Another fall punches the air from Aedh’s breast; deep down where the gristle lives he can feel the first hooks dig into his side. He’s too old for this. The air that shoots from his lips feels like it should contain his lungs, and it’s so cold he can see it even now in the middle of the night.
‘Mind your feet, Cos.’
A splash and muffled curse tell him his son’s found the same hole, but that’s all that reaches his ears. Once you saw the ones that had escaped you learnt to keep your mouth shut this close to the enemies camps. Aedh pauses, the stream scratching its way down the mountainside sounds like it’s right next to him. They’re closer than he thought.
‘Come here, or it’ll happen again. I can’t carry you all the way.’
The rattle of his son’s teeth is louder than the sound of water trying not to turn into ice until his son speaks.
‘I can’t feel my feet.’
‘It’s not going to matter much longer, keep moving. You’ll warm up. Why don’t you talk to me? But keep it low.’
It’s a risk worth taking; the last decent meal Aedh ate feels like weeks ago. If they make it the hunger will be over.
‘Mab thinks the enemy will bring glaciers with them from their homeland, and the things that live on their backs too. It’s going to matter then; I’ll need them to fight with.’
‘When did he say that?’
‘When you left me with him. There’s ice forming in the upper valleys that never goes away now.’
‘It’ll melt. It always does.’
‘He says it won’t, and he should know. He’s been here longer than any of us. Some of the women say he was alive when there were animals as big as mountains living here. They were hairy and had teeth longer than your arm.’
‘They’re saying that to tease you, and you shouldn’t listen to the dung Mab talks.’
‘Why not, you do.’
‘I haven’t got a choice. He’s my Draoi.’
Aedh stares into the darkness. He has to admit his son had a point when he say’s ‘things’. It wasn’t just the enemy he was worried about. There’d been spoor along the forest’s edge for months.
‘Can we light a fire when we get there?’
Aedh closed his eyes; he shouldn’t be doing this. But like every poor bastard who’d worn the crown for a year, he was finding out what it meant now the clan’s backs were against the wall. Aedh wants to pick up his son and run. He would do too, except it was his turn, and Mab would make sure he’d pay even more for all the meals he’d taken at the expense of others, just like his predecessors. Besides, he doubted he was strong enough anymore. Even for him there’d been more months with barely enough to take the gnawing from his stomach than he wanted to think about.
‘You shouldn’t have accepted it.’ He’d wondered what the look in the last Kings eyes had meant when he’d handed him the circlet, now he knew. ‘Bastard.’
‘What are you talking about Father?’
Aedh looked at the patch of darkness that held Cos and put his finger to his lips. There was no point telling the kid; it would only make things more difficult.
‘Quiet, remember? There are ears in the night that would be glad to know the King and his son are on their doorstep.’
Cos Na Cadr, seventh son of Aedh the Hammer was outlined against the starlight, steam rising from his sides like a wolf.
‘Don’t go down, not yet. Wait for me.’
That took longer than he’d thought as he crept down the sides of the hole dug into the earth like something had lunged for its heart and missed. When Aedh’s feet bounce across the tarns ice, it sounds like one of Mab’s dances. The hairs on his arms stand on end.
‘They’re here I can feel them.’
But Aedh isn’t listening his eyes are on the pond as his feet smash their way to the mud.
‘You’ve brought the oatmeal?’ Cos nods, ‘Eat some then, they like their gifts well fed.’
‘I don’t understand, it’s for me? You said I shouldn’t touch it, and there’s nothing to see anyway. You said there’d be so many eels the water couldn’t freeze.’
‘They won’t be long, wait.’
Of course, that was if they liked what Aed had brought. Mab had said they’d had enough of daughters, but he wouldn’t know until they bit, would he? He brought his eyes from the tarn’s depths long enough to meet his son’s.
‘I don’t like it Dad, it’s burnt.’
‘You’ll eat it; it’s the last we have left.’
They sit and watch the tarn suck at the light as his son chokes down the crap that was all they’d managed to scrape from the store pits. Down there somewhere among the muck and bad dreams Aedh can feel them; the squirm and flicker of so many tales he doubts you could count them all in a lifetime. He wonders whether or not they can smell their offering as Cos sprays burnt oatmeal across the water; cinders and soot drowning alongside the meal. It’s a pity that alone won’t work. He flexes his fingers; he’ll try and make it quick.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Cos finishes coughing the words as the moon comes out from behind the clouds to bathe the tarn in silver. Now it’s surface’s rippling as something swims through its depths, stitching new orbits for the reflection in the peat saturated water. Aedh grunts, he’s not interested in what’s overhead.
‘You understand how hungry we are Cos?’ Aedh tries to stop, but he can’t. His son deserves an explanation, ‘We need to do this. I have to do this.’
‘The women’s babies are still born now, and we buried the last of the old yesterday. You know that don’t you? There’s no food anymore, Cos. We should never have listened to Mab, but it’s too late now.’
‘Yes Father, but it’ll get better. I know it will he told me so.’
‘You and half the clan Cos, but the half we should have followed are too sick to do anything about it anymore. There’s only us left.’
Aedh pauses, it had to be now, waiting any longer was only going to make it worse. At least he’d chosen his youngest this time; as if that was any consolation.
‘Come here.’ In the distance, up where the invaders had toppled the meeting stones, fires glitter. This close the rot from the corpses left round their camp makes his belly heave. ‘More of them every day.’ Aedh brings his eyes back to earth and reaches out to tousle the boy’s hair. He stops himself; it won’t help.
‘See if you can see anything out there.’
Cos splashes further into the pool without another word. He’s brave like that, always has been, despite the bones sticking from his clothes.
‘Its not like last time. That was fun.’
The water’s up to Cos’s shoulders now. What’s left of him’s turning blue.
Aedh isn’t listening; he doesn’t want to hear his son talk anymore. Instead, he thinks about what it will be like with one less mouth to feed, and steps behind him.
‘No more hunger Cos, just like I promised.’
The noose of mistletoe and hawthorn slides tight, biting deep into Aedh’s palms as he drags his son’s neck back until bone snaps; sharp in the night air.
The ponds surface’s foams as his son tries to fight, and his murderer risks a glance over a shoulder. No ones noticed, not yet or he’d have heard them. Maybe Mab has done something after all besides spout empty promises.
‘It’s my fault, son. I’m so sorry.’
When Cos finally stops thrashing, Aedh draws his knife digging deep through Cos’s meagre fat until the roaring in his ears calms. The treasure that will draw what the tarn hides is still hidden in his son, he just has to find it. There’s blood on his cheeks, and on his hands too when he does and not just from the wound in boy’s neck as Aedh lifts his sons heart and flings it into the tarn. It bobs for a second before the depths swirl and suck it into their embrace. Aedh looks at the mess on his hands. He wants it off, but he can’t help bringing them to his lips. It’s been so long since he’s eaten.
His tongue shrinks at the touch as he wipes his knife on his jacket. It tastes good, like blood always does. He doesn’t know why, doesn’t want to, but after Pwyll, and Tadhg before him it’s getting familiar. Anything’s better than what the tribe have been eating.
Aedh mouths the words to the Draoi’s prayer looking sideways at the shadows. Under normal circumstances, there’d be punishment in plenty for this. But not today, not with the enemies fires so close. He doesn’t have to wait long. The water’s moving, and not with eels this time. Cos’ blood’s drowning, spiralling into the depths as its threads follow the moonlight down.
‘Found you,’ Cos breathes the words as something moves down there, clear and colder than a fist. When it bursts from the shattered floes the salmon glitters like its skin’s made of diamonds and water streams off its back. It’s eyes fix on him, and it’s lips twist into a grin.
‘Hail, King Aedh.’
He opens his mouth and closes it. That fish could feed his family for a month, his mouth waters at the thought.
‘I know what you’re thinking King Aedh, and we have cold meat.’
It’s voice makes his skin crawl, it’s like hearing frost talk.
‘You’re hungry aren’t you Aedh?’ The salmon opens its mouth and light glimmers on its teeth. ‘I can help if you listen.’
What’s left of his son’s body’s slipping under the water; disappearing into the tarns shadows until all he can see of it is a ghost.
‘Why would you do that?’
‘Because we’re the same.’
‘I’m not the same as you.’
The fish’s smile twists wider, ‘You are, and soon you will be Aedh King of all the clans. You just don’t know it yet. You sacrificed your children, so did I. Did you like the taste? Don’t lie.’
Aedh wants to look away, is desperate to look away, but he can’t.
‘I thought so; hunger’s a terrible thing isn’t it?’
‘There are plenty of other fathers with sons to give, why don’t you ask them? Mab can keep his demons.’
‘They’ll come to us in time when they break the surface.’ The salmon thrashes the water; until the tarn is as red as wound. All lives do, but we’re tired of waiting, of patience. It’s so thin now, thinner than the ice you broke. You’ve been so kind with the lives you’ve given. Give us a few more so we can spare our young ones.’
‘You’re no part of my clan; I’ve my own to look after. There should be eels here. Where are they?’
A flicker of distaste crosses the fishes face, but it ignores the question as ice slips behind it like something’s shifted there.
‘And you trust them? What about Mab? Look at what he’s made you do. If you bring us more of your sons, we’ll show you how to stop the hunger spreading.’
‘Why always more. I tell you, I’ve run out. I’ve no more to give.’
This time he’s sure of it; something else is in the water. The salmon’s face crawls with disgust as the ripples spread. The tarn can’t have been as empty as Cos had thought.
‘Because we’ll make you a King like no other if you set us free. We don’t have long Aedh, not enough blood’s been spilt here yet to make it thin enough, but with your help that will change. You’ll lose years, but you’ll have enough to give. Does that sound like a fair bargain for a life, or two?’
‘You can’t promise that.’
Aedh can’t see Cos’s body anymore all that’s left is the blood; the tarn looks in danger of overflowing now like it wants to spread across the moors like a volcano.
His lunge takes him to the fishes side, but something slips past his legs before he can get close. Aedh trips; plunging face first into the water as the eel slides past his fingers and he then he’s following his son down into the weeds. When he surfaces, the rage has calmed a bit replaced by something a lot more dangerous.
His voice sends mosquitoes skittering across the pond’s surface. The salmon flicks its tail and bites their wings.
‘Children are so small, you understand? How long before Mab asks you for something bigger. You’re wife maybe? ’
Aedh thinks of the taste of his son’s blood, and the empty look in his wife’s eyes as she stared at their swollen bellies.
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
The salmon snaps a few more mosquito’s out of the air so close Aedh lurches backwards.
‘And you think your Draoi does? He guts birds and beetles and thinks its what we want. Kill him first. Kill him tonight; seal the bargain King.’
‘He told us about you.’
‘Draoi are only men. They forget their worth sometimes.’
A smile flickers across Aedh’s face at last. He’s thought about doing it before. The serpent hiding under his skull was due a reward. He can still taste Cos’s blood on his lips and the thrill it had given him
‘Give us our eels first.’
The fish flicks its tail in the freezing air scattering drops across the ice.
‘Anything you wish Aedh.’
Aedh’s bow is low enough to hide the look on his face.
When it had finally happened Mab had been easy to defeat. He’d crouched in the den he called a temple trying to hold his bowels in as tears ran down his cheeks. Aedh hadn’t shown mercy no matter how many times he was begged. The Priest was a charlatan, the man had as much fire and brimstone in him as a camp fire.
After that, the land had emptied of Draoi like a horse shedding fleas as people with eyes emptier than their bellies filled the tarns with their bodies. Aedh’s an old man now, ten times older than Mab had been when his blade slit his belly. He watches the fighting below for a moment feeling the ache in his bones that comes from so many years.
‘I never thought I’d live to see it.’
The new comer’s crests dance like cockerel combs as they cut through his warriors. He gestures for the nearest child, watching his women straighten from their task. Skinning their captives had to have experienced fingers doing it, and there were none more experienced than his. The salmon had explained many times in his dreams that it liked its gifts raw. He supposed they were easier to eat that way, and the mountain of heads at the cliff top proved how eager it was. Except this time it’s different, it’s not victory he’s watching, its slaughter. There’s no reason it should be, the omens had been good, the birds had flown the right way. The stones had sung the song of victory, but still the clans are dying.
When three figures appear from the sea, he knows he’s going to get his answer. He can see where their stolen faces meet the light, and their feet lie deep in the water. One of the women join him and say’s, ‘they must be taller than a dozen cliffs.’
She has eyes pinned back into slits. His family even spat like lions these days.
‘Go see what they want.’
But, there’s no one to talk to anymore, she’s gone and the salmon that had danced through the rocks at the sea’s edge has flicked its tail and joined her. The tallest of the trio catches one of the fighters and takes the life from him as if it were dipping water from a well. Now it’s reached the beach he can see its legs; skinny as wire, and twice as sleek. He drops his knife, if they want to end him too all the sacrifices in the world won’t help.
‘What are you?’
The nearest of the things wearing women’s faces brings its head close to the cliff they’re using for the sacrifices and hefts the net in its fist. The men its packed with shift and jostle and their screams are louder than the gulls flying over head, louder than the complaints of the wounded. Tribesmen and soldiers, the fishers aren’t picky.’
‘Predators, Aedh. You should know that, you use enough of them.’
They’re over the grass now their feet soaking the dry earth as water streams from them like they’re made from feathers. When they get close beaks flap under the hides stitched across them.
‘I’ve never seen you before. Where have you come from?’
‘Like everything does.’
The third laughs, and looks at the sun. Aedh’s glad, whatever’s really dripping off them has already killed anything living in a path leading from the sea to their feet.
‘What do you want?’
‘Only what’s ours.’
‘Why don’t you try taking it then?’
‘There’d be no fun in that. Much better to let you work for it and give it to us after. The salmon did well persuading you.’
‘Still thinks its a better thief than us, though.’
Bills clatter and clap as they laugh, and Aedh catches a glimpse of what lies underneath. He rubs his eyes trying to take away the sting of light so bright it makes his eyes hurt.
He gestures at the carnage, ‘Have you come to stop me?’
Beaks scissor open, ‘Why should we care? The newcomers will be better at their work.’ They eye the advancing Romans, ‘and they do what they’re told. Besides the salmon’s time is over. It’s a relic that’s better off in the deep, they’re used to its kind there.’
‘What will replace us?’
The three smile and turn to the carnage.
Swords rise and fall as one, and the look on the faces of the people under their blades turns Aedh’s stomach.
‘You shouldn’t worry; we’ll teach what’s left of you. If there are any.’
Aedh’s nod takes in the host’s remnants. He can’t keep the despair from his voice.
‘Songs will be sung of them till the skies blacken. You’ve our word on that.’
He’s too busy watching men die and the clouds crawling down from the hills to see the smiles that twitch into nothing too quick to see clearly.
‘I will watch then.’
The foreigners are starting to mop up now.
‘Why so sad Aedh?’
He shrugs, the earth is opening its arms to embrace him as the nearest hillside splits wide. King Aedh takes a deep breath letting his lungs fill with the mud and rot that have been growing in them for years, he can even feel a worm wriggle in his chest. He’s going home.
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