This is an excerpt from the soon to be released Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne.
In this piece, the woman warrior Liath Luachra is making her way back to Ráth Bládhma (the ringfort Bládhma) after an encounter with the youth Fintán mac Gleor when she finds some disturbing sign.
People occasionally ask why I write such detailed descriptions for the Great Wild. The truth is because it’s a central part (or element) to the series. Given that the story is set in a time period when there was very little safety or security from the elements and people greatly mistrusted anything or anyone they weren’t familiar with, I felt that needed to be reflected in the storyline.
Liath Luachra left An Folamh Mór at a rapid pace, initially following the same route taken by the Lamhraighe youth. As she ran along the trail, she crossed sign of his passing on a regular basis, every ten paces or so, and her lips compressed into a tight line. Confident in his ability and fleetness of foot, Fintán was making no effort to cover his tracks, a potentially lethal oversight in the hostile lands of the Great Wild.
The trail she followed was a natural track from the low hills where An Folamh Mór was situated. Several hundred paces south of the clearing the forest faded into a stony flatland that resulted from the poor topsoil and the rocky terrain which she knew as An Slí Cráite – the Tormented Path. This rough flatland extended towards the south-east, spotted with occasional clusters of trees and scrub. Although Liath Luachra didn’t like being out in the open, on this occasion her desire to get away from An Folamh Mór meant that she was willing to compromise safety for speed.
As she progressed further south-west, the forest gradually began to close in again on either side and An Slí Cráite grew more and more constricted. Further on, she knew, it would reduce to little more than a narrow passage through the forest before, eventually, petering out.
Soon she reached a natural fork in the path where a new trial branched off to the south-west along the remains of an old river bed. This turn-off marked the point where her shared route with Fintán ended for it was her intention to follow the south-westerly trail.
Throwing one last look at An Slí Cráite, she veered off to the left.
And came to a complete stop.
Slowly turning about, she backtracked to the fork in the trail and stared down at what had caught her eye.
Dropping to a crouch, she reached around to the wicker basket on her back and slid a javelin free. After carefully scrutinising the surrounding scrub, she shuffled forwards on all fours and lay on her stomach in front of the track to examine it in more detail.
It was an impression of a bare foot. No boots, no moccasins. No missing toes either from the look of it. It was an adult size, big enough to assume it’d been made by a man but whoever it was, he’d been travelling light for the imprint wasn’t deep. The footprint was also pointed in the direction of the north-east, the direction Fintán had taken.
Snapping a dry spine off a withered blackthorn bush beside the track, she used it to poke the imprint gently on its outer side. It did not crumble.
She frowned. Very recent. In this heat, the shallow imprint would have dried out very quickly and the brittle remnants crumbled apart at the slightest poke.
But it hadn’t.
Studying the surrounding trees with care, she rose to her feet and cautiously advanced along An Slí Cráite once more. Sure enough, now that she was actively looking for it, she found another, similar, imprint several paces further on from the first. This one lay in the shade of the treeline where the soil was still soft, untouched from the sun.
A few paces on from that she found another and now she was able to see that the tracks were quite widely spaced. The person who had left them was running, apparently in a hurry. Unlike Fintán, this individual had made some effort to hide his passing but given the speed at which he was travelling he couldn’t avoid leaving some trace, like this imprint, behind.
So why is he hurrying?
She frowned and chewed thoughtfully on her inner cheek, an old habit of hers when she was absorbed in concentration.
A stranger travels on An Slí Cráite. He is hurrying, trailing Fintán who also travels at speed.
She frowned. Perhaps she was being too suspicious. This new stranger might simply be on the same trail. It happened.
Except she didn’t believe it. Her instincts were telling her that this was not right. In terms of timing, this person would have had to come across Fintán’s track after he left An Folamh Mór and before she herself had left. Besides, as a general rule in the Great Wild, people tended to avoid contact with strangers and, when an unfamiliar track was encountered, would often take a more circuitous route to their destination to avoid any kind of engagement.
She bit her lower lip.
No. Whoever this person was, he was following Fintán. She was convinced of that. Given the freshness of the tracks, she was equally convinced that if she backtracked to An Folamh Mór, she’d find similar tracks somewhere along the edge of the clearing. This person had probably been watching while she’d been talking with the youth and then followed him directly once he’d departed.
A good thing there was no rutting in the long grass.
Liath Luachra cursed quietly under her breath. Once again, Fintán was unconsciously interfering in her plans. Despite her dislike of the youth she could not ignore the fact that someone was following him and possibly intended harm.
She considered her options a little further.
She’d directed him to Ráth Bládhma via the longer route that circled about Ros Mór and brought him into Glenn Ceoch from the west. She herself could return much more quickly via a route through the secret pass at Gág na Muice. Her directions for the slower Ros Mór passage had not been given out of spite so much as from simple necessity. The Gág na Muice route was a secret known only to the members of Ráth Bládhma and she didn’t want it spread further than that. The western route was also more practical and easier for a stranger to find. If the youth strictly followed the topographical bearings she’d provided, he would find his destination. If he did not, he might wander the forests for years, despite the directions that Muirne Muncháem had given him.
If she moved fast, she could reach Glenn Ceoch before him and intercept him – and his pursuer – in the woods at the entrance to the valley.
She sighed as she replaced the javelin.
It was time to run.