I slip through the gateway soon after dark has fallen. By then of course the air has cooled, the damp wisps burying into my lungs. Even as Tóla and the Ráth Bládhma boys seal the entranceway behind me, I’m hurrying for the refuge of the western woods, the treeline opposite the settlement entrance.
Cloud cloaks the night sky but every now and then the moon breaks free, illuminating patches of grass between the ráth and the trees. If I’m caught in one of those bursts of milky light, I’m done, my presence exposed to anyone watching.
Half-way across the grass, my lungs give out and I’m forced to drop to my knees, gagging on the cough that threatens to spill from my chest and crack the night wide open. Choking down the phlegm, I suck air through my nose until I’ve contained it, then I’m up again, tottering forward until I reach the cover of the western woods.
The ground beneath the trees is dark as pitch but I manage to locate a clump of fresh fern to serve as a nest for the night ahead. Thick enough to shield me from the breeze, its crushed, fleshy stalks offer a snug mattress for my rest.
Lying in the darkness, cocooned in my woollen cloak, my thoughts turn to Bodhmhall, the tarnished bandraoi who now leads Ráth Bládhma. Prior to coming to this settlement, I’d heard the stories of her beauty and, for once, those stories were more than embroidered puff. Tall and statuesque, keen-eyed and sage, the Uí Baoiscne woman has allure enough to make a man’s mind wander.
And one whose mind wanders in her direction is my friend Fiacail. The way Fiacail has it, he and Bodhmhall were bonded once but his appetite for other sleek beauties fractured that union. I know it was Fiacail who walked away but I can tell he still has it hard for her and that worries me. To be fair, the Ráth Bládhma woman offers him no false trails. Nonetheless, he’s still high on her scent, still entangled in her thorn bush. I can read the regret in his eyes, hear the hunger in his silence when she passes him by.
To top this tragedy is my friend’s blindness to how Bodhmhall regards the warrior woman. That’s another tale I’ve heard and although it’s one whispered in dark corners with evasive shakes of the head, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Dwelling on Fiacail’s tattered history, I find my rest unsettled. It’s not my design to remain at Ráth Bládhma. I don’t relish entanglement in these people’s story, just because Fiacail has the horn on him.
But … Kin’s kin and truth be told …
There is nowhere else I need to be.
The night passes without incident and, swaddled in my cloak I even grab a snatch of sleep. In the faded grey of dawn however, I rise from my refuge stiff and sore, to note the poor concealment within this section of the woods. Around the valley’s western entrance, the trees grow thin, the grass is low and apart from fern clusters like my night-time nest, there are few enough places to hide.
My chest grows tight, but not from the flux for I’ve guessed it wrong and missed my chance. The scouts have worked their way down one side of the valley, slinking through the concealment of the lower woods, edging their way slow and sure towards the settlement.
And I sit here on the exposed west, unable to move without being seen.
There is no remedy for my choice. It’s too late now to find the scouts.
Too late for anything but report my failure.