Glenn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

Once, Maire ought to have been violently jealous of this woman.

Once, Maire ought to have been violently jealous of this woman. Yet even in the headiest of those days, Muirgel of the Colins had never merited more than the irritation generally inspired by inanimate things. She might have been an accident of geography: a rockfall or a steep-​sided gorge separating Maire from her goal.

And even that imagery overstated her significance.

Even that overstated her significance.

Already in her youth Muirgel had been squat and drab, with damp, fretful hands, and a hushed, hen-​like, tut-​tutting monologue that seemed mostly directed at herself.

Nor had age and sorrow granted her dignity. Her two eldest sons had just died within months of one another, and Muirgel was as timid and fussy as ever. Only now her eyes were bloodshot and hollow, and her mousey little features were disappearing into a face puffed up like overripe dough.

Maire had never hated Muirgel then, and she’d scarcely thought of her in the bustling years that had followed. But age and sorrow had not left Maire unaltered, and her mother’s heart warmed to her old rival now.

Her mother's heart warmed to her old rival now.

Maire herself had buried a beloved child, a few years back; and only two months ago she’d delivered a blind, kitten-​sized baby into her own hands and watched her squirm and take a few desperate breaths before she died.

Her poor babe had reminded her just how precious was every moment in the life of a child, and if Congal’s drunken confidences were to believed, Gaethine son of Muirgel had few moments left to share. If Maire had any say in the matter, he would not die miles from his mother’s arms.

But Maire knew better than to have her say straight out with Muirgel. This was going to take some finesse.

“Fie!” she said to Muirgel’s latest rambling protest. “Then a holiday is precisely what you’re needing! You weren’t thinking we greet our guests with a bucket and mop at the door?”

Maire laughed. Muirgel tittered and tut-​tutted and continued to look unconvinced. Maire wondered whether she had ever looked convinced of anything in her life.

Muirgel tittered and tut-tutted and continued to look unconvinced.

Maire leaned over the arm of the bench and confided, “I haven’t a man over the age of seven at home just now. Come for the peace and quiet. Come and sit under my tree and watch the sun set tonight over the loch. No one shall ask you to lift a finger, or even make a decision. If you’re being too tired to travel, you’re being far too worn out to stay around here and run a household!”

Muirgel winced and tut-​tutted at that last, but something else Maire had said made her bow her head over her plump hands and ponder in silence. What had it been? The sunset over the loch?

What had it been?

“When’s the last time you’ve had a chance to do that?” Maire asked her. “Only sit and watch the sun go down?”

Muirgel peeked up at her. She looked tempted, but still uncertain.

“Bring your knitting,” Maire advised, winking. “If anyone walks by, we shall pick up our needles and look busy.”

Muirgel swallowed, opened her mouth, and looked like she was going to say something out loud for a change.

And of course that was when the door flew open, drawing in a whoosh of air that guttered the candles. Maire turned and felt the breath leave her lungs.

Maire turned and felt the breath leave her lungs.

Once, Maire would have sensed this man coming before he’d reached the door. His scent, perhaps it had been, or his footfall, or even the air his body stirred, wafting past her flushed, damp skin. She’d never had to turn her head to know where he stood.

Now, though, his arrival was an irritation. She would have liked to have had Muirgel well in hand by the time he stepped in. The person she truly had to convince was Augustin.



For an instant, helpless panic was stark on his face. Did he suppose Maire had ridden all this way to tell Muirgel what had happened all those years ago?

What could she tell her? “Once, I held your husband’s hand beneath a table? Once, your husband called me the fire of his heart?”

It was absurd, and he quickly saw it. Moreover, he remembered his manners and bowed. “God be with you, lady.”

Maire began to rise, but Augustin hurried over to offer an arm.

“God and the Blessed Virgin with you, Augustin,” she answered, lingering over the name that her rank allowed her to say. She hadn’t heard him call her Maire in fifteen years.

'God and the Blessed Virgin with you, Augustin.'

He held his arm up longer than necessary and stuttered, “My lady, what a…”

“Surprise?” Maire guessed, smiling.

“Honor,” Augustin corrected. “Pleasure.”

Was he blushing, or was it only his slowly dissipating shock?

'Is your lord with you?'

“Is your lord with you?” he asked. He glanced aside at Muirgel long enough to snap, “Why was I not informed?” before turning his blinking eyes back to Maire. Muirgel began quavering an incomprehensible explanation, which Maire preempted brightly.

“Nay, I came by my own self! Colban and our eldest trotted off to Latharn this morning for the Horse Fair, and my other eldest left for home yesterday morn. And I fancy the gaindering-​flea must have caught a nip of me! Muirgel and I have been having a bite and a sowp and a bit of trittil-​trattil. ’Twas well worth the ride.”

“Was it, then?” he asked, smiling as if trotting ten miles for a light snack and a gossip was the most charmingly novel thing he’d heard in a while.

Without looking aside he said, “Pour me a drink, Mother.” Muirgel heaved herself up, clucking and chickering. Augustin did not move to offer her an arm.

Instead, he said to Maire, “I gather your lord’s brother has returned, then, if they’re bound for the Horse Fair.”

“Ach, that lingle-​legs! Nay, he went abroad with his wean. You’ve heard he’s married?”

'You've heard he's married?'

“Aye, I’d heard that.”

“And he ran off that very night. A shroud on that man!” Maire cursed him, flicking her hands at the sky. “If he isn’t wearing out blankets, he’s wearing out shoes. Speak of the gaindering-​flea! Malcolm’s been sucked dry.”

Augustin chuckled. A twinge of guilt passed over Maire, for she did not like to criticize Malcolm outside the family. On the other hand, Augustin was part of her family, and he’d always listened to her complaints with every appearance of agreement.

“Aye, then,” he said, “I wish your lord luck at the Horse Fair without him.”

“Fie! And I wish he’ll notice he’s quite capable of choosing a horse by his own self. I made him go, as a treat to Colban. I couldn’t bear to see the lad lurking about all moupit-​like, now that his twin’s gone away, and poor Sebdann could no more stand his douring at home.”

“You made a man attend the Horse Fair?” Augustin teased. “Monstrous woman!”

'Monstrous woman!'

“He’s a martyr to my whims and wheeries!” Maire agreed, giggling, and that made him laugh.

He’d always laughed at the funny little phrases she’d learned at her mother’s knee, and it surprised her how thickly they were tripping from her tongue now that he was there to hear them. She thought it might be wise to watch her mouth.

Augustin took his cup from Muirgel with scarcely a glance and nary a thank-​you-​kindly.

“Would that I were so ill-​used,” he said to Maire. He tilted his cup towards her head, then took a sip, though all the while he looked into her eyes over the rim.

She was struck by how little he had changed. Long ago she had memorized the fine creases of his face, so the wrinkles he wore today were no surprise. And his eyes were just as bright as ever, and they were the closest they’d been to hers in fifteen years.

And his eyes were just as bright as ever.

He took a dainty from the tray and gestured gracefully with it towards the bench, bidding her reclaim her seat.

“Your other son has certainly grown,” he said. He sat on the chest directly facing her. “I saw him at your brother’s. I mistook him for his father at the first.”

He took a bite from his pastry and chewed, and still he never took his eyes from hers. Maire was beginning to feel a bit giddy.

She said, “I hope you never told him so! The poor boy! It’s all he ever heard. Everyone made him get up and turn around so they could say how much he resembled his father from behind!”

'I hope you never told him so!'

Augustin smiled, his gaze so warm she could fairly see a wisp of smoke curling from the corner of his eye.

“Every one, or every woman?” he asked.

Maire caught his meaning and conceded the point with a hearty laugh.

Augustin tipped his cup at her. “I misdoubt ’twas not the only measure they were taking.”

“Fie! And the old aunties? Mother Eithne?”

“They most of all,” he said with his old slow, sly smile. Maire felt her face growing hot, and she shooed him off with the back of her hand.

“Ta! To us old aunties he’ll always be our bonny wee man, with a dimple in his every cheek. All four of them!”

'All four of them!'

Augustin chuckled, and Maire joined him with merry laughter. The gold pendants of her headpiece tinkled with the swaying of her body.

She cautioned herself again, wary of the intoxicating effects of slightly naughty conversation with a man who was neither son nor spouse nor brother. She’d lost the habit of bantering with Flann and even of the crude mouth of Colin; and Augustin had always had a dizzying charm all his own. How odd that she’d supposed it had lost its hold on her, after all these years.

“He always was a cheeky little devil,” Augustin said. He ran his thumb around the inside rim of his cup and glanced up at her to say, “Takes after his Mama.”

Maire gasped. “I was never a cheeky child!”

“You were all sorts of devilish.”


This was more like it, if they could hark back to the days when she was a red-​headed wee terror, and he was her father’s towering troop commander, nearly twenty years her senior.

“Mayhap as I was,” she allowed, “but a body has to think herself clever to be cheeky, and heaven knows I never did. I was merely fractious as a bag of weasels.”

“Red-​haired weasels,” Augustin amended.

'Red-haired weasels.'

“The most fractious kind!” she agreed. “Fortunately the fire went out of my temper as fast as the red faded out of my hair. It’s fairly brown, now, and I’m just shy of respectable.”

Maire cackled, but the smile Augustin gave her seemed wistful, or even sad. Heaven help her, he wasn’t getting sentimental about her hair? He’d never run his fingers through it, but the way he’d looked at it once upon a time—and, perhaps, just now—he’d made her believe he wanted to. Somehow that seemed the finest compliment of all.

Maire twisted a lock of hair around her finger, making her pendants chime.

“And these days,” she said, feeling wistful herself, “it’s running to gray.”

'It's running to gray.'

Augustin smiled ruefully and combed his hand back through his own gray-​streaked hair.

Aye, she thought, but on him the gray looked like strands of silver, and the point of his beard was almost black. He was still tall, lean, and flat-​bellied; still forbidding and still fascinating around the face. Had she really told Malcolm that Iylaine’s infatuation would fade, that it would simply take a little time?

'If only my temper improved apace.'

“If only my temper improved apace,” he said dryly. “But rest assured, my young one, I hadn’t noticed any gray hairs from this distance. Nary a wrinkle likewise.”

“Then I pray you, don’t come any closer!”

They laughed together for a while, and finally, as if to humor her, Augustin sat up straight on the bench. Only then did she notice how closely they’d been leaning together.

“Might I not aspire to sitting next to you at my dinner table?” he asked. “Or showing you around the farm? I’m aught but a lowly crofter in my old age, but I like it. It soothes me.”

Maire remembered her mission then, and she glanced at Muirgel. Muirgel’s head was bowed over her lap, and she clucked and tutted to herself as she wrung a rumple in her skirt between her damp hands.

She looked back to Augustin and found his gaze roaming her body with lazy self-​assurance and perhaps a hint of anticipation. Surely the man didn’t think she’d cantered out the back gate the moment her husband passed through the front, and ridden all this way to see him?

She looked back to Augustin.

“I’ll be glad to break bread with you,” Maire said, “but you mustn’t get up a grand ado on my account. I’ll not have time to tarry.”

“Going on to your brother’s, are you,” Augustin guessed, without quite making it a question. “I’ll ride with you.”

He drained his cup and handed it off to Muirgel. Muirgel heaved herself up and shuffled around her chair to fill it again. Maire’s gaze lingered on the poor woman’s back, all bulky around the hips, and already stooped with age.

“Nay,” she said, looking back to Augustin, “it’s for home I’m bound again. Muirgel is coming to pay me a visit.”

Augustin’s eyes bulged. “Muirgel is?”

'Muirgel is?'

He turned an outraged stare on his wife. Muirgel clucked and fluttered and shuffled double-​time.

“Aye,” Maire said—for she was in up to her chin now—“I’ve invited her for a visit. Sebdann and I were feeling a mite leesome with all the menfolk away, so I told Sebdann she might have a friend from home come to stay. And then I thought, why can’t I? So Muirgel was kind enough to agree.”

Muirgel? This is the first I hear of Muirgel being your ‘friend from home!’”

His words were addressing Maire, but his face and his anger were still turned towards Muirgel. Muirgel hunched and quivered over the narrow shelf on the cupboard, pouring ale as if her life depended on it.

Maire said, “She will be, after I’m done with her.”

'She will be, after I'm done with her.'

“Why now?” Augustin demanded. At last he looked at Maire. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes darting and wary, as if his first fears were coming true and Maire meant to tell Muirgel the whole tawdry story after all.

“Muirgel and I are having more in common now than we ever did,” Maire said. “Twenty years isn’t so much when one is forty and sixty.”

Augustin’s teeth were clenched tight—she could almost hear his jaw creaking from the strain. And then he swung his leg over the bench and bolted up, shouting, “Anyway!”

He met Muirgel as she lumbered back around her chair.

He met Muirgel as she lumbered back around her chair.

“This is no time for visiting about! Whatever put the idea in your head, woman?”

Maire answered, “I did.”

Augustin ignored her. “Who is going to run this household while you’re away, were you thinking? Setach? She’s a child! I, perhaps? Is that what you were thinking?”

Muirgel whimpered apologetically and fumbled with the cup she had refilled for him.

He sneered, “My fair lady is going gadding about to a great house, and the devil take the rest of us here at the farm? Is that right?”

Muirgel shook her head and maundered an incoherent reply. She held out the cup to him—desperately, stupidly trying to appease him by completing her original task. But Augustin dashed the cup out of her hand and sent it clattering against the wall, splattering ale as it flew.

“Answer me!”

'Answer me!'

Maire stood up, shaken. She had rarely seen Augustin and Muirgel together, in truth. Muirgel rarely left the house, and Maire had seldom visited it, even before her marriage. She wondered, now, at long last, whether Muirgel had always been the damp, meek, quivering woman Maire had always known. Maire had been a babe in arms when Muirgel and Augustin were married.

“Haven’t you been lazing around enough here lately?” Augustin demanded. “Do you ever lift a finger without I ask you seven times? I misdoubt they had to roust you from your bed when Lady Maire arrived!”

Muirgel’s doughy face shone with sweat, and her lips quivered while she made pitiful sounds of agreement and self-​reproach. The poor woman was deflating in her bulky black dress, and Augustin towered over her, straight and tall, his handsome face a rictus of contempt.

“Do your fair share here for a change,” he said, “and then we shall talk about paying visits.” He started towards the door, but he paused to sweep his arm towards the ale-​splattered wall. “You may begin by cleaning up this mess.”

The injustice of that last remark finally struck straight through Maire’s shock.

“Clean it up your own self, you old crawker!” she cried. “’Twas you who made it, and no other!”

Augustin turned to her. His face softened, becoming a little sheepish, a little apologetic, but he did not look mortified as he ought. Indeed, he gave her a complicit look, one brow raised, as if to say, “Do you see what I have to live with?”

Maire’s lip curled. She could not comprehend the logic of a man who would terrorize a woman into a quivering heap, only to despise her for being the same. She remembered all the things he’d said he loved about her—her feisty wit, her irreverence, her spirit, her fire—and it struck her that a body had to be careful what he wished for.

“A pox and a burning on you!” she shouted.

The blood of her red-​headed mother raced through her veins, and Maire resolved to show him feisty. She hitched up her skirts and jumped onto the bench.

'Fie for shame, Augustin son of Setach!'

“Fie for shame, Augustin son of Setach! The poor old mother of you must be a-​moaning and a-​greeting in her grave! Is this how you speak to the woman who bore your babies, and nursed them and raised them and laid half of them in the earth? Two of them—her two fine lads—dead since Martinmas?”

Maire's voice broke.

Maire’s voice broke, for she couldn’t think of Muirgel’s grief without imagining her own darlings, her precious twins, Colban and Malcolm, dead only three months apart. It was unthinkable, unbearable… and yet it was only by the grace of God that it had happened to Muirgel and not to her.

Augustin, meanwhile, took a breath and made his face impressively dour.

'I pray you, Maire, collect yourself.'

“I pray you, Maire, collect yourself. I remind you that Muirgel is the wife of no lord, and has no army of servants to run her household while she’s repining or off gaindering about. Much less to cater to her whims and wheeries.

Maire sniffled and scoffed, “Is that all?”

She hopped down from the bench and snapped her fingers beneath his nose. Augustin jerked back his head and gaped at her.

Augustin jerked back his head and gaped at her.

“I shall send you a maid from my so-​called army,” she said pertly, “to be at your beck and call while she’s a-​gaindering. Or will you be needing a cook, too? A laundress? Are you even knowing all she does for you, Augustin, every day for forty years, with nary a complaint? Have you ever thanked her?”

Augustin’s mouth snapped shut. He glared at her, working his handsome jaw until she wondered if he wasn’t about to spit at her.

She wondered if he wasn't about to spit at her.

Instead he growled, “Your mother’s daughter you are, and surely.”

He stormed off towards the door, and Maire looked after him.

“Nay,” she cried, “for my old mother would have snatched up her whip and skelped you in some style, I’m telling you! The impudent yaff that you are!”

'The impudent yaff that you are!'

Augustin went out and slammed the door, manlike. Maire snorted.

Then, behind her, Muirgel let out a quavering wail.

Maire sighed and turned. The old woman was rocking herself, hiding her face in her hands.

“Never you mind him,” Maire said, settling an arm over Muirgel’s stooped back. “It’s you and I have had the last word this time. It’s on his knees he’ll have to come calling for you, or we will not let him past the gate! A man never knows his luck until he lacks it. He’ll not know how to live without you.”

'Never you mind him.'

She rested her cheek against the old woman’s veiled head and gazed off into her own past. She thought of Colban, long ago, standing beneath her window at her brother’s, calling for her till his voice was hoarse and the stars were winking into the sky.

Leaving him had been easy. It was staying away that had been so powerfully hard. But it had worked: so far as she could find out, Colban had never seen that other woman again.

Leaving him had been easy.

Would Augustin humble himself for Muirgel, though? Maire was not certain about that. And meanwhile her own man would have a few things to say to her when he returned from the Horse Fair and learned what tricks she’d been up to.

Maire sighed and gave Muirgel’s shoulders a rub. She hadn’t come to raise a devil with Augustin, either, she reminded herself. It wouldn’t do the old cockerel any harm to stew for a while. Meanwhile she had to get Muirgel packed and out the door.

For a moment, Maire considered telling Muirgel her true plan. Surely a mother’s heart would respond to that. But such brass-​faced treachery was beyond the broken, sniveling woman, she soon realized, and she decided to let the matter lie.

There would be time enough to tell her tomorrow. For now she would have to woo her with gentle promises of sunsets, peace, and simple repose.

For now she would have to woo her with promises of sunsets and repose.