Cnoc Leithid, Galloway, Scotland

Colban found his twin leaning over the washbasin.

Colban found his twin leaning over the washbasin with his big nose almost butting up against the mirror.

“Hallo there, beautiful!”

Colban sauntered up and smacked his brother on the rump. Malcolm jumped and swore.

“What are you gawking at, man? You were born that way, you know.”

Colban leaned his head over Malcolm’s shoulder. His face appeared beside Malcolm’s in the frosty mirror.

“Ach! That’s looking handsomer already,” he declared.

Malcolm finally laughed.

Malcolm finally laughed.

“Welcome home,” Colban said, wrapping his arms in a crushing hug around Malcolm’s body.

He tried burying his nose in Malcolm’s shirt, but as soon as he inhaled he whipped back his head.

“The Devil!” he grimaced. “I hope you didn’t go up to Mama smelling like a tallow-chandler’s ass crack.”

“I just rode twenty miles in wet leather,” Malcolm snapped. “What’s your excuse, badger-​breath? Let go of my arms. I haven’t been up to Mama yet. I just got in.”

Colban let go, and Malcolm gave his mouth a vicious rub.

“How do you stand the itch!” he demanded of Colban’s reflection. “Mustaches! It makes me want to chew off my own upper lip.”

“Save it for a lean year, brother,” Colban said, pointing at the mirror. “You could eat for a week on the food you’ve got crusted up in there.”

Malcolm snarled and swatted his hand down, and Colban finally stepped back, laughing.

“Fie, you can shave it off now, anyway. Congal was here Easter morn. Someone must have let the cat out of the bag, for he was asking after you.”

Malcolm turned away from the mirror.

“What was Congal doing here?”

'What was Congal doing here?'

“Sleeping mostly. Showed up after we locked the gate Saturday night, and left Easter morning after Mass. Said he was on his way home. But he said he’d heard you were around.”

Malcolm unbuckled his belt. He paused only to give Colban a peck on each cheek before heading for the wardrobe. “What did Father say?”

“He said you were home, to be sure. Said you were visiting around our kin. No point in lying if word’s gotten out. Your brilliant career as a spy, my brother, has come to an end.”

'Your brilliant career as a spy has come to an end.'

Malcolm grunted and slung his belt over the back of a chair. Colban crawled up onto the bed and sat back against the wall, watching him.

It was hard telling how Malcolm was taking it. He’d already been in a pissy mood when Colban had come in. But there was no doubting Malcolm had been delighted by his career. Not that Colban wouldn’t have been, too, except that Colban was too recognizable and had been obliged to stay home.

Thus Malcolm had been in Scotland for over three weeks, and Colban had scarcely seen him, and Malcolm had had all the fun. And now that they could spend some time together, Colban reckoned Malcolm was just about due to announce he had to return to Lothere.

“So how was it?” Colban prompted. “Lots of intrigue and glamour and whatnot?”

'So how was it?'

Malcolm snorted. “You’ve got the wrong Malcolm. The other one gets the intrigue and the women and the whatnot, and comes out smelling like roses. This one gets forced marches and wet bedrolls in a tent with a half dozen farting men, and comes out smelling like he crawled up a tallow-chandler’s ass and died.”

Malcolm tore off his dark tunic and flung it onto the floor.

“You had the time of your life,” Colban scoffed. “Look at you. A fucking fatal accident. Sweat stains, a mangy beard, and a necklace you probably cobbled together from a strip of bleeding leather and bits of silver you scavenged off a lot of corpses. Don’t tell me you got a tattoo, too.”

“No!” Malcolm said brightly. “But there was a man who was going to put a silver ring in my ear for me. Wish I knew what became of him.”

'There was a man who was going to put a silver ring in my ear for me.'

“Christ! What would Iylaine say?”

Malcolm’s smile fell away, and he rubbed his bearded chin distractedly. He even tweaked his earlobe before he seemed to remember himself and pulled his shirt off over his head. He tossed it carelessly onto the floor beside his tunic.

Christ, but Colban's twin was a big man.

Christ, but Colban’s twin was a big man. He looked like what their father must have been thirty years before. The Fair Folk had been busy at their birthing, Colban was certain. Some malicious fairy had moved the knotted string identifying the firstborn to the ankle of the second. Clearly Malcolm was born to be a lord. And Colban would have been content to follow him.

“What would Sebdann say?” Malcolm countered.

'What would Sebdann say?'

“If I was coming home with a silver ring in my ear? ‘Where’s mine?’”

Malcolm barked a laugh and stomped around, distractedly looking for something.

“I’ll get one if you get one,” Colban offered.

“Then Iylaine would hate it for sure,” Malcolm muttered.

“All the more reason. Does she pick out your clothes for you, too?”

'Does she pick out your clothes for you, too?'

Malcolm looked beneath a stray towel and tossed it aside. He didn’t answer.

“I think you should go back looking like that,” Colban said. “That’ll make her sit up and take heed.”

“Like what? Like a fatal accident?”

“Aye, but it suits you. I’m the pretty one. The wild man look suits you. You look like you could strangle a man with each arm and still be looking around for a third man to savage with your teeth.”

Malcolm stomped into the center of the room and stomped back. “Have you seen my knife? I just had it!”

'Have you seen my knife?'

“By the mirror?”

Malcolm stomped over to the mirror and discovered his knife beneath the folded washcloth. He stood beside the washbasin cleaning his nails.

Colban gave up on the leading questions and asked straight out: “So when are you reckoning you’ll want to go back?”

Malcolm grunted. “Back to where? Home?”

Malcolm had always referred to Galloway as “back home” when he was in Lothere, but now that he was in Scotland, Lothere had suddenly become “home.” Colban didn’t like it. A man could only have one home.

Colban stretched out on the bed to get a bit closer to his brother and propped his head on his hand. “To Lothere,” he corrected.

“Don’t know,” Malcolm said, intent on his thumbnail. “I want to wait at least another week or so to be certain.”

“Certain of what?”

Malcolm laid his knife on the table and walked back around the foot of the bed. “Certain that any brat she has in December isn’t mine.”

Colban twisted his head around to stare. Malcolm sat down on the bed.

Malcolm sat down on the bed.

After brief consideration, Colban announced, “You’re fucking with me.”

“No, I’m trying to find out who’s fucking with my wife.”

“You’re thinking someone is?”

“Don’t know yet. But she said she loves him.”

Colban rolled over onto one elbow to get a better look at his brother. But Malcolm was staring at the door, so Colban could only see his broad back and his tangled hair.

“When did she say that?” Colban asked.

Malcolm sighed. “Just before I left.”


Colban flopped back onto his belly and scooped up an armful of rumpled blankets to hug against the ache in his chest. It wasn’t enough that the bitch had to ruin the life Colban had planned for himself and his twin. She had to break Malcolm’s heart and pulverize his pride, too.

Colban flopped back onto his belly.

Malcolm lifted one of his feet off the floor and began picking at his bootlaces.

“So here’s her big chance,” he said. “I’m out of the country, her Da’s out of the country. There’s no one keeping an eye on her comings and goings aside from a half-​deaf old lady. And elf women can only conceive four times a year: at the solstices and equinoxes. So if I’m going home, and she’s increasing, I can swear before God it isn’t mine. And then I can be rid of her.”

Malcolm dropped his boot from on high for the pleasure of hearing it thunk upon the floor. To Colban the sound called to mind the thunk of a sword upon a chopping block, and a chill ran over him. It would take a diabolical sort of fortitude to step back and let nature take its course where one’s wife was concerned. If he’d had any doubts about Sebdann, he couldn’t have let her out of his sight.

'Christ, brother.'

“Christ, brother,” he said softly, “that would be some trick.”

“It is not a trick!” Malcolm cried. “It is not a trick! I am not Laban, putting a fucking veil on Vash’s head and sending him into Iylaine’s bridal tent!”

“That wasn’t what I meant!”

Malcolm’s words went jerky as he started yanking on the laces of his second boot. “If she can just respect the vows she made before God, then she’s perfectly safe! I shall go home, and I shall try to make it work. She doesn’t have to love me, she just has to try to get along. But if she cannot be keeping her legs together for one month, when for me she wouldn’t even—”

Malcolm bolted up and dropped his second boot on the floor. Colban leaned his forehead against his knuckles, waiting for the storm to pass. It wasn’t like Malcolm to lose his temper. Colban didn’t like it. He didn’t like what that bitch was doing to his brother.

He listened to Malcolm’s bare heels thudding over the floorboards as he paced the room.

“If she gives Vash a whelp,” he said, “I hope she likes it. I hope she likes it. Because she’s never seeing my babies again.”

Malcolm’s feet turned around and paced the other way.

“If she let him into my house— If he got anywhere near my children—”

Colban said, “Take it easy…”

'Take it easy...'

Malcolm stopped pacing and shouted, “Whom are you telling to take it easy?

Colban opened his eyes and looked up at him. “My twin brother.”

Malcolm glared at him a moment, panting, but his expression soon began to soften. Colban could almost lie back and watch him remembering who and where he was, and whom he was with.

“Forgive me,” Malcolm said. “I’m not myself.”

'Forgive me.'

“Well and it’s little wonder,” Colban said, offering him an excuse. “You’ve not been yourself for weeks.”

Malcolm grunted and scratched his beard absently. “A pity I can’t go on being that other man. I was getting to like him.”

“Christ! She has you wishing my brother didn’t exist!”

Malcolm sighed. “That’s not what I meant.”

“You have a perfectly glorious yourself right here, if you would only give him a chance! Our father’s son, our Mama’s baby boy. My brother. Sebdann’s brother-​in-​law, and my son’s uncle. Mayhap as this is the life you were supposed to have all along.”

Malcolm sat on the edge of the bed. Colban looked down at the pillow.

Malcolm sat on the edge of the bed.

“You’re never going to give up, are you?” Malcolm asked gently.

“No.” After a moment’s reflection, Colban asked, “Would you want me to?”

“Ach! ’Twould break what’s left of my heart.”

“It already is broken. You got half, and I got half.”

Malcolm was silent for a moment. Colban couldn’t bring himself up to look up at him.

Finally Malcolm gave Colban’s ponytail a tug and stretched out on the bed beside him. Colban flopped over onto his back and wriggled closer, nestling his head between the two pillows to bring it closer to his brother’s. He slipped his hand beneath Malcolm’s, and Malcolm clasped it. Colban sighed out of sheer plenitude. How many years had passed since they’d last slept head-​to-​head and hand-​in-​hand?

Colban sighed out of sheer plenitude.

“Whom was I supposed to marry in this life, then?” Malcolm asked. “One of Flann’s girls?”

“Aye, no doubt. Young Colban’s our last hope to keep any of them in the family. It should have been you.”

Malcolm snorted. From their joined hands came the soft click-​clack of Malcolm’s thumbnail picking at Colban’s. When the twins got to thinking, they tended to forget whose limbs were whose.

“Which one would you inflict upon me?” Malcolm asked. “I reckon it would have been Cousin Cat’s turn. Or more likely Girl-Flann’s.”

“Not Girl-​Flann. She would have bossed you.”

“And Cat wouldn’t?”

'And Cat wouldn't?'

“Aye, but a body wouldn’t mind with Cat. So long as she bosses one all the way into bed.”

Malcolm sighed and rubbed his eyes with his free hand. “Trust me, it’s only fun the first four or five times.”

Then Colban had another idea that struck him with its rightness. “You should have married Cousin Eithne,” he breathed. “You would have saved her. She must have been fated for you. And Flann would still be with us—”

Malcolm thumped their linked hands upon the mattress. “Stop it. It’s all in good fun until you start troubling the dead.”

Colban fell silent. Their thumbnails clicked and clacked. Colban was thinking over another idea: one that had come to him in Lothere. He couldn’t remember why it had aggravated him so much at the time.

He ventured, “You should have married a lass like Cousin Connie.”

'You should have married a lass like Cousin Connie.'

He’d been careful to say “a lass like.” Now he had to wait and see how Malcolm would take it. Malcolm’s thumb continued sparring with his, so at least he hadn’t been startled.

Finally Malcolm asked, “What kind of lass is that?”

“Sweet-​tempered, and not bossy in the least. And she’ll be as fine an armful as Cat when she’s grown. And it’s plain as a pikestaff she thinks the world of you.”

Malcolm said nothing for a while. Then he sighed and said, “Well, it’s not too late, anyway.”

Colban’s thumb froze. He looked up at his brother’s cheek. “Are you meaning that?”

Malcolm started. “Meaning what? I meant she isn’t married yet, unlike the others.”

“Aye, but if you weren’t married, either?”

Malcolm was silent. Colban quietly breathed the wet leather, campfire, sweat and dirt scents of his brother’s hair.

At last Malcolm thumped their hands on the mattress again. “Do not be troubling the living, either.”

Colban said no more about it, and Malcolm went back to picking at his thumb. But Colban’s head rested more easily now in the crack between the pillows, a-​leaning there against his brother’s mighty head. There was still hope for the two of them. Malcolm had said it wasn’t too late.

Malcolm had said it wasn't too late.