Ráth an Bheirt Bhan, Leinster, Ireland



Murchad stopped short just inside the doorway of their room. Synne was already within, waiting for him to arrive, and her jaunty smile reminded Murchad just how weary he was. He longed to wrap his arms around her, bury his face in the gauzy wool of her veil, and lean against her sturdy little body for a while.

But he had just ridden eight miles in armor, and he could smell his own stink. His shirt clung to his skin, damp, clammy, and crinkled into pleats from the weight of his mail. He would have to wash up before properly greeting either his wife or the baby whose chubby foot could be seen waving behind the slats of the cradle.

And until Synne was properly greeted, he couldn’t talk about all the things he was dreading to tell her. Not since he was a boy had he so little looked forward to a bath.

For now he said, “I thought you were upstairs helping the girls get settled in.”

'I thought you were upstairs helping the girls get settled in.'

“Don’t worry about the girls,” Synne smiled. “Martha took one look at Uallach and took her under her wing. And once she learned Sadb was in a family way, she tucked her up beneath the other.”

Murchad grunted and unbuckled his belt. Martha was Synne’s grandmotherly old housekeeper, and it was some relief knowing she was taking care of the girls. If nothing else, her hips were so broad that no avenging young ladies would be able to streak past her in the narrow halls upstairs.

Still, Murchad had to ask, “Where’s Sig?”

“Last time I saw her she was heading out to the shed to get an axe.”

Murchad’s blood ran cold, but Synne had turned away to hang his belt and didn’t see his horror.

“Martha wanted to have a tongue boiled for their supper, since Uallach looked so pale, but Sadb said she couldn’t stomach tongue, so Sigi offered to make one of her chicken jellies instead.” Synne marched back up to him, smiling as she chattered. “And according to Pinknose she must butcher the chicken herself, so off she went.”

'And according to Pinknose she must butcher the chicken herself.'

Murchad didn’t even know where to start with Sigrid and her butchery, so, stupidly, he put the idea aside and stooped over to kiss his wife without touching her with his grubby body.

He only meant to give her a peck, and he apologized right afterwards, whispering, “Sorry, there’s not an inch of me that’s clean.”

But her open lips so near to his intoxicated him, and he closed his eyes and went back for another taste.

She was a well of cool water, and he hadn’t realized how parched he was. He’d had to stand alone and be brave, clever, and responsible without her for three long weeks. Drinking horns be damned: it was already a miracle if he’d made it back on his own two feet.

Moreover, three weeks was a long absence for a young man with a pretty wife, and this trick of tasting her with tongue and lips while avoiding her with his body was singularly arousing. Dinner was already on the fire and would burn if it had to wait; it was just as well that she laid her hands on his sweaty shirtfront and broke the spell.

He stepped back, holding his breath, and finally opened his eyes and exhaled. Synne gave him a knowing smile.

Synne gave him a knowing smile.

After dinner, he promised himself. His kingdom could wait an hour.

“What were we saying?” he asked dazedly.

A panicked squawking out in the yard answered the question, and Synne replied with only a wry lift of her brows. Murchad braced himself for what would come next.

The thunk of the axe silenced the squawking, but it was followed by the high-​pitched laughter of little Pinknose, watching the antics of the headless bird. Murchad prayed Sadb hadn’t heard.

“Synn,” he said. His pained voice wiped away his wife’s smile. “Let’s have one of the men do the butchering henceforth, aye? ’Twas an axe that slew my brother.”

“Oh!” Synne pressed her hands against her mouth. “Oh! We didn’t know! We knew he was… but we didn’t know how. Sigi would never…”

Murchad sighed and rubbed his face, and Synne laid a hand on his shoulder. He needed her touch badly enough that he didn’t mention his sweaty shirt.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I know you were still holding out hope.”

“The hope’s all gone,” Murchad sighed, shuffling past her towards the cradle. “I saw his grave. But it was so much worse for Sadb. She brought his body home. And ’twas hard for Uallach, too.”

'And ’twas hard for Uallach, too.'

With that he remembered what he had wanted to say at the mention of tongue, and he turned back to Synne.

“My mother had them open the coffin. Uallach didn’t see him, but she smelled him, Sadb says. Uallach’s the one who can’t stomach tongue, or any kind of meat nowadays. You’ll have to warn your cook, Synn. A little chicken, a little fish, or eggs, but no meat. Especially salt meat.”

Synne’s hand rubbed her breast in circles just over her heart. Murchad wished he could stretch out on the bed beside her and lay his head there. But he had too much to do.

“Those poor girls,” she said. “Is that why she’s so thin?”

“She’s being ill, too. She has fits, and she’s been bled mayhap too often. She needs rest. Sadb, too. She’s been strong for the two of them these past weeks, in spite of her own grief. She needs to take care of herself now. Synn, I’m sorry to show up like this with the two of them, without talking it out with you…”

Synne waved her hand and smiled. “They’re family. There’s nothing to discuss. There’s always room for two more ladies at Two Ladies.”

'There's always room for two more ladies at Two Ladies.'

Murchad could not help but smile back at her. Her smile was irrepressible, and nevertheless it was never feigned. How had he survived three weeks without Synne to make him smile? How would he make it through his days in Dublin without her and their children only a room away?

“Speaking of two ladies…” Murchad said. He theatrically tiptoed up to the crib.

The babies had been quiet all this time, for they were well used to sleeping through their parents’ soft conversations. But Temair’s eyes were wide, and her tiny mouth hung open in wonder as she stared up at some infant vision. Murchad’s throat tightened. How would he ever live without his girls?

Temair's eyes were wide.

“Tara’s awake,” he whispered.

Synne joined him at the cradle. “You can still tell them apart?”

“Fie, woman! They haven’t changed that much in three weeks.”

The baby turned her head to look, and her open mouth broadened into a grin. Murchad’s heart felt like it would split.

“So, you’ve not forgotten your Da,” he murmured. He gave her his finger to grip. “I didn’t bring you a pony, but Grandmama and your aunties sent you some pretty dresses.”

Temair kicked her feet and tugged on his finger, which Murchad was pleased to interpret as infant delight.

“Young lady, you are supposed to be napping!” was all Synne had to say, but she wore the same besotted smile as Murchad. They really were ravishing babies, these girls of theirs.

'Young lady, you are supposed to be napping!'

Murchad extracted his finger from Temair’s fist and warned her, “Don’t put that hand in your mouth, now, till Mama washes it.”

Of course, that was the first thing the baby did.

“She’s trouble, is that one,” Murchad announced grimly to his chortling wife. He stepped away from the cradle and pulled his shirt off over his head.

“Her sister’s the dangerous one,” Synne said. “Tara misbehaves right in front of you. Orlaith waits till your back is turned.”

Murchad happened to have his back to the cradle at that moment, and he whipped himself around to look. Orlaith was still sleeping like an angel, and Synne had to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter.

Murchad snorted and attempted to look stern. “I dare not turn my back on any of you women,” he muttered, wiping his face on a dry corner of his shirt. “And now I’m responsible for two more.”

“Look on the bright side,” Synne said. “Being responsible for Uallach and Sadb will give you some practice for when the babies will be that age.”

She plucked his shirt from his hand and headed for the laundry basket.

“And you’d better start practicing right away,” she added. “I would say Morrann is smitten.”

Murchad turned. It was just like a woman to toss a thunderbolt over her shoulder as she walked away.

Murchad turned.

“Morrann?” he echoed. “Morrann? With whom?”

“With Uallach, silly.”

Morrann is? With my sister? Morrann doesn’t even like women!”

Synne laughed. “Doesn’t he?”

“Aye, but…” Murchad’s breath quickened with anger. “He knows better than to like my sister the way he likes women!

Synne took a towel from the wardrobe, closed the door, and turned. “I didn’t say he did,” she said, calm and reasonable as ever. “I said he was smitten. Didn’t you see how he looked after her outside?”

“Aye, but…”

In truth, Murchad hadn’t noticed. He did remember Morrann carrying her through the streets of Dublin, Morrann helping her mount and dismount from her horse, Morrann seeming always to be near when the ladies needed something. Murchad had been grateful for this un-​Morrann-​like gallantry, but he hadn’t given it much thought; so long as everyone in his party was accounted for and no one was unconscious or bleeding, he reckoned he’d accomplished his duty as leader, and was free to turn his mind to other problems. It was not as if the other problems would have waited, anyway.

Synne stopped at his side with the towel and poured a pitcherful of water into the basin. Murchad turned gladly to the washstand and splashed his face with both hands, snorting like a warhorse to clear his head.

He had to consider the last days in a new light. Had Morrann paid special attention to Uallach? Had they ever been left alone together? What was her guardian and brother supposed to do now?

He reached blindly for the towel, and Synne put it into his hand. The water running down his neck was fresh, warm, and chamomile-​scented, because Synne had seen to it, as she saw to all things in their home.

“Is Uallach smitten, too?” he asked.

'Is Uallach smitten, too?'

“I don’t know. I shall have to get to know her and see how she is with him. But I know Morrann, and I’ve never seen him show so much patience with a female.”

“He shows patience with you.”

Synne laughed. “It only seems that way because I make certain not to try the meager patience he has.”

Murchad splashed water onto his chest and armpits and scrubbed himself with the towel, trying to stall for time in the hope a solution would miraculously present itself in the next few seconds. Synne stepped out of range of flying drops.

“It would be like Morrann, I suppose,” she said. “It drives him wild that Sigi and I will not allow ourselves to be babied and cosseted. I should think he would like a girl half his age who will submit to being looked after and fussed over, and who will think his every pronouncement divinely inspired.”

Murchad snorted.

Murchad snorted, somewhat reassured. “Some rest and good food will take care of that, and he’ll find himself with a daughter of Aed and Orlaith on his hands. Uallach and Lathir were little she-​devils when they were wee, and they were so pretty they got away with it, too.”

Synne patted his damp shoulder. “As I said, it will be good practice for you, against the day those two pretty little she-​devils in the crib will be romping underfoot and kissing boys.”

Murchad nearly dropped the towel. “You think she’s kissing him?”

“Now, I doubt that. Morrann’s too loyal to you for that. He’ll speak to you beforehand if it comes to that. Or at least, shortly thereafter.”

Murchad turned to stare at her. He wondered how she could be so blithe.

“I don’t know what I think about that,” he said, frowning. “Morrann and my own sister. Wait, now, I don’t even know what my mother would think about that. She told me I must find a good husband for her. Do you suppose she would think Morrann ‘good’?”

'Do you suppose she would think Morrann good?'

Synne took the towel he was dangling from his hand and began folding it up again. “You’ll have plenty of time to ask her.”

She spoke soothingly, but there was a frown between her brows, too, and her folding was slow.

“It’s too soon to think of marriage for your sister yet,” she said. “She needs to get stronger first. A pregnancy would kill her. She could hardly climb the stairs.”

Murchad had the thought that it might not be worth thinking of marriage for Uallach at all, because she mightn’t live long enough to marry. He punched the thought down as soon as it surfaced, but he knew it would soon bob up again in some other form.

If nothing else, he wanted to let Uallach die in a peaceful place, safe and comforted to the end. No sister of his would be sneaking into crypts with a blanket, so frightened of being caught fitting by her living family that she preferred thrashing about beneath the earth, surrounded by the moldy dead.

Temair was beginning to fuss and kick, left alone in her crib, and her first acking cries demolished Murchad’s weakened defenses. He rushed to her side as if her little body held the souls of all the people he loved, as if Uallach’s illness were her illness, and as if he could fix everything for everyone as easily as he could quiet a fussy baby.

He rushed to her side.

“I’m sorry,” Synne said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

He nodded at her while he cuddled and shushed the baby. Temair grizzled against his shoulder, merely for the pleasure of being comforted.

“No, Synn,” he said, “I’m lost if you ever stop telling me all the things I don’t want to hear.”

Synne sighed and simply looked at him, her eyes full of compassion and tears.

He took a breath and said, “Do you know, I think I would be grateful if Morrann loved my sister and looked after her a bit. How many ladies live at Two Ladies now? We need more men to lighten the load.”

'We need more men to lighten the load.'

He smiled, and she smiled. He heard Harald Pinknose squealing outside, tossing handfuls of feathers into the air or mayhap simply running around, and he was about to say that he would accept even the masculine assistance of a three-​year-​old. Then he had a thought that made his heart sink.

“Synne, what in the devil is Pinknose doing here?”

“Oh…” Synne touched her fingers to her open mouth, and Murchad could see her calculating how best to deliver the news. “So, Eirik stopped by and left him with Sigi.”

“Eirik was here.”

“Aye, he came with Olaf and Pinknose on Palm Sunday. He only stayed one night.”

She waited breathlessly for his reaction. She already knew—or could already see—that he would not be pleased.

“On Palm Sunday,” Murchad echoed.

Eirik had been in Murchad’s house the very day after Murchad had arrived in Galloway. At the very moment when he was as far away from Ireland as he would go, and the furthest from his eventual return.

“Synne,” Murchad said quietly, “I don’t want him coming into this house again. If he wants to see anyone here, he shall come to Dublin and speak to me first.”

'I don't want him coming into this house again.'

Synne bit her lip and nodded.

“I’ve already ordered the harbor closed, and if he beaches his ships, then he’ll be welcomed by the points of spears. I’m leaving Morrann in command here… The devil! Morrann and Uallach.”

Murchad pressed the knuckles of his free hand against his brow. One more thing to worry about. He sighed and dismissed the thought for now.

In a low voice, still wary of angering him, Synne said, “Even if he gets past Morrann, he won’t get past the gate if Sigi sees him coming. She’s furious at him. He sent Sweyn to Lothere with Stein, and never even asked her. She hasn’t seen her baby in months and might not see him again before he’s grown, if then. And Eirik’s keeping Olaf for now. He’s splitting up their family, and Sigi can’t bear it.”

'He's splitting up their family, and Sigi can't bear it.'

Murchad patted Temair’s diapered behind. His anger towards Eirik subsided into the shadow of his love for Eirik’s wife.

“Poor Sigi,” he said. “I thought she looked different somehow. Touched by sorrow. I thought perhaps something had happened with the babe.”

“No, the baby’s fine, by God’s grace. She’s missing her other boys. And one might say she’s mourning her marriage.”

“Her marriage?”

'Her marriage?'

“Aye. When Eirik left the next morning, she told him not to bother coming back without Sweyn. And it’s Sigi: you know she was meaning that, too.”

Synne bit her lips together, trying to stave off tears that came anyway.

“It broke my own heart,” she quavered. “They fought half the afternoon, and they fought the morning he left, but during the night Sigi called a truce. She had one loving night with her husband, knowing that in the morning she was going to send him away, perhaps forever. I don’t know where she found the strength. I don’t think I could do it.”

Murchad couldn’t bear the sight of his own chipper little wife in tears, so he pulled her against his free shoulder and cuddled her close beside the baby.

“There, there,” he said between kisses to her veiled hair. “You’ll never have to. You know I’ll give you anything you ask. If you ever tell me, don’t bother coming back without the moon and the stars, I’ll find a way to get them for you. I wager Morrann’s tall enough to reach.”

Synne giggled wetly against his bare skin. “He’ll want them for Uallach.”

“Ach!” Murchad sighed. “Don’t remind me.”

Synne giggled again, then wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her cheek against his breastbone. She breathed against one side of his neck, and Temair breathed against the other side, and though he was mortally happy to hold them, he was sorry he had but the two arms. He could only take care of two ladies at a time.

After a while he asked softly, “Was Eirik saying anything about my brother?”

“He told us you must have learned he was dead by that time. He didn’t say how he was killed. At least, not to me.”

“He say anything about who killed him?”

“No.” She snuggled closer and asked in a tiny voice, “Are you thinking he did?”

“That’s what men are saying. If not by his hand, then by his command.”

Synne thought about this for a while. Murchad prayed that his calm, reasonable wife would explain to him how it could not be so.

Instead she whimpered, “I wish I could say he would never do such a thing. But I don’t know. How could he do that to you, though? He knew how you loved Diarmait. And you were his friend.”

Murchad snorted. With friends like Eirik…

“You need to forget everything you think you’re knowing about Eirik, love, and remember only the one thing. He’s ruthless. If he can break Sigi’s heart, then none of us are safe.”

Synne sighed. “What good does he think it will do him, if he becomes King of Man and loses his Queen? And his family and all his friends?”

“‘What is a man profited,’” Murchad answered, quoting the Gospel of Matthew, “‘if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ I don’t know, Synn. I shall ask him if he ever dares show his face to me.”

Murchad’s hand tightened around his wife’s shoulder, and he imagined hideous futures wherein Eirik kidnapped Synne and the children and held them hostage until Murchad catered to his whims. And worse still.

A dragon slept in Murchad’s belly, and when he let his thoughts grow black, he felt its weight, its coiled strength, and even, sometimes, felt it stir.

Diarmait’s sword was locked up in Dublin, and Murchad had told Sadb it was to prevent her from taking her son’s vengeance too soon. But when he looked into the pit from whence those black thoughts billowed, Murchad knew he meant to avenge his brother himself. Diarmait’s son stood to inherit a bloodstained sword and a mummified head.

Murchad’s heart was pounding beneath his baby’s body, and even Synne must have felt it, for she stroked his back soothingly and lifted her head.

“I think Tara’s sleeping,” she whispered.

Murchad nodded stupidly. Synne slipped out from beneath his arm, and Murchad shuffled towards the crib, patting the baby’s bottom until his heart grew calm. He lifted her from his shoulder and eased her onto the mattress. She woke a little and whimpered, but as soon as her body was snuggled against her sister’s, she quieted and slept.

She quieted and slept.

Murchad stared down at his perfect daughters for a while, and Synne waited patiently beside him and ran a hand up and down his back. But he was clean now, and he’d greeted both his wife and the owner of the chubby foot, and there was no longer any excuse for delay.

He slipped around Synne and went to the window, leaving the babies a little peace.

“So,” he said. “Let’s talk about this.”

“So,” Synne agreed.

She followed him to the window, and he turned to her and slumped back against the wardrobe.

He turned to her and slumped back against the wardrobe.

“I’ve really done it, this time,” he said miserably.

Synne smiled. “Oh, Murchad. Only you could accidentally become King of Dublin.”

“I’m glad you’re thinking it was an accident. Everyone else thinks it’s the will of God.”

“Perhaps it is that, too. But I still say: only you.”

She tipped his head up and scrutinized his face. She traced her finger over the fillet he wore on his brow.

“It becomes you,” she said. “You remind me of your father.”

Murchad answered with a forlorn laugh. “I hate it already. Only I could be a king and get spots on my forehead from my damned crown.”

Synne giggled. “Now, I can make you an ointment for that, so you won’t get spots.”

Synne giggled.

“And if you could make an ointment for all my other ills, I would be obliged to you.”

“Oh, Murchad. Tell me what happened.”

“Didn’t you hear?”

“Aye. Some of the Two Ladies men were in Dublin on Sunday. They said they crowned you in the harbor, and you led the people through town, saying Saint Patrick’s prayer.”

“And they didn’t mention the two ladies who were bearing me on their shoulders and wearing crowns of glory?”

Synne sighed over his sarcasm.

“They didn’t crown me in the harbor, Synn. The High Steward just gave me the key to the city. And of course, I lost it. We went through all my purses and finally found it later in the sheath of my dirk.”

Synne rubbed her chin, which effectively hid her mouth, but Murchad knew her eyes when she smiled.

“And I wasn’t meaning to lead anyone in prayer. I just started praying because I was sore afraid, and everyone followed.”

“Well? The Lord still heard it, I daresay.”

“Mayhap as he did, but none of what I saw on Sunday came from God. Mayhap as the two ladies and the horn were a miracle. The Bishop of Dublin says Aye, the Archbishop of Whithorn isn’t certain, and my father says it’s someone on earth, up to no good. But what happened Sunday, it was all due to Haraldsson, Ragnaillt, the Bishop, and the city’s guards. That is, a damned steward, the withered old daughter of a long-​dead king, a bishop whose authority comes from Canterbury and not Whithorn, and a lot of well-​armed traitors. Muirchertach had some idea this was coming, too, and he fled the city as soon as I arrived. Probably fearing they would kill him. ’Twasn’t an accident if I became King. ’Twas a plot, and I fell into it just as much as Muirchertach did.”

'I fell into it just as much as Muirchertach did.'

“Why you?”

“Because the people love me, Synn. The people wouldn’t have had anyone else. Ragnaillt and her cronies saw their chance. The people of Dublin only see the miracle of the horn and the man who led them in prayer through the streets. Ragnaillt says my grandfather has been dead long enough for everyone to forget all the unpopular things he ever did, and they remember his reign as a golden age. And here I am, King Diarmait’s eldest living grandson, and through some miracle I have his horn. Which has come down to me according to legend, man to woman and woman to man—or two ladies to man, because that’s how special I am. It even catches fire if any man attempts to steal it from another man! If I don’t have ‘figure of prophecy’ written on my forehead, it’s only because of this damned fillet and these damned spots!”

Murchad sank down onto a stool and tugged at his fillet, but all that gained him was a painful yank to his scalp. He couldn’t even tie the fucking thing onto his head without getting his hair all tangled up in the knot. He finally broke down and blubbered, his head in his hands.

“Oh, Murchad.” Synne got down onto the floor at his feet. “I don’t suppose you can refuse.”

'I don't suppose you can refuse.'

“I wish I could! I tried! But what if it’s the Lord’s will after all? Father Gilla Mochutu says it might be. Everything pushes me in this direction. Even—even Sadb’s hair! Were you noticing the girls? One black as a raven, the other fox-​red? No man and no woman could make all this happen just so. Only God. Ragnaillt and the others may think they’re pulling the strings, but who put the idea into their hearts? They only see their petty schemes, but if a body steps back and squints at my life just so, he can almost see hints of God’s plan. That’s what Father Gilla Mochutu says.”

Synne nodded.

Synne nodded. “So the question you need to ask yourself is: Do you think you can do good and serve the Lord as King?”

“I can try. Muirchertach surely wasn’t doing much good. I can do better than that. And if the Lord put the blood of Mael na mBo into my veins and the horn of Mael na mBo into my hand, then He must have meant for me to make the most of them. But I’m sorry I’m not just an ordinary man, Synn. You deserve better than this.”

'You deserve better than this.'

Synne laughed. “Better than the King of Dublin! Hmm! The Sultan of Persia, perhaps?”

Murchad rubbed her curving cheek with his thumb. “You’re knowing what I mean, girlie. I wanted to give you a quiet, happy life, you and your children. The life you didn’t get to have when you were a wee girl.”

Synne’s smile changed, and he could see she’d been touched. Murchad’s heart ached from missing her, and he hadn’t even left yet.

“I don’t even know how often I’ll be able to come home,” he whispered. “It’s only eight miles, and it might as well be eight hundred. You’ll need to make me another tear-​drying towel, my darling.”

Synne folded her arms across his lap, still smiling her dauntless smile.

Synne laid her folded arms across his lap.

“You may use the corner of my scarf,” she said. “You weren’t thinking I would let you go live in Dublin without us?”

Murchad sighed. “No, my sweet. You and the babies are staying here at the House of Six Ladies. Dublin has already turned against one king. I want you here. Morrann will keep you safe.”

Synne lifted her wee nose and smirked at him. “Morrann will have his hands full trying to get to Uallach once Sigi is her chaperone.” She tittered, but then her smile changed and became strange. “You can’t do this, Murchad. You can’t split up our family. Not when I’ve had to watch my sister’s heart breaking over what Eirik’s done to hers.”

“Synn, I’m sorry, but that’s being the one act of Eirik’s over the past year that I can understand. He knows his wife and babies will be safer under my protection at Two Ladies than they ever would be with him. And Sweyn likewise with Stein.”

'He knows his wife and babies will be safer under my protection.'

Synne was no longer smiling at all. “And what will it profit him, if he gain the whole world and lose his family?”

Murchad shook his head. All at once he gained a new understanding of Eirik. Not the inner workings of his petty schemes, but the hints of his greater plan.

“You don’t know what it is to be a man, love. A husband and a father. He wants the whole world, and he’ll give up his own soul to buy it… all so he can give it to his wife and sons.”

Synne pounded her fist on Murchad’s thigh. “And Sigi would trade it right back again if it could redeem the man she loved. Eirik is a pigheaded fool if he thinks he’s doing the right thing by his family, and so are you if you think you’re doing us a good deed by leaving us behind. Have you forgotten your promise to me, Murchad?”

'Have you forgotten your promise to me, Murchad?'

Murchad didn’t know what promise she meant, and he was afraid. A Synne who pounded her fist and frowned at him was a fearsome thing. Even when he was wrong about something, she always smiled and talked it out with him until he got it right.

“On the night you came to my room?” she prompted. “When I became your wife in truth?”

Murchad remembered then. He lifted his head.

“No matter what happened,” she said, “we swore that we would face it together. No more going ahead to make things ready. No more staying behind to hem towels and wait. We would face prison together, or death together, or… life together. Whatever it would bring. Are you remembering?”

Murchad nodded.

Murchad nodded.

“If you’re wanting to give me and my babies the life I never had as a girl, the only thing you have to do is be a part of it. I don’t want my children growing up without a father, as I did.”

Murchad scooted back the stool and sank down onto his knees, joining her on the floor. “You know I’ll give you anything you ask, but I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to any of you. I couldn’t—”

He stopped, so seized by horror that his throat closed up and his forehead furrowed deeply beneath its leather band. His thoughts were all black, all choking.

Synne kissed his brow, kissed his cheek, and rubbed her nose against his nose until he relaxed enough to breathe again, and look at her.

“Take your wife and children with you,” she whispered, so close to his lips that he could taste her. “Show Eirik he’s a coward.”

'Show Eirik he's a coward.'