To Dust You Shall Return
by Sean Melican
Tiocfaidh an dúchas trí na crúbaidh agus leanfaidh an chú giorria.
Heredity will come through the claws, and the hound will pursue the hare.
-- Irish saying
Winter is coming early. The leaves have turned but have not fallen, yet already the wind cuts like a cold knife. Your shadow is a thin and long and black thing stretched across the whispering grasses.
A flock of loons erupts from the small green and blue islands. Their cry is comforting for it is familiar, but they sound frightened. A ship is coming across the green foamed water. It is so far in the distance it is necessary to put a hand over your eyes to see it. The sails are black. The sky is an empty blue save for a single black cloud that shrouds the boat in darkness.
With a hand you pull your cloak tight against the chill. The priest called them demons. He said they were black, soulless things. Once people, he said, who had been turned. They want only blood. No honor, no rules. Blood only and however they can get it.
Cuan’s red cloak is visible to the north against the green and gray of the world. It is easy to say the word love but it is only a word. Fear is also easy to say, and more common, but strangely, it is said less often. Yet he is tall and strong and his mustache tickles when he kisses. He will not die today. A few words are whispered to the Morrigan that neither his blood nor the blood of Tadhg be washed in her stream today. You pray but not to the Christ despite the priest’s wishes. His is a strange weak god.
Yet the demons fear what he calls a cross. One such hangs on a chain: heavy and cold. The heavy and cold wind, which has been silent for a moment, slices through cloak and armor.
Your sword is light and easy to heft. It is covered in holy water mixed with honey, which is why the air is thick with black insects. The water kills the demons, the priest said. Cut the head off or pierce the heart; all else only angers them.
It comes suddenly that the cloud is not a cloud but a great mass of black birds. The dying sunlight slips from their oily feathers. They look for a moment like a terrible rainbow. Their eyes are red. Their thin, sharp beaks are a foul yellow color tipped with red. They cry. The loons that had settled behind take flight once more with a great ruffling of wings. They are afraid.
The birds attack as the sun disappears. They care nothing for dying. Swooping fast and low, they peck at the eyes or, when that fails, any piece of skin. The beaks are sharp. They take bits of skin. They are almost too fast and always go for the eyes. Though soon enough they are nearly all dead. The ground is littered with their black and red bodies. They are not all dead, for they strike at the legs even as you step on their heads.
That is when the demons choose to strike, when everyone is wandering thigh deep among the birds. They move across the ground. They are black and utterly silent except for the slight rustle of grass as they pass over it. Like the birds, their eyes are a uniform crimson. They don’t seem to blink, and then there is a flicker of black over the crimson so fast it appears to be only an illusion.
The nearest stands twice as tall as any man. Black clothing or maybe skin flutters in the sudden breeze. It screams: it sounds like a thousand tortured souls. But they are soulless so the screams must be something else. Its breath is fetid, a mixture of turned earth and rotted meat. Your sword cuts clean through its neck. There is, now, only a pile of thick ash that swirls and disappears. It is sickening to think of all of this killing and nothing to show for it.
They are everywhere. There is no time to think. Only time to fight.
When this thing is done and the sun stains the sky the same color as Tadhg’s cheeks on his first winter day, you lean heavily on your sword. It is possible to hear the labored breathing of the warriors who are visible only as silhouettes against the gray dawn. Everyone is stained with blood from the birds. The dark ash sticks to it. Cuan’s breath is hot when he kisses.
Dichu, the chieftain, calls everyone together. Only Meallán is missing and though the pile of dead bird is searched he remains missing. Dichu cries, “Victory!” but it is without joy.
Cuan leaves to aid in the cleansing of the demon ship. Perhaps this is only the first wave. Perhaps there is a second wave waiting for a second nightfall. Waiting for complacency. His hand is hot against your cheek. Mothers and fathers rush to the barn where the children were hidden. They come into the daylight laughing, for to them this is only a game, but when they see their parents many of them are sick. Tadhg’s arms are tight around your waist. His cheeks are warm and red.
One of the children takes a torch to them before he could be stopped. The birds explode into flame as if they were oil. A foul, black smoke covers the ground. There is fear that the child has set more than the birds afire, but when it has burned itself out the only grass that has been charred is that which was under the birds. This frightens everyone more than they will admit.
Pádraig says, “This is the Hell I have spoken about.”
“Truly?” says Dichu, clapping the priest on the back. “Then why am I filled with such happiness?”
“Because you aren’t,” says Pádraig. He is right. He looks away from Dichu towards the shore of the eastern isle. He sighs, his breath a white cloud, and he wraps his arms around himself. “Do you think this is done? That island is thick with them. They will come with a fleet of ships next time. We will die.”
“Speak plainly, priest.”
“You must rid these islands of them.”
Dichu’s eyes widen. Then he laughs.
Lommán stands before the priest. His thick arms are covered with thick black hair. His knotted hair flaps in the wind. “They are your demons, made by your gods. You brought them. You get rid of them.”
The priest shows no fear though the other man could snap him as easily as a child snaps a twig. It is good that he shows no fear.
says, “You were bitten. They hunt
you. That is why they have come to
Pádraig’s eyes are blue and very sad. He says quietly, “Don’t be a fool. They make themselves from men, women, even children with no thought beyond the moment. We are their food. When they are hungry and there is no one left where will they turn?”
The priest said he had been attacked while praying. He had a pair of livid marks on his neck as proof. He said he had despaired, had lost his faith and thus had struck with the only weapon nearby: a crucifix. He had only to touch them for them to die; but he had defiled his god.
“You came here,” says Dichu. “They followed. How do I know you aren’t simply their agent?”
The priest turns an ugly color. “I told you they were coming.”
“Yet you lifted no sword against them.”
The little man studies the ground between his feet. “I am afraid of them.”
Lommán bares his teeth when he laughs. “Then why should we help?”
Without moving his head, the priest kicks the sword from beneath Lommán’s hands. He falls to the ground heavily and within a moment, the priest has the point against the bigger man’s neck.
The priest says, “There were some wicked wolves in the pastures. I am afraid, I admit as much, but what if I lead? I offer my sword.”
“I lead,” says Dichu. “And for me to accept your sword you will need one.”
Pádraig says, “It is Lommán who needs a sword.” He makes a show of touching the blade. “I need only to hone mine.”
Lommán laughs, then grunts as the motion pushes the sword-tip tight against his neck. “Your god is weak yet you have strength. If you will fight as a man then I can do no less. I swear to stand beside you. I give to you my sword.”
“If that is your idea of gifting, then God has gifted you with the handsomest of faces and the greatest of minds.” The priest holds out his hand. You see how easily he helps a man twice his weight to his feet.
There is a feast this night: roasted boar and bull, honey-basted salmon, bread, cheese and curds, beer and mead. Your mouth is wet from the thick odors, yet the roasted meat is reminiscent of the flaming birds. It is hard to look at the crisp skin without feeling nauseous.
The priest closes his eyes. He clasps his hands and says a prayer to his strange weak god. Some surreptitiously stuff a piece of meat into their mouths. You slap Cuan’s hand harder than necessary when he does so. His eyes are the color of leaves about to turn and this time they look hurt.
It is called a feast, but there is little that is festive. There is only the bleat of the sheep and the low of the cows and the whisper of the wind. This is really a mourning, not for the man who died but for an innocence. It is impossible to say what you were once innocent of.
It is much past dark when everyone is drunk enough that there is laughter and flirting and the occasional sneaking away of a man and a woman into the darkness.
Dichu stands in his chair, but not straight. He will fall before the night is ended, and more than once. For now he says, “To Lommán: the boar’s thigh!”
Lommán claps as loud as the rest, for everyone is applauding Dichu, who nearly topples but catches himself on Lommán’s shoulder. Then there arises the cheer:
“Pádraig! Pádraig! Pádraig!”
Lommán is very drunk for he must stare too long at each face in the orange light of the torches, seeking the priest’s. When he finds it, after much noise and pointing of fingers, he slaps his wife’s leg. “If the priest wants some thigh he can claim it himself!”
Pádraig stands, though he is so much shorter than the others that standing he looks many in the eye. He makes a self-deprecating gesture. “If his wife needs this poor body, he is as great a lover as he is a handsome man.”
The crowd laughs. Some choke. Others slap their knees. Everyone approves. He may have only been a shepherd, but somewhere he has developed a wit. Though he smiles, you see it is an empty gesture.
Cuan snorts his mead through his nose much to Tadhg’s delight. He sits on his father’s knee tugging at his mustache. He leaps down and before he can run off you say, “Stay within the light.”
He starts to argue but Cuan says, “The demons like the dark. They’ll make you into one of them: long, dark and evil. And then I will have to slit your throat.”
The boy turns. “Would you do that?”
The boy turns again but his step is much heavier and slower. He stops near the circle of light, peering into the darkness. It is easy to see dark shapes whenever the wind blows or a hound barks. Some of the older children are braving the night, but even they look grim beneath their smiles. One, a gangly boy on the edge of manhood, holds his knife so tight that his knuckles are a pale white. Another runs further than the others, then, when a loon calls, flees back to the safety of the torches so quickly he trips over a resting dog. When he rises, his face is dark from the mud and the other children tease him. Some have their knives out.
You turn away. It is too much.
Sparks from the fire drift above flickering into gray ash.
“It is only gray ash,” Cuan says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. What were you thinking of?”
“I would be happy to die with a sword in my breast. But I don’t want to become one of those things.”
His breath is soft and warm like a summer wind. “This is madness.”
“We need to do this to protect him. To protect the children. Tadhg. You would be mad as he is, if you had seen what he has.”
When he sighs his breath smells of mead. His lips are soft.
The feast is finally done. The fires have been banked. The scraps are given to the hounds. Tadhg walks between, his hand soft and small, so soft and small that it slips easily away when he swings his arm.
The moon is a cold and bright sliver, like the knives of many enemies.
“I’m fine.” Your cloak cannot keep out the chill no matter how you tighten it. “Just cold is all.”
Tadhg protests when you place him in bed but he is asleep even before the first verse is finished. His breath is so light it takes a mirror over his mouth to be certain he is still breathing. His cheek is covered in a soft down. You hang one cross on his window and another on his door. Through the smoke hole for the central kettle are the stars. They offer no comfort.
Cuan’s chest is thick with red hair starting to show white. His hands are behind his head. Sex tonight is quiet and intense. His eyes are a strange color: nearly all black but for the thinnest rim of green. His movements are practiced but the intensity is like those first few months of love, a passion that had dwindled with familiarity. Tonight is in many ways like that first night.
He sleeps easily. He is as hot as a fire when he sleeps.
The thatch overhead used to be comforting, a barrier between the elements but now it is a hindrance. One of them could be on the roof even now and, light as they are… You offer a few prayers to the gods, even the Christ, praying for a little rest.
But the gods are ever vigilant.
One glance out the window, nothing really, just a glance to see something different than the roof, and there is a tall black shape moving swiftly past. A hand over Cuan’s mouth is enough to keep him quiet. “I saw one. Get Tadhg, and rouse the others. But be silent. If it hears us, it will disappear.”
It is difficult to find clothes in the dark, fumbling like this. The night is cold, very cold, and your breath, which is a radiant cloud in the thin moonlight, condenses on skin.
There is a path on the other side of the grain. Keep quiet, footsteps light on the ground like the first leaves of autumn, breathe easily. The grain shrinks away. Maybe it is the wind. Some turn black when it touches them. Did it invade the homes to the east before passing this way? Not likely, or why would it pass by?
It is headed somewhere. It comes suddenly where it is going, and you run quickly to the back side of Pádraig’s barn. The thing wants him before the rest because he was tasted and is yet free.
As light as its footsteps it is still possible to tell it has stopped. Its crimson eyes are visible through the stalks. Suddenly, like that moment between dreaming and waking, the world changes: the wind and the cold are absent; it is warm like a summer’s day.
The ground is cold now. The moon stares without feeling. Your heart is beating like branches in a summer storm.
The wind blows hard again. On the other side of the path there are thick trees in which to hide. It is easy to imagine dark shapes behind every branch.
The back of Pádraig’s barn is darker than elsewhere for the moon is low and this side is south. There is nothing but darkness around the side towards the path and then the thing falls from the roof.
Its skin is like black cloth fluttering as it falls. There is only bone, almost no muscle, but it is incredibly tall, as if the process of changing converts girth into height. This time its malevolent eyes are within sword length. You think, for just a moment, of killing it and then the images are there:
Days and nights pass by, the sun rising and falling with inhuman speed. Years pass by between one heartbeat and the next. The great cauldrons of the Tir na n-Og are filled only with dust and they melt like mud when the rains come. There are angels dressed in white but they only laugh and mock themselves before turning to black tatters. They swarm around like carrion. You embrace like old friends.
Nostrils are thick with the smell of copper and iron, and there is a wetness around your lips. Prey is only just beyond the next dark rise, asleep and unknowing. They are so vulnerable, so easy to kill. So ripe with life. So filled with blood, like ticks. It is not theirs. It is yours.
There is a sharp pain beneath the ear. Then: nothing. No, not nothing, but a gentle ecstatic pleasure that slowly builds. You embrace like old friends.
“Good,” it whispers. It sounds like a summer breeze through the high grasses. It smells of worms. “Do you remember me? Yes, I am Meallán. Good. We used to be friends. We can be so much more now. Good.”
You let the blackness slide over your arms, but you see the priest between its bony, black and thin arms and its chest, its ribs straining against a blackness like charred cloth. He must be screaming. There is spittle flecking his lips. His mouth moves but there are no words. It is a relief.
It has a lisp. “Yes,” it says. “Words are only lies. The truth lies elsewhere.”
Its embrace is renewed. There is a sudden surge when it wraps its arms tighter, the way Tadhg does when he is frightened. Like the first time Cuan loved you.
Cuan. Tadhg. What of them? “Words are only lies.”
It is tall but weighs no more than a large child. Its skin feels like charred flesh. Its teeth tear your skin. Somehow, it is on the ground. Your sword is through its right breast. It lies pinned, screaming, fluttering in the wind like ragged black cloth.
Its eyes are soft and hurt.
From far away Pádraig says, “Look away!”
There is a feeling like soft, wet fingers beneath your ear. Swatting at it, it is the priests’ face. Sound returns with a suddenness: heavy boots, naked swords, shouts of “Here!” and “Kill it!” and “Aoife!”
This last is Cuan. His arms are tight. His kisses are hard.
The priest scurries away like a… like a rat, yes, like vermin. He returns with a pitcher and pours something over your neck. There is a horrible sound, like a tortured animal. Everyone is glancing this way, and they look as if they had seen a demon rise from the ground.
“—water,” says Pádraig. “It should burn out the poison. If we caught it in time.”
“Don’t kill it.”
“What?” says Lommán. His sword is poised over it.
“Don’t kill it,” you repeat. “We can interrogate it. Torture it. Learn something.”
The huge man does not waver. “Or maybe you will let it free, later, now that you are one of them. I should kill you too.”
Cuan’s sword is out, now. The priest moves toward Lommán, putting his hand on his arm. “She is right. We might learn something.”
Lommán’s face is twisted into a snarl. “Both of you are their slaves.”
“No,” says Dichu. “They are both right.” He bends over the black face.
“No!” screams Pádraig. “Don’t look at it!” He pushes Dichu into the dirt, then holds out his hand. “I’m sorry, but you don’t know. They entrance you with their eyes. It is how they paralyze their prey.”
There is a chill colder than the night in Dichu’s eyes. He stands before the priest. “If I was not certain you had saved my life, yours would have ended.”
The smaller man hangs his head. “Ask Aoife. She knows, now, how these things master you.”
What is there to say? A nod is all the answer needed. Head in hands, you bare your teeth for an instant.
Dichu says, “Take it into the priest’s barn.” People do so.
Lommán turns. There is a sudden thrill of fear when he catches your eye, knowing, suddenly, what his thoughts are. He says, “How do we know you aren’t one them?”
“We don’t,” says Pádraig. “Not until sunrise.”
“Then we shall wait until then.” He sits facing east with his sword across his knees.
Staring while he does, there is a strange fear: what if the magic water didn’t work? The priest said the sun consumes them like a fire consumes a bit of kindling. A flash and they are gone. Do the demons live long enough to feel the heat?
Tadhg comes from a dark corner and buries his head in your chest. His touch and smell bring tears. His heart beats steadily. Can anyone else hear it? It sounds loud, like oxen walking on the frozen ground. His words carry a weight no child should bear when he says, “I’m not afraid of you.”
His hair is soft and tangled.
“Can you feel their heartbeats?” says the priest. “Strong, aren’t they? It is like a call to battle.” He pauses. “You are afraid. That is good. It means you probably aren’t one of them. I felt what you feel. There are some chained to walls, fed off of but left alive enough to recuperate until the next feeding. I know their fear. It fades, sooner or later. Their fear.”
“What of the other thing?”
No one moves for a very long time. The wind whispers, the cold sometimes stronger than others, but warmth all around. And the steady twin thump-thump, thump-thump of their hearts. Tadhg’s is the quickest. You can feel it against your chest, like when he was an infant, but he sits by himself. No one says anything for a long time. Small clouds form with each breath.
Then, Tadhg points. “Dawn.”
The first tinge of pink against the darkness is barely there. Your own heart races like a wild horse. Cuan’s arm is heavy and tense around your neck.
The light arrives slowly spreading across the ocean first, then the small islands, and then the shore until it touches skin. You twist away but it is only the sudden brightness.
Tadhg’s hug is tight. “I knew it, Mommy.”
His heartbeat is no longer hearable.
Cuan’s kisses are hard.
So are Lommán’s words: “You would have done the same.”
You touch his hand so that he knows you bear no ill will. He nods, turns, is gone.
Later, Pádraig says, “I will interrogate it. Look: I told you that they speak with thoughts. It wants me.” He touches his neck though doesn’t seem to know it. “That hunger will make it speak to me more easily.”
Lommán says, “How come they didn’t do this when we fought them?”
“Same reason you don’t speak when you fight,” says Pádraig.
Lommán grunts. He has a new sword. “We will stand beside you, to be certain it doesn’t win.”
Pádraig nods. “I would not have expected anything less.”
When the barn door is opened, it is chained to a heavy plough in a dark corner, but not dark enough. Some light touches it and it begins to smoke. The doors are closed. It is dark inside but bright out here. The sky is without a cloud.
What images does the priest see? They are necessarily different, but fundamentally the same. Freedom is what it offers, freedom from responsibility and decision, freedom to follow only the simple needs of life.
In the fields the harvesting has begun. Sighing, you do what must be done.
Some time later, the priest emerges into the sunlight. This time the doors are left open so that the demon burns, then falls as ashes.
Pádraig takes a large pitcher of water, swallowing most of it in a single draught. Some of it spills on his tunic. You have arranged to be close enough to hear his words. His eyes are red but already dry. “It used to be who you think it was. It told me that there is a chieftain of sorts. I believe he was once a Roman centurion.” He takes another drink, then wraps his arms around his legs. He is on the ground in a ball. “It showed me a stone place that I believe is the Roman wall. If we kill the centurion, then, like any army, they will be easy to rout. But he keeps himself surrounded by children. They serve as food and as,” he pauses, wipes his lips. “As a shield.”
But first, the crops must be harvested else everyone will starve before spring. Men and women drive the bulls hard, and themselves harder. Children are told to fish in the shallow waters of the shore. Older children are to supervise the younger and keep a sharp eye for boats. A watch is kept at night despite the exhaustion from the day. Even Dichu and Lommán keep torches in their bedrooms, for complete darkness feels too much like a solid, chill substance.
But, on a night when the moon is new and the wind bitter as old blood, men and women gather in the sacred oak grove, sleepy children held in their arms. The old, tangled branches looked like the hands of the Morrigan. When the wind blows the leaves rattle as if she were laughing.
A white bull is slaughtered with a golden knife and its steaming entrails read: nineteen will die but the gods will grant them success. A black shape flickers in the branches. When the druid raises his tamarisk staff – his hands still red – and says the words, it is only a raven that falls from the sky, dead as stone. Its entrails are read, but they are confused for the power that killed it has tangled its organs.
You stand stripped to the waist with the others. The staff is dipped in the quickly congealing blood and magic symbols are traced along the skin. It is warm and tastes of copper. When it is washed away in the morning, it will not be seen but the power will remain for many days. Long enough, it is hoped, to drive the demons from their lair.
Pádraig is left to sleep. He would not approve.
Nine are chosen to protect the children, for three sets of three is a powerful number. The remaining seventy-two will use the demon ship to sail the short distance.
The sky is gray and hard like iron when you kiss Cuan. There is a good possibility you will never see him again. He will remain as one of the nine.
The oars are hard wood but warm and smooth from many hands. Pádraig sits beside you. His movements are fluid and surprisingly strong. He places his crosier and his sword beneath the bench. It is easy to see how hard his hands are when he takes the oar.
“Do you see the seaweed, between the oak planks? It is there to keep the wood wet even when it is not in water. A mark of a Veneti ship.”
His eyes are a curious color: blue with a trace of silver. “They are further south than I imagined.” His cross catches the early morning light. It looks gold.
“Perhaps. Or maybe the Veneti fought the demons using this ship and were overwhelmed. Perhaps it is not as bad as you think.” It is a lie, but it comforts.
He smiles a little. “Ever the optimist. In nominee Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” He makes that curious gesture touching his head, heart, and each shoulder.
The odor of earth and copper is strong. The wood is stained nearly everywhere. Only a few small areas show that it was not always so dark.
You and the priest raise and dip and pull the oar. He talks easily through the effort. “I didn’t choose to sit beside you randomly. You and I, we are the same. Oh, I know you think I am a Roman. Truth is, I don’t think of myself as one but I share enough to be the same.” He pauses. “They will come for us, first, you know. You’ve seen that. I didn’t thank you, by the way. Thank you.”
It comes suddenly: he’d been waiting for it. He knew the moment one warrior was missing that he was in danger.
“You’re welcome.” Another pause. He seems to know why and waits. Years of shepherding must have built up a tolerance for silence. The waves lap gently at the hull. “Were you ever tempted?”
His laugh is a pleasant sound. It is genuine this time. “Christ was tempted too, by Lucifer, in the desert. He was tempted on the cross as well. It would have been easy to step down but he did not. I cannot claim to be as strong as our Lord, but I would like to be. Yes, I know temptation.”
He stares a flock of white birds circling something that cannot be seen from this point. “I take no pleasure in hunting. But athanasy? Yes, I would very much like that. But only God can give such a thing. The demons are the pawns of Lucifer, and he is left only with the power of illusion.”
“Your god is weak. He could have stepped down. Why let himself be killed?”
“He is like the bull you killed last night. A sacrifice. Someone to take the burden of our sins. Yes, I knew. It is not an easy thing to abandon the gods who made your world.”
“But why not simply step down, prove that he is a god? Then everyone would surely worship him.”
“Yes, but that would make faith too easy. You know the sun will rise each day, so its existence means nothing. It is the people who believe in Him despite outward signs that will be saved.”
“But, these demons fear the crucifix and die by the magic water. Isn’t that proof?”
“Jesus turned water to wine once, and walked on water too, so his disciples would know. Even then, Peter doubted him. Sometimes the Lord needs to grant a sign to one generation so that succeeding generations will know of Him. I’d like to think my words have some effect. They may. But this war proves more than a thousand speeches could.” Some time passes. “Did you bring what I asked? Everyone?”
The skies are gray like an old man’s eyes and promise a storm soon. The boat is buffeted by white-topped waves. Few birds brave the winds, but those that do tumble in the chaos. They cry not for food or their mates, but in fear for they cannot find a safe haven. Just now there is a soft gentle rain. A prelude.
As the boat nears the shore, gray shapes take form.
“They are men, not demons. Thank God.” The priest’s hair is twisted in the wind, like a wild man who has forgotten civilization.
Everyone steps off. One of the gray forms steps forward, and now it is clear both he and his men and women are weary and have fought for a very long time. Their cloaks are ragged and in some places torn as if by claws. Blood stains their armor, their swords. Their hair is greasy. It does not fly in the wind as the priest’s does.
“I am Una,” says the leader.
“Lamb,” scoffs Dichu. “Is he one of your flock, priest?” He laughs.
Una draws his sword and in a flicker of a moment there is nearly armed combat on these shores.
Pádraig steps between the two armies. He is a small man and looks smaller, but his hands are empty and open. “Hold!” he cries. He turns to Una. “What has happened here?”
“What--? I—“ His mouth moves for a moment, then he decides on the simplest answer: “War. There are black things everywhere.”
“Then why do you want to fight these people? Do you need two enemies? I am the priest that Dichu here spoke of. He has a vicious temper but also fresh warriors. Together they are a deadly combination. Do you, exhausted and wounded as you are, wish to face them or join with them?”
Una makes a sharp motion toward the boat. “That is a demon boat.”
Pádraig nods. “They came to these peoples’ shore and were driven off.”
He says to Dichu: “You defeated them? I have lost so many.”
Dichu clasps Una’s hand. Una looks at him, surprised, then nods. “We would gladly accept your help. But I don’t think even between us there are enough. Every night they come, when we are exhausted. I once led four times this many.”
Pádraig says, “The wall. Do you know of it? That is where they originate. That is where their leader is. If we can kill it, the remainder will be nearly mindless. Easy to kill.”
“It is a week’s march from here. How do you know this?” He is both frightened and wary. That is as it should be.
Quickly, the priest explained.
“So you have been bitten then?” He turns to you. “And you?”
The priest says, “Holy water kills the poison if the victim can be reached in time. And this cross that we wear is anathema to them. You would call it a talisman. I call it a crucifix.”
“I have seen those before,” says Una fingering it. “You are a Roman priest, then. Do your charms really work against them?”
“You will see tonight.”
Neither side fully trusts the other. Dichu and Una each assign guards so the rest sleep. They also have someone watch the other’s guards.
Still, when the gray and wet day ends, the demons come and Una’s people fight as valiantly as Dichu’s. Una spoke the truth: the night is a long series of vicious, short-lived battles between men and black things barely seen. Dust piles up thick and many suffer wicked cuts from their long claws. They come for you and the priest first and because they do they are easier to kill.
It is possible to tell it is morning only because the demons are gone. The clouds are darker and lower than they once were. The gentle mist that was is now a violent and freezing rain. It soaks through cloaks and armor. You think of Cuan and Tadhg and the others safe beside a warm fire. You can almost hear his voice:
“And Setanta, with only his bare hands, took Culann’s hound and snapped its neck as if it were no more than the thinnest of twigs. Thereafter, Setanta was forced to be Culann’s hound, protecting his master and his things and harming those who would harm him until Culann raised a new hound. And thus Setanta became Cuchulainn.”
Cuan has a big smile and his big hands show just how the boy broke the dog’s neck, like this. When this is done, you and he will make another child before a great roaring fire. The rain makes your face wet.
The invisible blood charms give Dichu’s people the strength to march without sleep and only the least amount of food. Una’s people struggle, but they are a strong and willful people. They know the more nights spent in the open the fewer warriors there will be when the wall is reached.
Pádraig sprinkles the dead with some of the water, says a few words.
“Does the water kill them if they rise?” says Una.
“Perhaps,” says Pádraig. “But we do not know when the soul departs the body for Heaven. Thus, I baptize them even after death in the hopes that I can save them.”
“And if the soul is gone?”
“Then they are in Hell.”
“Tell me more of this God of yours,” says Una.
Pádraig wrinkles his brow as if he is uncertain of what he should do next. “None of Dichu’s people have asked me though I have told them much. Do you truly want faith in my god, or do you simply have none in your own?”
Una laughs without humor. “Look around: Do you see evidence that our gods aid us? I have seen what your water and cross do to the demons.”
Finding that he has an audience, one that cannot not escape his words and one that desires warmth of any kind, he speaks enthusiastically about Lucifer and the torments of Hell that await those who have not been baptized. He talks too of Jesus and his followers, but it is the flames of Hell that blackens souls but does not consume them that most intrigues Una.
This Jesus must be strong if the priest is able to march and speak as he does though he does not have the benefit of the blood-charms.
The second night less men are lost, and the third night no one is killed. Thereafter there are no more skirmishes.
Once Una says, “I love anyone, god or man, who hates Romans.”
This rankles the priest but he says nothing. Some time later you say to Una, when the priest is not around, “He is a Roman.”
“Oh, I know,” he says, laughing. “Did you see his face?” It is easy to see that though Una likes to torment Pádraig, he is equally interested in his words.
Thus it is no surprise that he says, “I would like to be baptized. Some of my warriors do as well.”
“Is there a lake nearby?”
Many mutter beneath their breath but they follow the detour through the underbrush to a small lake. The priest says, “Those who wish to be baptized must undress, and follow me.” He strips naked, steps into the water. He is well-muscled. Beneath his stomach he is in every measure a man. It is hard to imagine how he can love his God more than any woman.
He does not shiver. With one hand you touch the edge of the water: it is like ice.
Una and several people, men and women, follow the priest. He dunks them beneath the water, his lips moving but the wind tears the words from his mouth so that even standing on the shore he cannot be heard. But each one who rises from the water is warmer than when he or she entered.
“Lamb,” scoffs Dichu to Lommán. “All of them are sheep. But the priest was a shepherd once.” A few of his warriors enter the lake but most stand only on the shore.
On the eighth day the rain is terrific: falling in sheets, it is driven east by a ceaseless wind. Lightning flashes every dozen heartbeats, followed by the crack and boom of thunder. Whether it is day or night is impossible to tell.
There is finally the dark gray shape of the wall, visible only because the rain changes its motion there. The fortress juts north but beyond that detail it is only a shape.
Una shouts to be heard: “There are three gates: one here, one on the east side and one on the north. Beyond that, I know little.”
“We can’t fight in this,” shouts Dichu.
Pádraig shields his eyes. Water catches on his fingers, falls in a steady trickle over them onto his face and curves off his chin. He scans the horizon, shouts, “There!” and walks north. His crosier is his support. His black cloak flaps, reminding you of your wounded bird. Your father said to break its neck, but instead, you secreted it in a place in the oak glen, nursing it to health with food and water. When it recovered it left the hollow of the tree. Later, your father said that he always knew. He said too that you always had a weakness for the weak. He was wrong. It is not the weak you love but the very strong, who need only a lifting hand in their moment of weakness.
Everyone follows the dark figure like sheep. There is a momentary terror when you imagine that it is a demon who has replaced the priest and is leading everyone into an ambush. Others must think the same thing for chilled hands on shivering arms are wrapped around hilts.
He calls: “Here! In here!”
It is a granary, a large one. Everyone fits but barely. Elbows bump as do knees, and there are many apologies but they stop soon enough when it is realized that this is the way it will be. At least it is dry – the priest drops the heavy bolt across the door – and safe.
“It is nearly winter. Where is all the grain?” someone says. The voices are not Dichu’s people.
“That is how long the demons have held this land.”
There is a crushing silence for a long while. There is barely enough room for everyone to sit cross-legged.
“I’m cold,” says someone. “We need a fire.”
Someone else laughs. “Find us some dry wood then! And while you are, catch us a boar as well!”
There is the sound of a scuffle, a sharp noise of skin on skin, and then silence.
Pádraig says, “Those who have been baptized, please pass your bread forward.” He holds up his crosier, which is barely visible with the thin gray light coming from the high windows.
“We who are followers of Christ,” he says. “We believe that the Lord died for us to take our sins. I will bless the bread, and the wine that I have kept—“ There is a muted grumbling at this. “—and transform the bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ. We may each then partake of it, consuming a small measure of His immortality and His strength. We will need it for tomorrow.”
Una says, “You want us to eat the flesh of a god?”
“Yes. I should tell you it is truly the flesh and not merely a symbol. But it will taste like bread and wine.”
There are more muted voices. They are uncertain and repulsed.
“I will try it first,” says Una.
A shape rises from the crowd, steps to the priest. “My bread.” His hand is a shadow. There could be a demon here and no one would know until it was too late. You stare at the dark shadows but there is no way of telling man from demon here.
Pádraig says Latin words over the bread and wine.
Una says, “It is as he says: tasting only of bread and wine.”
You do not partake but find that your meager supply of bread, hard cheese, and dried meat satisfies as much as a great feast would. Perhaps more for there is not that bloated feeling.
You think of that bird, watching the priest who has his crosier in hand, and go to him. “I would like to be baptized too.”
“I would not have imagined this from you. It is best if we have a lake or stream.”
Someone nearby laughs. “Look outside! There is an ocean all around though it is above us.”
“Does anyone else wish to be baptized before tomorrow’s battle?”
Nearly everyone stands. Surprisingly, so does Dichu. It is difficult to strip when a careless elbow can easily blacken an eye. The clothes are left beside the door.
His hand lifts your chin. The icy rain hurts when it strikes skin. But once he says those Roman words there is a feeling of warmth like that a fire gives to a nearby stone.
Inhuman screams come from the south. It is a crazed rush of naked bodies to get through the doorway. The bolt is slammed and then there is the sound of long claws scraping at the wood.
“The windows!” someone cries.
Quickly a ladder of people is made and crosses hung over each window. There is no rest this night, not with the shrieks and the thud of claw against wood and the crash of lightning. Most people dress only in light underclothes for though it is cold outside the press of bodies is warm. The odor is strong but the feel of skin against skin is too welcome this night. It is difficult to imagine the priest utterly alone, struggling against those things. His god must be powerful to grant such strength. And terribly forgiving, to forgive the desecration of the cross.
It is a long night but you are awoken. Pádraig stands by the door and the clothing pile. Sunlight slants through the open door. The clothes are completely dry.
The light though it is watery, seen through a ragged blanket of cloud.
Outside, dressed, armored and armed, you listen as Pádraig explains why he has asked that everyone bring mirrors:
“Sunlight kills them. Reflected sunlight should do the same. I know that they have posted guards near each entrance, just beyond the reach of the sun.” He pauses. “But they won’t be out of reach for us.”
Dichu and Una assign three groups, the third led by Lommán. Una will go through the north gate, Dichu the east and Lommán the west. You are with Lommán. Pádraig is with Dichu.
When each group is in position, the mirrors catch the sunlight, which is a little stronger now though not much, and direct it into the gates. The guards erupt into flame for a brief moment before turning to ash. Others, hearing the cries, emerge from what must be the former barracks only to encounter the light too. Enough die that there is a thin pile of ash gathered at the west entrance. It is swept away by a cool, dry wind.
When they realize, finally, what must be occurring, they lie in wait. They can taste blood. Yours. They hear heartbeats because they have none of their own. They are only parasites. Like ticks. Your hand is tight on the hilt. It is an effort to relax it.
You will enter last since they will come for those who have been bitten first. The vanguard should have an advantage since their focus will be beyond their reach.
Lommán enters, followed by others. It is dark being on this side. The moment Lommán crosses the shadowy threshold the demons attack. They scream of rage and lust and hunger and anger and pain. They shriek all of these things like a bitter woman, but never do they scream from fear.
It is darker than it ought to be and reeks of copper and iron. The moment your foot crosses the threshold they are upon you. There is little room to swing a sword. They smash against the stone walls as much as they cut demons. But even the dullest of swords cuts through their thin black skin, curled in some places like burnt wood. They die. The air is thick with choking, black dust that stings the eyes. They fall upon you. It is a wonder anyone can survive.
You hear one in your mind: Why do you persist in that frail body? Why follow this perverse little man who believes in something that he cannot show you? I can show you—Ah!
He is dust.
The cramped interior works against the demons as well, forcing them into a frontal assault only two or three wide. Their chests are exposed; they cannot twist away. Your sweat becomes thick with dust, coating skin like mud.
There are screams as some are cut or bitten. Muttered, muted prayers echo from the stone. The press of bodies is thick in the darkness. The ceiling seems lower each moment. This must be what it is like to be buried alive. There is not enough air. It is too thick with dust.
But finally – finally – only a few remain and there is time again.
There is the sound of heavy breathing. Your own chest visibly rises and falls. There is water from canteens to wash away the dust. It tastes better than water or mead or ale, or even wine. There is a momentary panic, thinking perhaps that this is life after death, thinking that the only evidence of death is the bottomless cauldrons. But you know this is not death: there is a man holding his neck and crying. The priest pours holy water over the man’s neck. He is escorted into the sunlight and freed when he does not burn.
Dusk. Night will come soon. This fight had gone longer than expected. It is not over.
There are many dead bodies. Several warriors are systematically cutting heads from bodies. Most are just dead but a few do open their crimson eyes and shriek before turning to dust. You wash away bile with a swallow of water.
There is a sound of soft rock on stone. It is Pádraig sketching crosses along the floor and sides of the western doorway. He nods wearily. No demons can enter.
He turns the stone corner. His sleeves are rolled. When he lifts you, there is distinct muscle beneath his skin. “There is a south door as well,” he says. “How are you, Aoife?” His blue eyes are shaded, concerned. There are lines etched from corner outwards.
“We are not done.” He holds a crumbling white stone. He points to the doorway. “Through this is the Roman world,” he says. “It is only stone but the power that is invested in it makes it so much more. Like the sidhe, if you still believe in such things.”
It has never occurred to you to think of it in such a way, but there is a vast, nearly impenetrable difference between the sides.
“The Romans,” he says, “believe in stone boundaries. You can see what that has bought them.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
His hand is white and dry from the stone. “Bishops, like myself, must remain chaste. Other gods are given sacrifices; and this is ours. It is a sign of strength.” There are tears in his eyes. “I am a weak man. You are so beautiful. Roman women are too tame.”
Like most Romans, he shaves when he can. But it has been two or more weeks. His cheek is rough on your lips. “I am a married woman. You are my priest. It is common to be aroused during battle for the feelings lust and war engender are very much alike. You do not truly want this. Wait until the day has been won and then another day. You will be glad you did.”
He is silent. He seems to be studying the stones beneath his feet. “God forgive me,” he whispers.
Let him be alone with his god. But he is now your god and he is cruel to demand such a sacrifice. Yet the priest made that choice. He can unmake it if he wants, but not with you.
The wounded are moved.
Pádraig says, “The centurion is behind that door.” He leads the healthy to a door. “But there are hostages. Children,” he says to Una.
Without speaking, three men batter the door twice and then it falls inward. There is only the one door so only a few can enter at a time. There is a nothing impeding the way until there is a bend. Dichu rounds it first, then retreats. His voice is soft and yet hard at once. “Aoife. Pádraig.”
Once around the stone corner your hearts falls to your stomach. The demon leader stands half a dozen paces further. He holds Cuan. He is bruised and bloody but there are no marks on his neck.
Where is the priest?
“Here,” he says, stepping forward.
Ah. It is a deep sigh. It is you I want more than her, but I will take her too since she is nearly one of us. He is worthless. He twists his arms very fast and hard. The sound is like a twig shattering on a cold winter morning. Cuan’s eyes stare at the dark ceiling. His chest does not rise.
“No!” It is your voice but it is as it is far away. Cuan’s face is still warm to the touch.
Pádraig holds his cross and advances. The demon leader steps high and backwards. Though it is almost dark, there are a few torches. Those are children he has stepped over. They are emaciated and very pale. Tadhg is in the middle. His eyes are heavy as if he is very tired. His body wobbles as if it might fall at any moment. He has been bitten.
You wouldn’t kill them, not those that have not been baptized. He laughs, but it is only inside your head. The room is silent save for the shallow breaths of the children. And if you take another step forward, you will kill them. He takes Tadhg in one arm, another child in the other. His fangs are long and yellow in the torchlight. They are on Tadhg’s neck.
Those behind press closer. Their breaths are fast and shallow. They are eager.
“Move them away,” you say to Dichu without turning. “Take them into the light.”
He says, “But—“
The priest shifts unsteadily when he glances over. He wants to rub the tears away.
“All right,” says Dichu. “But if you do not finish this, we will.”
Their footsteps fade but do not disappear entirely.
“There is no escape,” says Pádraig.
There is always escape. Or haven’t you learned anything? My Lord loves children, but he loves priests even more. Ah, I will be richly rewarded when I take you with me. Or are you not going to offer yourself to save the children? What about you, Aoife? His face is hidden in the darkness. Only his long fangs on Tadhg’s neck, and his eyes, are visible. He has thought of women. What have you thought of? How have you sinned? Ah. Do you really love this child that much? His mocking laughter echoes from the stone.
The priest flicks something from his hands. Water. It touches each of the children as well as the demon leader’s face. He recoils as if burned.
The priest cries, “I baptize each of you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost!”
NO! It is as if thunder has been said. Dust from the mortar in the ceiling sprinkles your shoulders. The centurion becomes a wisp of smoke or a shadow. He throws the child who is not Tadhg. You try to catch the child but drop him. He is dead.
But this has given the demon enough time to escape through a door at the back end of the room, made of stone to resemble the wall. The priest is after him first. You lay the child in a corner.
Through the stone door, the walls of the guardhouse are darker than before. Each shadow is deeper and more solid. Any motion causes the shadows to move. Each step increases your fear, because the demon seems to be in every corner and crevice.
“Aoife.” The priest is at the east end of a corridor that runs east to west. He is just barely visible in the gloom. “He’s gone this way,” says the priest, pointing south. “You go around that way. We’ll trap him where these meet.” He motions towards the western corridor that runs north and south.
You run down this corridor.
Why did he take Tadhg? There is only one good answer. Your heart pounds in your ears.
Wait. Perhaps he heard the priest’s plan. Perhaps he is waiting in the shadows, waiting for you to pass so he can escape.
Each step seems to take forever. It is important to study each shadow, each dark movement. The grip of the sword is damp. There is a bit of white in the corner. Tadhg.
You put your sword forward. The demon is fast and desperate. There will be only one chance.
There are two red eyes in the shadows, and they are staring.
“Let him go,” you say.
The demon steps out from the shadow. His claws are clean through Tadhg’s shoulder. The tips of them have ripped his shirt, and dark blood has stained his shirt. It is too late for him.
“Let him go.”
The demon starts to run down the corridor. Tadhg’s legs and feet are limp, bouncing on every uneven stone in the floor. Yet his eyes flutter and for a moment he seems to be aware. The demon should let Tadhg go. He would be too fast and nearly invisible, and yet he doesn’t. If he let him go, the demon would win this battle. Of that you are absolutely sure.
That’s when you see that Tadhg’s small, white hands grip the thin, black stick of the demon’s arm. The demon wants to let go but his advantage is in swiftness, not strength. Even a dying boy can wrestle with him.
Dying. It is impossible to deny this. Tadhg’s eyes flutter again. His chest rises and falls with an alarming shallowness and rapidity. “Mommy,” he says, and it is only because of the echo his voice can be heard.
The demon turns a corner.
There is a scream, but not a human scream and not one of pain. It is rage.
Around the corner now, the demon is at the south gate, where the priest had chalked a white crucifix to keep the demons from the north. But now it keeps the demon from fleeing south to Roman lands.
The priest is on the far side of the corridor, his sword ready. He has proven he can fight and the demon can see that.
“Put the boy down,” says the priest.
Gladly. The demon pushes Tadhg from his claws, and he collapses on the floor. He can no longer hold onto the demon. The demon shoves Tadhg towards the priest with one foot.
“There’s nowhere to go,” says Pádraig. His sword does not waver. There is strength in this man. Perhaps his weak god has granted the priest his manhood for at least this moment.
The demon turns, looking at the door with its white crucifix, then at the priest, then you.
He’s mine now. When the sun is gone, which won’t be long now, he will be my son. The demon holds out his hand. They are both gone. But you can join me, and you will have at least your son. Our son.
Your throat is too tight to speak.
Pain. I know what pain is. I lost my son too. He was only half Tadhg’s age. A terrible illness. He was vomiting blood the last month of his life.
You are crying.
I can take your pain away. You know that. You know what waits you on the other side. Immortality. A life free from pain. He is coming closer, slowly, and he does not seem to want to kill. They are all gone. Let me help you. He is stretching out his hand.
Cuan’s hand was a man’s hand: large and strong and rough, and yet gentle when he made love. Tadhg’s hand was small and he held it tight whenever he was afraid.
You are crying. I know. I cried too. I loved him very much. But he is gone from me forever. You, though, you have a chance to love Tadhg again.
Behind the demon, the priest is kneeling beside Tadhg’s body. The priest is washing his wounds with holy water. It seems as if he is the Morrigan washing his body in her river. His skin smokes and there is a sulfurous smell in these closed walls. The priest’s mouth moves in that curious way when he speaks the strange Latin phrases. He looks at you, and he is crying too.
The demon looks back just at the moment that the priest cuts Tadhg’s head from his shoulders. There is only a small boy-shape made of ash on the stone.
The demon turns again.
How could you live with this man? Do you see how his god betrays you? The demon is closer now. You need only reach out a hand to touch his.
The priest says, “Do you remember, Aoife, when we spoke on the ship? You have seen enough to believe that my god exists. He has power over these demons, doesn’t He? Yet still you won’t believe.”
Your god doesn’t love them. He lets them suffer.
“I said that in the end it requires faith. Faith is hard. The demon can promise you a sort of immortality. He can show you what it means, because it doesn’t require faith. It is easy.”
Why should it be hard?
The demon echoes your own thoughts.
The priest is coming closer. His sword is by his side. He is looking only at you. “Because life is. The demon cannot promise you everlasting life, because what he promises is easy. It is a false sort of life. Empty, and devoid of meaning.”
“My son is dead. Tell me how life is not empty.”
I can take your pain, make you whole again.
The demon’s fingertips touch yours. You hadn’t realized your arm was outstretched. It is an effort to push him away.
The demon turns and it is painful that he has taken his touch away.
He screams and strikes at the priest. The priest blocks the demon’s arm with his sword and nearly falls to his knee from the strength of the blow. This demon is much stronger than his soldiers.
The demon dodges each of the priest’s thrusts and the priest blocks the demon’s attacks, but it is clear that the priest is losing. The screams are inhuman and they make your ears ache, but the grunts from the priest are worse, because it is clear he knows he is losing. He is pleading with his eyes even as he blocks another wicked claw.
Pádraig falls to the floor. The demon steps on his hand and kicks the sword away. He kneels over the priest, and traces a thin, bloody cross on his chest with a sharp claw.
The demon’s shoulder is cold. He is surprised when you touch him, but he smiles.
You hold out a hand. The demon’s own hand is cold.
Yes. Let me take away your pain.
The half-healed wounds itch and burn when he bends to your neck. It feels so good. He is warmth and contentment. The pain is not entirely gone, but, like a tree seen on the horizon, is so distant that it is only a vague outline of itself.
He screams and tries to pull away, but you hold the iron crucifix to his chest while your other arm is wrapped around so that he cannot escape. The smoke is sulfurous and acrid, and seems far away.
With strength born from rage, he pulls away but the cross is embedded in his chest and though he scrapes at it he cannot touch it long enough to move it.
And then he turns to dust, which swirls in the air that is now much colder than it had been only a moment ago.
Pádraig stands. He sways a little, more hurt than you thought. He opens his arms. All at once you are holding him, crying into his shoulder. “I know,” he says again and again.
It is a cold day when Cuan is buried. The ground is hard but no one complains about the effort. Simple wooden crucifixes are placed at the head of each grave. There is a grave for Tadhg because the priest says he died before his soul was lost. He says something about holy water and baptism. And faith. You cry so long that the dawn is breaking before you sleep.
The priest listens to every word for the next month. He says, “God forgives. It is right to be angry. He knows that we are weak. He doesn’t mind if you curse His name because He knows this. I don’t know if you will ever accept what has happened. But He accepts and loves you.”
He is a good man. His god is a good god. No more cruel than any other.