Glenncáenna, Galloway, Scotland

'Oil of jasmine.'

“And oil of jasmine,” Sadb said in a voice hushed by awe. “King Godred sent me this. Are you ready?”

Uallach nodded. Her eerie eyes were wide, expressing a most flattering interest in the contents of Sadb’s trunk.

Congal and his horde had consumed everything at Three Winds that could be eaten, drunk, or used up—except for the contents of Sadb’s trunk. They had rifled through it, to be sure, but they had taken none of her powders, ointments, and perfumes.

Naturally she had not supposed that a pimply, sweaty man who reeked of dead wolf would care to powder his face or anoint himself with flowery oils. But it was fortunate he had not known how much this tiny vial of jasmine essence was worth.

She uncorked it and took a heady sniff before passing it beneath Uallach’s nose. Uallach’s lashes fluttered, and then her attentive expression melted into a look of rapture.

“Ach, isn’t that fine!” she breathed.

“Isn’t it?” Sadb capped the vial with her finger and tipped it over to wet it. She reached out and dabbed a drop behind Uallach’s ear before the girl guessed what she was about.

“Ach, no!” Uallach gasped, batting Sadb’s hand away too late. “You mustn’t!”

'You mustn't!'

“Why not?” Sadb asked, pink with a pleasing sense of her own generosity. She dabbed a drop behind her own ear and corked the vial. “I don’t know whether I shall ever get any more in my life, but it will spoil, you know. No sense in being stingy.”

“’Tisn’t that,” Uallach said. “Mama doesn’t like me wearing scent.”

“How will she ever know? It will have faded by morning. And think of the sweet dreams we shall have!”

Uallach looked doubtful, but finally she touched the spot behind her ear with one slender finger and shyly smiled. “Thank you, sister. We smell like the Garden of Eden must have smelled.”

“Don’t you think?”

Sadb laid the vial aside.

Sadb laid the vial aside and sorted through the pots and packets while Uallach sniffed her fingertip and looked on with polite curiosity. Sadb found her waxy lip balm had shrunken to a hard ball, and one of her ointments had sadly separated. So much time had already passed since she had left Three Winds.

Meanwhile her cat hopped down from the bench.

Meanwhile her cat hopped down from the bench and trotted back towards the door, muttering feline curses beneath his breath. Her cat had arrived at Glenncaenna the day before, with Congal’s compliments. This unexpected act of kindness made her detest the man all the more.

“Where are you going, Cinder?” she called distractedly. “You can’t get out that way.”

The door handle rattled, and the door opened, drawing in a gust of air that lifted and fluttered the curtains. Cinder swore and dashed back into the room. Uallach whispered, “My mother!”

'My mother!'

She was right. They heard Orlaith calling, “Girls?”

Both clapped their hands over the dots of jasmine behind their ears, and for an instant they stared at one another, aghast. Then Sadb went into action.

She opened her pot of pennyroyal ointment and scooped out a pea-​sized blob. She smeared half across Uallach’s collarbone and the rest across her own, and while they both rubbed that in, she grabbed a sachet of fleabane with her other hand and kneaded it against her hip. The biting scents of mint and tansy billowed around their heads, gusting away the dreamy fragrance of jasmine.

Cinder darted behind the curtain. Sadb tossed down the sachet and left the pot of pennyroyal open to the air. Orlaith rounded the corner and strode into the room.


Uallach cried, “Mama!”

Orlaith was fully-​dressed, even to the royal fillet she customarily wore on her forehead, with its pearl pendant. Her face was luminous with fresh powder, though her radiant cheeks made her eyes seem all the more haggard.

“My daughters,” she began in a husky voice. Then she lifted her head and sniffed the air.

“Ach!” Sadb said. “We were just unpacking my trunk, lady. One of my pots may have been leaking.”

'One of my pots may have been leaking.'

Orlaith said, “I expect it is the mint.”

Sadb said solemnly, “I think you may be right.” Uallach choked.

“My daughters,” Orlaith began again. Then her gaze dropped from the girls’ faces. It sank lower and lower until Sadb twisted around to see what she was looking at.

It was the cat—Sadb’s perverse little cat, who had chosen just that moment to poke his head out from behind the curtain and stare up at the great lady, green eyes to green. On the other side of the curtain Sadb spotted the tip of a twitching tail.

“There is That Cat,” Orlaith said in a tone worthy of delivering a death sentence.

'There is That Cat.'

“He isn’t meaning any harm, Mama,” Uallach ventured.

“I trust you girls have no intention of sleeping with This Animal in your room.”

“Ach, there’s being no danger of that, lady,” Sadb said. “He’ll be out the window and on the prowl before our heads hit the pillows.”

Orlaith hesitated. Her mouth puckered, pleating fine wrinkles into her powder. “It is my opinion,” she said, “that This Cat consorts with fairies.”

'It isn't true, Mama, surely it isn't.'

“It isn’t true, Mama, surely it isn’t,” Uallach pleaded. “If he’s a wee bit ill-​mannered yet, it’s only because those men must have been rough with him and kicked him with their boots. He’s such a dear little cat, Mama. Diarmait was ever so fond of him. He had—he had so many cunning little names for him!”

Sadb snortled and clapped her hand over her mouth. Fortunately Orlaith believed she had stopped a sob. Her sour expression softened.

“Diarmait would be glad to know you have your little pet to comfort you, my dear, until you may hold your dear child in your arms.” She lifted a finger. “But when that day comes, there must be no more cats in your rooms, lest they suck your dear one’s breath.”

There will be no more cats in your rooms.

Sadb was in no mood to fight her future battles tonight, so she inclined her head and bent her knees, curtseying a truce.

Orlaith began again. “My daughters, I am come to wish you good night, and inform you that I shall not see you again before breakfast. Your father,” she said to Uallach, “has sent for me.”

'Your father has sent for me.'

She folded her hands and stared at her daughter. Her back was straight and her head high, and her powdered face had the hazy luster of the limed and painted statue of the Virgin at Whithorn.

Then her dignity cracked, and her voice took on a rasp of bitterness.

“The very day I was churched!” she cried. “I suppose I must be thankful he didn’t take me in the aisle of the chapel. But I wish you to observe, Uallach,” she continued, recovering her poise with an effort of steely will, “that a wife obeys her husband in all things. It is not for a wife to desire or not to desire. ‘Your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you.’”

'I know, Mama.'

Uallach whispered, “I know, Mama.”

“A wife may not refuse to share her husband’s bed, for it is his right. Nor is it for us to judge what acts are seemly within. If our husbands desire such and such a thing of their wives, it must not be indecent. ‘For marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled.’ And I especially wish you to know that I shall not go grudgingly, pouting and sighing. I shall act pleased, and endeavor to be pleasing. The conjugal relation is your duty, daughter. But your husband must believe it is your delight.”

Uallach nodded.

Uallach nodded, scared speechless by this unprovoked lesson. Her face sparkled with sweat. Oily rainbows of color bloomed beneath her skin, from her blue veins and the violet hollows of her eyes to the carmine flush of her cheeks.

Her mother’s face was a stony white. She turned to Sadb and the barest smile curved her lips, though like the Blessed Mother’s painted face it made her eyes look sad.

'I am certain you always did your duty with Diarmait, my dear.'

“I am certain you always did your duty with Diarmait, my dear.”

Sadb nodded. Her eyes filled, and she bit her lips together. She did not know whether to sob or shriek with laughter. Such premarital speeches as these had so filled her with dread that it had taken her months to relax enough to enjoy her nights with her husband. But she wondered what Orlaith would think of her if she knew that in the last weeks, Sadb had “convinced her husband of her delight” by moaning against his neck and clenching his hand between her spasming thighs.

She wondered what Orlaith would think of her.

“Let Sadb be your model,” Orlaith instructed Uallach, unintentionally deciding Sadb in favor of shrieking with laughter at the next opportunity. “Good night, girls.”

She kissed them both lightly, cheek to cheek. Sadb breathed in the scent of her powder, delicate and faintly violet-​scented. She did not like Orlaith as a mother-​in-​law, but it saddened her to think of her as a woman, going in to sleep with that grizzle-​bearded, gouty old man. She would probably have to straddle him and ride. He was old enough to be her father. Sometimes, in her secret heart, Orlaith must have wondered when he would ever die.

She must have wondered when he would ever die.

Sadb and Uallach stood around, silent and awkward, while Orlaith left through the door.

The curtain billowed away from the wall with the rush of air, and Cinder sauntered out again, cursing and complaining under his breath between lashes of his tongue across his furry side. But the girls waited, listening through the open window, until Orlaith’s shoes had gone crunching up the path past the hall and even afterwards, until nothing more could be heard but a distant dog barking in the afterlight of dusk.

Then Sadb turned to Uallach and grabbed her by the ear.

Then Sadb turned to Uallach and grabbed her by the ear.

“‘So many little cunning names!’” she quoted. “I could have slapped you!”

“Aren’t they cunning, though?” Uallach giggled, attempting innocence, but blushing hotly at her daring. “That ball-​licking bastard!”

“That cockeyed little fucker! If I’d laughed at that instant, your mother would have kicked me out, not to mention my cat!”

“I couldn’t help it!” Uallach pleaded. “It’s just what Diarmait would have said, too.”

'I couldn't help it!'

Sadb released her and dusted off her hands. “Aye, he would. But Diarmait could tell a crooked tale and keep a straight face, which neither of us can. So you keep that in mind, girlie. Now where was I?”

She turned back to the table and covered the open pot of mint.

“We’ll still be reeking of pennyroyal in the morning. So much for jasmine and sweet dreams. I’ll be dreaming I’ve a cold in my chest.”

Sadb returned to sorting through her bottles, and Uallach flopped onto the end of the bed. Cinder leapt back up on the bench.

'There is That Cat.'

“‘There is That Cat,’” Uallach quoted huskily. “Funny, isn’t it? How Mama calls him that, just as Diarmait did.”

“She never called him a cockeyed little fucker.”

Uallach giggled. “Mayhap she’s thinking it. But she never calls him by his name, I mean, no more than Diarmait ever did.”

“Mmm.” Sadb sniffed a pot of cowslip ointment. The fat had gone rancid. She and Diarmait had been long enough at Ramsaa for cowslip ointment to spoil. It was a rude reminder. In her memory it seemed to have lasted only a few precious days.

After a while Uallach asked softly, “Sadb?”



“May I ask you something? Personal?”

Sadb flashed her a sisterly smile. “Of course.”

“You needn’t answer if it makes you sad to talk about it. But I wondered something about you and Diarmait.”

Sadb splashed a bit of elderflower water into her hand and rubbed it over her face. “What about us?”

“Did you… like doing your duty as a wife?”

Sadb thought about it for a moment and laughed. “To be sure, it was my delight!”

She turned to smile indulgently at Uallach.

She turned to smile indulgently at Uallach, big sister to little.

“Don’t worry about what your mother says. It needn’t be a chore—to say the least! If only you get a man whom you like… at least a little, at first. You’ll like him better as you get to know one another. You’ve only to relax and let yourself enjoy it. It can be quite pleasant. Quite a lot of fun! Don’t worry.”

Uallach smiled. “Ach, I’m not worried.”

'Ach, I'm not worried.'

Sadb grinned at her and nearly left it at that. But there was a quiver in Uallach’s silky, cobwebby voice that caught her attention. There was something dreamy and replete in her smile.

Sadb asked, “You’re not?”

“No. For I know how it can be.”

“You do?”

Uallach’s smile sharpened and turned shy. She looked down at her lap. “Not all of it. I’ve never had a lover. In my bed I mean.”

Sadb was bewildered and a little worried. “What have you had? Or where have you had it?”

'What have you had?'

“I’ve never had a man inside me, I mean. But I’ve touched… and been touched.”

“Great day in the morning! Have you a sweetheart, then?”

Uallach smiled up at her. “Aye.”

Sadb planted her hands on her hips and stared. “I’m thinking it’s I who ought to be asking personal questions! You never told me, sister! Here I’ve been trying to think of a man for you! Have I met him?”

“Ach, aye.”

'Ach, aye.'

“Ach! Did I like him? What’s the name of him?”

“Mael Duin is being the name of him.”

Sadb could only think of one Mael Duin that she had met, but every member of this family seemed to have one of five names. There were doubtlessly others.

“When did I meet him?” she asked. “How old is he?”

“Why you met him last at supper, silly,” Uallach giggled. “And he’s thirty-​one.”

'And he's thirty-one.'

Sadb’s heart sank into the pit of her stomach, and together the two of them sank into unplumbed depths of shock.

“Mael Duin son of Cuan?” she whispered. “Your sister’s man?”

Uallach’s smile wilted, but she held it up still, making it ghastly. “Half-​sister,” she corrected.

Sadb stared at her. Half–sister, if you please. One-​and-​thirty, as if it were not enough that he be exactly twice her age but had to be a year older besides.

Sadb stared at her.

Uallach made a quavering sob. “You’re thinking I’m a wicked girl, aren’t you?”

Cinder meowed his disapproval of feminine vapors and carryings-​on, and scampered across the room and up onto the bed to put a stop to this scene before it grew intolerable.

Sadb, meanwhile, recovered her wits and said, “No! But I’m thinking Mael Duin son of Cuan is a very wicked man!”

She had known Diarmait, and she braced herself for an outburst of Diarmait-​like temper from his sister. Surely Uallach would mount to a hot defense of her lover.

But Diarmait himself had called his little sister sometimes special, and sometimes strange, and tonight she lowered her head and looked troubled. She asked carefully, as if trying to grasp a difficult idea, “Are you thinking it’s wicked of him?”

'Are you thinking it's wicked of him?'

“Aye, I am. How long has this been going on?”

Uallach stroked and stroked the hoarsely purring cat. “Since last year,” she murmured, “when my fits started coming all the time.”

Sadb considered this. She remembered her fleeting suspicion of Donnchad’s Aed when she had seen him alone with Uallach’s unconscious body.

“Were you waking up from a fit one time, and finding him there?”

Uallach looked up and smiled—and it was ghastly. “How did you know?”

'How did you know?'

Sadb closed her eyes and tried to breathe in short breaths. The scent of pennyroyal was making her sick to her stomach. Except it was not really the pennyroyal.

No premarital speeches had prepared her for the family she was about to enter. She had never imagined so much silent horror could exist within a single palisade wall, while people were going about their everyday lives. Shadowy men sneaking through the night to murder folk in their beds with axes—that she could understand. Panic and screaming and beating down the walls she could understand. Not this family.

And she knew that if she tried to explain it to outsiders, she wouldn’t know how to make them understand, either. They would think her as crazy as the people she was trying to describe.

Sadb gripped Uallach’s frail shoulders and tried to find words to make her understand, at least.

Sadb gripped Uallach's bony shoulders.

“Listen to me, sister. It’s a grown man he is, a married man. And you’re his wife’s sister. You’re a young girl. He should be protecting you, not… not… It’s wicked in every way.”

Uallach stroked the cat. Her thin face was damp and pinched with worry. “So I was wicked to like it.”

“No, darling, don’t let anyone tell you so. It’s like…”

Sadb stood up.

'It's like dessert!'

“It’s like dessert!” she said, gleeful to have found a metaphor even a child could understand. “Dessert is delicious, but we’re only supposed to eat it at the appointed time: after we’ve eaten a proper meal. And the things men and women can do together are delicious, too, but the Lord only meant us to partake of them within a marriage. It isn’t wicked to think a cherry tart tastes delicious, no matter what time of day it’s eaten. For it’s the plain truth! And it isn’t wicked to like it if a man touches you just so. It feels good, and that’s the plain truth. But we mustn’t let them touch us, for all that. Not until we’re married.”

“You don’t think badly of me?”

'You don't think badly of me?'

Sadb brushed the girl’s hair back from her hot cheeks and held her face between her hands. “I think you are a beautiful, sweet, slightly silly little darling, and you will make some handsome, sweet, slightly silly man very happy.”

Sadb kissed her blushing cheek. She breathed just a hint of jasmine through the girl’s dark hair and sighed. The Serpent had already flicked its tongue in Uallach’s ear.

“You’ll not see him alone again, will you?” Sadb asked.

Uallach shook her head.

“Good for you. And if he’s bothering you, you tell me and I shall put a stop to it.”

'Tell me and I shall put a stop to it.'

Uallach nodded. It occurred to Sadb that she looked relieved, but Sadb chose not to mention it. She left the bedside to cap her pots and tidy the table.

“I’m thinking he didn’t love me,” Uallach said thoughtfully. “He said he did, but that never stopped him from getting another child on my sister.”

Sadb took a deep breath and endeavored to keep her voice calm. “No, darling, that wasn’t love.”

Sadb fluffed out her hair and went to crawl onto the bed behind Uallach and Cinder. The cat had already decided the crisis was over, and had curled up to take a nap before commencing his nightly prowl.

The cat had already decided the crisis was over.

“We shall find a good man for you,” Sadb promised Uallach. “Just for you. We shall talk them all over, you and I, and pick the best one. It’ll be fun.”

Uallach was silent. Sadb leaned her head back on her hand and watched her for a while. It occurred to her that the girl might simply have been aching for a loving touch. Sadb lifted her free hand and gently scratched her nails in circles over Uallach’s back, as Sadb’s Mama used to do when she tucked her in at night, until Sadb was so relaxed she was practically a puddle. Nobody had done that for her in a while.

Uallach still said nothing, but her back arched beneath Sadb’s fingertips, and her hands unclenched from their worried twisting of her nightgown.

“We’ll get you out of here,” Sadb whispered, though Uallach had never told her she wanted to go. “It’s not like this everywhere.”

Sadb wondered again whether Uallach would raise a protest in defense of her family. But she only asked, “What will become of you when I go?”

'What will become of you when I go?'

Sadb let her hand fall and leaned over to bury her face in Cinder’s spotted fur. For a moment she breathed the scent of warm grass, sunlight, and fluffy drifting clouds. Freedom.

She lifted her head to say gaily that she would still have her cat. But the breath she took tasted only of pennyroyal. And suddenly it seemed a pathetic thing to say.

“Don’t worry about me,” she told Uallach. “I’m strong and stubborn as a hired mule. I shall be fine. Let’s just take care of you.”

'Let's just take care of you.'