This was how his dreams always fell apart.

This was how his dreams fell apart. A snap, and the languid procession of memories scattered like amber beads come unstrung, upending the pristine dioramas of family life englobed within.

Everything went impossibly wrong. Locks withered and rotted and plopped into their own puddles. Bolted shutters sprang open. Hinges sprouted rust and snapped like wafers. Walls rolled themselves up like scrolls.

This was how his dreams always fell apart.

All around him his father’s books lay open in plain sight, their pages whipping back and forth in a wet wind. The fire went out, but not its damning light.

He stood on his bed and tried to climb into the rafters, but his scrabbling hands only ripped away sheets of soggy bark and mealy clumps of beetle-​​bored wood. His father heaved him up from below, gripping his bare feet, offering his shoulder and even his head as a ladder, calling out, “Shimon! Go!”

Shimon. No.

Shimon.  No.

He always woke then – even in the throes of dreams he must have known they could only be dreams. His father would not have been so careless. Had not been. And Saeward would forever wish he had, one last time.

Saeward. He pressed his hand to his mouth and exhaled through his fingers. His breathing slowed. He flicked his sweaty hair off his forehead and wiped his face with his palm.

He was about to lie back down when he heard the pounding again.

He was about to lie back down when he heard the pounding again.

He threw himself flat and flung his arm behind his head to block the door. Sprawling across the bed, his shoulder straining out of its socket, he could only just press his fingertips against the wood – and only nearest the hinges, where they would have the least force. A ten-​​year-​​old would have had better luck keeping them out–

But a ten-​​year-​​old he was not.

He rolled himself up again to sit cross-​​legged in the middle of his bed, rocking his body as he waited for his heartbeat to slow. He was nearly thirty years old. He was Saeward, Sigefrith Hwala’s reeve. If anyone came pounding on his door in the middle of the night, it likely meant someone else was under arrest.

He was Saeward, Sigefrith Hwala's reeve.

The men in the corridor tried the handle and found it bolted from the inside.

Outraged at this attempted trespass, Saeward threw the blankets off his lap and kicked his legs out of the bed.

“I’m coming!”

He slipped the bolt and pushed the door wide enough to poke his nose and beard through the crack.

A single man stood outside, wet-​​headed from the rain, dressed in a black kilt and a graying knitted sweater that stank of unwashed wool and Scot. The frayed ends of his sleeves almost hid the hands he wrung.

He had seemed so much grander before that Saeward was slow to recognize him. Then he opened the door.

Then he opened the door.

“I’m sorry to wake you, sir, but I need to see my sister.”

The noble face had collapsed into bulldog wrinkles and sagging jowls. The proud bearing had withered into the servile crouch of beggars who would not survive long on the streets.

“It’s the middle of the night!”

'It's the middle of the night!'

“I’m sorry, I’m… I’m thinking she has a knife.”

“A knife!”


Saeward stepped out into the corridor, from frigid flagstones onto the puddles left by Donnchad’s boots. His toes curled.

'A knife!'

“A knife!”

“Aye, sir,” Donnchad whispered. “My knife.”

Saeward scowled and blasted a deep breath through his nose. He turned and stamped back into his room, scuffing his wet soles across the skimpy rug as he passed.

“You’re thinking!”

He whipped his leggings up off the chair and lifted a foot to pull them on.

For two weeks he had deprived the woman of mirrors and glasses, of chicken bones, of knitting needles and spindles and scissors and pins – even of the spare comfort of a candle flame to light her through the longest nights of the year – and her brother had armed her with a knife!

'I'm... just returning from talking to Aengus...'

Donnchad’s voice creaked like a broken saddle. “I’m… just returning from talking with Aengus…”

Saeward flopped back into his chair with his boots in his hand.

“I was undressing myself, and… one of my knives was not there.”

Saeward crossed his leg over his knee and pulled on his boot. He glanced up at his own knife, glinting across the room beside the other man. Surely it was a ruse.

'I fail to see how your sister could have taken it.'

“I fail to see how your sister could have taken it,” he said, grunting as he jerked at his bootlaces. “You gave me your knives before you went in to see her.”

Donnchad mouthed a reply.

Saeward yanked his laces tight and tied them. “What’s that?”

“I said, not that one.”

Saeward’s foot clopped to the floor. “I see.”

He bent at the waist and pulled on his other boot. He laced it still more neatly than the first, taking care to even out the two lengths before tying them in a knot and a bow.

Then he lurched to his feet and demanded, “Are you telling me you went into that room with a knife on you?”

'Are you telling me you went into that room with a knife on you?'


“And you knew it?”

“Aye, sir.” Donnchad dropped his gaze and rolled a strand of fraying yarn between his fingers. Stringy locks of wet hair shook before his face. “A true Scot never will surrender all his steel.”

“She’s a murderess! Do you understand that? Does nobody understand that?”

Saeward whirled about and banged a panel of his wardrobe like a drum. His anger flared at the sight of his tunic lying crumpled on the floor, tossed aside when he had taken up his leggings.

He snatched it up and pulled it over his head, shouting through the knit, “I have maids going in there to serve her! I have guards going in there, and they aren’t expecting her to be armed with a knife!”

He pushed his arms through the sleeves and straightened the wool down his hips before returning to the door. He wanted to look the man in the eyes.

“The Countess visits her in there. The Countess. Do you understand what I am saying?”

'Do you understand what I am saying?'

“I’m sorry… I was never thinking she would find it…” Donnchad’s jowls quivered. “But she was holding me so tight…”

Saeward turned his face away and fluffed his damp hair before his eyes. He took the key down from the wall and looped the cord twice around his wrist. Then he picked up his knife and lifted his foot to slip it into his boot. There would be the guard at the top of the stairs, but first they would have to get there – and now Donnchad had seen the key.

Then he picked up his knife and lifted his foot to slip it into his boot.

“Let’s go.”

A pine torch still burned in the the stairwell, but the corridors were unlit. The King had already retired.

With the instincts of a rat Saeward led his man through the gloom, tracing currents of crisp night air through the miasma of damp stone. He did not fear a fight in the dark.

He heard floorboards creaking before he opened the anteroom door, but no sound of boots. A woman? Bare feet? A trap?

It was only Alfwold, pacing anxiously on the rug.

It was only Alfwold.

“I’m sorry he woke you, sir, but he wouldn’t take no!”

“You did right.”

Saeward and Donnchad stepped onto the rug. For a moment they were all ghosts, gliding in silence to the door, called by the greater silence that lay behind. Saeward alone stepped far enough to hear his boots make a reassuring clap-​​clap on the wood.

He knocked.

He knocked.

Alfwold said, “She hain’t made a sound since he came up here. She hain’t made a sound since… a long time.”

“Does she typically snore?”

“No, sir.”

Donnchad’s breath spluttered between his teeth. He whimpered, “Please!”

Saeward banged on the door with his knuckles.

Alfwold ventured, “She probably won’t answer, you know.”

'She probably won't answer, you know.'

“Get the lamp.”

“Yes, sir.”

Saeward swung the key on its cord while he waited, wrapping it around his hand one way, spinning it loose again and wrapping it around the other way. The second time the cord went taut at just the right length for him to pinch the key between his fingers. 

He could stab at an eye with the toothed end of the key. That would give him time to crouch, draw his knife from his boot, and jam it beneath a breastbone as he leapt up. But there were two of them.

The second time the cord went taut at just the right length.

He caught Alfwold’s eye when the guard returned with the lamp, and he stared until he saw something like acknowledgment. He had to hope the idiot would understand.

“Allow me to go in first,” Donnchad whispered. “If she’s armed…”

Saeward steadied his knuckles against the lock and cradled the shaft of the key in his palm, considering. Even were they both armed, Donnchad would be putting himself and his sister on the wrong side of the door in an unlit room. A defensible position, but they would not be going anywhere. What did they have planned?

With his thumb Saeward pushed the key through his fingers and into the lock. The hiss of metal over oiled metal hummed in his hand’s fine bones. A twist, and the teeth bore down, squeaking and slipping against the groaning tumblers until the bolt collapsed with a rapturous click. There was no mating like that of a lock with its one true key.

He stepped back from the door, three inches of jagged iron protruding from the fist he clenched against his hip. He whispered, “After you.”

Donnchad flung the door open and took two long strides into the room before he ran into the wall of darkness and stopped, nearly consumed. Black from head to heel, only the backs of his knees glowed out of the gloom, flickering in the shadows of his swishing kilt. The fraying ends of his sleeves hid his brown hands.

He ran into the wall of darkness and stopped.

Donnchad cried out in Gaelic, but from the instant Saeward stepped over the threshold he knew there would be no reply. Even in deepest sleep a body was perceptible, if not by sound then by something he could sense in the bones of his face and hands. And the air of this bedchamber had not been breathed. His prisoner had escaped.

His arm fell, and the tip of the key clinked against the top of the washstand. He clenched his fist again and bore down, sinking a tooth into the serried grain of the wood. How? How?

Donnchad made a quavering, catlike query and was swallowed into the shadows. The toe of his boot thunked against the bed. His Gaelic gibbering was a weird infusion of motherly tenderness into the creaking voice of a frail old man.

Saeward dropped the key and let it fall to the length of its cord before he flipped it back up into his palm. Had Sigefrith arranged the entire farce? Was Saeward himself to be the next man to take the blame, after having been ordered to arrest a man for Maire’s crimes?

Donnchad eased himself down onto the bed.

Donnchad eased himself down onto the bed, and the mattress came alive with the rustling that should have been audible all along, however faintly. He crooned and cooed as he bent over the blankets. Then he screeched.

The key slipped out of Saeward’s limp hand and swung. Pain pealed once through all his bones. Life had tuned his body to sorrow’s highest tone.

Pain pealed once through his bones.

Donnchad howled and rocked himself on the mattress. His third cry was muffled by a body when he flung himself down across the bed.

He would soon be voiceless, Saeward knew, as surely as if a knife had been drawn across his throat. He would soon be coughing blood. God had given man his voice before He had ever created a reason to grieve.

“Send for the King,” Saeward whispered.

His prisoner had escaped.

His prisoner had escaped.