The morning after his tryst with the queen, Dermott Donn stood before the high king’s judgment seat. He was unbound — a courtesy as a noble of the kingdom. But under his plaid the skin of his back shrank against his spine, trying to distance itself from the spears of the king’s bodyguard. The queen sat beside her husband, looking at nothing except the little pet of a jackdaw perched on her gloved hand.
“My wife says you accosted her at the hunt,” the high king said. “How do you answer that?”
Dermott glanced at the queen. Surely she had some plausible story prepared against this mishap. He had only to let her speak, to follow whatever lead she gave him.
Her face was pale as a dead woman’s, but her fingers never trembled, stroking her bird’s glossy black feathers.
“You came back with the mark of her whip on your face,“ the king said. “Have you nothing to say in your defense?“
The queen’s lips — her lovely, lying lips — moved as she played with her pet. But no sound came from her mouth. Why did she not speak? Would she leave him to die? Would she sit fondling her wretched bird while he twisted at the end of a rope? He hated the bird, the talking jackdaw she was besotted on. Hated it from the first moment its glass-shard eyes glinted at him from amid its black feathers. Hated it from the first moment he heard it shrieking human words with its inhuman voice.
But he shouldn’t hold that against the queen. She was so friendless at court, with none but her pet for company, until he arrived. She could not mean him any harm, beautiful and lonely as she was. She would recover herself and speak for him. And he would live, would regain the king’s favor. Only he would wring the neck of that miserable bird, some day, some night when the queen was not watching.
He became aware of the king’s silence, waiting for his answer.
“My lord,” Dermott said, “it is as I told you before. Your lady left faint during the hunt. We turned aside to let her rest. By the time she recovered, the hunt was over, so we returned to the castle. That is all.”
The moment I saw you, the queen had said, with your lips red as a girl’s, and your smooth white forehead, and the brows over your bright eyes black as a corby’s wings, I loved you.
The king turned from Dermott abruptly. “Bring in the groom,” he said.
A guard brought in the queen’s groom. A sly, sneaking churl if ever there was one.
“‘Twas as I told them before, my lord,” the groom said. “I followed your lady from the hunt, thinking she had trouble with her horse. She asked me to fetch her a fresh mount.”
Inside the woodsman’s hut where they lay, the queen loosed the jackdaw from its cage. It fluttered about, chattering and crying, “kiss me sweetheart kiss me sweetheart!” The queen still laughed at her pet when they heard the groom returning. Gesturing to Dermott to stay quiet, she went out, leaving the door partly open for him to listen.
“The young gentleman’s horse was loose, cropping grass, when I got back,” the groom said. “There was no one about. I thought maybe the queen went inside the hut to rest, so I called, not wanting to seem forward.”
A low, broken melody interrupted the groom’s testimony. Dermott’s gaze went to the queen, still with eyes for nothing but her little bird. She crooned a childish song, “Jackie, jackie, will you stay? Jackie, jackie, will you play?”
“Stay, play,” the bird piped.
Was she mad, Dermott wondered. She can’t be, she can’t be mad — she was as sane as I yesterday. Was she feigning — had horror and grief broken her mind?
“And then?” the king asked, returning to the groom.
“And then, in a little while, she comes out.”
“My lord king,” Dermott said, “I have told you all this before. Why waste your time with this garrulous villein?”
“Was she alone?” the king asked the groom, ignoring Dermott’s outburst.
“I thought so,” the groom said. “Least, I saw nobody else. Then.”
“Then? But afterward you saw someone? Heard someone?”
“Nothing at first. Nothing but that bird of hers. She sets more store by it than by any human creature.”
Dermott raged inwardly. The bird, the nasty, spying bird. If not for it, he would be free. He would be safe.
Dermott had slipped to the queen’s side when the groom’s footsteps faded. “There’s nothing to worry yourself about,” he said. “No one will believe the word of a churl against your word. Or mine.”
“Perhaps,” she said, “but for good measure. . . .” And she struck him across the face with her riding whip.
“Then, of a sudden,” the groom said, “I hear someone cry out. I look back and there was the young gentleman standing beside the queen, with the mark of a lash red on his face. And the bird says, clear as day –”
“Kiss me sweetheart! Kiss me sweetheart!” the jackdaw shrieked from its perch on the queen’s finger.
With a scream, Dermott leaped to the queen’s side, tore the bird from her hands and wrung its neck.
Blows from the guards knocked Dermott off his feet, leaving him dazed on the rush-strewn floor as the queen cradled the bird’s small body to her breast, tears streaming down her face.
At a word from the king, the guards released Dermott. “Your guilty action speaks for itself. Only the service your father did me, for which I swore to him when he lay dying to treat you as my own son, forces me to spare you. But never show your face in my court again!”
Before the morning passed to noon, Dermott left the king’s castle. As he passed out of the gate, a woman’s voice cried out behind him. The queen’s voice. He looked back. She leaned from the window of a high tower, arms raised as if she would fly, calling to him. Calling in terror, in desperate fear.
Her cry was cut off. She disappeared from the window embrasure so suddenly he thought for an instant she had fallen. But no woman’s body lay broken on the stones at the tower’s base. Instead, a great black bird sprang from the window high into the sky. Behind it, the shutters slapped closed.
Had the queen tossed the bird into the air? He had never seen it in her rooms before, a creature as large as a carrion crow. Why had her cry broken off? Had hurtful hands seized her? The woman he had lain with, if not loved?
He turned to run back to her, but the gate was barred against him. He shook the bars, demanding reentry, but the porter only laughed grimly and retreated out of reach of his sword.
Snow began to fall as he stood watching, listening for some sound more. Nothing. At last, shaking snowflakes from his hood and cloak, he trudged down the road,. Whipped like a thrall, sent home shamed, after all he had promised his widowed mother.
The snow fell faster, heaping on the still unshed leaves of holm oak, bay and holly by the roadside. The corby that had flown from the queen’s window circled overhead, following him, cawing raucously. Scraping a handful of pebbles from the road’s verge, Dermott flung them at the bird.
He would have vengeance for his disgrace, vengeance for the queen’s shame. He was still lord of his own land. When the season for war came, his father’s kin would stand by him, his mother’s kin would come from over the water, crying for justice against the king. Justice and war.
He walked on. But over his shoulder, he was aware of the corby still following, black as a sin.
The sun had dimmed to a luminous haze in the west when Dermott stopped to devour the bread and meat saved from last night’s supper and take a swig of wine from his flask. He fingered the flint and iron in the pouch under the dark plaid of his cloak, wondering whether he dared stop long enough to light a fire. But dusk fell fast this close to winter, and there were wolves in the forest and masterless men on the roads. Better not delay.
The corby hopped to the ground, prowling close. Dermott threw the crumbs of his meal onto the snow and the bird gulped them down. Cocking its head, it examined him with snake-like eyes, then leaped into the air, flying first down the road on which he had come, then back again, croaking.
As the echo of the bird’s cries died, another sound followed. The beat of hoofs. Then the jingle of armor and arms — so much for the high king‘s promise of mercy. If not for the bird’s warning, Dermott would have been caught in the open.
He plunged off the road, toward the forest to take cover. The snow slowed his speed to a staggering run, but it couldn’t fall fast enough to cover his tracks. The rumble of hoof beats on the freezing road grew louder. The corby rose higher over the treetops, circling him, marking where he stood for all to see.
He stared at the black bird in desperation, not daring to shout at it. Wasn’t it only a bird? It couldn’t know it was, unwitting, marking him for death.
He found a tree broad enough to shield his back and prepared to die.
Three riders wearing the high king’s insignia came into view around the curve of the road, dark against the snow. The creak of leather harness, the clink of the iron plates of their armor and the snorting of the horses carried clear in the chill air.
Dermott stood against an oak, its branches, still clothed thickly in unshed brown leaves, dipping low to the ground. The horsemen galloped past him on the furlong-distant road. In the deepening dusk, they had gone too swiftly to mark the fading track where he left the road. He dared breathe again.
The corby lighted on the topmost branch of the sheltering oak. It flapped its wings and shrieked. At the sound, the last horseman slowed his mount and looked back. A final ray of sun broke through the clouds, glinting on the metal of Dermott’s unsheathed sword. The hunt swirled toward him.
Dermott sprang for a branch and climbed, frantic to get beyond reach of their spears. At a signal from the tallest of the three guards, they took their horses’ reins and moved away, covering themselves with their shields. They stopped out of bow range. If they kept him treed all night, more of the high king’s men might arrive.
Full dark had now come, and he could only see the men as shadows against the snow when they moved from under the oak. Could he drop to the ground on the side away from them and slip away? Before he could act, they spread a perimeter around the great tree — each out of sight of the others, but so close no one could pass between them unseen.
Dermott crept to the end of a branch over the head of the shortest guard, dropping to the snow.
The man’s thrashing as his life flowed over the snow echoed loudly in Dermott’s ears.
“Fergus?” The voice came from further around the oak. “You got him?”
Dermott pulled off the fallen man’s helmet and clapped it on his own head. He knelt, hiding his face as much as possible within the helmet’s shadow, fearing the faint radiance of the snow would let the approaching guard descry his face.
The second man drew near. “Here’s one bird will fly no more.” He kicked the fallen man onto his back. Then, “Gods!” as the dead face of his comrade was revealed.
Dermott lunged upward, striking under the hem of the man’s coat of iron mail. But as he tried to pull the sword free, it caught on something unyielding, grating against bone. More shouting, as the third warrior charged toward him brandishing a spear.
Dermott let go of the useless sword and flung himself for cover behind the dying man. His knife slipped from his cold-numbed hand as he gripped the other’s belt, holding the convulsing body like a shield. With a yell, the spearman thrust his weapon its full length through his dying fellow.
Dermott dropped his hold, throwing himself to one side as the spearhead ripped through his tunic, scraping across his ribs. He fell, the dead warrior atop him. The sword of the surviving warrior, the tallest one, hissed from its scabbard.
As the warrior raised his sword in both hands, Dermott slipped in the muck of bloody snow. He threw out an arm and felt his hand light on a stick of deadwood. From the ground, he swung it against the swordsman’s leg. The man pitched forward.
Dermott leaped on him, kneeling with a knee against the writhing warrior’s back, beating the man’s wrists until the sword dropped to the ground. Dermott snatched it and struck.
He fell to the ground beside the dead man, too exhausted to run.
When next he knew anything, snow lay cold on his face. A pale dawn lighted the sky. He staggered to his feet.
Flocks of corbies covered the dead men, tearing at them, soiling the snow with red meat. The horses were nowhere in sight. Dermott walked past the tree, picking up a sword here, a cloak there. The birds moved aside, too busy feeding to flee. The largest among them paused to glance at him.
“What are you?” Dermott asked. “Are you satisfied? Have you had blood enough?”
As he spoke, there was a clamor from the road — hoof beats, women’s laughter, the jingle of bells. He heaved himself into the branches and waited for the end.
The party came in sight — a man riding alone, another with a woman on a pillion behind him, a servant with a pack mule, and a girl whose hair gleamed red under the hood of her riding cloak.
“Uncle,” she said, “what is it yonder the birds are fighting over?”
The older of the men hardly spared a glance. “Deer brought down by wolves that the corbies found to strip the bones of. Come along.”
They had passed when the girl leaned a hand back on her saddle crupper to stare at the wreckage scattered over the snow. She straightened suddenly. “Uncle, I think it’s men!”
“If it is, there’s nothing we can do for them. Outlaws who got what they deserved, I don’t doubt. Don’t lag behind gawking. You’ve a wedding to prepare for.”
She spurred her horse to gain her uncle’s side and leaned against him, shivering.
“No matter who they were,” she said, “there must be someone looking for them. What if they have mothers living still?”
“Their dams will wait as long as young Dermott’s before she sees him coming home again,” her uncle said.
At the sound of his name, Dermott leaned forward, desperate to catch their words before they passed out of hearing.
“Angus’s son, you mean?” the girl asked.
“The very one.”
“Too many questions.”
“Just one more, uncle. One more, if you please. You said the queen was dead, but I’ve seen no one in mourning as we passed. Has she been dead so very long?”
He looked up at the sky, reckoning on his fingers. “By my figuring, lass, she will have died yester e’en.”
“But you said, when the summons came from the high king three days ago, it was to ask for my hand in marriage.”
The girl’s face went so pale, Dermott could make out the sprinkle of freckles across her cheeks even across the distance between them.
“Why does the king want a new wife so quick after the last one died?” she asked, a quaver in her voice.
“Because that’s the nature of kings. And a fine thing for you it is. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for ever since the news came that Angus’s widow was fool enough to send that pretty-faced boy of hers to court.”
The girl looked again at the blood and bones and the black birds fighting over them in the snow.
“A terrible sight,” she said, still with the sick trembling in her voice. “But in some ways a fine one – the red and the white and the black. I think I could love a man who had those three colors in his face. I wonder, does the king have black hair?”
“The king is old. He’ll be lucky to have a single hair on his head, much less a black one.”
A bend in the road hid them from Dermott’s sight. He thought of the queen, not with rage now, but pity, pity for her life ended too soon, knowing her heart must have hammered with the terror of a hunted doe even while she lay in his arms, smiling her false smile. Now the red-haired maiden was to be drawn into the same trap. The girl who had pitied him, had pitied the dead. As he clambered down from the tree to follow, he heard the whir of wings rise into the sky behind him.
[Melissa Embry is a former journalist living in Dallas, Texas, whose short fiction has appeared most recently in Cast of Wonders, Stupefying Stories and The Lorelei Signal. She blogs about reading, writing and community at http://nojobforsissies.blogspot.com/. ]