Whithorn Priory, Galloway, Scotland

Diarmait had been so much in Murchad's thoughts of late.

Diarmait had been so much in Murchad’s thoughts of late, it was no wonder his slumbering mind resurrected him from the signs that sank into his sleep. A musical male voice roughened by the guttural accent of Galloway… a hand on his shoulder shaking him with brotherly disregard…

Only hours after the Archbishop had confirmed his most terrible fear, he had a moment of contented companionship with his dead brother—so carefree that he was even a little annoyed to be awoken.

“Murchad!” the voice whispered. “Wake up, will you? The tide’s going out and I haven’t time!”

Murchad threw back the blankets and sat up.

Murchad threw back the blankets and sat up.

It wasn’t Diarmait.

He didn’t even know who it was in that first instant, beyond recognizing the black clothing of one of his kin. He only had time to gasp, “Watch out!”

'Watch out!'

Morrann was already in the air, his fair hair flying. Silent as an owl he swooped over the dirt floor from one sleeping platform to the other, and the visitor scarcely had time to turn his head before Morrann tackled him flat onto Murchad’s mattress.

Murchad vaulted out of his bed to avoid the flailing. “Sweet Jesus!”

“Get him off of me!” the visitor howled.

He tried to fight back, but Morrann took up the slack in his every move to pin him all the harder to the bed.

'Get him off me!'

“Get him off of me! I’m Aed of the Aenguses!”

Murchad wailed, “Morrann! It’s Aed of the Aenguses!”

“I heard him!” Morrann said. But instead of releasing him, Morrann slid his hand up Aed’s throat, both clamping his jaw shut and cutting off his air. “The man who was with your lordship’s brother when he was murdered!”

From the far platform Father Gilla Mochutu whinnied, “Lord have mercy!” as he fumbled for his tunic.

“Morrann,” Murchad pleaded, “you cannot strangle him! You’re forgetting we’re in a house of God!”

“I’m not forgetting!” Morrann said. “But mayhap as he was needing a reminder!”

He stood, yanked Aed off the bed, and flung him away to just within swinging distance of his long arms. Aed choked and flailed blindly at the air before settling into a sparring stance.

“Who the devil are you?”

Morrann glared down at him, naked and unflinching and wondrously freckled, fearsome as the ancient Gaelic warriors who had beat back the Romans wearing nothing but woad.

Morrann glared down at him.

“Morrann son of Conchobar. Remember the name.”

“Morrann!” Murchad pleaded. He explained to Aed, “This is my troop commander, Morrann.”

“Son of Conchobar,” Aed muttered. “I heard him.”

“Now that we’ve been introduced…” the priest said hopefully as he shoved his feet into his sandals and scuffed towards the stairs.

“And that’s Father Gilla Mochutu,” Murchad said.

'And that's Father Gilla Mochutu.'

“God be with you,” Aed said. “And I didn’t kill your brother,” he added, turning to Murchad. “I’m no murderer.”

“Proof,” Morrann said, “that appearances can be deceiving!”

Murchad sighed. “Morrann…”

“How were you knowing we were here at all?” Morrann insisted. “Compline bell was a-​ringing when we were making land! Are you having spies among the monks?”

“Morrann…” Murchad said wearily. “Put some pants on.”

Morrann huffed and thumped down onto a chest on his way across the room, forgoing the stairs.

“What do you want?” Murchad asked Young Aed.

'What do you want?'

“A word with you. In private.”

Murchad winced. Everything was coming back to him now. He was so sick at heart. He was so tired. And Aed would want to talk about Diarmait.

“Let me put some pants on,” he muttered.

Murchad did not know Aed very well. Three years separated their ages. Aed had been a boy of eleven when Murchad had gone to live in Lothere, and before that time his guardians had endeavored to keep him away from court. Most of Murchad’s memories were of an obnoxiously precocious boy who “borrowed” horses too big for him, weaseled into places he was forbidden to enter, and found out Murchad’s hiding places and fishing holes for the sheer fun—so Murchad thought—of preventing him from enjoying his precious solitude.

Murchad did not know Aed very well.

Now, though, he was the man whose fantastical visit to Ramsaa had coincided with Diarmait’s murder. He was also the man who had thrown the battle horn of the Chennselaighs into the sea, and who’d managed to sneak Diarmait’s body and widow out of the fort and send them home to Glenncaenna. Murchad had not yet had time to figure out what he thought of all of that.

“Had I known,” Aed said, answering Murchad’s thoughts, “I would have stood guard outside his door myself.”

“Who were you,” Morrann demanded as he stepped back onto the platform, half-​clothed, “to be locking him up in the first place?”

“Who are you,” Aed countered, “to be questioning me, O Goliath son of Conchobar?”

'Who are you to be questioning me?'

Murchad was irritated by Morrann’s brashness, but he was well accustomed to it. Aed’s arrogance he did not like at all.

“Morrann is commander of my troops,” Murchad said, “and you may be answering his question on my behalf, for we would all like to know.”

“Alone,” Aed droned, as if speaking to an idiot.

“I trust Morrann with my life,” Murchad said quietly, “and Father Gilla Mochutu with my soul. I can certainly trust them with my secrets. But you, Aed son of Aengus, I’m not trusting at all. Answer the question or get out.”

For an instant Aed looked like he’d been slapped. Then his eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared.

“Aye, then, listen well, all of you. I locked up Diarmait for his protection. Not against murderers. Against his own self. For the first thing he did upon being left two minutes alone was slit his own wrist from palm to elbow.”

Aed saw Murchad grimace, and it just made him lean closer, as if determined to talk through Murchad’s defenses of squinted face and closed eyes.

“The brother of you tried to take his own life, Murchad son of Aed. And if he was murdered only hours after we saved him from himself, at least he died shriven. He’s with the Lord now, all his sins forgiven him, and not burning in eternal fires. And for that you may be thanking me!”

“For that,” Father Gilla Mochutu corrected coldly, “we may be thanking God.”

Aed stood straight. Murchad opened his eyes.

Murchad opened his eyes.

Aed looked like he’d been slapped again, but this time his vehemence was slow to return. And that gave Murchad the time to let these new horrors sink in.

The Archbishop had told him that Diarmait had been awake when he died, cowering in a corner while his murderer hacked at him with an axe. But the Archbishop had not told him that Diarmait had cowered in a different sort of corner a few hours earlier, brought to bay by such anguish that suicide and damnation had seemed his only escape.

Murchad’s mind could not conceive of what his brother had been feeling that night. But his body began feeling it. His bowels were loosening. His limbs were growing weak. He staggered over to a chair and sank down onto it. The truth was worse than his most terrible fear.

He heard soft-soled boots scuffing over the floorboards behind him.

He heard leather-​soled boots scuffing over the floorboards behind him. He heard a soft, almost musical male voice speaking with the accents of Galloway. Almost Diarmait.

“Forgive me. I wasn’t meaning for you to learn like this.”

But it wasn’t Diarmait. Murchad gasped out a silent sob.

Aed pulled out the chair beside him and settled into it.

“On the holy body of Saint Ninian,” he said in that quiet, soft voice, “who lies within these walls, I swear I did not kill your brother, nor even wish him killed. Had I known—on the body of Saint Cuthbert I swear—I would have stood guard myself, with all my men, and defended him to the death. He was my kinsman. And I think, if he had lived, we could have been friends.”

'We could have been friends.'

Murchad snorted tearfully and shook his head. He would not let any man presume friendship with his brother now that he was dead. Aed deserved to be slapped. And worse than that.

“Diarmait got caught up in something bigger than himself,” Aed continued, leaning closer to Murchad’s bowed head. He rubbed one palm over the other in nervous whorls. “I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

“What am I to you?” Murchad muttered.

“Kin,” Aed said quickly. “I heard you found the horn.”

Murchad snorted. “Are you indeed having spies among the monks, then?” he asked in a voice thickened by snot.

“No, but you’re not rowing your own ship, are you? A sailor’s idea of heaven is arriving in port with a few coins in his purse and a fabulous tale to tell. And an Irish sailor would go without the silver before the story.”

Murchad sniffled. “’Tisn’t any secret, anyway. There were more than a hundred witnesses. And I heard another story. I heard ’twas you threw the horn into the sea.”

'I heard another story.'

“There were more than a hundred witnesses,” Aed said. His palms whispered together like the wind through seeded grass.

“And I heard it was a-​flaming in your hand, and nor you nor it were in the least burned. How are you explaining that?”

Aed’s hands stopped whirring. “I cannot explain that. By the Cross, it is a mystery to me. I think an angel was watching over me. But I can beg you to throw the horn back. Throw it back into the sea, Cousin. Through that horn surely the Devil’s work will be done.”

'I think an angel was watching over me.'

Aed crossed himself, and Murchad crossed himself automatically. But he said, “The Archbishop is thinking it might be a miracle. The Two Ladies might be saints.”

“That was no miracle. For the love of God, Murchad, throw it back! Or if you will not, give it to the Archbishop, that he may keep it here at the priory. But have nothing to do with it. No good will come to you or your kin through that horn.”

'No good will come to you or your kin through that horn.'

Murchad rubbed his bare arms. Aed spoke with more certainty on the matter than anyone so far, even the Archbishop. Possession of the horn had made Murchad uneasy, but now it chilled him deep into his flesh.

Then he had a thought that seemed to save him from making a decision, and he uttered it gratefully.

“I cannot give it to the Archbishop. A man may only give it to a woman, and only a woman may give it to a man.”

Aed sat back, exasperated. “Then give it to the Virgin! But leave it in this monastery, if you love the Peace of God!”

Aed’s annoyance reminded Murchad how little he loved him. He was kin, but he had no lessons to give Murchad about the horn. In this matter Murchad was not the son of the Lord of Galloway, but a Chennselaigh of Ireland. He would ask his mother.

He would ask his mother.

“I thank you for your advice,” Murchad muttered. “Even if I didn’t want it. But I shall do as I think best.”

Aed slouched back in his chair and flicked at the edge of the cloth that covered the travelers’ half-​eaten loaf of bread. He was obviously annoyed. And Murchad slumped over the table, too cried-​out, too heartsick to care. Diarmait was dead. Diarmait was utterly dead. And even the Archbishop said Eirik was most likely to blame.

“Do what you want with the fucking horn,” Aed said suddenly, sliding his arms across the table to lean over Murchad again. “It’s your life and you’ll spend it as you please. But I’ve another warning for you, and this one you shall heed. Take care of Sadb of Mull. Muirgius of Ramsaa has claimed her for wife, and Whitehand has pronounced in his favor, by Manx law. And the father of her may be agreeable to that. Muirgius wants Sadb, Whitehand wants Muirgius’s loyalty, and Cu Mara of Mull wants his ships back, for Muirgius says they’ll be returned when Sadb is delivered to him.”

'Muirgius says they'll be returned when Sadb is delivered to him.'

Murchad sat up, worried and bewildered. He could not fathom why Aed would be interested in the fate of Diarmait’s widow. Unless he wanted her for himself. Murchad bristled.

“What is Sadb of Mull to you?”

“She is under my protection. I swore to your brother that I would protect his wife and child.”

Murchad’s limbs were tense with fury, but his only act was a whispered, “How dare you?”

Aed leaned so close Murchad could feel his breath on his tear-​damp face.

“’Twas I who closed Diarmait’s eyes, Cousin. I was the last man on earth who looked into his eyes, and to my dying day—”

'I was the last man on earth who looked into his eyes.'

Murchad pounded his fist on the table and shouted, “No!” Then he caught his head between his hands and sobbed. It should have been he.

“—to my dying day I shall not forget them!” Aed whispered.

“My lord?” Morrann prompted ominously.

Aed whispered faster. “I promised him I would avenge him, and most of all I swore I would protect his wife and child. And I will keep my word!”

Murchad pounded his fist on the table again. Morrann loomed over them.

“His father and brothers will avenge him,” Murchad said hoarsely, “and I will protect Sadb and her child. And you—”

He pointed at Aed. He could not fathom why Aed would be so concerned about the fate of anyone in Diarmait’s family unless he was trying to get out from beneath a terrible burden of guilt. There were men who loved their brethren—gentle, generous men—but Aed of the Aenguses was and always had been a selfish brat.

He could not fathom why Aed would be so concerned about the fate of anyone in Diarmait's family.

“I wouldn’t trust you with my dog,” Murchad growled.

Aed kicked back his chair and jumped up, only to find himself face-​to-​breastbone with Morrann. He ducked out from beneath the Irishman’s chin and hopped down onto the dirt floor. At the door he stopped and turned back to Murchad.

“I can help you. If you’re needing Muirgius and his ships to look the other way, name the day and I shall see that they’re occupied. You won’t need to see me.”

Murchad muttered, “Go away.”

Aed lifted the bolt and hesitated again. In that soft voice that was so like Diarmait’s, he said, “Go with God, Cousin.”

Murchad slammed his fists on the table so hard its legs screeched on the wooden floor.

“Go away!” he shouted. “For the love of God, go away!”

'For the love of God, go away!'