For Ailbhe

by Tara Saunders

The dead have no interest in clean floors.

Floors matter plenty to the living. Especially to Da, who’d threaten to tan Murra's hide if he couldn’t eat bacon and eggs off theirs when he came home from slopping the pigs.

All piss and vinegar, Da. He threatened, Ma did the whipping. One more thing turned upside down now she was gone.

Murra dragged the mop and bucket from its place under the eaves. She wouldn’t risk an upset over so small a thing. There had been enough of that.

Dorchadas Eve they stood festival-watch in their cider-scented kitchen, not knowing it would be their last. Paurig, demanding a man’s share of the watch, standing it with eyes half closed. Ailbhe, curled in her snug of blankets by the hearthfire. Da, standing Paurig’s watch while the man-child snored and never saying a word. Ma, who kept plates overflowing and mugs filled, and who sat her own watch besides. And Murra, dragging through the festival all forlorn, preferring to watch for boys instead of Fiach. 

If Ma had guessed what was to come, she would have lifted heels for home with no talk of courage or what was right. Then the floors would be clean, the taybread would have enough ginger, and Da would smoke his pipe by the hearth instead of floating lost through empty stables and a kitchen cold as winter.

Why did the Faith-Eaters waste their words talking about the North, instead of what was really important?

Paurig would bend his back in the fields instead of stretching his long legs along a road somewhere, the bitter shape of his parting scalded into the walls of home. It hurt not to know whether the new shirt chafed his neck, or whether he was still above ground.

Murra wouldn’t have to wonder, in the long hours of night, whether he ran towards darkness or away.

Listlessly, she swished her mop into the space where the dresser didn’t quite touch the wall. Last week Da had found a curl of dust-fluff wound around the dresser's leg. His roar when was loud enough to wake even Ma's new neighbours in the boneyard.

Ma would have expected better, he had shouted, his face wet. And he had disappeared all day and half the night, until Ailbhe whimpered in her sleep and Paurig haunted the lower path, sure that Da had left them too. Even the raven that watched from the oak tree shuffled dusty wing-feathers and quorked his concern.

Ma didn’t choose to be murdered, but the fist in Murra's belly blamed her all the same. Girls of fifteen should have bonnets done up in ribbons, not cloth caps tricked out with cobwebs. There should be blushing lads leaned three deep over the kitchen's door, each one tongue-tied by her beauty.

Instead there was Ailbhe. Silent enough, aye, since rough hands had ripped her from Ma and made her watch what came after. Not one word from her in three days, not since the new-made military had come to take their horses.

Horses aren’t for your kind, he had said, Cian ó Ciarbre, his face puckered with the stink of something rotten. As though they had never twirled together to fiddle and pipe, had never met later by the fence-line where there were no parents to see.

But that was before, back when there was no talk of a new army, or of her kind.

Murra would have set him straight on a thing or two if his eyes had been less cold. If he hadn’t drawn back from her like a town girl from a maggoted rat.

A good thing they took the horses, it turned out. Otherwise Paurig would have left on Bumper instead of his own two feet. Where would any of them be if he was caught on a horse's back? With another box to bury is where.

Although it might still come to that. Her kind needed papers to travel more than half a day from where they were registered. Cian had said that, too. There had been more, but Murra had lost the trick of listening when she lost her Ma.

Paurig was the one who had showed her how to find Bliss, back when a girl's worst worry was a torn frock at Bealtaine fair. Be careful, he warned, if you take too much they’ll feel it. He had turned sneaky when she asked where he'd learned it. So many of his friends and hers whispered in knots these days.

Nothing straightforward for the Daoine, now that the Brotherhood decimated them from outside and the Eolaí from within. No way to tell whether a person known a lifetime flirted with the oldest ways or informed on those who did. Now was not the time for trust.

Such a simple thing to reach inside herself for Bliss, and with it freedom from all the burdens on her shoulders. Even in Ma's kitchen, with the raven watching black-eyed through the window, it bubbled inside her, whispering secrets she could feel instead of hear. So natural to step inside it and draw it deep.

It seared through her, Bliss, stroking every nerve with velvet fingers as it passed. A distillation of herself, bright as flame and pure as summer rain. Murra sighed until she thought her lungs would empty. The truth of it. The burning.

Inside the brightness something stirred.

Maybe this time she would stretch through the fire and wrap herself around whatever moved in there. Change, and be lost. Change, and be saved.


Da. He'd kill her.

Murra released her hold on Bliss. It didn't want to let her go, grazing bolts of sensation out from the pit of her stomach. Upwards, to her heart. Downwards, to her groin. Finally, reluctantly, it leaked away.

Murra was only Murra again. The sorrow of it stole her breath.

Da crossed the kitchen in three strides, not stopping to scrape his boots, tracking pig-muck onto flagstones Ma scrubbed every morning on her knees. He reached for Murra, raised a square brown hand and cracked it hard across her cheek.

She flew sideways. The dresser met her ribs with a crunch and she cried out for her Da.

‘Filthy hussy! In my own house. In your own Ma’s kitchen!’ Da’s breath came in ragged gulps.

Murra slid downwards along the dresser’s smooth wood. Fine-bone cups – Ma’s pride and joy – chimed her to the floor.

‘Abomination. After everything, your Ma and everything, don’t you dare Fall!’ Da planted his feet wide, his face distorting her pain like the curved bottom of a stew-pot. Over and over he flexed his hands, but each time they clenched themselves back into fists.

Fallen. A dirty word whispered behind cupped hands. A frightened word, a coward’s word. Was this why Paurig walked away?

Da’s hair was more grey than black now, Murra saw suddenly. Creases bracketed his mouth and seamed his forehead. Her Da was an old man.

‘Da. Nothing’s like it used to be.’ The bald bones of truth, but how to make him see that from the floor?

Anger seeped into Da’s face, setting the lines more deeply, to his very bones. ‘No. The Lady hasn’t changed. Be faithful, She told us. It’s not supposed to be easy.’

Murra felt something break inside her. ‘Faithful to what, Da? The oldest ways are our only hope. Without them we’re dying.’

‘It’s you that’s killing us, you and your like, breaking faith with the Lady and bringing the Brotherhood to our door. How could you do that to your sister?’

‘Me?’ Murra screeched. It felt wrong to raise her voice in Ma’s kitchen. ‘It’s not me that steals what’s ours and treats us like we’re animals. Was it me that dragged Ma into the street? Was it me that made our Ailbhe watch while they kicked her to death and strung up what was left?’

‘Stop.’ Da dropped to his knees, reaching for her.

‘Not this time.’ Decision made. ‘Not any more.’

Murra threw herself wide and allowed Bliss to pour in. She shivered at the heat that blazed through her and from her. The short hairs on her body pulled themselves upright. Her skin prickled and stretched, glorying in the hugeness that forced itself outwards.

‘No!’ Da lunged towards her; past her. A pale thing, his importance shaken loose along with the threads of her old life.

At the heart of the flame, something Other. Its whisper called to her, twined promises around her, drew her close.

Breath slid from her and was replaced by Bliss.

But Da was there too, and something else. Something cold around her throat. Murra choked. A new aching built in her chest, gasping for air. What came was breath, not Bliss.

Empty. Ashes and stone. Nothing inside but rawness, where she had been whole. Murra knelt, amputated.

‘I’m glad they killed her.’ Da heaved the violent, shuddering sobs of a man who didn’t cry. ‘It would have broken her heart to see you Fall.’

‘What did you do to me?’ Murra clawed at the metal that smothered her throat, her touch finding unfamiliar whorls and chevrons that stung her fingers.

‘Didn’t they tell you about the Namhaid Collar when they were whispering their filth? It’s our share of the duty, passed down from the Dawntime to deal with the likes of you.’ Da shut the dresser drawer with a crack. One of Ma’s cups chinked from its hook to shatter on the flagstones.

‘Get it off me, Da. Please. I’ll be good.’ As cold under her scrabbling fingernails as the cinches that sealed her mother’s coffin. Cold and hard and final.

Da shook his head. ‘No way out of a Collar but the grave. This is it for us, Murra love.’

‘You can’t, Da.’ She didn’t understand yet.

‘I have to. For Ailbhe. She’s all that’s left.’ Da nodded to herself and scrubbed a cuff across his nose, his back straightening. ‘I’ll take us North. Your Uncle Rhoddi’s been at me to go, but I couldn’t leave your Ma—’

He turned his head to the window. On the fencepost the raven met his eyes and quorked. It stretched its wings and launched itself, flapping lazily northward. Da nodded.

‘For Ailbhe. I’ll do it for her.’

Murra sagged against her Ma’s dresser. Fallen. No place for her in their people now, old ways or new.

Tara Saunders lives in a little house at the edge of a deep, dark wood. Stories whisper to her at night and dance away when she tries to catch them. She shares the dance with far too many dogs and cats, and with just the right number of children. Find her at

Enjoyed this story? Sign up to Unsung Shorts and get a new short story delivered to your inbox every fortnight.