Nobody emerges from the huts as we dock. When we're on dry land, we stare at the huts suspiciously. You're not supposed to enter a tuath without announcing yourself and being guided by one of your own rank. But times have changed. Many of the old laws no longer apply.
"You in the huts!" Goll bellows, in case anyone's alive inside.
"Should we go see if anybody's there?" Fiachna asks.
"They'd have answered if there was," Connla says.
"Unless they're scared or sheltering underground," Orna notes.
Ronan points silently at a spot to the left of the huts. My eyes aren't as sharp as his, so it takes me a few seconds to focus. Then I see it-a small arm, probably a child's, lying in the dirt.
Goll sighs, draws his sword and moves to the front of the group. "Let's go," he says gruffly, and we proceed at a forced, nervous jog.
There's nowhere to shelter, so we don't stop when the sun sets, but keep going, hoping to outpace any demons which catch our scent. I try to persuade myself that we won't be noticed. Only a fool travels at night in these troubled times. The Fomorii won't expect to find anyone out in the open. Maybe they don't even look any more.
A silly, childish notion. But for an hour it seems as though it might hold true. We don't sight any demons and hope begins to grow.
But then we hear a howl of inhuman vibrancy far behind us, but not far enough for comfort. We pause and listen as the howl is answered by others. In my mind's eye I see a group forming, demons and the living dead. They gather around the one who found our trail, sniff the air, lick the earth, quiver with excitement-then lurch forward, to run us down.
"They might be after someone else," Connla says but his words are hollow. We've been discovered.
"Let's pick up the pace," Goll says, expression stern.
Run Fast's head shoots up. "Run fast?" he asks eagerly.
"Aye," Goll says, then grabs the boy as he starts to shoot off. "Not that fast!"
We can hear them, a pack of demons crashing through the woods, snapping off branches, knocking over smaller trees. I've never known demons so excited. I guess, when they attack a fort, it's hard work. It must be frustrating, the scent of prey thick in their nostrils, having to fight their way through, often failing. But out here, in the open, they have only to hunt us down and we're theirs for the taking. They're like dogs after a fox.
We're looking for a place to make a stand, somewhere we can defend. A cave would be perfect. We could squeeze in and fend them off, maybe keep them at bay for the rest of the night, then escape in the morning. But there are no caves, or at least none that we can find.
Goll comes to a halt in a small clearing. Trees have been felled here some time in the last few years. Somebody probably planned to graze animals or build a hut, in the days before the demons came. Goll looks around, assessing.
"Not here," Connla wheezes, face dark from the strain. "Too exposed."
"There's nowhere better," Goll gasps. He points to a mound of logs covered in moss. "We can start a fire. Fell more trees, stake them in the ground and sharpen the tops. Make it hard for the demons to strike all at once."
"But..." Connla looks to the others for support, but Ronan, Lorcan and Orna are already drawing their weapons, preparing for battle. Fiachna has his axe out and is studying the trees. They know it's hopeless, that we're going to die. But what choice do we have? There's nothing to do but draw our lines, wait and face those who will most certainly destroy us. Die as warriors, with pride.
I'm thinking about what spells I can use when a small hand slips into mine. I look round. Run Fast is smiling at me. "Run fast?" he whispers.
"Not now," I sigh.
The boy frowns. "Run fast," he says more firmly.
I shake my head. "We have to stay and fight. Can you fight? Do you know how to-"
The strange boy's fingers grab mine tightly and his face hardens. "Run fast!" he hisses, then points with his free hand. "Worm pups!"
I start to snap at him to be quiet. Then pause. There's a tingling sensation in Run Fast's fingers. Some sort of magic. I look down. His hand is glowing slightly. The boy looks at it too, then up at me. "Worm pups," he repeats, softly this time.
"Goll!" I shout. The old warrior glances at me. "We're leaving."
"Don't argue!" I move ahead with Run Fast. "We'll die here. But I think, if we carry on, there's..." I stop, not sure what might lie beyond, but sensing in my heart that it's better than this.
Everybody's looking at me now, torn between hope and suspicion.
"This place isn't much," Fiachna says, "but it's defendable. If we're caught on the run, we're finished for sure. Are you certain...?"
"Yes," I growl. "We have to go. Now. We're dead if we don't."
"But we'll live if we do?" Connla asks dubiously.
It's not enough. They don't trust my instincts. They're going to stay. I open my mouth to argue afresh, but then Orna lowers her knives and comes to my side. "I'm with the girl."
"Why?" Goll asks-not a challenge, just curious.
Orna shrugs. "A feeling."
Lorcan taps a few of his earrings with a knife tip. "I don't feel like we'll live if we go, but I'm sure we'll die if we stay."
Goll looks around at the others and asks the question with his eyes. They answer with weary glances and resigned shrugs. "So be it," he says, sheathing his sword. "Bec-lead us."
Sweat. Terror. The sounds of chasing demons. Almost upon us. A minute, maybe two, and we'll be forced to stop and fight-stop and die.
The trees are thick around us. Impossible to see far. It's dark. Too dark. I look up and notice extra branches, scraps of cloth, thatch torn from roofs, all sorts of bits and pieces scattered among the tree tops, linking the upper branches, keeping out the light of the moon and stars.
My stomach sinks. This is a trap! I was wrong. Run Fast was sent to lead us to our doom. And we fell for it. I start to shout a warning, even though it's far too late. Then...
We burst into the open and come to a surprised halt. There's a clear circle around us and at the centre-a ring of giant stones. Most are taller than me. Some even tower above the lanky Ronan and Connla. Set in the ground at regular intervals. Ancient, covered in moss and creepers. A place of magic, but magic from a time before ours, the time of the Old Creatures, when this country was the playground of the gods.
The demons are hot on our heels, surging up behind us, their stench foul in the air. "Come on!" Fiachna screams. We fly forward at his call, rushing to the stones, readying ourselves for battle.
We spill past the stones, into the middle of the ring. The stones won't provide much cover but they'll make it slightly harder for the demons to get at us and buy us a few seconds. They won't make a real difference, but you've always got to live in hope. Before you die at the hands of a Fomorii.Lorcan jumps on to a stone which fell on its side many years ago. He waves his sword over his head, screaming a challenge at the demons which are emerging from the cover of the trees. Dozens of twisted, hideous monsters. One has the body of a bear but the head of a hawk. Another looks like a wolf but its inner organs hang from its limbs. Claws, fangs, blood-red eyes. Nightmares everywhere I look.The demons advance slowly. I assume they're relishing the moment, prolonging it, toying with us. But then they stop and howl with anger.As we stare at the demons beating the ground with their fists, or tearing it with their claws, cursing us in their own garbled language, Run Fast steps up behind me, lays a hand on my shoulder and says with a confident little smile, "Worm pups."The Old magic is too strong for the demons. They can't come within striking distance of the stones. A few try, over the course of the night, making darting runs, heads low, howling their defiance. Each comes crashing to a halt or is thrown back as if they'd run into a wall.I wish we knew the magic of the Old Creatures. We could build stone rings like this around every fort. Make the land safe again. But those secrets are long lost. Banba often spoke of the ancient magicians but she knew little about them, except for the tales and legends which she herself was taught as a child.When we've finished laughing and cheering, we examine the stone circle in greater detail and what we find dampens our newly elated spirits. Bones. Some are from animals but most are human, stacked carefully in the centre, arranged so that the heads point west, in the direction of the setting sun. The sun guides the dead to the Otherworld and if bodies aren't cremated, they're usually laid out facing the path of the ever-moving orb.The bones are more recent than the stones. Many are still dotted with scraps of flesh and hair."They must have been brought here after death," Orna says. "To keep the Fomorii from bringing them back to life.""Perhaps," Fiachna says. "But why not just burn them?""Maybe the bodies are part of the magic," Ronan suggests. "The stones might need the power of the newly dead.""Even if they did," Goll says, "what purpose would it serve? Why drag bodies here just to keep demons from overrunning a ring of stones?"The mystery puzzles us through the night-nobody can sleep with all the screams of the demons-but it's solved early in the morning. As the sun rises the demons retreat. But they only withdraw as far as the trees which encircle the ring. There, under the shade of the rough shelter, they stop and leer viciously at us, pounding the earth with a terrible, steady, threatening rhythm."They worked on the trees," I say, a sick feeling in my stomach. "The people in this area must have sought the protection of the stones every night. It made the demons mad. Then they had an idea. They built a shelter in the trees around the circle. When it was finished, they let the people in one night, then stood guard the next day, trapping them. There was no way out. They died here, slowly, of starvation and thirst.""Most of the bodies don't have weapons," Goll sighs. "They probably got so used to coming here, they grew lazy. Didn't bother with weapons, since they were safe within the ring. They couldn't even try to fight their way to freedom.""And now we're trapped too," Connla says bitterly, shooting me a dirty look."It's not Bec's fault," Fiachna snaps. "We'd be dead already if not for her.""Aye," Connla admits grudgingly. "But I'd have rather died fighting in the open than of hunger and thirst, trapped like a fox in its den.""You can die any time you like," Goll says. "The demons are waiting. Go pick a fight with them if you want to die quickly.""Maybe I'll pick a fight with you instead," Connla snarls."Men are so childish," Orna snaps before the insults escalate. "Instead of being grateful for this extra day, you're bitter and scrap with each other like dogs.""What do we have to be grateful for?" Connla shouts. "We're surrounded! We'll die like the others who lie here and our bones will rot slowly, unburied, ignored by the gods.""Not necessarily," Orna disagrees. "The demons haven't built a wide shelter. And we're not weaponless. If we break through their ranks, they won't be able to chase after us.""That won't be easy," Ronan says, studying the lie of the land. "There's a lot of space between this ring and the trees. We can't surprise them. They'll see us coming and converge at that point.""So we separate," Orna shrugs. "We pair off and dart at them from a few directions at once. I doubt if everyone will make it through but some of us should.""The strongest," Fiachna notes softly, looking at Run Fast and me. "What about the smaller ones?""We'll take our chances," I say stiffly, not happy with Fiachna for slighting me. I'm no warrior but I know how to fight and I'm not afraid to die. I want to be treated equally, not as a helpless child."If we're going to try that, we need to do it soon," Goll says. "If we can put a full day's march between us and these monsters, they'll never catch up. But if we leave it until later, they'll just wait until dark and give chase again.""I don't see that we've any choice," Lorcan says. "Hit hard, run fast and-""Run fast!" Run Fast shouts. We smile at him but he doesn't see the humour in it. "Run fast!" he yells again. "Run fast!""Easy," Goll says, reaching out a hand to soothe the agitated boy.Run Fast ducks away from Goll. "Run fast!" he insists. Then, before we can stop him, he darts past the safety of the stones and races towards the trees-and the demons."Run Fast!" I scream. "Come back!"He ignores my cry but draws to a halt short of the trees. The demons in that area have bunched together, snarling and drooling, reaching out towards Run Fast, each wanting to be the first to snag him and feast on his flesh.Run Fast dodges the hands, paws and claws of the demons, then starts to... to... No! I can't believe it. But yes-he starts to dance!It's crazy. Incredible. Ridiculous. But he dances anyway. It's not a graceful dance, or a dance of magic or power. He just hops from foot to foot, clapping his hands, waving them around, grunting a series of off-key tunes.The demons go wild, infuriated by the display. Run Fast is taunting them, dancing around within their reach, mocking them. They fall over one another in their fury, clutching, grasping, desperate to drag him down and put an end to his insolence. Some even step out of the shade of the trees and lunge at him, risking the burning rays of the sun.Run Fast dodges them all, leaps here, darts there, dancing all the time. He sets off on a circuit, the demons following him. He comes within range of those who've been standing their ground, keeping an eye or three on the rest of us. As he passes, they lose interest in everything but the dancing boy and join with the rest of their inhuman clan, giving chase, lashing out, spitting poison.Within minutes every demon is focused on Run Fast, stumbling after him, clashing with each other, fighting among themselves. Demons are never the most logical of creatures. Now they've lost their senses entirely and only care about destroying this dancing thorn in their side. They've forgotten the rest of us."I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it," Goll says, stunned, watching the show with a wide, incredulous eye."Look at how he dances away from them," Fiachna murmurs. "He slides through their fingers like smoke.""There's more to the fool than we thought," Connla says, a hint of disapproval in his expression. He doesn't like surprises, even when they work to his advantage."Come on," Orna says. "He's created a gap for us to slip through. Let's not waste it by giving the demons time to regain their senses.""What about Run Fast?" I ask."He'll be fine," Goll laughs. "He'll catch us up later. I think it would take more than all the demons of the land to snare that boy!"I don't like the thought of leaving Run Fast behind. I study him as he continues to dance around the rim of the circle, teasing and tormenting the demons. As I'm watching, I notice that one of the demons isn't chasing Run Fast. It's standing by itself, ignoring the commotion, gaze fixed on the ring of stones... on us. I can't see very well, but it looks to be a pale red colour and curiously lumpy, as though made of wet clay. And it's not standing on the ground-it's floating.There's something especially disturbing about this Fomorii. It's not like any other demon I've seen. But before I can move forward for a closer look, Goll slaps my back and points me in the opposite direction, where the trees stand unguarded. "Run like the wind, Little One," he says. "And for Neit's sake, don't stop or look back!"Then, before I can draw his attention to the floating demon, he barks an order and we're breaking for freedom, heads down, feet kicking up clouds of dust. In the heat of the moment all thoughts, except those of escape, slip from my head and blow away on the cool morning breeze.