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HAUNTED ROSES
by Pat McDermott
(A Work in Progress)

An accidental visit to a medieval County Clare finds Ireland’s Princess Talty
and two of her best military friends on a woodland quest for medicinal flowers.
A humdrum assignment for three highly trained Banfian warriors,
the hunt turns deadly when they and their young guide become the hunted.

*******

We finished our meadowsweet picking, and after we took a break for a snack, Enda accepted my offer to give him an archery lesson.

“Thank you, lady. I’ve had little practice with bows and arrows. We mostly train with swords and spears.”

“The bow can be just as deadly.” I retrieved my bow and quiver, chose a tree, and stood the proper distance before it. As I always did at the start of an archery session, I plucked the bowstring to gauge its tension. I also plucked it to hear the twang that struck fear into the hearts of evil spirits, according to the ancient Japanese art of Kyudo. Though I showed Enda how to test the tension, I thought it best to keep the notion of evil spirits to myself.

His shooting needed work. An attentive student, he heeded not only my teaching, but also the tips Pauline and Breda offered from their grassy resting spot. He studied my stance, gawked at my surefire shots, and landed three arrows in the tree before we ended the lesson.

The feat left him grinning. “I’ve never hit anything with arrows before!”

I was grinning too. “You did well, Enda. With practice, you’ll do even better. If you like, we’ll find you a bow that fits your hands well. The more you practice with it, the more it will adapt to your own way of shooting.”

“Thank you, lady. I’d like that.”

We gathered our things and prepared to head home. Revitalized and cheerful, Enda lugged the flower-laden handcart from the river to the woods.

I walked behind the cart between Breda and Pauline. We enjoyed a concert of trilling, tweeting birdsong that proclaimed a fairly safe environment, yet the three of us scanned our surroundings nonstop. Breda studied the area to the left. Pauline kept an eye on the right. As center man, so to speak, I kept watch straight ahead and cast periodic glances behind us.

From the eastern bend of the trees and the western dip of the afternoon sun, we were heading southeast. A breeze from the north tainted the sweet, potent fragrance emanating from the cart with a musky stench I couldn’t name.

Then the breeze shifted. The stench disappeared.

Enda turned onto a narrow path he said would take us straight through this part of the woodlands. The breeze from the north returned. Again, I detected that unknown stench. Stronger this time. Nasty.

Without warning, the birdsong stopped. So did Enda. “Perhaps our presence has frightened the birds.” He kept his voice low.

So did I. “Or perhaps the smell of the meadowsweet confused them. It doesn’t belong in the woods, after all. We’ll do our best to be quiet, yeah?”

Though he frowned at my use of “yeah,” his curt nod signaled he’d gotten the sense of it. He resumed pulling the cart and hadn’t gone far when a deer broke from the bushes and darted in front of him. His strangled yelp resounded through the trees.

The animal galloped on, kicking up leaves until the underbrush swallowed it up. On its heels, a brown hare tore past us, zigzagging after the deer.

I yanked off my skirt and nodded to Breda and Pauline. As I'd expected, they’d already removed their skirts. Sliding their bows from their shoulders, they moved out on either side of the cart to form the best protective perimeter we could manage under the circumstances.

From my post at the rear of the cart, I scanned the area quadrant by quadrant and loosened the vest that covered my knives so I could grip them instantly. “We didn’t frighten those animals. They came running from the opposite direction. They barely noticed us. Enda, are you sure no one would dare to attack Kilcashel?”

Before he could respond, violent thrashing surrounded us. Enda froze. I saw then what he had no doubt seen: dark shapes in the undergrowth, sprinting from tree to tree like trained commandos preparing an ambush.

Nocking an arrow to my bow, I settled into the icy fighting mode I knew so well. “Enda, grab your spear.”

He licked his lips and obeyed. Seconds later, a snarling demon of a wolf lunged at Breda. Her arrow pierced its throat. At the same instant, my arrow hit its chest. The wolf jerked in midair and fell twitching to the ground.

A second wolf charged at Enda. He threw his spear. It missed by inches. Pauline’s arrow hit the creature’s furry flank.

The growling wolf kept coming.

I dropped my bow and flung my knives. One penetrated the wolf’s exposed throat; the other thunked into its chest. The animal stood as if spellbound before keeling over.

We held our breath and listened. No more thrashing.

Breda nudged a foot at the wolf she’d shot. “Dead. Sorry, fella.”

When I approached the other wolf to recover my knives, I caught the stench I’d noted earlier. Next time—should there be a next time—I’d recognize the scent of wolves on the prowl.

The second wolf, a surprisingly young male, was also lifeless. The sight of him resurrected horrific memories of a fierce boar defending her offspring.

“You saved my life, lady. All of you did. Thank you. My spear did nothing to help.”

Glancing at Enda, I wrenched my knives from the corpse of the wolf. “We’re a team, Enda. We all helped. I doubt anyone’s spear could have hit any wolf running that fast. You made him change course, anyway.” I wiped the blades on the long dark fur and stood. “Listen up, lads. We need to get out of here fast. I’m thinking more wolves might be lurking about.”

There were. At least one, from the growling we heard in the woods nearby. The young wolf’s mother? I hoped not.

Breda snatched up the rest of the arrows. She kept one ready and put the others away. “Enda, where’s the nearest cave?”

“Too far.” He picked up his spear. “But wolves can’t climb trees. If we can reach that tall oak”—he pointed his spear at the tree—“and climb it, we can shoot down at them.”

The tree would work.“Good plan. Pauline and Enda, get to that tree. Breda and I will cover you. Shout when you have your backs to it. Then you can cover Breda and me and we’ll join you. Ready?”

“Go, Enda!” Pauline let him run off first and followed right behind.

Breda and I had our bows raised and ready. Another brown hare raced between us.

The growling grew louder.

Pauline shouted from the tree. “We’re here, lads! Come on!”

“Go, Brede. I’m right behind you.”

Breda turned and ran. I counted to five and ran after her.

A fox exploded from the underbrush. Unable to stop, I fell over it. It yipped and ran off.

The snarling, stinking wolf that chased it charged at me instead. I couldn’t escape the monstrous thing.

I screamed and rolled away, raising my arms to shield my face.

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