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The woods at the base of the north-western ridge

I slip through the gateway soon after night has fallen. By then of course the night air has cooled and despite the honeyed mash I’d supped to ease my chest, it’s difficult to breathe. Even now, I can feel the ghost of phlegm building up inside, ready to burst from my lungs should I chance to suck the air in wrong.

Crouching low, I scuttle across the grass to the northern woods, forcing myself to a steady pace to keep the coughing at bay. In the silence of the night, a single cough would reveal my presence. A coughing fit would expose me completely, thwarting any attempt to unearth the scouts.

I make the treeline as the moon rips free from grasping cloud and floods the valley floor with a translucent, milky light. Slipping deeper into the trees, I edge through shadow, carving my way through solid darkness, at times by touch alone. A rare flicker of moonlight through the canopy illuminates a trio of toppled trees, the branches ensnared in the adjoining foliage, so they lean at an angle and provide a slanted shelter. It’s a poor enough refuge. But it’ll serve me for the night.

I settle in nice and quick, make myself good and comfortable as I sit with my cloak around me, staring quietly at the gloom outside. The dark of night is a barrier to movement, an impediment to intent but it’s also my best protection. No fian scout would dare blunder about in the black, making more noise than physical distance.

Shuffling closer to one of the angled trunks, I pull my cloak tight and await the dawn. It’ll be a long night, an uncomfortable night for me, for the air has an edge, moist enough to drape a robe of dew. On such a night, with these ragged lungs, I should be in my bed at Seiscenn Uairbhaoil, back in my warm cocoon beneath the furs with my woman.

My body relaxes as the weariness sets in and I allow myself to dream – to dream of Lann, of my youth in Seiscenn Uairbhaoil, of the life I lived before the fevers took my woman, before the raiders took my boy. I drift off to the Land of Dreams in half-submerged weariness, a happiness blemished with a tint of melancholy.

The pre-dawn chorus rouses me and I sit up disconcerted. For a moment, confused, I make to call for Lann. But then I remember she’s gone, even as the shape of her name forms on my lips. I swallow that unspoken sound down, but it leaves a bitter after-taste.

Crawling on my hands and knees, I emerge into the grey light of dawn, my body cold and stiff from the cramp. Grey shafts of light cut through the canopy against the backdrop of strident birdsong. Standing outside, I cough up the phlegm that’s settled overnight, a few curbed hacks, muffled by the hands over my mouth. Lungs clear, I work the stiffness from my joints then I reach down to grasp the battle-axe that’s slept quiet by my side.

A long haft of worked oak, firmly affixed with a single-bladed, metal axe-head. This weapon was once my father’s and, like all blooded weapons, it bears a name: Scoiltire na Smaointe – The Splitter of Thoughts.

Getting to my feet, I attach the leather cord to the rings at the base of the haft and below the head, then slip it over my shoulder and loop it around my back.

It’s time.

Time to make the world pay.