Glenncáenna, Galloway, Scotland

It felt like the clan had been decimated by a plague.

A single man had died, but to Murchad, riding up the empty road, it felt like his homeland had been decimated by a plague.

The last time he’d passed through the Gate of Ken, it had been the eve of Diarmait’s wedding. Then, people had swarmed past his horse’s flanks until Murchad had felt wobbly as a wooden buoy floating on a sea of smiling faces. The air above had been awhirl with scarves and banners, jugglers’ balls, and jangling bells; and the voices of the crowd had all run together into a low roar rippling with laughter.

Today there was a silence like death. A stillness one knew at a glance to be no ordinary sleep.

Murchad’s companions halted at a distance they must have thought respectful, but he felt like they’d abandoned him to cross into the Netherworld alone.

His horse’s hooves thudded on the packed dirt. His saddle ticked and creaked. For a moment, no one moved on earth but he. And then Donnchad took a step forward and opened his arms.

It felt like the clan had been decimated by a plague.

O God! Murchad sucked in desperate breaths, trying not to sob. The last time he’d ridden up this path, it was Diarmait who’d greeted him, standing there: arms wide, mouth open with laughter, so full of love and joy that one would have thought Murchad was to be the bride.

Today there was only Donnchad and his two brothers. Only wan smiles on their lips and sorrow in their eyes.

Cathal’s dark-​skinned son took the reins, and Murchad slipped out of the saddle and straight into Donnchad’s sad embrace.

Murchad slipped out of the saddle and into Donnchad's sad embrace.

“God be with you, lord,” Donnchad said, greeting Murchad with a formality that embarrassed him, these days, coming from the man who had taught him how to piss standing up.

“God and the blessed Virgin be with you, my brothers,” Murchad replied shakily.

Cathal leaned down to kiss Murchad’s cheek while his head still lay on Donnchad’s shoulder. Beneath his chin Murchad recognized the felted softness of one of the graying, fraying sweaters Marta had knitted before her death, and which Donnchad still wore. O God! At last Murchad’s eyes spilled over. Did grieving go on forever?

Comgeall’s hand squeezed Murchad’s shoulder from behind. He said, “We’ve looked for you in every rider.”

Murchad lifted his head and nodded. He glanced around through tear-​darkened lashes and saw the guards before the hall, a few hushed women huddled together and watching from a sympathetic distance, a stray chicken pecking at the grass beneath the rowan.

He glanced around through tear-darkened lashes.

“Where is—where is Aed?” he asked, turning his head to blink wetly at Donnchad.

He spoke not of their father but of Donnchad’s eldest, who had lost his only child on Christmas morn. Murchad had learned that in a letter. Harrowed by grief, he sought relief in sympathy for some other man’s loss.

“I was wanting to tell him how very sorry we are,” he explained. “And tell you,” he added when he saw how Donnchad’s face drooped.

“You shall tell him soon,” Donnchad said, clasping Murchad by the shoulder. “But first our father is wanting to see you alone.”

Murchad nodded, but his pulse began to pound. He had come all this way with the vague longing to climb into his father’s lap and cry behind the curtain of his beard. Inside he was still that small. But outside he was a grown man with a terrible cargo in his saddle bag.

“How is my mother?” he asked, trying to delay. He looked between his brothers’ faces. Cathal looked away.

“She is sore aggrieved,” Donnchad said, “but she is mistress here still. You shall see her soon. But first…”

He laid a hand on Murchad’s arm and tried to turn him towards their father’s house.

Murchad blurted, “Ach! And how is Sadb? I heard she was here.”

Donnchad stood there with his mouth still drooping open in mid-​speech.

“Sadb,” Comgeall said in a hard voice that seemed to mingle both triumph and resentful defeat, “is all grown up. Not the giddy girl you’re remembering.”

“And you shall see her soon,” Donnchad soothed.

Abruptly annoyed, Murchad brushed off his hand. Was there no one in this place he would not see “soon,” by God? Only Diarmait!

“I know, I know,” he muttered at Donnchad. “But first, my father.”

He turned to his horse to unstrap the horn’s leather bag from his saddle. Just as he slung it over his shoulder, he heard a woman’s frantic shout behind the hall: “Lady!”

Comgeall swore beneath his breath. Donnchad and Cathal turned.

The woman shouted, “Lady!” again, and then Murchad heard a sound that chilled him like the howl of a wolf: a thin, high woman’s wail, but jittery and jagged, as if the Bean Sidhe galloped through the court on the Púca’s back.

“Aibinn!” Comgeall howled at his wife, having recognized the first voice and the flapping of skirts before Murchad had even comprehended they were human. “Slow down or I’ll give you a reason to run, woman!”

Aibinn shouted a wordless sound of protest just as the wailing voice drew close to the corner of the hall and came around.

Murchad’s mother! His red-​and-​gold, majestic mother, keening as she rounded the corner of the hall with her bulky skirts hitched up to her knees and her black stockings slashing the air!

Murchad had never seen his mother run. He had seldom seen her hurry. If she was late, the world waited. Murchad was so stunned he made no move to meet her.

As she crossed the last few yards of dirt she sobbed, “My son!” And nevertheless she glanced frantically around, as if she was not sure of Murchad at all. Her gaze passed over his face a few times before she seemed to know him. For a heart-​stopping second Murchad believed his mother had gone mad.

Finally she looked into his face, but she flung herself onto her knees before him and he was no longer certain again. His proud mother, a Princess of Ireland, groveling in the dirt!

His mother, a Princess of Ireland, groveling in the dirt!

“My son!” she sobbed. “They told me it was not you! Liars! Liars!” she snarled, suddenly savage, looking around at the faces above her as if she expected an attack from any side.

Aibinn whimpered, “I wasn’t sure!”

“He’s only just arriving, lady,” Cathal soothed. “We weren’t wanting to get your hopes up if it was not he.”

“Aye, Mama,” Murchad said, stooping, trying to pull her up by her elbows. “I only just got down from my horse. Come here and let me kiss you.”

The fire drained out of her as soon as he touched her sleeves. Her head flopped sideways and listed on her long neck.

“Your brother Diarmait is dead,” she muttered.

Murchad’s voice was thick from swallowing tears. “I know, Mama, I know. Come to me.”

'My beautiful boy.'

“My beautiful boy,” she droned, dull-​eyed. “My only reason for living those first few years. The only thing keeping me alive.”

Murchad squeaked, “Mama!”

How could this be his Mama? So small and frail, so old, with silver strands on the crown of her head, her eyes sunk deep into their sockets, speaking of reasons for living—as if daughters of queens and Mamas of Murchads could wish to die!

Finally Cathal hooked his hands beneath her armpits and heaved her to her feet. Murchad caught her as she fell against his breast.

“It’s you who are my eldest, now,” she whimpered.

“Ach, Mama!”

“I knew you would come,” she sniveled into his shoulder, for even if he stooped she reached no higher. “I knew you wouldn’t be forgetting your Mama.”

'I knew you wouldn't be forgetting your Mama.'

She was stroking his hair over his back, but with her shaky hand it felt more like a desperate pawing, as if she’d lost some irreplaceable treasure in the wind-​whipped strands. The pressure of her body shoved the bag behind his back, and it dangled from its strap, tapping against his hip as if the horn was growing impatient inside.

Murchad sensed Comgeall making sharp gestures off to his right, and he saw Aibinn mouthing agitated replies, all out of his mother’s sight. And he heard Lord Lulach striding up to whisper something to Donnchad, and Morrann and Father Gilla Mochutu fidgeting farther back with the horses.

Murchad felt like a spectacle. He wanted this scene to stop happening, or to start over again properly. Or else he wanted to whisk his mother away to a safe place until she was more like herself. He thought he ought to know what to do: he was a man, and his job was to protect the fragile woman in his arms. But inside he felt so helpless and so small.

“How could I forget you,” he asked shakily, “when I’ve your name in my mouth a dozen times a day? Orlaith?”

“Ach! Orlaith!” his mother breathed. She lifted her head from Murchad’s shoulder to smile up into his face. Her eyes and nose were pink and wet. Her pearl pendant quivered like a tear.

“Orlaith!” he repeated, grateful to see her coming around.


“How droll to hear you say my Christian name!”

“Orlaith and Aed both,” he reminded her. He did not understand the pinched look of pain that crossed her face, but he was already blundering on. “How droll it is to hear my own self shouting, ‘Aed, put that down or I’ll spank your bottom!’”

He caught Aibinn’s eye and shared a wry smile—she and Comgeall had a little Aed of their own. They all had, he realized. All but Lathir, who had died too young. And Diarmait? Would Sadb have a son?

His mother made a little shake of her head. “Tell me about your girls,” she said, smoothing his tunic over his chest. “Are they truly so alike? All my babies were so different each from the others! Especially the twins!”

Murchad smiled and would have told her a few things, but Donnchad interrupted gently. “My lady, we ought to go in out of the wind. We shall talk by the fire. But first my father wishes to see his lordship alone.”

Murchad’s mother grimaced—a hideous expression, all furrows and teeth. “Don’t make him angry!” she cried, her voice as harsh as her face. “He sent your brother Domnall away for no more than that!”

Murchad stood there, helpless, on the verge of tears. He had read about Domnall in a letter, too, and about his sister Maire. He had not read anything about his mother acting strangely. He did not know what to do.

Donnchad tried to coax her away. “Lady…”

She snatched at the strap of Murchad’s bag and pulled him closer, almost pulling him on top of her.

“Have you ever known a man to hack off pieces of his own flesh and blood and cast them away?” she demanded. “I never did! Until this winter!”

“Lady,” Aibinn said, coming at her from the other side, “I’m thinking that’s the smell of boiled cabbage on the wind. We shall have to hurry if we want to order a proper supper for his lordship and our guests.”

Murchad’s mother snapped straight, bringing her head back up to the height Murchad remembered. He could no longer see the gray hairs on her crown.

“Chicken livers!” she announced. “My boy shall have his favorite meal!”

“That’s a fine idea!” Aibinn said. She jerked her chin at Murchad, trying to make him agree. Murchad attempted to smile.

His mother turned her head. How graceful it was all of a sudden! How straight and steady her gaze!

“Father,” she said in the queenly voice Murchad remembered, “pray tell us: are chicken livers too great an indulgence during Lent?”

Father Gilla Mochutu stepped forward and inclined his head. “Travelers are exempt from fasting, of course, and his lordship needs to recover his strength after the rigors of our journey. However,” he added, sending a stern frown at Murchad and an Irish twinkle at Murchad’s mother, “he must endeavor not to enjoy them over much.”

In his heart Murchad blessed his canny priest a thousand times.

“And you,” his mother said, taking a regal stride towards the two men, “must be Morrann. I knew the father of you.”

Morrann dropped to his knee. Murchad’s mother folded her hands and strolled up to him. Her stiff skirts swayed above the dirt, but below the knees they were dull with dust from groveling on the road.

“He was one of my father’s commanders,” she said to the top of Morrann’s head—a sight few men had ever seen. “And now you are my son’s.”

“It is my life’s greatest honor, lady.”

Donnchad tugged on Murchad’s arm. Murchad brushed him off. He wanted to see the Mama he remembered. He wanted to be reassured that what had happened before was only overexcitement and renewed grief at the sight of him.

His mother honored Morrann’s shoulder with the barest brush of her fingertips. “Rise. I wish to see how you’re measuring up to the father of you.”

Morrann stood up, and up, and up, and Murchad’s mother laughed the laugh he remembered.

“I see I shall have to stand back to do it!” she said. She took a brisk step back and looked him over. “Of course, I was but a child when I left Ireland to be married, but I’m thinking you’re not as tall as your sire. However…” She gave him one of her queenly smiles that held just a bit of slyness around the eyes. “…you are more handsomely proportioned.”

Morrann grinned and blushed like a maid.

Donnchad put an arm around Murchad’s shoulders, and this time Murchad let him lead him away.

“She’ll be fine now,” Donnchad rumbled beside his ear. “’Twas only the shock, and the yearning for you. She’s been looking for you every day. Did you get our letter?”

“No, I… never did,” Murchad said dazedly. Where was that letter now? Who had read it? Eirik?

Donnchad grunted. “That the horn?” he asked, nodding at the bag that bounced against Murchad’s hip as they walked down the hill.

“You know about that?” Murchad asked.

“Heard this morning. Thank God you’re here. We weren’t wanting your mother to learn, but the devil if I know how to keep gossip away from women for long.”

On this sour note, he pulled the door open for Murchad.

“My lord,” he said, bowing slightly at the waist.

Murchad wished Donnchad were not so strict about their difference in rank. It only made him feel like the awkward, undeserving son of a second wife he was.

And so he was feeling even more doltish than usual as he stepped into his father’s house for the first time in half a year.

He did not look around him right away, as much to steel himself as to give his eyes the time to adjust to the dusky interior. Fire was the only thing a man saw when the door was opened: a fire crackling on a stone hearth blackened by thousands of fires before it. And between the fire and the door, there were the old benches covered with cushions squashed into comfortable shapes, and the wagging tails and pink tongues of many dogs.

Murchad stared straight ahead and breathed deeply the beloved odor of home. This at least had not changed. Finally he dared look at his father.

Finally he dared look at his father.

No, praise God, his father had not changed much either. Nothing to shock him as his mother had. A little thinner perhaps. A little grayer. His feet were propped stiffly on a bench, and his boots were unlaced, but at least he was able to fit his toes into them.

Murchad dropped to one knee, and his father’s dogs swarmed around him, sniffing him and poking his cheeks with their cold noses, recalling his scent.

“My lord,” he said, grateful to have arrived at last at the feet of a man who was permitted to tell him what to do—and who always knew what ought to be done, too.

'My lord.'

“My son,” his father replied. He stretched out his hand, two fingers loosely extended.

Murchad’s wounded heart warmed. For an instant it seemed everything would be all right: for an instant, he saw in his father’s gesture his own habit of holding out his fingers for Aed to grasp when he toddled along at his side, for the boy’s tiny hand could hold no more than two at a time. Murchad almost reached up and clasped them.

Then he realized his father probably only wanted the horn. Embarrassed, he hurriedly slipped the strap over his head and opened the flap. The bag exhaled a breath of decomposing seaweed.

“I brought the horn,” he babbled as he pulled it into the light. “I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t even clean it, you see?”

He lifted his knee from the floor, but he stayed in a humble crouch as he presented the horn to his father. His father’s hand fell back onto his lap.

His father's hand fell back onto his lap.

When the stillness became too much Murchad said, “My brother Donnchad told me you’d heard.”

“We got the news this morning,” his father grumbled into his beard. “We knew you’d be not far behind.”

Murchad held the horn still higher. His father looked it over, but he made no move to take it.

“I believe it’s the real horn,” Murchad said, “but we shall want to ask my mother.”

No response. Finally he blurted, “Don’t you want to see it?”

His father sat with his hands clamped over his thighs. He stared at the horn for a while longer. Murchad’s legs were beginning to cramp.

“Your mother,” his father said at last, “never let me touch that horn.”

Murchad lowered his arms.

“She was waiting for me to win back my father’s crown. I gather she has decided I never will.”

Murchad straightened his shaking legs and stood. Was it possible that his mother could refuse his father a thing? Was it possible she could size up his mighty father, as she had Morrann, and find him wanting?

“Put it away, son,” his father sighed, “and come sit beside me. Something stinks in this room, and I don’t think it’s you.”

Flushing, Murchad emptied the bag of curious dog noses, and slid the horn back inside.

“Did it truly happen as they say?” his father asked. “The two ladies coming out of the sea to drop a horn at your very door?”

Murchad stepped onto the bench and thumped down onto the cushion beside his father. What a treat this would have seemed to him ten years ago! Today his heart was too heavy to be glad.

Today his heart was too heavy to be glad.

“Just so,” he said. “There were hundreds of witnesses. My man Morrann and I closer than anyone, and my priest. Close enough to touch them.”

“Did you?”

Murchad looked at him. “My lord?”

“Touch them?”

Murchad cringed. “Ghosts?”

His father snorted and shook his head. “I told you, something stinks in this room.”

'I told you, something stinks in this room.'

“You aren’t believing me?” Murchad asked. “The Archbishop himself said he’ll be sending men, to decide whether it’s a miracle. And I never saw my dog look so vicious.”

His father chuckled and swayed sideways to bump his shoulder against Murchad’s. His dogs milled around their feet, sniffing at Murchad’s bag and the cloak he had shed, their ears pricked high and their tails waving to show their contentment.

“If your dog decides it’s a miracle,” his father said, “mayhap as I’ll believe it.”

Murchad made a small smile. “I wasn’t meaning it like that…”

“I’m only trying to say, someone is up to something. Mayhap it’s the Lord, mayhap it’s the ghosts of dead wenches, but I’m thinking it’s aught but an ordinary man, up to trouble. So far in my life, without fail, it’s always been. And are you knowing who held the horn last?” his father asked ominously. “Aed of the Aenguses.”

“I know, but—”

'I know, but--'

Murchad nearly told his father about that meeting yesterday morn, but at the last instant he held his tongue. He did not know why. But he did know it made no sense for Young Aed to mount such an elaborate scheme to deliver the horn to him, only to beg him to throw it away by any means possible. No sense. Or was he only too stupid to see it?

“Or will you tell me,” his father said, “that the trick with the burning horn was a miracle too? ‘And yet it was not consumed!’” he quoted ironically.

Murchad hung his head and cracked his knuckles. I think an angel was watching over me, Aed had said. He’d been petulant and bossy throughout that meeting, as he always had, but Murchad had witnessed a flash of something else for the space of that phrase. The shaking fervor in his soft voice had marked Murchad’s memory, like the scorched traces of letters written in flame.

“That lad is knowing more than he tells,” his father concluded grimly. “Let him show his face here. By God, I will test him in my own fire.”

“Lord, I don’t think it was Young Aed,” Murchad blurted, trying to put this subject behind them—though God only knew why he was protecting Young Aed.

His father frowned at him.

His father frowned at him, and he lowered his head until his chin sank deep into his beard. “Are you telling me you believe it was a miracle?”

Murchad felt his cheeks growing hot, but he stared back.

Finally his father snorted and patted Murchad’s knee. “Good answer.”

All the blood drained from Murchad’s face. Relief at first, and then helpless fear. “But what am I supposed to do with it?” he asked.

His father raised his brows in surprise. “Why, take it back to Ireland when you go. Your mother will be wanting you to remain here, but I do not wish it. Though I cannot guess,” he added thoughtfully, “what she will say once she has seen the horn.”

'But what am I supposed to do with it in Ireland?'

“But what am I supposed to do with it in Ireland?” Murchad pleaded.

“Drink out of it, jingle-​brain! But I recommend you clean it first.”

Murchad slumped beside him and stared hopelessly out into the room. Across from him stood his father’s big bed, the one he remembered. Perhaps a little nearer the fire, that was all.

During his imprisonment, Murchad had eased his heartache by carving his bed’s headboard with the elaborate braided designs that decorated his father’s, all from memory, using nothing but the little knife they’d let him keep for cutting his meat and cheese. Diarmait had never mentioned it, but Murchad had caught him staring at it sometimes.

His father saw where he was looking and asked, “Remember how you used to plot and sneak to sleep in that bed, you little schemer?”

Murchad snorted and smiled ruefully.

“Pretending to fall asleep with the puppies, and thinking how I never saw you down there?” His father cackled. Murchad was aghast.

His father cackled.

“You saw me?”

“Damned right I saw you. You weren’t as hairy in those days.”

His father leaned to the side again, bumping Murchad with his shoulder. They both looked out at the bed, his father reminiscing, and Murchad trying to reorganize his thoughts now that this childhood illusion had been shattered.

“I always reckoned,” his father said, “if you were willing to endure fleas and dog farts for a chance to sneak into bed with me, I wasn’t going to stop you. That’s love like you won’t get from any woman.”

His father folded his arms over his belly and rocked himself on the cushion. Murchad blinked back startled tears. Hearing his father pronounce the word “love” was almost as disorienting as seeing his mother running and flinging herself down onto the dirt. Murchad doted on his babies, but his father showed his love in other ways. “By not leaving you to perish on a windswept crag at the birthing of you,” his father would have said.

“Diarmait always was your mother’s pet,” his father said in a strangled voice.

There was no obvious connection between this statement and the one prior, leaving Murchad to wonder what dark ways his father’s thoughts had wended before coming back out into the light.

“She’ll never forgive me,” his father quavered. He rocked harder and finally came to hunch over his lap. “I wonder whether you will.”

Murchad gasped, “I?”


His father! Hunched and pleading. For forgiveness. From him.

Murchad did not think he’d ever done anything for his father worthy of the name of comforting. He’d always tried to be a good boy, hoping that he could at least spare his father any trouble or grief on his behalf. He still tried to be that boy today. But perhaps it was not enough. For here he was, gingerly laying a hand on his father’s bowed shoulder.

“I don’t need to forgive you,” Murchad said. “I don’t even blame you. Diarmait acted against your orders. And ’twas treachery that killed him, not you.”

“And when your Aed acts against your orders?” his father asked hoarsely. “As he will! Will you be leaving your lamb to fight his own way free of the wolves that surround him? Or will you be going to war? Sacrificing other mothers’ sons to save him?”

Murchad withdrew his hand. He knew all boys misbehaved eventually and even willfully defied their fathers to prove their independence. But not all fathers had to choose between losing their sons and going to war. Only lords of men. As Murchad now was.

It rarely occurred to him that he had much in common with his father, but the years were passing, and though they rarely met, he was beginning to know the old man as he never had.

He had led men into battle, and he had led a few less men back again. And he had ducked through the low doors of cottages to tell mothers and fathers, wives and children that their men were never coming home. But he’d always been able to tell them that their men had died for what was good and right. And because of that, when he called again, their sons and younger brothers followed.

There was much that Murchad was coming to understand about his father. In another year or two, when little Aed was tall enough to climb into a big bed, he might even have figured out for himself that his father had always spied him amongst the dogs.

“It’s hard telling,” Murchad finally said.

He tried to imagine himself explaining to a silver-​haired Synne that her son would have to win his own battles or die. It hurt even to speak of the possibility. But he was a scrupulous young man and his father had asked him a question.

“If he’s still a boy,” he admitted, “I think would do anything in my power. But if he’s a man…”

His father’s shoulders bowed still further as he curled into himself, cradling some ache, or protecting his soft belly from imaginary blows.

“I will ask your advice,” Murchad said gently, draping an arm over his father’s back. “I will seek your wisdom. Would you have done differently, if you’d known?”

His father looked up from his lap. After a moment he shook his head no.

'I will ask your advice.'