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Agree to deal with the fian scouts

But I accept the task, of course. With the woman warrior and the youth, Aodhán, gone, the settlement’s defence falls to Aodhán’s younger brothers – two unblooded youths – fresh-faced and without a broken voice between them. If Fiacail, Tóla and I were not here, it’s likely the fian scouts would already have made their move. I accept the task because, should I succeed, they’ll live a little longer.

But, more importantly, I accept because Fiacail asked me.

Dead man walking or no, t’would be nice to breathe my last breath in combat, fight a fight against odds to make one shudder, against odds that’ll have me a song around the campfires at night. It’s a good thing for a man to die with a song behind him, his name forever on other men’s lips.

I climb up onto the ráth’s internal rampart. The wide wooden platform runs below the palisade the full length of the circular habitation. Night isn’t far off and the gloom surges in like an incoming tide. Leaning against the pointed, wooden stakes of the palisades, I look out over the empty valley.

Two scouts, Fiacail has it. Maybe three. Staring out at that deepening murk, I cough up a fresh lungful of phlegm and mucous – my own murk – and spit it out over the palisades. To my mind, three men to counter is no good balance. And then, of course, there’s the question of where to find them.

I look about the narrow valley once more, study the woods to the west then turn my gaze to the wall of oaks running down the base of the steep ridges either side of the ráth. Around to the eastern section of the settlement, I can see where the steep ridges converge in abrupt cliffs just visible above the canopy of the trees. The terrain in that part of the valley is unfamiliar to me but Bodhmhall, the settlement’s leader, assures me it’s far too steep and far too rugged for anyone to access Glenn Ceoch from that direction.

Three choices then, as I see it. Having crept in the from the west, the scouts could hunker down among the oak woods that screen the valley entrance. Then again, they might follow the spread of the wood along the base of the north-western and south-eastern ridges. Within those woods, they could slither close to the ráth or find a place to scale the heights and look down on the settlement’s defences.

I study the terrain to try and put their thoughts in mine. Meanwhile, Father Sun dips behind the distant oaks, preparing to embrace the Great Mother in another night of passion.

As the shadows extend and the light draws tighter, I know I must slip out under cover of darkness so the watching scouts don’t see me.

But which route should I take?