Ramsaa, Isle of Man

In the doorway Muirgius was all black.

In the doorway Muirgius was all black. His face was a mask of night. He must have been waiting for him.

Aed plunged into unplumbed depths of fear without even a thrash to mark his passing. At the bottom he hung weightless and numb for long seconds, wondering how he had ever supposed he could deal man-​to-​man with a murderer.

Muirgius growled, “What?”

Some unsuspected inner buoyancy lifted Aed out his first terror, or perhaps fear was only another element in which he was learning to breathe.

“Muirgius,” he said in that strange, stony voice of his, “I need to have a word with you.”

'I need to have a word with you.'

Muirgius snorted and stepped back with one foot, waving at the passage behind him. The lamplight within grazed his body, revealing the white corner of one eye, a brown shirt, and his ordinary pale, copper-​speckled skin. He sneered, “Won’t you come in?”

He turned and walked into the cottage. Aed hesitated on the threshold, trying to imagine himself stabbing Muirgius in the back or striking him from behind. But he knew he could never commit such a craven act.

“What in the devil is going on?” Muirgius grumbled.

Aed roused himself and followed him in. “Could we not waste time pretending you—you don’t know?”

'Could we not waste time pretending you don't know?'

Aed was startled again by the sight of Cinaed standing in the furnished half of the house, barefoot and barely dressed, but calm, as if the moment for getting dressed had passed, now and for all time, and he was resigned to going without boots and shirt forever.

For a moment Aed could not fathom what Cinaed was doing in this nightmare. Did murderers have normal, healthy, peaceful-​looking sons? Of course they did.

Muirgius stopped and turned back to Aed. “Could you stop trying to be cute, and just tell me what in the devil’s going on? I thought I heard something getting started out there. I was just putting my boots on.”

“Diarmait’s dead. Somebody broke in there and killed a couple of my guards and hacked Diarmait to pieces.”

'Diarmait's dead.'

A flash of surprise lit Muirgius’s face. It was not the first time Aed had seen it, and it was beginning to seem a weakness, as if Muirgius had moments of vulnerability wherein a good push might suffice to topple him. But it passed in an instant, and indeed it proved nothing. Muirgius might only have been surprised at the hour or the means.

Aed tried Cinaed, but Cinaed was looking at his father. Aed had hardly ever read a proper emotion on Cinaed’s face unless Cinaed was looking directly at him. And even then, those expressions fled as soon as one looked directly at Cinaed.

Eochaid had followed him in, and now he passed between Aed and Cinaed on his way to a pair of crossed axes hanging from the wall. He ran his finger along the back of a blade and inspected his fingertip beneath the lamp.

“Dusty,” he announced.


“Doesn’t mean anything,” Aed said. “He could have dragged them through the straw before hanging them back up.”

He waved at the byre, in which the hindquarters of a few dozing cattle were just visible beyond the shadows.

Muirgius looked at the axes, at the byre, and finally turned his glare upon Aed. “Hold on now, Hawkeyes. Are you accusing me of murder?”

Aed took a breath, but Muirgius lifted a hand to halt him.

“Just think for a moment before you answer, lad. Think hard. That’s not the kind of thing you can take back.”

For now?” Aed demanded. “Remember that?”

'Remember that?'

“Remember what?”

“Sadb’s a married woman, I said. And you said: Aye, for now. Remember?”

Muirgius snorted. “Two words? For that you think I’m a murderer?”

“What was I supposed to think? For now?

“All I meant is, things change. And I guess they just did, at that.” Muirgius indulged in a brief smirk.

“How convenient for you! What a remarkable coincidence, truly!”

'How convenient for you!'

Muirgius sighed. “Tell me, lad: if a tree falls on your land, do you refuse the wood because you didn’t cut it down yourself?”

Aed pointed back at the open door. Between gusts of wind he could just hear the distant rustle of hushed male voices and boots jogging through dead grass—not idle tale-​tellers but men bent to grim tasks.

He said, “That tree didn’t just fall. It was cut down with an axe.”

Muirgius finally scowled. “If I wanted to kill Diarmait, I could have done it a dozen times a day, every day, for the last two months. Why would I wait till now?”

'Why would I wait till now?'

“Ach! I’ve no idea! So I could get the blame?”

“Ach! Now you’re showing some sense. You’re having quite a problem on your hands, laddie. You’d better be finding the man who did it before the brothers of Diarmait are finding you.”

Aed shook his head. “Who had any reason to kill Diarmait but you, Muirgius? He was done here! He was lord of nothing! I was taking him out of here in the morning!”

Aed’s voice was beginning to sound petulant even to himself. Muirgius was checking the knives on his belt, only listening with one ear.

“Quit your gawking and get dressed, you,” he grumbled at his son. “Laddie,” he said to Aed, “there’s more reasons to kill a man than just because he has something you’re wanting. What about vengeance, for one?”

“Who then?”

'Who then?'

Muirgius pulled his belt tight and turned his full attention to Aed. “Diarmait made more enemies in two months than I have in my whole entire life. And that’s not counting the enemies he made before he was ever born. What about those two you brought with you? Cormac and what’s his name? With the curly hair.”

“Lorccan?” Aed shook his head as soon as the name crossed his lips. He felt as if he had let himself be tricked into a hideous accusation—another betrayal of his own kin.

Muirgius asked, “Don’t their daddies want to kill Diarmait’s daddy?”

“Then… let their daddies do it. Besides, why Diarmait? If they want to get their vengeance that way, let them take it against one of Aileann’s sons. Donnchad or Cathal or Comgeall. Someone who wouldn’t even have been born if their grandfather hadn’t been killed. Diarmait is the son of Orlaith, not their grandmother.” Aed winced. “Was.”

“Cormac got to Diarmait first, lord,” Eochaid pointed out. “Before I ever got there.”

Aed turned on him with a snarl. “Just what are you trying to say?”

'Just what are you trying to say?'

“Nothing! I was only saying what I saw…”

Muirgius chuckled. “Isn’t so funny when it’s your own kin being accused of murder, now is it?”

Aed wondered… No, he would not even wonder it. It was too vile.

“Cormac wouldn’t. One of his own men was guarding the door—and he is dying out there as we speak! Who would kill a man—his own man!—just to turn suspicion from himself?”

'Who would kill his own man?'

Muirgius smiled. “Aren’t you precious? Who would ever do such a nasty, rotten thing? Listen, Hawkeyes. I like you, so I’m going to give you some advice. First thing is: never, ever judge what other men might do based on what you yourself might do. Assume everyone is evil to the core, and will do anything for the right price, or even just for the hell of it. Second thing is: that includes you. Now.” Muirgius harrumphed and began rolling up his sleeves. “Quit wasting my time with your righteous indignation, sweetheart, and tell me what’s going on out there. Where’s Sadb?”

'Where's Sadb?'

Aed could scarcely speak for his outrage. He found one phrase his stubborn soul could cling to, and he forced it out in a snarl: “You shall not have Sadb!”

“No, I will,” Muirgius said patiently. “But right now I just want to make sure no one is hacking her to pieces while you’re standing there wasting good air.”

“The lady is under guard. And you shall not have her, I swear.”

Muirgius lowered his head until his eyes were on level with Aed’s, but he went on tucking his cuff neatly around his massive forearm. “No, you shall not. I claimed her first.”

Aed was staggered. A good push might have toppled him just then. “I don’t—I don’t even want her! Jesus Christ! She doesn’t even know she’s a widow yet! How can you…”

'How can you...'

He remembered Muirgius’s lesson, and failed to finish his phase. Never, ever judge other men based on what you yourself might do…

Muirgius said, “It is my right, that’s how.”

“No! No! I’m taking her back to Diarmait’s family. She is carrying his child!”

Muirgius finally erupted. “It is my right, I tell you! For the love of Macaille! I called that little vermin lord for three months, and now he’s dead, and I’m lord here, and I claim my right! It is my right to wed the wife of the late lord, and my duty to raise his child! It is my right, and you know it! Since the time of the gods!”

'Since the time of the gods!'

Aed laughed. “Beware, Muirgius son of Demmain! You’d best not be bringing ancient rights into this now! For by rights your uncle Nuadu should have been lord!”

“If a man cannot claim his rights from a mere child, they are forfeit! And you, you, my bonny laddie, are about to learn that a mere child such as you cannot wrest my rights from me!”

'And you, you, my bonny laddie, are about to learn.'

Aed sensed something rising in Muirgius—a storm blacker than any mask he might have worn. The more Aed defied him, the taller it grew, and he was afraid of what it would mean for Sadb if it ever rained down on her. It would be as unlike wartime rape as death on a battlefield was unlike brutal murder. Aed would simply have to make certain it never broke through.

Aed would simply have to make certain it never broke through.

“Listen, Muirgius. I like you, so I will say this one more time. You shall not have Sadb against her will. You will have to get past me, and Eochaid, and Cuan here, and every other man of my clan.”

Muirgius took an axe down from the wall and blew a cloud of dust into Aed’s face. Aed held his breath. Muirgius would not make him cough.

Muirgius gripped the haft at both ends and said, “I like you, too, Hawkeyes, so I will give you one chance to step out of my way. There’s a tree fallen on my land, and I mean to have the wood.”

'I mean to have the wood.'

Aed heard Cuan’s sword scrape out of his scabbard behind him. Without looking around Aed lifted one hand to warn him to stay back. Out of the corner of his eye he could just see the blur of Eochaid’s blanched face. He dared not look at Cinaed, but he would have liked to have seen his expression then.

“You heard me,” Aed said. “You’ll have to go through me and every one of my men.”

A cow lowed uneasily and rustled in the straw, sensing slaughter. Muirgius’s knuckles were white.

“Go ahead, Muirgius,” Aed said softly. “Show me how you killed Diarmait. Show your son.”

He stared so deeply into Muirgius’s eyes that he began to forget either of them had bodies. Nevertheless he knew Muirgius had the power to murder him. He felt weightless and numb with fear.

Then Cinaed said, “Put it away, Da. You’re not scaring anyone.”

'You're not scaring anyone.'

Muirgius slumped half a foot shorter. He scuffed the wooden handle through his hand and waggled the blade, pretending to check its balance. “He knows perfectly well I wouldn’t do it,” he grumbled. He gave Aed a sharp glance. “And didn’t do it.”

“I know,” Cinaed said, “and that’s why your little evil villain act is so fucking embarrassing.”

Muirgius turned to hang the axe atop the other. Eochaid finally relaxed. All the blood came rushing back into Aed’s head, and he nearly pitched forward from the dizziness.

“Ach!” Muirgius sighed. “You’re forgetting, Aed isn’t knowing what a torment it is, the never-​ending humiliation of having a father. It’s a—” He threw up his hand as if to silence himself. “What the devil was that?” he whispered.

'What the devil was that?'

If there had been any doubt, the sound came again: a woman’s shrill scream in the distance. And again and again, faster and faster, frantic and terrified, with scarcely enough space for a breath between them.

Aed thought it would be Sadb discovering Diarmait’s body, but when Muirgius barreled past him and turned into the alley outside, he went not seaward towards the keep, but westward towards the palisade at the rear of the fort.

Aed and Eochaid would soon have been lost without Muirgius.

Aed and Eochaid would soon have been lost without Muirgius to guide them through the maze of cottages and sheds. He seemed to know precisely where he was going. One moment Aed would be certain they were leaving the screams behind, and the next they would run into a grassy courtyard, and the piercing sound seemed loud enough to shatter the bowl of the sky and send the stars raining down like knives.

The staggering men they passed at first seemed not even to know which way to run, but farther down their path they ran into a pair of men galloping up from wherever Muirgius had been headed.

They ran into a pair of men.

“Muirgius!” one of them moaned. “Muirgius!”

He nearly fell into Muirgius’s arms when they met.

“Muirgius!” he panted. “You have to come! Mac Nuadu! He’s killed! I think he’s dead!”

Muirgius bellowed, “No!”

“They dragged him out of his bed!”

Muirgius grabbed fistfuls of his own hair and cried out again, not even a word but an animal cry.

Aed demanded, “Who did?”

'Who did?'

The man jumped as if he had not seen Aed and Eochaid there, dressed in black and in Muirgius’s shadow. He drew back from them as if afraid.

“I—I don’t know,” he said, speaking to Muirgius. “We didn’t see ’em. The girls said there was a lot of ’em, all in black…” He gave Aed another wary glance.

Muirgius moaned. “The girls saw?”

'The girls saw?'

By now the first piercing screams had become the gibbering shrieks of a madwoman, but other women must have come upon the scene. Their keening chorus of grief split the secrecy of the night, and all the horror that Aed and his whispering men had been trying to tuck away came spilling out in slithering coils. There would be no putting it back now.

Aed could not bear it. He spun away from Muirgius and slammed his fist against the nearest wall. The bang was so blessedly loud that he leaned his head and shoulder against the wood and slapped and slapped the planks beside his ear, trying to drown out the keening and the sound of his own sobs.

It was no use. There were soon so many mourners that one could no longer hear a pause for breath, but only an unceasing, wavering howl, so blood-​chilling that even a wolf would know fear.

The bean sidhe was among them now, squatting in some dark alley beyond the reach of the stars. Somewhere hard by her gray hair was streaming as she rocked herself to and fro in the weeds. Until dawn she would wail her dirge for dead lords, as she had since the time of the gods.

The bean sidhe was among them now.