Sadb and Uallach face their fears

April 14, 1086
Ráth an Bheirt Bhan, Leinster, Ireland

Uallach had never seen a spring like a sunny April day in Ireland.

Uallach had never seen a spring like a sunny April day in Ireland. Crocuses and buttercups grew in such wax-​petaled profusion that people trod them carelessly underfoot. The clouds in the bright blue sky were fluffy and harmless-​looking as lambs, while the little lambs themselves—and they dotted every hill slope, as numerous as the flowers—were white and fresh as the clouds. Uallach pictured their mamas licking them clean like mother cats.

Mostly, though, Uallach had never seen so much green in her life. Her homeland was gray and sere all the year, with prickly gorse and pale heather providing most of the color. In Galloway, the rare patches of emerald green hid sucking pits of mud that could swallow a cow or even a man within minutes.

Here, in Ireland, Uallach was a little afraid to walk on the grass.

But Murchad's house looked homey and lived-in.

But Murchad’s house looked homey and lived-​in and altogether touchable. It was nestled so snugly into the hilltop that the flowery weeds brushed the thatched roof, and even grew up into it and continued climbing. But the earth had been scooped away before the front doors, reminding Uallach of the entrance to a large animal’s den: a cozy burrow beneath a towering pile of thatch.

The high-​ceilinged castle at Dublin had been damp, drafty and dreary, and she’d felt like a prisoner inside. Murchad’s flower-​covered house looked like a place of refuge. The way he spoke of it, merely dwelling within its walls would restore Uallach’s health. She was glad she and Sadb would be living here. It was a pity Sadb wasn’t.

She was glad she and Sadb would be living here.

There was only one thing in the house that Uallach dreaded, and all the way from Dublin, she’d tried convincing herself that the Fates would keep it away from her for a critical few hours. Murchad would be returning to Dublin after dinner. He was bound to take it with him. Her luck didn’t have to last very long.

But as they climbed the path and the doors began to swing open, the first thing she saw was the very thing she feared.

It was Murchad’s dog Cucu, whining and scrabbling at the crack until the doors were parted wide enough for him to burst through. Once outside, he hurled himself at his master, lolling his tongue, rolling his eyes, and wagging his tail with all his might. He flung himself around with such force that he tossed up bits of turf with his hind claws.

Once outside, he hurled himself at Murchad.

Murchad laughed with delight and scratched and smacked his dog.

Meanwhile Uallach’s shaking body flooded with fear. She fisted her hands at her sides and filled her lungs with air, and once it was in she held it, clinging to a desperate new hope that the thing Cucu detected was something on a woman’s breath. If she could just go without breathing for the next few minutes!

Oh, it was the worst possible time! Everyone was there: Sadb, the priest, her brother, two women who must have been Synne and her sister, a few little boys, several maids and men, even Morrann! Synne hadn’t been told about Cucu’s secret power, but had Father Gilla Mochutu? Had Morrann? On how many faces would Uallach read shock and condemnation when her shame was revealed?

On how many faces would Uallach read shock and condemnation when her shame was revealed?

Murchad laughed, oblivious to her distress, and Cucu romped at his feet. The ladies giggled and chattered, and a little auburn-​haired boy ran around gabbling in a foreign language. There were too many people exclaiming at once for Uallach to follow any one person’s words.

Her eyes began to water and her lungs began to ache. If she fainted, might people assume that Cucu was barking at her in alarm? That, she decided, was her new plan.

Suddenly Sadb seized her skirts in her fists, lifted her hems, and marched up the path after Murchad. Her step was brisk and her chin high, and it was plain she was headed right at the woman with the auburn braid: Earl Eirik’s wife Sigrid, certainly, for she was dressed like a Norsewoman and great with child.

Uallach’s head began to swim, and she watched in a daze. The shrinking speck of her consciousness was far removed from the drama that was about to get underway. Could she will herself to have a fit? Embarrassing as it would be, no one would think it odd if a dog barked at her then.

Sadb stomped unheeded to the top of the hill, but she didn’t make it past Cucu. The dog saw her coming, slid to a stop, and swung himself around to lunge at her, barking like a wild thing. Uallach couldn’t help it: she gulped for air.

She didn't make it past Cucu.

A surge of consciousness lit her mind, and she asked herself miserably why she hadn’t thought to stick close to Sadb. Everyone would have thought the dog was barking at Sadb. Now she was standing alone, with no one near but… Morrann.

She turned her head and immediately caught his eye, so startling herself that she gasped for breath.

He stooped down to her level and asked, “Are you fearing dogs, then?” He was speaking softly, but his head was near enough to hers that she could hear him over Cucu’s barking and Murchad’s scolds.

Uallach blinked. What could she say? Morrann might have seen her surrounded by her father’s pack of dogs.

She took another breath and ventured, “Strange ones…”

'Strange ones...'

“Mmm. You needn’t be fearing Cucu, lady. He’s all bark and no bite. He isn’t liking women overmuch, though.”

Uallach sucked her lip and gasped to keep from crying, forgetting she wasn’t supposed to breathe. Hadn’t Morrann noticed Cucu had a particular dislike for women who were in the family way? Or was he too much a gentleman to admit as much to a maiden?

All this time Murchad’s commands had gone unheeded, but the barking was silenced the instant Sigrid shouted, “Cucu! Quiet!”

Uallach cringed. Morrann grunted and said dryly, “Sigrid is half bark and half bite.”

Cucu stopped barking and wagged his tail, but he laid back his ears and whined. Sadb ventured to pat his head, and this excited him so much he began forming barks with his mouth even while he whined in his throat.

The weird, warbly sounds he made resembled human speech in some gibberish language, and everyone but Uallach laughed. Morrann laughed beside her, and he pressed her arm with the back of his hand as if to bid her listen. Even Sadb and Sigrid laughed over Cucu’s head without meeting one another’s eyes. For Uallach alone, the tension did not ease.

Murchad swung his little dark-​haired son up into the air—the nephew Uallach had so looked forward to meeting—and Synne came forward to greet Sadb. But Uallach stayed rooted halfway up the hill. All her concentration went to keeping an eye on Cucu and praying Sigrid’s scolding would stick.

Morrann startled her awake by patting her arm. “Go on, now,” he coaxed. “He’s meaning no harm, and he doesn’t jump on folk and put his paws on them. I’ll say that much for Cucu’s manners.”

Uallach shook her head, but it didn’t matter. Cucu perked up when he heard his name, and he trotted around Sadb and down the hill.

Uallach panicked and drew herself up tight as a wick, trying to make herself small while standing upright. She wished she could lift both feet off the ground. If she fainted, would Morrann pick her up again and carry her? Was he tall enough to keep her out of range of Cucu?

Morrann put out a warning hand between her and the approaching dog. “Easy, boy…”

Cucu ignored him, and he trotted right up to Uallach’s feet and snuffled in her skirts, lazily waving his curled-​up, feathery tail.

Uallach scrunched up her face and waited for the barks. Even another episode of doggy gibberish might tip off her brother.

“Now, now,” Morrann soothed, “he’s just wanting to get acquainted.”

He stooped stiffly to scratch the dog’s neck, and Cucu turned to him to lick his hand and snuffle up his pant leg, still wagging his tail.

“Good boy, good dog,” Morrann said in the same soft tone he’d taken for Uallach.

Uallach felt a tug and realized she was clinging to Morrann’s arm—clinging with both hands, and possibly her nails. She gasped and let go.

Cucu made a slobbery snort and scampered off to snuffle Father Gilla Mochutu. Uallach couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t made a sound.

Morrann smiled down at her and said, “There now! He’s no longer a strange dog. And he’s taken a liking to you, too. He never barked.”

She echoed, “He never barked…”

'He never barked...'

She could scarcely believe it. Had the lesson of Sigrid’s scolding endured? Was Cucu not as infallible as Murchad believed? Or was she…? Was it possible she was not…?

She noticed Morrann rubbing his arm, and she glanced up at him, abashed. Traces of a smile lingered on his mouth, softening his customary dire expression, and his eyes were like a brightly colored trap just waiting for hers to stray from the path and stumble in. They stared at one another for perhaps no more than five seconds, but it felt like a long time to stay face-​to-​face with a man without saying any words.

Then Murchad called, “Uallach! What is it? Are you feeling unwell?”

Morrann stood up and looked as if he was about to explain. Uallach couldn’t allow it: Murchad would never believe a daughter of Lord Aed was afraid of dogs. He might even guess why Cucu had inspired such fear.

She spun around and said, smiling shakily, “Aye, but it’s passing!”

She climbed the hill without looking back, and Murchad’s pretty wife came out to meet her.

Murchad's pretty wife came out to meet her.

“Uallach! How tall you’ve grown! And how lovely!”

She glanced back at Murchad. Uallach couldn’t see the look she gave him, but Murchad looked sheepish, as if he ought to have done something about that.

Murchad looked sheepish.

Then Synne hugged her. Synne had a very comfortable sort of hug: not a prim embrace like Uallach’s mother’s, nor a breath-​crushing squeeze such as her brothers gave. It was just right: soft, close, and clean-​scented. Synne could probably help ill girls get better simply by giving them hugs.

“Are you remembering me?” Synne asked wistfully after letting her go.

'Are you remembering me?'

Uallach said, “Of course I am! Yours was the first wedding I was ever allowed to dance at.”

“I remember! I even remember your dress! It was such a pretty color, with your eyes. And so is this.” She fingered the edge of Uallach’s scarf.

“You ought to wear blue,” Synne’s sister said. “Black does not become you.”

'You ought to wear blue.'

That was Uallach’s introduction to Sigrid.

“Unless you like it,” Synne soothed. She turned to Sigrid and said, “Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than feeling beautiful.”

Sigrid sighed and rubbed the sides of her belly. “In that case I must look hideous.”

She was certainly unwieldy. And her mouth was grim, and her eyebrows bristly and thick as a man’s.

Her features were full and womanly.

But her features were full and womanly, her skin glowed, and her hair was such a glossy, rich chestnut that Uallach could scarcely believe it was real. She was a Norsewoman, but she looked like a part of the lush landscape of Ireland.

“I think you’re beautiful,” Uallach said.

Sigrid looked up at her, surprised. That was Sigrid’s introduction to Uallach.

“Sigi,” Synne said, “this is Murchad’s sister, Uallach, and Diarmait’s widow, Sadb.”

Murchad said, “Ach! That’s being my job,” and he hurried around to join them, but Synne silenced him with one soft but well-​timed, “Hush!”

Sigrid and Sadb finally faced one other eye-​to-​eye. Sigrid did her best to look unimpressed, and Sadb lifted her chin high and did her best to look defiant. Uallach squeezed Sadb’s wrist, reminding her of her promise.

Synne said, “Girls, this is my big sister, Sigrid. And that’s her little boy, Harald, but everyone calls him Pinknose.”

'Girls, this is my big sister, Sigrid.'

Nobody looked at poor Harald Pinknose, for everyone was watching Sadb and Sigrid, and Sadb and Sigrid had eyes only for each other.

“My condolences,” Sigrid said to her, though she didn’t sound sympathetic. “When are you expecting your baby?”

“So you heard about that,” Sadb choked.

'So you heard about that.'

Then Uallach understood just how difficult this meeting was for Sadb, and how she too must have dreaded what she would meet in this house. Uallach was ashamed of her own self-​absorbed fear of Cucu, which was all the more ridiculous considering her condition would be visible to all in only a month or two.

Sadb had come all this way, uncomplaining, knowing she would have to face every day the alluring, fruitful, unwidowed reminder of the man who had murdered her baby’s father.

“Ja,” Sigrid said. “We heard.”

Sigrid looked at Sadb’s waist, and Sadb clasped her hands protectively in front of it. “He should arrive in the autumn, with God’s grace,” she said in a breathless gust.

“Your first?”

'Your first?'

Sadb nodded.

“Have you ever seen a baby born?”

Sadb didn’t answer, but that seemed to be answer enough for Sigrid. She folded her hands upon the ledge of her pregnant belly and said, “Then you shall attend the birth of mine.”

Sadb sucked in her breath and looked to Murchad, asking with her eyes whether she had to submit to this outrage.

Sadb sucked in her breath and looked to Murchad.

Murchad was at a loss, but Synne said pleasantly, “That’s a good idea. I wouldn’t let any woman go through it without having seen it once.”

“You’ll be convinced you’re dying no matter what,” Sigrid said. “But at least you’ll have seen it’s possible to fit a baby’s head through there.”

Morrann made a harsh cough. Sigrid lifted her nose and blinked lazily at him.

Uallach turned back to take a peek, just in time to see Morrann jerk his head towards her maidenly person, warning Sigrid of her maidenly ears. Their eyes met, and Uallach hurriedly turned her head, but not before seeing his freckled face turn an alarming pink.

“What now, Morrann?” Sigrid drawled, facing him down over Uallach’s shoulder. It seemed her grim mouth was capable of a smile after all, though it made her eyes look tired. “No harm in teaching the girls how to get them out. You just concern your big bad self with not teaching the poor things how to get them in.”

It seemed her grim mouth was capable of a smile after all.

Murchad squawked, “Sigi!”

His horrified face sent Uallach into giggles. Synne laughed, and Sadb snortled in spite of herself.

“So, welcome to Two Ladies,” Sigrid said, turning back to Uallach and Sadb. “We’ve heard strange tales saying this Murchad is king in Dublin, but hereabouts, the women rule. I expect you’ll like it here.”

'Hereabouts, the women rule.'