The hill had a name in ancient times, but everyone in Cenn Fuait simply called it ‘The Knock’.
Colm had grown up in the shadow of the rise where The Knock crested, along the banks of the Rí, but until today he had never set foot on the mound. His older brother Rua had been atop it before, long limbs dangling as he ran up the sides whooping for the fairies to get out the way, and he even claimed to have gone inside the entrance with a group of older Cenn Fuait lads some years ago. But Rua had never repeated the expedition, claiming that it was nothing but dark and dirt inside, and Colm was inclined to believe him. He had no interest in proving Rua true or false. He didn’t even like to see the infernal hole gaping towards the west, letting his eyes slide over the loose grasses and whithorn growing on The Knock when he could see the entrance, if he squinted, from the field where he ran with the lambs. Colm had done an impressive job of blocking out The Knock from the world he had come to know, and already at seven years old, he was fine to do what his parents and their parents had done, ignore and forget about the fairy-mound in their pasture.
Until today, when the Northmen came.
Mamaí had just given birth to a little girl-baby. She wasn’t yet named, but her arms were strong and her cries lusty, and Colm had heard ‘Róisín’ murmured from his mother’s lips as she nursed the pink lump. The birth had been easier than Colm remembered of his brother Peadar, but Mamaí stayed firmly in bed for days, letting Dadaí and Rua handle the house chores as best they could while Colm and Máirín looked after Peadar. It was late spring after a mild winter and there were plenty of chores to keep them busy, but everyone was in good spirits and health with little loss. Five children, a flock of sheep, two fields of barley, and three cows! Dadaí was the youngest of three brothers and seemed to have taken all the family luck into his fold of the Rí river valley. But Mamaí and Dadaí were pious and open-handed, going to the church every week and giving what they could to their family and neighbours. The grass did not grow on their cottage doorstep.
So when the geese started honking softly, and then more urgently, there was no alarm as Dadaí looked out, rinsing his hands from the curds he had been separating from whey. It was their cousin, young Breandán from the east. He was ruddy and panting, his short hair puffed out in sweaty spikes as he ran down from the bankside path. He was shouting something, but not until he got closer could Colm hear, ‘From the Liffey! From the Liffey!’
‘What’s from the Liffey?’ called out Dadaí, cupping his hands. He turned to Rua and bid him get buttermilk for Breandán.
‘Foreigners—’ the newcomer gasped, avoiding the geese. ‘Those men at the hurdle ford — the Lochlanders — the Northmen!’ He stood ten feet from Dadaí now, bent over with his hands on his knees. Colm saw Máirín playing with Peadar and chose to stay near the guest, while keeping out of Dadaí’s way. Rua emerged with buttermilk in a cow horn, and Breandán took three gulps. ‘Thanks,’ he exhaled.
‘Who saw the Northmen?’ asked Dadaí, his tone neutral, but in a way that Colm wondered if there was a hint of disbelief. Raiders came in the fatness of autumn, or the dead of a hungry winter. There was no need to fear pirates this far inland when the fields were so fertile.
‘They sacked Cluain Dolcáin yesterday and they’re heading further inland now.’ There was fear in Breandán’s eyes. ‘I’m going to me aunt’s in Cill Dara, but I’m telling every farm I pass.’
‘Get the cows,’ said Dadaí to Rua, and Colm heard the first note of alarm in his father’s voice. Rua made to spring towards the northern field.
‘Nah!’ Breandán drained the last of the horn. ‘It’s not animals they’re after. They’ve come for people this time.’
‘Iesu Christu Almighty,’ muttered Dadaí. Colm felt himself break out in sweat. His father never swore.
‘I’m off to Maigh Nuad now, if you wanted to stay with your brother,’ suggested Breandán. He gave the horn back to Rua and was breathing more regularly now. ‘But I’m going to be in Cill Dara by nightfall, that’s far enough.’
‘We’ve got too many little ones, and big Máire is still in bed. We can’t go far. We’ll take sanctuary in the church. You go tell them in Maigh Nuad and any other place you come across, Breandán. God bless you and keep you.’
‘God bless,’ said Breandán, and he was off again on his feet.
‘Máire!’ Dadaí stooped into the cottage and Colm followed. It was dark but warm and pleasant-smelling.
‘Did I hear the geese, dear?’ she called out dreamily from the bed. The baby was at her breast but it was hard to tell if she was nursing or asleep.
‘Breandán Óg said the Northmen are coming up the Liffey. They’re taking people.’ Dadaí’s voice was hard with anxiety now. ‘We need to get to the church.’
Mamaí was silent.
‘Did you hear me, Máire? We have to take shelter!’
‘Eóin …’ she began, resolution in her voice. ‘Eóin, my love, I can’t leave this house.’
A gasp escaped Colm. He clapped his hands to his mouth but Dadaí heard him anyway. He rounded on his son, all six feet of him huge in the cottage, and Colm cringed, expecting a hand. But he dove to his knee and took his son by the shoulders. ‘Colm, get Máirín and Peadar. We’re going to Saint Caitrín’s. We need to pray.’
‘Eóin.’ Mamaí’s tone from the bed was heavy now, the authority she wielded over the household creeping back into her confinement-softened voice. ‘You can’t go to the church. That’s the first place they’ll look.’
‘Saint Caitrín will protect us. Didn’t she heal Peadar’s eyes last year? She knows we pray to her. She’ll keep us from the Northmen.’
Mamaí struggled to sit up, Róisín at her breast. But there was a fire in her eye and determination in her movement. ‘Colm, get your little brother and sister and have Rua take you to The Knock.’
‘The devil take The Knock!’ exclaimed Dadaí, tossing his left hand as if to fight the notion. ‘The Knock! What good will that do! What sort of pagan do you take me for!’
‘Oh, shut your tongue in your head!’ spat Mamaí. Colm was astounded. His parents never fought like this before him. ‘The same one who leaves butter and lambswool there after a good harvest there, don’t think I don’t notice.’
Dadaí ignored the comment. ’The Northmen are coming because we Gaels aren’t pious enough. They’ve come to scourge the idolators. We need to shelter — with the rest of Cenn Fuait, if Breandán’s been busy — at Saint Caitrín’s and trust in God.’
‘If God thought Gaels worth saving, He would have protected the monasteries. Or are you saying you’re more pious than a monk?’ Dadaí said nothing. Mamaí struggled to get up from seated but grimaced and leaned back. ‘I cannot move. I’m still too torn. I wouldn’t be able to get through the creep as I am, anyway. Get Rua to lead the children through — I just pray to God he still fits.’
Colm didn’t know what the creep was, or quite why Dadaí was sighing, taking deep fuming breaths like he had been hauling turf. The young boy seemed to have been forgotten, but he heard the sound of Rua calling to Máirín and Peadar outside. He felt frozen to the floor, like something very big was happening and he couldn’t understand what was lurching through the cottage between his parents.
Finally, Dadaí spoke. ‘Máelcolm,’ he began, using Colm’s full name, ‘take the curds and whey in the big pot with you, and get Rua to guide you, Máirín, and Peadar into The Knock. Go all the way into the entrance past the two big stones into the room inside. Do not leave. Do not make a sound. Do not come out until someone you know calls you out. God, I hope it to be me. But you go in that creep and you do not exist, you hear me?’
‘Dadaí, I …’ Colm didn’t know what to say.
‘God, Jesus, Saint Caitrín! May they all look after ye all together. But your ma and I are staying here with the tiny one and praying that the Northmen choose a different path.’
Colm burst into tears imagining his mother and father and little baby sister in the cottage with the ugly Northmen at the door. ‘I want to stay with you!’ he cried out. ‘I don’t want to go in The Knock!’
‘You must, child! And quick!’ Dadaí hugged him fiercely as he pushed him to the doorway.
‘Don’t fight the smoke!’ Mamaí called out. ‘If the Northmen use smoke you’ll be killed! Come out if they smoke the entrance!’
‘Smoke?!’ Dadaí exclaimed. ‘Don’t … don’t give yourself up like that. You’ll be among idolators, torn apart ….’ He trailed off, and looked back into the darkness at his wife and baby. ‘But I’d rather you live among the heathen than be lost to us forever. Now, go, Colm. I love you.’
‘I love you too, Da,’ he said, hoping it wasn’t the last time to say so.
Rua had deftly maneuvered both Máirín and Peadar away from the cottage and the geese, understanding well that small children were best out from underfoot in the thinking time. He saw Colm emerge and read on his brother’s teary face that responsibility had passed into him. Rua stepped away from the young ones and towards Colm, who was replacing the lid on the pot of curds. ‘Saint Caitrín’s?’ he guessed.
‘The Knock,’ Colm replied, his voice hollow.
‘Jesus preserve us,’ muttered Rua. ‘Ma’s idea, I’m sure. Well, all right then. We’ll try to make it fun for the littles. Let me get that.’ He hoisted the pot onto his shoulder. ‘Peadar, Máirín, we’re going somewhere new!’
Máirín jumped with delight and Peadar fell onto his bum with a smile. He wasn’t even two years old and not yet toilet trained. Colm hoped he had gone already, though he wasn’t sure how much scarier The Knock could be if it reeked of baby shit as well. He lifted his little brother in his stained linen dress, checked his backside, and then carried him in his arms. The line they cut in the springtime sun was the tall red-haired Rua with the pot, followed closely by little Máirín skipping in her faded blue frock, then stocky Colm carrying Peadar at the rear. The sky was overcast with bits of blue peeking through, a fine day. It was hard to believe they were running for their lives. It was hard for Colm to be more scared of the unseen Northmen prowling up the Liffey than going into the dank cold dark of The Knock.
Was it always so overgrown? he thought to himself as they walked closer. Colm saw the mound every day yet it felt like he was truly witnessing it for the first time in his life, like it had grown up overnight as a ring of mushrooms after rain. The whithorn and briar had tufts of wool caught in their branches from when the sheep passed. Or had his father put them there?
‘See, Máir,’ Rua was saying, ‘remember I was saying that The Knock is hollow?’
‘Oh yeah!’ she chirped. ‘Is it a wee house?’
‘Sort of.’ Rua stopped and scanned the horizon with the pot on his knee. It wasn’t obvious from the cottage, but The Knock was on the highest point of their land. He looked to the east and squinted, shading his eyes with his free hand. ‘Right, let’s go exploring, Máir.’
‘Me first, me first! There’s the hole!’
Colm had been moving too fast to truly worry about this part, but now that he saw the entrance to the mound before his sister, his belly tightened. The hole gaped like a hungry mouth in the earth. Yet also it seemed so small, like it could close with one rockslide and never been seen again. Colm was terrified.
Máirín was not. She dove to the ground and wiggled in, the thorns barely touching her dress. ‘Oh, it’s cold!’ she shouted after a moment, her voice nearly swallowed by the earth around it.
‘Yeah,’ agreed Rua, maneuvering himself and the pot of curds, ‘people used to store food in here, but it always went missing.’ He disappeared for a moment then re-emerged, long freckled arms poking out of his rust-coloured shirt to take Peadar from Colm. Without Rua’s head visible, Colm had the unsettling perspective that the mound had sprouted limbs. Carefully, and against Peadar’s squirming desires, Colm transfered the younger brother to the elder, and then knelt at the entrance with his heart in his throat.
‘Got ‘im, Máir?’ Rua said, muffled, and then he appeared again, head first this time, and looked at Colm. ‘You coming in?’
Rua spoke low. ’Look to the east and tell me what you see.’
Colm obeyed, stood up, and saw streaks of black smoke in the sky. The Northmen were here.
‘Smoke,’ he said clumsily, then slid his legs into the entrance. The ground of the tunnel was a small drop from the field outside. ‘Mamaí said smoke. That if there’s smoke we should come out.’
‘The Northmen smoke women and children out,’ agreed Rua, in a low voice so only Colm could hear. ‘Whole village was killed in a cave, I’ve heard it.’
‘Lord above,’ said Colm, echoing his parents.
Rua gave a strange smirk. ‘It’s the lords below we have to ask for help now. C’mon.’ He backed up and Colm crept forward, the cold and the dark of the tunnel in the mound enveloping him. There was a strong but not unpleasant musty smell and it was strange how the persistent sound of field insects died instantly inside, the only sounds the breath of the children and Peadar’s babbling. Colm was frightened, but strangely calm. There were worse places to be than with his brothers and sisters than a little inside the earth, not two hundred yards from their home. Why, if he backed out and crawled through the entrance once more, surely he could wave to their father again. What was there to be scared of?
‘There’s the creep!’ said Rua, attempting cheer. Peadar and Máirín were at the back of the low narrow tunnel, at the edge of the dim light in the crawl space. Colm’s eyes were still adjusting. The walls were made of tall abutted stones, some etched with soft amorphous designs twisting at the corner of his vision. With a happy squeal, Peadar disappeared. Colm’s belly lurched again, then he realised as Máirín followed that what looked like a wall had a space between two stones. Rua followed Máirín, and although he was tall and long-limbed, his narrow frame passed through the creep with a wiggle of his hips. ‘Bring the pot over, will you?’ he said to his brother, his voice sounding like he was both ten feet and two miles away.
Creeping on his feet and knees, Colm shimmied their dinner towards the break in the wall. The pot would barely pass through but it did — Colm feeling again like he was feeding the earth as he put the offering in Rua’s arms protruding from the stone.
And then it was Colm’s turn to go through the creep. It made the low entrance to the mound look like a cottage doorway. Rua was nearly ten years old and he had gone through without a hitch, what did Colm have to fear? But Rua took after the gangly men of their father’s family, while Colm had his mother’s broadness. She might not pass the creep even after a hungry winter, and certainly wouldn’t now all recently full of child. Colm was a lot shorter than his brother, but not that much thinner. Was there any chance of him getting stuck? Would it be worse to be trapped head in, or make it all the way inside and then never be able to get back out again?
‘There’s bones!’ squealed Máirín in delighted terror.
‘Are you coming, Máelcolm?’ The voices had the same near-and-distant quality.
‘Just — just going to wee,’ stuttered Colm, backing up. He knew inside the creep was the safest place to be. Rua would take care of him, and he himself had to look after Peadar and Máirín. But the deepest, basest part of him shook with fear. There were bones in there … animal or human? He reached the entrance, the veiled sunshine grand and strange and wondrous in a way normal daylight had no right to be. He breathed deep of the fresh air, the unquantifiable matrix of his home now strange and glorious. But on the wind there was a faint but unmistakeable stench … smoke.
Quickly, he urinated at the entrance — not just an excuse — then replaced his trousers, took a deep breath, and crawled to the creep.
‘Col’, Col’,’ babbled Peadar happily. Their eyes must be fully adjusted, as all Colm could see of his siblings was darkness. He put his left hand in and rested it on unseen loam, which held his weight as he shifted his shoulder and head into the creep. The narrow point was only a foot wide, and when he brought his right hand to the wall above him, he was able to extend his arm fully.
‘You in yet?’ asked Rua. His voice reverberated around the dark space like the priest’s did in Saint Caitrín’s.
‘Halfway,’ Colm huffed. His feet scrabbled to find purchase in the passageway and his arms strained to pull himself through. He felt his shirt touch both sides of the creep around his belly, but his body passed without resistance and then he was inside.
Within the inner chamber, the wan light from the passage glowed in a grey sliver from the creep. Already Colm could see the faintest outlines when his brothers and sister moved. Máirín and Peadar were playing in the dirt on the floor while Rua stood with his hands on the walls. ‘Seosamh brought a rushlight in when we came here two winters ago,’ he said. ‘There’s all kinds of crazy carvings on the stones in here. He said his dad said they used to be painted, but I don’t think that’s true.’
‘Are there really bones?’ Colm asked, trying to see what the little ones were playing with.
‘Cattle bones,’ said Rua at once. Too quickly.
‘We’re making a new house,’ announced Máirín. ‘I’m the mamaí and Peadar is the baby. Rua is the dadaí and Colm is the guard dog.’
‘That’s not how families work,’ said Rua.
‘Why am I the dog?’ said Colm at almost the same time.
‘Bla’ bla’?’ asked Peadar.
‘No blackberries,’ answered Máirín in her mamaí-voice. ‘Those are only in the autumn time.’
Colm came to enjoy guard dog duties, as it meant he didn’t have to say anything. Máirín bossed around Peadar as she usually did anyway, and when she tried to get Rua to do anything he’d grunt like Dadaí and generally oblige, around his own self-made work of laying out bone fragments. He had brought his knife but it was too dark to do anything but the crudest of carving, and it would be reckless to try it anyway. So he felt for the pieces of bone and tried to organise them by type, but it was hard to compare and anyway Máirín kept changing her mind as to whether they were flocks of sheep to move about the ‘house’ or cuts of turf to stack up for winter. Meanwhile Colm padded around the perimeter of the space, conveniently forgetting to move on all fours when Máirín wasn’t looking, and felt for the carvings Rua had mentioned. It was hard to tell what was made and what was natural on the rough stone. He couldn’t feel the top of the stones, but Rua said that just beyond his reach the ceiling started coming together in overlapping flat stones until it was capped altogether at the very top.
Colm was just starting to think about bringing in his own rushlight, maybe even a proper torch, when he remembered why he was so scared to have gone into The Knock in the first place. His mother! His father! His tiny baby sister! The grey sliver of light revealed nothing. What was going on in Cenn Fuait? Was the rest of the Rí valley in Saint Caitrín’s? Would that be better than here? He thought of the people in church, not on Sunday but begging for grace and salvation even more fervently. Would he take comfort or be horrified to see his neighbours in supplication? Colm liked mass, but mostly for the way the songs reverberated off the walls and retreated into reverent silence around the parishioners. Inside The Knock, it felt like any whisper of music would get eaten by the stones and never heard again.
‘Bla’ bla’ bla’,’ Peadar insisted. They had been inside for over two hours now and their last meal had been well before then. Breakfast … Colm marvelled. It felt like a week ago he brought the morning’s porridge to his mother in bed. But Peadar had the right idea, they were all hungry. Rua passed around the pot of curds and they scooped it into their mouths, the dirt embedded in the creases of their fingers inevitably joining their meal. The curds had stayed fresh and cool, but their temperature emphasised the chill inside the mound. Colm noticed how cold his fingers and toes had become.
‘Goo’,’ said Peadar, smearing curds on the ground in front of him. He was closest to the grey slit of light.
‘What was that?’ asked Rua.
‘Goo,’ he repeated. ‘Goo.’
Colm tilted his head. There was something in the air, like the least perceptible change of pressure when the wind shifts. Then he heard what Peadar had: the honking of geese.
‘They’re here,’ he whispered in horror.
Peadar babbled happily and loudly. Colm shushed him and took him from the creep, and he protested and whined to be removed from his curd-dirt art. Máirín squealed at him to be quiet, making Rua and Colm shush her. The four children huddled at the back of the room, spines against the stone, dirt and bone piles and scraped pot astray, the older ones clinging together as they strained to hear or see anything outside of the black hole that had become their sanctuary. Sound from the outside was distorted and muffled. Was that the wind or a shout? Was that angry honk from just outside The Knock or were the geese still at home? Did the light change, or was it just a passing cloud? Or their imaginations?
‘I’m scared,’ whimpered Máirín, clinging to Colm’s arm. Peadar showed no fear, but was thankfully quieted by the joyful discovery of Rua’s discarded bone piles.
‘Be quiet,’ chided Rua, but he also mussed her hair encouragingly.
The light changed. Colm was sure of it. It was darker. There was someone there. Maybe it was Dadaí? Another visitor had come and told him and Mamaí and baby Róisín that Breandán was wrong. Dadaí was coming to tell them to come out now and have warm milk and buttered oatcakes. It was all fine. This was going to be a funny story in a day or two.
‘Kvath er thad?’ resonated down the passage.
Colm nearly wet himself.
‘Hoyur,’ said another deep masculine voice. ‘Ha-lo! Air eynkver tharna?’
At least three men laughed. Rua swore under his breath. Colm was breathing shallowly, laborously, but in the little air that was coming into his nostrils, he smelled rank odours of sweat and blood and smoke. Two feet came in, two leather ankleboots under rough woolen trews, then the Northman was crouched in the entrance, blocking the light, his broad body filling their passage back to the world of the living. ‘Jesus, Múire, Seosamh, Caitrín, Bríd, Pádraig, Moling,’ Colm thought to himself, trying to remember the saints’ names, ‘Colmcille my own saint, God preserve us.’ The Northman called back to his companions in their rough language and received a lit torch. His face lit up horrid and ruddy and filthy as his eyes searched the stone walls.
‘Just turn around and go,’ Colm thought to himself bizarrely, as if he could control the human horror twenty feet from where he crouched. ‘Don’t see the creep,’ he commanded in silence. ‘Ignore this. There’s nothing here.’ The Northman lurched forward, eyes ablaze in the torch light. The reek of its fuel filled the room.
Peadar cried out, ‘Smo’!’
The Northman’s face cracked in a brutal grin. ‘Ey, byurn!’ he shouted in triumph. ‘Com du oot noo,’ he called, his dark teeth glinting hungrily behind the fire. Peader kept babbling but Colm was petrified. What could be done?
‘Go away!’ shrieked Máirín.
The Northman laughed and grumbled more nonsense syllables at them. There was silence for a moment as the fat on the torch popped and sizzled on the ground. Then, with a resigned grunt and roll of his shoulders, the foul man dropped the torch at the base of the creep. The flame sputtered for a moment, then belched out black smoke. Colm coughed and covered his eyes. The higher ceiling would take more than one torch to fill, but now these Northmen knew they were there. Rua jabbed out his leg and stomped the torch, enough to extinguish it, but the Northman laughed and tossed another lit one from the men outside on top of the first. Peadar was wailling now, and Máirín crying with him. If the Northmen were after slaves, they knew they had a whole matched set trapped and ready for harvest in The Knock.
Rua had this knife out now, to ambush any Northmannish limbs in reach, but no one was coming near the torches. The newer one had rekindled the old one and now both were producing heat and smoke in ghastly flames. ‘Just turn around and go,’ Colm heard himself saying aloud now, under his breath, under the roar of a new fire ablaze in an ancient tomb. It made as much sense as the Northmen’s speech did, so Colm shouted it now. ‘JUST TURN AROUND AND GO!’
Rua turned from the creep, looked at Colm, and then dropped his jaw in astonishment at something over his shoulder.
There was now a door in the wall.
It was outlined by yellow light, which lit up the swirling smoke before it in a glowing rectangle. Colm knew it was bizarre, but it also seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Hadn’t he just shouted to turn around and go? He stood, treading on the bones, and took Máirín’s hand. She snuffled, looking up at the doorway with wonder. Rua was behind them and he picked up Peadar in his arms. Colm pushed one side of the door gingerly and it swerved open without a sound, like the linteled door in the church, somehow heavy stone and yet balanced perfectly to be opened by a child.
Beyond was a long low room bathed in soft buttery yellow light of no apparent origin. There were people and music, laughter and the smell of food. Colm and Máirín stepped onto the doorstep and Peader whimpered in Rua’s arms immediately behind them. Unlike the creep, two of them could walk abreast through this passage. The room was pleasantly warm, but the people there lining the walls were hazy and indistinct, appearing clearer at the corner of Colm’s vision like the faint etched spirals in the stones of The Knock. The people shimmered and undulated like the air over a field on a hot summer day. At the far end of the room was a dais, and a woman — a huge red and white and black woman — sat upon a throne. ‘Welcome in, and close the door,’ she called to the children in a sonorous voice that filled the room. ‘You’re letting in the smoke.’
They stepped forward and the door swung shut behind them. Between them and the red woman was a long table laden with food. The air was full of murmuring people and invisible strings and drum playing a complicated air; it was finer than any festival Colm had attended. The table had spring foods like fresh greens and new cheeses, but here there were foods out of season like fat fish and piglets and even fruit, nuts, and a whole roast deer. Everything was glossy and vibrant in a way Colm had never seen before, and his mouth watered. His siblings gazed too.
A woman stepped before them, clearer than the others but still blurred as if she were underwater. ‘Do not eat,’ she hissed. Colm tried to focus on her but it was like all his attention was on the food and the towering red woman he walked towards. His vision was drawn like it had been away from The Knock when it was just a blot on the field. From the corner of his eye he could tell the woman was young but in old fashioned homespun clothing and a blue headscarf. ‘Do not eat,’ she hissed again, directed towards Rua this time, and then melted back into the amorphous crowd around them.
Peadar started fussing and struggling out of Rua’s arms. The four of them were beyond the tables now, on the gleaming flagstones before the dais, and Rua released his baby brother to the floor. Colm was transfixed by the woman. He saw now that she was normal sized, perhaps not much taller than Rua, but her soft red dress spilled luxuriously out over the arms and legs of her chair and her silky black hair cascaded over her shoulders in an enormous pile of decadent curls. Golden rings were on all her milk-white fingers and a circlet of gold adorned her dark hair, and her eyes were coal-black holes in her beautiful face. Colm wasn’t good at guessing adult’s ages to begin with, but he couldn’t tell if the woman was twenty or sixty years old.
‘Who are you?’ demanded Máirín.
The woman laughed. ‘Little Máire daughter of Máire, I am the Mor before Múire, the original Mor, the first and only Mor.’ Her blood-red lips didn’t move as she spoke. ‘You may call me Queen Mor.’
Peadar let out a wet fart and shat on the flagstones.
Colm let out a groan of disgust as the shapeless people tittered in amusement. Queen Mor’s face remained expressionless. ‘Rós, change that child.’
The woman in the blue headscarf sprung forward and deftly scooped up Peadar from the floor, in a practiced move that kept his soiled bottom in the air. An indistinct old woman appeared with a wooden bucket and pile of rags to clean the mess. Rós brought Peadar to an antechamber that appeared in the wall behind Máirín, and the children drifted in behind her. As Róisín removed Peadar’s stained dress, she kept her eyes on the baby but spoke clearly to the rest of them in a low voice. ‘You are in grave danger,’ she said, her mouth moving but out of sync with her voice. ‘Do not eat anything here. You may drink the fairy wine, but it will not quench your thirst. But do not eat the food.’
‘Why?’ asked Máirín.
Rós produced a shining white little dress shot through with threads of gold. It was the most glorious garment Colm had ever seen, far finer than anything the priest had, or even what the bishop had worn when Colm spied him at the summer festival. It looked like it ought to adorn the Christ child in the manger, not his smelly little brother, but Rós finished wiping his bottom and pulled the frock over Peadar’s head. He patted at it happily, delighted by the gold. ‘If you eat, they have you. That’s how they got me. I’m your mother’s mother’s big sister.’
This made no sense to Colm. She looked younger than Mamaí, and Mamaí’s mother was much older. What had Rua said in The Knock? That’s not how families work. Were they still in The Knock, Colm wondered. Were they even in Ireland still?
Rós bore Peadar in his shining dress back to the main room to the sound of muted cheers. Rua, Colm, and Máirín swept along behind her in her wake. The old woman had finished cleaning and the flagstones gleamed. Queen Mór held out her arms to Peadar and Rós obeyed the wordless command. For the final time, Colm had the sense of his baby brother being placed in hungry waiting arms growing from the bowels of the earth. The unseen musicians were playing even more lively now, and three glass stems of bubbling liquid were bourne to the children on a tray by a figure so blurry its age and sex were impossible to tell.
Rua, Colm, and Máirín took one each, suddenly compelled by thirst, and found the drink sweet and salty and lovely. It effervesced in their mouths and filled their nostrils. Colm had nothing to swallow. ‘Drink, feast, and rest, my darling children,’ said Queen Mor, Peader on her lap and her own glass stem in her free hand. ‘You are safe and cared for here in my court.’
‘Health,’ came the cheer from the formless crowd around them.
Máirín was pink-faced and giggling now, halfway through her glass. Rua stood between her and the food, making furtive glances at Colm. Be alert, he knew his brother was signalling him. The fairy wine was beginning to affect him, softening the already blurry edges of his vision and making him want to stop and sit on the floor and curl up in sleep. And why not take a bite of such a red, luscious apple as those on the table there? He breathed in the scent of the roast deer, but under the juicy game meat, there was an acrid stench of smoke. Colm looked to the door they had entered the hall by and was only mildly surprised to see blank wall there.
And yet … there was something of a rectangle there. He took another sip of the not-drink and stared. He saw it now: a rectangle of grey soot creeping into the yellow hall.
‘Dance!’ called a flax-haired fairy maiden at Colm without moving her lips. She tore Colm’s eyes from the wall and took him by the hand. Rua had a tall woman with nut-brown hair in braids by the arm, and Máirín was taken by a boy Colm’s age in a shining green shirt. The strings struck up in a jig and this dancing was nothing like Colm had seen at the festivals, it was wild and fun and frenetic and free in a way he had never felt before. His blond girl smiled at him and filled his vision as they danced, her blue eyes and white teeth just a shade too large and bright to be human. Rua and Máirín were entranced with their partners as they danced. Colm had never seen his brother so effortlessly happy before. Was this really the worst place to stay? Food of all kind, wine and romance and cleanliness and beautiful music … what waited for them outside of The Knock, really?
Peadar was laughing as Queen Mor bounced him on her knee. The gold glinting on her hair and fingers flashed along the gold in Peadar’s frock and made them look like a glowing constellation in the night sky. Rua was drinking from a horn held by his brunette maiden above his head as fairy men laughed and cheered him on. Green flashed as Máirín and her lad chased each other, giggling loudly and ducking under and around the adults throughout the hall. Colm’s fairy maiden had her cool hand around his waist now, gently guiding him towards the table of tempting foods. Light and dark were becoming indistinguishable now, the golden room inviolate and all-encompassing. Had Colm and his siblings ever really been anywhere else?
A glimpse of blue. A smoky rectangle. Colm jerked his head from the fairy maiden, hot pain in his neck as he wrenched his gaze to the rear of the room. Rós was gesturing at him wildly with one hand. The other was on the door, now clearly marked with soot and ash. The spell broke within Colm, and he shrieked. The girl he had danced with was now a wizened corpse, eyes empty sockets. The shapeless crowd was horrible, all impossible angles and putrid flesh and skeletons in the shape of tree branches. Rua and Máirín were dazed but still enchanted, following their monstrous partners to the table of rotten food. Colm was closest to Peadar now, but Queen Mor was abhorrent beyond words: a chasm of blood and eyes and viscera spread out across the entire wall like an inconceivably foul spider in a nest of corruption. Thinking only of his brother, Colm ran to the clapping baby in the white frock, averting his eyes from Queen Mor’s ghastly visage and slack bloodstained maw.
‘It’s too late,’ her still-kind voice dribbled triumphantly.
Colm yanked Peadar from her claws and ran. Rua and Máirín had seen Rós now, and heard Dadaí screaming for them, and the whole room was turning to ash and rot in their eyes now too. The fairies reached for them, snaring them on thorns that tore their flesh but could not stop their escape. Rós ushered Rua and Máirín through the door, but stopped Colm and tore the baby from him.
‘What —’ he feebly protested, but his great aunt showed him. Dark juice was smeared around his face, smashed into his little fists, and leaking from his lips. Blackberries. Queen Mor had fed him blackberries. The juice looked like blood.
‘I’m sorry, Colm,’ Rós said. ‘Please tell your mother sorry, but that I tried. Now go.’
‘But!’ he cried, snatching for Peadar.
‘No! You’ll see!’ Rós was stronger than she looked. She shoved Colm through the doorway and shut the door. The last thing Colm saw was golden light and his dark-stained brother howling, then it was dark again.
‘Peadar! Peadar!’ screamed Colm, scrabbling at the walls.
‘Colm, Da’s here!’ Rua said. ‘The Northmen are gone, we’re okay!’
Máirín was already scrabbling through the creep. Colm heard none of it as he pounded at the stone, prying for the door, howling his brother’s name. ‘Rós!’ he called in desperation. ‘Queen Mor! Please!’
There came a whimper from the pile of bones on the floor. His hair on end, Colm turned to the sound and in the dim grey light he saw his brother’s stained linen dress. Inside it was…something.
‘Colm, are you okay?’ called Dadaí down the passage.
‘Peadar,’ he said weakly in reply. Trembling, he knelt to the floor and picked up his brother’s discarded frock. The thing inside it was the size of Peadar but not half as heavy, and it moved slowly and laboriously, not at all like the lively baby Colm knew.
‘Come on out,’ Dadaí encouraged him. ‘We’re all safe now.’
‘Peadar’s not … Peadar’s not well.’
Dadaí didn’t say anything for a moment. ‘Let’s come out and see, son.’
The bundle in Peadar’s dress burbled and shuddered. It was loathsome to hold. He passed it through the creep to rest on the cold ash of the spent torches, then slid his own body through. A thick layer of soot coated everything and by the time he got to the entrance of The Knock, not-Peadar in arms, every inch of him was tinged in black. The sky was grey but bright, and Colm was thoroughly disoriented. Máirín was clinging to her father’s leg and Rua was scanning the horizon. Colm numbly handed his burden to his father.
‘How long were we down there?’ Rua asked.
Dadaí stared at the not-Peadar. It was brown and withered and hung limply in his arms. He put his ear to its chest. ‘My loves, you were in The Knock for two whole days.’
‘No, we weren’t.’ Máirín said matter-of-factly.
‘Is Ma all right?’ Colm asked.
‘She will be, to see you. My God, we thought ye were dead or taken and didn’t know which was worse. They glanced in but only saw us huddled on the bed like auld wans and passed over us. Thank Saint Caitrín the babe was silent. We prayed and prayed for ye … Let’s go home.’
‘Is Peadar …?’ Colm didn’t know how to phrase his horrible question.
‘Hush. Let’s go home to Mamaí now.’
The four of them walked down the ridge in silence, the sound of field insects loud in Colm’s ears. The sheep and geese were penned up by the cottage but the cows were gone. Maybe Dadaí had driven them to a hidden hollow, or maybe the Northmen had taken them. Either way, there was a stiffness in Colm’s legs and a buzzing in his head that reminded him of how acutely alive he was. The world seemed grey, but it was quickened and present and real in a way that the golden hall could never approximate. Mamaí was at the door, the newborn in her arms, and she sunk to her knees in gratitude to see her family walking towards her. ‘Oh, thank Múire! Thank Christ! My babies!’ she called.
‘Mamaí!’ responded Máirín, and she ran to her mother and sister. Mamaí awkwardly sat at the doorway and embraced her two youngest living children.
Rua and Colm walked to either side of their father carrying their not-brother, like pallbearers in grim procession. Colm saw his parents communicate with their eyes over the limp mess in Dadaí’s arm. ‘O, Peadar,’ sighed Mamaí, but not letting the newborn or Máirín out of her grasp. ‘Poor lamb.’
‘Rós says she’s sorry she couldn’t save him,’ said Colm.
‘What?’ Her eyes opened wide.
‘She tried,’ he said. ‘She said to tell you that.’
‘Your mother’s mother’s sister,’ Rua added. ‘She was there in The Knock. She told us not to eat the food and that’s how we could leave.’
‘Don’t be telling lies,’ said Mamaí, though her voice was uncertain.
‘You were in the smoke for two days, your heads were addled,’ said Dadaí. ‘Little Peadar’s lungs couldn’t take it like yours could. Let us pray that he can heal.’
‘Are you listening!’ Colm snapped. ‘Peadar is in The Knock with Rós and Queen Mor. That isn’t him there, it’s just his old dress. He wasn’t even wearing that.’
‘Máelcolm, silence now. None of that pagan nonsense.’ Dadaí went inside and Rua followed.
After a moment, Mamaí kissed the newborn on the head. ‘I told you, Róisín, you were named for someone special.’ She looked up at Colm. ‘Was she still wearing a blue headscarf?’
[A lifelong polytheist and Norse-Gaelic heathen, Annie Cúglas lives between Dublin and New Jersey with their spouse and son. This is their first published work of fiction after a decade of academic writing on Irish and North Atlantic medieval history.]