The slamming door shut out the chill, and the stifling atmosphere of the hall billowed around Sadb’s flushed face like steam from a bath.
The air was a stew of scents: soot and burning pitch, mutton fat, herbed butter, and roast fowl, all suffusing the stodgy smell of damp wool and male bodies.
Sadb drank in a deep breath and savored them all. All—even the resinous, black, sticky smoke of the scrubwood of her new home. All, yes—even the musk of the big men stabled, as it were, in her byre.
In the abstract she relished the scent of them as a horse breeder loves the perfume of the barns: they were her men, and the bigger and manlier the better.
In the specific, she wanted to run her tongue up the back of Diarmait’s sweaty neck, where damp wisps of hair still clung to his skin. He was her man, and he was divine.
But since she could not have a taste of Diarmait just then, the roast capon on the sideboard was smelling ferociously delicious.
It was her fowl, she told herself, and as Lady of Ramsaa she would have the choicest piece. She would be depriving no one of his due if she had a nibble before Diarmait carved. And her mother was not there to scold, after all.
Thus Sadb put on her Lady of Ramsaa air, mingling the irreproachable with the imperious, and attempted to twist off a crispy piece of skin as she walked by. But the bird did not cooperate, and she was obliged to stop a moment to tug and tear before she wrestled a bit of it away. She crammed it in her mouth just as Briccene turned around.
“Oooh, naughty, naughty! Look who’s a-spoiling her appetite!”
Caught in the act, Sadb simply smiled impishly at him as she chewed, and the men began to chuckle. Diarmait stopped to glance back at her, but when he saw what she was about, he snorted and kept on stomping up towards his chair.
Sadb hurried after him, but meanwhile hot chicken juices were running up the back of her hand towards her sleeve. She quickly swallowed her mouthful and lapped at her wrist, but as soon as she sucked her greasy thumb into her mouth, the laughter of the men changed into hoots and howls, barks, and banging of the tables with their fists.
Sadb stopped and dropped her arm. They were all looking at her. She felt caught in the act again, but without any idea of what the act was, she could not pass it off with an impish smile.
Was it because it was babyish to be seen sucking one’s thumb? She looked to her maid for support, but Finnecht’s face was red, and she refused to meet her eyes. Of course, Finnecht had not met her eyes since she had gone upstairs to call her lady—and, unintentionally, her lord—down to dinner. Finnecht would simply have to learn how to knock.
Sadb sniffed haughtily, lifted her skirts in her clean hand, and climbed the steps, but as she went she unconsciously stuffed her index finger into her mouth to suck it clean. At once the hoots and howls rose up again. Sadb stopped at the top and turned sharply on her heel, beginning to feel that she was being mocked.
And then she had a Thought: a naughty, naughty, capital-T Thought.
She remembered some advice her mother had given her on her wedding night, about a Thing—a capital-T thing—that her husband might ask her to do, but which she must refuse at all costs, for it was both sinful and unhygienic, and utterly unbecoming of a lady.
Diarmait had never yet asked her to do this Thing, but Sadb suddenly wished he would let her try.
To test her theory she slowly licked up the side of her middle finger and slid it into her mouth, staring out at the men with her Lady of Ramsaa air and daring them to howl.
And did they howl! They laughed and groaned and pretended to faint, and Sadb glowed with pride and affection for them, as well as with a sweet, small sense that she was being naughty, and her mother was not there to stop her.
Diarmait, however, was there, and he reached around her from behind and yanked her hand away from her mouth.
“Have you quite finished?” he whispered.
The men’s laughter grew mocking, and their howling took on a hint of a growl. Sadb could not understand why Diarmait did not simply laugh and howl with them. She could think of several things he might have done—shared a complicit grin with her to remind them all that he alone could hope to be so licked, or made some crude joke such as men liked and Sadb secretly delighted in, or even something as deliciously naughty as licking her fingers clean for her—but as always, Diarmait reacted in the way that made him look smallest and meanest and most insecure.
Before she could protest, he grabbed her other wrist, turned her around, and marched her ahead of him towards their chairs.
“I didn’t have a napkin!” she whispered back over her shoulder.
Diarmait jerked out her chair for her and fairly dumped her into it.
“If you cannot behave yourself any better,” he said, “you shall eat your dinner in your room!”
Her room! Her room! As if he did not sleep in it, too!
She knew Diarmait did not like her eating her meals in the hall with his men. If he had his way, she supposed she would never see other men at all. But Diarmait did not know what was good for him. Muirgius had told her that the people loved their lady more than their lord.
“Aye, then, Father!” she said, summoning up her most magnificent scorn.
Diarmait sniffed. His scorn was rather magnificent too, especially when his cheeks were flushed and his forehead still sparkled with drying sweat.
“If you’re mistaking me for the father of you,” he whispered, “beware I might mistake you for my child and simply spank you.”
Sadb had not been spanked since she was very small, for she was the baby of the family and her father was growing old. But she still clearly remembered lying sprawled across her father’s lap, with her wool skirts lifted up over her back until only a layer of linen covered her bare bottom, and scrunching up her face and hands while she waited for that first smack.
It had been horrible and humiliating then, but the prospect of sprawling face-down and half-dressed across Diarmait’s lap only gave her another reason to be naughty. Like the other thing, she thought she would like to try it at least once.
Her thought seemed to jump from her head into Diarmait’s, for his golden cheeks flushed still rosier, and he looked down abruptly to inspect the engraving on the rim of his plate.
Sadb snorted and nearly laughed out loud. Why, oh why did he not simply laugh with her? They could have had so much fun together.
Just a quarter hour before, after Finnecht had made her hasty retreat, they had writhed with laughter over the poor maid’s white-faced look of horror. And when they had returned to the task Finnecht had interrupted, Diarmait had been more playfully affectionate than ever, both lover and big friendly puppy. For a little while Sadb had felt even closer to him in soul than in body. And in body they had been very close indeed.
But in public he shut her out entirely, body and soul, and she was annoyed.
She whispered, “Diarmait!”
Diarmait looked up. Sadb stuck two fingers into her mouth and slowly drew them out again, moaning softly in mock ecstasy over the last traces of chicken.
Diarmait’s eyes flashed, and he banged his fist on the table, rattling the plates and startling Sadb’s fingers out of her mouth. The men laughed a troubling, taunting laugh. They were waiting to see what Diarmait would do.
So had Sadb been waiting, but now she was afraid she had gone too far—not because Diarmait was angry, but because he would do something to lower himself before his men.
But mac Nuadu at the end of the table spoke up first and drawled, “Your wife looks hungry, Diarmait. Guess you aren’t feeding her enough.”
The men chortled, giving Sadb time to jump into the opening mac Nuadu had made.
“That is a fact,” she said smartly to Diarmait. “Kindly pass me the bread.”
The men laughed at this and made a few suggestive remarks about “her daily bread,” and “fattening her up,” and so forth, but this was as Sadb had expected. Their laughter was full of fondness for her again, and not mockery for Diarmait.
Diarmait, to her relief, was wise enough to pass the bread.
“I suppose you’ll be wanting the butter next?” he grumbled.
Sadb plucked a loaf from the basket. “Aye, silly man. Butter does make it go down easier.”
The men roared. Sadb belatedly flushed pink with naughty pleasure: she had not even realized there might have been a double meaning in her words.
But even then she could not see which of those words could evoke in her husband such an explosive reaction.
Diarmait shrieked, “Motherfuckers!” and banged his fists down on either side of the bread basket.
Sadb drew back, truly frightened.
Diarmait shouted, “Whose idea was this? Whose?”
His rosy face had turned purple, and ugly tendons stood out from the neck Sadb had wanted to lick only minutes before. No one was laughing now.
Diarmait shoved back his chair. He plucked something from the bread basket as he stood, and sent the basket flying with such force that small loaves pelted men all the way across the hall.
“Who baked this bread?” Diarmait shouted, holding up a small, shiny something that was clearly not bread. “It was one of you! Who was in my room?”
Sadb saw then that he was holding the little brass dog he had found on his desk the day before. Someone had hidden it in the basket of bread.
Diarmait started around the table, but the first obstacle he met was Finnecht cowering in her chair, and he reared back and shouted, “You!”
Finnecht wailed, “No, my lord, no! I never!”
Diarmait’s wrath flared up again in the draft of another idea. He stepped to the edge of the dais and howled, “Or is it even the same one? Motherfucker!”
He did not bother trying to squeeze past Finnecht to the steps, but hopped down onto the tabletop below. He kicked plates and cups aside and leapt from table to bench to floor. Even the biggest of his men cringed back and stumbled out of his way—all but Muirgius and Finn, who sat on the benches on either side of the aisle. And Finn looked panicked as a hare surprised in a field. Only Muirgius did not flinch.
Diarmait shoved his way through a knot of men standing near the door and went out with a thunderclap of a slam.
A suffocating silence fell, heavier than the stifling air. They all stared at the doorway until Muirgius’s head turned to look at Sadb. Then another head turned. Then another and another, and in the space of one shaky breath they were all looking at her. Even Finnecht—white-faced again with a new horror—now met her eyes.
Sadb straightened her sleeves, brushed the crumbs from her lap, and pushed back her chair. She thought she could not afford even the moment’s awkwardness of squeezing past her maid, so after walking around the table she simply lifted her skirts high above her black-stockinged ankles and hopped down onto the table as her husband had. From table to bench to floor she flounced, and then she put on her Ladiest of Lady of Ramsaa airs and went out, kicking loaves of bread and toppled cups right and left to clear the aisle before her own black-stockinged feet.
She knew they were all watching her, though she dared not look any one of them in the eyes for fear of revealing her confusion or her fear. The knot of men at the far end of the hall simply melted away before her, and the last of them silently opened the door.
They were already starting to grumble behind her by the time the closing door shut off the sound. Sadb lifted her skirts as high as her knees and tore up the stairs, dragging one shoulder up the wall beside her to help keep her balance.
As she had expected, she found Diarmait in their room. But she had not thought any further ahead than that.
Diarmait was busy rooting through the chest on his side of the bed, and he ignored her.
Sadb was rapidly losing control of her hands and arms to a violent shivering. “Diarmait! What was that supposed to be?”
“Aha!” Diarmait sprang up holding a bit of brass in each hand. “Two of them! I knew it! Motherfuckers! When I find out who it is!”
He hurled one of the dogs at the wall, and after it clattered down he threw the other.
At last he noticed her. “It was you!”
“It was not! I was in here with you!”
Diarmait looked down at the bed between them, with its rumpled blankets Sadb had only clumsily pulled straight before they had hurried down to dinner. His tense shoulders slumped, and for a moment it seemed that he would be calm again, be hers again, and that she would be able to talk with him. But Diarmait had only been thinking.
Sadb groaned. “Ach, Diarmait!”
“Muirgius! I’ll kill him!”
Diarmait stormed around the foot of the bed, and Sadb hurried to put herself in his way.
“Diarmait! What are you saying? You have no proof it was he!”
“It had to be someone in that room down there! And who hates me most in that room down there? Get out of my way!”
“Muirgius doesn’t hate you! Diarmait!”
“Then I hate him, and that’s good enough for me! Get out of my way!”
Sadb grabbed his arm, and he flung her off.
“Get out of my fucking way!”
Sadb loved it when Diarmait forgot to watch his mouth and accidentally swore in her presence. But there was nothing accidental about his swearing now. Nor had he ever treated her so roughly.
“Diarmait,” she said, trying to make her shaky voice steady and reassuring, “please calm yourself. Please stop shouting. If they’re not hearing you downstairs in the hall, they’ll be hearing you through the window.”
“I don’t care who hears me!” He shoved the curtains aside and shrieked through the bars of the window, “Motherfuckers!”
Diarmait grabbed the curtains in both hands and leaned back, tearing them down. Sadb yelped and scuffled away from him, startled by the clang of the iron rod hitting the floor.
“When I find out who’s doing this! I’m going back down there and beating it out of them! Who was in that room?”
“Diarmait, it might have been—”
Diarmait reared up and kicked over the heavy chair, making a boom that must have sounded out as far as the beach.
Sadb’s feet tangled in her skirts and she fell back against the doorframe. She had never been so terrified. Her dignified father scarcely even raised his voice, and the angriest acts she had ever witnessed on the part of her brothers were the slamming of doors and the kicking of gravel. Sadb had never known any other men. And her mother had not warned her of this.
She was shivering all over, and her teeth chattered as if she were freezing to death, but she had something to say, and she knew it was urgent that she say it. Her men were downstairs, and her man was raging like a god over their heads.
“It might have been someone in the bakehouse!” she said. “One of the servants! Or—or someone in the pantry!”
Diarmait turned to her, panting so heavily that she saw his chest rising and falling beneath his open collar.
“It could have been anybody,” he growled.
“That’s right, it—it could have been anybody. You mustn’t think the worst of your friends.”
Diarmait lifted a boot and slammed it down, making one terrorizing stride towards her or towards the door. Then he staggered sideways and crashed shoulder-first into the wall.
“It could have been… anybody…” he hiccuped.
He slid down the wall and thumped into a bare-kneed, black-clothed heap upon the colorful curtains.
“It could have been anybody,” he whimpered. “They all hate me—all!” He hid his face in his hands and shook with silent, stuttering sobs.
Sadb thought she ought to stop shivering then, but she did not. She did not feel the relief she expected either. Did her father ever act like this when her parents were alone? And what did her mother do? Sadb did not know. And nevertheless something had to be done.
Thus she pushed herself to her feet, tiptoed up to Diarmait, and sank down into a pile of skirts at his side.
“Nobody hates you, silly man.”
“If somebody hated you, he would put poison in your bread, and not a toy dog.”
“A brass dog,” Diarmait mumbled.
“Fie! And isn’t Eirik your friend?”
“He’s their friend more than mine. Every man in this fort knows Eirik better than I do. I’m naught but the brother of the husband of the sister of his wife!”
Sadb snorted. He was a wee bit silly.
“What does it mean?” Diarmait whimpered, rocking himself from side to side. “Is it a warning? Is it someone who hates me? Because I’m Eirik’s friend? Or because I’m his enemy? Christ! I’m not even knowing what I am!”
Sadb tried to pull his hands away from his face and managed to gain control of one. His palm was wet with tears, and her heart ached with a sudden tenderness for him.
“Listen, man. Were you never thinking it might have been Eirik himself?”
Diarmait shuddered and looked up. “Eirik here?”
“Perhaps not in person, but he might have sent a man. You know Eirik! How he can never be doing things simple and plain like other men. Always has to make an impression, he does. And doesn’t he love a joke!”
Diarmait lowered his head and sniffled miserably. “I’m not a-laughing.”
“Ach! His jokes are always being on someone, lad.”
Sadb tipped his head back up and wriggled herself between his knees, smiling.
“And you’re knowing he likes them grand! Aren’t you remembering how he bought a wagonful of apples, and stuck little cloth sails on each and every one, and set them a-sailing in Dublin harbor? And him striding in late to dinner, telling how he’d seen the Irish navy coming in on the tide? All to play a joke on Enna?”
Diarmait snorted. “I’m thinking the joke was on my brother, darling. That was the day Enna made him lord of Two Ladies, and Eirik’s stunt made us all forget why we were feasting.”
“Ach! It was a good joke, either way. And if he can get his men to make little toy ships out of a wagonful of apples, surely he can be having a few little brass dogs made for a man to be hiding in your bread basket. How he shall laugh!”
Diarmait had begun to look hopeful, but finally he shook his head in defeat. “Ach, you’re not knowing how we parted. He was not laughing then. He cannot be wishing me well.”
“And I cannot believe Eirik could be wishing you ill. I think I’m knowing him a little better than that.”
Diarmait pushed a lock of hair away from Sadb’s face. His cheeks were still damp, but his expression had calmed into that look she loved so well: a truly masculine tenderness, a longing to protect her—even from himself, at times, when he struggled against the force of his desire.
“You’re not knowing that side of him, Sadb. I pray you…”
Sadb waited for him to finish his phrase, but he did not.
“I’m only knowing the big friendly side,” she agreed. “But that’s the only side he’s ever showing when I’m nigh. So you just stick with me!”