Ramsaa, Isle of Man



Congal stopped short and whipped himself around so fast his boot skidded in the gravel. He had been running towards the bonfire long enough that he was temporarily night-​blind, but he recognized the voice.

“Aed! I didn’t see you there!”

“I saw you well enough,” Aed called softly as he jogged up to him. “Now I know why wolves are gray. You look like a ghost floating three feet off the ground.”

'You look like a ghost floating three feet off the ground.'

That was not the most reassuring thing to say, considering the bone-​chilling wails that rose out of the darkness all around. Congal laughed to hide his nervousness and rubbed his gooseflesh through his sleeves. He wished Aed would lead him over to that fire, but Aed was already striding away.

Congal caught up with him and waved at the sky, still tittering. “Can you believe all this? Where were all these females a few hours ago when I was looking to get laid? Have you ever heard the like?”

Aed kept walking, his head down. Congal recalled too late that Aed probably had: he had been old enough to remember his father’s death. His father had been lord for so long that generations had lived and died without knowing any other. It was said that on the night he died, the very stones had keened on the hill.

Congal’s laughter finally faded. “Can’t believe they got so fond of Diarmait.

Aed stopped and made a stiff quarter turn to Congal. They stood in a weedy courtyard beneath one of the walls. A few skittish goats trotted off between two sheds, jostling into the narrow alley and jangling their tuneless iron bells.

They were alone. Nevertheless Aed spoke in a low voice that even Congal could scarcely hear.

They were alone.

“It’s not Diarmait they’re grieving. They just got mac Nuadu.”


Congal hunched his wolf-​pelted back defensively. Who were they? And whoever they were, they might still be near…

“What do you mean by got?

Aed pushed up his sleeves. Congal could make out the shadows of veins snaking up his forearms. His hands seemed clenched into permanent fists. Even before battle Congal had never seen him so tense.

Aed whispered, “Did you see Diarmait?”

Congal leaned closer. “Aye…”


Congal rocked back on his heels. “Sweet Jesus…”

'Sweet Jesus...'

He crossed himself and fumbled his Saint Ninian medallion out from his tangle of necklaces to kiss it. Aed turned his cheek against his shoulder and sighed through his nose like a bull. Congal had never seen him like this.

“Where’s Gaeth?”

Aed turned his head. “Wasn’t he with Diarmait?”

“I didn’t see him.”

“Fuck.” Aed jammed the toe of his boot into a tuft of weeds and stomped a few paces across the dirt.

Congal followed a step behind. “More to the point, where’s Muirgius in all of this?”

“It wasn’t Muirgius,” Aed muttered. “I don’t know who it was. But I know who the rumors are already saying it was.”

He turned to Congal. A cruel smile bared a glimpse of white teeth.

He turned to Congal.

“They’re saying their number was thirteen. Ten and three. They’re saying the thirteen brass dogs took human form at the dark hour of the night, and went abroad to kill.”

“Jesus Christ.” Congal touched his Saint Ninian medal again.

“Some are saying they all went in a pack from door to door. And some are saying six went for Diarmait, six went for mac Nuadu, and the thirteenth…” Aed stepped back and opened his arms beneath the sky. “The thirteenth is still on the prowl.”

“Jesus Christ. You don’t believe all that, do you, lad?”

“I believe it like I believe Diarmait really carried that dog around in his shirt all day. But it doesn’t much matter what we believe.” Aed scuffed his toe in the dirt and spat. “Those people saw me carrying fire in my hand. You expect me to tell them they’re fools for believing in magic?”

Congal was not reassured. The difference between Snake-tongue’s sleight-​of-​hand and Aed’s fire-​carrying trick was precisely that the latter was magic, in fact.

He considered protesting, but a woman with a fresh voice joined the chorus of mourners, and her high-​pitched keening cut through the ragged wails to chill him anew. The stars were veiled with wispy clouds, and the moon had not yet risen. A lone man bent on murder could almost have hidden himself in plain sight.

Aed whispered, “You have the horn?”

'You have the horn?'

Congal patted his coat.

“Where’s Ghost Wolf? Is she still on the sand?”

“Almost. She’s still afloat.” Congal lifted a wet boot, though it was too dark to see. “But she’ll be on the flats once the tide’s all the way out.” Only then did Congal think to wonder why Aed was asking, and his stomach plummeted. “Say…”

“Think you can get her away across the bar?”


“Aye, now. Right away.”

“In the dark? Are you mad?”

Aed did not answer, but only strolled off in the direction of the sea. Congal shook his head like a wet dog and followed.

It must have seemed an easy thing to Aed. Aed had grown up by the sea. Aed had salt water for blood. Congal had grown up in the hills, among cattle-​herders. His great fear was that he would be revealed as too incompetent to steer his own ship. He had to keep everyone fooled.

He laughed. “Eh, now! Luckily I am stark barking mad myself.”

'Luckily I am stark barking mad myself.'

Aed did not even smile. “You’re having the only ship I can send. By sunrise the tide will be all the way out. None of the rest of us are going anywhere until well on towards noon, aye? We’re stuck here.”

“I know, I know…”

“You have to get Sadb out of here. Muirgius is a good lord, and he’ll be seeing to the safety of his people for now. But as soon as he has a moment of calm, it’s to Sadb’s bedchamber he’ll be retiring. And I promised Diarmait I would take care of his wife and child.”

“What? When was this?”

Aed waved the back of his hand at him. “I need you to get Sigefrith’s men, and Sadb and a few of her men—no more than two or so, aye? Not so many they can fight back. And get Diarmait’s body if you can. We’re sending men out…”

Aed fell silent, and he and Congal flattened themselves against a wall. A pair of shadows jogged past with swords bared. They looked so young—not even old enough to shave. They were too young for this. Aed was too damned young for this.

They went on after the boys had passed, and Aed continued, “We’re sending men out to search the houses outside, but soon enough the gates will be closed, and that will be the end of it. So make swith, and go silent as a ghost. And head straight across the water to Ravenglass.”

Congal caught Aed by the sleeve. “What? Ravenglass?

Eirik was supposed to meet them at Ravenglass. Them, and not Congal in his lone and very valuable ship. But Aed believed Congal’s fright was of the journey and not the destination.

'Sailing at night is no different from sailing in the day.'

“Sailing at night is no different from sailing in the day,” he said. “There’s no running aground on the open sea. And Ravenglass is due east of here.” He raised an arm to the sky. “Just keep the pole star at your left shoulder till the sun rises, and then sail right into it.”

“I know that, Aed, but, Jesus! You want me to go meet Eirik? After all this?”

“I promised him the horn.”

“And you’re meaning to just—give it to him?”

Aed lowered his head and stroked his fingertips down his burned wrist and palm. “If I don’t, he’ll be coming to get it, don’t you think?”

Congal snorted. But it was true. It was true. He was beginning to see how Eirik thanked men who broke their promises.

“Take him the horn and Sigefrith’s men, as we promised, and tell him I will see him no more forever.” Aed drew a cross in the air as they walked. “But I shall pray for his sons.”

'I shall pray for his sons.'

A dog barked nearby, and Congal thought nothing of it until he remembered those thirteen brass dogs. He touched his medal again. He felt his heart pounding beneath it.

“What about Sadb?” he asked.

“Take Sadb as far as the mouth of the Dee and let her take her man home. I want you to go on to Carn Liath with Ghost Wolf. And if I’m not there, hold it for me until I return. Here. You’ll be needing this.”

He pulled up Congal’s hand and slapped something hard and heavy into his palm. Congal fingered it as soon as Aed let go. It was Aed’s ring.

“Christ, man! Your father’s ring. You cannot be serious…”

Aed bent to pick up a stick and swished it at the tall weeds as they walked. “I reckon men will still follow my face,” he said. He sounded amused. “I’m still being my own self. And now you’re being my own self, too. So behave yourself, aye?”


Congal was shaken, but he could not help trying on the ring. He was surprised at how well it fit. He wondered how Aed kept it on his finger. His hands seemed so thin.

Congal shoved the ring tight against his knuckle and hurried to catch up with Aed.

'You're fucking with me, lad.'

“You’re fucking with me, lad. You’re coming back, aye? You’re getting out of here.”

Aed waved his hand. “So far the tide has always risen again.”

“Jesus. And what if it doesn’t, for once?”

“Then name your first son Aed.”

Congal stopped short. Aed took another slow couple of steps and turned, a lithe dark shadow swishing a stick through the fog.

“My soul will come again.”

“Jesus, Aed. Now you are absolutely fucking with me.”

Aed stepped up to Congal and grabbed him by the shoulders. Congal felt the stick pressed against his arm like a riding switch.

Aed hunched his shoulders together as if to protect his ears, and leaned in to kiss Congal’s cheeks, one and the other.

Aed leaned in to kiss Congal's cheeks, one and the other.

Congal’s voice quavered like an old woman’s. “Fuck you, Aed.”

“Fuck you, too, Congal. Now go on, it may already be too late.”

Congal shook his head.

Aed shooed him away. “Be getting on with you. And on my father’s tomb I swear, if I hear you howl on your way out, I am coming after you, and I am going to rip out your tongue with my bare hand. Through your asshole.”

Congal wanted to laugh. He wanted to laugh, but he could not breathe past the pain in his chest, so he threw his arms around Aed and crushed his startled body against the ache.

They met with a clank of matching silver medallions, Saint Ninian and Saint Columba and all the saints whose holy places they had visited together, and Aed’s stick fell and rustled the grass. Afterwards the only sound was the keening of the women, and when Congal turned his head a little he heard Aed’s breathing in his ear.

When Congal turned his head a little he heard Aed's breathing in his ear.

Congal feared that he had taken too much of a liberty, but in the end it was he who let go first, with a final solid pounding of his fist against Aed’s back.

“If you see Gaeth…”

Aed stepped away from him, and away, and kept on going. “I shall pinch his scrawny ass and blame it on you. Be getting on with you.” He waved Congal off like an exhausted housewife sending her children out to play, and then he turned and walked.

Congal murmured, “Aye, lord.”

Nevertheless he did not move right away. He stood and watched until Aed’s slim shadow had been folded into the night.

Then they were two lone men on the prowl. And neither believed he would ever see the other again.

He stood and watched.