine who could not look away.

“You might be surprised,” was all Colban said in the end. Then he strolled up to Aed. “And I suppose I know where young Congal is?” he asked testily. “At Three Winds with forty horse, last I heard?”

“Twelve horse is he having,” Aed replied. “The others I’ve brought home.”

Mael Muad grumbled, “There’s being precious little fodder for the twelve.”

Now that Colban had advanced into the hall, the men accompanying him entered Gaethine’s sight. They were his son Colban, as well as Donnchad, heir to Lord Eochaid of the Eochaids.

The men accompanying him entered Gaethine's sight.

Gaethine did not much like either of them. Donnchad was dutiful and uninspired, and on the few occasions when he had impressed Gaethine, it had turned out he had been serving as his wife’s cat’s-paw. Young Colban was a more dashing fellow, but Gaethine was afflicted with such a crabby temperament that he required all his friends to be especially congenial, whereas Colban was especially not.

Neither of them flinched when they first saw Gaethine.

Neither of them flinched when they first saw Gaethine, but then again, they had been prepared.

Lord Colban said warningly to Aed, “Pray tell me that stunt was his idea.”

“Not even Congal would dare enact stunts at the head of forty of my horsemen. The order was mine.”

Colban folded his arms and strolled almost past Aed but stopped when he reached his side. From where he sat Gaethine could see Aed’s mouth quiver over clenched teeth as he struggled to stay calm.

Colban folded his arms and strolled almost past Aed.

Colban said, “That was very nearly the stupidest thing you could have done.”

Aed took a steadying breath. “Was it? You reassure me! What could have been stupider?”

“Not doing it!” Colban turned on his heel and stalked halfway back to his son. “If Cathal and his men had made it this far, then you’d have been in the Devil of a fix! If you’d ridden out at the head of your troops, it would have been war! If you’d gone alone it would have been surrender!”

'If you'd gone alone it would have been surrender!'

He scraped his heel and turned again to Aed, making his cloak flare out behind him. Gaethine tightened his arms around his chest, trying to squeeze back the mounting pressure in his lungs. He needed to see this.

“Don’t think I commend you for it,” Colban warned Aed. “You only got away with doing a stupid thing because the old crawker did a stupid thing first. Supposing they had reached you! A Devil of a fix! War, mayhap, or worse—the last of the Aenguses on his hands, and no idea what to do with you!”

Aed smiled. “I believe his sons are having ideas to spare.”

'I believe his sons are having ideas to spare.'

Colban did not rise to the bait, but rubbed his arms and paced from Aed’s side to the fire, head down, musing. “Aye, but he has them well in hand by now, I daresay. Aed must have been grieving too sore on that morn to stop them.”

“Old Aed a-​grieving?” Eochaid asked dubiously.

'Old Aed a-grieving?'

Colban lifted his head. “He’s a gouty old crawker, Eochaid, but he’s still a father.”

Colban looked at Eochaid for only a moment before turning his black-​browed glare onto Gaethine. Gaethine choked in surprise and nearly burst out coughing.

Colban looked away at once, but the harm was done. Gaethine was forced to hold his breath, tighten his throat, squeeze himself down. In his head he began repeating that Psalm whose page in his Psalter he had practically erased with his prayers: O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath, nor chasten me in thy hot displeasure, for thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore…

“Nonetheless I find you in a rare fix!” Colban said to Aed, conclusively returning to his original subject. “What are you hoping to accomplish by holding Three Winds? Aed cannot allow you to keep it forever. It’s plain he’s waiting for you to come to your senses.”

“Waiting for me to back down,” Aed corrected, frowning.

'Waiting for me to back down.'

“Aye, and? You’ve gone too far, lad. And I think you know it.”

Aed lifted his head until his Adam’s apple jutted out sharp as his chin. Aed had been too young when his elderly father died. He had often been whipped, but he had never learned to submit to a scolding.

Gaethine tried to will calmness into him, but his own body was shaking with strain. He glanced down at the Psalter beside him, unwilling to unwrap his arms from his body to touch it, but seeking the meager comfort of the sight of its scuffed cover. O Lord, there is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger, nor rest in my bones because of my sin…

“Letting your feet run faster than your boots, my lad!” Colban boomed. He clapped a fatherly hand on Aed’s shoulder and waved at his son and Donnchad. “Look before you! Here in this room we have three of the men who will be lords over these lands ten, twenty, thirty years from now. Aed, you are eighteen years old and trying to start a pissing contest with a man who pissed on the boots of the King of Scots—while he was in them—and got away with it. You can’t win.”

'You can't win.'

“You’re forgetting,” Aed said, “that Aed is now sixty years old and so gouty and full of stones he’s happy when he can piss at all.”

“Mayhap as that may be, but he has three grown sons, none less than twice your age. And any one of them—” He held up a finger before Aed’s face. “—is man enough to take his father’s place.”

Gaethine tried to heed their conversation, but he was all sweat and tears and nausea from his struggle to breathe. It was so tempting to indulge in a little cough—just a little one to clear his throat and settle his lungs. But he knew where one little cough could lead.

It was so tempting to indulge in a little cough.

O Lord, he prayed, my heart panteth, my strength faileth me, and as for the light of my eyes, it also is gone from me…

Colban gestured at Colban and Donnchad again. “You three have something they don’t. You have time. Don’t throw away that advantage by seeking strife with Old Aed now.”

'Don't throw away that advantage.'

Time! That one word, with the lump it could bring to Gaethine’s throat, was enough to shatter him into choking coughs.

The conversation ceased. Gaethine staggered to his feet. He knew they were all staring at him. He knew how they all looked without needing to look at them: embarrassed to be alive. Hear me, hear me, O Lord, O Lord, I will declare mine iniquity, I will be sorry for my sin…

Aed asked gently, “Gaeth?”

His voice was coming from nearby. Gaeth hooked his fingers into claws and swung blindly at the air, fending him off, while he choked and spluttered into his sleeve.

Aed took the hint and turned to frost. He barked an order to the guard at the door. Gaethine swung out at him again, frustrated this time because he was too far away to reach. He opened his bleary eyes and saw only Donnchad’s stodgy body before him, and then Cuan tiptoeing up to him, arms outstretched.

He opened his bleary eyes and saw only Donnchad's stodgy body before him.

Gaethine finally managed to clamp his mouth shut, but his lungs burned and his diaphragm heaved. His lips were slippery and wet with he knew not what. He had left his Psalter behind in the alcove, but he did not need it; the one page he wanted he had prayed almost blank: Forsake me not, O Lord, O my God, O my God…

His lips were slippery and wet with he knew not what.