Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

At least she wasn't wearing a sword.

Aed suspected there was a little something unseelie in the mountain water this spring: something that had a peculiar effect upon ladies. Not since old Lord Donnchad of the Eochaids had taken his barbarian wife had Galloway seen such spectacles. Women riding at the head of mounted troops: young Sebdann in a gleaming helmet and mail, with her dark hair flying, and Lady Gorman in a bearskin cloak clasped with gold. And the both of them under the command of Lady Maire, who’d held court in her husband’s hall with an ancient sword strapped to her hip.

For her latest trick she’d crossed the Wilderness on horseback and shown up bright and early at Carn Liath, unannounced and unaccompanied. At least today she wasn’t wearing the sword.

Indeed, as Aed approached and saw her speaking to her maid, he found her weary-​looking and wan. He had just enough time to worry: had something happened to Lord Colban? Where was her son?

Then she saw him coming and her face lit up. Aed grinned at her, and she opened her arms and came to meet him.

“Lord Aed!” she cried. “Fancy coming across you here!”

'Lord Aed!'

Aed laughed, his formal greeting forgotten. “I live here! What’s your excuse?”

“Am I needing one?”

“You, lady? You are welcome ever.”

She clasped his shoulders and leaned in to kiss his cheeks. She was breathless, dusty, and wind-​tousled, and her face wore the telltale pink of an impending sunburn, but Aed had never seen her looking prettier. She was so damned alive, and he was so damned accustomed to tiptoeing around the slumbering specter of death.

“I cannot guess why you’re here,” he began, and paused while she moved to kiss the other cheek, “but I shall go out on a limb and say I’m delighted to see you.”

“At least I’m not wearing a sword this time,” she said, unknowingly echoing his own thoughts. Aed laughed and hoped his cheeks weren’t betraying him.

Lady Maire released him, stepped back, and drew a deep breath. “Isn’t it fine?” she sighed. “It’s been so long, I’d forgotten how one can smell the sea even from the yard. But I’m remembering how I could look out onto the bay from the window of the room we had. A body can watch the sun go down without setting a foot outside, cannot she?”

She turned and tilted her body, birdlike, attempting to peer around the hall to get a glimpse of the water through the trees.

“She can,” Aed agreed, “and if you can remember which room it was, I shall see that you have it again.”

She straightened and turned to him. “Nay, I can stay but a night, if that. But I pray you will give it to my friend.”

'I pray you will give it to my friend.'

She looked behind her, and Aed realized abruptly she was speaking of her maid—who must not have been a maid after all. He finally gave the woman more than a passing glance as Maire coaxed her to come closer.

She was an older lady than Maire by far: her face was wrinkled and her cheeks sagged. She walked stooped over and shuffling her feet, and Aed could not fathom how a woman with such a whipped-​dog air could be a friend of Lord Colban’s jaunty, sword-​wearing, cavalry-​commanding wife.

Aed had a niggling fear that he was about to be asked to do something chivalrous—and chivalry of the tedious kind, which involved no fair damsels and no glory.

“My Lord Aed,” Maire said, “I’m not knowing whether the two of you have ever met. This is Muirgel of the Colins. Gaethine’s Mama.”

'Gaethine's Mama.'

Aed’s fear trickled away, leaving his mind blank with shock. The old woman murmured incomprehensible words and dipped down in a gesture that was more cringe than curtsey.

Shaken, Aed leaned over to lift her hand from her skirts.

“Welcome to Carn Liath,” he said softly. “God be with you.”

“We’re not too late, lord?” she quavered.

“No! Praise God, no.”

His heart thundered in his chest, but he cradled the woman’s hand between his hands like a tiny, fragile bird. Gaethine’s Mama. He looked into her face, into her dim eyes and the grooves in her cheeks that were like the traces of tears, trying to comprehend that this being had brought Gaethine into the world. And he tried to imagine the reaction of Gaethine, who hadn’t seen her in seven years. Was this something, at last, that might bring him joy?

Meanwhile the woman searched his own face—for what? For a hint of how her son fared?

“I—I beg your pardon,” he stuttered. “You must have ridden… a long way?”

He looked a question at Lady Maire. How was this even possible? Gaethine’s father hadn’t let him see his mother in seven years.

Maire lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. “I kidnapped her.”

Aed choked on a laugh, though he wasn’t entirely surprised.

“My lord and my eldest left for the Horse Fair in Latharn yesterday morn,” she explained. “My other eldest is gone home to Lothere, and I sent Lulach with him. With the men away, I made swith.” She dusted off her hands and gave Aed a sly smile. “I misdoubt Augustin still doesn’t know what hit him.”

'I misdoubt Augustin still doesn't know what hit him.'

Aed gathered enough of his wits to tease, “You hit him?”

Maire rocked back on her heels and crowed with laughter. “I wish I had! He deserved it, the old crawker! Nay, I only told him what I thought of him, and snuck Muirgel out of there while he was a-​nursing his wounded pride. I took her home with me last night, and brought her along here this morning. Now it’s up to you.”

She folded her hands and gave him a steady stare, letting Aed figure out just what she meant him to do. He realized he was being asked to do a chivalrous thing after all.

Well, so he would, and gladly. The last time he’d spoken to Gaethine’s father, he’d been sorely tempted to hit him himself. Congal denied it, but Aed had heard thirdhand that Congal actually had.

“Not everyone is as welcome here as you, lady.”

“I’m glad to know it,” Maire said, and then the slant of her broad mouth went from grave to wry. “For there’ll be the devil to pay when my lord learns what I’ve done. You might save me a small room with a bay view after all.”

'You might save me a small room with a bay view after all.'

Aed smiled. “Consider it done.”

“I only wonder whose reputation will be most compromised?” she said. “Ours for abiding in this den of iniquities, or yours for setting aside the iniquities to play host to a lot of exiled matrons!”

She laughed at her own joke, but there was such devilment in her eyes that Aed wondered whether the mountain ladies were drinking stiffer stuff than the water these days. And meanwhile the kitchen maids crowded around, gaping through the posts at the unaccustomed sight of a noblewoman in Aed’s yard—and a bareheaded, laughing one at that. Aed decided it was best to hurry the two women inside.

“Why don’t we go in out of the sun,” he said, “and I shall show you ladies to your rooms. You may refresh yourselves after your ride.”

Muirgel spoke up then—a timorous, quavering mumble that Aed couldn’t decipher.

Maire helpfully translated: “She would rather go straight to see Gaethine, if she could.”

Aed bit his lip. “Ach! Of course you would. I shall have refreshments brought to his room, if you like. Let’s go inside.”

Aed caught the eye of his steward coming through the gate, and with a nod ordered him to take care of Maire’s men and horses. Then he turned and walked the ladies to the door beneath the stares of the gathering crowd.

He turned and walked them to the door.

“How is he?” Lady Maire asked.

Aed hesitated, surprised that she would ask how Gaethine fared in front of his mother. But then it occurred to him that she might have been trying to prepare her.

“Poorly,” Aed answered. “You’re knowing that. But we have a good doctor for him. He knows the malady, and knows how to treat it.”

“The Saracen? Pho! Congal told us all about him.”

Aed snorted, imagining the sort of tales Congal must have told. After a moment’s thought he added, “You will find him altered, but… he cut off all his hair.”

Aed snorted.

Maire sighed. “Ach! All that lovely hair.”

Aed didn’t think they were really talking about his hair.

They found Gaethine sleeping, curled up atop his blankets like a toddler tuckered out in the middle of his play. His mother made a sobbing sound behind her hands.

His mother made a sobbing sound behind her hands.

Aed hurried. He wanted to be the one to wake him. He wanted that joy and gratitude, for an instant, to be his. But he was afraid to be gentle in front of the women, so he woke him more roughly than he would have liked, giving his shoulder a shake as he did for drunken Eochaids and Congals.

“Wake up, lazybones,” he whispered. “You’re having guests.”

Gaethine answered with a groan that was almost a growl.

Aed said, “Aye, but you have to get up, on account of their being ladies.”

Gaethine went rigid, and Aed was briefly amused, picturing the thoughts that must have been racing through his shorn head. He and Gaethine were on speaking terms again, but their peace was so fragile that this was the closest Aed had come to teasing him in a while.

He would have liked to draw out the moment a little longer, but Gaethine’s mother whimpered, “Don’t wake him…”

Gaethine’s head whipped around as far as his neck would let it. He glared up at Aed out of the corner of one golden eye.

“Who is it?” he hissed, obviously furious Aed had let them in.

“Only Lady Maire,” Aed said, surprised to find his voice tight. “And your lady mother.”

Gaethine’s eye widened. Then he flung himself over and sat up on his elbows. Aed stepped back.



His mother wailed. She reached for him, but she didn’t approach the bed. Did she fear his father’s interdiction even now?


Gaethine scooted back and sat up against the pillows so he could hold out his arms to her. His gaunt face softened into the least sardonic smile Aed had ever seen on him: beautiful, showing off his perfect teeth without making himself appear fanged.

“Now, Mother…” he soothed. “’Tisn’t as bad as it looks.”

Finally she shuffled the last few steps and sprawled over the side of the bed to embrace him. She was crying—sobbing even—but Gaethine appeared rapt with peace. His face wore its look of prayer, with his eyes closed and his smile dimmed to a flicker, but Aed could guess at his raw emotion by the way his fingers clutched and his arms clung.

Oh, Aed was mortally happy for him. The ache in his chest was for himself. Everything Aed found to make Gaethine’s last days more pleasant—new books, new pillows, new sleeping possets, a new doctor, and now his mother—only came between them. They would never be alone again, never have all the time in the world again, never again be bored together on a wintry night and sit up bickering because there was nothing better to do.

And still, if Aed thought of anything else that might occupy or amuse him, he would find a way to give him that, too.

Lady Maire’s hand settled between Aed’s shoulder blades, startling him into blinking back tears.

'’Tis an act of Christian charity we've done here.'

“’Tis an act of Christian charity we’ve done here,” she confided, “though Muirgel’s man and mine will be a-​roaring like the bulls of Bashan when they learn.”

She slipped her arm through Aed’s and turned him towards the door. Aed hastened to collect himself.

“The act is all yours, lady,” he said. “God bless you.”

They stopped for Aed to close the door, then stepped into the dim entry.

“You opened your home to him,” she said, “when his own father cast him out. I call that a Christian act.”

Aed shrugged and looked back at Gaethine’s door. There’d been unchristian acts, too, if only she knew. But that had never been what mattered.

“Anyway,” he said, “shall I have a room made ready for you? I hear you’ve done a lot of riding these past two days.”

She cocked her head and turned her face up to his. “Nay, if the weather holds I shall scamp off after dinner. I’ve left two eighteen-​year-​old girls in charge of my household. One eighteen-​year-​old I might trust with a household, but two…

She winked at him, doubtlessly aware that he was eighteen himself. Aed couldn’t help but smile.

She poked his breast with a fingertip and grinned girlishly with her broad mouth. “You might offer to show me around,” she wheedled. “I haven’t stopped here since they laid your father in the earth, God rest him.”

“Ach, aye.” Aed was momentarily flustered, for he recalled then that her sister had been married to his brother twenty years before, and she must have known the house well in the days before Aed had ever been thought of. Her own nephew should have been lord here now, and not he. Aed was reminded he was an interloper in his own home. He was never supposed to be.

“Shall we start with the kitchen?” he offered. “I hear kidnapping is thirsty work.”

She tittered and took his arm, sweeping him off towards the door. “Did Congal tell you that? He said much the same to me last we met.”

Aed laughed. “Don’t tell me Congal gave you the idea.”

“Nay, not quite, but ’twas he put me to mind. He was going home for Easter, to see his dear Mama. And he told me Gaethine hasn’t seen his Mama since he was a boy. And after that, I couldn’t stop grieving for him.”

They stepped out into the sunshine. The forecourt had emptied, though the shouts and laughter coming from the stables proved that the crowd had simply followed Lady Maire’s men.

“Was it truly all your doing?” Aed asked, a little awed. “I thought you scarcely knew Gaethine.”

“I’m a mother,” Maire said, as if that explained everything.

Aed snorted. “Are you thinking my mother would defy my stepfather to come see me, were I dying? Are you thinking she would defy a light drizzle, or a touch of wind that might muss her hair?”

Aed snorted.

Maire sighed. “Your mother would come, to be sure.”

“Out of duty.”

“Ach, dear heart.” She touched Aed’s arm. “’Tis a baby she was, herself, in those days. ’Twas her dolly she wanted, and not a baby boy. You may blame the father of you—”

They stepped through the open doorway to the kitchen, and Maire cut her sentence short.

“A fine ham-​a-​haddie this is!” she cried.

'A fine ham-a-haddie this is!'

Aed followed her outraged stare to the worktable, whereupon two cats were taking greedy bites out of a plucked chicken, jerking the dressed carcass between them.

“Heavenly day!” Maire gasped. “Who’s watching this kitchen?”

She clapped her hands over the chicken, scaring the cats into streaking away. Then she turned her fury onto the cook and the young maid who’d had the misfortune to remain in the kitchen—if not at their duties—when the others had fled.

Then she turned her fury onto the cook and the young maid.

She tore into them, unleashing a flood of condemnation jumbled with words whose meanings Aed could only guess at. By the broad accent she’d suddenly adopted, he supposed she’d learned how to scold a staff of servants by watching her red-​headed mother: Old Lord Donnchad’s barbarian wife from beyond the valley of the Nith.

The great lady rampaged through Aed’s kitchen. She threw off the lids of the flour bin and the pea barrel, inspected the slop pail, held up a towel to the light, tested the edge of a knife—ranting at the petrified women all the while. And just when the flood seemed to be subsiding, she turned back and saw a bucket of milk across the room—a bucket which had, most unfortunately, chosen this morning to spring a leak.

“Spilt milk!” she wailed. “As Heaven is my witness, it lacked only that! Spilt milk! I’m not knowing should I laugh or should I cry?”

“You—you mustn’t cry over spilt milk, lady,” Aed quavered.

Maire turned on him, her windblown hair flying. “That’s what you think! I wager your cook puts all her eggs in one basket, too!”

Aed burst out laughing. Surely Maire had meant it as a joke, but her mouth didn’t even twitch.

Aed burst out laughing.

“You may think it’s funny, young gentleman, but it’s a wonder you haven’t been poisoned! I’ve already invited myself to dinner, so I must see it through, but I’m warning you: I’m not having the chicken!”

“The fish, then?”

They looked at the table. Considering the distance between the two platters, it seemed likely the cats had been sitting on the fish.

“I shall send for more,” Aed offered. His voice was shaking again, but Maire’s softened.

“Ach, if you please,” she said. “I should like to taste fish fresh from the sea.”

Her wistful air touched him, and he was delighted to be able to offer her that. He turned to the cook and told her to send a lad down to the bay for more fish.

Maire recovered a bit of her fire and added a command for the maid: “And you, girl, clean up that milk! And stop your sniveling! You heard your lord. ’Tisn’t done!”

The cook fled, and the girl dragged out a dishrag and pouted all the way over to the bucket.

Maire sighed and shook her head, and all at once she looked tired, dusty, and sunburned, and not so dazzlingly alive as she’d seemed. Aed remembered why he’d brought her to the kitchen in the first place.

Maire sighed and shook her head.

“Our ale is still as good as you’re remembering, I daresay,” he told her, “and I can vouch for the cats not having been at it. May I pour you a cup?”

She gave him a weary smile. “The ale is being the one thing I would expect to be impeccable, in a household run by an eighteen-​year-​old lad and his bachelor friends.”

“They’re not all bachelors.”

“They are when they’re here.”

Aed blinked at her. Maire took pity and patted his arm.

“Bless you, I will have a cup.”

Maire padded off towards the fire, and Aed hurried to grab a cup for her. He prayed it had been washed.

“It is not good for man to be alone,” Maire sighed.

She settled onto a stool beside the fire.

Aed glanced back. She wasn’t looking at him and scarcely seemed to be speaking to him. She settled onto a stool beside the fire and straightened her robe out between her parted knees.

Aed looked back a second time while he was pouring the ale, and he saw her stooping over to stir the soup pot. The firelight brought out the rich bronze of her hair and her robe, and the womanly gravity of her face made her even more queenlike than she’d seemed while wearing her husband’s sword. Aed wanted to taste that soup.

He carried the cup to her and dragged a stool up to the fire for himself.

“So you think I should get married,” he said.

She seemed startled for an instant, but then she said lightly, “Ach! Sooner or later. A house isn’t a home without there’s a woman in it.”

She lifted a bit of vegetable in the spoon and studied it with a skeptical eye. Aed sensed her mind straying, and his queer, slight sense of panic made him realize he wanted to talk about this. With someone who wasn’t one of his friends. With a woman, mayhap. With Lord Colban’s lady.

“How about sooner?” he said.

Maire rapped the spoon against the rim of the pot and laid it aside before turning her skeptical stare onto him. “Is it a hurry you’re in? Your stepfather kept you on such a short leash, a body would think you’d be wanting to kick up a rare rigadown-​daisy now.”

Aed's mouth twitched.

Aed’s mouth twitched over the rigadown-​whatsit, but he answered gravely, “I have been, but I’m the last of my line.”

She looked him up and down, her lips pursed and her tongue working as if she were tasting a mouthful of soup for seasoning. Finally, ominous as an oracle, she pronounced, “It’s love you’re in.”

Aed snorted and rocked on his stool, flustered first by the accusation and then by the memory of a similar comment from Congal a few weeks before.

“And she’s being the sort for marrying?” Maire continued, cracking a smile. “You’ve impressed me, lad.”

'You've impressed me, lad.'

Aed scratched his leg.

“One of your cousins?” she asked, already sorting through the possibilities. “Not Cathal’s girl?”

“Nay, not a cousin,” Aed said. “Anyway, I haven’t picked a wife, quite.”

“Ach, haven’t you?” Maire smirked.

Her eyes were avid with a woman’s lust for gossip. Like a fox, she’d scented blood, and Aed began to regret he’d brought it up.

She wheedled, “’Tis a rare shade of red you were turning when I mentioned the word love…”

Aed blurted, “I’m thinking mayhap Lady Gwynn of Lothere.”

Maire sat back. “Lady Gwynn of Lothere!” she echoed. “Heavenly day! Alred’s daughter?”

'Lady Gwynn of Lothere!'

Aed looked up at her. “Are you knowing her?”

“Nay, I’ve never been to Lothere, but I’m knowing her father. Ach! And my lads are speaking admiringly of her. But isn’t she a child yet?”

“Fourteen in August.”

“Fourteen!” Maire slapped her knee. “Wasn’t I just telling you the mother of you was too young when she married?”

“My mother was twelve.”

“Twelve, fourteen! Pho!” Maire flicked her hands at the sky. “A child!”

Aed’s face was getting hot from more than the fire. “Lady Gwynn is not a child. She’s clever and accomplished. She can read and write, and knows geography, and knows what’s happening in the world.”

'Lady Gwynn is not a child.'

“And she’s pretty as a field of daisies all bedewed, I misdoubt.”

“Aye, that too,” Aed muttered.

He leaned over his lap and cracked his knuckles while he glared at the fire. He wished he hadn’t mentioned her. He feared Lady Maire would tell her lord.

But after a while he noticed Maire had stopped chortling, and he looked up to find her gazing at him with an unaccustomed softness.

“Have you asked for her, lad?”

Aed shook his head.

“Are you thinking the father of her will let her go to you?”

Aed shrugged. Maire’s face was beginning to seem pained.

Maire's face was beginning to seem pained.

“Soon, then, are you thinking?” she asked gently.

“A man can die any day.”

Maire’s broad mouth was mournful, and she blinked her wet eyes. Aed hastened to add, “I mean to make war this summer, if your lord hadn’t told you.”

“I know, lad, but…”

The maid hefted the leaky bucket to carry it out of doors, and they fell into an embarrassed silence while she tramped past. By the time she’d gone, Maire had changed tack.

“Would you bring a little lass of fourteen to your father’s home, lord? Far from her kin, to a dreary, drizzly land where nobody is speaking her language?”

“She does have the Gaelic,” Aed interrupted.

“She’s learning, Malcolm tells me,” Maire corrected. “She must have much yet to learn. About many things. She’ll make a better wife and mother in a few years.”

'She'll make a better wife and mother in a few years.'

The words wife and mother forced the air out of Aed’s lungs like a fist slowly pressing into his gut. He closed his eyes and retreated into his own imaginings of it: of that fair-​faced, dark-​haired little maiden beaming life and laughter and radiance into the darkest corners of his father’s house, as she had in Sigefrith’s gloomy dining hall.

She would sit at the high table and pour the ale, as his father’s gracious first wife had done. She would have rooms to herself upstairs, he thought. With her ladies. Aed would have to figure out where to procure ladies. She would sleep in his bed, after covering it with pretty new bedclothes. And after a few months of that, she would make Congal move so she could reclaim the nursery.

After much practice, Aed could almost see it.

After much practice, Aed could almost see it—almost, sometimes, imagine she was already there. But he rarely spotted himself in his imaginings. There was only a feckless shadow—only a ghost, perchance—following far off in the wake of Carn Liath’s dauntless new lady and her lusty infant son. And downstairs there remained a dark and empty room.

“Lord,” Maire said, speaking formally but with great gentleness.

Aed opened his eyes.

“Later, not sooner,” she said. “That is my advice. I’m thinking you shouldn’t be making any lifelong decisions at the present time.”

'Later, not sooner.'

Aed snorted and turned back to the fire. By now the soup was simmering. Bits of herbs and vegetables bubbled to the surface and sank back into the murky broth. Aed wished the woman hadn’t come to trouble his feigned peace. He wished he hadn’t said a word.

“Whoever told you,” he muttered, “that my life will be long?”

'Whoever told you?'