Ramsaa, Isle of Man

'Who put those houses there?'

Who put those houses there?” Egelric grumbled.

He could scarcely hear his own voice over the screeing gulls, the wind, and the waves, but to the Manxmen the sound of the sea was only another sort of silence.

Those?” Muirgius shouted. “The walls are older than the fort! The stone’s black inside — they’ve been set afire countless times!”

Funny!” Egelric shouted back at him. “They weren’t there this afternoon!”

What? Ach!” Muirgius clapped Egelric on the back and laughed broadly. “The fog!”

A fine wee mist it was!” Briccene trilled, skipping over a tuft of seagrass to thump with both feet together into the sand.

Egelric flashed his teeth left and right in a brief smile before wrapping his scarf back over his chin. “This is the first time I’ve seen to the end of my nose in three days!”

Have you thought of building a light at the end of it?” Briccene asked. “Ach! Holy Mother!”

He leapt straight up like a dancer and loped a few strides ahead, veering sharply seaward until he could see past a ruined shed at the edge of the sand.

'A ship!'

Muirgius!” he shouted back. “A ship in the harbor!”

A ship?” Muirgius cried.

A ship.

A ship.

And by God,” Briccene swore, “it wasn’t there this afternoon! Fog or no!”

Muirgius stalked after him, muttering blasphemies in mingled Gaelic and Norse. Brede stepped forward without hesitation, forcing Egelric to follow.

Looks like Bright Swan again!” Briccene announced as they caught up with him.

Muirgius made an entirely Gaelic sound that could have meant anything.

Briccene turned to Brede and shouted, “This time, it’s going to be your wife!”

'This time, it's going to be your wife!'

Brede asked, “Do you know who my wife is?

Brass-Dog’s sister!” Briccene laughed. “Holy Mother! Will you be introducing me?”

Come armed,” Brede muttered.

Suddenly he stopped and caught Egelric by the elbow.

Suddenly he stopped and caught Egelric by the elbow.

Damn!” he said in English. “Did I give your knife back to you, back there?”

Egelric was petrified. Muirgius padded a few more paces through the sand and stopped to look back.

Brede patted his belt and reached a hand into his tunic. “Damn it! I don’t remember giving it back to you, but I don’t remember leaving it behind either. Did you take it?”

'Did you take it?'

Egelric had no idea what Brede was talking about, but he was so uncertain of his own crumbling sanity that he feared he had simply forgotten.

I’m sorry, Egelric. I know your grandfather gave you that knife…”

Egelric’s fingers twitched reflexively, caressing the knobby stitches of the scabbard he wore on his belt, and curling behind it to lift the reassuring weight of the long iron blade inside. No matter how troubled he was in mind, Egelric knew he would never lend his grandfather’s knife out like a common tool for some other man to clean his fingernails or cut a length of twine.

Why don’t you check your boot?” Brede suggested.

'Why don't you check your boot?'

His boot — his other knife. Egelric bent down and slipped his thumb between the leather and his sock. It immediately bumped against the butt of the dagger he always carried tucked inside, just out of sight unless one stood very close and looked straight down.

Egelric looked up. Brede’s face was a mask of sheepish solicitude, but a flash of cunning sparkled over his blue eyes like sunlight on seawater: a stark reminder of how closely he was related to Sigefrith in blood. “The Subtle Sir Brede” Sigefrith called him. And Egelric’s orders were to follow Brede’s orders.

Egelric pushed, and the dagger in its glossy sheath slipped down, down, down along the bone of his ankle until his thumb could go no further.

I don’t have it.”

'I don't have it.'


It was Gog who gave me that knife, not my grandfather, but I’d still hate to lose it.”

Muirgius whistled at Briccene to call him back. He shouted at Egelric, “What’s the matter?”

Left my knife back there!”

Muirgius kicked a half-​buried shell out across the beach in a spray of sand, hinting at his impatience. “Valuable, was it?”

'Valuable, was it?'

Can it wait till tomorrow?” Brede asked Egelric. “I shall go in the morning.”

The Subtle Sir Brede was giving him a choice. A craven weakness quivered up Egelric’s legs, like the feeling of stepping off solid turf onto damp, frigid sand. He could feel himself sinking the longer he stood.

No, I’ll go back now.”

'No, I'll go back now.'

All right.” Brede sighed and looked regretfully up at the towers of the fort, where duty awaited him. “Sorry, Egelric. If I’m not needed and you’ve not returned, I’ll come help you look for it.”

Egelric supposed that was his order to await further orders. He tucked the flailing end of his scarf back over his shoulder and shrugged dismissively.

I’m going back for it!” he shouted aside at Muirgius.

Muirgius wrinkled his nose and looked first at the sea, then at the sky.

'Sure about that?'

Sure about that? It’s almost dark!”

Egelric looked at the sky. A flock of gulls unfurled and hovered overhead, their sharp bills pointed towards earth and their webbed feet dangling.

The twilight is long in this country!” he yelled. The birds rolled away like a wave retreating.

A mile long?” Muirgius laughed. “No — better hope it’s two, so you can make it back!”

Egelric flashed his teeth. “We’ll see!”

Muirgius slapped his shoulder in farewell. “With this wind you won’t have any fog!” he shouted as he sidled away. “But the tide’s coming in! Stay wide!”

Aye aye!”

Like an eager dog, Briccene skipped up at Muirgius’s first step, and he struck out at such a pace that the other two men were forced to hurry to keep up with him.

The other two men were forced to hurry to keep up with him.

A gust of wind brought the words “…your wife!” to Egelric’s ears. Then there was only the deafening silence of the surf, and the terrible solitude of a man left alone with the sea.

Egelric took a few faltering steps after them, like a miserable hound the hunt had left behind.

Egelric took a few faltering steps after them.

As soon as he stopped, the sand began compacting itself beneath his feet again, creaking and crumbling over the toes of his boots as the shelf on which he stood fractured and sank. Finally he turned and started back along his own sandy trail.

Finally he turned and started back along his own trail.

A mile up the shore he would go to await twilight’s end, returning to the watchtower that had stood empty since King Godred had taken the entire Isle in the grip of his white hand.

It was as an expert in fortifications that Egelric had supposedly been sent. He had never felt more like a fraud.

He had never felt more like a fraud.

These men were not the lords who had made him, and their criticism of him would be no criticism of themselves. They did not know from what peasant stock he had sprung, nor care how far he had come. They would simply judge him as he was: a semi-​literate, self-​trained bully of stone-​workers and heavy laborers, who had never built so much as a shed that had been forced to withstand a siege.

And in his gabbling Gaelic he presumed to tell these men how to strengthen their island fort — these men for whom wars and raids came almost as a seasonal occurrence, as the storms of summer had come to the farmer Egelric had once been.

A lone gull followed Egelric as he walked, riding the surges of the wind with only the occasional flap of its broad wings, its head turned into the current to gaze at him out of one black eye. Egelric ignored it for a while, but finally, glimpsing something dark and massive in the sand, he stooped to pick it up and hurl at it the bird. Too late he saw it was a husk of crab, putrid with rotting meat, and he flung it up, scarcely taking aim.

Unbalanced by its missing legs, the crab spun wildly and fell far short of its mark, but the gull shrieked and hurtled crosswind out over the surf. Egelric wiped his hand on his kilt and hurried on.

He hated the shore.

He hated the shore. It was an eternal banquet of carrion and stinking seaweed, renewed with every tide. There was no peace for the dead here — no quiet covering-​over of dirt, no slow return to the soil. The dead sprawled obscenely over the sand, and the sand maggots and sand flies toiled in full view of the sky.

The gulls were worse than rats at this feast: their favorite delicacy was eyes, Muirgius said, and they did not always wait until the beast was dead to harvest them. They even plucked the eyes of dying men.

The lone gull soon returned to hover in the wind.

The lone gull soon returned to hover in the wind above Egelric’s head, silent as an owl in spite of the screeing of its brothers far down the beach. It turned its head this way and that, as if reckoning whether its pointed beak were long enough to spear through Egelric’s eye and crack into his skull.

Begone!” he shouted, flapping his arms. The wind whipped his loose scarf around his shoulders, and his teeth crunched his own hair. The gull simply rose with the gust and dipped a wing to sink back to the same height.

The bird’s belly was still faintly pink, but the clouds were violet, and the sand was darkening to cinders. Against the sky, however, the black silhouette of the tower loomed, and the old watch-​keepers’ huts hulked out of the sand, battered to a premature ruin by the winds of the sea. Egelric would tell Muirgius the twilight in his country was just over one mile long.

The sky the black silhouette of the tower loomed.

He decided he would build a fire in the tower straightaway. If gulls were anything like rats he would be left in peace. And he thought he might as well make himself at home: Muirgius had predicted a storm blowing up from the south, and he doubted Bright Swan would be able to set sail first thing in the morning this time around. Egelric would put his knowledge of fortifications to the test at last. For the next few days he might well be under siege.

For the next few days he might well be under siege.

The first thing he would need was water. The cistern was fouled with gull droppings, but he could empty it tonight, and tomorrow it would begin to fill with rain. For now he would fill everything watertight with water from the creek that threaded through clefts in the sandy shore just beyond the tower.

Out of habit, Egelric set forth on a wide detour around the ruined huts, but a few paces later he recalled that there were no snakes on the island. Chuckling at himself, he turned and headed straight across the dune that was slowly submerging the highest dwelling.

He glanced aside as he passed, peering through weathered beams and hunched dark humps of grass to what he believed a sparkling glimpse of the sea. Had he known the water’s twilight colors as Muirgius did, he would have known it instead for the sky reflected in the eyes of hunkered men. They were so close they must even have seen his smile.

They burst out of the ruins in a hiss of breath and shaken grass and a sparkling spray of sand. Egelric threw up his arms reflexively, no more or less than for a covey of startled pheasants, but unlike fleeing birds the black masses all hurtled towards him.

The black masses all hurtled towards his body.

The first blow to his stomach knocked his breath out of him in a grunt. Another struck his lifted arms; another slammed into his side. A crushing hand caught his arm and swung him about and held him still.

For an instant his mind hovered like a gull in the sweep of time, wings outspread, uncomprehending. His gaze danced over an almost-​familiar face, trying to reassemble features fractured as if in rippling water by smears of black and blue.

His gaze danced over an almost-familiar face.

Diarmait! Recognition came as relief.

Then Diarmait’s fist slammed into his face, shattering his nose into a scintillating spray of pain. He turned his face blindly into a second blow that smashed into his jaw and cracked his teeth against his teeth. The hands that held him flung him into another pair of arms, and a third fist glanced upwards across his cheekbone and slammed against the arch of his brow.

A third first smashed upwards across his cheekbone.

Egelric’s panicked thoughts flapped and screed and scattered like a flock of gulls, but his body already knew he was fighting for his life. He kicked with his boots and struck out sideways with his elbow, blindly seeking other bodies, while his hand groped over his waist for his grandfather’s knife. The scabbard! The blessed knobby stitching! The reassuring weight!

His fingers scrabbled through the bulky wool of his sweater, but another man’s hand slid up his hip and beneath the sweater, and grasped the hilt of the knife from below. Egelric felt the bulge of the fist through the knitted fabric, and then the hand jerked up, whipping the knife out of its scabbard and slicing a stripe up his flank with the edge of the blade. Egelric howled and doubled over to protect his belly even before he felt the searing pain of the wound.

His enemy ripped the knife free from the tangle of his sweater, and as he drew it back, the tip slashed open Egelric’s lowered face from the corner of his lip to the bridge of his nose. It felt as if his entire cheek had been shorn away.

It felt as if his entire cheek had been shorn away.

Egelric reacted blindly, mindlessly, like a beast kicking in the jaws of a predator — squinting up his bloody face to protect his eyes, bucking his body, yanking his arms left and right against the arms that held him. Even without thought, even without a sense of passing time, the beast in him knew it had only seconds to live.

And then he heard a human word — “Brother!”

The arms that held him shifted, someone grabbed a handful of his hair at the back of his skull, and his head was tipped back to bare his neck to the blade of a knife. At once his throat filled with blood, and he choked and spluttered, uncertain whether his windpipe had not already been severed. After an immeasurable space of time he began to realize that he was being slaughtered by his own knife… by his own grandfather’s knife… by the very knife that had severed his tie to his mother’s body…

He began to realize that he was being slaughtered by his own knife.

Let him look at me!” a voice shouted.

He thought of his grandfather, of what his grandfather had said on the day of his birth. “Let me look at him!” old Duncan had boomed. He remembered it with startling clarity now. Now that he was dying he remembered being born.

Look at me, you bastard!”

'Look at me, you bastard!'

The voice was shrill as a baby’s cry. He was being shaken. He was upside down.

Fucking look at me!”

A hand slapped his slashed cheek, and Egelric spluttered and opened his eyes.

Egelric spluttered and opened his eyes.

The face was inhuman, half black and half blue, half earth and half sky — but Egelric knew the startling smoky amber of those eyes. He had looked into those eyes and laughed until tears had streamed from his own. He had once looked into those eyes and known himself doomed. Hope leapt up in his heart like a miserable hound — and died.

Aye, that’s better,” the man chuckled.

Egelric began to hear the sea again, and to feel the cold wind upon his face, and other things besides pain. He began to remember where he was, who he was. He found the name of the other. It was Comgeall.

Hold him.”

The men took the knife away from Egelric’s throat and pushed him upright.

Comgeall slipped a short club out of his belt and held it high, revealing the leather thongs of a scourge. He lifted his other hand behind his head and slid it down the cords, making the dangling ends swish, and then quiver, and finally snap together in his fist with a last clack of the metal hooks at their tips.

He lifted his other hand and slid it down the length of the cords behind his head.

Behold the man who will not strike a woman!” Comgeall sneered.

The sandy soil crumbled beneath Egelric’s feet, threatening to drop him to planes below. His legs were melting. His bowels too.

Comgeall opened his fist, and the thongs swung harmlessly back to brush his upraised arm.

'On your knees, bitch.'

On your knees, bitch.”

The men dragged and shoved Egelric towards the ruins of the hut. The only fight he made was a frantic, staggering attempt to stay upright. If he went down, he would never stand again.

The men dragged and shoved Egelric towards the ruins of the hut.

Comgeall followed, crooning, “Or isn’t that what you said to my sister?”

Someone — Diarmait — kicked Egelric in the backs of the knees, and his legs crumpled beneath him. Blood splattered off his face with the impact and showered the sand. He had gone down.

Someone--Diarmait--kicked Egelric in the backs of the knees.

His grandfather’s knife tore through the back of his sweater. A hand ripped his bloody scarf from his neck. The knife sawed through his ribbed collar. Rough hands pushed his sleeves down his arms and yanked the knitted fabric away, leaving him naked to the waist.

He was left naked to the waist.

As soon as his arm slipped free, he patted over his bleeding side and along the ground, so drunk with pain that he could scarcely conceive of the location of his limbs. Finally his fingers scrabbled over his heel and ankle, but his boot seemed to go on for a mile or more, longer than the twilight. At last he found the cuff of his sock — but his thumb groped in vain for the butt of his dagger. He had stuffed it too deep inside.

A hand on the back of his head bent him over a beam that jutted at a steep angle from the sand, hoary with gull droppings and blown sand. Now that he had something solid beneath his face he saw how he was dripping blood, drooling blood, dribbling blood. His eyes ran with tears.

A hand on the back of his head bent him over a beam.

As soon as the hand was lifted, he tried to sit up, but the hand was replaced by a boot that crushed his forehead against the filthy wood.

Stay put,” the voice warned — the voice of Cathal, dark and pitiless as the voice of a god. “That post is about to become your best friend.”

Cathal stepped back. Diarmait stepped back. Egelric’s sense of hearing was suddenly supernatural — he heard the roar of the sea as if it were rushing up just beneath his nose. He heard gulls shrieking far down the beach. He did not hear Comgeall. There was no silence so profound as the silence of the predator to the ears of prey.

There was no silence so profound as the silence of the predator to the ears of prey.

Then he heard a hiss and a crack and his own howl. The burst of agony jolted his body straight, and he fell flat against the post. He gripped it like a lover, though he had forgotten there was such a thing as love.

Another crack like lightning, and he writhed, groaning through his teeth. Another and another and another, shoulders and spine and kidneys. The post was soon slippery with his blood, his sweat, and the slime they made of the bird shit.

The post was soon slippery with his blood.

Another crack, and Diarmait swore, “Jesus!”

There was no longer any relief from the pain between the strokes, and still Egelric’s every muscle jerked with each lash, exhausting him like an unholy labor.

Another crack.

Jesus, brother, that’s enough!” Diarmait bleated.

Comgeall cried, “Let him beg for mercy, as he made our sister do!”

Egelric obediently gibbered, but he was only raving, mad with pain. The only word he understood was the English “Father… Father…” Now that he was dying he had remembered how to pray.

Another crack. Egelric no longer jerked but only quivered. Another. Comgeall’s grunts were louder than Egelric’s by now.

That’s enough!” Diarmait shouted. “Jesus Christ! You’re getting blood on me over here!”

'That's enough!'

I want to hear him beg!”

I said that’s enough!”

Egelric heard Diarmait’s feet padding through the grass. A boot sole settled on his shoulder and bore down. Egelric’s arms opened, and he flopped over onto the sand, twitching like a headless fowl.

'On this island, I decide.'

You decide?” Comgeall snarled.

On this island, I decide!”

Egelric lifted his head. His face was a pasty mess of blood and sand and bird shit. He did not bother opening his eyes. He heaved the weight of his torso up onto his elbows. Wounds on his back gaped open like mouths, drinking agony out of the air.

You’re master of no farther than you can spit, you little turd!”

'You're master of no farther than you can spit, you little turd!'

Egelric pushed, and he flopped forward onto his face again, having dragged his legs perhaps ten inches up the beach. He had a mile to go before nightfall. His swollen lips hung slack, dribbling spit and blood as he wheezed around the swelling of his fractured nose.

On this island, I decide!”

She’s my sister!” Comgeall howled. “My baby sister!”

Egelric pulled and pushed and wriggled himself another forearm’s-length away, forced to drag his wounded belly across the grass by sheer agonized inability to arch his back. He could not fathom how he would ever get so much as his knees beneath him.

And I said that’s enough! You’re fucking killing him!”

'And I said that's enough!'

You think we came all this way to give him a fucking spanking?”

Comgeall’s boots scuffed in the grass, and Egelric felt the sound down into his bones like the crunch of a pointed beak. He was prey, and he was exposed.

Comgeall's boots scuffed in the grass.

Ach ho!” Comgeall cried, his voice dark and gloating. “Where do we think we’re going?”

Diarmait warned, “Brother!”

Comgeall flung the scourge into the weeds and dropped to his knees behind Egelric. He grabbed his belt and yanked.

Comgeall flung the scourge into the weeds and dropped to his knees behind Egelric.

It was not enough to lift Egelric’s hips off the ground, but Egelric struggled in renewed panic and managed to pull his knees up beneath him on his own.

Comgeall curled an arm around Egelric’s waist and leaned over his back. “Where do you think you’re going, you bleeding bastard?” he murmured.

With his head so close to the ground and the ruined hut between his ears and the sea, Comgeall’s crooning was the loudest sound in the world.

We’re not done here yet.”

'We're not done here yet.'

Comgeall slapped his other hand on the side of Egelric’s knee and slid it up his bare leg beneath his kilt. The first time he might only have been looking for hidden weapons or hidden wounds, but the second time he curled his hand caressingly around the muscle of Egelric’s thigh, smoothing the flesh ahead of it as he slid it up as far as Egelric’s belt from the inside, flipping up the hem of his kilt.

Egelric sobbed and blubbered, spewing a stew of blood and tears, sweat, spit, and snot from his mutilated face. He did not remember love, but his body understood the relations of beast with beast.

Brother!” Diarmait wailed. “What are you doing?”

What did you do to my sister?” Comgeall whispered.

Cathal! Call it off!”


The hand passed between their bodies and slid up the back of Egelric’s other leg, rumpling the heavy wool ahead of it. Egelric’s forehead crashed into the sand. His slashed skin splayed open across his arched back, and new trickles of blood tickled his flanks.

Jesus Christ!” Diarmait whinnied. “What are you doing to him?”

Comgeall lifted his head and howled, “Using him as he used our sister!”

The devil you are! Get off of him!”

Egelric groaned and tried to flatten himself against the earth, but his forehead and shoulder were planted at a firm angle in the sand. He would have to dig himself a trench with his head.

He would have to dig himself a trench with his head.

Comgeall shook and struggled as Diarmait yanked at him, jerking Egelric’s head to the side until he bore half his weight on his broken nose. Fresh pain sparked out into the orbits of his eyes and pierced his skull, blinding him, deafening him, rendering him half senseless. He bore down, trying to make himself pass out.

Then he heard another crack, and his body jerked reflexively, but it was Comgeall who roared. He reared up, flopping Egelric flat onto the sand and relieving the pressure on his nose.

'You little fucker!'

You little fucker!” Comgeall shrieked.

That’s enough!” Cathal shouted.

Come here, Diarmait! You little jackass! I’ll teach you how to swing a whip!”

That’s enough!” Cathal thundered. “I decide!”

'That's enough!'

The silence of the sea: a low, constant roar that was the chorus of countless waves simultaneously swelling up, breaking, racing across the sand, and slipping back into the sea again. Egelric turned his ear towards the sound and listened, as he imagined the Lord might sometimes press His ear to the earth and listen to the low roar of humanity: the din of countless living souls, simultaneously acting out every stage in the life of a man.

Egelric turned his ear towards the sound and listened.

Somewhere on earth, he told himself, a baby was being born. Somewhere another was taking its first steps. Somewhere children were laughing, crying, playing. Somewhere a family was sitting down to supper, while another was going to bed hungry. Somewhere a young couple was making love for the first time, and somewhere — perhaps not far — an old couple was falling asleep holding hands. Somewhere on earth, he knew, a man lay dying alone.

Let’s get out of here!” Cathal ordered. “They’ll be coming for him before long!”

'Let's get out of here!'

A gull flew shrieking up the beach towards Ramsaa, each cry coming quieter than the last. Weeds and stems of grass shook around the hesitant boots of the men, scattering grains of sand that had been kicked up into their seed heads and the curling throats of their dead leaves.

Suddenly a pair of boots crunched and thumped away, followed by two others, racing along the flanks of the dunes at full stride.

They raced along the flank of the dunes at full stride.

Within seconds the sound had been submerged by the sigh of the wind and the sea, and Egelric was abandoned again to his terrible solitude.

He lolled his head to the side until it lay on the throbbing pillow of his slashed cheek. When the gulls returned to the watchtower to roost, they would spy the man sprawled obscenely on the sand, naked and bloody to the waist, his kilt bunched up around his hips. Egelric dragged one hand up to his face, and with shaking fingers pulled damp locks of hair down across his bruised eyes like bandages, imagining that he might hide them from the brutal birds at least until he died.

He might hide them from the brutal birds at least until he had died.

Forgetting his earlier lesson, he opened one of them wide enough to shine out of the shadows, reflecting the sky. Bled dry, the clouds were black as streaks of soot, the sky as blue as woad. Through his hair he could just glimpse the true color of the twilit sea: the turbid violet of venous blood. Soon it too would be dark.

Twilight in this country was scarcely more than a mile long, he would tell Muirgius, but there was nothing beyond. There was only night.

There was only night.