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Refuse. Let Ráth Bládhma take care of its own

I refuse at first but Fiacail’s silence means I eventually agree to do as he asks. Within our tuath - our tribal territory - Fiacail’s easy tongue and loose ways means he’s not well liked. But he’s always been a friend to me. He was there in dark times when my woman Lann passed with fever, when my son Flann took a raider’s spear. Two times he’s helped me bury my dead then sat with me to soften the grief. Another time, he pulled me from harm in the heat of battle, cheating the cold clutch of death by a finger width.

No. When Fiacail asks me, I cannot refuse him.

When my friend leaves, I chew on a pork chop in silence and ponder the settlement’s defences. Ráth Bládhma has a deep ditch and a strong embankment but only two warriors to defend it. In their absence, the settlement’s exposed. If it’s their intent to tackle a Tainted One, that exposure may be permanent.

I’ve watched Aodhán – the oldest of the three Ráth Bládhma brothers – and he’s sharp-eyed with a javelin but sharp-eyed doesn’t stop a blade in the blood-scuffle of the forest. The boy wouldn’t last ten heartbeats against an experienced battler.

My son Flann would have the same years as Aodhán on him, had he lived. He too was skilled with a javelin cast but that didn’t help when the raiders hit Seiscenn Uairbhaoil. That’s the cruel way of it with this world. When it’s your time, no amount of skill, no amount of courage will save you.

As for the settlement’s second warrior, the woman they call the Grey One … Well, she’s a battler, I’ll give her that. Several years past, I saw her fight at a tribal gathering. Back then, she was some unknown scrapper, without name or reputation but that day, she tore into her opponent with a savagery that shocked us all. Some encounters mark you, some people leave memories that slip beneath the skin and stay with you forever. The mark the Grey One left was her silence for, beneath that fighting fury, she was quiet and cold as stone. Back at that gathering, she never said much and even here, amongst her own people, her shortness with words means everybody listens when she speaks.

Several days earlier, when we encountered her in the forests beyond the valley, I’d seen her up close for the first time and, for a moment, glimpsed the damage in the space behind her eyes. Damage knows damage and that’s the kind that leaks into your soul. Lethal and dangerous as a wounded wolf, I don’t doubt her taste for carnage. If anyone can face a Tainted One and survive, it’s her.

I climb a ladder to the ráth’s internal rampart, a wooden platform below the palisade that runs the full circuit of the settlement. The press of night is tightening and the gloom rises up around us like a cloud of hot piss on a frosty night. From the low wooden pilings, I look out over the empty valley, chewing quietly on a piece of rough pork rind.

If the scouts are already in the valley then that leaves me little time. One night in hiding to recover from their travel, one day in motion to observe the ráth’s defences. It’s even possible they’ll depart the valley before Father Sun starts his slow descent.

That means I have the dawn and perhaps a little more to tackle them. But no more than that.

I spit a knot of pork gristle over the palisades, watch it arc down through the air to hit the ground.

Fiacail has it that there are at least two scouts, possibly even three. Such odds are hardly pleasing but I’ve taken on opponents of greater number before. I know that in the thrust and slash of combat, brute strength counts and numbers count, but there other factors too can turn the course of battle.

Or at least lure it in the right direction.

A good position on steep terrain, the advantage of surprise, a fighting force hungry for vengeance, a mist or twist of mercurial weather. To improve my chances against the scouts, it’s on such elements I must depend. But that means I must make the choice of battleground. That means I must venture out unseen tonight.

But choosing the battleground requires knowledge of the scouts intended route and, therein, lies my dilemma. There are three routes that they can take. Hunkered down at the valley’s western entrance, they could simply spy on the settlement from there. But then, they could also follow the woods that stretch the length of the southern and northern ridges.

The blanket of night continues its fall and if I intend to sneak from the ráth I’ve little enough time to prepare. But before I do, I have a decision to make. Which route am I to take?