'There goes another one.'

“There goes another one,” Finn said as a kilted man jogged past.

Eadred only grunted, but he seemed to pick up the pace. Indeed, he had said very little and walked very quickly ever since they had returned to the fort. This was doubly strange, for Eadred was ordinarily a man who preferred to lollygag and gabble.

“I think they are going somewhere instead of running away from somewhere,” Finn said.


“I mean, running to something instead of running away from something. Don’t you think?” Finn asked innocently.

Surely this was a question Eadred could answer. For over ten years it had been the very nature of his profession.

“Looks that way,” Eadred muttered.

'Don't you think?'

The silhouette of the keep flashed against the sky as they passed between two houses. A distant cry of surprise dropped off into the soft whistling of the wind through thatch. If anything, the fort was quieter than it ought to have been at this hour, and the silence only intensified as they neared the tower. Finn began to fear.

“Do you think something happened?”

Eadred did not answer at all. With his flapping kilt he seemed almost to have broken into a jog. He carried his left arm crossed over his stomach, ready to draw his sword.

By now they were near enough to the keep that its roof reared over every house. The air was thick with smoke and the odor of stew, but Finn could not hear the chatter and the shouts of the women who stirred the pots. He heard only the occasional rumble of male voices, quiet not because they were far-​​off but because they were spoken low.

Almost imperceptibly Eadred had put himself in the lead, ducking into dark alleys too narrow for two, putting out a steadying arm that doubled as a fence to hold Finn back. Finn could never see farther ahead than the corner of the nearest house.

Then the fog of Eadred’s panting breath flared orange with the glow of a fire Finn could not quite see. Eadred’s arm shot straight out across Finn’s path and he whispered, “Finn!”

Finn had been expecting something like this. He plunged beneath the arm, touching the dirt with his hand before springing up again. But he resurfaced gasping and spluttering, shocked and stiff-​​limbed.

He resurfaced gasping and spluttering, shocked and stiff-limbed.

Not until that instant of recognition had he realized how intimately he knew the forms of his father’s body. They must have been graven in the very bedrock of his consciousness, like the gosling’s first glimpse of the creature it will ever after call its mother, from the moment it tumbles out of its shell.

Even from nothing more than a firelit curve of heavy arm and thick waist he recognized it. Even hunched over and reeling, even hanging by one arm from Muirgius’s shoulder he knew it.

But his mind did not know what to make of the mess of his father’s back. The broad shoulders were crisscrossed with grooves and ridges deep enough to cast shadows. Where his father’s warm brown skin had been, Finn saw colors that did not belong on the outside of a man: glistening red and crackling black, pearly yellow stripes, raw pink.

Eadred’s hand fell on Finn’s shoulder, but Finn squirmed out from under it and bounded away. Eadred called out, “Finn!” and ran after him, but Finn darted and feinted between the rousing men like a hare evading capture.

Then Finn’s father moaned, “No!” and flapped his dangling arm. Finn stopped short beside the fire. Eadred jogged to a halt behind him. The men began to stir.

Finn stopped short beside the fire.

His father moaned again and slipped his arm from around Muirgius to stagger face-​​first into Brede’s stomach. His knees buckled beneath him. Brede and another man moved to catch him before he fell.

Eadred laid his hand on the pommel of his sword and marched between the muttering men to put himself between Finn and his father.

“Finn…” he said softly. His freckled forehead rumpled itself into sad lines.

Muirgius turned with an angry huff, but when he recognized Finn, his face too softened and wrinkled into a look of sorrow.

His face too softened and wrinkled into a look of sorrow.

Finn could not understand what everyone was so mournful about. His horror was already melting into anger, and he knew its quickening drip drip drip would soon explode into a torrent.

“I’m sorry, Finn…” Muirgius said.

With one arm over Brede’s shoulder and the other over another man, Finn’s father disappeared behind the corner of the keep, staggering, sagging, dragged forward for one step out of every three.

“Let me see my father!”

“Finn, Finn,” Eadred murmured as he herded Finn away, “he doesn’t want you to see him like this.”

“Let me by!”

Finn raised his fists together like a hammer and tried to batter his way past Eadred’s arm, but for over ten years the very nature of the Captain’s profession had been preventing people from going where he did not want them to go. Finn struggled with him at first, but he was only losing ground, and Eadred’s soothing repetition of his name drove him all the more wild.

Finally he broke free and did the only thing Eadred could not prevent him from doing: he tore off in the opposite direction.

He tore off in the opposite direction.

“Oh, Finn!” Eadred groaned. “Don’t go far!”

Finn had no idea where he was going. He only wanted to run and run and run until he collapsed somewhere, retching. He wanted to wreak havoc with his body, leaping onto rooftops, kicking over wagons, tearing down walls.

But when he rounded the corner and saw the stairs to the keep unguarded – for their guard was occupied taking in the spectacle of Finn’s father – he knew at once where he wanted to go.

He bounded up the stairs three by three.

He bounded up the stairs three by three in huge, tendon-​​straining leaps. The clomps of his boots were spaced like the tread of a weary man dragging himself along, but he advanced like a giant, putting leagues behind him with every bound. He would find Diarmait. He would make Diarmait produce his brothers; he would make Diarmait bring them to justice. They had gone too far.

He would make Diarmait bring them to justice.

Finn yanked open the door and stormed inside. He saw at once where many of the women had gone – the hall swarmed with servants and housewives, gossiping together in clumps of four and five. Finn’s arrival abruptly hushed their chatter, and they all turned to him with a rustle of their brightly colored Manx skirts and shawls. Dozens of glittering feminine eyes were on him, but Finn felt as untouchable as a god.

“Where’s Diarmait?” he growled.

They all looked at one another, murmuring together as if putting the question to a vote.

“Where is Diarmait, for the love of Macaille?” he demanded, testing Muirgius’s favored exclamation.

One old matron made an ominous Gaelic reply that Finn did not understand, but he understood the finger she pointed at the door to his right. He pulled it open and stomped through, leaving both doors swinging behind him.

In the steeply plunging stairway he could not take several steps in one stride, but he skittered down with an ominous tap-​​tap-​​tap like a melting slab of ice about to give way with a crash. He hurled his body at the door, knocking it open almost before he had lifted the latch.

And then–

There were only three men inside.

The great hall was almost dark, and there were only three men inside. Their faces were blurs, blotted out. Finn staggered to a stop, imagining he had taken a wrong turn, that he had ended up in a forgotten corner of the Isle that was unto this day inhabited by shades.

Two of the phantoms appeared as startled as he, but the third…

The third was Diarmait.

“You!” Finn shrieked.

The third was Diarmait.

Diarmait licked his lips and swallowed.

His face was only sloppily streaked with blue and black, but it was painted too. Finn’s understanding soared higher than a bird on a billowing wind, giving him a godlike view of the events of the afternoon. The longer he considered the landscape, the more perfect and more profane his vision grew.

“You! You liar! You traitor! You–drókhlóí! Kénédísh!

Diarmait carefully sat his mug on the hearth, stood, and turned to Finn, but he did not say a word. Whatever expression he might have worn, his face was an incomprehensible blur of soot and paint.

Diarmait stood and turned to him.

“You knew my father was not at Sky Hill! You did not send us to warn him! You sent us away to prevent us to warn him!”

He heard a bang, followed immediately by a softer clack. One of the men had hopped down from the dais onto the table.

One of the men had hopped down from the dais.

At last Finn made the effort to identify which of the brothers was which. Their blacked-​​out faces were less human than the plaster masks of mummers, but he knew Comgeall was the smaller, leaner one, and in any event it was not like Cathal to prance.

“No warning was your father needing, laddie,” Comgeall said. “He knew we were coming for him. I saw it in his eyes.”

'I saw it in his eyes.'

Finn’s scalp prickled, and his throat convulsed, nearly retching. His previous godlike vision suddenly seemed a child’s scribble, now that Comgeall had peeled back the film from the real scene.

These were not men with painted faces – they were monsters who had ripped away their human masks. These monsters had looked his father in the eyes while they tortured him.

Finn's scalp prickled.

“A man cannot escape his fate, wherever he flies,” Comgeall said, strolling forward with a scuff and a clack of his boot. “Let it be your father’s last lesson to you.”

Cathal pounded his fists on the table, one on either side of his mug. His bellow strained the limits of Finn’s Gaelic, but he understood: “Get that child out of here!”

Finn felt himself spiraling down from the godlike heights of clouds he had trodden only moments before. He was not a giant, but a boy. These were not men, but animals. He did not know what he could do here. He did not even know how to leave, except by running away in tears.

But as he plummeted, one detail rushed up to meet his eyes: another form he knew down into his bones, for it was the very blade that had severed his tie of blood to his mother’s body.

“That is my father’s knife!”

'That is my father's knife!'

Comgeall grunted in surprise and looked behind him to the knife that lay at his heel.

He turned back to Finn and smiled. “You want it?” He sauntered another half-​​step across the table top, flouncing the pleats of his kilt around his knees like Lady Gwynn swishing her hems.

Suddenly he exploded into masculine rage and kicked the pitcher across the room.

“Come and get it!” he howled.

The pitcher flew wild, as a vessel full of sloshing liquid must, and shattered against the sideboard. Still, Finn was not certain Comgeall had intended to miss his head.

Diarmait shouted, “Brother!” and Cathal – who had been most drenched by the spray of ale – swung his legs over the bench and leapt up with a bearlike roar.

Finn’s chin was shivering, and his hand trembled, tracing ciphers in the air, but he shouted clearly, “Give me that knife!”

'Give me that knife!'

Comgeall cracked his foot down and shrieked, “Fucking come and get it!”

Finn could not see how he could: one of the brothers stood on either side of the table, and the third stood atop it, his boot heel only inches away from the hilt of the knife – ready to stomp upon any pilfering hand. But nor could Finn leave without it. If he had that knife he could walk out without tears, his head high.

Finn leapt onto the bench in a graceful bound. “Give me that knife!”

'Give me that knife!'

“Brother,” Diarmait pleaded, “he’s only a child!”

“Then he’s too young to be playing with knives!”

“Give me that knife!” Finn shouted. “It does not belong to you!”

Diarmait whimpered, “Brother, please – ”

Comgeall folded his arms and cracked his heel down on the table. His kilt swayed against his thighs.

Cathal growled, “Get this child out of here.”

'Get this child out of here.'

Finn’s legs wobbled. Comgeall’s shouting and strutting seemed only a gaudily plumed distraction from the real menace. The true evil radiated from Cathal’s blacked-​​out face. And this was the face that his father’s eyes had looked into.

Finn’s mouth was dry as thistledown and his throat was piercingly tight, but he managed to say to the man, “Give me that knife and I shall go.”

Comgeall cracked down his heel again. Finn looked up. Comgeall waggled his fingers, inviting Finn onto the tabletop – inviting him insolently as Scotsmen invited one another to dance. 

Finn leapt.

Finn leapt.

Diarmait bleated, “Brother!” and swatted helplessly at Finn’s ankle. Comgeall laughed.

“You must have the balls of your mother, laddie! The father of you was blubbering like a snot-​​faced babe. Please don’t kill me!” he whined in a cringing falsetto.

Finn’s lips contorted into a fanged grimace, and his eyes ran over with hot, stinging, salty tears.

Finn's lips contorted into a fanged grimace.

“Give – me – the knife!” he panted, creeping nearer, feeling his way across the table with his soles. His toe nudged one of the mugs aside. He was very close.

“I cannot give you that knife, Finn,” Comgeall sighed, wriggling his fingers as he inspected the back of his own hand. “I do believe you would kill me with it.”

“A man cannot – ” Finn’s breath hissed through his teeth as he fought against his clenched jaw, straining to pronounce just a few more words. “ – escape his fate.”

Again the monster burst through Comgeall’s flamboyant nonchalance: his hand clenched, and he sprang up swinging. His fist smacked squarely into Finn’s face. He had not intended to miss.

Finn tottered, but Comgeall grabbed a fistful of his tunic and dragged him across the table until they stood toe-​​to-​​toe.

Now Finn could not close his jaw.

Now Finn could not close his jaw. Comgeall’s hot breath billowed across his tongue, rank with ale.

“You didn’t think I would do that, did you?” he whispered.

Diarmait sobbed, “Brother!”

“Shut up, Diarmait, you little pussy! If he’s old enough to…”

Something something something… Finn no longer understood the Gaelic. His wits were quitting him. He felt the throbbing of his nose all the way out to his eardrums.

Comgeall cocked his head from side to side like a curious bird, studying Finn’s gaping face. His hand twisted in Finn’s tunic until the cloth strained over his back.

Comgeall cocked his head from side to side like a curious bird.

Comgeall whispered in English, “You’ve the look of your father, when you think you’re about to die.”

Then he spoke loudly in Gaelic, addressing his brothers. Finn understood only a few of the words that bobbed past in the stew: “his sister,” then “his daughter,” and finally “his son.” Whatever the sense of the meandering sentence, it was enough to make Diarmait howl a protest. Finn heard the hiss of a knife being drawn near his feet.

Comgeall snarled a last insult and flung Finn away.

Comgeall snarled a last insult and flung Finn away.

Finn flapped his arms as he plummeted, trying to regain enough of his balance to prevent himself from flying headfirst off the end of the table and shattering his skull amidst the shards of the pitcher. The mugs toppled over and rolled, and Finn’s feet slipped out from under him on the wet tabletop, perhaps saving him. He landed painfully on his tailbone, but he fell no farther.

Comgeall kicked the last mug off the table and clop-​​clopped closer to Finn. He stopped with his feet squared a shoulder’s width apart, giving him the air of a colossus that could not be toppled. His harlequin face shifted between several monstrous expressions as he stared down at Finn.

He stared down at Finn.

Then Finn heard a scuffing behind him, and a godlike voice boomed, “Diarmait!”

Finn scuttled over to the edge of the table, but the voice of God belted out a Gaelic curse that was dedicated to “the love of Macaille!” It was Muirgius.

Comgeall shouted something out over Finn’s head, and Muirgius replied with equal vulgarity and greater volume. Finn got his knees beneath him while the men were distracted and shuffled sideways to climb down off the table. He saw then, by the drip drip drip onto the tabletop, that his nose was not merely running with snot from his childish tears, but trickling blood.

His nose was not merely running with snot from his childish tears.

Two cracks sounded out beside him as Comgeall hopped down onto the bench. Finn hurried off the other side of the table. Comgeall’s boot heels cracked twice more as they hit the floor, just in time for him to meet Muirgius’s charge. Finn wiped his nose on his sleeve and stared at the floor until another fat drop of blood smacked the stone.

Finn wiped his nose on his sleeve and stared at the floor.

He did not understand the Gaelic, and he did not try. He had been beaten and insulted and threatened like a man, and like a child the only idea he had was to run away and cry. But he had a child’s stubbornness too – the toddler’s determination to obtain the thing he desired. To the exasperation of his elven parents he had used to throw himself down to scream and kick and beat his skull against the floor until his forehead was bumpy with knots and he fell limp from the concussion or from sheer exhaustion.

He was not leaving without that knife.

He was not leaving without that knife.

Comgeall, Diarmait, and Muirgius were oblivious to anything but their own argument. His only obstacle was Cathal, who stood watching the squabble across the table with the grim impassivity of a god.

Then Cathal’s head began to turn, and Finn straightened, leaning harmlessly away from the table. But Cathal’s head stopped halfway, and he stared into the shadows of the doorway for a moment before turning back to the squabble with a snort. Diarmait’s young wife had tiptoed in. She must have heard the shouting from upstairs.

Diarmait's young wife had tiptoed in.

Her lips moved, and she made a feeble squeak: “Diarmait?”

Only Finn heard. She saw him turn, and she tiptoed in to him, looking grateful to have found a fellow human in this land of howling shades. The rhythmic hiss-​​hiss of her dragging skirts made a sound like ruffling wavelets beneath the roar of the mighty sea.

She whispered, “What have they done to you, poor man?”

'What have they done to you, poor man?'

Finn remembered his bleeding nose, and wiped his upper lip on his sleeve. Sadb laid her fingers on his arm and pushed it down to see.

Her dress was so velvety! Her laced-​​up ribbons so feminine and pretty! Her breasts were so small and soft and round! Finn longed to lay his cheek upon them, and wrap his arms around her as far as they would go, and cry until his face was red and he was hiccuping from so many sobs. Like a baby he blubbered, “They won’t give me my knife!”

'They won't give me my knife!'

“Ach!” Sadb’s face flooded with pink, and her frightened features relaxed. Perhaps she too had needed something to do. “We shall get your knife back for you,” she soothed. “Is that your knife on the table?”

Finn nodded stupidly. Sadb took his hand and led him a few steps closer to the men.

Sadb took his hand and led him a few steps closer to the men.

At first she seemed to await notice or an opportunity to interrupt, but the men went on shouting at each other as though Sadb and Finn were the true ghosts in the hall. Finn could not understand what they were saying, but he knew that she was hearing something about “Egelric” and “my sister” and “Ramsaa.” He could only hope it was not too vile for her ears.

Finally, in the middle of one of Muirgius’s tirades, Sadb called out, “Pardon me!” 

Muirgius flapped his arm as at a bothersome fly and went on roaring.

Sadb tapped him on the shoulder and shouted, “Pardon me!”

'Pardon me!'

Muirgius’s body went rigid at her touch, and he fell silent in the middle of a word. His fists clenched, and his shoulders seemed to broaden and swell. Half of his back was stained dark red, but there was no rent in the cloth nor visible wound. Finn wondered whether he was seeing his own father’s blood.

“Diarmait,” Sadb called, “please pass that knife down to me. It belongs to Finn.”

The only reply was a silence so intense that beneath the snapping of the logs, Finn could hear the steady drip drip drip of spilled ale trickling between the cracks of the table. Finn wiped his nose before anyone heard that, too.

'It belongs to Finn.'

At last Comgeall crooned, “Diarmait,” in his mocking falsetto, followed by some phrase involving “your wife.”

Diarmait grabbed Comgeall by the sleeve and whipped him around to punch him in the face. Muirgius threw up his arms, and Cathal roared, “Get these children out of here!”

Finally it was Cathal who leaned over the far end of the table, grabbed the knife, and leaned over the near end to smack it down. Finn leapt for it as soon as he stepped back. Meanwhile Sadb lifted her skirts in one hand and dashed for the door ahead of him, her opposite arm outstretched first to open the latch, and then reaching out behind her to take Finn’s hand.

Hand-​​in-​​hand they tripped and stumbled up the twisting stairs, Sadb tugging on Finn’s arm, and Finn waving his knife menacingly at the stairwell behind him. No one followed. Gaelic threats and curses belled from below like the howls of the damned, locked in strife forever beneath Satan’s grimly impassive eye.

Sadb threw open the door at the top of the stairs, and Finn slammed it behind them. All the gaudily-​​dressed ladies with their glittering eyes had vanished like a dream. Nearly all of the torches had been taken out.

Side-​​by-​​side Finn and Sadb stood in the shadowy room, stunned and gulping air, their hands still clasped together. They were but two children narrowly returned to the land of the living: a world they now knew haunted by shades.

Side-by-side Finn and Sadb stood in the shadowy room.