The fall takes the air from Aedh’s lungs as hooks slide between his ribs. He’s too old for this. The breath that shoots from his lips feels like it should contain blood, and it’s so cold he can see it. Even now in the middle of the night with the moon riding full, and clear, overhead.
‘Mind your feet.’
A splash and muffled curse from his son reach his ears, but that’s all, and it’s quickly silenced. Once you saw those that had escaped you learned to keep your mouth shut this close to the enemy. Aedh paused, the stream winding its way down the mountainside sounds like its right next to him. They must be 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 then 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? Keep it low.’
It’s a risk worth taking; the last decent meal Aedh ate feels like weeks ago. If they make it to the tarn his son says he’s found 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,’ says Cos. ‘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 frost 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 anyone. 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 isn’t just the enemy he’s worried about. There’d been strange spoor along the forest’s edge for months.
‘Can we light a fire when we get there Dad?’
Aedh closes his eyes; he shouldn’t be doing this. But like every poor bastard who’d worn the crown for a year and a day 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 others expense. 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.
He’d wondered what the look in the last Kings eyes had meant when he’d handed him the circlet; now he knew.
‘Shouldn’t have accepted it.’
‘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 is outlined against the starlight and steam rises from his sides like a wolf…or a ghost. Aedh shudders.
‘Don’t go down, not yet. Wait for me.’
The climb takes longer than he thought as he creeps over the sides of the hole dug into the earth like one of the iron stars had fallen to the ground here. When Cos’ feet bounce across the tarns ice, it sounds like one of Mab’s war dances and the hairs on Aedh’s 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 through to the mud.
‘You’ve brought the oatmeal?’ Cos nods. ‘Good, eat some then. They like their gifts well fed.’
‘I don’t understand. You said I shouldn’t touch it,’ says his son, ‘and there’s nothing to see anyway. Before there were so many eels the water couldn’t freeze.’
‘They won’t be long, wait.’
Of course, that was if they liked what Aedh 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 up 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 in the water, somewhere among the muck and bad dreams, Aedh can feel them. There’s 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 the offering as Cos coughs and sprays burnt oatmeal across the water; cinders and soot drowning alongside the meal. It’s a pity that alone won’t work. Aedh flexes his fingers; he’ll try and make this 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 its surface’s rippling as something swims through the depths. Aedh grunts, he’s not interested in what’s overhead it’s what’s lying under the surface he wants.
‘You understand how hungry we are Cos?’ Aedh tries to stop, but he can’t. His son deserves an explanation, and he needs to talk. ‘We need to do this. I have to do this. The women’s babies are stillborn now, and we buried the last of the old yesterday. You know that don’t you? There’s no food anymore. We should never have listened to Mab, but it’s too late now. If what you say is true, and Mab thinks it is, the things that live in the pool must be appeased.’
‘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 it had been his youngest son chosen for the honor this time; as if that was any consolation.
‘Come here.’ In the distance, up where the invaders have 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 doesn’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.
‘It’s not like last time. That was fun,’ says the boy.
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 bites deep into Aedh’s palms as he drags his son’s neck back until bone snaps; loud in the night air.
The ponds surface’s foams as his son’s body tries to fight the death stealing over it, and Cos’ murderer risks a glance over his shoulder. But the enemy haven’t 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 slides his knife through his neck until the roaring in his ears calms. What’s left should draw should plenty. But he can’t see anything in the tarn. There’s blood on Aedh’s cheeks, and on his hands too as the King lifts his sons head and flings it further in. It bobs for a second before the depths swirl and suck it into their embrace. Aedh looks at the mess on his hands. He brings them to his lips. It’s been so long since he’s eaten.
Aedh winces as he wipes his knife on his jacket. The blood tastes good, too good. He tries not to think about it as he swallows. Besides, after Pwyll and Tadhg it’s getting familiar.
King Aedh mouths the words to the Draoi’s prayer. Under normal circumstances, there’d be punishment in plenty for his crime. But not today, not with the enemies fires close and the countryside so barren. He doesn’t have to wait long. The water’s moving, and not with eels. Cos’ blood’s drowning, spiraling into the depths as its threads follow the moonlight down.
‘Got you,’ Aedh breathes the words as something moves clear and colder than a fist. When it bursts from the shattered floes the salmon glitters like its skin’s made of silver and water streams off its back. Its eyes fix on him as its lips twist into a sneer.
‘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, and we have cold meat.’
The voice makes his skin crawl.
‘You’re hungry though 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 its 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. Did you like the taste of your son’s blood? Don’t lie.’
Aedh looks away, his eyes sliding to the shadows.
‘I thought so,’ says Bradán Feasa; the Salmon of Knowledge. ‘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 red as a wound. All lives do, but we’re tired of waiting; of patience. The barrier between the world is thinner than the ice you broke just now. You’ve been so kind with the lives you’ve given. Won’t you give us a few more King Aedh? I give you my word if you do you will reign a lot longer than a year and a day.’
Aedh’s breath hisses between his teeth. It’s sacrilege, but it’s a tempting offer none the less. What they did to the King on his anniversary if the year had been a bad one made even the bravest warrior shudder.
‘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 slides 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 just one more of your sons, we’ll show you how to stop the hunger spreading.’
‘Always more.’ Aedh wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘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.
‘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, but with your help that will change. You’ll lose a few children, but you’ll have plenty of time to make more. Does that sound like a fair bargain for a life, or two?’
‘You can’t promise that.’
All that’s left of Cos’ body is the blood, and for a moment Aedh wonders what it would take to make the tarn overflow, slip its shackles and flood the moorlands.
His lunge takes him to the fishes side, but something slips past his legs before he can get a grip on it. Aedh trips; plunging face first into the water as the eel slides past his fingers and then he’s following it down into the weeds. When he surfaces his rage has calmed replaced by something a lot more dangerous.
‘I’ll do it.’
Midges skitter across the pond’s surface and the salmon flicks its tail as it bites at their wings.
‘Children are so small, you understand? You’ll hardly miss them.’ The salmon thrashes its tale and there’s what looks like a smile on its face now. ‘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 look in her eyes as she stared at their children’s swollen bellies.
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
The salmon snaps a midge out of the air so close Aedh lurches backwards.
‘And you think your Draoi does? He guts birds and beetles and thinks it’s what we want. Kill him first. Kill him tonight. Seal the bargain King.’
‘He told us about you.’
‘Draoi are only humans and humans don’t know all the answers. They forget that.’
A smile flickers across Aedh’s face. He’s thought about Mab’s murder plenty of times. The serpent hiding under his skull was due a reward and Aedh can still taste Cos’ blood on his lips.
‘Give us our eels first,’ says King Aedh, ruler for a year and a day.
The salmon flicks its tail scattering freezing water across the tarn.
‘As you wish Aedh.’
Aedh’s bows low to hide the look on his face.
It turned out 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 cooking 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 bodies. Aedh’s an old man now, ten times older than Mab had been when his King’s blade slit his throat. He watches the fighting below him 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 stranger’s crests dance like cockerels as they cut through his warriors; and Aedh 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 theirs. The salmon had explained many times 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 were dying.
When three figures appear in the sea, he knows he’s going to get his answer. Their stolen faces suck at the light, and their feet are deep in the water. One of his women joins him and say’s into his ear, ‘they’re taller than a dozen cliffs.’
Her eyes are painted into slits like the wild animals whose skins she uses as clothes. It’s the fashion these days. Even his family talk like wolves.
‘Go see what they want.’
But, she’s gone and the salmon that had danced through the rocks at the sea’s edge has flicked its tail and joined her. Aedh glances at his hands and sees ‘s them quiver. The flesh between their knuckles sags and there’s an old man’s spots on their backs.
The tallest of the three catches one of the fighters and takes the life from him as if its 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 brings its face close to the cliff they’re using and hefts the net in its fist. The men it’s packed with shift and jostle and their screams are louder than the gulls flying overhead, louder than the wounded complaints. 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 and their feet soak the dry earth as water streams from their backs. When they get close beaks flap under the hides stitched across them.
‘I’ve never seen you before. Where have you come from?’
‘The sea,’ says the tallest.
‘Like all the best things do.’
The third laughs, and looks at the sun. Aedh’s glad, whatever’s really dripping off them has killed anything living in a path leading from the water to where they’re standing.
‘What do you want?’
‘Only what’s ours.’
‘Why don’t you try taking it then?’
‘There’d be no fun in that.’ King Aedh. ‘Much better to let you work for it and give it to us after. The salmon did well persuading you.’
‘Still thinks it’s a better thief than us, though.’
Bills clatter and clap as they laugh, and Aedh catches a glimpse of what lies underneath. They’re things like cubes but with so many bars they remind him of cages. He rubs his eyes trying to take away the sting of light so bright it makes his eyes hurt.
He gestures at the carnage, ‘You’ve 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?’ says Aedh.
The trio 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 left.
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 his men die and the clouds crawling down from the hills to see the smiles that twitch into nothing.’
The foreigners have started 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 and King Aedh takes a deep breath letting his lungs fill with mud and rot. It’s been growing in them for years, he can even feel a worm wriggle in his chest.
He’s going home.
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