And Jack died.
It was the moment his wife had been dreading. The typhus fever had wracked him for a week since he had taken abed, yet Margaret sat at his bedside as if her will alone could drive the disease from his body, while Ella and little Ciaran helped tend to their father’s needs.
The last exhalation faded from Jack’s lips as Margaret rose from her three-legged stool and kissed his brow. The warmth of his body would cool into the embrace of death; until then it would draw the sluagh from the western skies.
“Ella,” Margaret called. “Ciaran.” They had little time. The sluagh were already on their way. She would need her children’s help if she was to defend her husband’s soul. A sob welled up into her throat, but she forced it down. There would be time for grief when Jack’s body had been lowered into the dirt, his soul destined for the kingdom of heaven.
Ella’s eyes were wide as she led her brother into the room; she was old enough to remember. Ciaran would come to know her fear. He had been a babe when Margaret’s mother had passed away, but Ella remembered all too well.
Ella hurried to her father’s side, snatched the vial of priest-blessd water from the dresser and anointed his brow. Every household in Cashel swore by different means to keep the sluagh away. Blessd water offered God’s protection, the fire in the hearth drove away the shadows, but the house itself was their first line of defense.
Ciaran stood lost amongst the chaos. Margaret knelt beside him. “Mama needs your help,” she said. “Go lock the door. Don’t open it for anyone, no matter who they say they are.”
He fled. Margaret heard the bolt slide home as she reached out the left-hand window and pulled the shutters closed, then secured the catch. She prayed that it would be enough. It had been enough to protect her mother, God bless her soul, but then Jack had been with them.
As she reached for the right window the rustle of wingbeats reached her ears. A cloud of deepest black rushed from the west, the sluagh lashing at the air with their paper-like wings. They were coming too fast.
The shutters crashed shut and Margaret’s shaking hands slid the catch home. A sharp tap resounded on the shutters. Margaret held her breath. A rattle. Then a torrent, a downpour against the shutters, deafening, implacable. The ferocity of sound confounded her, and she fell back from the windowsill.
But the wood held, and the rumble of bodies striking the shutters slowed.
“Mama!” Ciaran wailed.
“Be a good boy!” Margaret shouted. “Don’t let them in!”
They would tell lies to the boy, trying to deceive their way inside. He would resist them, as would the house itself. The door was locked, the windows shuttered, the fire burning strong. She pressed the back of her hand to her husband’s forehead. He was still warm. Until he cooled, his soul was in jeopardy.
“Mama, look!” Ella shrieked and pointed at the nearest window. A paperthin black shape protruded from the slit between the shutters, the gap that let in the cold winter wind, the gap that Jack had promised to fix come the spring. Margaret sprang forward and beat at the sluagh, but the dark shape freed itself and sprang into the air. A black host crowded against the shutter, the rustling of wings echoing through the room as they forced their way through.
The lone creature circled the room with rapid wingbeats then dove towards Jack’s body. But Ella was already there, glaring up at the malevolent spirit and making the sign of the cross with her fingers. She shrieked and ducked as the sluagh veered away.
Do not obstruct us, the sluagh said. Ella heard it too, from the look on her face.
“He is a good man! He deserves his place in heaven,” Margaret said. “What do you foul creatures know of heaven?”
Heaven? Nothing. But this soul must be freed, before it is too late. A second creature flitted up to join the first, then a third. They were stalling. Ciaran crept back into the room, his face streaked with tears.
“You seek to deceive us, evildoer,” she said. “You steal souls, not free them!”
It is you who has been deceived. We release souls so they may fly free, else they rot with the flesh buried in the earth.
“What of heaven and hell?”
Children’s tales. There is only earth or sky, confinement or freedom, for eternity. Choose.
“Why should I believe you?”
The flock of sluagh wheeled as one and dived towards the bed. Ella shied away, and the creatures swooped at Jack’s chest to pluck and rake with invisible claws.
“You cannot have him!” Margaret shrieked. But Ciaran’s arms were around her leg.
“Let him go,” Ciaran said through his tears.
“They lie!” she said. “They want to steal him away.”
Ciaran shook his head slowly. “I think Dada would rather fly,” he said. They stood together in silence as the creatures whirled overhead. Then Margaret knelt and embraced her son, and the tears came again.
The flock lunged, claws tearing silvery strands from Jack’s chest.
Do not grieve, said the sluagh. We carry many souls in our shadow. It is our penance, to shield them from death. Listen to your child; know that it is better to fly than to rot.
Then the flock turned and streamed for the window, their weight pushing the catch aside. The shutters crashed open, and the sluagh were gone. Wingbeats echoed in the distance as Margaret gathered her children to her husband’s bedside. They wept for life departed, but Jack was gone. His empty husk would turn to dust upon the funerary pyre, the ash and sparks rising to join his soul, flying free across the sky.
Rob Haines is a graduate of biology working in the field of cancer research. His fiction has previously been featured on the Drabblecast podcast and in the Barren Worlds anthology from Hadley Rille Books.