Ramsaa, Isle of Man

Tuathal son of Nuadu had the manners of a treacherous rat.

Tuathal son of Nuadu deserved the face of a treacherous rat. Aed wished he had thought to warn Congal.

Aed wished he had thought to warn Congal.

Congal scrambled up onto his hands and knees, and Aed saw him reach for his knife—saw it just in time to shout, “Hold!”

Congal hesitated, but other knives were drawn. All around Aed saw firelight flashing off steel, and the air hummed with angry voices. In spite of his command, his own men drew their daggers—his household warriors, sworn to defend him—and he grabbed a black-​sleeved arm and shouted again, “Hold!”

Muirgius bellowed, “Nobody draws blades in this hall!”

The hum went silent as if somebody had slammed a lid on it. Tuathal kicked a last scuff of dust at Congal and turned to face down Muirgius.

“Who do you think you are,” he demanded, “to be giving orders in this hall?”

Muirgius said, “Lord here!”

“Lord here?” Tuathal took a step nearer and swung the horn like a scythe before him. His stare said he was mowing down Aed. “Because Eirik’s pet puppy steps off a ship and thumps his chest at you?”

Congal got one boot beneath him and staggered up, brushing the dirt from his knee and growling like a wolf about to leap for the throat. “Who do you think you are, cunt face?”

Tuathal looked down on him, held the horn high, and shouted, “Lord here!”

'Who do you think you are?'

A few of the men lifted their knives and cheered, and Tuathal threw back his head and brandished the horn as if it embodied his victory. All around the hall other men howled their outrage.

In their seething midst Congal put his hand on his knife and glared at Aed, demanding permission to strike. Aed feared the outcome if he so much as blinked in Congal’s direction.

He had to think of something. He would gladly have sat for hours with the two men, discussing who deserved to inherit Ramsaa and how power might most profitably be shared. But he could not spare a second if Tuathal was going to wave that crude forgery over his head. He had but an instant to come up with a plan.

Congal tensed as if he was about to move, in spite of Aed, and then Tuathal screamed.

Tuathal screamed and flung the horn against the wall, and took a breath, and screamed again. His floppy sleeve was on fire, and the harder he flapped his arm, the brighter it burned.

Aed looked to Gaethine, as he did whenever a fire got out of hand or risked going out, but Gaethine was already looking at him.

Gaethine was already looking at him.

Alone in the hall Gaethine was not panicking. The torch at his back flared and crackled, and it framed his head and shoulders with a halo of flame.

Gaethine had lit the fire. Gaethine was giving him a chance.

Gaethine was giving him a chance.

The horn had fallen onto a pile of bedding on the platform that ran the length of the hall, and now it too was on fire, the silver trim shining blindingly bright beneath tall white flames. The tone of the panic was changing from petrified shock to a screaming stampede for the door. Tuathal was howling in pain. Muirgius was shouting for water.

Aed prayed Gaethine knew what he was capable of. He prayed Gaethine could help him if it was not enough.

Aed prayed Gaethine knew what he was capable of.

He leapt over the fire pit and shoved past Muirgius to reach Tuathal. He swept Tuathal’s feet out from under him and pushed him face-​first onto the dirt, as Tuathal had done to Congal moments before.

He hoped the weight of the man’s body would snuff out the flames. He hoped Gaethine would take pity on him, failing that. Aed had no more time to spare him. He grabbed Lorccan’s shoulder and heaved himself up on the platform to confront the burning horn.

He leapt up to confront the burning horn.

The fire was hot and real. Gaethine was no Skorri Snake-​tongue to traffic in magic tricks and illusions. The skin of Aed’s knees seemed to shrink and stretch taut in the searing heat.

The horn lay in the fire’s black maw, surrounded by teeth of flame, and yet it remained unscorched. Gaethine was somehow protecting it. Aed prayed Gaethine was somehow protecting him. He grit his teeth and reached in.

The fire licked up his arm, tasting his sweat, and tongued for more up beneath the rolled cuff of his sleeve. Aed had never before wrestled with an uncontained fire rampaging through such flammable material. This was no domesticated hearth fire, but a wild, hungry thing that did not know man. And Gaethine was not standing beside him to pull his hand to safety. Aed was alone with the beast, and it gripped his arm and squeezed until his scorched skin threatened to burst like a sausage.

Aed tried to grab the horn by the throat, but his scrabbling fingers caught it amidst a handful of blankets. He ripped a sheet of fabric away with it, and the fire dug in its teeth and clung, whirling its tail around Aed’s arm as he raised the horn high.

“Who do you think you are?” he howled. He might have been speaking in tongues, for all he knew what he was saying.

He leapt down from the platform, and seeing Tuathal struggling to rise beside him, he planted his foot on the man’s shoulder and shoved him back down.

He planted his foot on the man's shoulder and shoved him back down.

“This is the horn of kings! Not treacherous rats! Who are you to disgrace it with your hand?”

Everyone else seemed to move so slowly, pitiful in their stupefied panic. Aed imagined he could run circles around them, trailing ribbons of fire, except that his body was rigid with fury. There was a fire in his heart—pure hatred—and he did not even know for whom or what. He simply burned.

Congal watched in grinning admiration, but Aed’s men closed in on him to save him from the fire. He waved them back, slicing the horn through the air like a flaming scythe.

Then the little squealing priest worked up the presence of mind to shriek, “Sorcery! It’s sorcery! It’s the work of the Devil!”


Aed’s own men cringed away from him. The empty space around him broadened as if he were burning a hole into the fabric of the world.

Then, from the half-​way height of his wooden chest, Gaethine thundered, “This is no sorcery!”

For every man who was silenced by his shout, it seemed a startled woman shrieked.

The priest gabbled, “It’s sorcery! It’s sorcery! Can a man hold fire to his bosom and not be burned?”

Gaethine raised his arms. “The Lord said: ‘Fear not! I have redeemed you! When you walk through fire, you will not be burned! The flames will not kindle upon you!’”

He stepped off the chest and strode down the center of the hall. Men hurried to make way for him as if his very gaze were a swinging scythe.

As he passed the priest he shouted, “The Lord said: ‘These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons! They will speak in tongues! They will pick up snakes with their hands, and if they drink deadly poison, they will not be harmed!’”

Gaethine stopped just before the fire pit.

Gaethine stopped just before the fire pit, and the harsh light beneath his chin made empty sockets of his eyes, made him gaunt as a cadaver, like living fever, like walking death. He was a savage, hungry thing who did not know man.

Aed felt hollowed-​out and full of ash. The burning cloth flapped limply against his arm. He was staring into the face of the beast that was devouring his friend.

And then the Gaethine-​eater cocked its head at him, and the firelight sparkled over its golden eyes, and he was Gaethine again, with Gaethine’s customary expression: alive and alert and out of patience with Aed for being such a blundering dolt.

Gaethine was trying to give him a chance, and Aed was standing there with his toy horn and his smoldering cloth, looking around him as if the room were full of ants and he had nothing better to do than watch. Horn of kings indeed.

Aed was standing there with his toy horn and his smoldering cloth.

Aed raised the horn high and shouted, “Here is your sorcery!”

A group of men who had run in carrying buckets stumbled over each other as they skidded to a halt. From the door they must only have seen a lunatic waving fire over his head.

Aed shook the horn towards the door for their special benefit. “Here is your Devil’s work!”

Gaethine—with the unwitting cooperation of the squawking priest—had given Aed an opening to recite the very speech he had prepared for the occasion, the only wrinkle being that his arm was now on fire. Such was the nimble mind of Gaethine.

“You welcomed sin among you! You opened your gates to infamy! It is not a horn you hear blowing, but the voices of murdered children, crying out to the Lord!”

'You welcomed sin among you!'

With his slight voice and boyish face Aed could not preach hellfire and damnation like Gaethine. Perhaps the people would not have been convinced if everything had gone according to plan. But it was hard to argue with a man who was waving around a fistful of fire and not getting burned.

Near the door an old woman quavered, “Lord ha’ mercy on us!”

“Lord have mercy on us!” Aed repeated like a battle cry.

He had almost forgotten that the horn he held was only a fraud, and that the true horn—perhaps no farther away than beneath Congal’s coat—was only a harmless heirloom that Brass Dog wanted for a trophy. It all seemed so urgent and real. He could not even have said whom he was serving with this farce—himself, Earl Eirik, the murdered children, or the Lord.

The burning scrap of blanket was nearly falling to pieces, so he hurriedly stuffed it into the throat of the horn. He lifted it high again, a cup brimming with smoke and flame, and shouted, “Will you cast out this instrument of sin?”

Murmuring voices rose all around him, filling the hall with an indecipherable hum. But Aed was a leader of men, of warriors, and he knew the dire note their voices struck when their whimpering fear turned into resolution.

Aed’s boots crunched through the cinders strewed around the fire pit, and the men melted away from him, all but Congal, who stood his ground and grinned.

Aed stepped past the fire pit.

The hands that had waved knives only moments before now traced the sign of the Cross all around him, and some of the women made goat horns with their fingers to protect them from the evil he carried.

The priest finally got his wits together and bleated, “Cast it out! Cast it into the river!” Aed could not have asked for better. That had been his plan all along.

Aed could not have asked for better.

A path had opened clear to the door, and Aed broke into a jog. The chilly evening air stunned him like a pail of water, and he hesitated just outside, wondering which gates were still open and what was the quickest path to the river.

Then he smelled something new. Something like burning hair.

Once out into the cold air he paused.

The yellowed, age-​burnished horn was blackening before his eyes. The dark smoke it spewed was vile. Whatever Gaethine had been doing to protect it had stopped working. The fire had slipped its leash. It had consumed the scrap of wool Aed had fed it, and now it hungered for him.

Aed sprinted for the ladder leaned up against the river wall. As he left the hall behind he heard Gaethine’s muffled shout: “Aed!”

Aed ran. It was too late for that. He clambered one-​handed up the ladder, waving a cupful of liquid heat that overbrimmed with smoke and shimmering air. The silver fittings were hot enough to blister his skin.

Nothing Gaethine had taught him could help him with this, any more than a calmly-​spoken “Sit!” would have stopped the charge of a wolf. This was not the tame fire on his hearth, which sat up on command and licked his hands. This was a wild thing that hated man.

The guard post hung far out over the wall.

The guard post hung far out over the wall, and Aed could see a thirty-​foot drop through the cracks between the creaking boards. The sun was so low that the water lay in shadow, dull and green as ancient bronze until it reached the crashing surf and burst into showers of gold. Its plash and babble in the reeds below him chilled him like the maunderings of murdered souls.

He whispered, “Lord have mercy on us,” and hurled the false trumpet through the bars.

The doomed thing spread its wings of fire and soared out to meet its reflection in the river, blazing like a torch and shining like a star.

The doomed thing spread its wings of fire.