by Pat McDermott
An accidental visit to an 11th century County Clare
finds Ireland’s Princess Talty
and two of her warrior friends
on a woodland quest for medicinal flowers.
The hunt, a humdrum assignment for three highly trained Banfian warriors,
turns deadly when they and their young guide become the hunted.
Enda announced that we’d take a different route back to Kilcashel, one that went nowhere near the fairy fort. Energetic and cheerful, he 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 the trilling, tweeting birdsong that proclaimed a safe environment, yet we scoured our surroundings nonstop. As center man, so to speak, I kept watch straight ahead and cast periodic glances behind us.
Breda eyed the area to the left. “Why do they call it meadowsweet if it grows on the riverbank? Shouldn’t it grow in a meadow?”
Pauline kept an eye to the right. “It has nothing to do with meadows. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘medu-swete’, which means ‘mead sweetener.’ They once used the flowers to sweeten the mead.”
I stepped over an embedded stone and smiled. “Leesha still does.”
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 potent fragrance emanating from the cart with a musky stench I couldn’t name.
When the breeze shifted, the stench was gone.
Enda led us onto a path he said would shorten our way through the woods. When the breeze from the north blew back toward us, I detected the unknown stench again. Stronger this time. Strong and nasty.
I screamed and raised my arms to shield my face.
The birdsong stopped. So did Enda. “Perhaps our presence has frightened the birds.” He kept his voice low.
I kept mine low too. “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 my use of “yeah” seemed to confuse him, 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. It darted in front of him, missing him by a hair. His strangled yelp resounded through the trees.
Breda and Pauline slid their bows from their shoulders.
From my post at the rear of the cart, I scanned the area quadrant by quadrant, undoing my vest as I did so I could access my knives in an instant. “We didn’t frighten those animals. They came running from the opposite direction. We might have been invisible to them. Enda, are you sure no one would dare to attack Kilcashel?”
Before he could respond, violent thrashing surrounded us. Enda seemed to turn to stone. 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.
I nocked an arrow to my bow and settled into my detached fighting mode. “Enda, grab your spear.”
He nodded 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 thrashed 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 her foot at the wolf she’d shot. “Dead. Sorry, fella.”
As 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 smell of wolves on the prowl.
The second wolf, a surprisingly young male, was also lifeless. The sight of him resurrected horrific memories of vicious wild boars defending their offspring. I shivered and hoped this young wolf’s mother wasn’t nearby, though that seemed unlikely.
“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 wiped the blades on the long dark fur and stood. “I doubt anyone’s spear could have hit any wolf running that fast. You made him change course, anyway.” Then I smiled. “Apparently no one told the wolves about the fairy fort, yeah? Listen up, lads. It’s time to move on. I’m thinking more wolves might be lurking about.”
There were. At least one, from the growling we heard nearby in the woods. The young wolf’s mother? We had to get out of this area fast.
Breda retrieved the undamaged arrows. She kept one ready and put the others away. “Enda, where’s the nearest cave?”
“Too far.” He grabbed 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 held our bows raised and ready. Another 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 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 was chasing it charged at me instead. I couldn’t escape the monstrous thing.