Ramsaa, Isle of Man

How did one tell a lady her man was no man?

How did one tell a lady her man was no man?

Aed thought he should have said it at the first opportunity: “No, lady, you cannot see him now. Perhaps later, after we’ve finished bandaging up the four-​inch gash he just sliced into his own fucking wrist. Have a pleasant night. Give a shout if you’re needing anything.”

Fuck Diarmait. Aed did not know why he was protecting him. The truth was going to come out when Diarmait’s wound was revealed, and then what? Was Aed going to pretend he had injured Diarmait himself, in a fair fight? Diarmait did not deserve that. Neither did Aed.

His heavy head tilted to the right, straining the tendons on the left side of his neck. Heeling to starboard, nodding gently fore and aft. From moment to moment Aed forgot he was not on a ship. His body was a hollow craft floating on waves of sleep.

But he must not sleep. He straightened his head and blinked.

He straightened his head and blinked.

In the dimming light, the sleeping men were but dark hummocks casting darker shadows. Only Gaethine remained distinct. Aed might have kept himself awake counting every sooty black hair of his head, numbering it and naming it like the Lord.

Gaethine was basking in the heat of the embers, and still he lay shivering, curled up tight as a knot pulled taut at both ends. He had been so offended at Aed’s offer of an extra blanket that he had tossed off the first blanket out of spite.

Fuck Gaethine.

The back of Aed’s skull smacked against the wall and he grunted awake. He straightened his long knife in his lap to prevent it from falling and waking his men with its clatter. Only a few more hours of this.

Only a few more hours of this.

His own breath was loud in his ears, a hissing ebb and flow like water rushing past the steering oar of a ship. The throaty breathing of a dozen sleeping men sounded like the waves. A distant sharp cry was a gull.

Sadb’s room was a bubble of peace. Aed had not heard a sound within for some time. The lady must have fallen asleep at last, flanked on her borrowed mattress by two maids. Even the men from Mull who had stayed with her had stopped muttering, and must have stretched out on their bedrolls and slept.

It was Sadb that Aed was protecting.

Peace. It was Sadb that Aed was protecting with his failure to tell the truth. She had told Congal she was with child—and God help him if Aed ever learned it was to shield herself from his ardor. Now, though, if anything happened to the child, Aed would have the guilt of that too.

Fuck Diarmait, and fuck Eirik, and fuck everyone. Diarmait could wear a shirt with long sleeves until he made it home to Three Winds, and then he could tell her or not, in his own way, and deal with his own fucking consequences. If the baby was born whole he could ask Eirik to be the godfather. Eirik had already equipped the little monster with thirteen toys.

Aed heard a thumping like a loose rope whipping against the mast. He forced his eyes open and looked for a man he could order to take care of it. He saw only a dark room, still as even a flat-​bottomed boat on a calm lake can never be. And yet the thumping went on, getting louder. Feet on the stairs.

Aed sheathed his knife and scrambled up. The door flew open, revealing a stocky silhouette against a starry slit of sky.

'Aed!  You have to come.'

“Aed! You have to come. Diarmait’s dead.”

The voice was trembling with agitation and soft with the secrecy of night, but Aed knew the man. “Eochaid?”

“Aye, lad. You have to come down. They’ve killed Diarmait.”



Aed choked out but the one word before he was gripped by a tingling shock. At his feet, Gaethine heaved a sigh and ran his hand back through his hair until his fingers tangled in the curls.

One of the woken men asked, “Who’s ‘they?’”

The sound of another man speaking for him snapped Aed out of his paralysis.

“Keep it down,” he said, pointing with his thumb at the door to Sadb’s room.

He hefted his sword belt and stepped out of the corner. He put out a hand as he passed Gaethine, forgetting that Gaethine was likely still sore at him over the blanket.

But Gaethine took his hand and let him pull him to his feet. It was true that Gaethine usually refrained from acting like a prick when the life in danger was not his own.

Gaethine took his hand and let him pull him to his feet.

“Morrann and Cuan, you’re with me,” Aed said as he strode past the shadows of his men, every one distinguishable by the whites of eyes or the glinting flat surface of a blade. “Senchan, take a friend and go find Congal and send him to me. And then find Cormac and Lorccan.”

Eochaid interrupted, “Cormac’s already down there.”

Aed’s fist clenched, making his sword twitch. He should have known. Fuck Cormac.

“Aye, then find Lorccan for me, and keep an eye on him.” Aed paused in the doorway and turned back. “And the rest of you, stay here to protect the lady, and don’t say a word to her about what’s happening out there. And don’t open her door for anyone unless he’s being me.”

Aed turned again and charged through the door, leaving Eochaid to scoot out of his way.

“Who’s ‘they?’” Aed growled. “Muirgius?”

'Who's they?'

“We aren’t knowing. There were a lot of them, they said, bust in there, all masked and in black. It’s Diarmait they were going for, but they killed one of the men guarding the door, and another’s in a bad way, and they nearly brained Fedacch…”

Aed thundered down the stairs, leaving Eochaid far behind. The salty mist clung to his face and collarbone like chill sweat. It was not yet dawn.

He jogged between dying campfires and empty bedrolls to join the crowd gathered about the guard house door, just below the platform from which Aed had hurled the flaming horn into the river. The memory of that feat seemed to strike them all as Aed stumbled into their midst. Wide-​eyed men drew back from him like grease fleeing a drop of soap, until they regrouped and closed into a wide ring around him. In Ramsaa he walked within a bubble of awe.

In Ramsaa he walked within a bubble of awe.

Aed ignored the open door and called, “Cormac!”

A head shot up from the jumble of men squatting over a body. Aed had nearly stumbled right over him.

Cormac growled, “It’s about fucking time.”

'It's about fucking time.'

The man on the ground lifted his arm to Aed and said, “Lord!”

Aed elbowed his way in beside Cormac and reached out to clasp it, but the fellow pulled his hand back, wheezing an apology, and wiped it on his shirt. He had forgotten it was wet with his own blood. He had forgotten, too, that he was only a farmer, possessed of but a few cattle, and Aed was a lord, and farmers did not paw at lords.

So Aed pulled the man’s hand up himself and clasped it, blood and calluses and all. It was one of Cormac’s men, and Aed could not recall his name—he relied on Gaethine for names—but he remembered from what hill the man hailed, and that he doted on his two daughters, and that his father had been a great warrior and his son had inherited his sword. Aed was no good with names, but he was quick to get acquainted.

“You, good sir,” Aed said dryly, “look like an eyewitness.”

The man managed an ironic smile, though his lips were tight with suppressed pain. “Aye, lord, you might say I was there. There was six or eight of them at least, with swords and axes armed. They just came out of nowhere, out of the night… All black, even to their faces…”

He grimaced, and his eyes clamped shut, either from a new crest of pain or a memory of horror.

Aed asked, “Any of them especially big or tall?” He was thinking of Muirgius.

The man opened his eyes and stared past Aed’s head at the starry sky, seeking to remember. “Ach… mayhap one or two…”

Aed shook his head and patted the back of the man’s fist. “Nay, man, do not try too hard, or you’ll be remembering things you’re thinking I want to hear. If you’re thinking of something that may help, you send for me, aye? Take it easy now. You’ll be back with your girls in no time.”

The man looked into Aed’s eyes and gave him a smile that was both proud and shy. In an instant Aed had memorized every suntanned wrinkle around the man’s eyes, every spoke of brown in his golden irises. Aed patted his hand a last time and stood, still smiling.

And he was nearly tackled by Cormac, who leapt up from his crouch and crashed his shoulder into Aed’s belly. Aed staggered back and recovered, but Cormac shoved him along, snarling into his face, butting his chest into Aed’s like a demented goat.

Take it easy now!” Cormac hissed. “You smug little fucker! He’s going nowhere in no time but death! It’s a belly wound he’s having, and if I’m not letting him bleed to death right here and now, he’ll be dying in agonies of fever for days!”

'It's a belly wound he's having.'

Now Aed understood why Cormac had driven him away from the man’s side.

Cormac grabbed a fistful of Aed’s shirt, and Aed considered reminding him he had no more right to manhandle a lord than did the farmer lying at their feet. But he judged that resorting to calling out their difference in rank would only lessen what meager respect Cormac son of Malcolm son of Cormac might have had for him.

Aed shoved him off. “You expected me to tell him that?”

He had not realized the man was mortally wounded, and yet somehow his soul had known. His soul collected memories of dying eyes like luminous beads on a chain. At eighteen his chain was already growing heavy enough to weigh him down. He had not yet learned how to forget, how to get those beads unstrung.

Cormac whispered, “No bloodshed, you said!”

“I can only make promises on my own behalf! Did I kill anyone here? Did we?”

'Did I kill anyone here?  Did we?'

Cormac grasped Aed’s wrist and yanked his hand up between them. “I see blood on your hand, Lord Aed.”

Aed twisted his arm free and turned away. He staggered into the guard house to get away from Cormac, not thinking of what awaited him inside. In the meantime Gaethine had appeared out of nowhere. Out of the night he heard the dying man say.

The first thing Aed saw was Fedacch on the ground, dead or unconscious, slumped back into Lorccan’s arms.

The second thing was Diarmait’s legs trailing out from behind a bed, but Aed immediately let Lorccan capture his attention.

The first thing Aed saw was Fedacch on the ground.

“Christ, Aed! Look at him!” Lorccan whimpered. He looked up. His face was streaked with tears. “They nearly killed him! He’s bleeding all over the place.”

Aed did not see blood on Fedacch, and for a moment he thought Lorccan meant Diarmait, and that Diarmait still lived. Then he remembered what Eochaid had said. Fedacch must have taken a blow to the back of the head.

A man at Fedacch’s side said, “Put him down,” speaking with slow patience, as if he had repeated himself several times already. It was one of Muirgius’s men, and Aed briefly wondered how he had happened to arrive so quickly.

It was one of Muirgius's men.

Lorccan only sobbed, “Uncle!” and bent his head to Fedacch’s. Fedacch’s mouth fell open. His face was gray. He looked dead.

Aed stepped into the little room. It smelled like a battlefield the night after the battle: like a slaughterhouse, like a latrine, like cold, churned-​up mud.

Above the waist Diarmait’s body faded into darkness, whether shadow or blood. Nobody leaned over him, speaking to him or sobbing helplessly. He was either dead or utterly unbeloved among his kin.

Aed stepped closer.

Diarmait was dead.

Diarmait was dead.

The bed cast its dark shadow, but Diarmait was surrounded by a black lake of blood. One arm was missing below the elbow. The other—the arm he had slashed with his knife—was broken and bent back, held together by the bandages. And there was a black cleft where his collarbone should have been.

Aed’s legs wobbled, so he dropped to his knees beside the body. He leaned forward onto one hand—onto his left hand, which was still pink and painful from the burning horn—and for an instant Diarmait’s cold blood felt like a soothing salve. Then, once it bore his weight, his palm burned as if plunged in a lake of fire.

He leaned forward onto one hand.

They had attacked Diarmait with an axe it seemed. A sword could hardly have delivered such blows from such angles, not on a battlefield and still less in the cramped corner of the room.

Deprived even of his knives to prevent him from another attempt on his own life, Diarmait had had nothing wherewith to defend himself but his own forearms, lifted pitifully against a massive, wedge-​shaped blade. One arm had shattered, and then the other, and then a stroke or two had slammed into the corner of his neck, angled less to decapitate him than to split him down the middle like firewood.

Aed leaned still farther, trying to see into the tipped-​back face. He bore heavily on his wounded hand, grateful for the pain.

Aed leaned still farther.

Diarmait had died with his eyes open, and it was Aed who closed them for him with the fingertips of his right hand—the only part of either that was not yet smeared with blood. Diarmait was not yet cold. His skin had the oily, unyielding warmth of beeswax.

Aed planted his other hand on the opposite side of Diarmait’s body and stooped so low that a few strands of hair slipped from his ponytail and trailed through the blood that slicked Diarmait’s mouth and chin.

“Forgive me, Cousin,” he whispered. “I—”

As soon as he inhaled his mouth was full of the taste of Diarmait’s blood. He closed his lips and breathed through his nose, struggling against the need to vomit.

Behind him he heard Lorccan blubbering over Fedacch, and the Manxman trying to calm him enough to let his uncle’s wound be treated. Outside Aed heard for the first time the chilling chorus of dozens of male voices made shrill by fear and horror. This was no battlefield. This was murder.

Aed opened his eyes and exhaled, chasing the scent of blood away with his warm breath. “Forgive me, Cousin,” he whispered again. “I will find the men who did this. I will take your vengeance. I will protect your widow. I will protect your child.”

'I will find the men who did this.'

He remembered Diarmait’s smug, pink-​cheeked greeting in the harbor: In foreign lands a man’s heart is gladdened to meet with even an enemy from among kin.

All at once Aed understood the solitude that had made him say it, and he saw the sense of Diarmait’s desperate act. His soul’s chains had grown so heavy that he had taken his knife and tried to cut his way free. For a few weeks Diarmait had known the terrible loneliness of being a lord. Aed had lost an enemy who ought to have been his friend.

Aed stooped farther still and kissed Diarmait’s pale cheek. And then in the back of his mind he heard Muirgius chuckling. I wager thirty pieces of silver you must be feeling a bit like the Iscariot now.


Aed flung up his head and sat up, propping himself up with his bloody hands on his thighs. His breath was coming fast. A rush of warmth warned him that he was about to be sick.

Aed flung up his head and sat up.

He staggered to his feet and turned to find himself nose-​to-​nose with Gaethine. Gaethine! He had been there all along, his mere presence like a warm hand on Aed’s shoulder.

But Gaethine’s hands were folded before him, and his shadowed expression read only as cold. He looked past Aed and raised three fingers. He had only been waiting for Aed to get out of the way.

He looked past Aed and raised three fingers.

Omnipotens Deus, apud quem vivunt spiritus illorum qui hinc decesserunt…

Aed shuffled past him to find that Eochaid had appeared again, out of the night. Aed charged straight at him, and Eochaid got out of the way in time for Aed to swing himself around the doorframe and vomit in the weeds beside the wall.

He stumbled away from the guard house, and the men withdrew, their hands lifted slightly as if to defend themselves—much as Diarmait must have done in the first instants of the last minute of his life. Aed reckoned he looked a fright, streaked with blood and vomit, and perhaps tears since he dared not touch his face. Cormac looked intimidated by him at last. Aed did not much care.

He made it as far as the great hall before he had to stop and prop himself up against it with both hands, both bloody palms against the rough wood, and the left searing with pain. He fought so hard against a sob that he began to hyperventilate.

He fought so hard against a sob that he began to hyperventilate.

If he could only go back to that moment in the harbor! Even if nothing else changed… even if this was destiny and all of it had to happen again…

A hand fell on his shoulder, and Aed’s spine snapped straight. His breath fell back into a steady rhythm. His quivering lips straightened into a thin line.

Eochaid said, “Aed?”

“Get Morrann and Cuan and two or three of your men, and come with me. There’s being a man who owes me thirty pieces of silver.”

'There's being a man who owes me thirty pieces of silver.'