The sky was still as dark as iron.

Overhead the sky was still as dark as iron. Aelfden had spent enough sleepless nights to know that another good hour would pass before the dawn.

The moment they stepped through the door, however, elves and maids and nightgown-​​clad ladies came galloping in from every part of the house. This, though Flann and Osh had assured him that they had all been unwakeable, and the demon was supposed to have said none would wake before sunrise.

Aelfden’s suspicions were growing harder and heavier, sickening him like sour milk curdling in his stomach. He had been tricked.

Elves and maids and nightgown-clad ladies came galloping in from every part of the house.

“Sister!” Catan gasped. “We feared – ” But her ancestral superstitions prevented her even from speaking her fear aloud.

Aelfden thought they had not been far wrong, however. Flann had at last contrived to dispose of the rest of her life, after failing to throw it into the river, failing to throw it at the King’s steward, failing to throw it at Sebastien – who was perhaps no more than a disagreeable young man after all.

Aelfden began to feel a pitying, proprietary affection for the boy, and he was angry to have heard him so maligned – angrier still to have believed it. How often had Sebastien taken the Blessed Sacrament from his own hand, after all? How often had Aelfden surprised him praying humbly in the chapel, though his pride had always demanded he find an unlikely excuse for being there?

Now Aelfden could admit even a secret fondness for their arguments: those exasperating private suppers which could not end until Sebastien had been allowed the last word; and all the mornings Sebastien had come running across the cloister to floor the Abbot with some further argument he had dreamt up during the night – not infernal, but only schoolboyishly clever.

Sebastien was no demon, and surely Cian was no more than a minor scoundrel who had, at least, married the victim of his rape – no worse than the late Duchess’s celebrated father, in fact. Perhaps Sebastien himself had been the one to convince his friend to do the honorable thing, though his pride forbade him to admit it.

Thus Aelfden had disappointed a devout Christian in his prideful eagerness to create a new. However baseless and misguided his love for Flann might have been, Sebastien had been tricked, too.


“Sister!” Flann echoed weakly. “It’s a married woman I am!”

Her voice trembled with her fear that her happy news would not be well received, but Aelfden knew she had nothing to fear from her elder sister, at least.

“Married!” Catan gasped. “You sly devil! Giving us all such a fright! And you, Osh! Fie! Eloping with my sister!” But she laughed merrily as if it were a fine joke.

'You sly devil!'

For weeks Catan had been pressing for this marriage as the solution to all of her sister’s problems. She had gone so far as to beg Aelfden to suggest it to the girl. Perhaps she even had something to do with Osh’s recent and sudden interest in the Christian faith. Aelfden had been tricked.

No – he had not been tricked. He had been weak. He had been frightened. He had been vain.

Then a little voice spoke up at his left side, reminding him like a mournful conscience that Flann was not all. “But where is Eithne this morn?”

'But where is Eithne this morn?'

Aelfden turned automatically to Condal, as he always turned whenever a timid, mournful voice asked for help within his hearing – but at once a terrible suspicion rolled over him, prickling his skin from shoulders to fingers.

If Eithne had truly disappeared, then that much of Flann’s story was true – and if that much was true, then how much more?

If that much was true, then how much more?

Immediately afterwards a second suspicion rolled back on him like a stinging tide: perhaps Eithne had simply surprised Flann and Osh in their flight, and they had silenced her in some way–

But the sight of Flann’s tired face and hollow eyes smote his heart as it always did. He had already thought the worst of Sebastien. He would not allow himself such sinister suspicions of Flann.

The sight of Flann's tired face and hollow eyes smote his heart as it always did.

Condal waited, but Flann and her husband and family were too busy exclaiming and being exclaimed over; no one had heeded Condal’s little voice but he.

“Father, have you seen my sister this night?” she asked, still more softly and more pitifully, though her Gaelic made her words seem an inescapable prophecy.

Aelfden longed to cross himself, but he found he could not even bring his fingers together; the skin on the back of his arm was tight and crawling with gooseflesh, drawing his shaking fingers back into claws. He had come too far – he had done too much – and he could not stop to rest now.

“Dear Condal,” he murmured as he led her into the other room, “that is why I am here. I…”

He led her into the other room.

It was only Paul’s bright front hall, but the air was stifling with the horror of holy places profaned. Something nightmarish drooped dark and heavy overhead like a thickly matted canopy of rotting cloth, and Aelfden’s scalp shivered at the touch of its dangling rags and tatters.

After a moment Condal prompted, “Why?” and he remembered there was nothing but the paneled ceiling above him.

“It seems… your sister’s husband came to take her to him this night,” he whispered. “This… Cian…”

'This... Cian...'

Condal said nothing. Aelfden thought that if she was wondering what that had to do with Flann’s marriage, then she would be silent for a while.

However, she soon bent her head and asked, “Was Sebastien with him?”

Aelfden heard himself gasp, “No! No!”

Strangely, Condal and Lasrua looked not at him but each other.

“Why do you ask?” he croaked, though by now his mouth was as dry and muffled as if stuffed with wool.

'Why do you ask?'

“I think he’s loving my sister Flann,” Condal murmured. When he did not reply she added, “I thought the two of them might have come together to take my two sisters away, but Osh saved my sister Flann.” She looked at the floor and whispered, “But no one can be saving my Eithne now.”

“Why do you say that?” Aelfden pleaded. “What do you know about it?”

“Because he did marry her before God, and no man may be putting them asunder.”

Her eyes were green-​​gray and gloomy as deep pools, weirdly old and wise on her sweet little face, and with her mournful Gaelic she seemed a seer. Aelfden tried to cross himself again, but his entire arm was rigid and locked into a crook.

“What do you know about this Cian?” he whispered.

“Nothing.” Condal turned her face out of the shadows and her eyes went pale and clear. “She was telling me how he loved to smell her hair, and the pretty names he was calling her, and a little how it was to be held close and loved by a man, and she smiled to tell. But not even the name of his clan was she telling.”

'But not even the name of his clan was she telling.'

“I want to see,” Aelfden said hoarsely.

“See what?”

“Her room – her affairs.” His teeth chattered as he spoke, but to him they were silent; he seemed to have wool stuffed between them, and wool cramming his ears.

“Are you unwell, Father?” Condal whimpered.

“I am – unwell – ” he gasped. “But I must see – we may find who he is…”

“Come with me.”

'Come with me.'

Condal took his arm, and at once his elbow relaxed into the curve of her palm. His feet grew lighter as she led him away.

“My sister Catan already did try to learn,” she sighed. As they stepped onto the stairs she announced to her sisters: “I’m taking the good Father up to see into Eithne’s things.”

The last sound Aelfden heard from below was Catan’s wail: “But where is she? We thought she was with you!”

Then silence closed over his head as if by climbing he had poked it up into the wool-​​stuffed belly of the nightmare.

'I knew she would be gone when I woke.'

“I knew she would be gone when I woke,” Condal said, mournfully hopeless as one who is accustomed to dreaming terrible truths. “I told Rua. I had a dream.”

“I believe we have already spoken about these dreams,” Aelfden grumbled, but then he waited, hoping in spite of himself that she would say more.

Condal released his arm and took a step down the hallway. “I dreamt she was riding a black horse away, away,” she said dreamily. “And a rope around her neck was she wearing. And the farther she rode, the tighter it drew.” She stopped walking, and she added with the carelessness of a child snapping a blossom from a stem: “Until her head popped off.”


Aelfden barked, “Condal!”

Then he heard her choke and sniffle.

“It is only a dream, Condal,” he scolded. “We all have nightmares, particularly– particularly – ”

He stopped and tried to lay a hand on the railing, but he could not straighten his arm. His body was stiffening again as if his skin were a hard shell, and he could only breathe like a bellows. He could only speak by forcing out the words.

'It is only a dream, Condal.'

“Particularly when we are worried about someone we love,” he panted. “The last time you dreamt a terrible dream of your sister, she was safe and snug here all the while. You’re only ever remembering the dreams that ‘come true,’ I’m noticing.”

“Will she be safe and snug with him, are you thinking?” she asked meekly.

“I am certain her Cian is only a… thoughtless… man…”

'I am certain her Cian is only a... thoughtless... man...'

He heard too late the elastic squeaking and popping as she opened the door: not wool but silk – not cloth but webs.

“Condal! No!”

Condal stepped through them as if they were not there – were they not? – but when she spun about to see why he had shouted, they shook in the breeze of her gown.



He staggered after her, but his own feet snagged in the webs. He seemed to see through a haze, but it was only the room’s cloak of webs – or rather a single web formed out of countless smaller webs, from clumpy cobwebs up to the broad, zig-​​zagged webs of the cricket-​​catchers.

He staggered after her, but his own feet snagged in the webs.

Dense, sticky sheets of silk plastered themselves over his face and mouth and robes, and his struggles shook the web, chasing hordes of spiders into the shadows. There were the mother spiders clutching the precious sacs of eggs; the baby spiders with their gleaming round bellies like pearls; the adults and the young adults, the big and the small, the scurrying and the leaping, all fanning out from his body until he was surrounded only by the empty, wax-​​white molted husks with their prayerfully folded legs.

He screamed at first.

He screamed at first, and Condal screamed in terror of his terror, but his breath and his voice were stilled by the first obscene shudderings beneath the bedclothes.

Osh and Paul were on their way, but it was too late – the sheets fell back from the inquisitive forelegs, and then the entire bloated body was born, so impossibly enormous that the beast did not even move with the dancing grace of its kind, but heaved itself up the headboard, leg by leg, and looked back at Aelfden with six eyes that were as large as men’s eyes and shone with an infernal intelligence.

It heaved itself up the headboard, leg by leg.

In spite of the unholy monster before them – in spite of the swarms of skittering legs and clinging webs surrounding them – no one paid attention to anything but Aelfden himself.

They cried, “Father! Father!” until he began howling with them, “Father! Father! Father!”

'Father!  Father!  Father!'