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The door swung open slowly, and the muzzle of a gun appeared. Knowing the holder couldn’t see Irwin, on the floor beyond the bed, I let him come further in, before taking his wrist in a hold that numbed his fingers, pulling him into the room and swinging the door closed behind him. A little more pressure on the wrist bones and I took the gun off him.

‘Sit down and keep quiet.’ I gave him a shove towards the bed, so I could get a look at him.

Did an almighty double take.

 

Slightly taller than me, he looked to be in his mid-twenties, lean and fit with an enviable head of dark auburn curls. He was boyishly handsome, almost beardless, and I could see his attraction for both Caitlin and Irwin. Until I looked closer.

‘What the hell are you, then?’ I whispered.

He raised an eyebrow. ‘Don’t know what you mean.’ Light tenor.

Eyes a tawny green-gold, definitely slanted. Ears distinctly pointed. First inclination was to think Fae, but he’d been holding the gun in a bare hand.

‘Fomorian or Fir Bolg?’

He blinked, startled. ‘What?’

‘Come on, which is it? Not human, either way. And not all Fae. So?’

‘You can see?’ definitely worried now.

I realised he must have some sort of a glamour working. ‘I’m assuming they can’t?’

Sideways glance to where Irwin was starting to come round, a touch of panic in those extraordinary eyes. ‘No.’

‘Then play ball with me and I won’t tell.’

‘Rob? What’s going on?’

Oh shit. Caitlin.

The door swung open again, and I heard her gasp as she saw me. I barely had time to react before she started to scream abuse and launched herself at me, nails reaching for my eyes.

I ducked, spun her round, threw her at the guy on the bed.

You - keep her quiet! And, Caitlin… ‘ I swung the shotgun up level with her face, ‘I haven’t killed anyone yet today. Don’t make me start with you.’

She started another mouthful of abuse, but he grabbed her arm, holding her so she couldn’t stand up again, shook his head warningly. She subsided, though if looks could kill I’d have fried on the spot.

I took a couple of steps back. ‘Well, this is a nice family gathering.’

Irwin had struggled into a sitting position, but his face now turned an interesting shade of green. I half-tossed the waste bin towards him before he was sick all over the carpet. He only just made it.

‘You didn’t have to hit me so bloody hard.’

‘Your own fault.’ I went round the room, checking for weapons and tidying up the ones lying around, before I cut the ties on his hands and feet. He sat down heavily on the end of the bed. I perched a hip on the edge of the dresser and looked at the three of them.

‘Now, where were we?’

‘You were being a smartarse.’

‘Right. I was about to explain what we’re up against and why it would be to all our benefit for us to work together instead of being enemies.’

‘Never! You’re all going to die, every last filthy, fucking fairy – and fairy-fucking bastard like you!’

Oh the irony, I thought. If you only knew.

‘Caitlin Anderson, if you can’t keep your dirty mouth shut, I’ll do it for you.’ I still had some duct tape.

‘Shut up, Cait, please!’

‘But Rob – it’s her! I told you…’

‘Shut it, you stupid tart! You’re doing my head in!’ Irwin snarled at her, winced and put a hand across his eyes. ‘Get on with it, Mogg, ferchrissakes.’

 

‘What your troops in the South came up against is an old enemy of the Fae, an old and very powerful enemy. Trouble is, he doesn’t like humans any better, so don’t go thinking you can make any deals with him.’

Rob’s eyes widened as I briefly explained about Balor and the Fomorians. From the way his face went white, I guessed he knew exactly what I was talking about.

‘The Fae alone can’t beat him – there weren’t enough of them even before you lot started. Humans can’t beat him – that much has been proved, from what you said, John. But – and I have to admit it’s a big but – between us, we may have a chance, given that the Fae have some of the technology that did it last time, and we humans have the remains of modern technology and the tactical know-how to use it. Put it all together and there is a chance.’

‘A chance? Against …that?’ Rob looked disbelieving, then asked cautiously ‘…what do you mean by Fae technology?’

I grinned, knowing he’d know what I meant.

‘Sword, Spear and Samildánach!’

He had to turn his reaction into a coughing fit.

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‘Meanwhile,’ I went on, quickly drawing their attention back to me, ‘I think there could be one or two changes around here. For a start, John, you can take your troops out of already-occupied homes, return the stuff they’ve taken, including vehicles, and lift the damn curfew. You may as well stop making any patrols – you won’t find the Fae, and if the Fomorians come, you won’t get any warning anyway.’

‘And what makes you think I’ll do anything you say?’

‘Part of me hopes you’ll see it as the sensible thing to do.’

He looked at me through narrowed eyes, ‘And the other part?’

‘Says I have the gun. And you know that if it comes to it, I’ll use it.’

‘And you expect my troops to follow you, just like that?’

‘With no witnesses, why not? I’d be stepping into the breach, all helpful, like.’

‘What do you mean, no witnesses?’ Caitlin whispered.

‘Let’s see… Johnny boy wakes up one morning, finds his little playmate isn’t there. Wonders where he is… hears giggles and bedsprings from another room. Is it getting any clearer yet? In a fit of jealousy, he shoots the both of you, and then, full of brandy and remorse, shoots himself. Then I come along, to discuss the matter of housebreakers and find the resulting mess. Not hard to set up, really…’

And not the first time, and Irwin knew it. Of course, if the folks in the back of the truck heard the shots, there would be some small matters of timing to be sorted. But he didn’t know that. Yet.

‘Bitch.’

‘You’ve got it.’

 

So far, so good, but there was a long way to go before I could be sure Irwin would go along with the plan. And I would never be sure he wouldn’t backstab me if he could. Situation normal; if we had a common goal we’d usually been able to put our differences aside, without it, we tended to irritate each other, like chilli on unwary skin.

I was going to have to take a gamble on Rob, whatever his hidden agenda might be.

‘Think about it, John. I’ll give you a couple of days. In the meantime, I’m going to give Ishbel Macdonald her truck back.’

Keeping the shotgun pointed in their general direction, I stuck the various weapons I’d acquired into a small duffel that was lying in the corner, and went into the hallway. Stopped and looked at the three on the bed.

‘You. You’re coming with me.’ I grinned nastily.

‘No, Rob, don’t...’

‘I’ll be okay, Cait. John…’ a somewhat guilty look at Irwin. I should think so too.

‘We’ll talk about it later.’ I bet they would.

Rob went ahead of me back to the truck.

‘Get in.’

He did, and I started the engine, churning up the gravel as I did a several-point-turn to head back down the drive. I paused the truck as we were about to turn onto the road.

‘You never answered my question.’

‘Which one?’

‘Fomorian or Fir Bolg.’

He was quiet for a moment. ‘Mostly Fir Bolg. A bit of Fae, some Fomorian.’

‘Interesting combination. Can handle iron, but still have enough power to project a decent glamour.’

‘Which you saw through. How?’

‘No idea. Maybe I’ve been around the Fae enough for it not to work so well. How come you’re with this lot?’

‘Hiding in plain sight. I didn’t have a choice, and I’m in too deep to get out now.’ He looked directly at me. ‘What do you want from me?’

‘Who says I want anything?’

‘I wasn’t born yesterday.’

‘That’s for certain.’ I turned to look at him. ‘Okay. Here’s the deal. I don’t tell anyone what you are. In return, I want you to convince John Irwin that his troops should ally with the Fae to fight Balor. Convince him it’s the only way we can hope to survive.’

‘And can we? Survive, I mean.’

‘You know as well as anyone what we’re up against. Can you think of a better plan?’

‘That’s not answering the question.’

‘I know.’

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I put the truck back in gear and we bumped off down the road.

As I swung the wheel to head up Ishbel’s track, he gave a half-laugh, and as we pulled up in the yard, he nodded.

‘Guess I don’t have much choice. Okay. I’ll do what I can. You have my word on it.’

‘Do you have a name, by the way?’

‘Rob Fellowes.’ He held out a hand.

I shook it. ‘Malin Gregory.’

‘That’s not what John calls you.’

‘I know. But it would only confuse things.’ And how. ‘I’ll give you two days, then I’m coming for the answer. Don’t let him think about coming after me at home; it’s more than everyone else’s life is worth.’

He swallowed hard and nodded again.

The house door opened, and a dark, burly man stepped out, a gun under his arm. Seeing Rob, he relaxed, and raised a hand in greeting.

There was a bark from somewhere in the house, and Rosie came barrelling past the man’s legs to fling herself at me, stump-tail a frenzy of waggling. Behind her came Ryan, trying to hop into a pair of wellies as he reached for her collar before realising I was there. I raised a finger to my lips, cutting off his yelp of surprise.

‘Let’s keep this simple, if we can.’

Ishbel appeared in the doorway, her face brightening momentarily before she pasted on a neutral expression and glanced at the man in the yard, the warning clear in her eyes.

‘Hi Ish. Just bringing the truck back. Is it okay if I pick up Raven and the dog? If it’s okay, I’ll leave you the collies… Thanks for looking after them for me!’ I squeezed Ryan’s shoulder hard as I said this.

She nodded, not trusting herself to say anything.

‘I’ll get the gear for you!’ Ryan, sensing the urgency, headed off to the steadings, as I went to the field and whistled to my pony. His black head came up, ears pricked, and he trotted briskly to me. A soft nose nuzzled my palm, seeking the mint hidden there; I rested my forehead against his for a moment.

 

There was a thumping from the back of the truck.

‘Oh yes.’ I looked at the dark guy. ‘Found some squatters when I got home – I’m returning them to you. They’re a bit the worse for wear, I’m afraid.’

He scowled, confused.

‘It’s alright, Joe. A bit of a misunderstanding, that’s all. Boss is cool with it.’ Rob smoothed over the awkward patch for the moment, though I guessed there would be some more fast talking to be done when the four in the truck were released. I wanted to be out of there before it needed doing.

 

‘I’ll bring the rest up later if I can,’ Ryan puffed as he passed me the saddle. Rosie danced around our legs, whuffling happily.

‘No problem, no hurry. Though things should get a bit easier around here, I hope.’

I swung onto Raven’s back, whistled to Rosie, and we set off up the track at a smart trot.

Not out of the woods yet, but things were on the move. I was happy enough.

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fifty

 

 

 

By the time we reached home, I was half-asleep in the saddle, and we were all looking forward to a rest. I slid off Raven’s back into Hal’s arms, which was nice.

‘See. Told you I’d come home okay.’

‘Go on inside. I’ll sort out the beasties.’

Rosie didn’t want sorting out and followed me in, panting after her long trek. Hodge had filled her water bowl, and I refilled it twice before she had finished and spread herself out in front of the range to rest.

‘Ye had tae bring the dog back then?’

I sighed, and slumped back on the sofa. ‘What did you expect, Hodge?’

‘That ye’d bring the dog back. Want anything to eat, lass?’

I thought about it. I wasn’t sure.

A mug of cocoa found its way into my hand somehow.

‘Ye need sleep, that’s fer sure.’

I tried to figure out when I’d last slept. A couple of hours before we’d docked, I reckoned. About a day and a half. Gods, if I was this knackered after that, I was getting too old for this stuff.

The cocoa was wonderful.

 

I woke up halfway up the stairs.

‘I need a shower,’ I mumbled into Hal’s shoulder.

‘True. You are rather ripe.’

‘Thanks, lover. Run down a mountain, ride a horse twenty miles, see if you smell like roses.’

He laughed. ‘You’d never get me doing either.’

He set me on my feet in the bathroom and pulled my sweater off over my head.

It was nice just to let him deal with it all.

 

Clean, warm and mostly dry, I snuggled down under the covers and let the world drift away. Before it finally faded, one odd thought occurred to me. “Rob Fellowes”…oh come on. You really have to be kidding me…

 

I woke in darkness, wondering where the hell I was, and why the world wasn’t rocking. Lying there confused, I pieced it together – Hal curled up around me, his arm around my waist, warm breath on my neck. Starlight through the window. Familiar bedding, the smell of my usual washing powder.

Home.

Not the ship.

I wriggled round, tucked myself in against Hal’s chest, wrapped an arm around his ribs. He sighed in his sleep and pulled me closer, one leg riding up over mine and his chin on the top of my head.

I let myself drift off again.

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When I surfaced again, it was daylight, and Hal was missing. I felt foggy, still half asleep, and in need of coffee, so pulled on some old, warm clothes and made my way downstairs. Rosie lifted her head as I went into the kitchen, before rolling onto her back to have her tummy rubbed.

‘Tart!’ I obliged her, before flopping down on the sofa, feeling slightly light-headed.

Hodge had worked some form of magic on the place. The mess was gone, the room smelled enticingly of baking bread and freshly brewed coffee, and a wan sun shone through the windows, gleaming on clean surfaces and a polished floor.

‘Blimey, Hodge, you’ve been busy!’ I helped myself to a large mug of strong coffee and sat down again.

‘Nae point in hangin’ about in a midden. The lad’s tendin’ tae the beasties, so ye may as well make the most o’ it!’

I stretched my feet out towards the warmth of the range, and ended up with them resting on the dog, who rolled over again to take advantage of such handy rubbing devices.

We sat in quiet contentment for a while, until Hal came in from the stable demanding breakfast.

‘Go and get rid o’ the smell o’ horse and it’ll be ready by the time yer finished.’

I let my mind wander as he clattered about with plates and cutlery. I’d need to check everything was working properly – the solar panels could probably do with a clean, the wind turbine could do with a going over, and I’d better check the water filters. There were a few other specialist jobs needed doing too; I wondered if I had enough stuff in the locker for what I wanted to do.

‘Guess we need wood for the fire?’

‘Aye, could do with some, though we’ll last a day or two.’

Put the Landy back on its wheels and head on up to the plantation, then. No – I didn’t have to; the quad bike was still in the yard. Or I could even use the Range Rover. Why not? They owed me rent.

‘Did they leave any fuel for the chainsaw, d’you know?’

‘Probably. They didnae use it, as far as I know, just used up what was here already.’

‘Grand.’ I slid further down on the sofa, resting my head on the back with the coffee mug warm between my hands.

‘Mmm. Toast!’ Hal, fresh from the shower and in clean jeans and a sweatshirt, slid into his place at the table.

I stayed where I was, eating my way through a pile of buttered and marmaladed toast, enjoying the feeling of normality while it lasted. One thing was sure, it wouldn’t last for long.

 

 

***

 

 

In the afternoon, I hitched the trailer to the Range Rover and went to cut wood, and set up a warning system against intruders. I wondered how Rob was getting on with persuading Irwin to go along with my plan; I wondered what the hell I’d do if he failed. Pragmatically, it probably meant I’d have to kill John, which would not be easy now he was on guard. I reckoned I could take him, but it would probably hurt, and I really could do without that. I needed people who could use modern weapons, handle steel and iron; Irwin’s tactical brain would be a real asset if he set his mind to it. Better than spreading it across the floor.

I switched off the chainsaw and set to work filling the trailer and the back of the Range Rover. There was still work to do on the way home.

 

It was close to dark by the time I pulled up by the gate, and the warm glow of the lamps in the kitchen window was a welcome sight.

‘How’d it go?’ Hal came out to help me unload.

‘Best I could do. Didn’t have enough gear to cover every approach, but I’ve improvised here and there. Plus knowing the way his mind works, I can maybe pick the most likely options.’

‘But he knows what you know, and he knows you know he knows…augh…won’t that make him go for the unlikely ones?’

He was right of course, but I just had to hope I’d become more devious than John in the intervening years.

‘We’ll just have to hope it doesn’t come to it. What’s for dinner?’

‘Fish.’

Of course.

I really had to stock up the larder.

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I’d given them two days.

 

At nine the following morning, a Toyota Landcruiser tripped the thunderflash half a mile up the track, and pulled up outside the gate a few minutes later.

‘Hal, Hodge – might be a good idea to make yourselves scarce, for a while at least.’

‘No way am I leaving you alone with them.’ Hal watched, frowning, as Irwin and Rob got out of the truck and made their way to the front door.

‘I’m not asking you to leave – just… not be obvious! I don’t want… oh hell. Too late.’

He sat down at the table and put on a pair of my old, lightly-tinted sunglasses. So much for being in charge in my own home. Hodge, at least, had disappeared. Rosie followed me, growling low in her throat, and I enjoyed my visitors’ discomfort at the sight of her as I opened the door.

I saw, with some satisfaction, that Irwin was sporting a nicely blackened bruise on his jaw. He scowled at me, but made no comment as I ushered them through to the kitchen. He did pause, though, when he saw Hal, and a lecherous grin spread across his face.

‘Mmm. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!’

‘Oh for gods…not your type, Johnny. Definitely not.’ I waved them to sit down, and put the kettle on the range.

 

‘So. You have something to say?’ I set down some mugs and the coffee pot, and slid onto a chair.

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‘You can do some introductions - to this long streak of handsome for a start. ’

‘Oh, John.’ Some folks never learn.

‘Can’t knock a guy for trying.’

‘Fine. John Irwin, Rob Fellowes, this is Hal. Hal – this is an old associate and his sometime boyfriend. Will that do?’ Snappy.

‘Malin…’ Hal dug me in the ribs, ‘you are not being helpful.’

‘Listen to the man, Mogg!’

‘Don’t start!’ I reined back my irritation, tried to be calm and sensible. ‘Okay. Let’s start again. Hal, this is John Irwin – a guy who I used to work with. I’m not going to call us friends, but he’s in charge of the militia.’ Hal already knew it, of course, but I was making a point of trying to be nice.

‘Pleased to meet you. Very…’ Irwin took a slurp of coffee, and extended a hand across the table.

You won’t be in a minute, I said to myself, and watched as they shook hands, and Irwin registered the webbed fingers. It was like watching someone piss on an electric fence.

‘Hal’s a selkie, by the way...’

I waited a couple of heartbeats, but he got there before me.

‘…and so there’s absolutely no confusion, Malin’s my wife.’ Big grin. All the teeth. And he took the glasses off.

Grant him this, Irwin did turn his head before expelling the coffee across the kitchen table.

Somewhere, I heard an urisk implode.

 

After that bombshell, introducing Rob Fellowes went without comment. I was trying hard not to be sarcastic or clever, and Hal, pre-warned, showed nothing.

‘Recovered?’

Irwin had mopped up the spillage, and pulled himself together; he did make an effort not to be surly.

‘Rob’s been telling me more about this Balor guy – thing – whatever. Didn’t realise he’s got a degree in Celtic studies.’

I raised an eyebrow, ‘How very convenient!’

Fellowes winced, but had the grace to look embarrassed.

John missed it, fortunately, and went on. ‘Looks like we’re caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. You know me, I’ll always go for a hard place, but in this case, I don’t like the sound of the rock.’

I let myself smile back at him.

‘So what do you reckon?’

‘Maybe we have a deal. Though if you ever piss about with me again like you did yesterday, I’ll blow your bloody head off.’

I put a restraining hand on Hal’s arm.

‘Fair enough. You can try. Got you, though, didn’t I?’

‘Bitch.’

‘Arsehole.’

‘But I have style. And I was always better at strategy than you.’

‘I’ll grant you that.’ Reluctantly. But I was better at tactics.

I poured more coffee. He looked at me over the rim of the mug.

‘So. Fill me in on the fine details.’

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There was a bleak look on his face when I’d finished.

‘So this – creature, whatever – can move his army around instantaneously? Just pop up out of thin air? How the hell are we going to recce that?’

‘We can’t, and I don’t yet know if anyone can. But it saves time and effort.’

‘You’ve still laid tripwires.’

‘Those were mainly for you. Mind you, some sort of warning should be possible, with a force that size.’

‘And he can re-animate his dead troops? That’ll play hell with attrition rates.’

‘Yes. But can he reanimate little pieces spread over a large area? Or ashes? We need to aim for obliteration, where possible, to minimise it. What do you reckon, Hal?’

‘I’m no expert on the Cauldron. It makes sense but you’d need to ask Lugh, or one of the Seelie Folk.’

‘What about extra weaponry? You say you’ve got some Fae stuff, but that’s no use to my troops.’

‘Think your lads and lasses can break into the armoury up at the fuel depot? Reckon there might be some stuff there. Worth the trip anyway.’

‘Hmm. Nice thought. We really need to get in touch with the troops that are left – the lot that went over to Inverness. See what they can pick up over there – there were Army and RAF bases, for a start.’

‘It’ll take them an age to get here, though.’ Rob observed, dribbling honey into his coffee and absently licking the spoon.

‘As long as they don’t attract Balor’s attention first, it would be worth it.’

‘Speaking of attracting attention – if he gives us the chance to get ready in the first place – assuming he doesn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere and blitz us while we’re mobilising, which is what I would do – how will we find him? The logistics are going to be horrendous!’ Irwin frowned. ‘Hell, I need a cigarette.’

‘Not in here – you can go out the back door.’

He leaned against the doorframe and lit up.

‘It may not be as big a problem as you think,’ Rob said slowly. ‘It depends if he’s picked up modern warfare from somewhere. The last time, - if the legends are anything to go by,’ I hid a grin at his quick recovery, ‘it was army against army, swords, chariots, horses – and yes, Sword and Spear against the Eye. I would guess he still thinks in those terms.’

‘I’d bet that Cairbre and his forces have the same view,’ Hal poured another coffee, and rummaged in the biscuit tin. ‘Think about the way Lankin’s crew attacked you here, Malin.’

‘I’d rather not. But I see what you mean. They were – traditional.’

I had a sudden thought.

‘What?’ Hal looked at me suspiciously. ‘When you get that innocent expression I know you’re thinking something nasty.’

‘Oh, you’ve noticed that too, eh?’ Irwin chuckled.

‘We need a safe place to get our forces whipped into shape. Where’s safer than the one place Balor can’t go?’

 

Hal nearly choked on one of Hodge’s hazelnut cookies.

 

‘Take the entire human army Under the Hill? Are you out of your mind?’

‘Where’s better? Lots of space, and we’ll need to work on mutual tactics anyway. I can’t see the Fae risking it to come here.’

‘Malin, they went there to get away from the humans as much as to escape Balor!’

‘And now we’re going to have to work together. They’ll just have to bite the bullet and get on with it. As are the humans, by the way. John – you reckon you can keep your mob under control?’

‘You’re asking us to do a complete about-face, Mogg. I’ll need time to sell it to them. I’d take odds that some will be trouble.’

‘That wasn’t what I asked.’

‘You take care of the fairies and let me deal with the men.’

I swear I didn’t snigger. Honest.

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They left around noon, with Irwin making derogatory comments about my cooking to excuse their not staying for lunch.

It was a relief, to be truthful; I was having a hard time being nice by then. But they did take the Range Rover, much to my chagrin.

‘I can work with the man, I just don’t like him!’

‘Seemed okay to me,’ Hal stood behind me as we watched them drive away.

‘Nastiest , most devious piece of work this side of…well, me, if I’m honest.’

‘You think he’ll keep his side of the deal?’

‘He’ll do his best, I think. How it’ll all come down, I really don’t know. But I’ll warn you - never turn your back on him. And we still have to sell it to the Lady, too.’

‘What do you mean, we?’

His joshing was interrupted by a screech of outrage.

‘No matter that, what about that wee snip o’ information ye didn’t think tae tell me, then? Ye got married? And didnae tell me?’

Hodge was positively incandescent.

Oh dear.

 

It took us the rest of the afternoon to mollify him. In the end, he conceded that he understood why we’d done it, but was still furious we hadn’t told him as soon as we’d got home.

‘Because you’d have been mad!’

‘I’m mad now, ye flipper-footed shape-changing weasel!’

‘Yeah. And we were trying to think of a way of telling you so you wouldn’t blow up. But we just hadn’t got round to it before our visitors turned up…’ I sighed, the beginnings of a massive headache building behind my eyes. I folded my arms on the table, rested my head on them.

‘We’re going to do it again, properly, when this is all over.’ Hal offered.

‘Mebbe so. But ye could hae told me. Ye should hae told me. Am I not a part o’ this family?’ he sounded so wounded, and I realised we’d got it seriously wrong.

‘Oh Hodge, I’m sorry. Really, truly sorry. We never meant to upset you like this. Knew you’d want to be there, but…’ I ran out of explanation.

‘Hmphff.’ He sat at the end of the table, his small, wrinkled face an unreadable mask.

 

He was still not speaking to us when we went up to bed.

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‘Made a mess of that, then. Sorry, it just came out.’

‘Yeah. Never mind.’

‘What do we do now?’

‘No idea. Whatever we did he was going to be mad. Guess we just have to hope he comes out of it.’

‘So what do we do next?’

‘Guess we’ll have to go and break the news to Herself, that we’re bringing the humans to visit.’

‘You’re nuts, you know that?’

‘It’s been said before.’

‘I think I just met one of the folks that said it.’ A half-laugh.

‘Aye. But he’s a bastard.’

‘You know who his little friend is, don’t you?’

‘I figured it out.’

‘That’s going to go down well in the Lady’s Court. He left when O’Brion went – well, he was his right hand boy... Seems he’s been making his own way for a while.’

‘It’s going to get harder to keep his identity secret.’

‘Nothing gets any easier, does it?’

‘Nope.’ I sighed, cuddled closer and buried my face in the junction of his neck and shoulder.

 

Just as things were getting interesting, there was a hammering at the front door.

‘Whatthefu..’ I disentangled myself and rolled out of bed, grabbing the nearest pair of trousers and a sweater. Barefoot down the stairs to the hall, picked up the shotgun and peered through the side window. Too dark to make out more than a rough shape – I really needed to fit some sort of lamp out there.

The hammering came again. And a familiar, unwelcome voice.

‘Are yer goin’ t’open the door or no?’

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Hal reached the bottom stair as I unlatched the door and cautiously swung it back.

‘About time! Did I catch yer at a bad moment? Or mebbe at a good one!’ she cackled at her own innuendo.

‘Whatthehell do you want?’

‘Aren’t yer goin’ ter ask me in, then?’

I sighed, and stood back, waved her in.

She unwrapped the thick plaid from her head and shoulders, shook clots of snow off it onto the hall floor. ‘Yer bin messin’ wi’ the weather much, boy?’

‘Not much. Only when I had to.’ Hal shifted uncomfortably under her glance, hitching up the sagging waistband of the old joggers he’d put on in his hurry.

‘Good. Best t’leave it alone til yer know more about what yer doin’. Save yer strength fer when ye’ll need it. Ain’t yer got the kettle on yet, girlie?’ She stumped past me and sat down heavily on the sofa. Rosie raised her head briefly, before settling back down to sleep.

‘Some guard dog you are!’ I nudged her with my bare foot, and went to light the lamp and fill the kettle.

‘So! What’ve yer bin up to, since I saw yer last? Apart from the obvious!’ she poked Hal with her stick, snickering.

‘Why are you here?’ I wasn’t in the mood for her usual brand of circumlocutory chatter.

‘That’s a fine way to greet an auld friend, girlie!’

‘Are you a friend? It’s sometimes doubtful.’ I slammed the kettle down on the hob and went to dry some mugs off the rack.

Her ancient prune of a face went serious for a moment. ‘I may be the best friend yer ever had. But even I cannae just tell yer what tae do or all o’what I know – yer have tae do the work yerself. All I can do is try to point yer in the right direction.’

I thought about it for a while, as steam started to rise from the kettle. However awkward she’d been, and despite how little I trusted her, she’d generally been helpful, in a weird kind of way.

I looked at Hal, who shrugged, lamplight flickering off bare shoulders.

‘It’s a long story.’

‘Oh, I’ve got the time, girlie. On yer go! How did yer get on wi’ yon posh folk in the Rath? Were they bendin’ over backwards to help yer?’

I made a pot of tea, passed her the sugar bowl, and started to pick my way through the past two and a half weeks. I still couldn’t believe it had been such a short time since I met her in the forest before we set off on our travels.

I left out quite a bit; what I’d deduced about Abartach, the wedding, and definitely not Corchen’s offer. Damned if I was giving her everything to turn back at me.

When I finished, she held out her mug for a refill without a word. She emptied the rest of the sugar into it and slurped noisily for a while. Hal, sat at the table with his chin resting on his hands, gave me a querying look – obviously wondering about the things I’d left out; I shook my head fractionally – tell you later.

‘So,’ I broke the silence, ‘what do you want?’

‘Dinnae be so impatient!’ another slurp. ‘Yer tale’s full o’holes. Why’d She give in, in the end?’

‘What, the Lady? Must have seen sense.’

‘Yer think I was hatched this mornin’? Yer’ve made a deal wi’ her, haven’t yer? What did she want?’

‘She didn’t ask for anything.’

‘Then what ha’ yer promised her, then?’

I shrugged. ‘Nothing much. It may not come to it, anyway.’

Her one eye gleamed darkly through the tangle of her hair. ‘Yer playin’ a dangerous game, yer know. I cannae help yer at all if yer ain’t honest.’

‘Everything I’ve told you is true.’

‘Aye. But yer not tellin’ it all.’

‘Some stuff you don’t need to know. It has no bearing on the coming war. Or my part in it.’

‘Reckon I’d be the better judge o’that.’

‘My choice. My decision.’

‘More fool you then.’

‘Say what you’ve come to say. I’m tired and I’m not in the best of tempers.’

She turned round to glower at Hal over the back of the sofa. ‘And what about you, selkie? D’you hae anything tae add ter yer woman’s story?’

‘Malin’s told you what happened.’

She clucked her tongue, finished the tea. ‘Then I’ll be on my way.’ She lumbered to her feet, picked up her stick and handed me the mug. ‘But be warned – there’s black days ahead, and heartache blacker than yer can imagine, girlie. I cannae see the end o’it fer blood and fire. Ye may well lose more than yer can bear, or yer may be lost in the thinking ye’ve lost it. I see darkness, and sacrifice. Hold on to what yer know to be true, and dinnae lose yer reasoning. And as for ye..’ she spun back to Hal, ‘yer already know what ye’ll need tae know, if yer did but know it!’ She cackled, and with that, she wrapped her plaid around her again and vanished into the night. A few flakes of snow spun into the hallway on the wind, melting slowly on the wooden floor.

I slammed the door, and locked it. Rested my forehead against the cold glass panel.

‘Fuck. What the hell was all that suppose to mean?’

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‘I see ye had another visitor last night, then!’ Hodge sniped as he finished the washing up the following morning, glancing at us as we staggered into the kitchen after a less than good night’s sleep.

‘Aye. Bloody witch.’ Hal slumped onto the sofa, idly rubbing Rosie’s ears as she rose to greet him.

‘The Cailleach, ye mean?’ the urisk’s eyes widened. ‘What did yon auld baggage want?’

‘Spreading gloom and disaster, as usual. Nothing useful.’ I rubbed my eyes, which felt full of grit. ‘Wanted to know what we’d been up to.’

There was an eloquent silence.

‘Didn’t tell her. None of her business.’

‘Good. That would have been unforgiveable.’ Hodge returned to drying up with a look of grim satisfaction. ‘So. What do ye want for breakfast?’

 

We needed supplies. All the stuff I’d brought back on the ship was probably still on the waterside; our hurried departure had left no time to organise transport. Despite my stocking up before we left, our uninvited guests had pretty much cleared us out of fresh and frozen meat, and had made major inroads into the dry stores in the pantry. I cursed, taking inventory; what we’d got last time should have lasted us through a good three months. Instead, it looked like we’d had locusts.

Which meant taking the Landy and the trailer back up to Inver and raiding the supermarket again – if Irwin’s boys hadn’t already cleaned it out. Plus I’d need to do a spot of hunting. Damned if I was going to live on fish until summer.

 

I checked the fuel levels, and rechecked the electrics from the turbine and the solar panels. If we were careful, and the weather improved, not too bad. Though I’d still have to sort out some long term plan. If there is a long term, my brain remarked snidely.

Shut up, I told it firmly. We’ve been through all this. No point dragging over it again – we have to believe there will be a future and get ready for it.

 

I spent a couple of hours digging over the garden, getting it ready for the new season. Hal barrowed in the compost from the midden, under the watchful eye of Cat, who checked each load and subsequent hollow for vermin.

I was aware I was putting off the moment when I’d have to go back to the Rath and break the news to the Lady that she’d have guests. There was nothing on the radio when I checked; I wondered how Irwin was handling his side of the negotiations. Actually, I didn’t want to contemplate that too far.

By teatime, a light drizzle was falling, and we were glad to pack up gardening for the day, bring the horses in from the field and finally stand under the shower, shedding sweat and mud in the warm flow of the water.

 

‘When do we go, then?’

I lifted my head, peering at him through the water that flattened my hair and ran down my face. ‘What? Oh, you mean to see the Lady?’

He nodded, poured shampoo into his hand and rubbed it onto my scalp. ‘Suppose it’ll have to be soon.’

‘I want to get the pantry stocked up first. Ought to take the quad back down – give Ryan a bit of freedom to get around.’

‘If your man has kept his word and cut the curfew.’

‘Which is another thing I need to check. And he’s not, never was, never can, and never will be ‘my man’’ I punched his arm, not gently, ‘that job is taken.’

‘Too damn right.’

Wickedly, I added, ‘He’d rather be yours. If you want, I could put in a good word for you!’

His outraged splutter was lost under the sound of the water.

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fifty-one

 

 

 

I cranked the Landy down off the axle-stands, loaded the quad onto the trailer and set off for the village, stuffing a last slice of toast in my mouth as I went.

It had partly thawed and the roads were wet, the water seeping out of the peat on the hill and washing down towards the burns, bringing soil and the occasional rock with it. There was no sign of other traffic, and I wondered if Irwin had been in contact with the troops at Cairndubh; there had been nothing on my radio and I wondered if he had another RT set he hadn’t happened to mention. Wouldn’t put it past him.

 

As I bumped down Ishbel’s track under an overcast sky, I saw Ryan in the yard. Beeped the horn and saw his grin as he realised who it was. Ish came out as I pulled up, shading her eyes against the morning sunlight; her face registered less pleasure but wasn’t entirely forbidding.

‘Malin. We didn’t get a chance to speak the other day.’

‘Hi, Ish. No, thought it’d be better to cut and run – didn’t want to raise too many questions.’

‘Well, I don’t know what you did, but my truck reappeared, and we no longer have ‘house guests’.’ Her tone was deeply sarcastic on the last words. ‘For which, thanks. Young Rob said it was an agreement you’d come to with Captain Irwin.’

‘Something like that. Give me a hand with the quad, Ryan!’

We manhandled the thing out of the trailer and he quickly checked it over.

‘Okay?’

‘Seems to be. Did you – oh yeah!’ he fished the fuel can out of the trailer. ‘Oh - I’ll get the rest of Raven’s gear while you’re here.’

He ran off towards the steadings.

‘I’m off to Inver to try for some stores – you want anything?’ I figured the troops would have made as big an impact on the village as they had at home.

Ishbel pulled a wry face. ‘We’re okay now, but I doubt there’s much there, Malin. They were away in that direction yesterday, filling up their wagons. They’ve replaced some of what they’d had, but I guess they’ve cleaned it out.’

‘Bugger. Ah well.’ They’d only been doing what I’d asked, after all. ‘Do you know if they’ve been up to the base yet?’

‘Not so far as I know – though they don’t tell me anything. And Caitlin…’

‘How is she? Still with them?’

‘Malin – I don’t understand what’s going on there... I mean, I thought Captain Irwin and Rob…well, you know…’ she almost squirmed in embarrassment, ‘but when she was here yesterday, Caitlin was all ‘Rob this’ and ‘Rob that…’’

‘Yeah… I have no simple answer for it, Ish. They’ll have to sort it out between them. She looked okay when I saw her, that’s all I know.’

‘Aye, she’s doing fine, if you know what I mean. But she spends all her time up there.’

I wondered how long that would go on, once she understood what was going on. And heaven help us all if she found out about Rob. ‘I’d be prepared for her to come home in a fury, Ish. And fairly soon, too. I’ve set the cat amongst the pigeons again, and she isn’t going to like how it lands.’

‘Can’t you leave well alone for once?’ her brows drew down.

‘I really, really wish I could. But – it’s as much a matter of survival as getting you out of the Fae’s hands, and if we have to – figuratively, anyway - ’ I crossed my fingers in my pocket ‘– lie down with the enemy, then that’s how it goes.’

She looked at me from narrowed sapphire-blue eyes. ‘Well then. More trouble on the way.’

I nodded. ‘You could put it that way. Might be worth having a bag packed, in case you have to move quickly.’

She nodded, her mouth a thin line.

‘Let the others know.’

Ryan reappeared, the thick New Zealand rug and rope halter over his arm. I stowed it in the back of the Land Rover.

Ishbel tapped him on the shoulder, ‘Chickens don’t feed themselves, young man. And you can check on the ewes in the shed while you’re at it.’ He nodded, reluctant to miss anything, but went cheerfully enough.

She turned back to me.

‘You’d best be on your way, if you want to get up to the base and back afore dark.’

‘Aye. And Ish…’ she turned ‘…thanks for looking after the lad.’

‘He’s a good boy. A bit loud, that’s all.’ She paused. ‘Go safe, Malin.’

‘Aye.’

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I checked the fuel level in the Landy. Should be enough to get me there and back home, and I had a spare can in the back. It was getting to the point when we’d be running out of fuel if we couldn’t pump the stuff up from the tanks in the garages – the residual electric had finally gone off. Which would have knock-on effects on troop movements, for one thing. I had the hand pump I’d picked up when I used the boat, but I’d need to find a longer set of hoses for it. Another thing I maybe could delegate to Irwin – after all, it’d be in his interests. If he didn’t already have something. Which was likely, in truth.

More negotiation.

The weather deteriorated as I drove north, drizzle setting in with a will, and reducing the visibility to a couple of hundred yards.

I went down to Inver, just in case Irwin’s mob had left anything; they’d pretty much cleaned out stuff like coffee and sugar, and the tinned goods, but there was still a bit of rice and flour, so I loaded it up. To hell with leaving anything for others now.

 

Right. The military base. I knew there was something left after the fuel explosion, but I hadn’t really done much of a check when I’d visited. That said, I bypassed the guard room this time, remembering what I’d found there. What was I looking for? Catering stores, the NAAFI, Mess buildings. There must have been something on those lines, somewhere, even though it wasn’t much more than a fuel store.

The explosion must have had the force of a large bomb, though some trick of geography or design had contained it, prevented the blast from levelling everything for miles. The fuel dump itself was a large hole, bits of blackened and twisted metal, still stinking after all this time. A buckled pier stretched out into the bay.

Frustratingly, I couldn’t find anything even vaguely resembling accommodation blocks. The armoury was scorched but looked intact, in its own reinforced compound. I’d leave that to the others. Come on Malin – there must be an answer to this.

People worked here. Not just the visiting vessels, permanent staff. But it wouldn’t make much sense – let alone health and safety –for them to live right beside the fuel store. They’d have families, they had to live somewhere. With all the ancillary gubbins to provide for them. So – if not here, where?

I scrabbled around in the glove compartment, looking for the map, spread it out across the steering wheel. Nearest settlement? Bloody MOD of course – tended not to be shown on standard maps, but there was something around three miles further north. I started the engine, and trundled on through the steadily increasing rain.

Bloody weather. At least it was clearing the snow.

 

A small group of grey, rainwashed buildings emerged from the murk. They had an institutional look about them, but the real giveaway was the barrier at the entrance.

Normal houses – married quarters, I guessed. Some larger buildings that looked like communal accommodation. Admin buildings maybe. To one side, accessible to all, a low building with parking in front. I pulled up and went to have a look.

I wondered if anyone had survived. There were no cars to be seen, no lights in the houses despite the gloom of the day, not that it was a given thing. I opened the door at the end of the building – it was locked, but what the hell – and peered inside.

NAAFI shop. Bingo.

I confess I just about emptied it. And then I opened the barrier and went through the accommodation as well. Every last toilet roll, for a start.

I was in the kitchen, in last of the small houses when it stopped me in my tracks. A high chair.

 

They’d had a kid.

 

I had to sit down suddenly, take a deep breath, stop myself throwing up.

 

How the hell had I missed it?

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I headed for home with my mind and stomach in turmoil. I had to talk this through with Hal and Hodge, see if their Fae viewpoint matched with what I feared. How horribly wrong could I have made things?

 

Passing Rubha, I saw the Landcruiser coming the other way, and flagged it down.

‘Mogg. Where have you been?’

‘Shopping. John – your troops… are they the only folks you’ve met up with?’

He looked at me askance. ‘Why, what’s up?’

‘Just answer the question. Did you meet anyone else?’

‘Sure. There were some that didn’t want to join up. Old folks - too old to fight, a few families.’

‘Families. You met families, with children?’

‘Yes… some. What’s this about, Mogg?’

‘Nothing…did you ever meet a kid on its own?’

‘No. No I don’t think we did. Mogg?’

‘Oh…it’s nothing you should be concerned with.’ It just added to my confusion. I changed the subject. ‘How’s it going with the troops?’

‘Fair. Rob’s better at convincing them than me, so I let him do the talking, and just add authority.’ He grinned. ‘Dunno why it is, but then I was always more action that words!’

I had a rough idea why it might be so, but I wasn’t going to share it. If Rob was glamouring the troops into agreement, good luck to him.

‘You done the stuff with the fairies yet, then?’

‘Timing’s everything, Johnny. Got to make sure it’s right. Soon.’

He gave me a cynical nod. ‘Timing. Right. See you then.’

 

 

***

 

 

‘What’s the matter?’ Hal came out to meet me as I rolled up to the gate.

I slid down from the Landy’s cab and, with a mixed sense of relief and dread, wrapped my arms around him.

‘Malin?’

‘I think I’ve done something terrible, Hal.’

‘Come on love, it can’t be that bad.’

‘If I’m right…’ I felt sick, ‘you may never speak to me again.’

I felt him pause, and then hold me closer.

‘Then let’s get the stuff unloaded while we’re still speaking, and then we can sit down and you can tell me about it.’

‘I love you.’ I said miserably.

He hugged me hard. ‘I hope that’s not the problem?’

‘No. Of course not.’

‘Come on, then.’

 

We shifted and stored everything I’d gathered, Hodge helping us restock the pantry. At least one of us was happy, for now.

‘Right. Hodge, get the kettle on. And you,’ Hal sat down on the sofa and grabbed my hand, ‘come here.’ He pulled me down to sit on his lap. I tried to wriggle out of his hold, to approach the thing from a more objective stance, but he wouldn’t let me go, tucking me in under his chin and pulling me tight to his chest.

‘What have you done that’s so terrible, Malin love?’

Hodge perched on the arm of the sofa, listening intently.

I tried to sort my thoughts into some coherence.

It took a couple of tries to get started; the words wouldn’t come.

I tried again, my voice cracking.

‘What happened to the children, Hal? Did they all get taken by the Fae? Or did most of them get killed on that first night?’

I felt the shock go through him.

‘I don’t know, love. But – no, no Fae would have… no, surely not.’

‘It’s unlikely.’ Hodge agreed.

‘Then… even if they saved them to start with…what happened to them when I made the Lady send everyone back? Oh, I know some made it back okay – there was a family in Inver with two kids, and John said he’d met a few families who wouldn’t join the Army… but – there were.. I don’t know how many – Ryan’s friends, the kids at the base, everything from teenagers down to the tiny babies - oh gods - what if they got sent back and their parents were gone? How could they survive in all that – too small, all alone, the bad winter, starvation, nobody to care for them? What happened to them? Oh fuck it - why didn’t I see it? What have I done?’

I have no basic maternal instinct. I didn’t think about kids as a first priority. I don’t generally think about them at all. I hadn’t even thought about what happened to them when Hal and I were actually arguing about them. And as a result, I could have been responsible for the deaths of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands. And given the way the Fae regarded children, everything we’d been through because of it, how could Hal ever forgive me?

I buried my head against his chest, wrapped my arms around my ribs, feeling numb.

‘Did I kill them, by not thinking?’

There was a long silence, and I felt the breath go out of Hal in a great sigh, but his arms around me never slackened, and his hand cradled my head against his heart.

His voice was a low rumble.

‘Do you think the Lady would let that happen, Hodge?’

‘I cannae see it. Nae. More like she’d lie, and keep the bairns. They’ve always been good at stealing the wee ones, ye ken.’

‘But I told her to send them all back, all the prisoners – Thom nodded to me, agreed that she’d done it!’

‘Only one way to find out. Ye’ll hae tae ask her straight.’

Yet one more reason that I had to go back to the Rath.

‘Okay. I’ll go tonight. No more putting it off.’

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