Chapter 2 (part 1)

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Chapter 2 (part 1)

Gallen and Seamus had no warning before the attack. The road from Clere to An Cochan was usually well empty by that time of night. Both moons were down. The heavy rains had dampened the dirt road, leaving a thin glaze of water so that the stars reflected off the mud, making the road a trail of silver between columns of dark pine and oak.

They were near the edge of Coille Sidhe, so Gallen moved cautiously. Once, he caught sight of a flickering blue light deep in the wood. Wights, he realized, and he hurried his pace, eager to be away from the guardians of the place. The wights never attacked travelers who kept to the road, but those who wandered into the forest couldn't count on such luck.

Just over the mountain, the land flattened out into drumlins, small hills where the shepherds of An Cochan kept their flocks. Gallen was eager to reach the relative safety of human settlements.

One moment Gallen was walking the muddy silver road, leading Seamus's old nag through a ravine while Seamus hunched in the saddle, singing random songs as a man will when he's had too much whiskey, when suddenly half a dozen voices shouted in unison, "Stand! Stand! Hold!"

A man leapt up from the margin of the road in front of them and waved a woman's white slip in their faces. The horse whinnied and reared in fear, pulling the reins from Gallen's hand, dumping Seamus off backward. Seamus landed with a thud, shouting, "Ruffians, blackguards!"

The nag leapt off up the side of the ravine, her hooves churning up dirt as she galloped through the hazel.

Gallen was wearing his deep-hooded woolen greatcoat to keep out the night chill, but the coat had slits at his waist that let him get to his knife belt quickly. He palmed two daggers, not wanting to show his weapons until the robbers got in close, then spun to get a better view. The robbers surrounded him, swirling up out of the brush. He counted nine: three up the road toward An Cochan, four coming behind on the road from Clere, and one more on each side of the ravine.

Seamus sputtered and tried to find his way up off the ground. The old man was nearly blind drunk, and he yelled in a deep brogue, "Off with you thieves! Off with you varmints," and the robbers all swirled toward him shouting, "Stand and deliver!"

In the starlight, Gallen could hardly make out the soot-blackened faces of the robbers; one of them had curly red hair. They were big men mostly, down-on-the-luck farmers sporting beards and armed with knives, the kind of aimless rogues you often saw sloughing around alehouses in the past two years. Drought one year and rot the next had thrown many a farmer out of work. Gallen made out the gleam of a longsword. Another young boy held a shield and a grim-looking war club.

Old Seamus began cursing and fumbled at his belt in an effort to pull his knife, but Gallen grabbed Seamus's shoulder, restraining him. "Don't be a fool!" Gallen warned. "There's too many of them. Give them your money!"

"I'll not be giving them my money!" Seamus shouted, pulling his dagger, and Gallen's heart sunk. Seamus was the father of seven. He could either let the ruffians have his purse and watch his family suffer, or he could fight and probably die. He was choosing to die. "Now back me, will you! Back me!"

Dutifully, Gallen stood back to back with Seamus as the robbers closed in. That is what Seamus had paid him for. Three

shillings, Gallen realized. I'm going to get killed this night for three shillings.

The tall man brandished his sword. "I'll be thanking you to drop your purses, lads." From his accent and curly red hair, Gallen estimated that he was a Flaherty, from County Obhiann.

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