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We stood by the stones on the ridge about an hour after the sun had set; there was still blue in the sky, but the landscape had become featureless lumps and dips, blurred under a foot of snow.

I’d picked the clothes I wore to blend in - mid-tones of grey and stone, shades that would make me a boulder, or a bush, or a clump of heather if I stayed still. Black isn’t always the best choice for camouflage at night. Gun, knife, garrotte. Spare ammo clips. The ceramic knife up my sleeve. Red-light torch, though I shouldn’t need it on home ground.

‘Okay. It’ll take me about four hours to get down to the lighthouse if I don’t get held up. After that, give me a couple of hours to take things back. If I were you, I’d slip back under the Hill for the meantime.’

‘So head down when – couple of hours before dawn?’ He’d have the advantage of Cloud’s ley-running ability, if he dared.

‘Aye. And if things don’t look right when you get here, send Cloud back to the Rath, and take to the water.’

‘You could ride down yourself.’ I could sense his anxiety.

‘We’ve been through this. If I meet anyone, I can’t pass for normal riding a Fae horse.’ I stroked Cloud’s nose, willing her to be good.

‘Aye.’ He shrugged, accepting the truth of it. ‘Come here.’

Warm arms wrapped around me, and I hugged him back as hard as I could, feeling the play of muscles in his back, the strength and the solidness of him. We kissed, farewell but not goodbye, long and deep enough to make me slightly breathless as we parted.

‘Don’t get killed, Malin.’

‘Don’t you, neither.’

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I headed off down the peat-road away from the stones, my way clear enough in the starlight. No sign of other tracks, except for the occasional deer, or the one-behind-the-other pawprints of a trotting fox. I stuck to hard ground where I could – no sense in broadcasting my presence. Or letting a patrol backtrack me to the stones.

For the most I kept to a brisk walk, partly to keep warm. Occasionally, where I was shielded by the folds of the ground, I jogged. Sometimes I stopped, checked the ground ahead, watched and listened.

Nothing.

I reached the road in good time. All being well, I wasn’t expected, so I didn’t need to cut across country, through bog and heather, unless I spotted a patrol. I left less sign that way – to push my way through over rough ground would inevitably leave a clear trail in the snow. For once, I thought, a light fall of snow would have been useful, to cover what tracks I did leave, but the sky remained clear. Still, the starlight was enough to see by, with no need for the torch, and I jogged along the edge, where the grit and dirt made the footing surer.

I slowed again as the woods loomed, the skin on the back of my neck prickling as I checked the ground around the trees.

Just trees, and the smooth whiteness of snow.

There were tyre tracks on the road, two sets. Same vehicle, going out and back. But which way was which? A slither mark gave the clue, where the wheels had slipped. They’d skidded on the out-run, the return tracks overlying the smear. Up from Rubha, then, but to where? Caol? Cairndubh? Not much else out that way, apart from the old bunker - maybe they’d gone to use the radio.

No sounds now, and I had no way of telling how old the tracks were. I pushed on, the cold air rasping in my throat.

I got to the top of my track by midnight, according to my watch. Just about right. Another hour or so to get down the five miles of rough road to the lighthouse.

 

Caution now, as the last mile or so was visible from the house.

One set of tracks in the road, partly covered with newer snow. Nobody had been up the track recently, certainly since before the vehicle had used the main road. I guessed these tracks were heading to the lighthouse, and whoever made them was still there.

I paused in the lee of a boulder, watching.

Still nothing moved.

Three more steps and I went through the snow crust, which erupted around me as half a dozen sheep burst from their snow cocoon and floundered away across the heather, bleating loudly.

I bit my lip, choking back a desire to yell ‘Shut Up!’ and crouched in the hollow left by the woolly idiots. When my heart had stopped racing, I eased up, peered around a block of snow.

Nothing. I was still out of sight of the house. I let out a long breath, wiped sweat from my forehead under the rim of my fleece hat. I cut diagonally off the track over shortish grass, aiming to come at the house from the south, where there was a ridge cut through by the burn.

Five hundred yards, slowly, and I could see over the ridge and down to the lighthouse.

 

Two vehicles – a Range Rover and what looked like Ishbel’s Toyota truck, parked anyhow by the gate. Quad bike in the yard, with the Cairndubh logo on the tank – the one Ryan had ridden. Probably both had been commandeered. No lights; not that it meant anything – it’s much easier to keep a decent watch from a darkened window.

Snow lay in a thick blanket over the vegetable patch. They hadn’t bothered shovelling the paths clear, but tracks led from both front and back doors to the vehicles. Smoke rising from the chimney.

A few wisps of steam rose from the midden by the wall, the snow patchy over the warmer straw and dung mixture. Something moving…I smiled. Cat, on the prowl. Pixie patrol. Good to see he was still around.

A line of tin cans and bottles on the wall above the midden. Looked like they’d been doing some target practice. I swore silently at the thought of broken glass in my compost.

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Step by step, I followed the stream down towards the house. The only window that looked out that way was in the library. If they were watching from the light room, of course, there was little chance of getting up close unseen from any direction; I was taking the chance that the broken and boarded up windows meant it was unpleasantly cold up there, enough to dissuade the average untrained watcher.

I wanted to get round to the seaward side, the narrow strip of ground between lighthouse and clifftop, where I could get to the storeroom window.

 

You don’t think I’d make a house that I couldn’t get into if I lost my keys, do you?

 

I crouched beside the burn. Looked up. The stars were slowly being covered by a layer of cloud, and as I watched, a few small flakes drifted down onto my face. I stuck my tongue out, enjoying the feel of the flakes melting on it.

Fifteen minutes later, the snow was falling thick and fast, big, wet flakes sticking to everything, and any watcher would have been hard pressed to see me from three feet away. I headed for the clifftop.

Up against the wall of the house where the wind had scoured most of the snow clear. Slow and silent beneath the seaward windows. I wanted to look into the kitchen, but controlled the impulse, and reached my goal. Pulled off my glove with my teeth, felt around the window frame for the hidden catch that allowed it to swing out and to one side. Found it, felt the slight resistance and then the silent click as it released.

Opened the window a fraction of an inch, and listened. Just the hum of the freezer. I opened the window, and slid up and over the sill, dropping down into the gap between the freezer and the end wall, beside the stored vegetables.

Still silence.

I shut the window behind me.

‘About time ye got back,’ a small, quiet voice in the darkness.

Even though I expected it, my hand went automatically to the butt of my gun, before I crouched again in the darkness of the corner. I kept my voice low, less than a whisper.

‘Hi, Hodge. What have we got?’

‘Four o’ the bastards. Two in the kitchen, two in yer bedroom; that’ll be the one in charge, and his woman.’

‘Anyone on guard?’

‘Nah. They kept a bit o’ a watch fer the first few days, but nae more than that. Yon bossman went off yesterday, came back with the woman late afternoon. The other two are nae best pleased.’

‘Where are they?’

‘One asleep on the sofa, the other on the campbed ye put the Rhymer on.’

‘Size? Age?’

‘One’s nae much more than a lad, the t’other’s a chunky type a wee bit younger than yersel’. Drinks a lot.’ He chuckled almost soundlessly, ‘but they’ve nae found yer whisky.’

‘Small mercies. How about the boss?’

‘Full o’ hisself. All mouth and muscles. Has a gun.’

Hmm.

I stood up, careful not to knock anything, reached up to the top shelf for the roll of duct tape that should be there. Peeled off several strips, wincing slightly at the noise as the tape ripped, and stuck them to my trouser leg. Behind the tape on the shelf, cable ties.

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I eased my way out of the store-room, into the small hallway by the back door. Silently turned the door knob and opened the kitchen door.

Smell of stale beer and cigarettes.

Listened, pinpointing the sounds of breathing. One heavy snorer, at the far end on the sofa. Probably the older bloke. Deep, even breathing to my right, between the table and the dresser; must be the younger guy on the campbed. Deal with him first.

Enough light reflecting off the snow and through the windows for dark-adjusted eyes to see.

Slid down beside him, found the pressure points on his neck, put him out cold. Stuck a strip of duct tape over his mouth, used cable ties on hands and feet. Not the safest way to leave someone, but I wasn’t really concerned about his health.

One down.

The bloke on the sofa ratcheted up his snores a few more notches, spluttered and sat up.

I crouched behind the table, saw him get up and head for the door.

Took the opportunity to cross the room, crouch behind the sofa. I felt something move by my knee, felt around with my fingers and discovered half a dozen crushed beer cans. Sticky, beer spilled on the floor. From the downstairs washroom, the sound of someone pissing copiously.

Finally, footsteps coming back. Bastard didn’t flush.

He shut the door, sat down on the sofa with a creak of springs, scratching vigorously.

I rose up silently behind him, and knocked him cold with the butt of the pistol. Duct tape and cable ties took care of the rest.

Two.

I didn’t expect the others to be so easy.

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I took off my boots, left them by the front door, and made my way slowly up the stairs, feeling a twinge from the old knife wound in my thigh. One or two of the stairs creak loudly – it’s intentional, designed to give a warning of intruders who don’t know about it. I avoided them, crouched at the top, at floor level with the bedroom.

Rhythmic creaking, little moans and heavy breathing. Well, they were distracted, and I thought about dealing with them right then, but unfortunately things reached a noisy finale as I waited. Oh well. I’d need to change the bedsheets anyway.

Movement.

I ducked low in the shadows as the bedside light flicked on, and the door opened. Woman, naked, heading for the bathroom. At least she flushed the toilet.

I crossed the landing, waited at the foot of the stairs to the library, grabbed her silently as she was just about to go back into the bedroom. She was small, soft, and didn’t put up a fight. I secured her, and stowed her on the landing. Worst she could get was cold.

Three.

 

The bedroom door swings inwards, and the door prevents an intruder from seeing the full layout of the room. Conversely, anyone inside can’t see who is coming in, so the man sprawled out face-down and naked in my bed didn’t know what hit him until I landed with a knee in his kidneys and the muzzle of my gun rammed against the base of his skull. With my free hand I raked under the pillow and hauled out the pistol he was trying to reach, sent it skidding across the floor. Gave him a crack across the back of the head with the Glock’s butt. While he was dazed, I used more cable ties to fasten his hands and feet, looped another through the loop around his ankles and the one around his wrists, to leave him hogtied. I checked for more weapons in the bed; found nothing.

By now he was cursing up a storm. After retrieving his gun and putting it safely out of reach, I turned off the light and sat back in my armchair - let him wear himself out and begin to feel the strain in his shoulders from the bindings. Gave my aching leg time to recover.

Looked at my watch.

Less time than I’d allocated. It would be over an hour before Hal was likely to get home. I thought about this – I’d need his help to move my visitors – and went to throw a blanket over the girl on the landing.

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After half an hour, the guy in my bed had started to whine about the pain in his shoulders.

‘Should have thought about that before you broke into someone’s house.’

There was a scuffling noise from the landing; the girl must have come round. I went to check on her.

She had wriggled to the top of the stairs. I took a good handful of her thick hair and held her in place, spoke very quietly into her ear.

‘Let’s make something clear. If you really want to go crashing down the stairs, I’ll be happy to help you, though it will probably break your stupid neck. If you want to live, I suggest you stay put and try not to freeze to death. Though I’d be more than happy to help you do that, too. Understand?’

Frantic nodding. I shoved her back into the corner of the landing.

No sound from downstairs. If she’d come round, chances were that either or both of the others would have done so, too.

I went to check.

Both still out. Hodge sat on the kitchen table, the wooden rolling pin in his hands. He’d lit the oil lamp.

‘Laddie on the floor showed signs of waking up, so I gave him a wee tap.’

I grinned. Both were still breathing.

‘Why’d ye not do away wi’ them?’

‘Because I need to make this damned alliance, Hodge. Not a good start, killing off the other side’s people. Tends to lead to argument.’

‘Hmph. I suppose so. They’d not show ye the same courtesy, frae what they’ve been saying.’

‘Ah well. But don’t hit them too hard. Oh – and let Hal in when he gets here.’

‘Still got him, then?’ a sly grin.

‘Yes.’ I left it at that. Time enough to go into detail later.

There was a thud. I put my boots back on, went back upstairs.

He’d managed to roll off the bed and onto the floor, though it didn’t benefit him much, with his arms and legs hooked up behind him. I let him writhe around for a while, trying to get free. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and I soon got tired of him flopping about like a fish on a line.

Jammed the toecap of my boot under his chin, shoved his head back as far as it would go.

‘Who are you? Why are you in my house?’

Saw a glimmer of fear in his eyes. I should damn well think so.

He still tried to make a deal; if I let him loose, he’d tell me.

I sat back in my chair and looked at him over the barrel of the Glock.

‘Why should I let you loose? You’re going to tell me anyway, one way or another.’ I figured he’d know the girl was still alive, less sure about the others. ‘How about I ask your tart? What do you think she can tell me?’

‘She don’t know anything!’

‘No point in me keeping her then.’ I stood up, headed for the door.

‘No – don’t hurt her!’

I kept going.

‘Please!’ Almost a sob.

I knew they weren’t professionals.

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They were part of the “Army of Human Resistance”, but that I already knew. They’d trekked up north, chasing the Fae through the Border country. When they got to Glasgow, their leader – an ex-regular Army man known as ‘the General’ (which said to me that he was more likely a Major at best) - decided to split up the forces, sending part of the force west, up through the Highlands, while the main force went east to Edinburgh, before heading back south.

The western units had followed the railways to Fort William, before splitting again, most continuing with the train to Inverness, while a smaller detachment headed up into the far north-west.

This squad had pressed on until they’d got here and the trail went cold. They hadn’t seen any of the Fae in three weeks – since Imbolc, I thought, filling in the detail. At least something had worked.

When they seemed to be getting nowhere, their leader had decided to stop, take stock and shelter until the weather improved. They’d found Rubha, the few people left here, and there was a girl, apparently, who told them that there were lots of Fae around, because she’d seen them, knew traitors who were helping them.

Caitlin, by the sound of it. Bitch.

The squad leader had split up his forces, sent them to occupy all the available houses, including the hotel at Cairndubh. Any roadworthy vehicles had been commandeered for the Army. Food and fuel had been rationed, and any local people had been placed under curfew. He and the others had been sent out here to keep watch for someone who was known to be involved with the Fae.

‘Ah. That would be me.’

His face went pale.

‘Tell me more about your unit, How many of you are there? What about this ‘leader’ of yours. He got a name?’

He really didn’t want to tell me anything else. I was now the enemy, not merely an outraged and rather scary householder.

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I heard the clatter of hooves in the yard. Hal, right on schedule.

My prisoner wasn’t going anywhere fast. I left him, and went downstairs to sort things out.

Cloud went into her normal stable, with a cursory grooming, and a good feed. Our weirder gear, including the Spear, I put in the store room, beside the freezer for the moment.

The two guys in the kitchen, we carried out and dumped in Raven’s stable. I peeled the duct tape off their mouths so they didn’t choke if they puked – Hodge had been a little keen with the rolling pin – and removed anything useful from their pockets. Left them hogtied, though not so tight as to disable them permanently, and locked the door.

The girl. I cut the ties around her ankles, and hauled her downstairs. I wasn’t going to make the mistake of thinking she was a lesser threat. I pushed her down onto the camp bed, re-tied her ankles, and fastened her wrists and feet to the kitchen table, before covering her with the blanket again. Her eyes went wide and white when she saw Hodge and Hal.

‘If she moves, hit her.’

Hodge grinned mirthlessly.

Hal looked at me, the worry marks clear on his face.

I shook my head, and went back upstairs.

 

He was beginning to look a little cold, and his muscles were starting to spasm nicely.

‘Right. I have all the time in the world. You can tell me about your group, right now, or you can keep quiet and we can do it the hard way. Either way is fine by me, and either way I’ll find out what I want to know.’

He looked at the knife I was using to clean my nails, and told me without further resistance. I was almost disappointed.

‘We’re four squads of ten soldiers, plus each has a squad leader and second. Then there’s the boss and his deputy.’

A total of fifty, two squads lodged down at Cairndubh and the others dispersed locally. The three of them, part of Blue squad, had been posted to the lighthouse to watch out for my return, though as time had gone by they’d begun to believe it was a red herring and had relaxed their vigilance. He’d gone to the village yesterday to fetch beer and his girlfriend, who was part of the same squad.

They’d been sent out a few times on recce patrols, often at night, but hadn’t found anything.

‘Who’s your leader? Where’s he staying?’

‘You know the white place, with the big window, up towards the shore? Flash gadgets, big wood burning stove?’ Malcolm and Claire’s old place. ‘That’s where he’s staying, him and his sidekick. And they’ve got the girl with them.’

I wondered what Caitlin had said or done to warrant that. Hostage or helper?

‘His name?’

‘Irwin. John Irwin.’

That stopped me in my tracks. Surely not? All the odds were against it. But since when had that proved reliable? One more problem, and it could be a major one, if it was the man I used to know.

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forty-nine

 

 

 

I didn’t let my consternation show. Asked a few more unimportant questions, and then decided there wasn’t much else of use I could get from my prisoner.

 

I leaned over the stairs and called down to Hal, ‘Another one for the stable,’ then cut the tie that bound hands and feet together and, ignoring his groans as the pains in his shoulders really kicked in, we hauled him out and re-tied him with the others.

‘Aren’t you going to let him have clothes? He’ll freeze out there.’

‘Doubt it. There’s plenty of straw, and they can always huddle. It’s only a couple of hours to dawn anyway; we’ll load them all into Ishbel’s truck and I’ll take them down to the village as soon as it’s light enough.’

‘And I’m just supposed to wait here while you do that?’

‘Want to try riding in the truck?’

‘You know damn well I can’t.’

‘Well then.’

He gave me a truculent glare.

‘What about the girl?’

‘She goes in the truck with the rest. Don’t worry, I’ll let them have their clothes back before we go.’

‘Surely she could have them back now?’

I looked at him sideways. ‘She’s as much a soldier as the rest of them, though that’s not saying much. I’m cutting her enough slack keeping her in the house in stead of sticking her out in the stable with the others.’

I looked around the kitchen in the lamplight. It was a mess, plates and bottles strewn over every surface, beer spilled on the floor.

‘Is there any food left?’

Hodge scowled. ‘Aye, but they’ve had the best o’ it. And the midden they’ve made o’ the place! I hav’nae touched it since they’ve been here; I’d better make a start puttin’ things tae rights.’

‘Where’s the whisky?’

He grinned wickedly, waved a thin finger. ‘Them what dinnae know, cannae tell! Ye pair gaun up tae the library, and I’ll bring us a bottle. Then ye can tell me what ye’ve been up to!’

 

We kept it to the short version. Even so, it took us most of the rest of the night, and by tacit agreement, we didn’t mention our handfasting. Keep that for when we had enough time to deal with an indignant urisk.

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My house guests had spent most of the time downstairs, where it was warmer. There were a few muddy tracks on the stairs leading up to the light room, but they evidently hadn’t found the study very interesting.

‘Miracle they didn’t start burning books!’ I remarked, and got a chuckle from Hodge. ‘Okay – what?’

‘There are ways o’ makin’ a room uncomfortable, ye ken – creaks, and draughts, and shivers down the spine, shadows that look wrong…’ he rubbed his hands together, ‘ach – I had tae find something tae keep me busy!’

I poured him a full glass, and solemnly and silently raised mine to him.

‘What happened with Ryan?’

‘Oh, the lad was gey canny. Followed what ye told him, so he did. Soon as yon teacher-mannie said the soldiers were on the way, he was up here middle o’ the night, gathered up yer pony and the dogs, and got them away. Said he figured if the soldiers thought Raven was all the folks had to work the land wi’, they might leave him alone. And if that dog o'yourn were in his keepin’, she’d maybe no get shot, which he reckoned she would if he left her.’

I looked out of the window, my heart full and my eyes threatening to become so. I owed Ryan, big time, wondered how I could repay him. Or maybe he’d just repaid me for not shooting him out of hand.

A trace of brightness was beginning to show behind the snowy mountains, and I knew I had to be off soon.

First things first. I went down to the hallway, and opened the arms locker. Extra clips for the Glock. Shotgun, and a pocketful of shells.

Looked longingly at the small box of grenades, but figured they were too non-specific; I didn’t want to kill anyone I didn’t have to.

For once, I didn’t actually want to kill anyone, though if John Irwin was who I hoped he wasn’t, all bets were off.

 

I found the cast-off clothes lying around my bedroom, took them downstairs and let the girl get dressed. Re-tied her hands, and took her out to the Toyota, tying her feet again before we lifted her into the back.

Then we brought out the others from the stable. Two probably had mild concussion, the third was on the verge of hypothermia, although someone had thrown a horseblanket over him. We let him get dressed for the trip.

Once they were all secured, with duct tape to keep them quiet, I loaded my gear into the cab, checked the snow chains were fixed right, and started the engine.

‘How will you get back?’

‘I’ll figure something out. Maybe I’ll ride Raven home.’

He shook his head slowly. ‘Don’t make this goodbye, love.’

‘No intention of that. Take care.’

I took it reasonably slowly up the track, out of consideration for the truck’s suspension.

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The churning in my gut got worse as we bumped down the road towards Rubha.

John bloody Irwin. Could it possibly be? It would be just like him, firstly to survive, and then to be part of the resistance; the only surprise was that he wasn’t the overall leader. Which made me wonder who was.

I set that aside, I didn’t want to think about it.

Claire and Malcolm’s place made sense, if you didn’t think in terms of long-term self-sufficiency and sustainability – it was the best furnished, the best provided, the best situated apart from the lighthouse which was too far out, it had the best sightlines… and, hell, it was the flashest house around. And the nearest to the other bunker, where the radio was. It made eminent sense, of a sort. It was what I might have done, in his situation.

Of course it bloody was. We’d trained together.

If it was him, of course.

 

Seeing Rubha laid out before me in the dawn sunlight, houses like children’s building blocks scattered in the snow, brought a smile to my face. Wisps of smoke rising from almost every chimney wiped it off. I felt a twinge of nostalgia for the times I had driven here and had seen the same picture, when all the houses had their proper owners, and everything was normal. As I rattled past Ishbel’s house, I saw Raven grazing in the home field with the sheep, well-wrapped in his thick winter rug. He looked happy enough. Content, anyway.

I wanted him back so bad it hurt.

The truck fishtailed as I rounded the bend and headed up towards Irwin’s commandeered house.

I went straight up the driveway, and coasted to a stop. It would give me a few minutes grace before reinforcements could arrive, at least; they’d think it was the lighthouse guys reporting in. I hoped. They hadn’t had radios, so they’d have to bring news in person.

I wondered how many other folks he’d have there. At least one, plus Caitlin, if my informant had told the truth. Oh joy.

 

Shotgun under my arm, I slid down from the Toyota’s high cab, my feet scrunching in the snow.

I waited for a few minutes, but there was no movement. Which was odd; I’d have expected the noise of the wheels on the driveway to have alerted the household. I lowered the gun, down beside my leg, and went to the front door. Tried the handle.

It turned. Even weirder. Okay, we’d normally left doors open in the village, but that was when normal was – well, normal. Okay, so the Fae couldn’t cross a threshold uninvited, but I didn’t think that applied to everything that was out here.

I let the snow fall off my boots on the doormat. The house was moderately warm, and silent. It was a toss-up whether to take my boots off for silent movement; in the end I left them on in case I had to make a run for it.

Malcolm and Claire had liked fitted carpets, anyway.

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I went slowly through the house, listening. Three bedrooms at the back. The door stood slightly open on one room. I used a small hand-mirror, recycled off a powder compact Mhairi had given me when she was trying to set me up with the postman, to check round the door. Empty, though there were signs of male occupation.

Masculine snores from the next room, and the creak of bedsprings. I slid back into the empty room, watching the hallway through the gap around the hinges.

Caitlin, in a thin nightdress that clearly showed the rounded belly of her pregnancy, stumbled into the corridor, still half asleep and needing the bathroom. I waited until she went back to bed.

Who was she sharing with? Somebody was not in his own room, and I knew damn well it wasn’t my John Irwin. Not out of choice, anyway.

It struck me as slightly unusual that Caitlin would have taken up with a man anyway, given her condition and experience, but maybe she was looking for a protector. Made sense if there were a lot of blokes around, and too few women. I set the thought aside for now, and slid open the wardrobe door. A few shirts, a couple of jackets. Tidy for a bloke, but too small to fit the John I knew. The bed hadn’t been occupied. So… either Caitlin was shacked up with the deputy, or I really didn’t know this John Irwin.

Either way, the third bedroom seemed to be the best place to start.

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There was a handy chair beside the door. I wedged it up under the handle, to prevent interruptions.

Tousled grey-blond hair, slightly thinning at the crown, was all that was visible above the edge of the duvet. The second pillow was indented, but cold. A few dark hairs.

Interesting. Someone was playing away from home, and I didn’t think it was Caitlin.

A half-empty bottle of brandy stood on the bedside table, with an open packet of cigarettes, and a couple of unopened condoms. As I considered my options, the bed’s inhabitant grunted and shifted, the duvet slipping slightly to reveal a small and rather pornographic tattoo.

I didn’t have to look too close to know what it was; it’d nearly got him arrested on a couple of occasions.

Oh dear.

I took the safety off the shotgun, and sat down hard on the edge of the bed, flipped the duvet back to let the chill in.

Whispered in his ear.

‘Morning, Johnny. Time to wiggle your hairy arse and get some work done. Places to go, people to kill.’

He groaned with the deep pain of the severely hung-over, groped for the duvet, still half-asleep. ‘Oh…fuck off, Mogg!’

I waited, silently counted to five.

He rocketed upright in bed, groping for the gun he’d left under the pillow.

I’d got there before him and held the Beretta safely out of his reach. My shotgun barrel rested snugly under his ear.

‘Now, let’s not make a fuss, shall we?’ still quietly, not to cause disturbance.

He gave a pained groan, and looked at me from a bleary, bloodshot blue eye.

‘You’re supposed to be dead.’

‘And it’s nice to see you, too.’ I lied.

‘Liar.’ Ah well. He hadn’t forgotten me.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’

‘Brought you a present. And a proposition.’

‘Huh? What you talking about?’

There was a soft knock at the door.

‘Boss? You awake? I thought I heard something...’

‘My word, John, you seem to have surrounded yourself with top grade help. Get rid of him.’ I gave the shotgun a slight nudge, to encourage him.

He started to snarl some sort of retort, then backed off. He could have tried to take me, but my finger was on the trigger; he’d have lost half his head before he could grab the gun, and he knew it.

‘S’okay Rob. Just talking to myself. Go back to bed.’

 

We listened as footsteps went back across the hall. Not that I trusted that.

 

‘So, what’s this about?’ I’ll grant him the ability to keep his cool, but then he always could.

‘Small matter of some of your rabble making a mess of my house while I was out of town. Big matter of a war in the offing.’

The hangover wasn’t making things easier for him.

‘Take the fucking gun out of my face and let me put some trousers on.’

‘Nothing I haven’t seen before, Johnny. And you have nothing I’m interested in.’

‘Come out of the closet at last, eh, Mogg?’

I ignored him. He’d find out soon enough.

‘So… the trousers?’ he glanced at the chair by the window, where a neatly folded pair of jeans lay over the arm.

‘Come on, Johnny. I wasn’t born yesterday.’

I stuck the Beretta on the back of my belt, and keeping the shotgun trained on him, I got up and walked around to the chair. Eyes on Irwin, my free hand checked over the jeans, extracted a pen knife from one pocket, and then found a small automatic stuck down between the chair cushion and back. It went in my jacket pocket.

I grinned. This was doing wonders for my armoury.

‘Now, what else have you got here, Johnny?’ I checked the hems, seams, found a length of wire down one leg and extracted it with my teeth gripping the small loop at the top end. His face fell.

I knew better than to take that as a sign of success.

Something odd about one of the back pockets. I put my hand in, and tugged gently at the brass split-ring I found. The stitching unravelled.

‘Hey – those aren’t Wal-Mart!’

The severed pocket crumpled into a solid lump in my hand – thin lead lining on a long, strong thread, useful for all sorts of things. The zip appeared normal.

His face had gone unreadable, which was a better sign. I threw the jeans at him.

‘Don’t try anything. You know what a trusting person I am.’

He stepped into them, hauled them up, deliberately making a show of it.

I looked at him critically.

He wasn’t nearly as tanned as I remembered, and there were the beginnings of a small paunch where there had been a conscientiously-maintained six-pack. Getting sloppy in his old age?

He glowered at me.

‘Azrael told us you were dead. You’d decided to quit, and so…’

‘He lied.’

We’d never known our boss’s real name, only ever referring to him by codename. “Mogg” was Irwin’s take on my own codename, partly because he knew it irritated the hell out of me.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Here. Living the quiet life. Until everything went crazy. Since then, it’s been quite entertaining. What are you doing here?’ May as well get his version of it.

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His version fitted with that of his squaddie, still tied up in the back of Ishbel’s truck, unless the guy in the other bedroom had got curious.

‘Hate to tell you, but you’ve got a much bigger problem than chasing fairies up the airy mountain and down the rushy glen.’

‘Yeah?’ He looked cynical, but there was something in his eyes that made me wonder if he didn’t know already

‘Believe me, I’ve met him.’

‘So how come you know all this?’ he looked sceptical, as well he might.

‘Have you talked to the girl your mate’s snuggled up with?’

He blinked, then went deadpan again. So, I thought, he hadn’t realised that small domestic detail. Dearie me, he was losing it, to let it show. ‘Hope I haven’t just broken your heart?’

His mouth tightened, then he put it aside.

‘She’s said a lot of crazy stuff.’

‘Not that much of it’s crazy, I have to admit. She mentioned the local bitch from hell yet?’

‘Some Fae-lover called Gregory, lived up at the lighthouse…’ I saw it finally click, ‘You?

I grinned nastily.

‘There you go, jumping to conclusions. I haven’t been friendly with all of them. Thing being,’ I said, before he could say more, ‘it does mean I actually know what’s going on. Which is helpful.’

 

We’d always existed in a state of cordial dislike, and it hadn’t changed. It was written in the muscles of his shoulders, in the tightening of his mouth, the shrinking of his pupils. But I could tell he wanted to know what I knew.

‘Caitlin’s done her share of slagging me off, I don’t doubt. And to some extent I don’t blame her – I know what happened to her. I was the one who got her out of there, though I doubt she mentioned that. Tell me, John, what happened to you?’

He shuddered. ‘I was taken prisoner too. My captors had …requirements.’

‘Thought you liked a bit of rough trade?’ I bit my tongue, but the words slipped out.

‘You weren’t there. You can have no idea. It’s not the same. No idea…’ his teeth gnawed his lower lip, his fists clenched.

I kept my voice neutral, calm and quiet.

‘I didn’t know they’d taken men like that, not at all. They didn’t, round here. But the ones who did whatever they did to people, they were following orders from one guy, and he was based here. He’d done a takeover, wormed his way into overall power. I took him out, and we’ve got a sort of a truce with them now. Mostly because they’re not the threat any more. Something else is, to both sides. More of a threat than anything we’ve ever faced.’

‘How can you deal with them?’

‘They’re not all bad. Oh, okay, some of them are total arrogant shits, but they haven’t the power they had; some of it got dispersed, some of it changed hands. I was dealing with their leader, to try and get some sort of peace deal, when this new problem came up. Now we’re going to need everything we have – both human and Fae - to try to cope with that, and even then I don’t know if it will be enough.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ there was a tension in him that told me something had clicked in his mind.

‘What we’re facing is – hell, it’s appalling. What do you know, John? What’s happened?’

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He sat on the edge of the bed, his face in his hands.

‘We’ve been using the Civil Defence radios – you probably know that?’

I nodded.

‘We’ve got a couple of blokes manning the radios here and at the bunker near that big hotel, right? Been keeping in touch with the rest of the forces as best we can – there are some that went north, and the main part of the army went off towards Edinburgh, planning to go south…’

‘I’ve got the general idea.’

‘The main force, they got as far as Stirling Bridge. Then they met… something. Didn’t make sense, what we pieced together from the bits we heard… huge, dark cloud, hanging over the ground, things inside it. A red light, like a laser, but with so much power… nobody knew what it was, or how to stop it.’

I knew exactly what he was talking about, but let him go on. I don’t think he’d ever found something he truly didn’t understand before, and it was scaring the shit out of him. I knew the feeling.

I let the irony of Stirling Bridge go, it wasn’t the time for levity.

‘Mogg – it damn near wiped them out. Hundreds of humans, well armed, keen – as well-trained as the General could get them in the time… wiped out – blam. Just like that.’

‘Yup. That’s exactly what we’re up against. That’s why we have to work together, because if we don’t, they’ll steamroller over us the same way.’

‘What the hell can we do, for God’s sake? There are only fifty of us here – even if we can get the other troops that came north back, it’s only another hundred or so! Be real, Mogg! What chance do we have? What the fuck can we do against something like that?’

 

‘Well, for a start, I know what it is.’

‘You always were a bloody know-it all, Mogg. Gods my head!’

He sighed painfully, slumped forward. One hand dropped, rubbing his shins.

As his fingers hooked the pistol hidden under the edge of the bed, I stood, took two steps across the floor and kicked it out of his hand. Then I slammed the shotgun stock into his jaw, knocked him out cold.

‘Pillock.’

I tied his hands and feet. Handy things, cable ties.

 

Deputy-boy was tapping the door again.

Time to deal with him. And Caitlin.

I took the chair out from under the door handle, and stepped back.

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