Sadb tells a little something

March 28, 1086
Glenncáenna, Galloway, Scotland

Murchad tried to hide his shock at his first sight of his sister.

Murchad tried to hide his shock at his first sight of his sister, but it did not feel like he succeeded. How thin she had grown, even since the wedding!

“Welcome home, brother,” Uallach said. She too was trying to compose her face and failed.

Her lips quivered into the pout of uncomplaining misery.

Oh, but how she had changed from the baby sister that still inhabited his memories of home! Her mouth was full and soft as a toddler’s, but her jaw was thin and delicate, and her dimpled cheeks had sunk away to reveal the hollows of her skull. O God, he could not take another death. Lathir had not yet been one year in her tomb.

Murchad realized he was staring at her when she pressed her hand over her mouth to hide her grimace of sorrow.

They were not close, as he and Lathir had been. Uallach had been but eight years old when he’d gone to live in Lothere, still in the nursery, and here she was a young lady—and Murchad always felt so awkward around young ladies—but he folded her into his arms to let her know that it was safe to cry with him.

He held her gingerly at first, but when her thin arms tightened around him with surprising strength, he gave her a little squeeze. But he could feel every knob of her spine through her dress.

He could feel every knob of her spine through her dress.

“It’s glad I am to be home,” he said to her. “I only wish it could be for a happy occasion.”

“Ach, I too!” she sniffled. “Right now I can scarcely believe we’ll ever have one again.”

“Sure and certain you will,” he soothed, rubbing her bony shoulders. “I’ve been telling Synne how I figured the next time I’d go home, it would be for the wedding of you, little sister.”

He kissed her hair before releasing her.

“Will you come home to see me wed?” she asked.

Her eyes were wet, but her face kindled with the ephemeral beauty of young maidens who are reminded of their future as young brides. Murchad did love to look at girls her age, as he loved looking at the deer who strayed near the manor in the mists of early morning. It was just that he never knew what to do or say with them when something had to be said or done.

“For sure and for certain! I’ll be coming early to decide is the man being worthy of you.”

The black-​veiled young widow at the window finally turned her head far enough for Murchad to glimpse the profile of a freckled nose.

Uallach saw where he was looking. “You’re remembering Sadb?” she asked softly.

“Aye. Mama sent me to fetch you gir—you ladies to the hall. She’s having chairs brought around the fire. It’s quite a tale I’m having to tell.”

Uallach laid a hand on his sleeve, but she aimed him at the window, not the door.

“Aye,” she said, “but will you bide a minute with Sadb? She’s having a little something to tell you, too.” She added in a whisper, “A happy something.”

'A happy something.'

Murchad did not need Cucu to diagnose the dreamy symptoms of a young maiden contemplating the mysteries of motherhood. He did not even need Uallach’s hints and smiles to know what Sadb had to tell. The Archbishop and, later, Lord Lulach had told him the story everyone else already knew: how Sadb of Mull had defied his father on behalf of her unborn child.

But he knew this was a solemn moment in their lives, so he would pretend to hear for the first time.

Uallach patted him between his shoulder blades, gently urging him forth, and then she walked towards the door. Murchad would have to face this solemn moment and this unhappy young lady alone. Even more than it had for his father, Murchad’s heart began to pound.

Murchad would have to face this solemn moment and this unhappy young lady alone.

Diarmait’s widow. He had scarcely gotten used to the idea that Diarmait had a wife.

“God be with you, sister.”

Sadb twisted her her fingers and gave him a watery smile. “You—you look nothing like him,” she stuttered.

'You--you look nothing like him.'

Murchad stopped and smiled back. So she was nervous too.

“Diarmait always was the handsome brother,” he said.

“I wasn’t meaning it like that…”

“Ach, no, I’m not vain. I never minded. Except when I was beginning to fancy Synne and she never looked at me. I wished I had my brother’s face then. But as soon as her cousin pointed me out to her, she decided she liked what she saw, so I needn’t have worried. I’m a good, dependable, obedient husband, and Synn’s a practical lass, so—”

'I wasn't meaning it like that.'

By God, he was babbling. It was more than he’d said to Sadb in the twenty-​four hours he’d known her the first time, before the wedding party had left the new couple to get acquainted at Three Winds.

Tongue-​tied and flushing, Murchad balled up his fists and looked down, only to spy Sadb’s hands clenched in front of her stomach.

Diarmait’s child.

Murchad’s breath came fast, and he looked right and left and anywhere but at Sadb’s waist. And of course that told her just where his thoughts were gathered.

She said, “I’m thinking you’ve guessed the little something your sister was speaking of.”

Murchad nodded gratefully, and considered that permission had been granted to peek at her stomach. His hand darted towards it, out of a habit learned with Synne and even Sigrid, who was fiercely proud of every little kick that proved her baby still lived.

He stopped it just in time.

He stopped it just in time. He scarcely knew Sadb, and he did not go pawing at strange young ladies. But even as he was telling himself this, his thwarted hand darted out again. And this time Sadb caught his wrist between her hands and pulled his fist tight against her belly.

Diarmait’s child, Diarmait’s child, Diarmait’s child. Murchad knew this moment would not last, and he concentrated on it as hard as he could. Diarmait’s child was in there. A few inches beneath his knuckles a tiny piece of Diarmait was still alive. Surely something of Diarmait would survive through generations of children: Murchad would hear that soft voice again, see that lithe way of walking, or look into those eyes.

O God, perhaps this was harder. His grief flooded over, and tears ran down into his beard.

“What would he have wanted to name him?” Sadb asked. He could hear tears in her stuffy voice, too. “Uallach says you would know better than anyone.”

Murchad shook his head. “We never talked about that.” He looked up, wet face to wet, and managed a slight smile. “Not like you girls do. But all we brothers and sisters are naming our first sons and daughters Aed and Orlaith or Aileann. Only Cathal didn’t, and Lathir, and they were naming them for the other grandfathers. And Cathal made good with his next son.”

'But are you thinking Diarmait would have liked to name his son Aed?'

“But are you thinking Diarmait would have liked to name his son Aed?”

Murchad wiped his tears with his free hand and thought about it. Diarmait and their father had never been affectionate, often been at odds. Diarmait’s scheming consisted of avoiding their father’s notice, not sneaking into his bed.

“Cu Mara then?” Murchad asked.

“What about Murchad?”

Murchad jumped, thoughtlessly pulling his hand away from her belly. “Ach, no, lass!” he pleaded, mortified by the honor.

'Ach, no, lass!'

He already knew of at least a dozen infant Murchads in the vicinity of Two Ladies, and that was excruciating enough to his instinct of self-​effacement. But his dead brother’s son… He feared the name of Murchad would collapse beneath the weight.

“If you’ll not name him for a grandfather,” he said, grasping for alternatives, “then why not call him Diarmait?”

Sadb hesitated. “Are you thinking I could?”

She bit her lip to hide its quivering, and Murchad did not believe she was asking permission. Like seeing Diarmait’s eyes again, it might be hard to go on speaking his name. Or perhaps it was just what they needed.

“It’s for you to decide, darling,” he said gently, “and you’ve time to think it over. Choose the name that will be sweetest in your mouth. For if he’s being anything like his father as a lad,” Murchad added, suddenly inspired, “you’ll be shouting it night and day.”

Sadb broke into a broad smile before the pain of it made her turn away. She swished past Murchad, into the nook between the dressing table and the bed, where Diarmait’s oiled sword now hung. Murchad almost touched her stomach as she went by, but settled for touching her sleeve.

“You aren’t feeling him dancing about in there yet, are you?” he asked.

Sadb shook her head.

“He was a fine dancer, was Diarmait.”

'He was a fine dancer, was Diarmait.'

Was there dancing in Heaven? Murchad wondered. Riding or hunting? There were swords in Heaven, at least. The Bible said there were angels wielding swords of flame.

Murchad reached past Sadb to touch the hilt of Diarmait’s sword, tracing the cross formed where the guard met the blade. Diarmait would have signed on with God’s army, he decided. With his fiery sword in his hand he would protect his earthly family from harm.

Sadb watched Murchad’s gesture, then turned to him with a question in her eyes.

Murchad’s hand went out to her belly again, and this time he let it go. He traced a Cross over the snug-​fitting waist of her gown and pronounced a prayer, as he did for the little babies his tenants brought for him to bless—with one slight addition.

“May God bless you, child,” he said. “I put you under the protection of Mary and her Son. May Brigid wrap you in her cloak, Patrick hold you in his bosom, and Columba cover you with his shield. And may the father of you, and all God’s host of angels, defend you from Satan and his works. I ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. Amen.”

Sadb lipped an “Amen” and then brought a dainty little handkerchief up to wipe the tears from her face. But she was almost smiling behind it.

“Thank you,” she sniffled. “I’ve been prayed over so many times since…” She fluttered her handkerchief, then balled it up in her plump hand. “But I never felt it till now.”

She sucked her bottom lip and scrutinized Murchad’s face. Murchad held her gaze, but he felt his cheeks flushing as far as his ears.

Murchad held her gaze, but he felt his cheeks flushing as far as his ears.

“When you were a lad,” she said, “were you ever thinking of becoming a priest?”

Murchad chuckled and ducked his head. “Aye, I did at that. But I loved the things of this earth too much to make a go of it. Pretty girls, good food, drinking and mirth-​making. Racing my horses and wrestling with my cousins. And loving my woman, and holding my own babies on my knee. The French priests were having all that before the late Pope made them stop,” Murchad admitted, looking back up at her. “But—this isn’t France.” He realized he was babbling again and broke into a foolish grin.

“No, it isn’t France!” she tittered. “But I never guessed you were leading such an exciting life.”

'I never guessed you were leading such an exciting life.'

“I’m only shy, lass!” Murchad protested. “I’m not boring!

She laughed and laughed, and Murchad finally felt at ease enough to join her. Her nervous giggles had made him nervous, but this, at last, was the Sadb he remembered, in spite of what Comgeall had said. He’d liked her laugh from the day he met her. It was not as pretty as Synne’s, but its candor brought Synne’s so much to mind. In truth, Murchad had never thought Sadb a giddy girl.

“But being a lord is a bit like being a priest, I’m thinking,” he said when their laughter had faded into sighs. “I’m responsible for the people of my parish, too. They come to me when they’re frightened or troubled, ask me for advice. They invite me to their weddings and christenings and funerals. And they’re behaving themselves,” he intoned, lowering a stern stare on her, “whenever they know I’m watching.”

He winked at her. Sadb smiled weakly, but she stepped out the nook and kept her head bowed as she went by, studying her swishing hems.

“And they’re looking to me to set the example,” Murchad continued, growing serious again. “A dishonest lord mustn’t be surprised if he leads dishonest men. And most of all, just as a priest lives as an example of the life of Christ, in self-​sacrifice and love, I never forget the example I set on earth. I make justice. I defend the innocent. I have the power of life and death. If I want my people to love and trust the Lord of us all, I must not teach them that a lord is someone capricious and cruel.”

Sadb hung her head like a guilty child, and with a deepening horror Murchad thought back over all he had just said and realized it might be taken as a condemnation of Diarmait.

Sadb hung her head.

“But I didn’t figure that out for myself,” Murchad hastened to add. “That’s just what my priest was explaining to me when I became a lord. I tried telling him I didn’t know how to be a lord, but Father Gilla Mochutu said that was no excuse, and sat me down and explained it all to me. And I think on it often.”

“The priest of Ramsaa,” Sadb said bitterly, “is a stuttering fool. A squeaking mouse in a house full of hawks, saying whatever he has to so as not to get eaten.”

Murchad stroked his hand down her sleeve. “Father Gilla Mochutu is a treasure. He is here, and I hope you will talk to him. He can explain many things better than I. And when he prays, one feels it, every time.”

Sadb only shrugged. Murchad wished he had not been so talkative. When was he ever talkative?

He offered his arm to Sadb. “Shall we go to the hall? I can introduce him to you.”

Sadb looked up, suddenly alert and even a little panicked. “Ach, no! Not yet!” she whispered. “The something I was wanting to tell you… It wasn’t what Uallach guessed.”

'It wasn't what Uallach guessed.'

Murchad gasped, “It wasn’t? You mean—you’re not—”

“Ach, no, I am,” she said, laying her hands over her waist. “I mean, I was wanting to tell you that, too. But I was wanting a private conversation with you to talk about your sister.”

“My sister?”



Sadb made a little frown of impatience. He was being very stupid again.

He attempted to compose himself and asked, “What about Uallach?”

Sadb folded her hands. “How are you finding her?”

“Ah… thin. Is she being ill?”

“She is, and she isn’t.”

This time it was Murchad who frowned. Sadb swished over to the tall chest and picked up a hairbrush to twirl between her hands.

Her back to Murchad, she said, “For one thing, she’s scarcely eating enough to keep a bird alive. She won’t eat meat.”

'Is she fasting?'

“Is she fasting?”

“Worse than that. She can’t eat it, and when she does, she can’t keep it down. She—”

Sadb took a sudden breath and turned back to the dressing table. The hairbrush clicked softly onto the wood, and her hands fluttered from feminine knickknack to knickknack, straightening and turning.

“My lady your mother,” she continued shakily, “made them open the coffin. With Diarmait in it, three days dead, and his flesh laid open. Uallach didn’t see him, but she says she… smelled him.”

Sadb finished in a squeak and pressed one hand over her mouth. The other arm she wrapped around her waist, and Murchad focused his gaze on the white fingertips peeking around her side. He tried to think of nothing but Sadb’s hand.

He tried to think of nothing but Sadb's hand.

But in the night, he knew, whether he lay awake or whether he dreamed, his mind would conjure up all the horror of a maiden forced to smell her own dead brother.

“And of course she cannot tell your mother the truth of that,” Sadb blurted. She picked up a goblet and took a shaky sip. “So your mother thinks she’s trying to make a spectacle of herself by not eating, and when she gets her alone, if Uallach won’t eat, she grabs her by the hair and crams food down her throat. And when Uallach is sick afterwards, your mother makes her get down on her knees and clean it up.”

'And when Uallach is sick afterwards, your mother makes her get down on her knees and clean it up.'

Murchad croaked, “Darling, please—”

Sadb spun around to face him, cradling the goblet between her trembling hands. “No! I want you to hear everything. If she has to live it, you can at least listen to it, who are her brother.”

Murchad grimaced. “There’s more?”

“Aye, there’s more! She’s having fits, are you knowing that?”

'Aye, there's more!'

Murchad was relieved. That, at least, was something he already knew. “I know, sister, I’ve heard.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

“Not Uallach’s, but I’ve a friend who throws fits now and then. I know it looks terrifying…”

Sadb waved an impatient hand to silence him. “Ach, the fits aren’t the worst of it! If I can only get her to a safe place before she’s fitting, and then tuck her into bed after, with none the wiser, it isn’t so bad. But your mother thinks she’s pretending, for the attention, or so she can laze about in bed!”

“I shall talk to my mother…”

“You must do more than talk!” Sadb waved both hands, sloshing water over the rim of her goblet. “You must stand between Uallach and your mother next time she’s fitting, or she’ll carry her off to have her bled or leeched. Every time, Murchad! Every time! Three, or four, or five times a week! The doctor is trying to tell her it’s enough, it’s too much, they need to try something else, but your mother wants her bled.”

“I shall talk to my father…”

“No, you must take her with you when you go!”

Murchad was speechless. He had not thought of that.

Murchad was speechless.

“She needs a man protecting her. A brother. For she needs protecting from men! Think of the danger to her here! A pretty young girl who sometimes swoons in mid-​conversation, wherever she happens to be, and with whomever. And when she’s waking, isn’t remembering anything of the last hour? Think of what can happen to her in this court, surrounded by all these men!”

Murchad shook his head. He did not want to think of it. He could push off the thought for now, but he knew it would return, later, tonight, in his bed—lying awake or lost in nightmares.

“Has she—has anyone already—” he stuttered.

Sadb winced, but her reply was unfaltering, almost a growl: “How would we even know?”

'How would we even know?'

Murchad breathed, “O God…”

“Can you keep her safe at your home, you and your wife? And your famous priest? Uallach says you’re one of the gentlest men she knows. So prove it to her. She needs rest and quiet. She needs to sleep as much as she can stand. She needs good food to tempt her appetite. Fish fresh from the sea. Fresh cream. Egg custards. She needs gentleness and affection, above all. She’s never even had a kitten of her own.”

“I—I must consult with my dog about the kitten,” Murchad said, making a feeble joke—holding up a single candle against the vastness of a starless night.

'I--I must consult with my dog about the kitten.'

“Then consult with your dog,” Sadb said. She was not laughing. Now she reminded him less of Synne than of Sigrid. He could very well imagine this stout little woman standing up to his father in his hall.

“I must consult with my father, too,” Murchad said gravely. “Uallach’s fate isn’t being mine to decide, even if she is my sister.”

“Then consult with your father,” Sadb said, relentless. “But be prepared to disobey him if he’s refusing. Or ’twill not be for Uallach’s wedding, when next you’re coming home.”

'Then consult with your father.'