Ramsaa, Isle of Man

Cormac was following him.

Cormac was following him.

Cormac had kept out of the way and scarcely said a word since he had stepped off the Shetlander, but now that Aed was at last going up to meet Muirgius, Cormac simply fell in behind him, like a tick dropping out of a thornbush onto the back of a passing stag.

Aed could not stand him.

Aed could not stand the man, but he could not blame him, either. It was just what Aed himself had always done.

Muirgius stooped and stretched out a hand to help Aed climb onto the platform. It was more than courtesy required and might have seemed a friendly gesture, if not for Muirgius’s elevated position and unsparing grip.

Aed thanked him with a sharp nod and turned his stare to the young man at Muirgius’s right. Muirgius took the hint.

“My son, Cinaed.”

Cinaed bowed. Aed waited until he straightened before sticking out his hand.

Cinaed’s brows expressed his surprise at the attention, but his handshake was solid. They stood at the same height, and Aed was not attempting to crush his hand; he simply liked the quiet, confident look of the fellow and wanted to make his acquaintance. Already he was adjusting his plans.

Aed said, “Glad to meet you.”

Cinaed bowed his head again. He had a way of receding into the background without moving from the spot. “My lord.”

Aed turned to smile at Muirgius. Muirgius had stepped closer to the torch, and Aed followed. Sure enough Cormac stepped up into the space he had left on the platform. Aed did not indulge him with a glance.

He said to Muirgius, “I wager you a silver penny I know what you were thinking just now.”

'I know what you were thinking just now.'

Muirgius lifted his brows in the same look of surprise as his son’s, and he recovered just as quickly. “Try me.”

“You were just thinking: ‘I’m old enough to be your father, you impertinent little twit.’”

Muirgius stared. Then he chuckled and opened the purse on his belt. “Did I think ‘twit?’”


Muirgius flipped a coin into the air. Aed clapped his palms together and caught it.

“I knew your father, lad,” Muirgius said. “Before you were ever thought of. I knew your brother Aed very well.”

Aed felt himself flicker. His brother the ghost had been summoned.

'Aed felt himself flicker.'

“Did you, then?” he asked. “What were you thinking of him?”

Muirgius’s eyes narrowed, but the wrinkles at their corners hinted at a sense of humor. He answered, “Impertinent little twit.”

Aed smiled without feeling a smile. He might easily have changed the subject, but he labored on, intent on proving a point it pained him to believe. He owed his existence to the death of a brother he had never seen.

“My father was always saying how my brother’s soul had come back to the earth in me.”

Muirgius shook his head. “Your brother never once looked a man in the eyes the way you’ve looked into mine tonight. And I wasn’t half as big nor ugly then as I am today.”

'I wasn't half as big nor ugly then as I am today.'

“Ah, but my brother’s soul is now forty years old.”

“May it find peace in the Lord,” Muirgius said, slowly and stubbornly. “But you’re your own man, son of Aengus. If there’s any other man inside you, it’s being he.”

Aed’s heart swelled in his chest until it hurt to breathe. He looked down and inspected the thin silver coin: the worn, crude minting of some long-​dead Saxon king. It had probably come to Man in a sack full of ransom, or as part of a Danegeld paid to keep ravaging Norsemen away for another year. The royal face was wide-​eyed and gaunt. The cross and initials on the reverse were tarnished from centuries of treachery and fear.

Aed lifted his head and flipped the coin back to Muirgius. “Let’s call it even. I was wrong about the ‘twit.’”

Muirgius smiled.

Aed pointed behind his shoulder with this thumb. “I don’t suppose you could be telling me what just happened out there?”

Muirgius fixed a keen gaze on him and paused with his hand still hovering over his opened purse. “I wager a silver penny you could tell me.”

'I wager a silver penny you could tell me.'

Aed met his stare. “I haven’t the slightest idea what could make a man fall apart at the sight of a little toy dog. Even a jumpy fellow like Diarmait. Is he so terrified of Earl Eirik?”

Muirgius dropped the coin into his purse and yanked the drawstring closed. “Every day, for the last twelve days, Diarmait was finding him such a ‘little toy dog.’ In his plate or beneath his pillow or elsewise near his person, and he never saw how they came to be there. Today’s was the tenth and three.”

Muirgius patted his purse and gave Aed a cruel smile.

“I wager thirty pieces of silver you must be feeling a bit like the Iscariot now.”

Aed felt the blood drain from his face. Tenth and three. The Iscariot. There were words so dire the superstitious Gaels of Man dared not even speak them aloud.

Thirteen. Judas. And some ally of Eirik had been in the fort for at least twelve days, setting Aed up for this. Someone who might yet be nigh.

Some ally of Eirik had been in the fort for at least twelve days.

“I win,” Muirgius said. Feral wrinkles framed his smile. “I reckon you’ve thirty pieces of silver on you, lad. Or haven’t they been delivered yet?”

Aed shook his head, calculating his reply. He had to walk a tightrope of truth, with a pit of deceit and treachery on either side.

“I only saw one dog,” he said. “I don’t know anything about thirteen.”

“Tss!” Muirgius jerked back his head, annoyed that Aed had even said the word in his hall.

Aed wished he could have avoided bringing up Diarmait entirely, but it would hardly have been like an innocent man not to mention Diarmait’s odd behavior.

He asked, “I gather Diarmait is unwell in his mind?” He stepped closer and added softly, “Seems to run in the family. His sister, aye? Erratic, even violent. A pity, truly.”

'I gather Diarmait is unwell in his mind?'

Muirgius grunted.

Aed stepped back, opening up a safe space between them again. “We shall offer him a passage home, of course, since he seems eager to go.”

Muirgius did not appear impressed, but his eyes were keen. He was listening. He would let Aed take the lead.

Aed turned towards the center of the hall: towards light, towards openness, towards their people. He had judged that Muirgius would follow his movement, and he did.

'But ashamed as I am to arrive as I did...'

“But ashamed as I am to arrive as I did,” Aed said, lilting to show how little ashamed he was, “and grateful as I am for your hospitality, I’m glad you and I shall have a chance to talk. It’s time we were meeting, you and I.”

“Is it, now?”

'Is it, now?'

Aed took a first step down onto the bench below, and Muirgius followed.

“Aye. For spring’s a-​coming, and ships will be moving again. Whitehand’s ships, and Brass Dog’s ships, and who can say what ships will be coming from the Norselands ere long?”

Together they stepped down onto the dirt floor. Aed’s voice was just loud enough that the men and women in the hall could hear his words if they were silent and listened well. The men and women were quite still.

“When I want to be alone and think a bit,” Aed said, “I like to climb up into the hills behind home to visit the holy stones. And from thence, on a clear day, I can see Sky Hill, and on a clear night I can almost see the fires of Ramsaa. And are you knowing what I’m thinking then?”

Muirgius frowned. “I wager a silver penny I won’t like it.”

'I wager I won't like it.'

Aed flashed him a grin. “I’m looking out across the water, and I’m a-​thinking: if I only reached out my arm…”

He stretched his arm out towards the fire and wriggled his fingers, grasping at the air. The people watched, captivated, all but one.

Beyond the fire, Tuathal son of Nuadu spoke up at last, in a sharp, sneering tone that carried far in spite of his pretense of a grumble. “…I could take it,” he concluded.

'...I could take it.'

Aed went on staring at his outstretched hand, and after a first flutter of glances the people followed his lead.

Aed said, “I’m thinking… Ach! Damn it, lad! Your arm’s still too short.” He snatched a handful of nothing and pulled his arm back for a clownishly frowning inspection.

Eochaid laughed. Many of the people tittered—not only his own men, Aed noted, but folk from Ramsaa: lean, mustached warriors and their women in their colorful shawls. They looked relaxed and warm, unlike the gray-​faced, wide-​eyed wraiths outside who had stared at Aed from alleyways and beneath drooping eaves. Was it because they were in the cozy hall? Or was it because they were taking a liking to him?

“But!” Aed said to Muirgius, “then I’m a-​thinking, if only there were another man reaching out in friendship on the far side, I reckon our hands might meet in the middle. And with two strong arms spanning the waters, what ships will sail through then?”

'What ships will sail through then?'

Muirgius grunted and worked his jaw, but he was slow to respond. He was either a dull-​witted, shallow-​thinking man, or else he was considering the possibilities at great speed while carrying on a surly conversation. Aed suspected the latter.

“And when your arm’s a little longer, lad? Then you reach across the waters and strangle me?”

Aed smiled. “Then you’d best keep a firm grip on my hand.”

Muirgius snorted, and a few men laughed aloud. Aed glanced back and saw Cormac shadowing him, looking useless, and an inscrutable Gaethine standing on a chest, halfway between platform and dirt floor. He also thought he saw a flash of amusement pass over Cinaed’s face, though it vanished as soon as he looked directly at it.

Aed glanced back and saw Cormac shadowing him.

His plan was going well. Aed had prepared perhaps a dozen different speeches, depending on his reception, and he was able to use the easiest and most affable. After months of Diarmait, the people of Ramsaa were eager to like him. Muirgius was interested but intended to let him lead. It was going almost better than he had dared plan.

“And how firm is your arm?” Muirgius asked, hiding worlds of questions beneath his grumble. “And how firm are you thinking mine is? How many ships are you seeing in the harbor of Ramsaa, Hawkeyes, from up there on your holy hill?”

“Between the two of us I reckon we have as many ships as Eirik.”

“Are you? I must be going blind in my old age, then, for I’m thinking no.”

Aed said, “I’ve seven here and six at home, and I counted at least ten longships in the river.”

“Aye, and five of those come from Cu Mara of Mull.”

“Ach! Aren’t you counting them, then?”

“No, lad, I haven’t been. But I could.”

'But I could.'

He spoke this last so slowly that Aed was certain he was meant to understand something ominous. Did Muirgius mean that Cu Mara of Mull would come in with them? Or that Muirgius was willing to steal five ships from the old dog?

Aed was not certain, so he changed the subject.

“And I’ve made another reckoning that may interest you. It appears to me that you’re having more men than ships. And I, I’m having more ships than I’ve men to sail them with.”

You are?” Muirgius asked.

Aed took the hint. “Lord Aed, of course. But since my father’s time my family has commanded his fleet. As you might recall, since you knew him.”

Muirgius grunted.

Aed heard a set of knuckles crack behind him—Cormac again, making himself felt, burrowing down into Aed’s fur.

Aed heard a set of knuckles crack behind him.

Without the sixty men Cormac had brought, Aed could not even have assembled crews for seven ships. It was men Aed needed—hordes of warriors faithful to him, so that he could rid himself of his life’s burden of parasites, once and for aye.

“Your men, my ships,” Aed said, curt and serious now. “Ramsaa, Carn Liath, and my cliff fort on the Machars. A stretch of sea between us, and no safe harbor for pirates on either side. Together we’re more than twice as strong as either of us separately. That’s what I’m seeing from my holy hill.”

'That's what I'm seeing from my holy hill.'

Muirgius shook his head. “You want my men so you can go abroad and conquer.”

“Are your men averse to silver and slaves?”

A few of Muirgius’s men grumbled that they were, in fact, not.

Muirgius said, “My men are Gaels. And you’re talking like a Norseman.”

“And we’re surrounded by true Norsemen who don’t give a fuck for the ways of the Gaels, and what are you going to do about them, Muirgius? Send your shepherds against them, leading armies of sheep? Send your fisherman against drakkars in their little two-​oared skiffs?”

'What are you going to do about them, Muirgius?'

Muirgius’s men—Muirgius’s own men—shouted a protest. Muirgius’s own men were rallying behind Aed. Things were going almost too well. He did not want a rebellion.

Aed said, “I see nothing but warriors here! What does a shepherd become if Norsemen chase him from the hills? What does a fisherman become if Norsemen chase him from the sea? He can lie down and die, or he can get up and fight!”

Men and women alike shouted their desire to fight. Muirgius still appeared unmoved.

Aed said, “I see men here who want to defend their homeland and their Gaelic ways, and they’re just looking for a man to lead the fight. A good man.”

Muirgius said, “You, in other words.”

'You, in other words.'

“They’re not wanting a stranger, are they? Are you?” Aed opened out his arms and looked around the hall. “Are you?” he asked the guards who stood behind him. “Are you?” he asked the startled priest.

The people did not. A few shouted, “No!” and the hall grew loud with rippling murmurs, but more than one man looked not at Muirgius but at Tuathal son of Nuadu. Aed would have to root out that idea before it began to bloom. He did not want a civil war either.

“He!” He pointed back at Cinaed. Every gaze followed. Nothing on Cinaed moved but his eyes, and he did not seem to know where to look.

“My son,” Muirgius said, “is only seventeen years old.”

“And? I was seventeen when I won the Machars.”

“There are twenty sheep for every warrior on the Machars!”

'There are twenty sheep for every warrior on the Machars!'

“Ach! That’s a fact,” Aed said, shaking his head. “It’s a fact I’ve more mutton than bellies to fill. And with so many pirates in the sea I cannot even sell it. What’s to do?”

Aed looked ruefully around the hall, as if inviting suggestions. He looked especially at the women who clustered in the shadowy corners near the foot of the hall.

Aed had seen abiding hunger on the faces of the children he had met outside. Out of compassion he had ordered his men to eat like birds tonight and in the morning, against the promise of a feast once they were home. But he was capable of using famished children to his advantage, too.

“Silver, slaves, and mutton,” he said to Muirgius. “Or, you can wait until spring and let Whitehand solve your problems for you. He’ll either give you more ships and more mutton, or slay your sailors and run swords through your children’s hungry bellies. One or the other.”

Aed shrugged at Muirgius and turned back to Muirgius’s son.

“What say you, Cinaed? Is a fellow a boy at seventeen, or is he a man?”

Cinaed said nothing.

Muirgius said, “Cinaed is my only son alive.”

'Cinaed is my only son alive.'

Muirgius’s tone was ominous. He did not sound like a father pleading for his son. Aed looked around at him, wondering what he was supposed to understand.

“And I’m the last living man of my line,” Aed said. “Are you saying we should be wrapped in gauze and deposited in a gilt box beneath an altar?”

Muirgius said, “The brother of you was once your father’s only son alive.”

Again Aed felt the icy draft of another’s soul blowing over him, seeking out his cracks.

Muirgius lowered his head. Aed closed his eyes.

Aed was so chilled by Muirgius's speech.

Muirgius asked, “Want to know what I’m really thinking when I’m looking at you, Hawkeyes? I’m thinking, I love my son better than my own life, but I ought to learn from your father’s sorrows and have another son before I’m too old to see him grow into a man. That’s what I’m thinking. So you’re owing me a piece of silver, you poor unhappy lad. And I want Sadb to wife.”

Aed was so chilled by Muirgius’s speech that he feared he had misunderstood its conclusion.

He asked softly, “Sadb of Mull?”

“Sadb of Ramsaa.”

Aed shook his head, trying to clear it. “Diarmait’s wife?”

Muirgius was silent.

Aed said, “It’s a married woman she is.”

“Aye. For now.”

'Aye.  For now.'

Aed did not know what to say. Was Muirgius menacing to kill Diarmait? Did he believe Aed meant to do it? Or was this merely some sort of bare-​knuckled bargaining? A face-​saving refusal, by means of demanding something Aed was not prepared to give?

“Tomorrow,” Aed said, “I will be taking Diarmait home to Three Winds, where he may rest, and God willing, find some peace in this world. And Sadb his wife shall go with him. This I swear.”

Muirgius took a deep breath and slowly let it out, but this was nothing like a sigh. “She is wasted at Three Winds.”

Behind them Gaethine’s deep voice rose out of the silence to intone: “They are no more twain, but one flesh. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

The chubby little Manx priest sat up, as if startled awake, and concluded with a quavering, “Amen!”

Aed bit back a grin at this comical conclusion.

Aed bit back a grin at this comical conclusion, but he let out a quiet sigh of relief. He had been more conscious of Cormac needling him at his back, but Gaethine’s quiet presence steadied him like a hand on his shoulder, so warm that he knew it had been there all along.

Aed composed his face into a sober expression so that he could nod at the priest, and hardened it as he looked back to Muirgius. But before he could change the subject, they all turned to see the source of a commotion down at the end of the hall. Muffled shouts outside grew sharp and clear as the great doors swung wide.

The brassy sun was setting behind the hall, and in its cool shadows every face outside had the color of verdigris. They seemed an angry crowd of corpses milling around one oblivious phantom, until the phantom strode into the hall and took on the color of Congal. The silver collar of a drinking horn flashed brighter than the eyes of a wolf.

Congal had found the horn of Mael na mBo.

Congal had found the horn of Mael na mBo. This was not it.

Congal was bringing him the false horn to be destroyed before the eyes of the people. Eirik had insisted on a “drowning” in the river, and Aed admitted it a fitting end. The horn embodied the sins of the people of Ramsaa. Behind those wraith-​like faces Aed had seen terrified souls that had comprehended their own savagery. By ridding them of Diarmait and by destroying the so-​called horn, Aed would set them free.

Aed would set them free.

By now Aed was tempted to destroy the true horn with it, for all the sorrow it had caused. But everything was going so well, it would cost him little to obey Eirik’s simple requests. He knew he was being used, but in his unhappy life Aed had learned how to suck blood from his own parasites. He was using Eirik right back.

The people gasped and whispered, but they all withdrew, parting before Congal and letting him pass unmolested as if they feared to touch even the sleeve of a man who held the ancient horn.

Aed could not have asked for better. Everything, he thought, was going according to plan.

And sure enough, that was when everything went wrong.

That was when everything went wrong.