Jump to content
The Hidden Fortress
Sign in to follow this  
mad

Flipside

Recommended Posts

‘We’ll ground if we go any further. And I don’t trust these air bladders!’

‘They’re tougher than they look, old man. I’m going to run her back down to the river mouth; keep checking the banks.’

 

‘Trees up there look bigger…maybe they – stop! There.’

I followed his pointing finger. A dull flash of colour under the bank on the south side. Slowed, grabbed an overanging branch.

‘Isn’t that the canoe?’

‘Hold it steady, Malin, I’ll have a look.’ He went overboard, waist deep in the icy water, tugged at the shape half-buried under the roots of the waterside trees.

‘Shit.’

A piece of the canoe, about a metre long, the edges ripped and twisted.

‘It’s just the canoe, Malin.’

‘Get back on board.’

Where they weren’t churned up by the action of the roots, the banks were thick with old bracken and ferns, no sign of anyone breaking them down to land on the shore. The flow of the water had eliminated any traces on the river bed.

‘They didn’t land here. I’m guessing they had to go further up. But if the canoe was broken here…’ I looked around. The trees crowded close to the bank, a thin mist drifting between them.

‘We check back downstream. See if there’s any more sign.’

If they’d ended up on that shore, there was no point in looking…I shook myself. Damned if I was going to think like that.

 

We found three more pieces of the canoe, all trapped amongst the roots that reached down into the water.

No sign of the ship’s boat. But then, a small voice in my head muttered, it’s wooden, clinker-built, it’d break into smaller pieces. We passed back under the railway bridge.

‘We’re back at the estuary, Malin. Tide’s almost all the way out again. Let’s check the southern side.’

Sandbanks barred our way to left and right.

‘Grab onto the mooring line, and stand up front. See if you can guide us through this mess.’

We had to go slower, with the bows weighted down like that.

‘Go left, that way.’ Lugh flung out a hand.

I turned the boat, gently.

The hand waved again. A couple of notches more.

Held up. Stop.

‘Wait here.’

He went over the side, onto the sandbank.

‘Lugh, what the…’ I bit my tongue.

Waited, as he hurried to the top of the whaleback, and stopped, shading his eyes against the glint of the wan sun on the water.

‘Hey!’ he suddenly waved his arms over his head, then ran back to the boat.

‘This way.’

The channel took up to the south side, between more low sandbanks, and I realised that there was an island ahead. A dark spot on the sandbar just off shore slowly resolved itself into figures, clustered together. With a feeling of sick relief, I saw one of them dive into the water, coming towards us.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hal surfaced just beside the boat, and hung onto the grab-line. ‘You don’t know how glad we are to see you.’ He looked haggard.

‘I think I do,’ I forced a grin, ‘I really think I do.’

I steered us up the narrow channel to where the others huddled.

They were soaked, sand covered, clinging to the refuge provided by two large logs which seemed to be wedged across the channel.

‘Bloody things are stuck,’ Hal coughed, getting a faceful of water from the bow wave, ‘and we lost …we lost some men. And the boats. It’s not been good.’

I did a quick head count. Counted again. Hal, Daere – no hope that she’d vanished – five of the crew. Five. Three missing.

‘What…’

Hal shook his head, cutting me off before I could ask more. ‘Let’s get everyone back to the ship, Malin, then we only have to tell it once.’

 

Cabhan Shipwright, the ship’s master carpenter, raised a weary head as we grounded on the sandbar. His eyes were red-rimmed with salt, though the puffiness around them suggested tears rather than tide had been the cause. ‘Don’t leave the timber, my lady. It has cost us dear.’

His hands were shaking from the cold, and I guessed that they were all on the edge of hypothermia.

Daere, otter-shaped, stood alert a little way off, silent and staring back up the river. I wondered what she was seeing.

‘Take the men back to the ship now, Malin, and then return. We’ll stay here and do some work, and then we can haul the logs back with the boat when the tide’s higher.’ Lugh was studying the way the timber lay across the channel, stuck into the sand at one end. ‘Hal, Daere – get over there and get digging. Malin – why are you waiting?’

The five survivors huddled silently in the bottom of the boat as I steered it around the island. Looking back, I could see how we’d missed them on the way out, the island looked more like another headland, and had screened the refugees from our view. I kicked myself for not noticing it on the map.

I wondered if they’d heard us, then thought that if they had, surely Hal would have come after the boat. I desperately wanted to know what had happened, but the exhaustion and sorrow on Cabhan’s face kept my mouth shut.

 

We pulled up to the slipway, Sulian and others hurrying to help their shipmates onto dry land and the safety of the ‘Sky Dancer’. I turned the RHIB and headed back out across the estuary.

 

By the time I’d got back, they’d managed to get the logs lying straight in the channel between the sand. They floated low in the water, roped together. It wasn’t going to be easy to tow them, and I was worried that the rope would snag on the outboard and tangle round the prop.

‘We’ll keep them straight,’ Hal glanced at Daere, who nodded, ‘and Lugh will need to pick us a decent route. Just keep the boat slow and steady.’ His hand briefly squeezed mine, before he joined the kelpie in the water, changing form as he did so.

It took a couple of hours in all, wet, irritating work. We grounded a few times, and the logs persistently wedged themselves on bends in the channels, until the tide rose high enough for us to take a straighter route.

 

Back at the dock, a grim-faced Sulian supervised the team hauling the logs onto the quayside, and up onto trestles ready to be worked on.

‘They’re recovering,’ he said as we made our way back aboard, ‘but I want to know what happened now. Will you tell me?’

Hal nodded. ‘I could. But it would be better if we were all there. I don’t think Cabhan would think it right otherwise.’

‘Very well. But I will not be content to wait much longer.’

Hal turned suddenly, face to face with the Shipmaster, and the look on his face made the other take a step back.

‘Sulian. We will tell it when we are ready. When you hear, you will understand. Until then, just back off!

With a growl, he stormed off to our cabin and slammed the door.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

forty-seven

 

 

 

 

It was late evening before we all gathered on the mess-deck. It was a sombre meeting, the whole crew now aware that something had gone wrong, and that three of their companions had not returned.

Sulian sat at the head of the table, Muireach and the other ship’s officers beside him, facing Hal down the length of the board. Cabhan and the others flanked Hal, Daere resting her chin on folded arms on the tabletop. The rest of us packed in where we could. To me, it felt almost like a military tribunal, or perhaps a board of enquiry. I supposed that, in a way, it was.

Hal glanced at Cabhan. The Shipwright nodded, indicating that he should begin.

 

‘It took us longer than we’d hoped to find a stand of trees large enough, and we had to go further upriver. Must have had to go half a mile inland from the river bank, and we left the boats tied up safely. As you may remember, it was raining, and in the forest it was pretty gloomy; we didn’t waste any time in selecting the trees and starting to fell them. They were a few hundred yards apart; we could hear each other but couldn’t see them.’

He paused. Cabhan, his hands clasped tightly together, nodded again, not looking up.

‘The first tree came down fine, and Aed and Cullan started trimming it ready to go to the river. Brannoc, Elath and Madeg were felling the other tree, I think there was some sort of problem…’ he turned to the others for confirmation.

A dark-haired Fae nodded and, in a quiet voice that reached every corner of the room, went on, ‘It was on a slope, and the tree wasn’t going to fall straight - there was a chance it would get hung up - so Donncha and I went over to help.’ He shut his eyes, remembering, and Hal picked up the tale again.

‘Cabhan and I had rigged a harness, and were fitting it on Daere, ready to haul the first log out when it was clean.’

The kelpie scowled. ‘Bits of old rope, bloody sore, it was.’ She fell silent again when she caught Hal’s frown.

‘It was about mid-afternoon by the time we were ready to take it down to the water, and that was no easy task; it slid across the ground fine, but on the downhills tended to go too fast and catch up with Daere’s heels, so we had to call Donncha and Bradan back to help slow it down. The other tree was safely felled by then, and just needed trimming off, so we left the other team to finish up.’

He paused again, took a drink of water.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

‘We got to the river, and rolled the log into the water, where it floated reasonably well. We tied it to the boat, and went back for the other one.

‘It was getting harder to see, darker and gloomier, and there was a mist starting to form under the trees, that got thicker as we went back up to where we’d left the others working. I got the same feeling I had back up at the mine, that sense of something out there.’ Hal suppressed a shudder. ‘I told Cabhan we needed to get everyone back down to the river, get clear of the forest.’

‘And I, like a fool, said we should still take the log, since we had it ready.’ The Shipwright put his hand across his eyes.

‘We started to hitch Daere to it, ready to haul. And that’s when we realised the others weren’t there.’

‘I called to them, but there was no reply.’ Bradan, dark hair falling over his face, bowed his head over his hands, and I remembered then that Brannoc was his twin; the two had sung a particularly funny – and suggestive – song at the wedding.

Hal pinched the bridge of his nose, then carried on.

‘We looked around, called to them, listened, but there was no sign. And the mist was getting thicker, and the feeling that something nasty was coming got stronger. The team started down with the log, and I stayed behind, tried once more to find the missing men.’

The distress on his face was clear, and I wanted to reach out to him, offer some sort of comfort, even just the touch of a hand.

‘I found…Elath, I think. Or what was left of him. I fell over a fallen branch…’ he swallowed, throat dry, took another drink, ‘landed on my knees at the bottom of a tree. He was there, half buried in the earth beneath the tree, like he’d been dragged down into the ground. There wasn’t much left of him. His flesh had been stripped from his bones…’ a deep, shuddering breath, ‘I confess, I ran. Caught up with the others at the river, as they were putting the log in the water. Yelled at them to get in the boat.’

‘We threw all our gear in, pulled away from the bank. The canoe was tied on behind, with the timber.’ Cabhan kept his eyes fixed on his hands. ‘It was getting darker all the time. We started to row down stream, when something pulled us back. I looked round, and the canoe was being held by what looked like tentacles, wrapped all around it.’

‘Roots, coming up through the water from the river bank,’ Hal went on, ‘Aed grabbed an axe and cut the canoe loose, and we tried to get as far from the bank as we could, but the river wasn’t that wide, and they kept coming, up through the river bed, catching on the boat, wrapping round the oars. The boat started to break up.’

I shuddered, my imagination in overdrive.

‘Daere shoved us out of the water, up onto the logs,’ Bradan’s voice had sunk almost to a whisper, ‘then she grabbed the rope and started to haul it along.’

I looked at the kelpie in surprise; I had half expected her to make a run for it, save her own skin.

She shrugged, made no comment.

Hal’s expression was hard to read.

‘I stayed at the back, pushed and shoved the logs when they grounded, until we were out of the river and into the estuary. The roots reached out, trying to grab at us all the way along the banks, grabbed the oars, the bits of the boat that were floating round us. When the water turned salty, they stopped, just stopped. As if they had reached a border they couldn’t cross. We pulled the logs as far as we could before we got stuck, out by the island. The tide was running, swirling round us, and there was a real danger that someone would get washed off the logs, so we didn’t dare leave them to try and get help. I wanted to see if we could get to the island, but there was a nasty rip running.’

‘And the island was covered in trees,’ Cabhan shivered, ‘…we didn’t want to land anyway, in case.’

‘So there we sat, stuck, until you found us,’ Hal concluded, ‘I was going to swim to the ship when it was daylight, but everyone was so cold...’

‘The sealskin was all we had to keep us warm through the night,’ Cabhan raised his head to look at Hal, ‘that and what warmth we could get from these two,’ his nod included Daere, ‘if they hadn’t been there, we would have died as well.’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

All night, out on the sand, through the rise and fall of the tide, clinging to the timber.

There was a collective sigh from the crew, as if everyone had been holding their breath. Sulian Shipmaster placed his hands flat on the tabletop, and stood. His face was sombre, and there was a catch in his voice when he spoke.

‘My heartfelt thanks to you for all you have done to aid my crew. We owe you much gratitude. But we… we must now make a formal remembrance of those who have been lost. If you will excuse us?’

Thom tugged at my elbow. ‘This is sort of a family event, Malin,’ he whispered, guiding me along, ‘there will be a more public ceremony at dawn, but for now, we should leave them to it.’

Lugh, Hal and Daere followed us up onto the deck, where the lanterns’ soft glow made shifting pools of light as the ship rocked gently on the tide.

‘Tide’s low again.’ Lugh leaned over the rail, staring down into the inky water.

‘I need some sleep,’ Daere stretched her long limbs, and with no further comment, went off down the rear companionway towards the stable deck.

‘She did pretty well, didn’t she?’ I slipped my arm through Hal’s, glad to be able to touch him at last.

‘Mmm. Yes.’ He seemed distracted, thoughtful, ‘She surprised me. Surprised me a lot.’

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Lugh, Thom, Hal and I stood by the rail for a while in silence, until finally Thom put a hand on Hal’s forearm.

‘You gave us a nasty scare, you know.’

Hal raised an eyebrow.

‘Try not to do it again, eh? I don’t think we can take the strain,’ Thom looked meaningfully at me, before patting the selkie’s arm again, ‘…glad to have you back in one piece, lad.’

Which, I thought, was a change from the first time they met.

Hal grinned, a little self consciously, before suddenly reaching out and hugging the Rhymer to him, briefly.

‘Not half so glad as I am, old man.’

Thom looked startled, before slowly returning the grin.

Lugh guffawed, and slapped the rail in some sort of amusement, before slinging a large arm around my shoulders and hugging me hard.

‘What a team, eh? What can stand before us! A decrepit poet, a lovestruck selkie, a complete madwoman and a knackered old soldier.’ He shook his head, chuckling, and I punched him in the ribs. Hard.

Nursed my sore knuckles.

‘Enough. We should grant the crew peace to mourn their loss. Come on Thom, and try not to let your snoring keep me awake!’

My snoring? I’ll have you know…’ they headed off, still arguing.

 

I massaged my fingers, trying to get some feeling back in them.

‘He’s trying to cover it up, of course,’ I said, ‘but we were worried sick.’

‘But he stopped you doing anything truly daft, didn’t he?’

‘I presume you were talking while I was away, then.’

‘A bit.’

I didn’t doubt that.

‘Then you’ll know we had some excitement of our own.’

‘Aye. And I wish I could have been with you.’

‘Guess you’d have thought of the water before I did.’

‘Perhaps. But then, I’d have most likely been too bothered about staying on the horse to be thinking straight!’

I wrapped my arms around him, finally giving in to the urge to hold him. ‘Idiot.’ I said to a point somewhere in the middle of his chest. His arms tightened round me, and I felt his cheek rest on the top of my head.

‘He didn’t say what you found when you went to the ley whatsit.’

‘That’s because I didn’t tell him. We were too busy running away.’

‘So what did you discover?’

‘Nothing good. We have to go home, soon, we really do.’

He steered me in the direction of our cabin, ‘Come on, love, let’s go to bed, and you can tell me all about it.’

‘You think I’m going to waste time talking?’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Oddly enough, I did. After all the emotional upheaval of the past day or two, we were both too wound up either to sleep or relax, and once safely in the warmth of the bed, I told him what I’d heard.

‘That’s not going to be easy to sort out, is it?’

‘Understatement. Not even sure where to start. Though slapping the hell out of Caitlin would be nice. I just wish we could get there sooner.’ I tucked my head under his chin, rubbed my cheek against his chest.

‘Much as I hate to say it, couldn’t we ride there faster on the horses – up the ley lines?’ Warm hands gently stroked up and down my back.

‘No. I thought about that. Lugh reckons I’d need to take all three, ride them relay-style, and I’d still not be back in less than three days. Not to mention Winterthorn’s not up to it right now. He thinks they can get the mast fixed in less time than that.’

‘There’s confidence.’

‘I think he figures he’s skilled enough to make the difference.’

‘From what I’ve heard, he’s probably right.’ Strong fingers gently worked the knots out of my neck and shoulder muscles.

‘And if I went by horse, it would leave the rest of you with the ship anyway.’ I sighed, feeling some of the tension slip away.

‘Which is not on the cards, as well you know.’ He sat up, pushed his hands through his hair. He looked weary and strung out, and I put my arms around him.

‘Which leaves us waiting for them to fix the ship. Which may take a while.’

Soft, mournful singing filtered up from the deck below, as the crew bid farewell to their comrades. Hal sighed, tilting his head to listen.

‘I wish we could have brought them back. It doesn’t feel right, knowing they’re …where they are.’

‘I don’t think they’d expect you to have gone and fetched them, even if you could have found them.’ I rubbed the back of his neck.

‘I know. But it doesn’t make it any better.’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In a gentle drizzle the following morning, there was a short ceremony of remembrance and farewell on the deck. It was quietly dignified, a casting of ash from the dead men’s personal gear onto the waters, scented smoke from a brazier rising into the cloudy sky.

The melancholy atmosphere hung over the ship for the rest of the day, although Lugh and Cabhan and their team set about working on the logs, taking down the wreckage and stowing the sails, measuring up against the broken spar, and stripping off the bark.

Thom spread his papers across a corner of the mess table and worked quietly. Over the course of the morning, I took the horses out for some gentle exercise; Winterthorn’s hock was looking better although she moved a little stiffly. Daere kept to herself, curled up in a corner of the stable area.

Hal seemed depressed, lying on the bunk for most of the day. I guessed from his expression that he was going over everything in his mind, trying to see if things could have gone differently. When he didn’t show up in the mess hall for lunch, I took him some coffee and toast.

He didn’t want it.

‘What’s done is done, love. I don’t think you could have done better – you saved as many as you could.’

‘I could have made them move earlier, when I started to feel the wrongness. We could have made do with one log. We only got two to make sure, in case there was a flaw somewhere. Could have got them all back.’

I stretched out beside him, propped myself on one elbow to look into his face.

‘When did you start feeling the whatever-it-was?’

‘When we were down at the river with the first log.’

‘So when you felt it, there were still people working up in the forest?’

Nod.

‘About half a mile away?’

‘Yes.’

‘So whatever happened, you would have had to go back up there to get them.’

‘I guess so.’

‘So there’s nothing you could have changed, nothing you could have done differently, up until the time you went back up to the second log?’

‘No.’ The frown line between his eyes deepened.

‘And nobody realised the three were missing until you’d hitched up the log?’

‘No.’

‘By which time, I’m thinking it was too late anyway, love. You sent the others back down to the river, you did what you could – you put yourself in real danger there.’

He turned his head away, stared at the curve of the wooden hull at the back of the bunk. I flicked his ear with my finger.

‘Listen to me. There is nothing more you could have done. And you got the others safely out, kept them alive when they could have drowned or died of hypothermia. Stop beating yourself up.’

There were tears in his eyes.

‘I just think if I could have sensed it sooner…’

‘Now you’re asking the impossible. And I will beat you up myself if you go down that road.’

A slight twitch of the corner of his mouth.

‘You and whose army, woman?’

‘You think I couldn’t?’

He rolled towards me, and I hugged him hard, feeling tears soaking through my shirt.

‘I should beat you up anyway for scaring me like that.’ I said into the soft thickness of his hair. ‘Thought I’d lost you.’

‘Never. I’ll always come back to you, love.’

‘Even if I have to come looking for you?’ I almost laughed.

‘Aye, that too.’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It turned out there was a flaw in the first log, a knot that led to a deep crack.

‘It’s good enough for spare planking,’ Cabhan called up to Sulian, ‘...but not for the spar. Good thing we got the two.’ I squeezed Hal’s hand, as we watched the dockside proceedings from the deck.

‘Is the second one alright?’ the Shipmaster looked concerned.

‘Aye. Straight and true. Reckon we should have it shaped by the middle of tomorrow, so we can start rigging it in the afternoon.’

‘Good. Keep me informed.’ He slapped Hal on the back as he went below, ‘Well done, getting both back.’

‘What they do need,’ I said once he’d gone, ‘is another boat. What do you reckon to the inflatable?’

‘They can’t use the outboard motor, and I don’t think it’s very suitable for rowing. And what if it loses air?’

‘Hmm. You’re right. Wonder what else there is around here that might be useful? Fancy a walk?’

‘Will that be a walk that turns into a swim?’

‘You never know.’

‘I’ll bring my sealskin.’

 

We wandered the length of the boatyard, checking everything. I knew what I was looking for, but it seemed that nobody in Porthmadog was interested in the more traditional craft. When we got as far as the marina, near the bridge, we had found nothing suitable. I rummaged in my pocket and found the battered map of the town. After a moment or two, I gave a short laugh.

‘Surely they don’t have a boat shop?’

‘Nope. But they do have a Maritime Museum. Look.’ I pointed at the long low slate-roofed building a little further along the waterfront.

‘And that’s useful?’

‘You never know!’

We did another bit of breaking and entering, and I made a silent apology to whoever it may concern.

Ship models, tools, relics of the slate trade. Bits about the topsail schooners that had been built here. It was a small, old-fashioned museum, in what was essentially a shed, and rather dark. I was beginning to lose hope when, as we rummaged about in one of the store-rooms, Hal gave a yelp.

‘What?’

‘Bashed my head on something …Oh! Come and look!’

Strung from the rafters, shrouded in plastic sheeting was a long wooden shape.

‘Nice find, love! Though what the hell it’s doing here I don’t know.’

He rubbed his head ruefully. ‘Is this what you’re after?’

‘What do you think?’ I pulled the wrappers off.

‘I think Sulian may like that!’

‘That’ was a pilot gig, just over thirty feet long, and almost five feet wide. When we lowered it carefully to the floor, we discovered six oars neatly tucked in the bottom. Perfect!

‘Can we get it out of here?’

I looked around, figuring out what we’d have to move. It couldn’t be too hard, they’d got the damn thing in, after all.

‘Think we could do with some help.’

‘I’ll go and find some strong lads.’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

He was back about twenty minutes later with four of the crew, and between us we wrangled the boat out of the shed and down to the water.

‘May as well try it out,’ Bradan ran a hand along the varnished wooden hull, ‘see if it floats after being out of the water for so long.’

I held my breath as they carried it down the museum slipway and set it on the water. There was a little leakage, inevitably, but she seemed to be seaworthy, and after a little cautious observation, we settled ourselves onto the wooden seats and set the oars into the water, to row back to the ship.

 

The arrival of the gig seemed to lift the spirits of the crew, and Sulian was profuse in his appreciation of our find. I hadn’t realised how much the loss of the ship’s boat had worried him.

Supper was an almost cheerful occasion.

 

Another day or two, I thought, as I lay in Hal’s arms later that night, and we should be on our way home. I still hadn’t figured out what to do when we got there, and it niggled at me, keeping me awake while Hal slept peacefully, his head heavy against my shoulderblade.

First things first. Take back the lighthouse. I wondered how many soldiers were billeted there. Then it occurred to me; I was thinking of them as soldiers – there was a more than even chance they were not actually professionals, but just average folks swept up by the circumstances. That shifted the odds back in my favour. I wondered if they’d found my arms stash. No matter – I doubted they could open the safe under the rug in the hall. Extra ammunition would be nice, and if they had decent weapons, it would be a bonus.

Where the hell was I going to put Lugh and Thom? I couldn’t see them staying Under the Hill, and that meant at least one extra horse. Though Ryan had said he got the animals away – I hoped that meant down at Ishbel’s place, and if so, there was one stable free. Well done, Ryan, I thought again, to get my pony safely away where he was less likely to get enlisted. Good job I didn’t kill you. I just hoped Hodge was doing okay.

 

‘Go to sleep, Malin.’ Hal mumbled into the side of my neck.

‘I thought you were asleep.’

‘Not with you shifting and wriggling like that. And I can feel you thinking.’

‘You can’t! And I wasn’t!’

‘I can, and you were. You’re thinking about beating the shit out of someone.’

‘How can you possibly know that?’

‘It’s the way your muscles are twitching, ever so slightly while you think. Who were you beating up? Not me, I hope!’

‘The bastards who have taken over my home.’

‘Ah.’ He nuzzled the side of my neck, worked his way round to my mouth. ‘Well, since you’re awake, and I’m now awake…’ his hand slid down over my hip, ‘maybe I should give you something else to think about, and then we can both get some rest.’

As plans go, I didn’t think it was too shabby.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

By lunchtime the following day, Cabhan announced that they were ready to start rigging the spar.

There was an element of risk in this; for one thing, we had to take the horses off, in case the half-rigged spar fell and cracked the hull. Thom and I found ourselves surplus to requirements, and settled in a comfortable spot on a boat trailer to watch proceedings.

The whole thing was done with manpower. Between them, Lugh and Cabhan organised a series of block and tackle rigs, enough to lift the new spar off the dock and high into the air above the deck, the precisely shaped end swinging beside the empty socket of the old gear.

Lugh clambered up the standing rigging, locked one arm around each end and slowly brought the two together. Cabhan directed the men – including Hal - on the ropes, lowering, raising, fine-tuning the joining of the pieces.

‘I’m not sure I can watch this!’ Thom turned away, as Lugh, holding on by one knee, swung out almost horizontally, slotting cross-pegs in place.

Cloud nudged me firmly in the back.

‘Come on. Let’s take the horses for a stretch. Maybe it’ll be a little less fraught when we get back.’

 

By the time we got back, they had the spar rigged in place, and were fixing the complicated sailing rig to it.

‘Should be able to finish up in the morning, and away by early afternoon!’ Sulian’s broad smile, as we led the horses back aboard, told of his delight at being able to be on the move again.

There was a bit of a celebration on the mess-deck that night.

 

One final morning workout for the horses, which proved that Winterthorn was recovering well, and we were ready to depart. There was a watery sun, and the scent of snow in the air as we cast off from the quayside and the hum of the engine grew louder in our ears.

After checking that the horses were settled and happy, I hurried back up top, to feel the wind in my face and see the wonder of the ship in action.

I climbed the companionway and saw Daere and Hal up at the bows, where he was evidently trying to explain what was going to happen. The look of sheer disbelief on her face was entertaining, although a small voice inside me said they seemed to be getting along far too well for my comfort. For some reason, the same voice prevented me from going up to them, and I turned away. Looking aft, I could see Lugh by the stern post. There was something in the set of his shoulders that sent me back down the steps and up to the raised rear deck to join him.

He leaned on the rail below the spread of the ship’s tail, arms crossed and a look of sadness on his face. I propped myself on the rail beside him, shoulder to shoulder – well, bicep, actually - and waited.

The water slid under the keel, the whiteness of the wake trailing behind us, as we sailed out to be clear of the land.

‘Thank you.’ His voice was barely audible over the engine.

‘For what?’

‘For giving me the chance to put things right.’

He put his hand over mine. Sighed raggedly. ‘I don’t think I’ll see him again in this life.’

‘I don’t think I’m planning to go back to Annwn just yet myself,’ I mentally crossed my fingers, just in case.

‘He was…he taught me so much. Manannan fostered me, but Gofannon…was more my father than mac Lir ever was. When he died…we were not friends.’ A deep shuddering breath. ‘I tried to find him before, in Annwn, but was turned away.’

I nudged him with my shoulder. ‘So, now it’s all okay, eh?’

‘Aye. But I still miss him.’

Not much I could say to that.

We watched the wake slip away for a while in companionable silence.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

We cleared the Lleyn peninsula under a grey sky with occasional snow showers, and Sulian ordered the ship rigged for flight. I watched as the spars swung out and round, half-holding my breath as the sails became wings.

‘It’ll hold. I stake my reputation on that.’ Lugh chuckled, sensing my tension.

Under our feet, I felt the engine speed up, and the power surged as we gathered momentum. I heard the thump as the forward planes unfurled from the hull, and then the rush as we became airborne.

‘Why are you here with me, and not up there with him?’ Lugh leaned close to my ear.

I let myself look up at the bows, where Hal and Daere were still talking excitedly, her face now reflecting her amazement at the ship’s progress.

‘I don’t know.’

‘If you don’t want her making moves on him, you should be there.’

‘I hate women who do that – you know, plaster themselves all over their bloke like a rash as soon as another woman appears. It assumes they don’t trust him, and they don’t trust you… or whoever.’

‘Voice of experience?’

‘Working with men all my life, seen it too often.’ Wives and girlfriends who assume that, because I worked with their man, I was out to get him. Most often I wouldn’t have touched the bloke with a bargepole. Knew them too well, if anything.

‘But this time you know she wants him.’

‘Yes. But if I do anything, he’ll think I don’t trust him.’

‘And do you?’

‘I want to.’

‘That’s not the same thing.’

‘We’ve been through all this. I have to trust him. And him me. Or there’s no point. After all, I’m back here with you. And we all know your reputation…’

His laugh made every head on deck turn our way.

 

If the weather permitted, we would be back at the dock before midnight.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

forty-eight

 

 

 

 

Our time on the ‘Sky Dancer’ was coming to an end, and sometime very soon, I had to figure out how to resolve the problems at home. First things first.

Get the bastards out of my house.

I sat cross-legged on the bunk, breathed deeply, and thought about it.

Assume they’re reasonably well trained – or at least some of them are. So, hit them when they’re not expecting it. Choices – middle of the night, or late morning. Either would work from a psychological point of view, though I preferred the late night version as it would cover my approach. I’d have to go alone – which might prove the biggest problem – or at the least, I’d have to persuade Hal to stay out of the way to begin with. If I could get close enough, Hodge could – I hoped – give me the information I’d need.

I cleaned my gun carefully, checked my ammo. Tried not to think about how Lugh and Daere would be received in the Lady’s halls.

 

Darkness had fallen by the time we were – by my guess – just north of Skye, and the weather was worsening. Sleet lashed across the deck, and Muireach shouted a warning to the Shipmaster.

A few short commands, and the ship descended to the choppy waves, slamming in and bouncing as we landed, white foam mingling with the falling snow. Hal was doing his best, but he reckoned the weather had been held back too long and was fighting back, ‘ …and after all, Malin – I still haven’t much of an idea what I’m doing with it!’

All we could do was wait, and let the crew do their job.

 

I was packing our gear, trying to make sure I had what I’d need in my day pack, when Hal slammed the door on the lousy weather outside, and shook the snow off himself all over the floor.

‘So what’ve you decided to do?’

‘Huh? ‘bout what?’ I was checking under the bunk for stray socks.

‘The people in your home.’

Why did I even bother not talking about stuff?

I extracted my head from the gap beneath the bunk, along with a rather dusty pair of knickers.

‘Hmm! How did those get there?’ He grinned and flopped back down on the bunk.

‘I reckon you’d know better than me.’ I hurriedly stuffed the offending article in the ‘unnecessary stuff’ bag.

‘So? What are you planning that will ruin their day?’

Got to love the man.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I outlined what I’d come up with. As I’d predicted, he objected to being left out.

‘Thing being, I don’t want to worry about not shooting you, when I’m probably going to be rather nasty to whoever.’

He grunted, thinking. ‘I suppose that make sense.’

‘You know it does. Last thing you want is to get shot.’

‘No. Last thing I want is for you to get shot.’

‘I’m good at not getting shot.’

‘And I’m the lord of all the oceans. How many times have you got hurt since I’ve known you?’

‘Most of that was with things I’ve never come up against before – Fae, for a start. This is humans. I know humans.’

He sighed, propped himself up on his elbows, worry lines running across his forehead in the lamplight.

‘Come here.’

I sat on the bunk, and felt his arm go around me.

‘Okay. I’ll do what you ask – I’ll stay out of the way, hold the horses, whistle up a wind, or whatever… but this is the last time. Once this is out of the way, we do this together.’

‘It’s too risky. You’re not trained the same way I am.’

‘So train me. At least, teach me the basics.’

I looked at him, astonished.

‘Teach me how to kill, Malin. I can fight, but you can make me lethal. Do it.’

‘Do you really want to do that, love?’

‘No matter whether I want to or not. I think I will need to.’

Something hurt in my chest at the thought of turning my man into a killer.

Like me.

 

Lights gleamed from the dockside as we finally drew into the mooring, a few hours before dawn.

Ropes were cast, tied off, ramps lowered, and in an orderly fashion we disembarked. Our gear was piled up by the harbour wall. The horses, used to the procedure by now, made no fuss as they were led ashore.

Saying goodbye to Sulian and Muireach was harder.

‘I said this wouldn’t be boring – I was right!’ Sulian gripped my hand hard, then threw aside propriety and hugged us all.

‘I’m just sorry …’ I began, but he cut me off.

‘It’s been a privilege to sail with you all. If you need the ‘Dancer’s aid, all you have to do is ask.’

‘If I ever need to get married again, I know who to ask!’ I returned his hug, laughing.

‘Take care of those horses,’ Muireach muttered as he, also, hugged me.

‘I will. You ever met a guy called Conn? I think you two would get on just fine. If you’re ever up there, ask for the stablesman.’

I was surprised how much it hurt to leave them all there on the dockside.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Cairbre was waiting for us as we climbed the spiral path up from the dock to the Lady’s halls, his blue eyes cold in a pale and perfect face. His immaculate blue and silver grey tunic and trousers made me feel intensely scruffy.

‘Well, haven’t you come up in the world since I saw you last!’ Lugh slapped the Fae Lord affably on the back, sending him staggering. He recovered his composure quickly, looked at me down his long, straight nose.

‘I take it you were successful in your search.’

‘I think so. Possibly more than we expected.’ Damned if I was going to tell him everything.

A slight smile cracked his frozen demeanour. ‘I never thought you would do less.’ He turned to Thom, ‘The Lady wishes to hear your report at your earliest convenience, Master Ercildoune.’

‘By which she means yesterday,’ Thom grumped, ‘thought it would be nice to be less…’ he sniffed at an armpit, ‘…offensive.’

‘I think she would view your consideration favourably. Clean up and then fulfil your task.’

Thom nodded, and hurried off down a side tunnel.

‘Lord Lámhfhada,’ Cairbre gave a reluctantly respectful nod of the head, ‘if you would care to follow me, I will show you to appropriate quarters.’

His face changed as he saw Daere standing behind us.

‘And just what is one of your kind doing here?’

She stood her ground, gave him a superior smirk.

‘I bring greetings from the Lord of Annwn to the Lady of the Fae. Personal greetings, for personal delivery.’

Cairbre spluttered slightly, and I almost liked her for a moment.

He regained his aplomb, and said she should follow Lugh; accommodation would be found.

‘And what are we supposed to do?’ I was very aware of the Spear, wrapped up on my back, and the armour that Hal was carrying.

He glanced over his shoulder at us, more concerned with the others.

‘Are you not supposed to be forging an alliance for us with the humans? They have arrived in some numbers, much to the Lady's concern. Perhaps you could attend to it?’

So that was that. Dismissed.

And of course, we only had one horse between us.

 

We walked through the day, most of our gear slung over Cloud’s back.

I kept my annoyance locked up, concentrated on the matter in hand. Thinking ahead to what might lie in wait.

‘Don’t want to suddenly appear while they’re likely to be out and about looking. If we can make it to the stones for nightfall, that’ll give me chance to get down home under cover of the dark. You’ll need to give me a while before you follow. And we have to be on the lookout for hunters. They’re probably doing the same sort of thing we found on the Isle of Man – teams out looking for Fae of all sorts.’

‘But they’ve been in hiding, haven’t they?’

‘Yes. And that works in our favour. We’ve been away two weeks,’ my mind still boggled slightly at that, ‘and if they haven’t found any victims around Rubha, maybe they’ll not be expecting anyone now.’ Unless Ryan’s night time expeditions had made them suspicious.

Ah well. Take it as it comes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...