Preparations for the feast are at an advanced stage, and the sun is close to setting, when there's a call from another lookout. "I see someone in the distance running towards us!"
Conn raises an eyebrow at Tiernan. They've been talking about their battles with the demons. I've sat in close attendance. Our seanachaidh fled not long after the attacks began, so I've been charged with keeping the history of the clan. I'm no natural storyteller but I've a perfect memory.
"It's not one of ours," Tiernan says. "We brought all our living with us."
"Is it a demon?" Conn shouts at the lookout.
"It doesn't look like one," comes the reply. "I think it's a boy. But the speed at which he's running... I'm not sure."
Conn returns to the rampart with Tiernan and a few of our warriors. I slip up behind them. I normally avoid the exposure of the higher ground, but a lone demon in daylight can't pose much of a threat.
As the figure races closer, we see that it's a boy, my age or slightly older, running incredibly fast, head bobbing about strangely. He lopes up to the gate, ignoring Conn's shouts to identify himself, then stops and looks at us dumbly. Dark hair and small eyes. He smiles widely, even though Conn is roaring at him, threatening to stick a spear through his heart if he doesn't announce his intentions. Then he sits, picks a flower and plays with it.
Conn looks angry but confused. "A simpleton," he grunts.
"It could be a trap," Tiernan mutters.
"Demons don't send humans to lay traps," Conn disagrees.
"But you saw how fast he ran," Tiernan says. "And he doesn't look tired. He's not even sweating. Maybe he's not human."
"Bec," Conn calls, "do you sense anything?"
I close my eyes and focus on the boy. Demons have a different feel to humans. They buzz with the power of their own world. There's a flicker of that about this child. I start to tell Conn but then something strange happens. I sense a change in the boy. Opening my eyes, I see that the light around him is different. It's like looking at him through a thick bank of mist. As I squint, I realise the boy is no longer there. Instead, I'm staring at my mother.
There's no mistaking her. I've seen her so many times in my perfect memories. She looks just like she did on the day she gave birth to me-the day she died. Haggard, bone-thin, dark circles under her eyes, stained with blood. But love in her eyes-love for me.
As I stare, numb with wonder-but no fear-my mother turns and points west, keeping her eyes on mine. She says something but her words don't carry. With a frown, she jabs a long finger towards the west. She starts to say something else but then the mist clears. She shimmers. I blink. And I'm suddenly looking at the boy again, playing with his flower.
"Bec," Conn is saying, shaking me lightly. "Are you all right?"
I look up, trembling, and think about telling Conn what I saw. Then I decide against it. I've never had a vision before. I need time to think about it before I discuss it with anyone. Focusing on the boy, I control my breathing and try to calm my fast heartbeat.
"I th-think he's hu-human," I stutter. "But not the same as us. There's magic in him. Maybe he's a druid's apprentice." That's a wild guess, but it's the closest I can get to explaining what's different about him.
"Does he pose a threat?" Conn asks.
A dangerous question-if I answer wrongly, I'll be held responsible. I think about playing safe and saying I don't know, but then the boy pulls a petal from the flower and slowly places it on his outstretched tongue. "No," I say confidently. "He can't harm us."
The gate is opened. Several of us spill out and surround the boy. I've been brought along in case he doesn't speak our language. A priestess is meant to have the gift of tongues. I don't actually know any other languages but I don't see the need to admit that, not unless somebody asks me directly-and so far nobody has. I keep hoping he'll change and become my mother again, but he doesn't.
The boy is thin and dirty, his hair thick and unwashed, his knee-length tunic caked with mud, no cloak or sandals. His eyes dart left and right, never lingering on any one spot for more than a second. He's carrying a long knife in a scabbard hanging from his belt but he doesn't reach for it or show-alarm as we gather round him.
"Boy!" Conn barks, nudging the boy's knee with his foot. No reaction. "Boy! Who are you? What are you doing here?"
The boy doesn't answer. Conn opens his mouth to shout again, then stops. He looks at me and nods. Licking my lips nervously, I crouch beside the strange child. I watch him play with the flower, noting the movements of his eyes and head. I no longer think he's a druid's assistant. Conn was right-he's a simpleton. But one who's been blessed in some way by the gods.
"That's a nice flower," I murmur.
The boy's gaze settles on me for an instant and he grins, then thrusts the flower at me. When I take it, he picks another and holds it above his head, squinting at it.
"Can you speak?" I ask. "Do you talk?"
No answer. I'm about to ask again, when he shouts loudly, "Flower!"
I jump at the sound of his voice. So do the men around me. Then we laugh, embarrassed. The boy looks at us, delighted. "Flower!" he shouts again. Then his smile dwindles. "Demons. Killing. Come with." He leaps to his feet. "Come with! Run fast!"
"Wait," I shush him. "It's almost night. We can't go anywhere. The demons will be on the move soon."
"Demons!" he cries. "Killing. Come with!" He grabs my hand and hauls me up.
"Wait," I tell him again, losing my patience. "What's your name? Where are you from? Why should we trust you?" The boy stares at me blankly. I take a deep breath, then ask slowly, "What's your name?" No answer. "Where are you from?" Nothing. I turn to Conn and shrug. "He's simple. He probably escaped from his village and-"
"Come with!" the boy shouts. "Run fast! Demons!"
"Bec's right," Connla snorts. "Why would anyone send a fool like this to-"
"Run fast!" the boy gasps before Connla can finish. "Run fast!" he repeats, his face lighting up. He tears away from us, breaks through the ranks of warriors as if they were reeds and races around the rath. Seconds later he's back, not panting, just smiling. "Run fast," he says firmly.
"Do you know where you're from, Run Fast?" Goll asks, giving the boy a name since he can't provide one himself. "Can you find your way back to your people?"
For a moment the boy gawps at Goll. I don't think he understands. But then he nods, looks to where the sun is setting and points west. "Pig's trotters," he says thoughtfully.
For a second I see my mother pointing that same way again, but this is just a memory, not another vision.
Goll faces Conn. "We should bring him in. It'll be dark soon. We can question him inside, though I doubt we'll get much more out of him."
Conn hesitates, judging the possible danger to his people, then clicks his fingers and leaves the boy to his men, returning to the fireside with Tiernan, to discuss this latest turn of events.
Run Fast isn't big but he has the appetite of a boar. He eats more than anyone at the feast but nobody minds. There's something cheering about the boy. He makes us all feel good, even though he can't talk properly, except to explode every so often with "Demons!" or "Come with!" or-his favourite-"Run fast!"
As Goll predicted, Run Fast isn't able to tell us any more about his clan, where he lives or how great their need is. Under normal circumstances he'd be ignored. We've enough problems to cope with. But the mood of the rath is lighter than it's been in a long while. The arrival of the MacCadan has sparked confidence. Even though the eleven are more of a burden than a blessing, they've given us hope. If survivors from other clans make their way here, perhaps we can build a great fort and a mighty army, keep the demons out forever. It's wishful, crazy thinking, but we think it anyway. Banba used to say that the desperate and damned could build a mountain of hope out of a rat's droppings.
So we grant Run Fast more thought than we would have last night. The men debate his situation, where he's from, how long it might have taken him to come here, why a fool was sent instead of another.
"His speed is the obvious reason," Goll says. "Better to send a hare with half a message than a snail with a full one."
"Or maybe the Fomorii sent him," Tiernan counters, his bony, wrinkled fingers twitching with suspicion. "They could have conquered his clan, then muddled his senses and sent him to lure others into a trap."
"You afford them too much respect," Conn says. "The Fomorii we've fought are mindless, dim-witted creatures."
"Aye," Tiernan agrees. "So were ours to begin with. But they've changed. They're getting more intelligent. We had a craftily hidden souterrain. One or two would find their way into it by accident every so often, but recently they attacked through it regularly, in time with those at the fence. They were thinking and planning clearly, more like humans in the way they battled."
Conn massages his chin thoughtfully. Our one great advantage over the demons-besides the fact they can only attack at night-is that we're smarter than them. But if there are others, brighter than those we've encountered...
"I don't think it's a trap," Fiachna says quietly. He doesn't normally say much, so everyone's surprised to hear him speak. He's been sitting next to Run Fast, examining the boy's knife. "This boy doesn't have the scent of demons on him. Am I right, Bec?"I nod immediately, delighted to be publicly noticed by Fiachna. "Not a bit of a scent," I gush, rather more breathlessly than I meant."He's telling the truth," Fiachna says. "His people need help. Run Fast was the best they could send. So they sent him, probably in blind hope.""What of it?" Connla snorts. I can tell by the way he's eyeing Run Fast that he doesn't like him. "We need help too. Our plight's as serious as theirs. What do they expect us to do-send our men to fight their battles, leaving our women and children at the mercy of the Fomorii?" He spits into the dust."He puts it harshly but there's wisdom in what my son says," Conn murmurs. "Alliances are one thing, but begging for help like slaves... asking us to go to their aid instead of coming to us...""Perhaps they can't travel," Goll says. "Many might be wounded or old.""In which case they're not worth saving," Connla laughs. Those who follow him laugh too- wolves copying the example of their pack leader."We should go," Goll growls. "Or at least send an envoy. If we ignore their pleas, perhaps ours will also be ignored when we seek assistance.""Only the weak ask for help," Connla says stiffly.Goll smiles tightly and I sense what he's going to say next-something along the lines of, "Well, it won't be long before you ask then!"Luckily Conn senses it too, and before Goll utters an insult which will demand payment in blood, the king says, "Even if we wanted to help, we don't know where they are, and I don't trust this empty-headed child to find his way back.""If the brehons were here, they could counsel us," Fiachna says."Brehons!" Connla snorts. "Weren't they the first to flee when the demons arose? Damn the brehons!"There are mutters of agreement, even from those who don't normally side with Connla. The law-making brehons deserted us when we most needed them and few are in the mood to forgive and forget.The men continue debating, the women sitting silently behind them, their children sleeping or playing games. On the rampart the lookouts keep watch for demons.Goll and Fiachna are of the opinion that we should send a small group with Run Fast to help his clan. "It's no accident that he arrived on the same day as the MacCadan," Goll argues. "Yesterday we couldn't have let anyone go. But our ranks have been bolstered. It's a sign.""Bolstered?" Connla almost shrieks, casting a scornful glance at the four men and three women of the MacCadan."Connla!" his father snaps, before the hot-headed warrior disgraces our guests. When he's sure of his son's silence, Conn leans forward, sipping coirm, thinking hard. Like any king, he dare not ignore a possible sign from the gods. But he's not sure this is a sign. And in a situation such as this, there's only one person he can turn to. "Bec?"I was expecting his query, so I'm able to keep a calm face. I've had time to consider my answer. I believe we're meant to go with Run Fast. That was what the vision meant. The spirit of my mother was telling me to follow this boy."We should help," I whisper. Connla rolls his eyes but I ignore him. "We're stronger now, thanks to the MacCadan. We can spare a few of our warriors. I believe Run Fast can find his way back to his people, and I think bad luck would befall us if we refused their plea."Conn nods slowly. "But who to send? I don't want to command anyone to leave. Are there volunteers...?""Aye," Goll says instantly. "Since I argued the case, I have to go.""I'll go too," Fiachna says quietly."You?" Conn frowns. "But you're not a warrior."Fiachna holds up Run Fast's knife. "This metal is unfamiliar to me. It's tougher than our own, yet lighter. If I knew the secret of it, I could make better weapons." He lowers the knife. "I'll stay if you order it, but I want to go.""Very well," Conn sighs. "But you'll travel with a guard." He looks around to choose a warrior to send with the smith. There are many to pick from, but he's loath to send a husband or father. So it must be one of the younger warriors. As he studies them, his expression changes and a crafty look comes into his eyes. He points to Connla. "My son will protect you."Connla gawps at his father. Others are surprised too. This quest is a perilous one. The land is full of demons. The chances of survival are slim. Yet Conn's telling his own flesh and blood to leave the safety of the rath and serve as guard to a smith. Most can't see the wisdom of it.But I can. Conn wants his son to succeed him. But Connla is largely untested in battle and not everyone respects him. If Conn died tonight, there would be several challengers to replace him and Connla might find powerful allies hard to come by. But if he completes this task and returns with a bloodied blade and tales of glory, that would change. This could be the making of him.And if the quest goes poorly and he dies? Well, that will be the decision of the gods. You can't fight your destiny.While Connla blinks stupidly at his father, the teenage twins, Ronan and Lorcan rise. "We'll go too," Ronan says, brushing blood-red hair out of his eyes."We want to kill more demons," Lorcan adds, tugging an earring, excited.Conn growls unhappily. The twins are young but they're two of our finest warriors. He doesn't want to let them go but he can't refuse without insulting them. In the end he nods reluctantly. "Any others?" he asks."Me," a woman of the MacCadan says, taking a step forward. "Orna MacCadan. I'll represent my clan, to repay you for your hospitality." Orna is the female warrior I spotted earlier.Conn smiles. "Our thanks. Now, if that's all..." He looks for any final volunteers, making it clear by the way he asks that he thinks six is more than adequate.But one last hand goes up. A tiny hand. Mine."I want to go too."Conn's astonished. Everybody is."Bec," Goll says, "this isn't suitable for a child.""I'm not a child," I retort. "I'm a priestess. Well, an apprentice priestess.""It will be dangerous," Fiachna warns me. "This is a task for warriors.""You're going," I remind him, "but you're no warrior.""I have to go in case there's a smith in this village, who can teach me to make better weapons," he says."Maybe I can learn something too," I reply, then face Conn. "I need to do this. I sense failure if I don't go. I'm not sure what good I can do-maybe none at all-but I believe I must travel with them."Conn shakes his head, troubled. "I can't allow this. With Banba gone, you're our only link to the ways of magic. We need you.""You need Fiachna too," I cry, "but you're letting him go.""Fiachna's a man," Conn says sternly. "He has the right to choose.""So do I," I growl, then raise my voice and repeat it, with conviction this time. "So do I! We of magic live by our own rules. I was Banba's charge, not yours. She lived here by choice, as do I-neither of us were of this clan. You had no power over her and you don't have any over me. Since she's dead, I'm my own guardian. I answer to a higher voice than any here and that voice tells me to go. If you hold me, it will be against my will and the will of the gods."Brave, provocative words, which Conn can't ignore. Although I'm no more a real priestess than any of the cows in the fields, I'm closer to the ways of magic than anybody else in the rath. Nobody dares cross me on this."Very well," Conn says angrily. "We've pledged an ex-king, our smith, two of our best warriors, a guest and my own son to this reckless cause-why not our young priestess too!"And so, in a bitter, resentful fashion, my fate is decided and I'm dismissed. With a mix of fear and excitement-mostly fear-I trudge back to my hut to enjoy one final night of sheltered sleep, before leaving home in the morning, to face the demons and other dangers of the world beyond.