Ramsaa, Isle of Man

She had to tug on the handle to keep Muirgius from yanking it wide.

Sadb had to lean her weight against the door to squeeze herself through, and once through she had to tug on the handle to keep Muirgius from yanking it wide.

“Where is he?” Muirgius demanded.

Sadb spun herself around the edge of the door and slammed it shut with her shoulder.

“Where is he?”

“Where is who?

'Where is who?'

“Where’s Diarmait, for the love of Macaille?”

Sadb repeated herself, word by frosty word. “Where is who?

Muirgius finally caught her meaning and lowered his eyes to the level of hers. Just as slowly he recited, “Where is Lord Diarmait?”

“Where is Lord Diarmait, what?

Muirgius’s hand darted between her arm and her waist, snatching at the door handle. Sadb threw her weight against his arm and shoved it away.

She could not let him look into that room. Finnecht was still shoveling plumes back into the pillows and mattresses that Diarmait had slashed and shredded in his frantic search for the thirteenth dog. Sadb feared she had feathers clinging to her skirts and hair. She dared not look.

“Where is Lord Diarmait, what?” she repeated.

Muirgius leaned so close to her that she could stare down into his pores. When he spoke she could taste his rotten molars.

Muirgius leaned so close to her that she could stare down into his pores.

“Where is Lord Diarmait, my lady?

“Lord Diarmait is not in our room.”

“The Devil!” Muirgius pounded his fist against the wall, startling the women in the hall into silence. “Why didn’t you say so, woman? Where in the Devil is he?”

Thus far Sadb had always managed to bring Muirgius to heel, but every day he was a little more insolent with her. Every day he pushed the boundary stone out a little farther, before the flattened grass beneath it had even begun to yellow.

Sadb growled to hide the quaking of her voice. “Why didn’t I say so, what?

Muirgius’s hand shot out again, this time clamping over her upper arm. If Sadb had felt intimidated before, she was struck by a bolt of terror now. Muirgius was a towering, bull-​necked, barrel-​chested man. Sadb was sixteen, and pregnant, and small.

Sadb was sixteen, and pregnant, and small.

In the hall around the corner Sadb heard the spinning wheel whirring down. The women waited, listening. They would tell their men what they heard.

“Unhand me,” Sadb whispered, “or…”

Or what? She had meant to threaten him with her husband’s wrath, but she wondered whether he feared Diarmait any longer. Instead, in a flash of diabolical inspiration, she responded with something she had overheard Diarmait say to a man who had annoyed him.

She laid her right hand on the sword hilt that jutted from his hip, and she screwed up her face into its ugliest snarl.

'I will slit you open from crotch to collar bone.'

“Or I will slit you open from crotch to collar bone, and strangle you with your own entrails.”

Muirgius broke into a wicked grin. He chuckled, and his grip on her arm loosened into a friendly clasp.

It had been risky, it had been unladylike, but her salty tongue had saved her again. Her men respected her because she was Lady of Ramsaa, but they loved her because she was Sadb. Her wit had brought the towering Muirgius to heel.

And then it failed her.

Muirgius’s left hand clenched over her right, trapping it on the hilt of the sword. Sadb tried to yank her hand away, but Muirgius held it crushed, and the sword only jerked in its scabbard.

“Try that,” he whispered. “Try. I’ll have to handle you, then, in self-​defense, won’t I? Eh, now, my lady? Eh, now?”

Muirgius massaged her hand over the hard wooden hilt.

Muirgius massaged her hand over the hard wooden hilt. Its leather grip was warm as skin beneath her palm. Sadb understood he was imagining something else clasped in her hand, and he saw that new wave of horror break over her face, and he smiled.

“I think I’ll enjoy that,” Muirgius whispered. “I think you will, too.”

The spinning wheel whirred up again, and the women resumed their broken chatter, and Sadb could only think that she must not let anyone guess what was going on just around the corner, by the fire.

“Unhand me,” she whispered, “because your lady asked you to.”

“Tell me first, my lady, where is Lord Diarmait?”

“Lord Diarmait is watching on the roof.”

Muirgius released her. “Finally!”


He turned, and Sadb scrubbed her right hand on her skirt as furiously as if she had touched the other thing, but even then she had the presence of mind to catch his sleeve with the other.


She could not let him see Diarmait, either. Diarmait had staggered upstairs still covered with feathers, and she could not be certain the wind had whipped them all away. A few had fallen in his dash across the hall and drifted into the corners like snow.

Sadb could not let Muirgius see Diarmait.

Sadb could not let Muirgius see Diarmait in his present condition. Already the women in the hall would have much to tell their husbands.

Muirgius turned slowly back to her, and for a panicked instant Sadb feared he would take this as an invitation to resume his insinuations. But Muirgius only looked thoroughly annoyed. He was scarcely ever otherwise in her presence, but at least this was the Muirgius she knew.

Muirgius only looked thoroughly annoyed.

Sadb was not certain who had brought whom to heel this time. She only knew that the boundary had been moved again—far, very far. Picked up and tossed, as she had already seen the mighty Muirgius son of Demmain tossing hammers and stones.

She knew now that Muirgius no longer feared her husband at all.

“What do you want with him?” she asked stiffly. “I shall go.”

“What I want is for him to do something! What in the Devil is he doing on the roof? Just watching? Brass-​Dog has four ships just off the shore—”

“Whisht!” Sadb flapped her hand towards the corner. Muirgius looked over at the women—in plain sight, from where he stood—and rolled his eyes.

'Do you suppose anyone in this fort doesn't know it?'

“Do you suppose anyone in this fort doesn’t know it, lady? The wind is turning. You can even hear them beating on their shields out there!”

So that was what that distant rumbling had been. Sadb had hoped it was thunder. Thunder would have forced Eirik to flee. But if his men were thumping their shields, it had come to war.

Diarmait had torn up every room in the keep searching for the thirteenth little brass dog, certain that if he found it, the real Brass Dog would be kept at bay. But now Sadb knew that Eirik meant himself for the thirteenth dog. And he had planted the twelve others knowing the effect they would have on Diarmait.

Eirik was taunting him, provoking him: a tactic of childish transparency, worthy of a ten-​year-​old bully. And yet Diarmait was so overwrought it might have worked. Eirik had simply failed to reckon on the cool head of a sixteen-​year-​old girl.

“There is not a thing they can do to us with four ships, even if they could land. Let them beat their shields until they break.”

“And the seven ships bearing down on us from the north, lady? What of them?”

'What of them?'

Seven more ships! Sadb hid her hands in her skirts and hurriedly counted on her fingers. Ten with one left over. Eleven. Eleven was neither thirteen, nor thirteen wanting one. Diarmait would not take it as an evil sign.

While her hands were down there, she found a feather on her dress and flicked it away.

“There is nothing they can do with eleven ships, either,” she said, pleased to show the man how quickly she could figure sums. “You have lived in this town all your life, Muirgius. I am astounded that you fear eleven ships when entire fleets have been held back by these walls.”

'I am astounded that you fear eleven ships when entire fleets have been held back by these walls.'

“I do not fear what’s happening outside these walls, woman. I fear what’s going to happen inside if Diarmait doesn’t put a lid on it! Where in the Devil is he? Why isn’t he keeping the people calm? If he doesn’t do it, I will!”

This was not an offer of assistance, but a threat. Like Whitehand’s man before him, Diarmait had made Muirgius commander of his garrison, and ordered him to refrain from acting as a leader to the people. This, specifically because Muirgius was their hereditary lord. And if not he, then Tuathal son of Nuadu. Diarmait had made mac Nuadu commander of his fleet.

Sadb asked, “What are the people saying?”

'What are the people saying?'

“They are panicking, lady! Brass Dog could show up alone at the gate in rags, beating a tin plate with a stick, and they would be scared! They’re scared because he makes a threat when he only has four ships! They’re scared because these damned toy dogs have been showing up all over the place like magic! They’re scared because he’s Eirik, and people need an enemy they can count on, and you can never count on what Eirik’s going to do. So Diarmait needs to get down there and start looking like a man, because if the people can’t count on their enemy, and they can’t count their lord, then this is all going to Hell! And by the Cross, I won’t stand for it!”

'And by the Cross, I won't stand for it!'

Another threat.

Muirgius was speaking in a low voice, but the spinning wheel was no longer spinning, and it was plain that the women were straining their ears. One of the women was the wife of mac Nuadu.

“Then I shall go down and see to the people,” Sadb whispered. “Diarmait needs to keep his eye on the ships, in case we’re attacked. Or—”

Sadb had a delightful thought.

Sadb had a delightful thought: her brother, or perhaps Diarmait’s, coming to their aid with a small fleet, scattering Eirik’s ships before them like grown men scaring off a knot of unruly boys.

“In case the seven ships are friends,” she said.

An expression of disgust twisted Muirgius’s face, but Sadb shook her finger beneath his pitted nose.

“I said in case. One must always hope for the best and plan for the worst.”

'I said in case.'

Sadb stopped, staggered by the wisdom of what she had just said. Where had she heard that before? Surely she had not just made it up. Had she? Muirgius was looking markedly less disgusted by her continuing presence on this earth.

Heartened, she hurried on, including him in her scheme so that he would not feel so useless. She knew men did not like that.

“I shall need your help, Muirgius. Please go outside and find some good men, and have them quarrel about Eirik and make a lot of noise. And I shall come down to see what the noise is all about, and the people will gather round, and I shall reassure them. Will that do for now?”

'Will that do for now?'

He stared at her. Muirgius son of Demmain may have had the body of a bull, but he had the small, keen eyes of a boar.

Sadb’s Lady of Ramsaa air dissipated, leaving her a frightened sixteen-​year-​old girl. She fought a self-​conscious struggle not to look down at the hilt of his sword, as she would have averted her gaze from a man’s nakedness. She feared she was covered in feathers, and it felt like being naked before his eyes.

Then, surprising her, Muirgius clasped his hands behind his back and bowed.

Muirgius clasped his hands behind his back and bowed.

“Aye, lady. That will do for now.”

Sadb’s cheeks flooded with warmth, and she smiled in relief. Muirgius was a good man—a big, spirited beast who was only sometimes a little hard to control.

Then Muirgius stood and lifted his hand towards her.

Towards her breast.

Sadb’s breath stopped fast. She stretched her neck straight up like a leery fowl, imagining his hand would follow her head, but his knuckles brushed the gathers of her gown, just beneath her bust, and his thumb stroked the underside of her aching, tautly swollen breast.

Sadb's body went rigid.

Sadb’s body went rigid. Her belly swirled with ice. The spinning wheel whirred, and the women were chattering again—in the same room, just around the corner—and Muirgius could have picked her up and snapped her like a frozen twig.

But Muirgius stepped away from her, nodded at the women just out of her sight, and walked to the door twirling a broad white plume.

He walked to the door twirling a broad white plume.