Saturday, 26 April 2014

The God Particle


As they approached the Large Hadron Collider, he spotted a few buildings scattered throughout the dense green forest, but not many. Since passing through the security checkpoint, the scenery became postcard beautiful. The driver of the minivan turned to Cardinal Bernosa and commented, "Not much to see on the surface, all the fun stuff happens underground."

The Cardinal smiled at the young assistant they had sent to collect him from the airport. Cardinal Bernosa was getting very warm in his traditional robes including his red Galero hat. Perhaps he had overdressed for the occasions, but he believed the possibility of scientifically confirming the existence of God should not be devoid of ceremony. It was not every day a mere man would witness the beginning of creation. Cardinal Bernosa was, by nature, a most unassuming person. He believed most could be learned through thoughtful silence, rather than boastful clamour. His doctorate in Particle Physics, and seat on the International Steering Committee for Elemental Advancement, testified to his rapier-like intellect. Balanced with his passion for science was a fundamental and unshakable faith in the Lord.

The mini-van glided to a halt in front of an angular building. The sign over the door pronounced, ATLAS. It was one of four monitoring stations, along the twenty-seven-kilometre-long ring of supercooled magnets, that ran beneath their feet. The Cardinal was expected, two distinguished looking gentlemen were waiting on the kerb. One opened the door for him, it was great to stretch his legs after the journey from Rome. Cardinal Bernosa was an imposing figure, standing well over six feet tall, he towered above the smiling scientists.

"Your Eminence," said one of the men, bending to kiss his ring.

"Please, Stephen, old friends should not be so formal," he said, taking the man by the shoulders and kissing him on each cheek. Then he held out his hand for the second scientist to shake." Delighted to make your acquaintance, Doctor Rice. Your reputation is legendary."

"Please, Your Eminence, call me, Richard," he said, shaking the outstretched hand warmly. "You must be tired after your journey. Perhaps you would like to freshen up before we begin?"

"On the contrary, gentlemen. I'm most eager to get started."

"In that case, Your Eminence, right this way," said Professor Stephen Castor, leading the way through the heavy glass door that slid soundlessly open at his approach.

***

The elevator descended into the bowels of the earth so smoothly, Cardinal Bernosa wondered if they were moving at all. No expense seemed to have been speared in building this facility. The elevator opened onto a large room packed with computer equipment. The air conditioning was creating a cool breeze, even though they were hundreds of feet underground. An army of technicians were monitoring consoles and running diagnostics. The scientists excused themselves to oversee preparations for the experiment.

Cardinal Bernosa busied himself by studying the camera displays, one image showed the tube that formed the heart of this massive facility. A curving pipe, wrapped in superconducting electronic magnets, which would drive individual particles at near the speed of light. The magnets worked at temperatures colder than the vacuum of space. Cardinal Bernosa was completely familiar with the perimeters of today's experiment. They intended to create, Ununoctium 294, the heaviest element ever encountered by man. In history, only a few particles of, Isotope 294Uun, have ever existed, briefly. Today, they were going to bombard particles of, Californium 294, with particles of Calcium 48, at immense speed. It was projected that during this procedure, they had a chance of recording the mythical, God Particle. 

Doctor Rice tapped him gently on the shoulder, waking him from dreams of galaxies within atoms. "We are ready to begin, Your Eminence."

"Wonderful," he said, allowing himself to be led towards a bank of monitors. When everyone was in place, Doctor Rice took centre stage, and began conducting his white-coated orchestra.

"Increase flow of Liquid Helium to eighty percent," directed Rice.

"Flow at eighty percent. Magnet temperature, minus two hundred and seventy degrees," responded a technician.

"Magnetic fields in the green?" asked Rice.

"Fields green and holding, Doctor," said a different worker.

"Introduce particles to the stream. Begin acceleration." From under their feet, a hum was sensed rather than heard, as millions of volts of electric current coursed through the massed magnets, accelerating invisible particles of matter to speeds beyond imagining.  From the far end of a room yet another lab worker added his voice to the scientific opera.

"Streams at optimum. Crossing in…three…two…one,"

Just like that, the experiment was over.  All over the room, shoulders tensed and breaths were held. A screen mounted in the middle of the room flashed up a kaleidoscope of particle paths, in a myriad of colours. After a second or two of intense study, the element they were looking for was identified, Ununoctium 294. Element 118 on the periodic table had been created.

A huge cheer went up. The data would take months of decryption, but at a glance, the experiment was a complete success. Professor Castor and Doctor Rice slapped worker’s shoulders, and smiled wildly at each other. Cardinal Bernosa hung his head, and said a silent prayer for enlightenment, while at the far end of the room one man remain glued to his computer screen.

"Excuse me, Sir. We have matter in the tube," he called over the hubbub.

Professor Castor frowned, "Are you saying there was contamination? That just can't be."

"No, Sir. We appear to have an exotic remnant."

Cardinal Bernosa was familiar with the concept of such remnants. In the nanoseconds following the particle collision, a fountain of Quarks are blown free. If two quarks crash head on into each other, they can create a miniature black hole, which last momentarily before disintegrating again. Theoretically, such matter could be left behind.

"That's fantastic," enthused Doctor Rice. "How long did it last?"

"That's the thing, Doctor. It's still there."

This statement sent the room into a frenzy of activity. People ran in all directions, gathering data, unable to believe what was happening. A stable exotic remnant was essentially, a particle created at the centre of a black hole, all be it a tiny one. This could well be a fundamental building block of the universe, as yet undiscovered.

Cardinal Bernosa stood quietly in the background, and observed. He was forgotten as the frontiers of science were redrawn. It was only he who heard the technician mutter, "It's growing." The Cardinal knew that wasn’t possible. If anything, it should be shedding matter. Extreme elements such as this were very unstable, it was a miracle that it had lasted this long.

"Are you saying it's expanding?" he asked the man seated at the computer screen.

"No. sir. Its growing. Its feeding," the man said, as if talking about a living thing.

"I don't understand," said the Cardinal, and he didn’t.

"The remnant is absorbing the particles of Californium, and Calcim, that remain. It is not getting any bigger it’s just getting heavier."

"Perhaps it’s is adding the remaining atoms to its make-up. Transforming itself into something else?"

"It's too early to be sure, but the computer is giving a static atomic weight for the remnant. It’s just absorbing everything it touches."

"What's is its atomic weight?"

"The computer has calculated the remnant would appear on the periodic table, with a weight of, six hundred and sixty-six."

Cardinal Bernosa backed away, his mind in a frenzy, trying to make sense of what was going on. It is said that when you eliminate the impossible, what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. While the scientists excitedly gathered information on what was occurring, the truth of the situation dawned on Cardinal Bernosa. The dual reality of his mind allowed him to accept what science would struggle to comprehend. If there was a possibility of exposing a, God Particle, a creator particle, there must be an equal possibility reviling a destroyer. Cardinal Bernosa blessed himself, and made his peace with the Lord.

He imagined the growing pressure within that tiny particle, as more and more matter crushed in upon itself. With pressure, came heat; incredible, never ending heat. How similar the conditions seemed to the fires of damnation described in the bible. He didn’t try to leave. There was nowhere to run to. A particle that consumed all it touched would continue until there was nothing left to consume.

Cardinal Bernosa sat and watched, waiting for the inevitable. He came here hoping to witness the beginning, he never imagined it would be the beginning of the end.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Madden's Cry

Maeve was the middle of three girls, to the utter dismay of her father. She’d lost count of the times he cursed God for testing him with a house full of women. Maeve felt the sting of his words more deeply than her sisters. She’d not been blessed with a comely nature, or a figure to make a man’s blood race. Now that his beard was running with silver, her father's siring days were over and this only made his bitterness deepen.

Maeve had sturdy shoulders, and a manly height, she was as close to a son as her Father would ever get. The fact that she did everything she could to win his favour didn't seem to do her any favours. The more she tried, the more he scowled.

Rua – her Father, had been trying to wed off his brood of fillies, but with no dowry to speak of, it wasn't going well. Roisin, his youngest, was favoured by all the boys, and men, in the village for her beauty and boundless mirth. She would have already made a good match, if she hadn’t the devil living under her skirts. Lost in the tizzy of youth, her wanton reputation was whispered in drinking circles.

Aine - the eldest, had been matched to a greedy old man, who lusted after Rua’s land, not his daughters love. Her flesh, however, was a happy windfall. The match wasn’t made, yet, because Rua wouldn't part with what the man demanded. Aine secretly wished her Father would have a change of heart, but she'd resigned herself to one day feeling ancient hands on her skin.

The harvest was reaped and the wedding season was drawing to a close, but Maeve still hadn’t attracted a suitor. If nothing happened soon, she would end a spinster, and banished to the roadside.

The beginning of our story takes place on a typical autumn day. Ocean mist hung over the still warm soil and a bounty of mushrooms had appeared overnight. The afternoon was mild and sunny as Maeve climbed the hill, a foraging creel in the crook of her arm. In the distance, sea gulls glided on an ocean breeze above the twinkling blue water. Most chores were back breaking but gathering wild mushrooms was a welcome pleasure.

As she entered the woods, the canopy dimmed the light of the sun and the moss carpet under her calloused feet cushioned her steps. It was a gorgeous sensation. She looked around for signs of another, but she was alone. What harm if she stole a moment for herself? She put aside the wicker creel and lay herself down on the soft, living carpet. The light twinkled in her eyes, as the leaves danced, so she let them close. Maeve felt a wave of contentment wash over her, a feeling like she’d never experienced before. She wished she were as brazen as Roisin, if she were, she'd discarded her shift and let this feeling explore every inch of her. Imagine if she were seen? What would the Priest say?

Religion was a huge part of her life. The word of the Priest was nearly as powerful as the word of her Father. Not far from the village stood a mighty monastery. It had been founded by, Brendan the Navigator, when he passed this way on one of his many journeys. How the people had marvelled at his tales of God, and the power he held over all things on this earth. Brendan told them of the wonders of heaven, and the unending torture of hell. Despite his gigantic personality, he was still a man, and a hard working one at that. He had rolled up his sleeves and laid the foundations stones of the monastery with his own hands. As he worked, he educated the men toiling at his side, teaching them the ways of God. Before he moved on, he ordained many of them, commanding them to continue the teachings of, Jesus Christ, the Savour. That had been three hundred years ago and stories of Brendan were still told today.

Many men had come to these shores following the departure of, Brendan, but none more savage than the men from the north. The Vikings. Just the mention of their name was enough to make blood run cold. As Maeve lay in the cool of the glade, a warning bell began to sound in the village below. She sprang to her feet, grabbing her empty creel and raced out of the wood. The sparkling blue water was now being sliced open by a narrow wooden ship, driven forward by sail and oar. The Vikings were coming.

In terror, she let her creel drop and ran as fast as her legs would carry her toward home. The boat was still a way off shore when she burst through the door of her Father’s cottage. The fire was burning gaily in the hearth, with a millet broth bubbling above, but the house was empty. The stirring spoon lay in the middle of the earthen floor. She knew they had gone to the tower. 

To protect their treasures, the Priest, and his forbearers, had built a mighty structure, one hundred feet high, and impregnable. The only door was far above ground. All from the village would have gone there seeking shelter. Maeve turned on her heel, praying she wouldn't be caught.

She bounded over graves as she raced past older, slower, villagers. The door, high above her head, was still open, but the ladder had been drawn up. Others were already gathered around the base of the fortress, braying for salvation.

"Let down the ladder,” she cried, seeing her Father’s face at the door.

“It’s Maeve, send the ladder down,” she heard him say to those inside the tower. The Priest appeared beside him, his robe flapping in the wind as he peered down on the rabble. He was a man of God, there was no way he would abandon them, she thought. There were no words to describe the feeling in her heart when she saw the man’s eyes harden. The Priest pointed into the distance, and said.

“It is too late. Look – the Norse have landed.”

Maeve glanced over her shoulder to see men, wearing the skins of beasts, jumping from the ship. They were a distance away yet, there was time a plenty. She, all of them, could be saved.

“The ladder! Please, Father,” she cried. “Save me!" 

Rua hesitated, but the Priest placed a hand on his shoulder and he was drawn inside without protest. The solid thud of the door slamming into place was a sound she'd remember forever.

“Father!” she cried, and beat her fists against the cold limestone. She was still calling for him when she was knocked senseless by the butt of a war-axe.

***

When Maeve’s head cleared, her hands were bound and standing over her was a huge man, with a pelt of red hair sprouting from his chest. He wore no shoes and a simple loincloth covered his manhood. His hair was shorn far too short to be a Viking so she imagined he was one of their slaves, captured on a faraway land. She groaned and tried to reach the point where the blow had landed. The man shook his head, his eyes silently warning her against any movement. Slowly, she returned her hands to her lap, and prayed.

The sounds of fighting, and dying, echoed all around. The stench of burning straw filled the air and trussed bodies were carried up the hill by more slaves and dumped at the base of the tower. Eventually, from the smoke-covered village strode six men, shoulder to shoulder, like the invading hoard they were. Only six men, and a band of naked slaves, had done all this. Surely the men of the village could have fought them? She would have. Although there were only six, they looked wild, like spectres of death, with hair trailing below their shoulders. Their weapons clanked as they walked, leaving droplets of blood trailing in their wake. The scars of battle, both new and old, marked their shields, their armour, and their skin. The nearer they got, the more terrifying they looked.

Eventually they arrived at the base of the tower and rested their weapons on fur-covered shoulders. “Priest,” bellowed the biggest, “Look out your window and gaze upon my face.”

“I see you, heathen, it changes little,” came a voice she recognised from Sunday church.  

“Brave words, Priest, from high in your nest,” laughed the Viking Chief, “but what of your flock? Is the Sheppard not charged with seeing off the wolf?”

“Wolfes, yes. Wolfes are God’s creatures. All I can see is the spawn of Satan, slaves to the Dark Angel. You, and all you touch, are already damned beyond my saving.  I shall pray for their souls, and God's mercy.” Even now, the man couldn’t stop preaching.

“You should pray for my mercy, Priest, not that I’m blessed with much. I’ll give you one more chance to save these pesents. Throw down your gold and I’ll consider it payment for my compassion.”

“Gold...such I possess, is not mine to give. It belongs to the Lord.” Not a moment of consideration passed before the reply.

“Then, if I were you, I'd pray for them...and then yourself,” said the Chief, discarding his weapons. The six warriors trashed the captured villagers, man and woman, with fist and foot, until they were without wind. Then they rested in the evening sun, drinking plundered ale. Some villagers were already dead, most so badly injured that they barely moved. Maeve had taken her share of blows and lay dazed in the graveyard grass.

Once rested, the Chief again offered the chance to stop this needless suffering. "All we want is your gold, then we'll be gone. Save your people and rebuild your fortunes."

From above came no reply. Maeve prayed for mercy, but knew that beneath the cloak of righteousness, the priest's heart was filled with greed.

"As you wish," the savage said, spitting a mouthful of ale on the ground. He unsheathed his sword and walked among the captives. Her heart stopped when his hand fell upon her. He dragged her toward the tower by her hair. She screamed and kicked, but was sure her life was gone. She cried out when he rose the blade, but he didn't skewer her. Instead, the Viking hacked the hair from her head, leaving her as bald as the giant who’d been her guard. Once finished, he threw her aside, with blood running from a dozen cuts. He gave the same treatment to all the women. Maeve hoped they would be saved from is wicked hands, but sadly, her ordeal was not yet over.

The Viking Chief returned to her and dragged her to her knees. He slid his blade down the neck of her dress, splitting it from throat to hem. She tried to pull away but his grip was too strong. Like an animal, he tore at her until she was naked. The eyes of the village looked on and she was shamed. The warrior sheathed his sword, only to unsheathe a weapon he’d been born with. He mounted her roughly, slapping away her efforts to defend herself, and defiled her. Through it all, Maeve could see the face of her Father watching from above. He could have saved her, but he didn’t. This was as much his fault as the man grunting above her. She looked away, the only freedome she had left, and her eyes found the giant, red-chested, slave. Although he must have seen such things a thousand times, he seemed to hurt for her. Maeve didn’t know if such pity made her feel better, or worse. With every thrust, a little of her died, until there was nothing of her left. When the man climbed off, she just lay there, broken. Again, and again, the Norsemen fell upon her until their man-hoods were no longer up to the task.

Through all of this, no mercy came from above. At last, she and the other women were abandoned; slick with blood and sperm. The captured men now became targets for the invader’s fury. One teenage boy was pinned down. The Chief drew his war axe, holding it high over his head. He waited for a second; a woman cried out from deep within the tower, but no gold landed at his feet. The axe whistled through the air, cutting off a hand.

The Chief squeezed every scream he could from the boy, before letting his axe fly in mercy. Another man was dragged forward. They started again. Body parts were piled against the unyielding tower but no matter how many were executed, those outside remained exiled.

When it became clear that the Priest would never part with his treasure, the Vikings talked among themselves in their native tongue. A decision seemed to be made, and they turned their attention on the remaining captives. With quick and precise blows, heads fell from bodies. When Maeve’s turn came, and she was dragged to her knees. The Chief himself was going to do the deed. Her head lolled forward as he circled behind her. What he was doing was a mercy. There was nothing worth living for now. The blow was struck and all went black.

***

Her mind explored her numb body, it felt alien to her. Was this death? Why was it so dark? Strange noises came to her eyes and it felt like she was moving. Every part of her hurt too much for this to be heaven, and not enough for hell. Her head throbbed, but at least it was still attached to her shoulders. When her senses cleared, she recognised water, rolling over and back across wooden planks. She knew she must be in a boat. She looked up and saw men straining at oars above her. With her returning senses, came the cold. She was still naked and the ocean wind was sucking the warmth from her body.

She tried to move her arms, but they were tied. The movement attracted the attention of the man, rowing above her. It was the giant slave she had seen during the attack. He gazed upon her as he continued to stroke. The timber groaned in his mighty hands as it forced the ship forward. He must have noticed her shivering because he dislodged a cowhide from the bench in front of him, and it fell across her. The skin sheltered her from the worst of the wind, as well as hiding her nakedness. Such little comfort was manna from heaven.

“Thank you,” she said, quietly. The giant slave nodded, but didn’t speak. The kindness, although it was tiny, was like a beacon in the dark.

“What’s your name,” she whispered. His face creased with worry, as he looked over his shoulder. Maeve could see he was afraid, afraid to incur the wrath of the Vikings.

At last he said, “Cian,” and she could tell he was from Ireland, but his accent wasn’t one she’d heard before. She smiled at him and pulled the hide over her. The soft rolling of the ship, and the gathering warmth in her bones eased her eyes closed.

The jolt of the ship grounding woke her. The pain returned the moment she moved. She drew the hide from over her head and looked around. The Vikings were spitting commands at the slaves, driving them overboard and into the water. They hauled the ship higher on the beach, until it rested above the pull of the waves. They unloaded provisions as the sky darkened. Maeve remained huddled in the scuppers, hoping to be forgotten.

It was dark when Cian appeared and lifted her into his arms. He kept the cow-hide over her as he carried her through the waves.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked. He looked uncomfortable but said nothing. In truth, she knew where he was taking her and it filled her with dread. “Please, let me go. You could come with me,” she whispered to him but he shook his head.

“They would kill us.”

“They will kill us eventually,” she reasoned, and saw him stiffen. He was conflicted. With the water above his knees, he paused. She waited, hoping he would take her away from all this, but fear proved too strong an obstacle. On the beach, a fire burned, sending a stream of sparks into the sky. A whole pig was mounted on a spit, cooking over the flames. Above the high-water-mark stood a group of huts. Scattered around them were bodies, clearly the late owners.

Inside one hut, the six warriors sat around a fire, drinking. Their voices soared in song, wild with blood lust and victory. Cian ducked through the low doorway, with Maeve in his arms. The Chief stood, and wobbled toward them. He flung the skin aside, revelling her bruised and naked body. A chorus of rowdy cheers erupted from the gathered men. With a powerful sweep of his arm, the Chief knocked Maeve to the ground. Cian, hesitated.

“Get out…you great ox,” the drunken Chief snarled and drew his sword. The giant slave backed out, his eyes apologising to Maeve as he went. The Chief slammed the door of the hut closed and a fresh nightmare began. The savages fell on her while the Chief drank and yelled encouragement. What she endured is beyond description. They only left her to eat, and drink even more. In the end, the Chief threw the other five out into the night, he wanted her for himself. The night seemed to go on forever. 

When she woke, the barbarian snore heavily on skins laid before the fire. One of her eyes wouldn’t open, and two of her teeth were missing. She battled through the pain and turned her head slowly. The man’s great gut rose and fell in drunken slumber. He was naked now, his armour discarded in the heat of his debauchery. It lay just out of her reach. His blood encrusted sword was still attached to the belt. Moving as silently as she could, she rose to her feet. She drew the blade a fraction at a time until the tip escaped the leather scabbard. The hilt was stick with blood but it cried out for more.

With cat like steps, she positioned herself over the Chief and let all her weight fall on the weapon, driving it home. The beast’s eyes shot open; air grunted out of him, but he spoke not a word. He began to trash and she did her best to hold him still. Face to face, she watched as the life left his body, and she smiled.   

She listened, but there was no sound of alarm from outside. The others mustn’t have heard. Her first instinct was to run for home but something stayed her feet. Home was where she’d been disgraced, where she’d been thrown to these animals. Home was a word that meant nothing anymore. She grasped sword and worked it until it came free.

As stealthy as she could, she left the hut. On the beach, embers still glowed where the fire pit lay. She could see bodies gathered around it, soaking the last of its heat. Picking out her red giant was easy; Cian’s body dwarfed the others. As she passed one of the other huts, she heard a symphony of grunts and wheezes coming from within. She peeked around the door and saw the five Vikings, laid low by far too much grog. This was her chance, her only chance.

She padded silently along the beach; the crash of the waves masked her movements. She placed a gentle finger against Cian’s lips and his eyes sprang open. She rested her lips to his ear and whispered an impossible dream. If he refused, all was lost, but he didn’t. He nodded his understanding and set about waking the others.

She was the first to enter the hut, still as naked as the day she was born. Cian, and the rest, were right behind her. The battle was as quick as it was brutal. The slaves repaid every cruelty they endured, tenfold, but the Vikings didn’t go without a fight. When it was over, three of the slaves were dead, six survived. The victory had been so swift, and unexpected, none knew how to react, except Maeve. She simply walked into the night, blood dripping from her skin and her sword. 

The slaves spent the rest of the night feasting. Food is worth more than gold to a starving man. As dawn returned, so did Maeve. Her appearance stunned them all into silence. She wore a man’s shirt and pants, rolled up at the cuff's. Over this, she'd strapped a leather breastplate and a fur cloak. In this garb, she looked more man than woman. The sword hung from her belt, but what shocked them most was what hung from her hand. The decapitated head of the Viking Chief. None knew what to say. She stopped before them and spoke.

“You’re free men now. You can do as you wish.” 

“And what of their gold?” asked Cian, standing toward the front of the group with his arms folded over his hirsute chest.

“We divide it equally, every man a share,” she said, and the way she said it left little doubt that she was taking no other answer.

“Will you be going back to your village?” he asked.

She looked to the ocean, not wanting him to see he'd fathomed the question she could not yet answer. “Nothing good waits for me there.”

“Then, what will you do?”

“I was thinking of traveling,” she said, nodding at the boat. “If those creatures could do it, I’m sure I could," she said. But she knew such a life was dangerous. You either become fodder for pirates, or become a pirate yourself. Both invited death, but Maeve wasn't convinced life was worth all that much. Not after this. 

“You'd need a crew,” he said flatly. Pointing out a simple truth. Alone, she was going nowhere. She didn’t know what to say so she continued gazing to the horizon, the Viking Chief’s head dripping blood into the ocean waves swirling around her toes. Cian gathered the blanket he'd been sleeping on, then without comment, climbed aboard the boat and stowed it. One by one, the others did the same. They were throwing their lot in with her.

“Are you sure?” she asked, as the last man had his belongings in the boat.

“You fight like one of them…perhaps you can sail like them too,” said the cheeky whelp, jumping off the ship and into the water. "Let’s see what the demons left behind," he said, marching for the hut containing the dead Vikings. When they pushed the boat off the beach, only the stiffing bodies of the fallen remained behind. 

***

They rowed and sailed along the coast for a brace of days. The whole time, Maeve glowered at the ocean and thought. Inside, she wasn’t herself any more. They had broken her. Now she was a killer, like them, but felt no remorse. If she felt anything, it was rage and a lust for revenge. She'd seen Cian giving her compassionate looks, but he had the good sense to stray no further than that. As dusk fell on the second day, she called the crew to her.

“When they attacked my village, they failed to get the Priest’s gold. I think we can do better,” she said, sending a murmur of interest around the men. What she was suggesting was villainy, but that they had become accustomed to. 

“That tower is unbreachable. There is no way of getting in there,” said one of the slaves, resting his hands across his oar while he listened.

“I agree, if we try taking it the way they did, but I have a plan.” A guffaw of dismissal came from one but Cian grabbed him by the throat, and in doing so, grabbed the attention of all.

“Hear her out,” he said, and glared at the others. Maeve understood their hesitation. The jubilance of freedom probably influenced their decision to join her adventure, but they had since had two cold days at sea. She was still a woman, and if she was to lead them, she had to prove herself. They bent an ear her way and she laid out her plan.

“It just might work,” said one when she finished.

Then Cian acted. He shot to his feet and roared, "What are you waiting for? Get us turned about!” The crew set to the task with vigour. By morning, the wind was at their back and she was sailing for home.

Maeve offered to take turn at the oars, but the men wouldn’t have it. She insisted on playing her part, so she manned the rudder. As the cheeky boy on the beach predicted, she had a knack for reading the wind, and the swell. She kept the vessel surging ahead allowing the men a rest from rowing. The other task that occupied her time was a macabre one. Maeve carefully peeled the skin from the Viking Chief's skull, keeping it as intact as she could. Then she cured the inside with salt from their provisions. When Cian eventually asked the meaning of it, she didn’t reply. 

On the third day of sailing, she began to recognise the land, She ordered the sails reefed, then they rowed into a sheltered inlet. Maeve alone got off the ship; her weapons hanging from her belt, a Viking helmet on her head, and armour on her body. She cut an intimidating figure. The light was leaving the sky, but that wouldn't slow her. She knew this place like the back of her hand. Before going, she addressed the crew one last time. 

“Beyond that headland is a village, my village, and the gold the Vikings couldn’t get. When the moon is directly above the mast, make sail for the beach. Success will be ours.” The men nodded, and Maeve slipped into the dark.

At the appointed hour, they set sail, and rounded the headland. The ship was only a dozen strokes of their oars from shore when the alarm bell rang. Villagers came pouring from their huts, the last attack still fresh in their mind. As a herd, they rushed toward the monastery, and the tower. The crew didn’t even have to raise a blade in defence as they walked through the village. When they reached the graveyard, a mob of terrified people cried for help at the base of the tower, but the ladder had been already drawn. The door, high on the side, stood open.

As agreed, Cian and the crew paused on the edge of the clearing. They saw a burning torch appear in the door. It lit up the face of the Priest. The villagers believed they were saved, and rejoiced. In the dim light, they couldn’t see the man’s hands were tied behind his back, or the noose around his neck. Maeve urged him forward with the tip of her sword. When the mob saw her, they shrieked. She made a frightful figure, dressed in warriors’ clothes, and wearing a Viking Chief’s face as a mask.  

The crowd at the base of the tower fell quiet. Maeve’s voice carried to them, easily. “This man of God picked money, over mercy! He chose greed, over kindness! He chose himself, over you! He thinks he has the right to judge, but only God can judge.”

The crowd looked on in awe as the demon shoved the Priest into the night sky. The rope zipped after his falling body, snapping taunt five feet from the ground. They screamed as he danced the gallows jig.

“Prepare to be judged, Priest,” the figure in the tower roared and the crowd scattered in all directions. Sensing victory, Cian and his band advanced, war-axes drawn.

“Let them go,” cried Maeve, but rose her sword to single out one man. “Except him.” 

The howling man was dragged through the village by a red giant and a demon. The rest of their band were struggling under the weight of holy treasure.

“Bring him in here,” she said, and Cian dragged the man into the blacksmiths hut. The coals still glowed and the smoke added to their otherworldly appearance.

“What do you want of me,” he cried. “I have no money, no gold. Have mercy, please!”

“Hello Father,” said Maeve, taking off the Chief’s skin. Her face was smeared red and what hair remained on her head, stood in wild spikes.

“I thought you were dead,” he cried, reaching for her.

“I am dead, Father. Dead to you. You could have saved me,” she said, and found it hard to believe her words came out sounding so...calm. She looked at this pathetic figure and wondered why she had cowered to his word for so long. 

“It was the priest, not me, child,” he whinged, looking for sympathy.

“You should have remembered I was your child then.” Maeve said coldly and turned to the fire. She drew glowing iron from the coals. The giant wrapped his huge arms around the old man, and locked them tight.

“No! I’m your Father!” he cried, half pleading, half berating.

“You watched them rape me, Father. You watched and did nothing. A father’s eyes should never see such things,” she spat at him, driving the bar into his eyeball. It sizzled and popped, like an egg touching a hot pan. Without hesitation she repeated the act. The stench was like the fragrance of hell.

***


As the boat pulled away from the beach, Maeve knew she would never see this place again. Her family were gone, and replaced by a pirate gang. She gazed on the dwindling village, lit by the flames leaping from the roof of the forge, and felt massive hands rest gently on her shoulder. Her revenge had been realised, but it had taken a toll. A sob reached her lips and he took her in his arms. He held her gently, shielding her from the world, giving his madden a safe place to cry.