We’d reached the edge of the woods. I slackened my pace to inspect the oak trees before us, relieved to hear the birds still singing.
Pauline stopped so fast, I bumped into her. “What’s that?” She ran to a patch of ferns growing in front of a thicket of blackthorn.
Breda and I ran after her.
“Something’s flattened the ferns here,” she said. “Like someone fell on them. And what’s this?” She reached into the blackthorn, gently tugged a ragged piece of crimson cloth from the thorns, and handed it to me.
“This is nylon.” I barely kept a tremor from my voice. “It’s from Liam’s jacket.”
Pauline stood. “Yeah. Looks like he landed here. I think you were right that he went into the woods, Tal.”
We sprinted between the trees but stopped when we reached a narrow deer path. I caught the sound of water running in a stream. Natural enough. But the birds had stopped singing. Because we’d entered the woods?
No. Angry male voices had replaced the birdsong.
I gripped the handles of my knives and stepped onto the deer path. “Let’s go.”
Pauline grabbed my arm. “Wait, oh great and mighty leader. We know you’re in charge, but I’ll go first. Breda will take up the rear this time.”
“Whatever. Let’s go!”
We dashed along to a point where the ground sloped down to a small glen surrounded by rocks. Liam was there, as were three barefoot men in colorful Celtic attire who took turns jostling him. Grabbing his crimson jacket. Shoving him from man to man as if he were a billiard ball. Shouting gibberish as they did.
I suddenly understood their garbled words.
“What manner of clothing is this?”
“Spy! Who do you work for?”
“Do you know what we do with spies?”
“How will you look without your ears, spy?”
The tallest man pulled a dagger from his belt and grabbed Liam by the hair. Creases lined the man’s face, and silver flecked his well-trimmed beard, but I recognized him. If he remembered me, we’d be all right here.
“I’m going down there,” I whispered to Pauline and Breda. “Conceal yourselves on either side of the clearing until I call you.”
I knew I didn’t have to look back to see if they’d followed my orders. Electrified by adrenaline, I stomped down the incline. The men were too intent on their sport to notice me.
I’d fix that fast. “Gayth MacDunlan! Think twice before you hurt my brother!”
Gayth MacDunlan shoved Liam away and gawked at me. Blinked. Opened and closed his mouth. Either he’d never seen a strangely dressed woman armed with deadly weapons, or he remembered me. Perhaps both.
I stood before him—not too close—and shot warning glances at each man in turn, watching for signs of attack.
Gluing his guarded, brown-eyed gaze to my face, Gayth put his dagger away. Did he know me? “What sort of man needs a woman’s protection?”
“My brother is a shanachie. A poet. He arrived here by mistake, not by design. Either way, your so-called Irish hospitality is hardly in evidence.”
The man farthest to my right scoffed. “An ill-natured woman and an alleged poet. Both spies. I’ll show you hospitality, woman!”
The cretin ran at me and reached for my throat. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I did want to hurt him, if you follow me.
Stepping sideways, I thrust out my left hand and grabbed the back of his neck, not only to keep him from backing away, but also to pull him closer to me. As I did, I thrust my right hand at his exposed jugular notch and drove my stiffened fingertips into his throat and down toward his sternum. He collapsed to the ground, gagging and gasping.
Gayth and the other man gaped at the writhing man. I backed away from him and focused on Gayth.
“You downed one man, warrior woman,” he said. “Two of us still stand, and you’re alone. We’ll take both you and your shanachie brother prisoner.”
Though his stony expression never changed, the sparkle in his brown eyes told me he was messing. I eyed him and his upright companion. “Even alone, I could easily trounce the two of you. As it happens, I’m not alone.” Staring straight at Gayth, I shouted, “Pauline!”
From the stunned looks on the men’s faces, she’d appeared from her hiding place.
I shouted again: “Breda!”
The men snapped their heads toward the other side of the clearing. My backup was in place, yet I couldn’t afford to drop my guard, nor could I let memories of Gayth and his sparkling brown eyes derail my rescue mission.