Glenncáenna, Galloway, Scotland

Uallach could not make herself feel that spring would come this year.

Uallach could not make herself feel that spring would come this year.

Oh, she knew how the calendar worked, and there was no denying the ground was firm and dry, and the sunlight warm on her cheek, even at this late hour of the day. The thorn bushes and treetops were loud with birdsong and chatter, and if anyone ought to know it was the birds.

But a girl could be forgiven for heeding the wintry stillness of her own heart. She felt none of the hopeful lightness or the rising-​up-​inside of other springs.

And now she'd missed two bleedings.

Last year this time, Lathir and Diarmait had still lived. Her mother had not yet quarreled with her father. Her fits had been rare and responsive to treatment, and now…

And now she’d missed two bleedings, and found it ever harder to think of anything else.

“Aha!” her brother Murchad said as they neared a green hollow on the side of the hill. “I knew we’d find them! There’s your proof!”

He hopped down a bank onto a stone ledge and lifted her down after him. Beyond the rim there lay a mat of dark, glossy leaves, and a scattering of twilight-​blue flowers in the shape of stars.

Beyond the rim there lay an expanse of dark, glossy leaves.

“They always were the first thing to bloom, here in the sun,” Murchad said. “Almost while the frost was on the ground.” He swept his boot sole over the leaves, ruffling up a spicy scent of evergreen.

“Flowers before Easter!” Uallach said. “I never saw such ones!”

Uallach’s thoughts went straight to her embroidery basket. Were any of her wools quite so blue? And she could not choose a plain linen ground, or the sparkle of the flowers’ white throats would be lost. Saffron yellow perhaps? A sun-​colored kirtle for summer, with sky-​blue spring flowers embroidered on the bodice and sleeves?

Then she remembered: It was no use thinking of summer gowns this year.

“Believe me now?” Murchad teased.

Uallach lifted her head. God bless him, he was trying to cheer her up. He couldn’t know Diarmait’s death was not her greatest grief.

'I believe you.'

“I believe you,” she teased back. “But I’m not certain I believe in you anymore.” She turned to him and patted his arm, pretending to assure herself of his solidity. “A man who knows where the first flowers can be found? Are you a fairy, good sir?”

Murchad laughed out loud, with his head thrown back and his mouth open to the wind. Nobody laughed like that here any more, not even Comgeall, but Murchad hadn’t noticed or hadn’t been told.

“I ought to know where to find them,” he said, “for ’twas I who planted them here!”

You did?”

His laughter died off into a chuckle. “Aye,” he said. “For Lathir.”

He swished his foot through the leaves again.

He swished his foot through the leaves again, then stepped down among them.

“I’ve only ever seen these flowers in two places,” he said. “Here, and a secret place yonder in the mountains.”

He pointed towards the setting sun, and Uallach looked out along his arm: over the treetops and across the valley. The far slopes were already dark with evening shadow, but the River Dee sparkled through bare branches below like a snipped strand of sky. By Beltane it would be hidden by leaves.

By Beltane that would make three bleedings.

“I found them one year,” Murchad said, “and took her to see them. And the next spring and perhaps the next, too. I’m not remembering the year. But then one spring she made me plant some here in case I couldn’t take her the next year. And I don’t know how she knew it, but that very autumn I went away.”

Uallach thought about that. “It wasn’t for love of the flowers she wanted them here, I’m thinking. It was for love of you.”

Murchad did not look around. He stared not at the flowers at his feet, but across the valley towards a secret place he alone now knew. An evergreen-​scented wind from the west whipped back his hair.

Finally he said, “Aye.”

Uallach stepped down onto the soft turf beside him, careful to lay her feet between the flowers. She was a little shy about standing too near Murchad while his thoughts were on Lathir, but he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her against his sturdy side. His thoughts returned to things near.

“I told her they wouldn’t take,” he said, prodding a clump of leaves with his toe. “But she knew all about that, too. The perfect spot. Look at how they’ve spread!”

Uallach giggled. “A powerfully green thumb was she having,” she said slyly, “for a lass who never got her hands dirty.”

Murchad laughed. “That was Lathir! She ought to have been a queen. A man would do anything she asked, without thinking twice or asking himself why. And he considered himself blessed among mortals if she only deigned sit prettily by and watch him at the labor!”

Murchad released her so they could laugh together, Uallach looking up and he looking down, and the wind blowing their hair about their heads.

'There are being women like that.'

“There are being women like that,” he said philosophically. “Fortunately, not many.”

Uallach laughed again. With Murchad she could forget for minutes at a time. She asked, “Isn’t Synne that kind of woman?”

“Ach, not Synne! But Synne is the sort who’ll see a man working too hard in the sun, and bring him a pitcher of cold ale and make him drink it in the shade. Just when the day is at its hottest.”

Murchad absently rubbed the back of his neck, as if remembering some sweaty afternoon in particular. Uallach smiled. Her brother made his wife seem so comfortable and kind.

“And while he’s a-​drinking,” Murchad added, “she’ll think of a way he might finish the job with less effort.” He winked. “Sometimes she even makes him believe he thought of it himself.”

“She sounds like the perfect woman.”

“To me she is,” Murchad said without a hint of teasing. “But there are being men who prefer the queenly kind. For every sort of woman there’s being a sort of man which prefers them, I’m thinking. The Good Lord provided for everyone.”

'The Good Lord provided for everyone.'

Was there a sort of man that preferred women who were sickly and stained with depravity and shame? Uallach did not think she would like that kind if there were.

She lowered her head and hugged her arms over her breast. Suddenly the wind did not seem so friendly nor the sun so warm. Frost still silvered the mountainside, and the Black Water of Dee ran fast with melted snow. And Uallach still felt like winter inside.

Murchad cupped her chin in his hand, and Uallach looked around, surprised by the gentle touch.

“He made you,” Murchad said gravely, “for some man who wants a woman he can cherish and protect and love. And I’m wondering… have you found him already?”

Uallach’s lashes fluttered. Had he guessed somehow? Was Cucu’s famous talent only a ruse?

Oh! How could she ever tell him her beloved already belonged to another woman? To their own sister? How could she admit those wicked things she’d done?

She hadn’t even known they could lead to this. She didn’t know how it had happened. She must not have washed her hands well enough, once after she had been with Mael Duin, and had touched her mouth or eaten with her fingers or somehow swallowed his seed. She had thought it all over, and over, and over again.

“Are you having a sweetheart, is what I mean?” Murchad prompted.

Uallach shied away from his hand, frightened that he would feel her pulse pounding in her neck. She shook her head.

She shook her head.

“Then mayhap… I’ve been meaning to ask you…” Murchad coughed.

She peeked up, fearful, and saw his broad face turning red.

“Would you like to come back to Ireland with me?” he blurted. “And let your big brother cherish and protect you and love you for a while? Till you’re finding someone more—err—romantic, that is.”

'Till you're finding someone more--err--romantic, that is.'

“Come back—to Ireland—with you?” Uallach stuttered. “To live?”

Murchad grinned, looking relieved. “Aye! With Synne and the babies and me.”

Uallach’s fear spun off into elation. Was this the answer to her prayers? She could bear her baby in secret. Her dear brother Murchad would help her hide the truth. There would be no scandal and no shame. Her parents would never have to know.

Her parents! Her parents would never let her go to Ireland.

Murchad frowned. “What is it?”

Uallach asked weakly, “Do you suppose Mama would let me?”

“Ach! I wouldn’t have asked you if I hadn’t already settled it all with Mama and our father.”

Murchad smiled, and a warm, real smile rose up out of Uallach’s heart to meet it. With this weight lifted she felt so light she could almost fly.

With this weight lifted she felt so light she could almost fly.

And perhaps… Oh! It was a mad thought, but perhaps she could even keep the baby. They might think of an explanation. She could pretend to be a widow. She could have her own little baby to love. She would be the most devoted of mothers— And oh! She’d almost forgotten! They would have to bring Sadb!

Uallach grabbed Murchad’s sleeve, but before she could point this out, Murchad chuckled sheepishly and said, “However… There’s being one condition. Mama says I may take you if I promise to find a good husband for you. An Irishman. And you’re knowing what Mama means by ‘good.’ So you must promise not to run off with the blacksmith’s son or that sort of fellow.”

'So you must promise not to run off with the blacksmith's son or that sort of fellow.'

“Ach, no!” Uallach said, impatient with the nonsensical idea.

Murchad grinned. “Good. I—”

“But, Murchad, we must bring Sadb with us!”

Murchad swayed back. “Sadb?”

“Aye, Sadb must come with us! She’s so unhappy here, and she doesn’t like the idea of our elder brothers raising up Diarmait’s son, and you were closer to Diarmait than anyone, so you should do it! You can tell him all about his father.”

'But, darling--'

“But, darling—”

“No, listen! She’s been such a good friend to me, but Aibinn’s turned almost all the women against her, because she’s jealous. Because Comgeall stands up for her sometimes, and lets her speak her mind to the men, and also because Mama likes her and heeds her, and Aibinn’s afraid she’s going to lose her place beside Mama. And I know Sadb puts up with so much when she wishes she could tell all those women what she truly thinks of them, but she doesn’t because she wants to stay on Mama’s good side so Mama will trust us together alone.”

Her quiet brother appeared overwhelmed by this flood of words.

Her quiet brother appeared overwhelmed by this flood of words, and that was just how Uallach wanted him.

“Please, Murchad! She’s so unhappy, but she hides it because she’s so brave! She’s always talking about how we shall get me out of here, but I know it’s because she wishes she could get away herself. She will be so happy and so grateful if you take us both! And you know it will be hard on you if you leave her here and you only get news of Diarmait’s child a few times a year. If she comes with us, you may see him every day! And you know Diarmait would have wanted you to raise his child, if he couldn’t be here. And I promise she’ll respect Synne and be a pleasant guest.”

“Don’t make promises for other people, sister,” Murchad interrupted.

Uallach fell silent, abashed by this revelation that her gentle older brother could be curt.

“And, darling,” he sighed, “’Tisn’t Synn that worries me.”

“’Tisn’t?” Uallach whispered.

Murchad rubbed his face. “No. I’ve another guest already, you see.”

That was all! If there was room for herself then there was room for Sadb. They could stick together. And their babies might be born almost on the same day! How happy they would be if it were an occasion for joy and not for shame!

'Haven't you room?'

“Haven’t you room?” Uallach begged. “Sadb and I could sleep together! We’re closer than sisters!”

“That isn’t it,” Murchad muttered. “Uallach,” he sighed, “I’ve Synne’s sister at home. Sigrid. Earl Eirik’s wife.”

Uallach stared. Her fingers twitched with the instinct to make the sign of the Cross. “But I thought she was being dead?”

“No no. She’s alive, and living with Synn and me, for now. And, sister,” Murchad warned, “she hasn’t seen her man or her babies since early in December. So she was having nothing to do with what happened to Diarmait. And she’s expecting a child in the summer, and it’s hard going for her so far. She’s an unhappy woman with many cares, and she’s being dear to me. Dear to me as my own sister.”

He stroked Uallach’s hair, softening the sternness of his voice and his words.

“And you’re asking me to bring a woman home, who is saving our brother’s sword to slay Sigrid’s husband if she’s ever having the chance. Sigi and Sadb are the same sort of woman, love. Another sort we haven’t mentioned yet. Fierce and proud, both of them. Neither will give an inch. They’ll be circling one other like spitting cats. And that’s if Sadb doesn’t leap on her from the first, trying to take her revenge.”

“She wouldn’t! Sadb will give an inch. We shall explain to her how it is. Please, brother, I promise, she’ll be polite to Eirik’s wife if that’s what it takes.”

Murchad shook his head.

Murchad shook his head, and Uallach saw the terrible signs of male stubbornness taking hold—the great affliction of her family’s men. Their own grandfather had borne the nickname Stiff-​neck, for till the day he died he’d refused to bend.

Uallach latched on to the arm holes of Murchad’s tunic and pulled, frantic enough to try to do with her hands what she feared she could not accomplish with words.

“Please, brother, please!” she gabbled. “I cannot leave without Sadb!”

Murchad’s eyes went wide, and he staggered at first. But he straightened easily; Uallach’s arms were weak, and her skinny body was a feather-​light burden to him. He did not have to bear the soul inside, weighted with worry and grief and shame.

“How can I ride away from here,” she pleaded, “turn my back on her, leave her with no friend but her cat, after she’s been such a friend to me? You’ve no idea what she’s done for me!”

Murchad made soothing sounds at her and patted the hands that clutched his tunic. It only exasperated her. Tears of frustration spilled from her eyes. How could she explain to him about Mael Duin? How dangerously she loved him, and how he frightened her, and how she’d only had to say a few words to Sadb, and Sadb had put a stop to everything and given her a breath of peace?

“I could never be happy in Ireland knowing I’d left her behind! Would you have left Diarmait behind, if Brede and Eirik had rescued you and said they had no room for Diarmait? Would you have been happy with Synne if you’d left Diarmait in prison?”

Her ranting words tumbled out so rapidly she scarcely understood what she was saying, but Murchad must have heard “Diarmait” and “rescue” and “prison.” His broad, gentle face contracted, and that blurry grimace of grief was the last thing Uallach saw before he hugged her close, and her tear-​filled eyes were blotted against his shirt.

'Is it so very bad, darling?'

“Is it so very bad, darling?” he asked shakily.

Uallach broke down. The only answer she could manage was an affirmative sob.

Murchad held her tight against his breast, even draping her starveling body over his shoulder and rocking her while she cried, as if she weighed no more than one of his baby girls. The child in her belly was only a fairy weight to him, and not the leaden burden it seemed to Uallach. He could not feel the shame and the sorrow dragging her down.

In spite of the star-​shaped flowers they heedlessly trod, Uallach felt none of the hopeful lightness or the rising-​up-​inside of other springs. She was too sick, too weak, too young to carry her burdens on her own.

But she had prayed God to help her carry them, and He had sent Sadb. And now her brother Murchad was home, and he was strong enough to lift her feet right off the ground.

Murchad was strong enough to lift her feet right off the ground.