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Túath Lann was silent as a mountain lion. The small pillar of smoke that rose behind the forest was clearly visible in the light of stars and moon and had led them straight to their quarry. There was no more need to follow the beast’s tracks. Túath Lann stopped for a moment to glance back over his shoulder: Ysbrande’s swarthy face, auburn hair, and leather armor stood out against the white snow that covered the hills and forests of the south.

‘Ready, Grandda?’ Túath Lann asked softly.

Ysbrande scowled. Túath Lann knew he had never taken kindly to the nickname, but to Túath Lann the Alp looked just like an old grandfather: a bent little man with wrinkles, enormous ears, and a large, hooked nose.

‘Worry about yourself, Stinker,’ Ysbrande said. ‘We’re upwind of the beast, I’m sure it can smell the onions on your breath by now, let alone the rot on your gums.’

Túath Lann smiled. ‘Alright, Grandda.’

They crept on under the cover of night and drew closer and closer to the rising column of smoke. When the wind changed direction, they smelled the fire and the roast meat, scents that would normally make Túath Lann’s mouth water.

‘Blast his black spirit,’ Túath Lann whispered. ‘The beast’s started its roast already.’

Ysbrande snorted in the darkness behind him. ‘At least it will be distracted,’ he said softly. ‘And the coin for its head is still good enough for me, with or without the villagers’ ransom.’

When they saw the glare of the fire through the trees, Ysbrande unpacked his bow without a single word. Túath Lann loosened the peacekeepers on his dagger’s scabbard, and steadied his grip on the hunting spear with the ochre shaft.

They had done it a hundred times before: no further words were needed. Ysbrande silently crept forward into the darkness: he would look for a good tree from where he could get a clear shot on the beast, yet stay out of reach of its deadly claws. Túath Lann went to the right: he would go around the clearing to take the beast from the other side with his large hunting spear.

As Túath Lann stalked through the forest, he could hear the fire roar. From time to time, there was the sound of a snort or a grunt, or a bone snapping. He kept his eyes on the ground, but chanced a glance to his left every now and then to see a lumbering shape next to the fire, a dark but muscular mass of filthy, matted, black fur.

When he had found a suitable position, behind a young tree that had let its roots reach over and around a sizeable bolder, Túath Lann sank to one knee and held his spear flat against the wet, moss-covered soil.

The fur-covered monster sat on its haunches and stared at the campfire it had made. The bloodied remains of the villagers it had taken from the fishermen’s village of Bradánbaile were strewn about it. It had snapped the bones to suck out the marrow and now slobbered over the meat and innards that roasted on its fire.

It was a strong beast, a female, judging by the length of the bent tusks and the deep slope of the forehead. Túath Lann guessed she was about eight feet tall: an above-average height for a Buggane. He frowned when he saw that its nipples protruded from the coarse, black fur: she had a suckling.

A moment later he heard mewling, and the Buggane picked up its suckling from between its legs--a hairy, tuskless creature that was no larger than a calf--and held it close to its breast.


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