Ramsaa, Isle of Man

Aed decided he had stalled as long as he dared.

Aed decided he had stalled as long as he dared. Four of his seven ships were already moored, and the fifth, Dreambreaker, had just surged past the stern of Angel of Reckoning under sail, flinging herself upstream to ride the current back into a berth.

If he waited much longer, he risked Diarmait spotting Cormac or Lorccan on the deck of the Shetlander, just then crashing through billows of spray down where the Solaby met the sea. They were no great friends of Aed’s, but their fathers were blood enemies of Diarmait’s father. Best if they remained unseen.

Aed waved his men onward and turned to Gaethine. “Ready?”


Gaethine took a last crunch of his apple and tossed it over the edge of the wharf. It plopped into a still, shadowy stretch of water between two ships, caught a hidden wisp of current, and bobbled out on a silent course through the creaking, clanking, gurgling din of the dockside.

Legend said Earl Eirik had once rigged a hundred gleaming apples with sails and set them loose in Dublin harbor to mock the fleet of Eire. Now Aed watched a lone, half-​eaten apple drift rudderless out of the shadow of Angel of Reckoning and towards the open river. In these icy currents Eirik’s people had died: widows and orphans of Norsemen slain by Gaels. The sunlit water gleamed like hammered brass. In his heart Aed felt the first startled scurryings of fear.

Then Gaethine coughed, and Aed looked up. His friend was shivering in spite of the sun. Sea voyages were not good for him—he had seen the Saracen doctor long enough to learn that much. Aed would have to get him into a hall or beside a fire. He had stalled as long as he could.

Aed turned and strode down the wharf, meeting up with Eochaid, Mael Muad, and Fedacch as they came from the other ships.

“Pleasant trip?” he asked Fedacch. He knew that Fedacch was always sick at sea.

Aed was not fond of Fedacch, either, but Fedacch had been his father’s friend and had never yet betrayed the son, which was as close to an ally as Aed ever came. More importantly, he was a frequent guest in Old Aed’s hall, and Aed hoped Diarmait would recognize him as a friend.

Fedacch gave him a bleary glance as Aed strode past him. “Aye, lord. Just lovely.”

Diarmait and his men had scarcely moved.

Aed slowed abreast of Mael Muad and muttered, “Where the Devil is Congal?”

It was for Congal that Aed had been stalling, but Dreambreaker and the Shetlander had already crossed the bar, and Congal’s ship was nowhere to be seen. Congal was carrying the counterfeit horn of Mael na mBo beneath his wolf skin coat. Aed had wanted him there for this meeting. He wanted to be ready for anything.

Mael Muad shrugged. “Cormac told him to come in after him.”

Aed had feared it was something like that. “Cormac is giving the orders around here, is he? Good to know.”

Mael Muad shrugged again. Aed walked on, stepping off the creaking planks of the deck to stride silently across dry land.

Aed walked on.

Diarmait and his men had scarcely moved since Angel had landed, though by now the loners had drifted close enough to groups of others to form clots of wary-​looking men. All were armed. Archers paced upon the ramparts, and the clinking and clattering of swords, spears, shields, and mail issued from the open gate.

Ramsaa could not be taken by force. Aed had scarcely more than a hundred men ashore, and they would all die if things went wrong. At best a few might be picked up by the ships that had not yet landed.

But even then the captain of Dreambreaker was already bringing his ship back downriver, shouting at his men to swing her sixty-​foot hull around before the current carried her broadside against Angel’s stern. She would not represent an escape route for long.

Nor would the twenty-​five men she carried swing a fight in their favor. They would only be so many more men for widows and orphans to mourn.

If they died here, this would be Aed’s legacy: a single afternoon’s act of folly that slew a hundred men and, with his own death, snuffed out an entire noble line.

As Eirik had said, the only way to win was not to fight.

A red-haired man stood at Diarmait's right hand.

A red-​haired man stood at Diarmait’s right hand, and even before speaking to Diarmait, Aed was curious about him. He had heard that the two native claimants to Ramsaa both had red hair. This would be either Muirgius son of Demmain, or Demmain’s nephew Tuathal son of Nuadu.

Ancient Celtic tradition had demanded that Ramsaa go to Demmain’s brother Nuadu upon his death, but somehow Demmain’s babe Muirgius had clung to his father’s title with his tiny fists, and forty years later had never let go. Through wars and raids and famine, as Norse lord after Irish king after ephemeral Manx pretender passed him by, Muirgius had endured lord in name.

Aed—orphaned at six and still hanging on—had come to Ramsaa prepared to like him. He hoped Muirgius was not this man. This man had the face of a treacherous rat.

This man had the face of a treacherous rat.

Aed met his stare long enough to make it clear he looked away by choice, and then he looked at Diarmait.

And he smiled.

“Hail, Cousin,” he said, thoughtlessly using the greeting that Norse savages had begotten like a bastard word in the Gaelic of Galloway. “For once,” he added dryly, “I’m glad to see you.”

'For once, I'm glad to see you.'

A smile flickered over Diarmait’s uncertain mouth.

“For once, I, too, Cousin,” he said.

“Eh? Let’s not make a habit of it.”

Diarmait broke into a grin. If he had noticed Aed had failed to greet him as a fellow lord, he said nothing of it.

Diarmait broke into a grin.

But Aed had not failed to notice that Diarmait wore a fillet over his brow. Not content to be Lord of Ramsaa, he had decked himself with the ornament of a provincial king, like his uncle or his father.

Aed’s fingers twitched with the longing to hook themselves over the ribbon and rip it off. He had never presumed to wear such a thing, though he had occasionally wrapped a dangling rein around his forehead and stooped over a watering trough to consider the effect.

“What was that all about?” he asked, pointing back over his shoulder with this thumb.

Diarmait’s gaze traveled out to sea, and Aed took the chance to look back himself in search of Congal. Between the heads of his men he could just see the billowing striped sail of Ghost Wolf gliding over the bar.

Ghost Wolf had the only colored sail in his fleet, for he had captured her from pirates last summer and considered her his to dispose of, and not Old Aed’s.

And he had promptly disposed of her by giving her to Congal, for theirs had been a tale of love at first sight: Congal the wolf-​slayer, and the warship with her wolf-​headed prow. Aed would have Congal’s loyalty so long as he held a harbor, as surely as if he had given him a sister to wife. At times he was grateful for that.

“What?” Diarmait asked. “Eirik’s ships?”

'Eirik's ships?'

“What what?” Aed laughed. “Do you so often have Norse ships stationed offshore that you have to ask me which ones I mean? For sake of discussion let us say Earl Eirik’s ships, aye.”

“Ach! There was never being any danger.”

“Ach, aye?” Aed folded his hands and smiled. “For you see, I was wondering that. Thinking almost to the last that Brass Dog was expecting you to open the gates and let him come ashore.”

Aed sharpened his tone for the space of this little accusation, and watched Diarmait for any reaction to the name of Brass Dog. Diarmait’s chuckling might have turned into a nervous giggle, but then again Diarmait always had been a nervous, tittering, bed-​wetting Mama’s boy.

“No friend of mine is he,” Diarmait said, “And any welcome he would have would come at the end of pikes.”

“And I?” Aed asked, still smiling.

“And you’re kin, Cousin, and in foreign lands a man’s heart is gladdened to meet with even an enemy from among kin.”

How very gracious of him. Aed took care not to let his smile turn into a sneer.

'I am certain you have no enemies among our kin, Cousin.'

“I am certain you have no enemies among our kin, Cousin,” he said. “Friendly rivals, let us say. Save your enmity for the strangers at the gates.”

He hooked his thumb back over his shoulder again. He meant Eirik, of course, but if Diarmait had been wiser, he might have noticed the gesture also took in the hundred armed men behind him, the black-​rigged warships at the wharf, and the sleek, Norse-​built Ghost Wolf sailing into the river mouth even then. Such beast-​headed silhouettes had so scarred the ancestral memory of the Gaels that the sight of her raised gooseflesh as well as a living wolf, even today. Even on Aed.

“I’m knowing who my enemies are,” Diarmait said, trying to make his soft voice sound portentous or wise. Aed was faintly disgusted.

“Apparently Brass Dog thought you were needing a reminder.”

“Ach! He was only trying to provoke me into an encounter at sea. A fool’s errand, for I am not such a fool.”

Aed bowed his head, smiling wryly. “Apparently I am, for it worked on me.”

Diarmait made a stuttering laugh. “What? Did you let him draw you out?”

'Did you let him draw you out?'

Aed opened his arms. “We’re here, aren’t we? But his ships are faster than ours, and he knew it, and he was never meaning to fight us, and I wasn’t knowing that. And now the sun is setting, and the tide a-​going out, and the only ports for miles up and down are loyal to Ramsaa or to him. If we hadn’t found shelter here, it’s on a beach we might have made our beds this night.”

Aed was careful not to mention Diarmait—not to say “loyal to you” or “you hadn’t given us shelter.” He had been practicing this speech for days.

“And that’s when Eirik would have ambushed you…” Diarmait mused. Then his face lit up with smug pride as he realized he had not only been wiser than Young Aed, but had saved him as well.

Aed was horrified. Was this Eirik’s true scheme? Humiliate him before this sniveling prig, and leave him stranded at Ramsaa, at the mercy of Diarmait’s hospitality? Leaving Carn Liath nearly undefended meanwhile, with six handsome ships in the port?

And what was this little brass dog up his sleeve? Would Diarmait truly fear it, or was it instead a sign to Eirik’s allies asking them to slay its bearer? Or would Diarmait simply recognize it and, laughing, say, “Ach! So he screwed you, too?”

Suddenly their straightforward plot went off in twists and turns, loops and snarls, doubling and trebling back over itself as Eirik layered treachery upon treachery until no one could be certain whose interests he truly served.

And Gaethine had warned Aed not to trust him.

And Gaethine had warned Aed not to trust him. He might not have, had he not been so furious that this puling, pink-​cheeked brat held the fort of Ramsaa. Eirik had strung him up by his own jealous ambition.

Aed was careful not to let his outrage show, but he could have howled.

And then someone else did. A long, high-​pitched, steeply descending howl pierced the clamor of the dockside, all the more chilling for sounding beneath the light of the sun.

The river went on lapping at posts and strakes, and the wind slapped ropes against masts and ruffled the half-​furled sails, but every man went still, wide-​eyed and paralyzed with an ancestral fear.

Then the howl was answered with shorter howls, yips, barks, and finally male laughter, muffled by distance and the low, unceasing roar of the sea.

Every head turned, even Aed’s, who already knew what manner of wolves loped among them. He looked just in time to see the beast-​headed prow of Congal’s ship glide up onto the sand flats at the mouth of the Solaby, which sheened like sheets of gold as the falling tide left them exposed.

Aed could not help a triumphant grin. The Shetlander was only then creeping past the sterns of the lowest ships, fighting against the river current at the pace of a walk. If Cormac had thought to take Congal’s place at Aed’s side, he had underestimated both Congal and his Dublin-​made ship.

Aed turned back to Diarmait, still grinning. Diarmait looked alarmed.

Aed hastened to ask, “You’re remembering the cousin of me, Congal son of Congal, son of Maelan, son of Giric?

Diarmait made a blustering laugh intended to make men forget he had appeared startled. “Ach! The one who slew the wolf out beyond Three Winds.”

'The one who slew the wolf out beyond Three Winds.'

“Aye, and now he’s thinking he is one. Never mind him, Cousin. Just whack his nose if he starts to hump your leg.”

Diarmait smiled. “Understood.”

Diarmait looked aside and gazed out towards the Shetlander. A man was standing in her stern, staring in the wrong direction—back at Ghost Wolf, surely. Aed feared it was Cormac.

“And you’re remembering my friend Gaethine son of Augustin, son of Maenach, son of Eochaid, are you no?”

Diarmait looked around.

“And the cousin of him, Eochaid son of Eochaid, son of Morrann? And your own cousins, Fedacch and Mael Muad?”

Aed gestured right and left. Diarmait looked left and right, overwhelmed.

Diarmait looked left and right, overwhelmed.

Mael Muad said, “How now, Coz?” Fedacch smiled a bit too gently on Diarmait for Aed’s taste. Or perhaps Fedacch was only feeling queasy.

Aed stared at the red-​haired fellow, hoping Diarmait would take the hint and introduce him. He might have done so, had Cormac not chosen that moment to hang from the backstay of the Shetlander and howl an oath downriver towards the longship lying comfortably on the strand.

Ghost Wolf was a relic of another time, when fleets of animal-​headed ships ran themselves up onto gravel beaches and disgorged hordes of raiders who raped and robbed and vanished on the rising tide. Unlike the stocky Shetlander, the low profile of her keel required no wharf; and her hull was not riveted to her frame, but fastened with flexible laces so that she twisted and curvetted over the stormiest sea and lounged upon the shore like a snake in the sun.

She needed two men to bail her without cease, and if Fedacch ever sailed in her he would likely puke up a lung, but she was a strong, savage little ship, made for murder—in many ways like the wolf-​coated man who was loping up the beach from her wolf-​headed prow.

“Who the Devil is that?” Diarmait asked, squinting not down towards the beach but at the Shetlander. Aed hoped his eyes were not good. He also hoped Cormac would drop into the river and be lost at sea.

'Who the Devil is that?'

Aed said, “Ach! I was about to ask the same question!”

He stared at the red-​haired man with such intensity that the man grew uncomfortable and coughed, trying to get Diarmait’s attention.

Aed decided he was not likely to be Muirgius. Muirgius would have answered the question himself. Still Diarmait did not take the hint.

A second man stood up on the Shetlander and began staggering down the deck. Aed was certain it was Lorccan. The steersman was squabbling with Cormac, trying to make him sit down. Gaethine coughed. Aed was familiar enough with Gaethine’s many sorts of coughs to recognize this one as a warning.

“Where did you get that?” he asked abruptly.

He poked Diarmait in the breastbone, and Diarmait finally looked around. “Eh?”


Aed leaned in and stared.

Diarmait tittered and brushed his off his chest with both hands. “Ach, only a feather!”

“Nay, that there.” Aed poked him again and then waved the redhead closer as if seeking a second opinion.

Mac Nuadu—if such he was—obediently leaned in and looked. Aed took advantage of his presence to step back for an instant and fold his arms as if in contemplation. In truth he wriggled the little dog out of his rolled-​up sleeve and into his palm.

The poor animal had dings all over its body and had lost the tip of its ear, for Skorri had made Aed carry it around clenched between the wrinkles in his palm until his tendons ached, and he must have dropped it a hundred times as he attempted to go about his daily business with a toy dog hidden in his hand. But by now Aed was practiced enough at it to keep the dog hidden even from men who knew to look for it. Diarmait did not see.

“That there,” Aed said, helpfully pointing it out again, just where Diarmait’s shirt was tucked into the collar of his tunic. He wanted to be certain mac Nuadu and the other men saw that he held nothing in his hands.

Diarmait strained his neck to look down, and mac Nuadu leaned in. Aed pointed and frowned and finally said, “Ach! I think it just slipped all the way in. Is it real gold? May I?”

'Is it real gold?  May I?'

Diarmait laughed anxiously. “I’m certain it’s only a feather.”

“I’m not here to rob you, Cousin. Ach!”

Aed wriggled his fingertips between Diarmait’s tunic and shirt. He had to reach just far enough that he could convincingly sneak the dog out of his palm and pull it out again, just as Skorri had done to him back in his hall.

But Diarmait suddenly stepped back, jostling his hand. One instant Aed was holding the dog. The next it was gone.

Aed’s stomach plummeted, but his hand drifted gracefully to his side, free of care now that its part was done. If the dog had landed with an audible thump, Aed had not heard it over the blood pounding in his ears. One heedless swipe of a boot sole and the little thing would be lost in the velvety sand.

Aed swung his head around to look at Gaethine. A sea wind whipped between them, drying the chill sweat on Aed’s cheeks and ruffling Gaethine’s curls. Gaethine’s frown melted away, leaving his gaunt face serene with despair.

They had no backup plan. If they had, Aed would have put it into action weeks before. Ramsaa could not be taken.

Diarmait had welcomed him in peace, and there would be no bloodshed. Aed would have to content himself with that. He could not openly lead an attack within the walls, or he would be an outcast forever, doubly condemned, for Diarmait was both his kinsman and his host on this night.

Now he had to slink into the fort and spend the night under the mantle of Diarmait’s humiliating hospitality while enduring the jabs of Cormac’s sneers. At most he might hope to sneak Sigefrith’s men out with him when he went slinking away in the morning.

Sneak out the same men that Sigefrith had snuck in. Somewhere on the Irish Sea, Earl Eirik was already laughing.

Somewhere on the Irish Sea, Earl Eirik was already laughing.

But while Aed considered his meager options—while Congal loped up the river bank, Mael Muad frowned and Feddach reeled, and Cormac and Lorccan sailed helplessly past the gate—Diarmait had continued hunting through his clothing for whatever had caught Aed’s eye. Mac Nuadu stood ready to serve him, head cocked, offering the occasional bit of advice and picking away a stray tuft of down.

Perhaps Diarmait had seen a flash of metal, or mac Nuadu had, or Diarmait had simply felt the jagged thing poking him through his shirt. Or perhaps Eirik’s uncanny luck rubbed off on the men who worked with him, for Diarmait plucked the little brass dog out of his own collar and held it out into the light of the sun. It had not fallen on the ground, but slipped down into his tunic.

“It was in my shirt the whole time,” Diarmait said, velvety-​voiced and calm.

'It was in my shirt the whole time.'

Aed was aghast. Was that all? Eirik had not been able to predict his reaction, but a reaction there was supposed to be!

Then Gaethine coughed another warning, and Aed noticed Diarmait’s men backing away from him. They knew something he did not.

Aed recovered at once and returned to his story. “Ach, it’s only brass! I thought it was gold.”

Diarmait fluttered his lashes like a man trying to wake.

Aed asked sweetly, “Is it being a wolf, then? Better hide it from Congal.”

Diarmait staggered back, as if trying to escape his own uplifted hand. The hand followed. And Diarmait shrieked once—a lone, pitiful wail like the death cry of gentle beasts when they are crushed in the maw of a predator.

The men who stood at a distance came closer, the men who were nearest stepped back, and Aed was transfixed, wondering at what he had just wrought. Diarmait fell to his knees and laid his laureled forehead against the hem of Aed’s kilt, sobbing like a girl.

Diarmait fell to his knees.

Disgust, pity, and humiliation roiled together in Aed’s heart until he felt only mud. Diarmait blubbered and begged Aed to save him, to spare him, to take him home.

Aed went rigid, as if that could stop Diarmait’s grasping hands from reaching him, as if that could make his shame slide off of him like water.

Treachery and lies. This was Eirik’s game, not his, and Eirik was using him like a pawn. The puling, pink-​cheeked brat was at his feet, the gates of Ramsaa were open, and Aed only felt disgust, pity, and humiliation for himself. Not even at a distance, nor in secret, nor at a remove did Aed want anything to do with the sort of trauma that could leave a man so worm-​eaten that he would collapse at a touch. He did not even want to deliver the touch.

He stared straight ahead and growled, “Get him off of me.”

'Get him off of me.'

Fedacch was already bending over Diarmait’s sobbing shoulder. Mael Muad slipped between Gaethine and Aed to help at Diarmait’s other side. Aed heard Congal’s feet thundering down the wharf.

The two men heaved Diarmait to his feet between them, and they led him staggering and stumbling up the hill, wracked and wrung-​out with sobs.

The two men heaved Diarmait to his feet between them.

From behind, the sight of him touched the sore spot in Aed’s heart worn by witnessing Gaethine’s fits of coughing, and he felt a twinge of the same helpless anguish as he watched Diarmait go. The same sense that there was something he could do, and the same fear of doing it.

In shame he looked away, and there before him was a towering, bull-​necked, redheaded man who was self-​evidently Muirgius.

Aed set his mouth into a firm line. “Muirgius, son of Demmain?” he asked.

Muirgius nodded.

Muirgius nodded.

Aed clenched his fist and whacked it against his heart, more violently than necessary—not that it helped.

“Lord,” he said, “I greet you.” This time he chose the Gaelic word.

Muirgius hesitated for the space of a breath or two. Mac Nuadu had heard, and he stopped halfway up the hill and looked back. Congal pulled up panting behind Aed. Diarmait’s blubbering was all but silenced as he passed through the gate and turned into the fort. And Cormac and Lorccan might well have crowded into the Shetlander’s stern, but the moment had passed them by.

Muirgius banged his wrist against his breast. “Lord, I welcome you to Ramsaa.”

And so it was done.

“I would speak to you,” Aed said. His heart was grim. He would do what had to be done.

Muirgius lifted his ginger brows and nodded.

“In your hall, perhaps,” Aed suggested. “The sun is setting, and the nights are cold.”

'In your hall, perhaps.'

“In my hall,” Muirgius repeated. He looked past Aed at the men who were edging their way up the wharf, and beyond to the Dreambreaker just then coming into dock with a crescendo of creaks and shouts and splashes. “We offer you all our hospitality.”

Aed said, “We reckon the honor.”

He also reckoned the obligation. There must be no bloodshed within those walls.

“Come.” Muirgius turned and started up the hill. His eyes were lifted to the crenellated silhouette of the ramparts, admiring the black bulk of his fort against the evening sky.

Aed turned and shoved Eochaid along in his place. He supposed it would be a moment before Muirgius had the eyes to notice that the black-​kilted man beside him was no longer Lord Aed. Aed needed to speak to Congal.

“What did I miss?” Congal begged. “Jesus Christ! Did a mouse run up his skirts or what? Poor lassie!”

Aed needed to speak to Congal.

“Never mind for now,” Aed said low. “Have you the horn?”

Congal patted his coat. “Safe and snug right next to my titty.”

“You are a pearl. Now get in there and find the other one for me. If you’re seeing Fedacch, tell him to stay with Diarmait, and keep him out of his rooms. The horn is probably there.”

“I shall ask his wife!” Congal said, speaking with a little too much enthusiasm.

“Don’t touch her, for Christ’s sake.”

'Don't touch her, for Christ's sake.'

“Ach! I shan’t hurt her!”

“Don’t pleasure her either, aye? Don’t even try. Jesus. Think you can behave for half an hour?”

“Are you wanting the horn or aren’t you? Send Gaeth if you want a man who’ll keep his paws off the womenfolk.”

He drew back his arm and smacked Gaethine’s unsuspecting ass. Gaethine stopped and turned back, snarling. Congal said, “’Twas Aed,” as he passed him, without breaking stride.

Aed hissed, “Will you be serious for a moment? We haven’t time!”

'Will you be serious for a moment?'

“I am serious. I am so fucking serious you cannot even appreciate how serious I am from this close up. I won’t touch the wife, but I’m keeping all the silver I find.”

That, Aed thought, was all Congal had ever been after. “Fine! Done! But bring me the false horn as soon as you’re finding the other one. You can go a-​plundering after.”

“Ach!” Congal shook his head. “One of these days we must straighten out your priorities. Behold! The gates of Ramsaa are open before you, my Lord Aed, and we never wetted a blade. Only wish I could say the same of my feet.”

He kicked out with one of his wet, sand-​caked boots, showing off a leg that was black with the dense hair plastered against the skin.

Aed clapped his friend’s wolf-​pelted shoulder and tried to smile. They had entered into Ramsaa as Eirik had promised, without a fight, their blades clean.

But Aed felt a stain spreading through his soul, and in his heart there stirred beetle-​black shiverings of fear.

Aed felt a stain spreading through his soul.