As soon as darkness falls, Tóla and the Ráth Bládhma boys ease the gateway door ajar, smooth and silent, not even the slightest scrape of wood on stone. The wooden gate used to blockade the entrance is impressive, a rectangular slab of oak with metal strips on the outer side. Wedged in place by a tight wooden bar and braced by a substantial rock, that barrier would defeat the efforts of ten men and more to shift it.
I’m about to slip through the narrow gap when Tóla grabs my arm. He stands there quietly, skinny frame silhouetted against the white stone as he considers me with that odd, intense manner of his.
‘Don’t be the tiresome oul biddy,’ I chide him. ‘Keep a wary eye on Fiacail while I’m away. Don’t let An Cailleach Dubh talk him into any foolishness.’
Tóla’s left eyebrow arches slightly in question.
I roll my eyes at that. For all his mad knowing, Tóla’s thick as the gateway barrier at times.
‘The tall woman who is our host. She leads here at Ráth Bládhma.’
Tóla just looks at me blankly.
‘She was Fiacail’s woman back in the day. Remember? He told us this story.’
Tóla frowns but then, thankfully, he nods. He remembers it now.
‘Our friend still has a soft spot for her,’ I say.
Tóla starts a half-arsed shrug but leaves it half-complete. He finishes instead, with a wince.
‘Yes,’ I agree. ‘And probably a hard spot. Just keep an eye on him, cousin. No foolishness.’
Before he can delay me further, I slip through the gap. Out in the darkness, I crouch low to the ground while they fill in the gateway behind me. There’s a muffled, barely-audible scrape then I can hear them working quietly to wedge the bar in place.
I wait for the moon to slip behind a cloud before I cross the narrow causeway then, quiet as I can, I scurry for the south-eastern treeline. Despite the erratic glare of the moon, I force myself to keep it slow as I traverse the low grass. The cold night air is up and it worms its way into my chest but if I keep my pace, my breathing regular, I can also keep the coughing at bay.
My luck remains with me. The moon breaks free of the grasping cloud at the very moment I reach the treeline and as I slip into the shadows, it floods the valley in milky light. Edging deeper into the trees, I come across a dead trunk, still upright but rotted through to create a hollow space within. Cramped though it is, it’s a fair shelter, one that’ll do me right for the dark hours.
I wriggle in arsewise through a slit in the trunk’s western side. Settling cross-legged on its empty base, I stare out through the narrow gap, my cloak tight about me. In the dappled moonlight, there’s little enough to see: the shadowy forms of the nearby trees, the hint of bushes off to the left and to the right. With a sigh, I rub my right hand down the inside of the trunk, fondly stroking the knobbly wood, all that remains of the sap and flesh consumed by an croílobhadh – the heart rot.
‘Thank you’, I tell the dead tree. ‘From one hollow soul to another – Thank you.’
Resting my head against the wood at my rear, I let the night take me.
At dawn, I stir, disconcerted and confused. I don’t know where I am or when I am.
Even as I call her name, the memory of her absence presses down, my renewed grief a bitter burden for the daylight hours. Lann’s gone and Murragh’s gone and I walk my own slow path to the Dark Lands.
But, for now, it’s time to move. It’s time to ease my pain with the spilling of blood.