Audio Samples from The Coming of Áed
The morning mist crept into the tenement, twining like soft roots over the floor. Ninian sat, wrapped in his blankets by the small fire in the hearth, while Ciara snored in the corner, and Laoise fed wood to the fire.
Ninian was dying to ask Laoise about what she’d said the night before, though part of him resisted, afraid to give in to hope.
Eventually, Laoise sat back on her heels and brushed wood shavings off her hands. “There.” She looked over her shoulder to Ninian. “You slept again, didn’t you?”
“I think so. A little bit.” It hadn’t been good, but he’d drifted along the border of sleep and wakefulness for long enough that he felt more rested than normal.
She beamed. “Good!” With a comfortable sigh, she crossed her legs and leaned against the edge of the fireplace, tucking her hair safely over her shoulder. “Any more nightmares?”
“Ah, well.” Laoise shrugged. “Nothing’s perfect, I suppose.”
Ninian tugged on the first joint of every finger until it popped. “Laoise… About what you said last night…”
“Your debt?” Laoise nodded. “I know how you can pay it back.”
“I’m not allowed to steal anything,” Ninian said, running his fingers over the edges of the blankets. “So if that’s your idea—”
“It’s not.” She grinned. “Listen, Ninian. I saw you fighting yesterday. I know where you can put that to use.”
Confused, Ninian cocked his head.
Laoise leaned forward. “I can introduce you to some people. I’ll bet you anything that you’re worth your weight in coins.”
That definitely did not sit quite right. “These people,” he hastened to ask, hoping she’d simply phrased it strangely. “What would they want?”
“Odd jobs, most like. A good fighter’s a valuable asset, y’know? Lots of people have someone they’d rather not deal with themselves.” She shrugged, and Ninian let out a little breath of relief. That sounded all right. “I won’t say it’s the safest profession in the city, but it sounds to me like you’re gonna have some problems if you can’t take care of that debt.”
“I’ll die,” Ninian said. Something was whispering in the back of his head. With determination, Ninian forced it down. He did not have the luxury of being choosy.
Laoise clapped her hands together, startling Ciara from her sleep. “It’s settled, then! When we’re all sorted here, I’ll introduce you to my friends. They’ll take care of you.”
Comfortably full of black bread and wrapped once more in his cloak, Ninian followed Laoise through the street. Ciara had vanished into the tangle of streets almost as soon as they left the tenement, but the woman didn’t seem worried. “She knows her way around,” she said with a smile. “Say, it’s brisk this morning, yeah?”
Ninian agreed that yes, it was brisk, and they went on their way without delay.
The day was proving to be a rare clear one. The fog around their ankles dissipated as the sun shone through it, and though it certainly wasn’t any warmer, the light was a blessing in itself. It felt easier to breathe.
Laoise’s pace was quick, and that was all right with Ninian. “How often have you been in this part of the city?”
“Um.” Ninian looked around at the soot tagging the walls, the streets missing cobblestones, the alleys that ended in walls or staircases to nowhere. “Not often.”
“It’s not much,” Laoise conceded. “This is an older part. Everything grew out from the citadel, y’know.”
Ninian knew. His mother had been keen about history—their history. The citadel had once belonged to their family, after all, back in some golden era. It was funny how much nostalgia could accompany a time that Ninian had never lived.
Laoise was still chatting. “The closer you get to the old ruin, the older the neighborhood. Did you know that?”
Ninian nodded, and, unencouraged, Laoise eventually quieted.
They traveled through gray, graffitied streets for a long while, and it seemed to Ninian that each turn tunneled them deeper into the heart of the city. He thought that if they kept going for much longer, they would reach the Inner Maze.
After a period of the alleys getting narrower, the soot thicker, and the atmosphere of their surroundings honing its cracked, deadly edge, Ninian slowed to a stop. “Where are we going?”
Laoise smiled. “It’s not much farther. Just ahead, actually—see that house with the blue shingles?”
Ninian thought that perhaps he did, but much like Laoise’s ‘green’ door, the building to which she pointed was no more a house than a hut, and the dropping shingles were, at best, slate colored. “The hovel with straw over the window?” Ninian clarified.
“That’s the one!” Laoise looked quite pleased. “Come on, let’s get this done.”
Ninian took a step, but then stopped again. “What should I expect?”
Laoise rolled her eyes. “Relax, Ninian. What would I gain from hurtin’ you? You’re just here to fix up that debt.”
None of Ninian’s knuckles cracked when he pressed on them; he’d been doing it too frequently since they’d left Laoise’s building. No matter his uneasiness about his surroundings, he needed to rid himself of Máel Máedóc’s hold.
After a few moments, he took a deep breath, let it out sharply, and caught up to Laoise.
The hovel looked empty when they approached. The window, which held glass in the very corners and straw in the rest, had no light behind it. But Laoise walked confidently to the door and banged on it with the side of her fist. “Oi! You better not be sleeping!”
There was a grunt from inside and the sound of someone moving around, and Ninian checked himself before he could step backward.
The door, after a bit of jerking to unjam it from the frame, opened a crack. “Who’s there?”
Laoise pushed the door open with her elbow, and a figure cringed back from the light. “Let us in already. It’s cold out here.”
Ninian swallowed as a bleary-eyed young man poked his head out. “Who’s this?”
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Laoise pushed the man out of the doorway and shouldered her way past him into the building. “Come on in, Ninian. Ignore this amadán.”
The young man’s hand twitched uncertainly to his waist and, eyes following the movement, Ninian recoiled. Slowly, like he wasn’t sure he was supposed to, the young man drew a rusty blade from his belt. “I asked you a question. You’re Laoise, aren’t you?”
Laoise rolled her eyes. “I sent Ciara ahead to tell you salt-for-brains I was coming. Where’s Brígh?”
“Um…” The man fidgeted with his knife. “She’s downstairs.”
Downstairs? There had to be a cellar. Laoise stomped over to the corner, kicked aside a ratty blanket, and heaved open the wooden trapdoor beneath. “Oi!” she shouted into the darkness below. “It’s Laoise! Get up here!”
A groan of complaint answered her, but footsteps followed. Then a head popped up through the opening and smiled. “Hello, Laoise.” Clambering fully out of the cellar, the dark-haired woman skipped her gaze over Laoise and stopped it on Ninian. One eye was milky, a scar cutting over it from brow to lip, but the other was bright and sharp. “What’d you bring me?”
Ninian frowned faintly. The woman called Brígh seemed almost unsettlingly familiar with whatever was going on.
Laoise stepped back next to Ninian and dropped an elbow onto his shoulder, making him flinch. “This is Ninian.”
Brígh shifted her weight and crossed her arms, face expectant. She had broad shoulders and muscular arms but moved with a certain lithe grace that reminded Ninian of an eel. “He doesn’t look like much.” Her voice was heavy and smooth, and Ninian thought it ought to be rougher, to match the rest of her.
Ninian cracked his knuckles in fists by his sides but refused to let a hint of emotion cross his face. It was a skill in which he had practice, and he knew his expression remained aloof.
Laoise smirked. “Y’know, Ciara said the same thing.”
Ninian peeked at the man who’d answered the door. He’d retreated to a corner and had sunk against the wall, eyes sagging already in sleep. Ninian let out a little breath.
“Well,” Brígh said, starting toward Ninian with thoughtfulness in her eyes. “What’s he good for?”
In a motion quicker than Ninian had expected from the woman’s previously languid carriage, Brígh grabbed Ninian’s wrist and gave it a squeeze. Ninian jerked his hand back, but she didn’t release him.
“He’s skinny. Thieving?” She let Ninian’s hand fall, and Ninian, out of pride, refused the urge to hold it defensively to his chest. Brígh began to circle Ninian, eyes raking his dirty russet hair, his fair unfreckled face, his worn-out clothes. “Could always use another cutpurse—so long as he’s good.”
“Not thieving.” Laoise’s eyes were dancing, and Ninian knew she meant to make Brígh guess.
Brígh, evidently familiar with the game, pinched her lip between thumb and forefinger. As she circled Ninian, her eyes scanned up and down his body and made him feel like he was naked. He could only stand there, uncertain and uncomfortable.
When she made her way back in front of him, she bent over and stared at his face for a good, long while, as if she were trying to analyze the exact shade of his eyes. Quickly, she reached out—Ninian cringed back, almost growling, but Brígh grabbed the back of his neck hard with one hand, and with the other, roughly pulled back his lips. Ninian let out an exclamation of protest. Brígh didn’t pay him any mind, and Ninian felt the strong urge to bite her fingers as she examined his teeth, his stomach flopping in distress.
After a few moments, the woman released him, wiping her hand on her shirt. “Seems like he’s healthy.” She made another lap around him. “He’s quiet,” she said from somewhere behind him. “And pretty enough. A little too skinny for most tastes, but that could be fixed…”
“Not that,” Ninian said, and realized his voice had cracked. He swallowed, deliberately schooling his breathing. He was pretty sure he knew what the woman was talking about, and it made his throat close to think about—he’d seen people at the docks, the ones who sold themselves to survive and paid a gang for protection. “I won’t do that.”
“But he says that’s not it.” Brígh crossed back into his line of sight, frowning. “He’s not nearly intimidating enough to be a messenger. We don’t need any more grunts, and he’s too scrawny anyway.” Her eyebrows met, sending a crease through her long scar as Ninian did his best to remember what messengers and grunts did. His father had always taught him more about the practical world than his mother had, so… messengers traveled to other gangs to deliver threats and were usually the ones to demand payment from various businesses on gang territory. Grunts upheld the infrastructure each gang needed to support their strength. They maintained roads, patrolled markets, and did the heavy lifting.
Brígh was right that Ninian would be very bad at either of those jobs.
Finally, Brígh spread her hands. “I quit. What exactly have you brought me, Laoise?”
At that, a broad, crooked grin cracked Laoise’s face, and she squeezed Ninian’s shoulder. He jumped—he’d been touched altogether too much in the past few minutes, and he wasn’t okay with it. “This, Brígh,” Laoise said, “is a fighter.”
At first, Brígh’s expression didn’t change. Then, after a moment, she snorted blandly. “Bye, Laoise.” She shook her head and turned back to the trapdoor. “Say hello to Ciara for me.”
“Brígh, wait.” She hadn’t stopped smiling. “Give him a chance, eh?”
Grumbling, the woman turned around. “Give you a chance, you mean.”
Ninian blinked. “What?”
“They have to make sure you’re worth it,” Laoise explained. “Don’t wanna take just anyone, you know? You get killed in your first fight, that’s not great.”
Ninian bit his lip. Laoise sounded like she was referring to a tool that might break.
He took a deep breath—he had to keep his priorities straight. “If I’m good enough,” he asked Brígh, trying to keep his voice steady, “you’ll pay me?”
There was only skepticism in Brígh’s eyes. Somehow that was almost as motivating as the money—almost. “If you’re good enough to take on, then yes. Enough to eat and get yourself some clothes so you don’t freeze. If you’re useful, we don’t want you dying, you know?” She leaned forward. “If you’re useful.”
Ninian’s lip felt cold when he made himself stop chewing it. “What do I have to do?”
“I’d take you to the back lot,” Brígh said flatly, “and see how long you last.”
“I have to… fight you?” His eyes flicked over the woman’s scars, her height, her thick arms.
Ninian took a quick breath and felt his hands twitch into fists. It wasn’t hard to find anger, not for this, and he held onto it tightly. “I’ll do it.”
Brígh closed her eyes, but Ninian could tell that she rolled them behind her eyelids. “Whatever, kid. Come with me then.”
Ninian followed Brígh outside and around the side of the hovel. Laoise trailed behind. She looked expectant, though Ninian thought he saw the faintest hint of worry on her face. It wasn’t, he realized, for him.
“Hey, Ninian.” Laoise took Ninian’s arm and turned him toward her. “Give it your all, okay? You can do this.”
Ninian swallowed and nodded tersely.
Brígh had opened an iron gate that barred the alley, and she held it open to let Ninian pass. Laoise waited on the other side without being told, and once again, Ninian was struck by how familiar she seemed with the process.
“Okay, kid,” Brígh said, letting the gate screech closed. They’d come to the back of the building where an open lot hosted a number of dead weeds. Laoise watched through the gate as Brígh took a few steps backward, facing Ninian. She really was intimidatingly tall. “Show me what you’ve got.”
Despite the cold, Ninian unpinned his cloak and folded it into a pile on the ground. He cracked his knuckles against each other, letting out an uneven breath.
Brígh slid her feet apart, falling comfortably into a fighting stance. “Ready?”
Ninian tried to mirror the woman’s position. It felt clumsy. He steadied his breaths, letting the morning air brace him, and adjusted himself into something more familiar.
Brígh snorted. “Are you planning to dance with me?”
Ninian lowered his chin, narrowing his eyes. “I’m ready.”
The woman wasted no time.
In the time it would have taken to blink, Brígh had covered the distance between them and launched a fist into Ninian’s face. Ninian ducked just in time.
Brígh was a far better fighter than the man Ninian had bested on the street. She didn’t barrel past with the momentum of her lunge but pivoted expertly and threw another blow with the force of her turn.
Ninian turned out of the way so that the attack grazed across his chest.
Brígh’s approach was straightforward, Ninian realized, based more on power than cunning. She was direct, aware of her strength, and seemed determined to end the fight quickly.
Trusting his gut, Ninian dropped to the ground as Brígh’s blow went by and swept his leg behind the woman’s ankles the way he’d done with the man on the street. Brígh tripped for just a second but collected herself fast as Ninian sprang back to his feet.
Immediately, Ninian was on the defensive again, slipping sideways when Brígh threw two attacks in succession, one of them a sharp chop that would have nearly taken Ninian’s head off his shoulders if it had hit him.
He needed to get inside the woman’s range. Brígh was clearly very adept at using her fists, and Ninian’s arms weren’t long enough to land a strike from a safe distance. His mind was skipping fast, trying to recall every detail he’d ever learned—his mother may have taught him more manners than practical skills, but fighting was a stark exception. He knew how to do this. He just needed to think.
Once again, Ninian dropped to the ground. Brígh lowered her stance in reaction, but she had already begun moving forward. Ninian rolled to the side as she charged, and as soon as Brígh was before him, Ninian launched himself at the woman’s knees.
Brígh stumbled, and that was all the invitation Ninian needed to rise and swing his elbow into her nose.
Brígh cursed, cupping a hand to her bleeding face, but didn’t back off. With the back of her hand, she swatted Ninian across the face.
Ninian’s head snapped backward, and he crashed onto his back. Blinking stars out of his eyes, he rolled aside to avoid Brígh’s kick and then darted dizzily to his feet.
That had not been good. A single backhanded blow, and his ears were ringing. He could not afford to take a direct hit.
Brígh was more aggressive than anyone Ninian had ever fought. His mother had been determined that he learn well but had been averse to actually hurting him. Ninian now found himself needing to adapt fast; some of his skills had apparently been formed with the assumption that his opponent wouldn’t actually do him harm.
Blood dripped from Brígh’s nose, but she didn’t seem distracted. She’d fallen back into his easy stance even as her blood soaked into the dust.
She has to have a vulnerable spot. Everyone did. Everyone had to. But other than her nose, which evidently didn’t bother her at all, Brígh didn’t look like she had any injuries to exploit. She moved comfortably, no compensating for any weakness. So where…?
It seemed a little dirty, but… well, Brígh hadn’t mentioned any rules.
Ninian feinted like he was going to charge, and Brígh took the bait. The woman lunged forward while Ninian found his center again, and Ninian dropped his shoulder like he meant to accept Brígh’s attack head-on.
Brígh’s shoulders turned. A punch was coming.
Time seemed to slow. If that blow made contact, Ninian would certainly be knocked out, maybe for good. Ignoring the chill of the thought, he let gravity take over.
Keeping his legs solidly under him, he fell into a graceful crouch.
And sprang up directly underneath Brígh.
Ninian’s bony shoulder crushed upward between the woman’s legs.
Brígh let out a cry and stumbled backward.
Ninian danced a safe distance away as Brígh fell to her knees, gasping. Holding his stance, ready to evade a surprise offense, Ninian watched Brígh drop her head with a groan. After a few moments, she held out a hand. “All right, kid,” she wheezed, face contorted. “That oughta do it.” She looked a little ill. “Damn, I’m glad I haven’t got …”
Ninian reluctantly helped her up, and Brígh hobbled to the gate and leaned on it.
“I found a good one, didn’t I?” Laoise said with a smirk.
Brígh grimaced at her. “He moves well. Though in a proper fight, I would expect him to finish me once I was down.” Her gaze flicked to Ninian. “We can work on that.”
“So,” Laoise said, resting her head triumphantly on the bars of the fence, “we all set?”
Brígh nodded. “Go back inside and tell Fergus to give you your due.”
“Fergus? The lazy kid?”
Brígh rolled her eyes. “The lazy kid. Yeah.”
Ninian still stood uncertainly in the middle of the courtyard. The side of his face ached from where Brígh had backhanded him, but there was a perverse little grain of satisfaction behind his breastbone; he’d given more damage than he’d taken.
“Kid, c’mere.” Brígh beckoned Ninian over as Laoise walked back to the hovel. “Follow me.”
Ninian grabbed his cloak and followed Brígh around the front of the building, where Laoise was leaving, looking very satisfied as she slipped a leather purse into her pocket. She waved to Ninian. “Good luck.” She grinned, patting her pocket. “You might need it.”
Ninian looked to Brígh. “What did she get paid for?”
“Hm?” Brígh’s eyes followed Laoise until she turned out of sight. “You.”
Ninian’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
Brígh waved a hand absently. “She’s not one of us, but she doesn’t supply anyone else. She’s useful.”
Ninian tugged at the top joint of his thumb. “She brings you people she thinks you could hire, and you pay her to do that?”
Brígh frowned. “‘Hire’ is a bit of a funny word.” She watched Laoise’s retreating back with a degree of coldness. “But she gets paid.”
It wasn’t too much of a shock, Ninian supposed, but it did sting. He’d let himself believe that Laoise was on his side. That had been foolish. His shoulders dropped a little. “I see.” Served him right for trusting someone so quickly.
Still. Even if she’d been self-interested, Laoise hadn’t lied. She had introduced him to a way to pay off his debt, so Ninian forced himself to concentrate on the immediate future. That was all that mattered.
“Anyway,” Brígh said, clapping Ninian on the back too roughly to be friendly. “Let’s go.”
Shrugging his cloak back tightly around his shoulders, Ninian went.