Ráth an Bheirt Bhan, Leinster, Ireland

The whining stopped as soon as Murchad turned his head.

The whining stopped as soon as Murchad turned his head, and Cucu’s curly tail struck up an encouraging wag.

“Every time you interrupt me,” Murchad muttered, “I am going to start over. So if you want your walk, shut it.”

Cucu listened patiently to this speech, and heartened by the one word he understood, lifted his haunches from the floor to wag his tail with all his might. Murchad shook his head and looked back to his letter.

Murchad shook his head and looked back to his letter.

Murchad did not like writing letters. Unless he had gladsome tidings of his own to report, he never picked up his pen unless he had a fresh new letter to reply to and the responses it inspired still whirling through his head.

It was hard to send a message out into the unknown. Would it arrive as a bright bit of good news bobbing obscenely on tides of grief? Would its intended recipient already have departed—even, sometimes, chillingly, before one picked up the pen—to a place no letter could ever reach?

Letter-​writing seemed the sort of reckless, blindly confident act that goaded the Fates into bringing about the very misfortune one feared.

But Murchad had not heard from his family in more than a month, not since his father had written to share their joy at the birth of Murchad’s littlest sister. He had not had any news from the north in some time. His harbormaster said they had not seen a ship from Scotland or the Isles since early March. Whitehand must have closed his gloved grip over the sea routes again. Murchad was worried about his brother.

And so here he was rereading this least Murchad-like of missives.

And so here he was rereading this least Murchad-​like of missives: an unprovoked letter to his family. There was not much to report. All were well at Two Ladies. He had dedicated half a page to some funny things little Aed had said, and a few lines to his twin daughters’ trick of breaking into gummy grins the moment they were laid face-​to-​face in their crib.

He had taken the liberty of greeting his mother on behalf of her brother Enna, King of Leinster. And he had mentioned that the High King of Ireland, the aging Toirdhealbhach of the Brians, was said to be in ill health. However, the talk was of poison—the man’s hair had all fallen out—so it was best not to write too much about that.

But Murchad could not bring himself to write the things he really wanted to say. How is my father’s health? Has my mother recovered from the birth? How does the babe thrive? How is my sister Uallach? She seemed wan at the wedding. Have you heard from my brother Diarmait? Have you had news of Lathir’s son?

Asking such questions might tempt the Fates. A month was long enough for somebody he loved to die.

“Cucu!” Murchad slapped the table.

Murchad slapped the table.

Cucu cringed, but this time his weird whining started up again straightaway.

Murchad turned his head to glare at him. Cucu’s ears were flat against his skull, and his tail only swayed. The pitch of his whine rose and rose until he let loose a sharp bark.

“Cucu!” Murchad grabbed the dog by the muzzle, clamping his mouth shut. Cucu wrinkled his brow into his most sheepish expression and wagged his tail.

“If you wake those babies,” Murchad warned him, “there will be no walk. There will be only kennel!”

That was a word Cucu understood. Gingerly Murchad relaxed his grip and let the dog lift his muzzle from his hand.

Cucu’s tail wagged and wagged, but he did not whine again. Murchad was just turning back to his letter when Cucu spun about, dashed around the bench with claws scrabbling, and loosed a volley of barks up the stairs.

“Damn it! Sigi!” Murchad scrambled out of his chair and ran after him.

Sure enough Sigrid was coming down the stairs.

“I’m sorry, Sig!” Murchad wailed over Cucu’s barking. “I thought you were gone up to bed! I wouldn’t have let him in here—”



With one word Sigrid silenced them both. She flicked her hems at the dog and stepped around him. Then she looked up at Murchad.

“I was about to get undressed for bed,” she said, rapidly and low, “but something’s happening out there. I chanced to pull back my curtain and look out. And there’s a crowd coming. I saw torches.”

'I saw torches.'

She still advanced, and Murchad shuffled backwards. “A crowd coming?” he asked. “From where? An army?”

“I don’t know, but I counted at least a dozen torches before I got mixed up. They’re coming up from the harbor.”

“Sweet Jesus! Ships?”

“I don’t know, I was just about to go see.”

'I was just about to go see.'

She started past him, but Murchad scooted into her way. “Wait! Sigi!”

Cucu barked.

“What if it’s Eirik?” Sigrid asked.

“What if it isn’t?”

He looked around for aid, but the hall was empty. Supper was long since over, the sun had set, and the servants had retired either to their families or to the taverns down at the harbor. Murchad was on his own.

Sigrid went wide and tried to walk around him. Cucu planted himself in front of her and barked and barked.

'Sigi, wait!'

“Sigi, wait!” Murchad pleaded. “Let me go see what it is. Cucu says it isn’t safe. Ach, Cucu!” Malcolm clapped his hands over his head and stared down at his clever dog. “That’s what you were trying to tell me!”

Cucu wagged his tail and kept barking.

“I don’t know what Cucu was trying to tell you,” Synne’s angry voice said, coming past the fire, “but I wish you would tell Cucu to keep his voice down! We just got those babies to sleep!”

'I wish you would tell Cucu to keep his voice down!'

“Ach, Synn! I’m so sorry! Cucu! Shut up!”

Cucu barked and barked. Behind the bedroom door a baby woke abruptly and let out a piercing cry. Sigrid tried to slip past. Murchad did not know which way to turn. Then he heard something that decided him.

The door to the hall swung open, and a pair of booted feet clattered in, surmounted by clinking mail. Murchad’s hand went to the sword he wasn’t wearing as he spun around, putting himself between the two ladies and the invader.

It was a towering man with fair hair—not Eirik, but Murchad’s troop commander Morrann, wind-​blown and panting.

“Lord! Thank God! You’re alive!”

'You're alive!'

Murchad yelped. “I am? I’m not supposed to be?”

“Lord, you—you have to come!”

Morrann pressed his hands against his temples as if trying to keep his head from flying apart. Murchad had never seen him so upset. There must have been a massacre.

“They’re saying you’re dead! It’s—the Two Ladies! Everyone’s saying it means you’re dead!”

“I am not!”

“I see that, lord, but you need to come! They’re coming this way, and they’re singing a dirge!”

Cucu barked and barked around Murchad’s feet. Sigrid asked skeptically, “You’ve seen them?”

Morrann’s horror-​struck face twisted into an offended snarl.

Morrann's bleached face twisted into a snarl of outrage.

“Aye, I’ve seen them! I, and a hundred others! My horse all but threw me, trying to get near to them, but aye, I saw them well, from on high!”

Murchad jumped and twisted at the touch of hands on his hips, but it was only Synne behind him, quietly wrapping his sword belt around his waist.

Murchad grabbed the ends and pulled them around front. His hands shook, and he was absurdly grateful for this task of tightening and buckling, which for a few moments would require all his attention. Nobody could expect him to go out to face two phantoms without a sword.

“And I heard them, too,” Morrann added. “God be with us. I never heard the like.”

Synne said, “We should send for the priest.”

'We should send for the priest.'

“I’ve already taken the liberty, lady.”

Dear, practical Synne! Murchad turned to her, grateful, but Synne simply handed him his sword. Murchad busied himself buckling it on. Cucu nosed his trousers impatiently and wagged his tail, but he was silent now. He knew the sword meant they were going out. Murchad could hear his baby girls crying behind the wall.

Morrann said, “You ladies ought to take the children and go into the chapel. It’s the one place they’ll not enter.”

Sigrid lifted her skirts and stepped up to face him, her chin high, daunted neither by his height nor his weapons nor his well-​known antipathy for her.

Sigrid lifted her skirts and stepped up to face him.

“I will not hide in a chapel on account of a couple of singing ghosts,” she announced. “I will see this for myself.”

Morrann bit back a retort and looked to Murchad, expecting him to do his duty as a man and a lord.

Murchad croaked, “Sigi…”

“Nurse can take the children to the chapel,” Synne said, stepping in to make peace in her own way. “We shall go see.”

“My lady! Surely you don’t—” Morrann looked to Murchad again. His eyes bulged.

His eyes bulged.

“My lord, the ladies—the women—they’re naked!”

Sigrid and Synne exchanged a speaking glance. Then Sigrid snorted and swept up her skirts.

“Perhaps that’s something you’ve not seen much of in this life,” she said to Morrann as she waddled past him, belly-​first, “but my sister and I are unlikely to be surprised.”

Morrann scowled and watched her into the front hall. His scowl changed to a shocked stare when Synne followed right after her. Cucu dashed out between Morrann’s legs and Synne’s skirts.

Morrann turned back to Murchad, and like Cucu’s whine, the indignant expression on his face looked to be building towards a bark.

Abruptly Murchad was annoyed. His wife and her sister were Danes. If they were not frightened of ghosts, then they were not. It was not for Irishmen to judge.

He met Morrann’s stare and yanked his sword belt tight. He shouted past him into the front hall, “Everyone stays behind me!” Then he shouldered his way past Morrann, too.

Synne and Sigrid had stopped before the open door, obedient to his command. Cucu was already outside and looking back in, one paw raised and tail waving invitingly.

“Stay well behind me,” he ordered the ladies as he strode between them, “and if I tell you to run, go to the chapel and don’t even stop to look back.”

His voice was firm, but he could not meet their eyes.

He stepped out into the yard.

He stepped out into the yard.

The sun was gone, but the long spring twilight still played across the sky in tints of lilac and blue. There was light enough for Murchad to make out the forms of people clustered before the darker forms of doorways, some watching the eastern gate, others with their heads bowed together for whispering. When his boots crunched onto the gravel the heads turned.

“They’re headed for the east gate!” Morrann called out behind him.

His voice rang on the night air. The people’s voices rustled like leaves in the wind, all speaking the same sounds.

'They came up from the sea right in the harbor.'

“They came up from the sea right in the middle of the harbor,” Morrann continued as he caught up to Murchad on his long legs. “They came up singing, all a-​dripping with water, and walked right up the road, past everyone like there was no one there.”

Sigrid tipped up her nose and laughed as her brisk stride brought her up alongside the men. “Marched right between the Blue Pig and the taproom of the Two Ladies Inn, about an hour after dark! Forgot to mention that, Morrann!”

Morrann stopped walking. “Are you suggesting I am drunk?”

Sigrid stopped too. “No, I’m remembering you’re Irish!”

Murchad kept going, and Cucu trotted along beside him. As he strode into view in the center of the yard, he heard his name wuthering through the scattered crowds like a secret carried on a breeze. He heard people running. He thought he heard something else too. Then Morrann’s clarion voice outrang it again.

“I would have you know,” Morrann said, “that I have not had a drop since supper, and I wasn’t even at the tavern when they came up from the sea. But there are dozens of witnesses who were!”

“Aye, and they’re all Irish too!” Sigrid said, gurgling with laughter. “Morrann, has it occurred to you that someone is playing a trick on you? On all of us?”

“Those ladies were wet and naked!”

“I hear there are women one can pay to do that.”

Morrann was briefly at a loss. Murchad heard the sound again, the swelling and falling of a melody borne on tides of wind, full of a sadness beyond uttering. If not for Morrann he could not have said from which direction it came. He might have guessed it rang down from the sky. The moon hung low in the east, a hair’s breadth from full, as if holding her breath.

The moon hung low in the east, a hair's breadth from full.

“One black as a raven’s feather, and one fox-​red?” Morrann challenged Sigrid, quoting the old song.

Sigrid laughed. “I hear they come in different colors.”

“My horse,” Morrann said, his voice rising with fury, “is not typically terrified of whores!”

“He must have sensed you were.”

Morrann howled, “Neither am I!”

“Morrann,” Synne said quietly, “I fear your shock has made you speak more crudely than you meant. And, Sigrid, I wish you would not goad him.”

Morrann said, “My lady, I beg your pardon.”

Sigrid said nothing. She did not have the chance, for they all turned at the sound of a desperate runner rounding the back of the house and galloping down the hill: the little priest of Two Ladies, Gilla Mochutu. His sandals slap-​slapped against the soles of his feet, and he ran wildly, half-​blind, as the yoke of his cowl kept flapping up over his face and he was obliged to beat it back down.

“Morrann!” he shouted between flaps. “Morr-​ann!”

Cucu began to bark.

“Lady!” Gilla Mochutu called when he came close enough to see Synne. And finally, as he slapped and stumbled to a halt before Murchad, he burst out with, “Lord! You’re alive! Praise God!”

'Lord!  You're alive!'

He grabbed Murchad by the sleeves but turned to Morrann.

“Is that what I’m hearing?” he asked breathlessly, one ear cocked towards the sky.

Cucu kept barking until Sigrid said, “Quiet!” Then they all listened.

The people in the yard were coming closer now that they had seen the priest arrive, and they murmured in tones of worry between themselves. But a faint, thin tune carried over their earthly sounds, high and clear as moonlight through sheer veils of clouds.

Murchad could not yet make out words.

Murchad could not yet make out words, and the melody was new to him, but he knew it was a lament. It was the saddest he had ever heard. And he was afraid, as he had never before feared.

“The Two Ladies!” Gilla Mochutu said in a hoarse whisper. His eyes sparkled with excitement. “Did you see them?”

“Aye, Father, I saw them,” Morrann said. “Saints and Archangels preserve us! Singing the dirge of a lord.”

The dirge of a lord! Morrann had not mentioned that. Murchad’s legs felt weak.

“Who could have died?” Gilla Mochutu wondered. “It must be the High King. God forbid! But he wasn’t long for the world.”

Synne asked, “Why would the Two Ladies come here if the High King had died? He’s but a distant cousin.”

Morrann and the priest appeared stumped. Cucu bumped Murchad’s leg and made that weird whine. His hackles were up, giving his shoulders the fluffy bulk of a lion’s mane.

Then Synne answered herself, thoughtfully: “But where else would the Two Ladies go?”

“Mayhap it’s your lordship’s uncle,” Morrann suggested. “God forbid!”

“God forbid!” Gilla Mochutu echoed.

“Or mayhap,” Murchad said in a voice that sounded like another man’s, “as they’re mourning a lord who isn’t dead yet.

They were all stumped into silence—all except for Cucu, who barked at the strange sounds coming from his master’s throat. Murchad was grateful he had been able to make sounds at all. He felt like he was floating, detached from the earth, with a body made of butterfly wings, soap bubbles, and gauze. Perhaps he was already dying.

Morrann snapped out of his shock first. “I won’t let them take you!”

“To be sure we won’t!” the priest said. “Ach! I brought holy water!” He brightened at this recollection and fumbled into the purse beneath his robe.

“This is nonsense!” Sigrid said, out of patience. “Ghosts! I’ve never heard of a such a thing in real life!”

The women were crowding round by now, and their anxious murmurings took on an edge of anger. They were Irish, and they believed in the spirits that stalked their land. It was not for a Dane to judge.

Father Gilla Mochutu tucked his missal beneath his arm and uncorked his little vial of holy water, but his cool gaze was fixed on Sigrid. “I’ll bless you, to be sure,” he said, “but it’s to the chapel you ladies must go straightaway after.”

“Finally!” Morrann said. “Somebody’s talking sense!”

Sigrid’s scrubby brows flew up and then plunged into a dangerous scowl. “I will not! Someone is playing a trick on you all! And I,” she said, sticking out her little chin at Morrann, “wish to be there to laugh!”

Synne said, “Sig, it won’t be funny even if it is a trick.” Her calm, deliberate speech and her Danish inflections were all that remained of her foreign accent, so long had the Irish Gaelic been lapping away at it in gentle waves.

“Now now, think of your baby,” the priest advised Sigrid. He did not hesitate in his hurried preparations, and it was clear he did not expect further argument. And in fact Sigrid drew back and looked uncertain. Even, at last, a little afraid.

Then Morrann proved he had never had a wife and was unlikely to get one soon, for he turned on Sigrid and said, “I told you so! This is no place for women!”

Sigrid reared back her head. She had none of her sister’s tranquil patience, nor her mastery of the Gaelic. All the clangor of the Norsemen’s tongue rang through hers. “If two ladies are coming, then so! Two ladies should be there to greet them! I say this is no place for men!”

Morrann turned to Synne in desperation. “My lady, please say you’ll go to safety!”

“I thank you for your concern, Morrann,” Synne answered, in the gentlest of scolds, “but I shall stay with my husband.”

Murchad was grateful, and then he was ashamed. He knew he should send his wife to the chapel. But his knees were quaking, and his mouth was so dry he could not unstick his tongue. He could not meet Morrann’s eyes—whether pleading or full of reproach, he did not know.

Then, from the crowd gathering before the gatehouse, one man’s voice shouted, “I see them!”

A exhalation of fright rose from the people within the walls—dozens of throats pronouncing “Ach!” and “Oh!”

All the while Murchad could hear a faint rumbling from afar: the voice of the crowd arriving from the harbor and the farms. The singing went on between them, coming in snatches and tatters on gusts of wind.

“Hurry, Father!” Morrann pleaded. “I’d hoped to meet them outside the walls, and keep them out!”

Gilla Mochutu’s face was finally looking damp and flustered as he fussed with his flask and brush and beads. He fumbled his missal out from beneath his arm and passed it to Morrann. “Here, then, hold this.”

The day’s last glow was dying, and the moon was so bright Murchad could feel its cold light soaking through his hair to his scalp. Then the priest flicked holy water at him with his little brush, and the droplets ran down his cheek into his beard, colder still.

“O God, come to my deliverance,” Gilla Mochutu said in a nasal drone.

Murchad worked his throat to whisper the response. “Make haste to help me, O Lord.”

“We pray thee O Lord, Father Almighty, Eternal God, to have mercy on thy servant Murchad and protect him from all the works of the devil and preserve him in all good.”

Murchad whispered, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

His hand shook, and his arm scarcely seemed attached to his body, but they still moved unconsciously to make the sign of the Cross. His hand and arm had learned that gesture to perfection before he had even learned to speak, as his mother had proudly recounted all his life. His proud mother! Would he never see her again? He barely caught a blurted sob.

Gilla Mochutu hurried on and blessed Synne with holy water and holy words. Murchad mouthed the prayer along with him, tears in his eyes, giving his brave wife all the help he could.

Then the priest blessed Sigrid, and Morrann, and even, after an instant’s hesitation, flicked a spray of holy water at Cucu and blessed him too. Cucu did not notice. His ears were pricked towards the gate, his forelegs squared and tense, and he was making that weird whine.

The priest turned next to the crowd and scattered holy water far and wide, blessing all the people: the staff of the manor, mostly. The little housemaids, far from their families, clinging close to one other with their thin arms. The baker’s fat wife with a drowsy toddler on each hip. Gawky grooms and the household guards, and adolescent boys who divided their attention between the priest and the excitement in the gate, anxious to be blessed and just as eager to join the action. Old women and old men, too, who could tell stories of other nights the Two Ladies had walked the shore, but who had never heard such a tale as this.

Father Gilla Mochutu spoke loudly, and his voice carried farther than his water could reach. But it seemed thin and ineffectual to Murchad’s ears, compared to the haunting song from outside. O God, he wondered, what dire letter to the living must be delivered by the dead?

Then there was a sharp cry, and a ripple of confusion spread out from a corner of the crowd. Perhaps it was only someone’s toe being trod on, but it shattered the solemnity of Father Gilla Mochutu’s prayer. Some of the people shoved closer, begging to be blessed with holy water, and others jostled towards the gate to get a glimpse of the ghosts. It seemed no one stood where he wanted to stand, and the crowd grew hectic and churning. Voices were pitched high. Cucu’s whines broke into sharp barks.

Finally Morrann ran out of patience and started swinging Father Gilla Mochutu’s missal like a sword. “Make way for your lord!” he shouted over the crowd’s babble and the priest’s blessing. “Everybody back! Get those children to the chapel, for the love of the saints in heaven! This isn’t a parade!”

A space opened before Murchad. Without thinking he stepped into it, and just like that he was walking towards one of the very fates he feared.

Cucu fell in beside him, and like Morrann, he was so anxious to be useful that he took upon himself the task of clearing a path for his master by running from side to side, barking and snapping his jaws. But Cucu’s task was greatly hindered by the apple-​cheeked old women who insisted on reaching out to touch their lord’s sleeve and speak a blessing over him, and the men who stepped up to slap his back or merely stand at attention as he went by.

His people loved and honored him, and always had, from the day he and Synne had come to the manor as newlyweds, earnest and shy. And they’d joked fondly when Sigrid had arrived, and “two ladies” presided over his household in truth.

But ever since the birth of his twin daughters, the people looked on Murchad with a sort of awe. He was like a figure from a prophecy to them. Murchad of Two Ladies. But no one could tell him what the prophecy foretold.

Now Murchad felt like a ghost himself, walking among them, numb and lightheaded. The grasping hands of the old women seemed to test his solidity. The staring men seemed unable to decide whether he was still alive.

Behind him Gilla Mochutu noticed his absence and wailed, “Where is my missal? Ach! The Devil take it! Out of my way!”

Murchad heard the slap-​slap-​slap of the priest’s sandals as he skidded down the hillside and cantered up the path to catch up with him. The cries and babble in the gate were growing frantic, but Murchad could not see why.

“Make way for your lord!” Morrann shouted again.

The crowd dissolved into a scramble of panic as men and women fought to climb the steep bank, each determined not to be the last to leave the path. Between darting heads and flailing arms Murchad glimpsed pinpricks of torchlight beyond the gate. Then the crowd parted, and he saw.

Then the crowd parted, and he saw.

“O! O! O Lord!” Gilla Mochutu stuttered. “Forgive us sinners!”

Before the starlike specks of torchlight, two ladies walked who were as white as the moon.

Cucu erupted into savage barks and deep growls. The priest hastened into a Latin prayer, stumbling over his words in his hurry. Murchad was chilled to hear phrases like “unclean spirits” and “unholy powers.” And in spite of that cacophony, for the first time a snippet of the ladies’ song came clear to him: “The tomb closes, the Heavens open.”

“Stay back!” Morrann shouted behind Murchad. “Keep the path clear! And be ready to close this gate on my order!”

Murchad looked back. His wife and her sister were on the path behind him, stopped at a dutiful distance.

Sigrid’s lush mouth was pursed and grave, and the hand that held her skirts out of the dust had been brought up before her belly, hiding its high, round swell behind drapes of heavy fabric.

But practical Synne did not wear dresses that dragged on the ground, and Murchad could see the toes of her stout little boots peeking beneath her hems. Her hands were folded primly before her, and if her fingers were clenched tight with anxiety, no one would ever know.

And she smiled at him. She smiled that frank, fearless, and—by happy coincidence—very pretty smile that had won his heart years ago. Murchad could not step through that gate without kissing her one last time.

Of course he bungled it. He was so wooden-​limbed with fear that he was awkward when he hastened up to her, awkward when he put an arm around her waist, and awkward when he kissed her. He missed the soft curve of her lips and caught her on the corner of her mouth. The people cheered.

He was halfway back to the gate before he realized he ought to have tried again. But by then he would have felt too much like an idiot if he turned back. And so it was sheer embarrassment that propelled him through the gate at last.

Father Gilla Mochutu was already in the gatehouse, demanding in breakneck Latin that the spirits outside yield to God. After a hasty final bark at Sigrid, Cucu joined them, growling, puffed up to lion-​size with alarm.

And so it was sheer embarrassment that propelled him through the gate at last.

By now the Two Ladies were close enough to be seen clearly. Murchad saw their nudity, their wet hair plastered to their shoulders. He saw they carried something dark between them, each supporting it with one hand—something curved and heavy that glinted in the moonlight like a dead fish.

The wind rushed through the narrow gate and out beyond, blowing Murchad’s hair into his face. He was so clammy with sweat that it stuck to his cheeks. He was absurdly grateful that it gave him something to do.

He was still brushing back his hair when he and the priest stepped into the far gate, and the singing of the ladies was drowned out by a cheer that went up from the torchlit crowd in the fields. Murchad stopped and let his arms fall.

Then he heard shouts of his name, and he realized they were cheering him. He remembered they had thought him dead.

These were the people who lived outside the walls—the fishermen, the ferrymen, the crofters, the cowherds—so numerous that they had spilled off the road and were floundering through the furrows of the freshly-​plowed fields on either side. Dozens of torches twinkled in the darkness, most no more than branches picked up along the way. They gave this last night of winter an air of Beltane.

Morrann strode up behind Murchad and the priest, clinking with mail, and handed the Father his missal. Never faltering in his chant, Gilla Mochutu frantically paged through the parchment leaves, with frequent interruptions to raise his hand and make the sign of the Cross over the approaching ladies. Murchad had never seen a prayer that required the sign of the Cross after every second phrase. But Murchad had never witnessed an exorcism.

Morrann wondered softly, “What are they carrying?”

Murchad could not follow the priest, the words of the song, and Morrann’s question at the same time. He noted vaguely that the object the ladies carried seemed to have a watery weight, for it jerked and wobbled as they walked, as if something was sloshing inside.

Morrann touched Murchad’s arm. “My lord?”

“I—I can’t tell. A horn?”

Morrann was silent for a moment. Father Gilla Mochutu found his page and continued his prayer with renewed confidence. Murchad had never known such a large sound to come out of the little man. He had to strain to hear the ladies singing.

“Whatever it is,” Morrann muttered, “don’t drink it!”

Murchad shivered. “I won’t.”

The ladies came closer with a stately stride, marching in time with their slow singing, like leaders of a ghostly funeral procession. The thing they carried—it did seem to be a horn—jounced with a life of its own.

And, too, Murchad was ashamed to notice, their breasts bounced and swayed with seeming life, and their soft bellies, and their thighs. He had never seen a naked woman walk farther than from a chair to a bed. He had never seen a naked woman outside, walking up a road by the light of a moon. Their nudity was almost eerier than their ghostliness. Murchad felt dizzy and faint. His senses, his human mind, his male body were all painfully alert and all confused.

The ladies walked on as if they believed themselves invisible or knew no shame. Father Gilla Mochutu paused to turn a page, and Murchad heard the ladies sing, “The glories of the setting sun he’ll never see again.”

Their Gaelic troubled him; their consonants were hard, their words quaint. Then Murchad remembered the two ladies had died in the time of Viking raids. Their Gaelic was two hundred years old.

Father Gilla Mochutu chanted, “Depart, unclean spirits! Depart, unholy ones!” His hand drew Cross after Cross in the air.

Morrann fidgeted behind Murchad, making his mail clink and clatter. “My lord?” he prompted anxiously. “Will you not go out to meet them?”

Murchad realized he had stopped in the gateway and not moved again. But he could not. O God, he could not. His body was rigid, trembling with the strain of muscles drawn tight against other muscles. Even his throat was taut to the point of pain, and his breathing was labored. Cucu licked his hand, snuffled in his pant leg, and continued his weird whine.

The ladies came closer, and Murchad held his breath. He felt his heart beating in his throat. The ladies stepped onto the bridge spanning the ditch that had once—perhaps two hundred years before—been a moat. And that, it seemed, was the limit of what Cucu could bear.

Cucu squared himself at Murchad’s side and burst into savage woofs and deep growls—the sounds of a dogfight to the death, not the self-​important bluster of a family dog.

Murchad looked away from the ladies and down at Cucu. He scarcely knew his own dog. Cucu’s body had doubled in size. His lips were drawn back to reveal pink gums covering the vicious taper of a predator’s skull, and a mouthful of teeth so long they chomped the air with every bark.

“Cucu!” Murchad squatted and grabbed his dog, squeezing through handfuls of puffed-​out fur to the thick rolls of skin that protected the animal’s neck. Cucu kept snapping and barking, but Murchad felt him shuffle closer to his master’s body, and he held on, grateful—absurdly grateful—to have something to do.

The ladies stepped off the bridge and came on, still singing, though between the dog and the priest Murchad could not make out more than one word in three.

Now the ladies were illuminated more by the torches in the gate than by the moon. Murchad was stunned and embarrassed to find their figures so lifelike, so desirable. Squatting beside his dog, his head would be at the level of the triangular tufts of hair between their legs—and it seemed ludicrous. But then why, he reasoned with himself, should ghosts not have hair there, as they had in life? Why should their breasts not sway, or not look so richly full and pert from below, if they had died virgins and so young?

Murchad swallowed and tried to wet his lips with a dry tongue. Cucu raged, and with each bark jerked at Murchad’s arm. The priest commanded, “Begone now! Begone seducers!”

The ladies were so close Murchad could see the most stunning details. Their wet hair was beginning to dry, and dirty locks fluttered in the cold wind—one black as a raven’s feather and the other fox-​red. Bits of kelp still clung to their skin. The soles of their feet were black with dirt, and sand from the shore glittered on their tender insteps, where it had stuck and dried.

“Wandering stars,” Father Gilla Mochutu shouted, “to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever!”

The ladies stopped a few yards from Murchad, and fell silent after singing to the end of their refrain. Cucu snapped and snarled, and Murchad hung on to his fur, though he could not have stopped the dog if he lunged.

The ladies held a darkened drinking horn between them, the red-​haired one cradling the flaring mouth in her hand, and the raven one grasping the narrow tip. It sloshed with liquid as they both dropped to one knee.

They were at Murchad’s level now. His mind roiled with confusion: good manners said he ought to turn his eyes away, but his fear of ghosts told him that to do so might be fatal. And these pale ghosts—nude, soft, almost within reach of hands—were irresistible to the eyes.

But Murchad was surprised to see them looking chilled; their nipples were stiff, and goosebumps stippled their breasts and arms, like Synne’s when she fell asleep after lovemaking, half-​uncovered.

And he was surprised to see the ladies looking desperate and terrified, rather than mournful, as their lament implied.

“Depart from me, you accursed,” Father Gilla Mochutu shouted, “into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels!”

No, Murchad thought, the priest was wrong. And Murchad had been wrong to be surprised. The ladies’ faces were frozen forever into the masks of terror and desperation they had been wearing when they fled from pagan rapists into the embrace of the sea. They had died unshriven in frigid water, shivering and stippled with goosebumps, and they would never go to Heaven, and they would never again be warm.

Murchad waited for Gilla Mochutu to take a breath and then spoke for himself: “God rest you, ladies. I will have Masses said for you.”

The ladies did not seem to hear this, but they let the horn roll out of their hands and thud onto the packed dirt with a splash of liquid. Cucu leapt straight up, and Murchad grabbed him before he could lunge and wrapped both arms around his shoulders. An instant later Morrann’s hand’s were beneath his armpits, trying to drag him to his feet with the dog’s weight added. The people in the fields saw only a struggle, and they gasped and wailed. The priest shouted louder than ever, “See the Cross of the Lord! Depart, you devils!”

The ladies rose to their feet, and Murchad spluttered, “Cucu! Morrann! Shut up!”

The ladies turned. Morrann stepped back, and Cucu seemed to believe he had saved his master and frightened the ladies away, for he stopped his struggling and saw them off with growls, deep and savage, as if his throat were thick with the blood of his prey.

Murchad released Cucu’s shoulders and watched the ladies go with a gaze that darted between the curves of their young bodies and the cold, blank face of the moon.

The priest kept chanting, but the ritual of exorcism meant nothing to the ladies. These were not unclean spirits, Murchad thought, but Christian maidens, martyrs to virginity. They were not foul seducers, brazen with their nudity; their gowns had simply rotted away in the sea. What remained was perhaps—perhaps—the incorruptible bodies of saints.

These were not unclean spirits.

The ladies walked towards the bridge, and they began singing again, softly, in their strange old Gaelic, no longer leading a procession but merely comforting themselves. In the fields the crowd rumbled dangerously, and their number had spread out, blocking the road. The men with their torches looked dangerous—determined not to be frightened again.

Murchad shouted, “Leave them go in peace!”

He was startled at how far his voice carried into the night. It drowned out Father Gilla Mochutu, and the priest paused. The ladies stepped onto the bridge.

Murchad waved his arms, signaling for the men to clear the road. “Leave them go in peace!” he shouted again.

Rumbling, murmuring, the crowed parted and left the road.

One maiden reached out to the other as they reached the end of the bridge, and they stepped onto the dirt hand-​in-​hand, fingers twined together in the innocent clasp of virgins for whom life’s greatest love is still a bosom friend. Murchad thought of his twin babies, grinning and panting and pawing at each other in their crib. And he remembered, as a sob rose in his breast, that hand-​in-​hand the Two Ladies had died.

Cucu stopped his growling and shoved his head beneath Murchad’s arm. Murchad squeezed his dog’s head against his chest, and it eased the ache.

Meanwhile Gilla Mochutu prayed in an ordinary voice. Morrann stepped out of the gatehouse and squatted before the horn.

Morrann stepped out of the gatehouse and squatted before the horn.

Murchad had forgotten about the horn. He had even forgotten to wonder why the ladies had come at all. They had delivered no message. They had addressed him no words.

A puddle had spread beneath the horn, dark from wetted earth, but not opaque. Morrann gingerly tapped it with his fingertip, studied his finger, and finally stuck it in his mouth.

“Water,” he said, frowning. “Sea water.”

“What else would the Two Ladies bring from the sea?” Murchad asked dazedly.

He looked after the ladies again. Now that they had started down the road, the people were more curious about what they had left behind. Murchad saw only glimpses of bare white bodies through the trousers and skirts that were beginning to crowd the bridge.

Morrann tipped up the horn, and Murchad put out his hand reflexively to stop him. This horn is not to be touched, he remembered. He remembered that, and he remembered that curved shape, but in his heart—not in his mind. Not yet.

He looked down. The horn was dark, both the animal horn and the silver fittings, and mossy shreds of wet seaweed clung to its curves and slid from its flaring mouth. Only a few high points on the chased designs were rubbed to a filmy gleam, like fish scales. The silver was quite tarnished from the sea.

Nevertheless, after Murchad had dragged it closer, he recognized the archaic design—first in his heart, and then in his mind. He recognized the hunters, dogs, and stags who would race around the silver rim forever, fascinating generation after generation of little boys.

This was the ancient battle horn of the Chennselaigh clan, made into a drinking horn by his great-​grandfather, Mael na mBo. It could not be directly inherited; a man could only leave it to a woman, and only a woman could give it to a man.

Murchad’s grandfather had sent it from Ireland to Murchad’s mother when he died. Finally, this winter, his mother had passed it on to Sadb, and Sadb had taken it to Murchad’s brother Diarmait in Ramsaa. There it yet remained when Murchad had last received a letter from home. A month ago.

Cucu whined and craned his head around to lap at Murchad’s beard with his pink tongue.

“Aye, Cucu, aye.”

Murchad swatted Cucu’s face away and gave him a distracted scratch behind the ears. Cucu’s faithful little body trembled against his hip, swaying slightly from the wagging of his tail.

“Aye, Cucu, aye,” Murchad murmured. He was beginning to shiver too. A month was long enough for somebody he loved to die.

He was beginning to shiver too.