It’s raining butcher knives and my chest aches but Fiacail has a plan. That’s the way of it! Little more than two days’ comfort here at Ráth Bládhma and already we’re caught up in its people’s problems.
But … it’s a nice place, I’ll give them that. A secluded, V-shaped valley deep in the folds of the Great Wild’s crinkled arse. Two forested ridges stretch north-west and south-east, a tight-curving cliff at one end to tuck it in all nice. The expanse of pasture starts at the western woods – the single access to the valley. It stretches wide and green to a slight rise at the valley centre where the settlement of Ráth Bládhma’s located. It’s a secure position. The inhabitants have a clear view on every side. With the gateway bolted, any enemies who did manage to find the valley would not only have to cross that open ground but the barrier of the circular ditch, then climb the earth embankment and palisades to get at the people inside. Yes, the people of Ráth Bládhma have strong defences.
But that’s not going to save them.
Fiacail says there’s a fian coming, a war-party more than fifty strong. The way he has it, their scouts are already in the valley for he’s seen their sign and suspects they have their eyes on us. Within the ráth, we number three fighting men; myself, Fiacail and my cousin Tóla. But we’re visitors passing through. The population of Ráth Bladhmá proper numbers seven inhabitants but only two of those – the woman warrior Liath Luachra and the youth Aodhán – are blooded warriors.
And I do not reckon their chances.
‘Ultán,’ Fiacail says to me.
‘What?’ says I.
‘Sharpen your blades. You’re going visiting tonight.’
I chew on that over a mouthful of griddlebread. Sometimes it’s hard to make Fiacail out. He knows I’m dying, he knows the black flux is eating my lungs away, that my chest’s a mouldy husk. The rot’s not yet taken my strength but like a dying tree, I’m decaying from the inside.
‘Why do you set me this task?’ I ask him.
‘Because you’re my best man,” he says.
We both have a good laugh at that. Besides my cousin Tóla - who’s touched in the head – I’m his only man.
‘Well, then you’re a one-legged man at a dance,’ says I.
Fiacial gets all serious then, tugging down the sides of his moustache, the way he does when he’s thinking great thoughts. ‘The settlement has no defence,’ he tells me, his voice all solemn. ‘Their two warriors – Aodhán and Liath Luachra – are gone.’
‘Where are they gone?’
Fiacail purses his lips and releases his moustache with an expression of distaste. ‘Off to kill a Tainted One.’
Oh! That shuts my gob. To kill a Tainted One! ‘Tch! Better them than me,’ I say.
‘That may be, but apart from the old man and the two younger brothers, there’s none here asides us to protect the settlement until they return.’
He pauses then. Clears his throat.
‘I need a man to oust the weeds,’ he says. ‘Find those scouts for me, Ultán. Rip them from the valley soil. Expose their roots to Father Sun so they don’t take hold and spread.’
So, now I’m sitting and thinking it through. Fiacail’s task has surprised me. I understand his desire to protect the settlement and killing the scouts might buy them some time but the fian will find them eventually. Besides, this isn’t my home. These aren’t our people. This isn’t our fight. It’s a Ráth Bládhma fight. Their own people should do it
So, I sit and think. And it’s raining. And my chest aches and I wonder how I’ll choose.