Ramsaa, Isle of Man

'Rise and shine, sleepyheads!'

“Rise and shine, sleepyheads! It’s time to greet the day!”

A draft of crisp night air gusted into the stifling room, and Finn sucked it gratefully into his lungs. He had been drowning in there: in that choking miasma of unwashed blankets, unemptied chamber pots, and four anxious male bodies locked up all night in a room made to sleep two.

His nose wrinkled at the sour reek of wine and decrepit wolf that followed the man in, but at least that air was cool.

And then, while his father and Brede were growling their way up to a coherent protest, Finn recognized the man and blurted out in indignation: “You speak English!”

'You speak English!'

It was Congal, the friend of Young Aed who strutted about in the skin of a wolf like a savage. Until now he was the only one of the three whom Finn had nothing against—aside from the wolf pelt—but now he decided he disliked him, too.

Congal laughed at him, and made as much of a bow as the doorway allowed.

“Truly I do not exaggerate when I say your fair Queen is a marvelous teacher!”

Even his accent was impeccable. Finn was outraged. Then a flash of lamplight winked against the night outside, and he saw that Congal was gesturing with a bare knife, only inches from his father’s nose.

“What is going on out there?” Brede asked. “Where’s Diarmait?”

Congal’s ridiculous grin fell flat. “My cousin,” he said with puffed-​up grandeur, “is sleeping the sleep from whence there is no waking. God rest him,” he added in mumbled Gaelic.

He crossed himself with seeming disregard for the knife in his hand, but the blade fluttered and flashed around his head and breast with such grace that Finn believed he was in fact showing off. In spite of himself Finn was faintly impressed.

Brede was not. “You whoresons of brindled bitches.”

'You whoresons of brindled bitches.'

Congal tapped the flat of his blade against his lips and waved it at Brede. With the breathy solemnity of a drunk he said, “It was not, you may perceive, sir, strictly speaking our bloody fault.

He turned to Finn with another of his ludicrous grins.

“Finn, my good man! Won’t you introduce me to this unsavory character who appears to be your father? Sir! I have heard so much about you!”

He kept grinning when he looked at Finn’s father, but his smile went as sharp as his knife. Finn knew then that Congal had heard all about Maire. Perhaps he had even heard how Sigefrith had snuck Finn’s father away using that story for cover. Finn had to hope so. He hoped his father was not still known as a murderer after all these months.

Finn saw the tension in his father’s jaw and sensed the muscles swelling in his arms. He had to speak fast.

“I will not introduce anybody to you until you let us go!”

“Now, Finn,” Congal said, sounding hurt, “that is precisely what I am here to do. For lo, I am your savior!

'For lo, I am your savior!'

He flung wide his arms and clumsily rapped the back of his hand against the wall, which sent him into sloppy giggles.

Brede glanced back at Eadred. Finn knew they were planning something with their eyes, and he wondered whether they had seen the black-​kilted men outside in the shadows, or the starlight flashes of their swords.

The four of them were all but unarmed. All that remained them were a tiny collapsable knife in Brede’s boot, overlooked simply because of its size; and Finn’s father’s knife, which had remained in its usual hiding place, since Finn’s father no longer liked to wear it.

Finn now wore it against his hip, for his tunic was long enough to hide it completely. But he could not draw his weapon without great difficulty, and nor could Brede. They were outnumbered, out-​armed, and in danger if they fought.

Finn said, “Then get out of the door and let us out.” He forced himself to add, “Please.”

'Then get out of the door and let us out.'

“Happy to oblige,” Congal said.

He made a last gracious gesture of acquiescence, and then his expression turned sour and snapping.

“Now, listen up, little pitchers. We have approximately until the count of ten to get out of this slaughterhouse before the gates are shut or the tide goes out. And I can’t promise you’re not the next victim,” he said to Brede, “since they came for Diarmait, and they came for mac Nuadu, and I reckon next up on Diarmait’s list of bosom friends is you.

'I reckon next up on Diarmait's list of bosom friends is you.'

Brede gasped. “Mac Nuadu’s dead?”

For answer Congal jerked the tip of his knife back out the door. The wails of the women were louder now that it was open, but they seemed higher, too, and more distant, as if they came not from mortal throats but down from the stars. The voice of the bean sidhe, Finn’s father had solemnly said.

Now that he had heard the real thing, Finn was sorry he had ever called Lady Gwynn a banshee. At the time he had not even realized it was not an English word.

Congal asked, “You didn’t think they were mourning Lord Diarmait the Dickless did you?”

Brede growled, “Muirgius!” as if he had suspected him of murder all along.

Finn did not like it. Muirgius was his friend. But Brede had spent so much time with Diarmait and mac Nuadu that he had come to believe mac Nuadu had been wronged.

Congal lifted his brows and looked Brede over, concluding with a little sniff, like Finn’s elven mother inspecting a slave.

Congal lifted his brows and looked Brede over.

“You do like making accusations without evidence, don’t you? Those men were killed by dogs. Brass dogs.” He added in whisper, “Thirteen.”

Finn’s blood went hot with panic. Brass dogs! Thirteen! Was Congal hinting that he knew what they had done?

What had they done?

The men around Finn were stiff with the same shock, leaving Congal free to plummet back into his sour, barking tone and recommence giving orders.

“You three are to take Diarmait’s body out to the ship, if we can get it. And Finn,” he said, warming as he spoke, “you and I are going to fetch Sadb. If you’ve ever longed to rescue a fair maiden, tonight’s the night!” He concluded grinning.

Finn’s father flung up his arm, blocking the path to Finn. “He is going nowhere without me!”

All trace of warmth drained from Congal’s expression. His abrupt changes of mood were disorienting, and yet none seemed a mere curtain dropped to hide another. They were all raw and wild.

“I do not,” Congal said, “take orders from sick fucks like you.”

Then Finn’s father spoke in a low, cruel voice that Finn had not heard since he had lain raving with fever.

'Touch a hair on my boy's head and I will show you what a sick fuck can do.'

“Touch a hair on my boy’s head and I will show you what a sick fuck can do.”

Every word was precisely pronounced, deliberately chosen. Finn’s stomach knotted with fear. It had not been the fever talking. A beast dwelled in his father, black-​faced and blue like the beast in Comgeall, and Congal had called it to the surface. Finn feared what his father could do.

He could not see the expression on his father’s face, but Congal met it with a beastly look of his own.

Congal met it with a beastly look of his own.

“I already have some idea of what you can do, scarface. But in my family, we do not abandon noble ladies to be raped.

He laid a flinty emphasis on the word that made Finn wince.

“And if I do not make haste to get the daughter of Mull out of that tower, she will be forced to marry Muirgius by dawn. And I cannot promise he’ll have the patience to marry her first, aye? And Finn is her maid’s sweetheart, I hear, and I need someone she’ll trust. Got that?”

He glared a challenge at Finn’s father. Finn laid a hand on his father’s arm, pleading with him to stay calm. The muscles were hard and hot beneath his sleeve.

Finn laid a hand on his father's arm.

His father said in that same voice, “He is not going anywhere without me.”

Congal was vibrating like a simmering pot brought close to a boil. Finn could not take his eyes from the knife he held so tightly and yet so heedlessly.

“Aye, then,” Congal said. “I’m certain she’ll trust me if I bring Maire’s rapist to her room.”

'I'm certain she'll trust me.'

Finn wanted to protest that his father was not a rapist. He had not gone to Maire’s room, after all. But Finn was not certain what his father was.

He patted his father’s arm. It was beginning to shake, too, with the strain of holding something back.

“Please excuse him,” Finn said to Congal. “He does not mean disrespect. I was stolen when I was a baby, and he does not want to lose me again.”

His father growled, “I do not need you protecting me!”

“I do not need you protecting me, neither.”

'I do not need you protecting me, neither.'

A muscle in his father’s arm lurched, as if a snake had turned over beneath the skin.

Brede spoke up in a calm voice, trying to calm the others. “I shall go with you,” he said. “Sadb trusts me.”

“Ach!” Congal laughed to himself. “But I don’t trust you, O brother of Brass Dog twice over. Finn will come with me.”

Finn’s father barked, “No!”

Finn said, “Father, please!” He leaned on his father’s arm, trying to push it down. Nothing worse could await him outside than what was about to happen in the doorway of this room.

“Take Finn and me,” Eadred said. “Brede and Egelric will go for Diarmait.”

'Take Finn and me.'

“No, no, and no!” Congal shouted, swinging his knife around as if swatting at flies. “What you do think this is? Fucking negotiations? I’m supposed to get you out to my ship, but nobody said you had to be alive, aye? You three are taking Diarmait’s body out, and if you’re lucky I won’t make you bail the whole way to Britain. And my cousin Finn is coming with me.”

He grinned broadly at Finn again, as if overjoyed at the idea. In spite of himself, a spark of delight lit Finn’s heart at the word “cousin.” As far as he knew, his father had been exiled from his ancestral clan, and his sons with him. Finn had enjoyed being fawned over by his distant cousins. He had liked calling himself a Scot-​man.

Finn’s father said, “My son Finn is coming with me. No negotiations necessary.”

Congal smiled and fluttered his lashes at him. “Did someone ask you? He’s not a baby any longer.” Then, instead of that ridiculous grin, he turned a savage snarl on Finn. “Are you?” he barked.

Finn jumped. “No, sir.”

“What are you?”

'What are you?'

Finn did not know what Congal wanted him to say. Congal’s face was wet in spite of the wintry chill. He stank of wine and unwashed wolf. He looked mad. Finn wished for the unruffled urbanity of Young Aed.

“What are you?” Congal demanded. “A titty-​baby or a man?”

“A man, sir. I want to help Sadb.”

Congal relaxed and gave him a nod of approval.

Finn said gently, reassuringly, “Please, father. Let me by. I shall see you on the ship.”

His father said, “No.”

Congal snapped. He reared back his arm and whacked Finn’s father’s face with the butt of his knife, again with his elbow, and finally yanked his father’s foot out from beneath him and sent him crashing against a chair on his way to the floor.

Finn did not have time to catch him.

Finn did not have time to catch him. No one had a chance to react so long as that knife was arcing through the air, and by the time his father had fallen, the armed men outside were pressing close behind Congal in the doorway, ready for a fight.

Finn ducked beneath the knife and tried to put himself between his father and Congal, fearing his father would mindlessly hurl himself at his attacker. But his father remained on the floor, hunched into a quivering tangle of limbs, with his eyes squeezed shut and his chin resting on his bare knees. If not for the single arm he held up stiffly to protect his head, Finn would have thought him knocked senseless. Perhaps in a way he was.

Then Congal caught Finn’s elbow and yanked him outside, and the armed men behind him took his place in the doorway. He dragged Finn onward a few paces until Finn fell into step beside him, too shaken to resist. The night air was sweet and clean against his grubby, sweaty skin.

'Sorry about your Da.'

“Sorry about your Da,” Congal said. He passed the knife into his other hand and reached beneath his jacket. “He really doesn’t take No for an answer, does he?”

His voice was neither ridiculously cheery nor savagely angry. He sounded like an ordinary fellow in his right mind, speaking to a friend.

He pulled a flask from his jacket, uncorked it, and held it out to Finn as they walked. Finn stared at it until the wind wafted the sour scent of wine to his nose.

He was so flustered that he answered with automatic politeness. “No, thank you, sir.”

Congal snorted and took a loud swallow.

Two of the armed men had fallen in behind them without saying a word or awaiting an order. Congal tucked his flask away and offered neither of them a drink. In spite of himself, Finn felt a little flattered.

Finn felt a little flattered.

They walked quickly around the keep, taking long strides that jangled Congal’s medallions and made the other men’s buckles clink and clatter. The night was so cold that Finn could see their breath, but it was a relief after those long hours spent breathing and rebreathing the same air.

And it was good to stretch his legs and move. It was grand to get out and act, rather than wait and wonder and worry. It was worth the risk. He wanted to help Sadb.

And in spite of the wolf pelt—in spite of his own better judgment—he was inclined to like Congal. Better than Diarmait, anyway. But he was worried about his father, who had only been trying to protect him. He did not want to be disloyal.

Somehow he could not bring himself to confront Congal about that, however. Instead he muttered, “I do not believe the Queen ever taught you to speak English.”

Congal laughed companionably. “My nursie was a Saxon woman, lad. Rise and shine, sleepyhead! Heard it every day. Almost learned English before I ever learned Gaelic. But don’t tell that to your Queen! She was having a grand time helping me out and teaching me English. Women love that.”

'Women love that.'

Finn wrinkled his nose. “They do?”

“Do they ever! She wouldn’t have said twenty words to me otherwise. But since she had to help me out and take care of me, she is now my bosom friend.” Congal cupped imaginary breasts in front of his chest, laughing. “I bet she asks about me.”

They passed a group of a dozen men or so, all speaking in hushed, anxious tones as the dirges of the women continued all around them. The men turned in astonishment at the sound of Congal’s laughter, but they turned away again, muttering, as if the sight of Congal explained everything.

Congal stopped at the base of the stairs and laid his hand on the railing. He looked up at the door to the keep and muttered in Gaelic, “If Muirgius catches us in there, we are fucked.”

Then he turned to Finn. “Speak any Gaelic?”

“I’m learning…”

Congal gave him another of those wild, over-​wide grins he had made in the doorway of the little room. “We are going to be bosom friends.

Then he bolted up the stairs two-​by-​two, his knife held high. Finn felt the pressure of the two men moving up behind him, and he followed Congal up.

Their thumping feet caught the attention of the men below, but no one called out. They were all dressed in black, and Finn did not recognize them. He had seen and heard nothing but Aed’s men since Aed’s men had locked them in the room.

Inside the hall there were more men in black. The light of the low fire revealed little more than their faces, hands, and legs, and a few colorful blankets spread out like rugs on the floor. Most of the men made way for Congal, but one—heavily-armed—stood firm beside Sadb’s door.

Most of the men made way for Congal.

Congal pinched Finn’s sleeve and pulled him close as they trod over the blankets. “Whatever happens in there, just stay calm. I won’t let you get hurt.”

He shoved his flask at Finn. His eyes looked over-​excited, wide enough to show pink in their whites.

The men were all watching them. A few whispered in Gaelic, sounding wary, and Finn wondered whether they understood any English.

He shook his head and whispered, “No, thank you.”

Congal frowned, looking displeased. “You’re going to need it,” he said roughly.

Finn shook his head again.

Congal filled his mouth with wine and held it while he corked and put away his flask. Then he swallowed loudly, and the last shreds of his approachable, companionable self went down with the wine. He was wild and overdramatic again, aggressively affectionate and smirkingly savage, and Finn was not at all certain he would remember his promise not to let him be hurt.

He was wild and overdramatic again.

“Dungal, my friend,” Congal said, bowing to the man before the door. “Would you do me the honor of fucking off? I have some urgent business within.”

Dungal had not looked pleased to see Congal arrive, and he looked angry now. Finn was not certain about every word of their Gaelic, but he understood enough.

“Lord Aed said no one is to be allowed in the lady’s room besides him. And I figure he meant especially you.

“But my business, man, my business.” Congal clucked his tongue and pretended to fret, but in truth he appeared amused.

“You can take care of your business outside, Congal. The women are all bawling anyway. None will be noticing if one changes her tune.”

The men chuckled at this. But Congal’s taunting tone turned into a sneer.

“And what will it take to make you change, your tune, Dungal? Mayhap this?”

He held up his knife.

In an instant Dungal’s knife was drawn, and all around them men were moving, readying themselves for a fight. Finn pressed his wrist against the knife hidden beneath his tunic, but he knew he would never have the time to get it out. Even if he did, he would not know whom to attack.

“Oh, sorry,” Congal said. “Wrong hand.”

'Wrong hand.'

He lowered the knife and held out his empty left hand, knuckles up. Dungal’s eyes went wide. Finn looked and saw a heavy ring.

“And just where were you getting that, then?” Dungal asked uneasily.

“Doesn’t matter,” Congal said, smirking. “Either I took it off his limp hand, or he gave it to me. Either way, I give the orders here now, aye? So fuck off, Dungal. I’m going in.”

Finn spotted one of Congal’s men nodding slightly to Dungal, as if trying to tell him to let Congal in. Finn could not understand why he did not simply say it aloud—unless Congal’s men feared him too.

Dungal stepped into the corner and leaned back against the wall, giving Congal plenty of room to open the door.

Congal laughed gleefully. “Fuck me! I could get used to this.”

Then his laughter stopped short, and he grabbed Finn’s arm. His fingers bit into the soft flesh behind the muscle.

Congal yanked the door open with one hand, shoved Finn through with the other, and the next thing Finn knew they were both inside, with Finn clenched tight against the reeking wolf pelt, and the knife only inches from his face.

They were both inside.

“Not a peep!” Congal said to the startled occupants of the room. “Not one single sound! Don’t make me hurt this boy!”

Sadb had a fire in her room, bright and crackling with fresh wood. The shadows leapt, making the room look huge and unfamiliar. Finn had only seen it during the day.

For the last week he had been pretending to be in love with Sadb’s maid so that he could follow her around and get close enough to Lord Diarmait’s chambers to hide the dogs. This bedchamber was the closest he had ever come. Both to Diarmait’s inner sanctum, and to a girl.

He had been grateful he would not need to stand in this room again. Now he was here, and he was sick with shame. What had he done? What had they unleashed?

What had he done?

The flickering shadows made it difficult to count the men in the room, but there were at least four—all of them Sadb’s men from the Isle of Mull. Diarmait was nowhere to be seen, alive or dead. Finn could not even see Sadb.

Then a rustle in the bedclothes caught his eye, and he spotted a pair of white ankles, and a pair of pretty little bare feet, with miniature toes. Sadb was sitting up in her bed, just behind one of the men.

“Forgive my trespass, lady,” Congal said, suddenly polite, “but you’re being in danger. I’m sent to take you home.”

Sadb’s high, clear voice spoke out from behind the man. “Don’t you mean take me hostage?”

'Don't you mean take me hostage?'

“Ach, no,” Congal said. “This is being my hostage, here.” He shook Finn by the collar. “You’re to be my guest.”

“Where is my husband? Who has died?”

Her sweet voice quavered with fear. She did not even know!

Congal said, “It’s mac Nuadu they’re mourning, to be certain. We’re taking Diarmait out to the ship right now, lady. You’ll be meeting him there. Now be getting your cloak and let’s go. Two men may you take, and one maid. And there’s no time to—”

“I do not believe you.”

Congal, it seemed, did not appreciate being interrupted or disbelieved.

'Believe this?'

“Believe this?” he snarled. He lowered the knife to the level of Finn’s throat and shook him again. “Believe this? Do I have to slit the throat of your maid’s little sweetheart to show you what they’ll do to your man if they catch him? Do I have to bend your maid over the bed and show you what Muirgius will do to you if he catches you, lady? Eh, now?”

From the shadows beyond the bed they heard Finnecht wail. Congal shook Finn again. His movements were clumsy and exaggerated, and his knife hand unsteady. Finn was not certain he was capable of keeping his promise not to hurt him, even assuming he had meant it.

Finn would have liked to have been a hero coming to his lady’s rescue, or at least to have spoken reassuringly to calm her. Instead he kept his hands clasped before his neck, quaking like a panicked child.

Sadb’s ankles uncrossed themselves and her legs slipped over the edge of the bed. She sat up, and then she stood, and with a light touch of her hand she made a big man step out of her way.

She was beautiful.

She was beautiful. She was dressed for bed. She wore a pink, lacy robe over a clinging white gown. Her breasts were loose and swayed when she moved, and her gown was cut low enough that Finn could see a shadow between them. And her hair! He had never seen her hair unbound and brushed into a cloud. She was so soft, so pretty, and Finn imagined more vividly than ever how it would be to lie down beside her in the dark. And if Congal had told the truth downstairs, she was now unmarried…

She looked Congal in the eyes and said, “Let the boy go.”

The boy! Why had Congal had to call him that? They had decided downstairs that he was a man.

“Get your cloak and boots,” Congal growled, “and let’s go. I shall let the boy go when we get to the ship.”

'I shall let the boy go when we get to the ship.'

Sadb said, “I shall do as you ask. Whether you lie or tell the truth, I am helpless here. But I will not move until you release Finn.”

Congal licked his lips. Finn tried to take a single steady breath, but he stood beneath Congal’s arm, and the odors of wine and sweat and dirty wolf were overwhelming. Sadb looked sweet and clean as the night breeze.

She reached out her hand to Finn, and Congal stiffened. Finn gave up even his attempts to breathe.

“Release him, for I will it,” Sadb said. “I shall be your hostage.”

Was Sadb attempting to rescue him?

Congal groaned. “The Devil! Lady, he volunteered to be my hostage so I wouldn’t lay a hand on you. Now you’re volunteering to be my hostage so I won’t hurt him. Do neither of you understand that having a hostage is not the point?”

In spite of her pallor, Sadb had spirit enough to give Finn one of the brief, playfully complicit smiles they sometimes shared across a room, though her husband had all but forbidden them to speak. Finn’s heart quickened beneath his clenched hands.

Finn's heart quickened beneath his clenched hands.

Then it melted with the recollection that she was soon to learn she was a widow, and she might never smile so playfully again. He almost wished he could have died in Diarmait’s place if it would have spared her pain. Presuming she would learn of his sacrifice, of course.

“He hasn’t hurt you, has he?” Sadb asked him tenderly.

“Hurt him?” Congal demanded. “He hurt me worse than I hurt him! Fought like a wildcat for you, lady.” He gave Finn another shake, but he whispered in English, “They love this!”

Finn’s nose wrinkled at the wine on his breath. He could not decide whether he liked the man or found him disgusting. But his love and loyalty for Sadb were true.

“No, lady, not at all,” he said. “But for you I would not mind.”

'But for you I would not mind.'