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‘Kelpie?’ Sulian’s mouth made a straight line of disapproval.

‘I’m afraid so. We’re lumbered with her, but I think she could be useful.’ A slightly wicked thought came into my head as I watched the horses go below, and I grinned at the Shipmaster.

‘Is there anything to eat?’ Lugh grumbled.

‘Go find Fearghal. I’m sure he’ll have something.’ I found the map, and spread it out on the deck. ‘Sulian – there’s something nasty lurking in the woodland along this river.’ I explained about the roots.

‘So we’ll need to get well clear before it gets dark.’ He scratched his chin. ‘Did you see any decent timber?’

‘There was some mature forest here,’ I pointed to a spot about four miles upriver. ‘Runs right down to the shore. You might be able to float the timber back down here, but you need to get it out of the wood. Now, we could use the horses, but I don’t think we can get them there and back. However…’ I glanced sideways at Daere, ‘if our kelpie friend here were to give us a hand…?’

‘What do you want me to do?’ she didn’t sound too enthusiastic.

‘Play horse. Haul the timber out of the wood. You can go up with the crew in the boat – or as yourself – and come back with the logs.’

‘You want me to be a beast of burden?’ there was outrage in her voice.

‘I’d like you to help out.’ I said calmly. ‘You want to stick with us, you might like to join in. Convince us we want you around. Think of the alternative...want to go home and explain why you gave up?’

She went slightly pale.

Sulian studied the map for a while.

‘We’d need to go up and pick the trees first, cut them down. And if what you say about these …roots… is right, that may not be straightforward. At the least, we’ll need to get out and be back on the water before nightfall. We maybe wouldn’t be able to haul them out until the second day.’

‘Canoes would be easier to get up the river.’

‘But not so good for bringing the timber back. Still, one might be useful.’

‘And what will you be doing while I’m working my backside off hauling logs around?’ the kelpie’s voice was acid.

‘I need to find a crossing point in the ley lines – like the stones on the moor. I want to know what’s happening back home.’

‘Malin, that means midnight,’ Hal, who had been leaning on the ship’s rail, knelt down beside me, warm hand in the middle of my back, ‘..and that’s not a safe prospect.’

‘Depends where I need to go. I’ll be beside a leyline or two, and I think Cloud’s faster than the roots on one of those.’

He looked doubtful. Thom went off to find a suitable map from his collection, spread it out beside the modern one on the deck timbers and began to pick out the relevant places.

‘There are some probable points… standing stone here, old tomb here, burial ground here…they’re very spread out… perhaps one here… Join them up and where do they intersect?’

We stared at it for a moment, making the mental connections.

I laughed. ‘I should have guessed.’

Portmeirion.

At least it wasn’t far. And apart from the woodland around the village and on the headland, it was a pretty clear run. Well, mostly.

 

 

***

 

 

We spent the rest of the day sorting out our sodden gear, stowing the Spear safely, and doing the laundry. Bent over the wooden tub, I thought longingly of the washing machine. At least Hal and Lugh were good at wringing stuff out, and a jaunty, if mismatched, line of clothes soon fluttered in the breeze over the deck.

I ran a water-wrinkled hand through greasy hair, and shuddered. ‘Me next, I think. If that’s okay?’

Sulian grinned. ‘Better than stinking the place up!’ I flicked soap suds at him and headed for the washroom.

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Towelled-off and wearing clean clothes, I sat on the bunk, tugged a comb through my still-damp hair and looked at the map. I’d need to check Thom’s rough plotting to see where the ley lines crossed. In a place like Portmeirion it would be easy to get turned about and confused, and I wanted a specific destination.

Hal shut the door and sat down beside me, and I could tell from his face that he was unhappy about something and determined to discuss it. Probably something I’d done, or was planning to do, I thought with a pang.

‘Do you really think it’s wise to rely on the kelpie to help with the logging?’

‘Do you have a better suggestion? It’d be much more complicated to take one of the Fae horses. And horse-power is the best way to get a couple of trees out of the wood.’

‘Agreed. But I don’t trust her.’

‘Then what do you suggest? Send Lugh with them to keep her in order?’

He put his arm around my shoulders, kissed my forehead. That didn’t bode well.

‘Actually, it would make more practical sense if I went.’

‘What? You actually think that’s a good idea?’

He grinned. ‘Jealous, sweetheart?’

‘No, of course not!’ I spoke too fast.

‘Hmm. Well, listen and then see if I’m not right.’

I folded my arms. ‘Go on.’

‘Well… firstly, I’m the only one that can keep up with her when she takes to the water.’

‘True.’

‘Second, I don’t take up space in the boat, unlike Lugh, so that means all of those that go are available to do the logging. If Lugh went, he’d have to help with that, which means she’d be unsupervised.’

‘Okay…’

‘Third thing – coming back – with two of us swimming, we stand a good chance of helping steer the timber in the water.’

‘Useful, I suppose…if she doesn’t pull a fast one…’

‘And finally, it doesn’t hurt that she fancies me – no, wait! Let me finish. Not that I’d do anything - and you know that so don’t argue - but she’s more likely to think she has an opportunity, when you’re not there. So she might - try it on, rather than try to avoid working.’

‘And I should be happy about that?’ I could see the logic, but that didn’t mean I had to be in favour.

‘I didn’t say that. But done this way, we may only take one day. The sooner we get back with the timber, the sooner we can get on our way. And I should be back in time to come to the ley thingie with you.’

‘And if you’re not?’ I didn’t actually want him to come with me, figuring I’d be quicker and safer on my own.

‘Lugh goes with you instead. He can ride Winterthorn.’

I took a deep breath.

‘So you’ve got this all neatly planned out between you, then?’

I think he sensed the edge in my voice; I felt his arm tighten around my shoulders.

‘Malin, love…please, for once, will you do it my way? You saw the roots, and I think there’s something else out there, the something that I felt up by the mine. I know you’re tough, and can look after yourself, but this time…please, take it from me, you’d be better with someone to watch your back.’

I had the feeling I had been thoroughly stitched up, and wasn’t going to win this one. But, I amended to myself, there was one way round the escort part - go tonight.

‘And don’t think about sneaking off on your own.’

Gods, was the man a mind-reader?

‘Sulian tells me they moor off the quayside overnight to avoid any uninvited guests. And you’d have a problem getting a horse out of the hold on your own without someone noticing.’

I bit the inside of my lip, narked.

‘So how will we get back aboard tomorrow night?’

‘Don’t sound so innocent. They’ll wait, of course.’ The amusement in his voice irked me even more. Then his voice grew both softer and rougher at once, sending shivers down my spine.

‘Besides which, my love, my wife, cruit mo chruidh, if you think I am sacrificing the first night of our marriage where we actually have a bed, you don’t know me very well.’

Then he kissed me thoroughly, which rather punctured my bubble of annoyance.

 

I do have the grace to know when I’m out-manoeuvred.

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After supper, Thom and I plotted out the probable leylines on the OS map. They intersected just east of the main part of the village, almost on the coast.

‘Must be something there. Mind you, the whole place has been created more recently than that would indicate – maybe they built over an old feature.’

‘Or the power of the lines just made them build something.’ Thom peered into his mug to see if there was any beer left.

‘I’m going to need a map of the village. So that’s my task for tomorrow daytime, find the tourist information place in Porthmadog. And pick up anything useful while I’m at it.’

If the place really was deserted, I stood a better chance of finding things that were in short supply back home, like matches, lighter fuel, gas mantles and similar stuff. And it would keep Lugh out of Thom’s way if I took him along.

‘I need to get all that we’ve done recorded, and my maps updated. The Lady will want to know all about our trip to Annwn, at the least…’ he pushed his hair back out of his eyes, sending the shaggy greying strands every which way. ‘And I need a damn haircut!’

 

I left them wrangling over who was to try and get some more beer out of Fearghal, and went to check on the horses.

They seemed content, well-fed and dozing. Cloud twitched a dark-tipped ear as I leaned on the partition of her stall, and nudged my hand, looking for treats.

I dug in my pocket. ‘Last one, horse, but I’ll see if I can find some more tomorrow.’

The back of my neck prickled, and I turned slowly.

She was lurking in the shadows crowding the hold, only the pallor of her face and arms giving her away.

‘You don’t need to hide down here, you know.’

‘You don’t want me up there.’

I sat down on a bale of straw. ‘I guess this isn’t great for either of us. You don’t really want to be here, but you haven’t any choice. True, I’d rather you weren’t here, either, for a number of reasons, but given your lack of choice, there’s not a lot I can do about it. Unless I kill you, of course.’

‘Why didn’t you? When you had the chance?’

‘Because…how do I put this…I don’t like people being left with no choices. Having the power to choose their own path taken from them, just because someone else wants to play games.’

I could almost see the cogs whirring behind the dark eyes.

‘What did he say to you, before you left Annwn?’

‘I can’t tell – can’t, not won’t – I’m sure you understand how that works.’ A nod of the dark head. ‘But he’s trying to make me do something I do not want to do. And I don’t take well to threats.’

‘Neither do I.’

‘Which is why I’m asking you to help us, while you’re with us. You don’t have to, but you could make things easier for everyone.’

‘And I don’t have to like you?’

‘No!’ I laughed out loud, ‘Good grief, no! That’s not something anyone can order! You can hate me if you like. All I’d ask is you don’t cause us harm.’

She nodded again, thinking it over.

‘If you want, come up and join us. By the noise, I think Lugh may have persuaded Fearghal to open another cask.’ I stood up, and dusted the straw off my trousers.

Turning my back on her was not the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done, but I felt the space between my shoulderblades twitching as I went back up to the mess-deck.

Hal raised an eloquent eyebrow as I sat down again, and slid me a mug of beer.

‘Horses are fine.’

‘And...water-horses?’

Damn it, he was becoming a mind-reader!

‘We shall see.’

 

About half an hour later, as Lugh and Sulian were arguing over a complicated board game that I found impenetrable, Daere wandered in and sat down at the long table. I felt Hal’s shoulder, resting against mine, tense.

I reached across the table for another mug, raised it as I caught her eye.

‘Beer?’

‘Please.’

I slid it over to her, and there was an awkward silence for a moment, before she gave us a reluctant half-smile.

Lugh must have seen it out of the corner of his eye. ‘Daere!’

She flinched slightly, but he continued, seemingly oblivious.

‘You must have played this!’ A small nod. ‘Then will you come and explain the rules to this thick-headed Dalriadan? He seems to think you can double up if you’ve only two pieces on the blue!’

I saw her eyes widen.

‘No, never! You need to have at least three, or two on the green and four in red…’

As she got embroiled in the conversation, Hal and I slid quietly of the bench and made our way up to the main deck, and our cabin.

Before other things claimed my whole attention, I made a mental note to look for peppermints as well as stock cubes.

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Darkness before dawn. Warmth. Crumpled sheets, the roughness of blankets. Smooth slide of skin on skin. Salt-sweet taste of sweat, softness of lips, prickle of stubble. An ancient rhythm, rocking to the increasing beat of my heart, a growing heat. A breathless rush, surrender to sensation, one sudden brilliant point of stasis, then liquid freefall.

 

Langourous and slightly groggy, I stretched, pressing as much of myself against Hal as I could, wrapped my arms around his neck.

‘Sure you have enough energy to go with the logging crew?’ I nibbled his ear gently, heard him make a low hum of pleasure deep in his throat.

‘Mmm. I will have, once I hit the water,’ he eased himself up onto his elbows, ‘and I can hear them getting ready. Best show my face. No, don’t you get up – no need to get cold.’

He rolled out of bed, tucking the covers back round me, and lit the lamp. As he kilted the sealskin around his waist, he looked at me, then leaned over and planted a kiss between my eyebrows.

‘There’s that wee fret line again. Don’t worry. I should be back around nightfall – but if I’m not, remember – Lugh will go with you...’

‘I know, I know – don’t go on my own.’

‘Malin, I’m serious.’

‘I know, love. You stay safe – and keep an eye on Daere. I don’t think she’ll give you any trouble on the work front, but…’

He grinned, white and wicked, slid a hand under the covers and up between my thighs.

‘Not a chance. Keep this warm for me!’

Then he went, leaving me to curl up in the space he left in the bed.

 

Breakfast was a subdued affair. Thom had a hangover, and picked moodily at his scrambled eggs, before shoving them aside and burying his nose in a mug of black coffee. Lugh scraped the eggs onto his plate and wolfed them down, seemingly untouched by their carousing. But then, he could sober himself up.

Sulian was on deck, supervising the ramps as they were lowered onto the dock. He smiled cheerily through the drizzle as I appeared.

‘They got away on time, though the weather’s not the best, as you can tell. At least it’s not blowing a gale.’

I looked out across the estuary, trying to penetrate the drifts of misty rain, but even the headland of Portmeirion was hard to make out.

‘Is it likely to stay like this all day?’

‘Scryer reckons so.’

‘Means darkness falling sooner.’

‘Aye. They’ll be all right, lass.’ He turned to call to one of the men on the quayside, then back to me. ‘You going to exercise those horses today? We’re short-handed with the logging team gone, though I daresay Muireach will be keen enough.’

I took the hint.

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There was a broad area of open rough grazing behind the village, which was ideal to let the horses let off steam, and run the kinks out of their legs. Lugh put Aonbharr though his paces, the spectacular kicks and leaps of a warhorse, and I felt Cloud responding to his manoeuvres.

‘I would say she’s been trained,’ Lugh pulled up alongside me, his long hair tied back with a leather thong and the rain streaming down his face.

I’d ridden for years, but never a trained warhorse – at least not knowingly.

‘If you’re going to start that, I’ll take these two back to the ship, stop them getting ideas!’ Muireach laughed, and wheeled Mothwing back in the direction of the quay, the grey mare trailing on a leading rein behind. She looked distinctly happy to be heading back to the warmth of the stable-deck.

‘Let me show you some of the basic moves.’

Just for once, there was no innuendo.

 

We spent the next hour working through a series of kicks and jumps, until Lugh judged I had the hang of what was going on.

‘Of course,’ he added, ‘the horse will do much of this without instruction, once in the heat of the fight, so you have to be mentally prepared for it.’

I wiped the rain from my face, ‘So I won’t be expecting it, but I could suddenly find her doing something like that aerial back-kick?’

He nodded, ‘But if you are fully aware of what is going on around you, you should know it as a possibility. So you will not be surprised.’

‘I think I’m going to need a shed-load of practice.’

‘Probably. But for now, I think we have all had enough. And I’m hungry!’

‘You are always hungry!’

We rode back to the ship, rubbed down the horses and went to find food.

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‘So what are we looking for?’

‘Firstly, the tourist office. I want to pin down the crossing point of the leys, and for that I need a decent map of Portmeirion. And with any luck, there’ll also be town maps so we can do some serious scavenging.’

‘Anything particular in mind?’

‘I’d like a camping shop, for more outdoor gear. Hardware would be nice – there’s any amount of things we’re running out of back home. Dried or canned food stores…Sulian, is there any way we can carry human stuff back without causing you problems?’

The Shipmaster shrugged, ‘No major trouble if anything iron is stowed in casks – we have some in the hold. Though I’d prefer it if you didn’t bring an entire ploughshare, for example.’

‘I don’t think that’s on the cards.’ Though I reckoned Ishbel would have liked one. Come to think of it, so would I…

 

Quite conveniently, the yacht club, like Caol Haven, provided trolleys for its clientele to haul their gear around. I grabbed one and, feeling as if I was about to do the supermarket run, pushed it along the quayside towards what appeared to be another, older quay further up the waterway, past the wider part of the harbour.

Lugh followed. When I glanced back at him, he was pushing another trolley, his hands in thick leather work gloves.

‘Aluminium,’ I said.

‘Plough shares won’t be. I saw your face!’ he grinned at me, and for a moment, the drizzle seemed less intense.

We found the tourist office just round the corner at the end of the old slate-shipping wharf. The door was locked, but took only a little persuasion to let us inside.

‘Portmeirion?’

‘Yes. A decent map is more important than cataloguing all the building history.’

We worked our way methodically from opposite ends of the leaflet racks, pulling out anything that looked useful.

‘There seem to be a lot of railways.’ He sounded doubtful.

‘Yes. They used to bring the slate down from the quarries to here, load it onto ships. There’s the Ffestiniog – that’s more a tourist thing these days, little steam trains. Goes all the way to Blaenau – pity we couldn’t use it yesterday! Our route tonight takes us alongside that one.’

‘Oh good.’

‘On a road, no problems.’ Well, we would have to cross it somewhere, but I wasn’t going to push it right now.

‘Huh. Bloody iron.’

‘Why does iron cause the Fae so much trouble?’

‘Hmm. Well, Fae - of all kinds - have power, which lies in our blood – you know that?’

‘Yes. I had heard. Isn’t it what we mere humans call magic?’

‘Smart arse. Well, iron attracts it – pulls it out of us, and kills it.’

‘Like it’s sort of magnetised? Like a compass needle?’

His brow furrowed. ‘Possibly. Whatever, iron draws the power in our blood, and at worst, it can pull it clean out of our bodies. Taking the blood with it.’

I thought about that.

‘So if you get injured with iron weapons, it’s like they suck the blood, and the power, from you?’

‘Unpleasant idea, but fairly accurate. If we get too close to it, or touch it, the blood can be drawn up through our skin.’

I got a sudden gruesome mental picture.

He went on, ‘Even if it’s not that close, it can make us very sick.’

‘I’ll remember that,’ I had another thought, ‘…and if the iron draws the power, that’s why it blocks the leylines?’

‘Exactly. It only works within a certain distance, which is why it doesn’t draw the power from the whole line.’

‘Which would seem to indicate that the power the Fae have is related to the power of the leylines?’

‘Perhaps. It’s not anything we’ve thought about much. It just is.’

‘Okay, I’m with you so far. So is it just Fae folk that suffer? Or do others with power get influenced?’

‘Well, I’m only half-Fae, so I don’t get it so bad. I don’t know about the Old Ones… you’ve got me thinking now! Gofannon’s Fir Bolg, and he can work with the stuff, though his power is more one of skill than what you’d call “magic”. Balor is Fomorian, and has power, but iron doesn’t seem to work on him at all…’

‘That’s unhelpful.’ And odd.

‘Not really. If we could use iron on him, imagine what it would do to our own side.’

‘Mutual destruction.’ Now that was a concept I understood.

He looked at me in the gloom of the unlit office, pale eyes sharp and wary. Waved a map at me.

‘Is this what you’re after?’

 

We found a camping shop out on the Criccieth road, and I ransacked it for all kinds of useful gear, including fresh clothing. There was a hardware shop which proved another treasure trove, and before too long the trolleys were heaped with our finds, safely covered with tarpaulins. We didn’t find a plough share.

There was no sign of human activity.

The supermarket on the High Street was untouched, although the door was open – must have been late night opening, I thought. I grabbed another trolley and made my way round the aisles, past the dried remains of the vegetables and fruit, the scattered packets of flour and rice where rodents had been, collecting anything I thought might be still useable. The rodents hadn’t been around for some time, I reckoned; all the droppings were old and dry.

Coffee. Stock cubes. Peppermints.

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forty-six

 

 

‘So where did they all go?’

‘No idea. I’d have thought there would be traces if anyone had still been around after the flip. But it’s as if nobody was left. And there aren’t any recent animal traces either.’

Thom rested his chin on his folded hands, thinking.

‘I’m sure the Lady’s power-working would have left some behind… it seems to have been different here.’

‘Something else, taking advantage?’

‘Perhaps. Is there any sign of the roots here?’

‘Some churned ground where there are a lot of trees,’ Lugh stuffed another chunk of bread in his mouth,’ so – mmph – likely.’

‘Wonder how far it’s gone… we didn’t find it round Cadair Idris, so perhaps it’s spreading slowly… down this river system first.’

‘Or maybe just here,’ Thom frowned at the map, ‘the mountains may contain it – remember, it didn’t appear where there was a hard surface.’

‘For now. Eventually all the buildings and tarmac will break down. In time, even the mountains may give way.’ I thought uneasily of the power of roots to break open rocks.

‘Sounds to me..’ a slurp of ale, ‘..that there is something more behind it,’ Lugh set his mug down with a clatter, ‘and it’s a something we don’t want to get involved with.’

My mind went immediately to Hal, Daere and the logging party, miles upriver in the forest, and I suddenly lost my appetite.

 

As the sun descended towards the Irish Sea, I stood by the ship’s rail, staring out towards the Portmeirion headland and the river beyond. The rain had stopped, for which I was thankful, but there was still no sign of the away team. The tide was falling, and the long whalebacks of the sandbars started to show, dark shadows amongst the grey and gold of the small waves.

‘You’ll not conjure them up by wearing yourself out watching.’

‘I’ve nothing better to do, Muireach, and it’s a long time until I need to set off.’

‘I suppose getting some rest is out of the question.’ He made it a statement, so I didn’t bother answering.

We stood in silence for a while, our shadows lengthening.

‘Come on. Give me a hand feeding the horses.’

Reluctantly, I followed him down to the hold.

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‘How’d she manage to do that?’

I ran my hand carefully down over Winterthorn’s offside hind leg, feeling for splinters in the scraped mess that was her hock.

‘Not her – him.’ I nodded my head at Aonbharr. ‘He’s kicked clean through the panel, and she’s spooked and caught herself on the broken end.’

The split plank, with blood and horsehair, told the tale.

‘Damn and double damn.’ I took the wet cloth from Muireach, and gently cleaned up the mare’s leg. The hock was already swelling.

I sighed, and straightened up. ‘Going to need some of that ointment on it, and she’s going nowhere for a couple of days.’

Which, I thought to myself with illicit glee, put paid to Lugh’s coming with me tonight. Mothwing wasn’t up to his weight, and Aonbharr wasn’t a ley-runner. I stroked the grey mare’s soft nose, and fed her a stock cube as consolation.

‘What’s happened?’ Lugh thumped down the stairway.

I pointed to the damaged stall.

‘Ah.’ He slapped the stallion’s rump. ‘Took exception to being left behind, eh?’

Something in his voice caught my attention.

‘You sound like he did it deliberately.’

Guileless sky-blue eyes met mine over the horses’ backs.

‘Quite likely he did. We have a very strong bond, and he doesn’t like the idea of me riding another horse at all.’

‘Well, he’s buggered it up for both of you. You can’t ride Mothwing.’

‘No, so we’ll have to have a slight change of plan.’

I didn’t like the sound of that.

‘Lugh, he’s not a ley-runner. If anything happens, you won’t have the option to get out quick. I’ll be safer on my own.’

‘Not a chance. I’ve made a promise, and I intend to keep it. This old boy and me – we’ll fight our way out if it comes to that. You can do the running. We’ll be fine, you’ll see.’

As if I had a choice, I thought. I didn’t believe he hadn’t had a hand in it, somehow.

 

On deck, the sun was gone, and violet-blue twilight was creeping down the river. There was still no sign of the boats. I fought down the fear that lurched in my stomach, and tried to think straight.

The maps seemed to indicate a ley crossing, or node, as I’d come to think of them, at the Portmeirion Belvedere Outlook, just above the shoreline. The guidebook I’d found said there was a shell grotto beneath the viewing area, and I figured that was probably as likely a place as any. It might not be ancient in itself, but on an ancient site it might as well be.

Our route would follow the road and railway, out from the town along the Cob, a man-made causeway that ran straight as a ruler across the saltmarshes and mudflats, from the harbour to the headland. Beyond that, we’d need to cross the line, and get down to the village, avoiding as many wooded areas as possible. Unfortunately, the whole village was surrounded by trees, and the ornamental gardens that ran between the curious houses spread through the whole place. I’d contemplated an approach from the water, but the lookout stood on the top of a rocky outcrop, with small trees tumbling down over it like a green wave.

Nothing for it. We’d have to go through part of the village. Still, I thought with undue optimism, we could follow the roads, though the carpark. And from what I could remember, and tell from the pictures in the guides, there were a lot of paths and buildings which might give us a chance at a clear run.

I uncrossed my fingers. And suddenly thought of something I’d seen in the hardware shop that I should have picked up.

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Night fell swiftly. Under a broken, ragged sky, I led Cloud down the ramp onto the quayside, and swung up into the saddle. Behind me, Lugh mounted his stallion, bareback as usual.

‘We’ll watch for you, Malin. Good luck!’ Sulian called softly from the deck.

I raised a hand in farewell, and headed back into the town.

 

‘I thought we were going down the road that way?’

‘Got to collect something first.’

I slid down outside the hardware shop, dropped the reins and went inside. I’d picked up a large Maglite torch and plenty of batteries, and fixed a couple of red cellophane sweet wrappers across the front to save my night sight. Where the hell had I seen it?

Gardening, of course.

 

‘What in the name of Annwn is that?’

‘It’s called a weed wand, or burner.’ I grinned, and fixed the mostly aluminium device across the saddle in front of me where I could get at it easily. Extra gas canisters filled the small rucksack I’d also acquired.

‘And…?’

‘Hope you don’t find out.’ I turned Cloud’s head, and urged her into a fast walk, back towards the harbour.

 

We crossed the water between the estuary and the inner harbour, and passed the Ffestiniog station. The causeway was about a mile long, the pale ribbon of the road stretching out ahead, the darkness of the mudflats to our right, and the Glaslyn river to our left, winding between broad saltmarshes. A slight breeze came up, bringing the scent of the sea and the reek of the mud. Out here, there were no trees, and we jogged along, reasonably confident of our safety.

‘Any sign of disturbance?’

‘Not that I can see. I wonder if the salt affects them?’

‘I’d rather not count on it.’

 

We reached the end of the causeway. A dark mass of trees rose behind what my map said was a station yard, and the road turned abruptly left to follow the main route of the railway.

‘I reckon if we go as far as the bridge over the line, and then cut south, we’ll avoid most of the trees. It’s open fields for the most, at least as far as the car park. Gets more interesting beyond there.’

‘Keep your eyes open.’

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We crossed the bridge, and turned back down a farm track that led south, cutting east where the hedge was thinnest to cross open grass.

Grass, I thought. Not churned up, not yet anyway. I kicked Cloud into a canter, and we hopped neatly over a drystone wall, turning right to go around another copse and then south again across open pasture criss-crossed with more walls. I decided I liked walls.

There was enough light to see where we were going, so I kept the mare to a gentle canter, hearing the rhythmic beat of Aonbharr’s hooves on the turf behind us.

We hurried under a line of trees, and found ourselves in an open space, crossed by a series of rough tracks, running parallel to one another.

‘Car park!’

‘Strange.’

‘What is?’

‘The whole thing for cars you humans have. ’

‘Oh. Had me worried for a moment there. Thought you meant something else.’

I checked my watch. Twenty past eleven.

We slowed to a walk as we came to the end of the carpark, where a broad gravelled area channelled visitors towards the entrance to the village.

Trees grew thickly on either side, and overhung the path. A cold shiver went down my backbone and flickered across my horse’s hide. I heard Lugh’s sword slide from its sheath.

‘Come on then. Let’s get this over with.’

 

I’d memorised the map of the village – no time to go checking when something is chasing you – but it still took a while to orientate myself. Blobs on a map look nothing like real buildings – and certainly nothing like the houses of Portmeirion. It was like a toy village, or a film set for a fantasy movie; in fact it was used for the curious series television ‘The Prisoner’ which I vividly remembered from my childhood. In the half-light of the few stars between the clouds, it looked more sinister than fairytale.

We passed between the toll booths, on a broad path. The trees hung overhead, bare branches rubbing together in the breeze, twigs like bony fingers clicking.

Most of the paths were stone, I reassured myself. Harder to break through, but not impossible.

 

Ahead, the Gate House loomed over the path, its archway surprisingly low.

‘I get off here. It’s down the steps. Wait here, and keep watch. Yell if you sense anything – anything at all, and I’ll be back.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Malin – I’m coming with you.’

‘No you’re not. You need to look after the horses. I will be fine.’

I forestalled further argument by sliding the weed burner off the saddle, digging out a disposable lighter, turning on the gas and firing it up. His eyes went wide.

‘Instant fried roots.’ I turned off the gas. ‘I’ll be fine.’

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I left him no choice, threw Cloud’s reins to him, and headed off under the archway, turning sharp left down the steps to the outlook.

The stone path was lined with scrubby bushes, untended topiary, the steps cutting down through the embankment. My skin crawled.

Silence, apart from the occasional clink of a harness ring, the slight scuff of a hoof on stone. I could almost hear Lugh brooding.

 

The Outlook was a circle of concrete, topped with a bronze astrolabe on a column. With a couple of garden seats, and a broad stone topped wall about two feet high, it looked out across the estuary, and I couldn’t resist seeing if there was any sign of our missing crew. Too dark, too dim, too far.

The grotto was underneath the viewpoint, a curving chamber with slit windows, decorated all over with shells and the bottoms of glass bottles, and a cobblestone floor. A curved stone bench ran around the inner wall, round the rocky outcrop on which the place was built. Scallops, limpets, a conch… my torch lit on something even more strange – what looked like a dry fountain in the middle of the bench, decorated with entwined dolphin fish. Not a fountain, merely illusion, like so much else here.

No sound, not yet; I checked my watch. Five to midnight.

I was in the right place. The coppery taste of the ley was strong on my tongue. I perched on the bench, as near to the middle as I could. In broken starlight, the water of the estuary glimmered then darkened as cloud-shadows drifted across.

The lines appeared slowly out of the darkness, limning the shells with witchlight, and running like water between the cobblestones of the floor.

I waited for the whispering to begin.

 

It built swiftly, a chattering cacophony, like a crowd before a rugby match. Occasional shouts, sobbing, a low moan like someone in pain.

North, I thought, I need to tune in to north. Why does this bloody thing face south and east? I went to the doorways at either end, but all that happened was I lost much of the signal. Damn!

I turned back to the centre of the grotto. The dolphin statue glowed, running with ribbons of light as if it truly was a fountain.

North, I thought desperately. Where’s north?

Opposite to south, my brain reasoned.

South…there. So, turn round and set your back to the south.

I faced the dolphins, pressed my forehead to the archway over the statue, concentrating as hard as I could.

‘Malin! Malin, where are you? Please, Malin, please answer me!’

His voice broke though loud and clear.

‘Ryan?’

‘Malin!’ the relief was palpable.

‘What’s up?’

‘Malin – they’re here.They’ve taken over… there are soldiers in your lighthouse. I can’t stay here long, I sneaked out, they mustn’t catch me, Malin, you have to come home, they..’

‘Slow down, Ryan. Keep it simple, and clear. Who is there?’

‘The Army, soldiers, guns.’

‘And there are some in my place?’

‘Yes, they’re staying in every house around, they saw the lighthouse and said it was a good lookout, oh Malin, I can’t stop long, they come out looking. … I don’t know where Hodge is …I took the animals away…’

‘Well done, Ryan, you’ve done real good. Hodge will be fine, he can look after himself. Is there any sign of any other forces, or of the Fae?’

‘Not so far as I know, but they keep talking as if something bad has happened, but they shut up when we come along.’

‘Is everyone okay?’

‘So far. They knocked Mr Murray about a bit when he wouldn’t tell them how many of us there were, but Caitlin told them and then they left us alone. She’s all in with them, like they’re her best friends or something… she’s told them about you…’

Bitch, I thought.

‘When are you coming home? I managed to get up here a few times but I couldn’t get through to you.’ His voice wobbled.

No tough and streetwise teenager now, just a scared kid.

‘Soon, Ryan. Very soon. Look, I’m sorry I wasn’t here before. You’re doing brilliantly. Now you need to get back, and keep your head down. Don’t tell anyone anything.’

‘Are you okay, Malin? Is Hal okay? Did you find what you were looking for?’

I swallowed hard, kept my voice under control.

‘Everything’s going to be fine, Ryan. No need to come to the stones again, it’s too risky. We’ll be home soon.’

There was a pause, as if he’d vanished.

Then, ‘Got to go, there are lights down the hill. Mustn’t find me here.’

‘Good luck.’

I was speaking to empty air.

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Time to go.

I ran back up the steps to the Gate House, to find Lugh on the village side of the arch, sword at the ready.

‘We need to move, Malin. We really need to get out of here.’

‘What’s up?’

His eyes never left the darkness beyond the gate. I mounted up, swung the weed wand to a ready position. A cloud moved, letting starlight onto the path towards the car park, but the path stayed dark.

Moved.

‘Let’s go.’

‘Take the ley, Malin, get out of here. We’ll find our own way.’

‘Do you know how to get back?’

‘Yes… the way we came.’ Grim determination in his voice, and the gleam of battle in his eye.

Aonbharr squealed and lashed out, the dark tendril of a root snaking out of the garden to twine around his fetlock. As he struggled, another started to squirm its way across the flagstones.

‘Hold him steady!’

I fired up the weed burner, the clean blue flame roared, lighting up the night. Adjusted the setting to maximum, leaned from the saddle and set the flame to the roots. They writhed, then shrivelled to ash; Aonbharr leaped away as more emerged from the darkness under the bushes.

‘You’ll never make it, Lugh. There’s another way. Come on. Follow me.’

Turning the gas off, I wheeled Cloud and headed deeper into the village, following the map in my head.

A rush of relief as I heard Aonbharr clattering after me, the echoes of hoofbeats ringing off the walls of the houses.

I knew where I wanted to go, how I figured to get out of this. I only hoped it would work. And prayed the tide was still far enough out.

 

Bridge House. To the left, beside the towering Campanile, and Government House. Past the Bandstand. Left again at the ornamental Pediment, down the long drive to the hotel. Trees rattling in the wind behind us, the sound of something scratching, thrashing in the gardens around us.

Almost at full gallop, onto the quay in front of the hotel, the glint of water to our left now, wide open spaces and starlight on sand.

‘Down the steps!’

Cloud took a flying leap from the top of the steps, landed up to her knees in water, clots of wet sand splattering up as she found her footing and headed out across the sandbank.

We pulled to a stop about fifty yards from the shore, turned to face the shadows following us. They massed along the waterfront, reaching out across the stone boat forever stuck fast beside the quay.

‘What now, Malin? The whole shoreline’s alive with them.’

‘Aye, but watch – they’re not coming any further. I think you may be right about the salt water.’

‘All well and good, but the tide’s turned. We can’t stay here and drown!’

‘We won’t. We may have to swim a few channels, but the sand holds good right round the point. We can get all the way back to the saltmarsh by the road.’

‘How do you know the sand’s solid?’

I grinned. How could I explain the scenes that had been filmed out here, a man being chased by a giant white balloon called Rover?

‘Trust me.’

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It was wet, and the horses didn’t like it, and by the time we managed to get back to the edge of the saltmarsh, the tide was lapping at their bellies.

‘This is where we need to be careful. These places are notorious for sucking mudholes.’

‘That’s my girl. Full of good cheer!’

We picked our way carefully along the highest points of the marsh. Highest is a relative term, of course, and we were all caked in mud by the time we reached the causeway.

‘Bloody railway!’ Lugh wiped his face, and spat out a mouthful of mud.

‘Follow the edge of the causeway. We can work our way round the station when we reach it, don’t have to cross the line.’

It was nasty, but it worked, and although we had to walk alongside the rail for about thirty yards, we made the relative safety of the shore and the harbour.

From there it was easy.

 

‘Good grief, where have you been? The bottom of the harbour?’

Sulian looked at us in the light of lanterns hung in the rigging.

‘That might have been cleaner.’ Lugh swilled his mouth out with a mug of ale. A couple of the crew, led by Muireach, dropped buckets over the side and washed the horses down.

‘Go on, get cleaned up, we’ll take care of them,’ the helmsman grinned and patted me on the shoulder.

I looked around.

‘Where’s Hal? Are they back yet?’

‘Not yet.’

I felt my insides go cold.

‘Sulian, the roots we saw – they’ve reached as far as Portmeirion. If they’re ashore…’

‘The tide’s been out, Malin. They’re probably stuck on a sandbank somewhere.’

‘I didn’t see them.’ Mulish.

‘You couldn’t hope to see all the way upriver even from where we were,’ Lugh’s hands came down firmly on my shoulders.

‘Look, there’s bound to be a jet-ski in the boatyard. I could take that out, it’d run fine in the shallows. I can cover a lot of ground.’

The ramp slid up onto the deck as the crew prepared to cast off from the quay for the night.

‘Not tonight, Malin. Wait until daybreak.’

‘They can’t wait until daybreak. If they’re on the shore, they need help!’

Lugh wrapped his arms around me, pinning me back against his chest.

‘If they’re on the shore, lass, they’re beyond help. If they’re on a sandbank, they’ll just wait until the tide rises.’

‘If that were the case, one of them would have come back and told us! Let me go, damn it!’ I tried to get out of his grip, but it was like being encased in concrete.

‘You’re not thinking, Malin,’ big hands gripped my upper arms as he turned me to face him, bent down to meet me eye to eye. ‘You’re a professional – or so they tell me. Be professional. Don’t let your heart make you an empty-headed fool.’

I wanted to scream, kick, bite, anything to get free and go searching.

He shook me, rattling my teeth. I suppose it was quite gentle, for him.

‘Are you listening to me? We’re heading into a war. Don’t let your feelings for Hal become a weakness, a weapon our enemies can use against you.’

I could feel the tears running down my filthy face, tracks between the crusts of mud.

A thumb the size of a small cucumber wiped my cheek, and he folded me against his chest. It was like being hugged by a cement mixer.

‘Come daybreak, we’ll both go looking. Now go and clean up.’

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I couldn’t think about sleep. Once I’d washed the mud and sand off, and was in clean clothes, I went down to see the horses.

They were weary but comfortable, and had been well tended. I rested my cheek against Cloud’s nose as she chewed a stock cube, drawing calm from her sleepy warmth. Sensing that someone had a treat he hadn’t shared, Aonbharr stuck his steel-grey head over the end of his stall, snorting, and I had to find a cube for him as well; to be fair, I gave the others their share.

I sat on a straw bale, leaning back against the base of the mast where it went through the hold, all the way down to the keel.

So. The human forces had made it to Rubha, and were firmly embedded. I hoped I had been right, and Hodge was safe. The Fae did seem to be staying out of the way. What would happen when I got back? Caitlin had obviously been spreading her poison; I didn’t doubt that. If she had her way, I’d probably be tried and executed as a traitor to humanity. So how could I get round that one?

Wryly, I thought that the simplest thing would be for Balor’s forces to attack before I got home. Somehow I had to forge an alliance between the humans and the Fae they hunted; a shared enemy would be a starting point. But, I thought, if Balor arrived before us, there probably wouldn’t be a home to go to.

 

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to Hal. Intellectually, I knew Lugh was right. By giving in to my desire to rush off to the rescue, I’d probably have ended up dead. How easily giving your heart makes you hostage to fortune; I really couldn’t afford it. But it was done, too late to change, even if I wanted to. So I’d just have to deal with it. Keep things locked down. The woman I’d been wouldn’t have had a problem with that, but I wasn’t her anymore. I wasn’t sure that I missed her, but I damn well needed her now.

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The first hints of daylight found us on the quayside, looking for a useable boat. There were jet-skis, but I was the only person who could ride one, and, as Lugh pointed out, it wouldn’t be much use if we had to carry a lot of people.

The away team had taken the canoe and the ship’s boat. The kayak would be no use for the same reasons as the jet-ski, let alone the speed factor. I hunted through the boatyard, searching for something, anything that would be of use. Eight of the crew had gone, as well as Hal and the kelpie, hoping to get the job done quickly. I scanned the harbour, hoping to find something like an inshore lifeboat, but there was nothing…small ‘white trash’ tied to the mooring buoys…a few cabin cruisers…one or two nicer yachts…a couple of working boats. All with too deep a keel or draught to go upriver.

I cursed, kicked the tyre of a nearby trailer.

‘Malin…’ Muireach, somewhere up towards the yacht club, ‘is this any use?’

I ran the twenty or so yards to where he was looking under a tarpaulin.

Bless the local dive club for stowing their gear properly.

 

Another half hour, and we’d scavenged enough fuel for the outboard motor, and by the time grey daylight had started to filter down over the mountains, Lugh and I were skipping over the waves in a mid-sized RHIB, heading upriver.

We cleared the headland and turned northeast past Portmeirion, scanning the choppy water right and left. We were past high tide, and the sandbars were slowly emerging, like the backs of vast hippopotami. I cut our speed, taking care as we negotiated the channels.

We passed under the rail bridge, into the true mouth of the river, and rounded a wide sandy bend. The ground was churned up right down to the water’s edge.

‘Somewhere along here… this is where they were going.’ I waved a vague hand at the dark green of the forestry plantation to the south. ‘They had to go ashore along this stretch.’

‘I don’t think the trees are big enough.’

I looked again. He was probably right. ‘We’re not going to get much further upstream.’ I throttled back, spread the map out across the inflated rubber. ‘There’s more up here to the north; then round the bend there’s a bit to the south.’

‘And after that, it gets too shallow for this craft. And for the ship’s boat, I might add.’

We puttered upriver slowly, checking the banks as we went.

Nothing.

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