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‘You are not going on your own. Cloud can carry the two of us, if there’s not a lot of gear - we know that.’

‘Don’t get involved, Hal. I have to go through the whole “humans Under the Hill” thing, you don’t want to be there.’

‘Maybe so. But I want to hear her answer to the other thing.’

‘What if I’m right… and it was all my fault?’

‘Then I shall ask her why she felt it was a good idea that she should let that happen. There will be a reckoning.’ His jaw was set, and short of knocking him out I had little choice.

He swung up behind me, arms tightening around my waist.

‘Malin. I don’t believe she could let it happen. And if she did, it was her fault, and not yours.’

I wished I could look at it that way.

 

 

***

 

 

‘Hey, Conn.’

‘Good to see you again, my lady!’ he caught Cloud’s reins as we clattered into the Rath.

‘How are the other horses – how’s Winterthorn’s leg?’

‘She’s fine, thank you – your quick treatment made all the difference. And I never thought to see Aonbharr himself in my stables! A real treat! Lord Cairbre’s already planning some new lines!’

‘I’ll bet he is. Can you take care of Cloud, please? It’s kind of urgent we get to see the Lady soon as we can.’

He smiled, and led my mare off into the softly gleaming stables.

We headed down the spiral towards the heart of the Rath.

 

A slender female Fae met us at the bottom of the spiral; she looked faintly familiar and I racked my brains…‘Eithne, isn’t it?’

She made a small curtsey, looked surprised. ‘Aye, my lady.’

‘Can we see the Lady, please. It’s extremely urgent – I have something I need to ask her, preferably in private.’ If she had agreed the deaths of most of the human children, I didn’t want to announce it in front of the entire Seelie Court. I wanted to hold that possibility as leverage.

She looked flustered. ‘It is late, my lady… I would not normally disturb her at his hour…’

‘Disturb her, Eithne, or I will. Believe me, she’ll prefer it this way than if I shout it out in front of everyone in the morning. You can point that out if you like.’ Helpful, me. Always.

Hal’s hand tightened on my shoulder as she gestured that we should wait, and vanished around a turn in the corridor.

‘Do you think she’ll see us?’

‘I don’t think you’ve left her much choice.’

 

I leaned against him as we waited. Much as I worried about him getting involved with my arguments with the Lady, I was secretly glad to have him there, a solid presence in my corner.

Eithne appeared after about twenty minutes, looking even more flustered.

‘Will you follow me?’

She led the way down the corridor, that same corridor I’d been up and down several times now. Somewhere it changed into another place, wood panelling and rich carpets, flambeaux on the walls. We stopped in front of a tall, richly panelled door.

Eithne knocked, tentatively, and stood aside.

The door opened silently, and Cairbre, in an open necked shirt of fine – almost see-through – dark blue linen, and trousers of the same, looked us up and down, before stepping back and swinging the door wider. His expression was not promising.

As we went in, I realised that this was the Lady’s private quarters. A part-open door to the right led to what looked like a bedchamber, and it occurred to me that Cairbre’s clothes looked like nothing more than pyjamas. Way-hey!

The Lady sat to one side, on a tall chair upholstered in deep crimson. She was wearing a silken wrap in deep blue over a white shift, her feet were bare and her hair tumbled over her shoulders in waves of palest gold.

It looked as if we’d interrupted something. I had sudden, deep sympathy for Eithne, and made a mental note to apologise.

‘You demanded to see me?’

‘Not so much a demand, ma’am. Just something I felt should be discussed in private, rather than in front of the entire court.’

‘And that is?’

I swallowed, took a deep breath. Hal squeezed my shoulder firmly, urging me on silently. I reached up, took hold of his hand.

‘The children. What happened to the children?’

Her brows drew down a fraction. ‘What do you mean?’

‘In that first instance, when you took back the Land, put us all here and got rid of most of the human population – what happened to all the children?

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My words hung there between us, like a primed grenade.

Her eyes widened, darkened, and the air in the room grew thin. I could feel my heart hammering, felt Hal’s pulse pounding under my fingers on his wrist.

Cairbre’s whistled intake of breath sounded like the tide rising.

The Lady shut her eyes.

The pressure changed, as if we’d fallen from orbit. I took a great inbreath of the suddenly available oxygen, and braced myself against Hal.

‘Please. Sit down.’ She indicated a padded box, seat and storage combined. Somewhere, I made a mental interior design note.

I sat down cautiously, and watched Cairbre out of the corner of my eye. He didn’t look happy. Which didn’t bode well for our future dealings.

The Lady sighed, deep and heartfelt.

‘It was never intended that children would die.’ I heard Hal’s sharp intake of breath. ‘I only discovered that many did while we were working the change – that …Lankin..’ she half choked on the name, ‘..was willing to go that far... I could not believe it to begin with, ’ her head bowed over her hands. ‘I did what I could.. saved as many as I could… put them where they would be cared for.’

‘So a lot of them did die?’

I heard Cairbre growl, pretty much like Hal did when I was threatened.

The Lady put her face in her hands.

‘They did. It was never meant that way – the children, they can become ours, be cared for and tended, I would never, never ever, countenance such an abomination.’

‘But they died!’ Hal snarled.

‘They did. Until I realised what was happening, Then I sent as many as I could to a safe place. Where he couldn’t get them.’

‘You knew he was trying to wipe the humans out, didn’t you realise the kids would be part of that?’

‘I didn’t believe he would. I didn’t believe any Fae could!’

Her hands still hid her face; Cairbre was at the point of throwing us out when she sighed heavily and straightened up. ‘No, my lord. This is not something to be hidden under the rug. Lord Lankin planned to eliminate all the humans, whatever their age. I did not realise what he was doing until it was mostly done – at which point I did what I could to counteract it.’

‘But you supported him, until his death!’ Cairbre whispered, disbelieving.

‘I had no choice. You know how it works. I am the Lady, but I must choose a Lord, and thus by our tradition, I am bound to what that Lord decrees, however much I disagree! All I can do is try to intervene where I can. I did what I could!’ she was defiant, almost angry, her face white and pinched.

‘And what did you manage to do?’ I gripped Hal’s forearm, felt him shaking with rage.

‘I sent them away, far from here to another part of my realm, where others could care for them. The Summer Country.’

I looked blankly at Hal, Cairbre.

‘It’s a long way away. Safe.’ Cairbre said, tightly.

‘And what happened to them there?’

‘They were cared for, like they were our own.’

I swallowed the lump in my throat, went to the next stage.

‘What happened to them when I made you send the humans back, after I’d beaten Lankin?’

A frown marred her smooth forehead.

‘If I recall your words, you demanded “the prisoners. And the servants. All of them, everywhere” be sent back. You did not specify the children, who were neither prisoners nor servants.’

She sighed again, rubbed the bridge of her nose as if she had a bad headache. Cairbre stood against the wall, stone-faced.

She straightened her back and went on, her voice barely above a whisper.

‘All those who had families still alive, I sent back. I am not without mercy. Those who were alone, I considered to be adopted into the Fae, and thus not bound by your demands. They are, or could be considered - how would you say it? – changelings. They remain in our charge, until they are old enough to take their place in the world, whatever world it may be.’

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It was as if the floor had dropped out from under me and then a safety net suddenly appeared. Half a triumph, half disaster.

I don’t make any pretensions here. I’m not a hero. I’m as flawed as the next person, and I’m selfish enough to be relieved to find something isn’t my fault, before I feel sorry for the victims. I’m not a nice person, so don’t get the wrong idea; I’m nasty, and I know it, and I can live with that. If I can find someone else to blame, it’s a bonus. Less guilt on my account.

But given how Hal and the others thought, to hear her admission that some children had died was staggering.

At least I knew Hal knew it wasn’t my fault.

There was a long silence.

‘Was there something else you wanted to talk about right at this moment, or will it wait until the morrow?’ she enquired icily, although her tone clearly said ‘leave it’.

All things considered…

‘I guess it’ll wait.’

‘Good. Eithne will show you to a guest room.’

Cairbre already had the door open. There was an odd look in his eye as we went out, and I suspected that there would be further words between the Fae Lord and his Lady.

 

Hal was seething, but kept a lid on it until we were alone, in a room much like the one we’d had before the voyage. Although this one had a door, rather than a curtain.

‘She is unbelievable!’ he raged, striding around the room, unable to keep still in his agitation. ‘Unbelievable! How could she possibly let that happen?’

‘She didn’t know. And when she did, she did something about it.’

‘She still let some of them die!’

‘What could she do, with Lankin taking most of the power?’ I found myself in the odd position of defending her.

He finally flopped down on the couch, having expended most of his anger in a stream of what I could only assume were the foulest of Selkie swear words.

I kicked off my boots, and went to check out the bathroom. When I got back, he was sat on the edge of the couch, with his elbows on his knees, head bowed.

‘Come on, love. May as well get some sleep while we can.’ I rested my cheek on the point of his shoulder, rubbed his back. He shook his head, irritated.

‘You go to bed, Malin, I need to think.’ He started to pace again.

I didn’t want to start an argument, so I stripped off and curled up amongst the cushions, flipping an embroidered throw over me. I figured he’d cool down eventually. I closed my eyes, ignoring his restless movements, and considered what the Lady had done.

Whichever way you looked at it, she’d done some damn quick thinking. In the face of what I had demanded of her, and the situation, she’d seen the thing that I’d missed, and had found a loophole, all in a matter of seconds. She’d done the best she could, given the circumstances, and I wondered fleetingly if I’d have done as well. I was uneasy about how she seemingly had to defer to some Lord; whoever she chose would become de facto leader and would have a pretty free hand governing the Fae, whatever she herself wanted – and in Lankin’s case this had gone way out of control. I smiled wryly at myself – with everything else on my plate, here I was thinking about introducing women’s lib to the Fae…

The light was annoying; I pulled the throw and a couple of cushions over my head and tried to sleep.

 

When I woke, sometime in the night, it was dark and I could feel Hal stretched out beside me. His breathing told me he was still awake, probably still churning the matter over in his mind. I guessed it was hard for him, trying to reconcile deeply-held beliefs against a reality where one who should have upheld those beliefs had flagrantly gone against them, and another, who should have prevented it, had let it happen. One of the reasons I don’t hold with most belief systems; someone always lets you down.

I rolled over and wrapped myself around him, feeling the tension in his naked body. My fingers stroked across the breadth of his chest, smoothing the soft hair, running idly down his ribs to the crest of his hip bone. I heard his breathing speed up slightly, and moved my hand lower, following the shallow groove between muscles leading to his inner thigh. He groaned somewhere deep in his throat, and I kissed the hollow of his shoulder, working my way up the side of his neck and across prickly stubble to the softness of his mouth. His arms gathered me to him, rolling sideways and drawing my leg up over his. My hand guided him to me and a shift of the hips did the rest.

All that pent-up anger and energy found swift and satisfactory release, and I felt him finally relax, his face pressed against my neck.

There was a smile in his voice. ‘Distraction tactics, love?’

‘Maybe...’

‘Works for me…’ a chuckle, ‘…but how about you?’

‘Oh, I’m okay.’ It had been a little too fast for me to join him, but I figured it didn’t really matter.

As it turned out, he was of quite a different opinion.

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fifty-two

 

 

 

Morning was signified by a gradual increase in the light, and we made our way to the hall. I was intrigued to see how things had changed; the décor was distinctly different, and I wondered if it now reflected Cairbre’s taste as opposed to Lankin’s. The wooden panelling theme continued, with pointed, almost gothic, windows and doors. The hall itself had changed, the old Celtic longhouse had gone and the table now stretched the length of a darkly elegant room. A raised area stretched across at one end, with the high-backed throne-chair I recalled – some things evidently stayed constant. Another, slightly less elaborate, stood beside it, which was an interesting development.

Neither the Lady nor Cairbre were present. Thom’s grey head was bent over a scroll, one hand wrapped around a steaming mug of something; he looked up as Lugh stood with a shout of greeting as we entered, a wide smile spreading across his face.

‘About time you turned up – come, sit down!’ Lugh, clean and almost well groomed, was in an ebullient mood. ‘Breakfast!’

Grey-clad servants brought bread and fruit, and more hot drinks, which turned out to be something halfway between coffee and cocoa. The aroma was enticing, and I found that I had quite an appetite.

‘So! What have you been up to since we parted so …abruptly?’ his sly sideways glance told me that Cairbre had just come in, and a wicked gleam in his eye said that there had been some discussion.

I slathered butter and honey on a chunk of freshly baked bread, and chewed while I thought what to say.

‘There have been a few small scuffles,’ I admitted, ‘but it looks like we may have come to some agreement.’

Hal leaned back in his chair. ‘What she means is she hit them until they gave in.’

‘I did not!’

‘Sounded like that to me,’ he said cheerfully, ‘and no bad thing either, judging by the mess they made.’

Cairbre sat down carefully at the top of the table, and peeled a soft, blush-red fruit with a small silver knife, taking his time. The skin came off it in a long spiralling strip of peel that coiled on the table top like a red and white ribbon. He cut a quarter of the white flesh, and ate it neatly, before putting fruit and knife on the plate in front of him and looking down the table at me.

I smiled amiably. ‘I like what you’ve done with the place.’

He opened his mouth to reply, and promptly shut it, standing up in a rush as the Lady made her entrance, and pulling back a chair for her beside him.

I couldn’t help but compare her appearance to the first time we’d met, when I thought her so frail and ancient. Now, she looked half my age, her braided hair lustrous and her skin smooth and perfect. She wore a long, deep blue tunic with side-slits, over darker blue trousers and a white, narrow-sleeved high-necked shirt that gleamed like silk. A single brilliant-cut white gem hung on a slender chain around her neck.

I felt like yesterday’s dirty laundry by comparison. But then, I often felt that way, so I wasn’t too bothered. Hal’s hand, warm and intimate on my thigh, helped too.

‘Good morning,’ she sat down, and one of the servants put a cup and plate in front of her. ‘We will leave business until after breakfast, I think. Master Ercildoune, would you pass the butter?’

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When the debris was cleared away, we got down to serious discussion.

I was curious; only the Lady and Cairbre, with Lugh, Thom, Hal and I seemed to be involved. I would have expected more high-ranking Fae to be present, and said so.

The Lady waved a hand, dismissively. ‘No need until we actually have an agreement. And that is for us to decide. Once there is a plan, we will bring in others to achieve results.’

I couldn’t decide whether she included her consort, or was using the royal ‘we’.

I cautiously outlined what I’d managed to agree with Irwin.

‘Not much in the way of an army.’ Cairbre looked disappointed.

‘There are some more, but they’re way across by Inverness, and I don’t know if Irwin’s managed to contact them yet. I want them to pick up as much useful gear as they can, and then they’ll need to get here without attracting attention. Do you have any way of knowing where Balor’s forces are – or, more importantly - where they’re likely to strike?’

‘Our scryers have tried, but there seems to be something blocking them. We cannot see Balor’s host.’

‘Where the hell are they hiding? They’re not here, that much we know.’

‘And they’re not in the Land Above – where the humans are - or we would at least see traces. They seem to be somewhere else, perhaps between the two.’ Cairbre scowled.

‘Perhaps they have found a way to move freely between the place of their banishment and these lands?’ the Lady rested her elbows on the table. ‘Once the Abomination found a way back, it could be that the way stayed open.’

I remembered the hole that Balor had opened in the air. ‘And he can just make a doorway to wherever he wants to be.’ I sighed. ‘How the devil do we track him down?’

Lugh tapped the table, thoughtfully. ‘Can’t see him. Can’t scry him. Maybe we’re looking for the wrong thing.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Stop looking for him. Look for the victims. Get the scryers to look for the ones he attacks. Even for where we meet him. That gives us the where and when.’

‘Are they that accurate?’ I wondered why we hadn’t done this all along. Cairbre shook his head

‘No. They get glimpses, hints. And there is always a risk of misinterpreting what they see.’

‘Yeah. I know that one. But it has to be better than nothing.’

‘Aye, and there is merit in Lord Lámhfhada’s idea.’

And condescension in your tone, Fae Lord, I thought.

Lugh grinned at me across the gleaming oak boards, and winked.

‘So…once we have an idea of where he is – or will be – can we get there in time?’ Hal steered us onto safer ground for the moment.

‘You could say that we already know there must be, for if the scryers see the meeting, it must happen…’ Thom shook his head over the complexity, ‘…I think I have the beginnings of a headache.’

‘There are ways to shorten the distance, by passing through the land Under the Hill,’ the Lady said slowly, ‘although that would mean bringing your human forces here. And their iron weapons. And that is not something I would readily do.’

Which brought us neatly to the next sticky patch.

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As I had feared, it did not go well.

The Lady flatly refused to consider bringing the army to her land.

Cairbre discounted the need for any sort of joint manoeuvres.

I reiterated the need for us to work together, or face failure.

Lugh backed me up.

Cairbre and Lugh got into a heated argument over the failures – or otherwise – of Fae battle strategy.

The Lady demanded that I bring the Spear into her safekeeping.

I declined.

She ordered me.

I told her where she could go.

Thom and Hal tried without success to calm things down, finally retreating to a corner, heads bent together in frantic discussion.

The Lady accused me of trying to undermine her authority.

Thom ran out of the hall, face white.

Lugh called Cairbre an unseasoned whelp who would sacrifice what was left of his people for the sake of holding to outdated tradition.

Cairbre, shaking with rage, called Lugh a coward and a traitor, who had been exiled in disgrace.

I heard the hiss as Lugh’s sword slid from its sheath.

The temperature plummeted.

Thom fired two rounds from my gun into the ceiling.

 

In the silence following the echoes of the shots, a thin rime of ice crackled across every surface in the room.

‘ENOUGH!’

Hal’s hands slammed down on the tabletop, the noise making everyone flinch.

‘Thanks, Thom. Now, if you will all sit down… SIT DOWN!’

The Fae, shaken, sat. Lugh was slower, a faint look of amusement in his eye.

‘You too, Malin.’

‘You brought iron into the Rath...’ the Lady whispered in horror.

‘It was in my bag…’ it had become so automatic to carry it that I’d only found it when we arrived, and had hastily hidden it. ‘I left it in our room. I didn’t intend…’

‘QUIET!’ Hal roared, and the look on his face brooked no argument.

Thom held my gun like it would blow his hand off, and quickly handed it over; I checked it was safe, and put it back into the bag he also handed me.

‘Right. Now we are going to discuss this in a civilised manner. Thom – will you tell our colleagues what we have discovered?’

The Rhymer coughed, suddenly self-conscious.

‘You will recall, we discovered that the burden of telling nothing but the truth that was laid upon me by the Lady…’ he made a small bow in her direction, ‘…could be used as guidance. I related this in my report, madam.’

She nodded, still glaring at me.

‘Then you will know that what I say is true…’ his voice became deeper, authoritative, ‘…we cannot defeat Balor unless both armies work together, and understand each other’s way of fighting. The only way we can ensure this is to train together, and this can only be done on the Battle Field, here, in the lands Under the Hill.’

He coughed again, and glanced at Hal.

My partner smiled mirthlessly. ‘And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what is going to have to happen, like it or not, so I suggest we start again and this time, work out a solution.’

Which kind of put an end to the argument, for the moment.

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The conversation was subdued, but slowly a kind of compromise emerged.

A new entry point would be opened near the Rubha kirkyard, which would enable the human force to pass directly to the Battle Field, which, I learned, was a huge open ground that the Fae used for training their archers, charioteers and swordsmen.

The humans would not be permitted to go elsewhere in the Fae lands, and would live in Rubha, taking all weaponry home at the end of training sessions. No live rounds would be permitted.

I wasn’t too worried about that last ruling; I didn’t reckon we could afford to waste ammunition anyway. I still had to check with Irwin if he’d managed to salvage anything from the base.

This much agreed, we took a break. I excused myself, and went back to our room with my bag, which I hung safely over the back of the chair.

‘What the hell did you think you were doing?’

Hal sat down beside me, and flopped onto his back. ‘Couldn’t let you all tear each other to bits. Didn’t you notice Lugh and Cairbre were about to really set to?’

I nodded, appalled.

‘Not good, to have the Champion of the Fae kill the Lady’s Lord at this stage of the game. Because Lugh would have won, love, no doubt of that.’

He was right. ‘But to send Thom for the gun! He could have blown his fool head off!’

‘Seemed some drastic action was called for, and I couldn’t use the thing. Worked, didn’t it?’

‘Yes… I guess so.’ I propped myself on one elbow beside him. ‘And the ‘cooling down’ didn’t hurt either.’ I grinned, and poked him in the ribs. ‘Thought you were supposed to be saving that!’

‘For when it was needed, she said. I thought that was an appropriate moment.’

‘What’s next, oh Chief of Negotiations?’

He frowned, thinking. ‘Work out some areas of responsibility – who does what, who answers to who that sort of thing…’

‘Hmm. That should be fun.’

 

 

***

 

 

Inevitably, we didn’t agree on the chain of command, either.

I suggested Lugh should be in charge, as the one who had most experience of fighting Balor. He disagreed, saying that he would be to busy concentrating on wielding the Sword to direct the minute to minute fighting.

‘And you will be in the same position, Malin, with the Spear.’

‘But Lord Cairbre will be the one to use the Spear, surely!’ the Lady objected.

‘He’s going to look silly in armour four sizes or more too small,’ I observed nastily.

‘Armour? He has his own armour!’

‘Which won’t be any use against the things the Spear apparently does to the one using it, or so I’ve been told.’

‘What armour are you talking about then?’

i looked at Thom, confused. He pulled a wry face; obviously he’d left a few things out of his report.

‘The Morrigan’s armour.’

The Seelie Fae stared at me in silent horror.

‘I didn’t even know that was still in existence...’ Cairbre whispered, ‘…where did you get it?’

‘Same place as I got the Spear. And the instruction that I was to be the one to use it.’

‘From the…person in Ierne?’ the Lady looked as if there was a sudden bad smell.

‘No. From the guardian goddess watching over the thing.’

That stopped conversation again.

In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Lugh coughed, and leaned back in his chair.

‘As the only one here who was involved in the last battle, I think I have the best understanding of who should do what. I would strongly - suggest - that Lord Cairbre take command of the main Fae forces, and – Malin, have you a candidate for the human side of things?’

I had, though it annoyed me to admit it.

‘John Irwin, I guess. He’s probably the best placed – and the best experienced – to do the job.’ Just saying it left a bad taste in my mouth.

‘And overall command? That should, of course, remain with the Fae.’ Cairbre could obviously see a chance for self-promotion.

Lugh shook his head emphatically. ‘No. Malin and I will oversee the plan, and have the final say – you and this Irwin will have freedom to direct your forces within the overall framework we set.’ I could tell he was quietly enjoying irritating the Fae Lord, and by the dark look in Cairbre’s eye, it wasn’t going down well.

‘What about the Cauldron?’ I ventured cautiously. We hadn’t spoken of the need to destroy it yet; some things might be a step too far.

‘First we need to locate it. That’s where Hal and Thom come in.’ Both heads came up, with almost identical startled looks.

‘But first,’ Lugh stretched his massive shoulders and smiled amiably at the Lady, ‘perhaps a spot of lunch?’

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The Hero of the Fae finished eating, swilled down a last mouthful of ale, and belched hugely. ‘What I meant was, you two have been so successful at finding things – and I include myself in that – and neither of you are front-line warriors, so it makes sense to put your better talents to use. Locate the Cauldron.’

Hal bridled slightly at the slur on his fighting ability, but let it pass for the moment. ‘It could be anywhere. It might not even be in this reality!’

‘Then that should be your first question, shouldn’t it?’

Hal and Thom exchanged glances. Hal’s was rebellious, Thom’s said ‘leave it’. The Rhymer gathered up his scrolls and papers, and stood up. ‘Then with your leave, we’ll get started, eh, Hal?’ without waiting for further comment, he headed out of the Hall.

Hal looked at me, reluctant to follow.

‘Best do it, love.’

He frowned, troubled, but went after Thom.

The rest of us went on, hammering out an agreement, and a plan of sorts.

Towards the end of the day, other Fae joined us, which I took to mean the end of preliminary discussions and the start of the nitty-gritty of organising a war.

‘And you, my lady Malin, are going to need to find out how to use that infernal weapon before long.’ Lugh’s sky-blue eyes held concern. ‘It might have been better to bring it with you.’

I stretched, ironing out the kinks from long hours sat at the table, and said, perhaps a little more acidly than I intended, ‘Maybe, but then I probably wouldn’t be the one using it any more, would I?’

He gave me a wry nod.

‘Is there any point in me staying around here right now? Or can I go and try to outline the plan to the humans?’

He grinned, ducking his head to look at me through a rippling fall of now-clean blond hair. ‘I’ll not stand in your way, lass. Though I’m serious about the learning.’

‘Pick a place and time, and let me know.’

 

Thom and Hal were in our room.

‘Going home. Coming?’ I picked up my bag and my jacket.

Thom looked confused.

‘You too, Thom. May as well do your searching there as here.’

We headed down to the stables.

‘Conn, I haven’t got enough stabling for three horses – if you lend Thom Mothwing again, will he come home if we let him loose?’

The Stablesman paused, hand on Cloud’s bridle.

‘An affiliated horse will always find its bonded rider, if left alone. The others will find their stable, if told to go there… yes, he would return. But it’s not an ideal situation.’

‘Can’t ride three-up on Cloud though.’

He ran a hand down my mare’s dappled neck.

‘Definitely not, not in her condition.’

‘What?’

He smiled wryly. ‘I’m fairly sure she’s in foal.’

Oh Cloudie. Great timing, girl.

‘Who’s the sire?’

‘Conn, I wish I knew – could possibly be Aonbharr, could – more likely - be my lad Raven!’

He sighed, shook his head, then grinned wickedly. ‘That’ll go down well with Lord Cairbre.’

‘He can take a hike. We’ll go down the ley – Mothwing should be back in no time.’

‘I’ll hold you to that, my lady.’

 

 

***

 

 

Darkness was falling as we crunched onto the gravel by the gateway. The wind was getting up, and Thom headed for the house clutching his precious scrollbags, while Hal led Cloud to her stable.

I found a stockcube for Mothwing. While he chewed happily, I took the stirrups off, and the bridle, and put both in the saddlebag Con had provided; nothing to get caught up or trip an errant hoof. The mottled gelding tossed his head as I slapped his shoulder.

‘Off you go, Mothwing. Home, stable!’

I’d never actually watched a leyrunner set off from the perspective of one left behind – one second he was there and the next he was gone, a blur in the twilight over the crest of the hill.

Raven’s black head, ears raised enquiringly, appeared over his stable door as I went to help Hal and close things up for the night.

‘Well, pony my lad – what have you been up to?’ I rubbed his nose, ‘You’ve picked a great time to get my warhorse in the family way, you know.’ He snuffled at my pockets, unabashed, and I had to dig around for a mint.

‘And as for you, madam,’ Cloud’s nose nudged my arm as Hal shut the lower door, ‘what were you thinking of, eh?’ She delicately plucked a stockcube off my palm, and I closed up both stable doors for the night, aware of Cat watching everything from the darkness of the rafters.

Rosie bounded across the yard to greet us.

I felt Hal’s arm wrap round my shoulders and, together, we went into the warmth and lamplight of the kitchen.

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‘You promised.’

‘I know. I also said I didn’t think it would do much good. We haven’t time for you to learn all I know – and half of it you can’t use anyway – guns, knives, all the ironmongery.’

Hal stared out of the bedroom window into the windy darkness, frowning. ‘How else can I guard your back?’

I sighed, trying to make him see sense.

‘Can you use a sword? A pike? Because I can’t – oh I can make a stab at it,’ I winced at the unintentional pun, ‘but it’s not the way I know, so I can’t teach you that. Bow and arrow? Might be possible, but no use for close quarters. Hand to hand? If it gets to that you’re probably as well equipped as you need to be… I can teach you some moves, but if we’ve reached the stage of one on one fighting against Balor’s lot, we’re a spit away from being dead.’

‘You said you’d teach me to kill. I don’t care how I do it.’

My heart sank. He was determined that he would stay with me; I had a nagging feeling that doing so would put us both in more danger. Could I concentrate on what I would be doing and not have one eye out, trying to keep him safe? Could I trust myself to leave him to look after himself?

‘Do selkies ever use weapons?’

‘Teeth, claws. We have been known to use bone clubs. Throw rocks.’

I groaned. ‘Have you any idea how messy this war is likely to get?’

His mouth was set in a truculent line. ‘What does that have to do with anything. All war is messy.’

I slumped forward in my chair, and put my head in my hands.

‘We have a combination of Fae using swords, spear, bows and arrows, cavalry and foot archers. We have humans using guns, grenades, hand-held rockets and whatever else Irwin has liberated from the armoury. We have the Fomorians using pikes, slingshots, and whatever else it is they use – and I’d really, really like to know that. And on top of all that we have ancient Fir Bolg technology – the Sword, the Spear, Balor’s eye, which as far as I can tell are more like the most modern high-energy weaponry I can think of. Just what are you going to do against all that with a bone club or a bloody rock?’ I could feel my voice rising until I was almost shouting in my frustration.

I felt his fingers wrap around my wrists and pull my hands from my face, and looked up to see him kneeling in front of me. There was a funny sort of smile on his face, aggravation, patience and tenderness mixed.

‘Don’t cry, love.’

I started to say I wasn’t, when I realised I was.

He leaned close, rested his forehead against mine.

‘I’m not planning to go out and fight the hoardes with slingshot, sword or arrows, love; all I need to be able to do is watch your back, deal with anyone who gets close enough to try and get through that infernal armour of yours.’ He gave a half-laugh, ‘I’m the only one allowed to do that, more fool me!’ a soft kiss on the top of my cheekbone. ‘So show me how to do that better, quicker and for keeps. That’s all I’m asking.’

I swallowed hard, and sniffed. He handed me a tissue.

‘It’s been a rough couple of days, and tomorrow’s soon enough to start.’ He stood, pulling me up with him. ‘Come on, love. Blow your nose and come to bed.’

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Trouble was, my brain just wouldn’t wind down and let me sleep. I lay in the dark listening to Hal snore gently, and to the weather worsening outside, and thought about trying to co-ordinate such a disparate army.

Another February storm was driving in from the west, rattling on the windows and howling through the gaps in the light room. Somewhere a board worked loose and started flapping about, banging against the ironwork of the tower, until I could stand it no longer and hauled on some clothes and grabbed my head torch, to go and fasten it down.

Hodge was already in the study, glaring in frustration at the iron spiral stair leading upwards.

‘It’s okay – I’m going to fix it.’ I muttered, holding up a handful of cable ties. ‘I’ll do a better job in the morning, but these should hold it for now.’

‘It’s terrible wild up there – dinnae get blown awa’.’ He looked concerned as I went up the stairs and threw back the hatch. The wind caught it as I pushed, and slammed it back down, almost braining me in the process.

‘Careful!’

‘I’m trying to be careful!’ I set my shoulder to the hatch, pushed it firmly upwards, feeling the airpressure trying to force it back down. ‘One, two three-ee-ee!’ I shoved it hard, sprawled across it and pushed the securing bolt home. The wind hammered into me and nearly sent me back down the stairs.

‘Bloody shitting hell!’ I grabbed onto the banister, scrabbling for balance.

‘Dinnae gae up there – I’ll get Thom tae help ye!’ Hodge was gone as fast as I could blink; I wondered just how he did it.

No matter. I stuck my head up through the hatchway, trying to see what was flapping about. Against the darkness, the jinking light of my torch revealed three of the plywood panels had worked loose, and the door itself was open – it was this that was banging itself to bits against the main structure of the tower. Where the plywood that had covered the door had gone, I had no idea. Halfway to Rubha most likely.

I ducked back down out of the wind, cursing. If I fixed the wood back over the holes in the window, the wind would still come in through the door, whether I fastened that or not – the resulting air pressure would probably blow the entire thing out, including the few remaining sheets of glass. So. Step one. Fasten the door, and stop it getting more damaged. Then leave enough gaps for the wind to blow clear through, but not so many that everything blows away. Which meant taking one of the fixed panels on the downwind side out, and then fixing a couple on the upwind side. I hoped. The theory being that the wind would come in concentrated, and then find more places to go out – reducing the force. That was the theory.

Thom and Hodge arrived, by the light of a storm lantern. Not just them, of course.

‘Malin! What the hell are you doing?’

Oh good. Now I not only had a fretful urisk unable to help me, I had a selkie with the same problem. And only Thom as a spare set of hands.

‘Blessed MacGyver, help me now!’ I muttered under my breath, a prayer to the patron saint of irregular engineering. ‘Thom, come with me. We need to fasten the door first.’

We crawled across the floor, hunkered down below the level of the windows. I grabbed the door as it swung back towards us, threw my weight back to hold it closed as Thom fiddled with the cable ties to fix it.

Taking the panel out of the downwind side went easily, until we had to stop it blowing away, which took both of us. I poked cable ties through the holes drilled in the corners.

‘We can fix this to the bottom of the door frame, might give us a bit more shelter!’ I yelled over the howl of the gale.

It took Thom lying down with his feet holding the panel on before I could get it in place. The force of the wind did seem to lessen – a bit, anyway, and that was all I’d hoped for.

‘These two next!’

 

Knackered, but with most things reasonably secure, I followed Thom down the stairs, pausing to struggle with the hatch again.

‘And just why did that have to be done now, in the middle of the night?’ Hal, helping Hodge pass round mugs of cocoa, shook his head in annoyance.

‘It was banging. Couldn’t sleep.’ I took a grateful slurp of the cocoa. ‘And when I found out what was happening, if I’d left it, it would have been a whole heap worse by morning. Thanks for your help, Thom!’

‘He didnae have a choice.’ Hodge gathered up the mugs. ‘Now, away and get some sleep, all of ye.’

 

‘Find a problem. Decide you have to sort it out, whatever the risks. Just about sums you up, doesn’t it?’

‘Why are you mad with me?’

‘I’m not mad, exactly. Just… frustrated. You could have left it until daylight – the wind might have dropped, it didn’t need to be so dangerous, that’s all.’

‘But by then the door would probably have come off, the rest of the glass blown out… and who knows what the weather’s going to do?’

‘I could have helped with that at least!’ exasperation in his voice. ‘You didn’t even wake me up! It took Hodge and Thom thundering past up the stairs to do that!’

‘I didn’t know what it was, and you were asleep – by the time I found out it was too late – and it was all iron stuff anyway!’

‘You don’t get it, do you, love?’ he flung his head back against the pillow, one arm across his eyes. ‘You and me – we’re supposed to be a team! We, us, not just you doing things and me tagging on behind!’

I opened my mouth, and then shut it again. This was more than just fixing the door in the middle of the night. I could see his point. I was just not used to having anyone else around, to help or hinder.

‘I’m sorry.’ I sat up with my arms wrapped around my knees. ‘I’m just not used to it yet. I’ve always …I’ve only had me to rely on.’

A warm hand ran slowly up my spine.

‘Things change, love. C’mon, let’s try and get some sleep before there’s no night left.’

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fifty-three

 

 

 

The wind was still howling when we made our way downstairs for breakfast, rain hammering on the windows, sliding down the glass in grey sheets. If anything, it had got worse. I kept my mouth shut.

Hal put an arm around me, kissed the top of my head.

‘Okay. I admit it – it’s got worse.’

Thom looked up from a bowl of porridge. ‘Not a day for doing much outdoors, I hope.’

I poured the coffee. ‘No. Guess you two’d better get down to the search for the Cauldron.’

‘And what are you proposing to do?’

‘Go and see Irwin, I guess. Let him know what’s been agreed, find out what progress he’s made.’ Though I didn’t really want to use more precious fuel on the trip. ‘Guess Cloud and I are in for a wet day.’

‘You’re planning to ride there? Is that wise?’

‘They’ll have to get used to the idea some time. And given how wet it is, I don’t suppose too many people will notice anyway.’

 

The rain lashed down as I went to give the horses their breakfast, finding the gap between my neck and my collar, turning the vegetable patch to mud again and flattening the remains of the herbs in their pots by the back door. The stables were a haven of warm horse-fug, and neither Cloud nor Raven showed any inclination to go outside. Cat perched on the top of the wall between the two stables, hunkered down with his ears flattened as the rain hammered on the slates.

I wondered if I could put off going to Rubha. Pouring a measure of pony nuts into Cloud’s feed trough, it occurred to me that I’d better read up on the progress of pregnancy in horses. If it was relevant to Fae horses. Another note to self – talk to Conn. I remembered a pony I’d ridden as a child, that everyone thought was getting fat. They’d even bought her a bigger saddle; the foal that appeared one morning was a complete surprise. We’d been riding her right up to foaling; I didn’t think that was a good idea, but exactly how long I could ride her was something I seriously needed to know.

‘You’re a bloody warhorse, Cloudie! How could you think of it!’

She nudged me, and I thought there was a self-satisfied look in her eye. I sighed, ran a hand over her quarters as I left the stable.

‘Don’t get too comfortable, girl. We’re going out a bit later once your breakfast has settled.’

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I checked the fuel levels in the tank, fastened down the flapping tarpaulin over the woodpile beside the house, and scurried back indoors. There was a wonderful smell of baking in the kitchen, but no sign of the boys; I made a pot of coffee and headed upwards.

Thom and Hal were in the study, with various maps, scrolls and books spread out all over the floor and both tables.

‘Any luck?’

‘This world, at least.’ Thom looked tired. ‘But not where humans can reach, pretty much as Gofannon reckoned. No more beyond that for now.’

‘Well, it’s a start. At least we know it’s here for the taking - somewhere.’

‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ Hal reached up for his coffee mug gratefully, ‘the problem is trying to be precise enough, not to waste questions and time – it’s a pretty tiring process for Thom, which I hadn’t realised.’

‘Needs must, lad. And whatever Hodge is cooking up down there might raise my spirits a bit!’

‘Smells chocolatey to me,’ I inhaled and sighed, ‘which is always good.’ I perched on the bottom of the stairs. ‘Can I help at all?’

‘Mmm. Not really, Malin – we’ve got into a kind of rhythm with it at the moment, and…’

‘And I’m a bit too random, eh?’ Rueful grins told me I was right. Fair enough. I’d hate to de-rail their train of thought, and anyway, I had matters of my own to address.

The smell of fresh baking intensified.

‘Can I interest any o’ ye in a wee somethin’ tae go wi’ yer coffee?’

‘Hodge! Chocolate muffins? Really?’

‘Aye, but dinnae get too excited. If ye could find me some chickens, now… that would be a real improvement frae this powdery eggy stuff.’

‘Chickens?’ I wasn’t fond of chickens, they were horribly messy and either died or got eaten by wildlife in my experience. Still, we probably could use some.

‘Just sayin’. Fresh eggs – ye could hae aa’ sorts o’ treats if I had a few chickens, now.’

‘I’ll keep a look out.’

War plans, hidden Fae treasures, untrustworthy allies… and now chickens. As if I didn’t have enough to think about.

 

‘Hang on to your paperwork!’ I went up to check on our overnight repairs, to try and make them last a bit longer. The wind had finally slackened, but it was still whipping through the gaps, and the rain puddled on the floor, but the boards were holding up and all I had to do was tighten a few of the ties, and fasten down the plastic sheeting that protected the sofa.

As I straightened up, taking stock of the damage, something caught my eye; a light, away up the hill. I peered out through the rain-blurred glass. It resolved into headlights – a vehicle coming down the track.

I shut the hatch behind me, slid down the stairway.

‘Company coming.’

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‘Nasty weather!’

Rob Fellowes shook the water from his hair as Ryan hung up their coats in the hall.

‘Well, you’ve saved me a trip out in it, for which I thank you. What’s brought you all the way out here?’ I put the kettle on, and found the biscuit tin.

Ryan fussed over Rosie in a happy boy/dog heap on the rug. Rob sat down at the table, watching them with a wary smile, then turned back to me.

‘We heard from the others – you know, the ones over Inverness way?’

‘And?’

‘It’ll take them a while to get here, but it sounds like it should be worth it – I didn’t understand half of what they said they’d found, but John was happy. Let’s just hope they don’t attract attention on the way. He was wondering how you’d got on with the Fae, so I said I’d come over,’ his voice dropped to an undertone, ‘there’s something else I want to talk to you about.’

Hal and Thom came downstairs to join us; Ryan tore his attention away from the dog for long enough to be introduced to Thom.

Rob nodded a cautious greeting.

‘We’ve met,’ Thom’s face was studiedly neutral, ‘can’t think how long it’s been. But you were working for someone else then.’

Rob’s eyes widened, then he shook his head almost imperceptibly, indicating Ryan; it was obvious he hadn’t shared his heritage with anyone else.

‘It’s okay, y’know,’ Ryan observed calmly, ‘I know you’re not human.’

Rob’s face went pale.

‘Dunno what you are, though,’ the boy went on, getting up from the floor, ‘which is why I wanted to come with you today, right? To find out.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Figured Malin’d be the best one to deal with you, like, if you’re not on our side.’

I raised an eyebrow.

Ryan grinned at me. ‘And if you didn’t already know about him, I was going to tell you.’

‘Right… have you told anyone else?’

‘What do you think I am, some sort of snitch? ’sides which, if he’s okay, I didn’t think it’d be fair to drop him into it with his bossman.’

Made sense.

Rob, meanwhile, looked sick.

‘What did I do…how did you know?’ his voice was barely above a whisper.

‘Naah, you didn’t do nothing wrong, ‘zactly – just when we was going round talking to everyone, they all just sort of – nodded and said yeah to whatever you said, right? Which didn’t make sense to me – I mean, you turned up all ‘kill the bastards’ and then all it takes is Malin to talk to your boss, and you to go round telling them that now we’re all best friends, like, and it’s oh yeah, fine, like, and nobody even tries to argue. Not real, man! One of you had to be doing something weird – and I didn’t think it was the Captain. Well, not that sort of weird, anyway.’

‘And you concluded that Rob wasn’t human from that?’ I was curious.

‘Made as much sense as anything else. So I watched him. Sometimes his eyes change colour. Specially when he’s telling folks what to think.’

Rob groaned, sat down with his head in his hands.

His troubles were not over.

‘By all that’s green and growin’! Where did ye spring from, ye wee tricksy bastard?’ Hodge was obviously not in a diplomatic mood.

‘Hodge, this is Rob Fellowes, he’s...’ I tried to get in first.

‘Aye, I know exactly who he is! Ye scunner!’ he stood on the table in front of Rob, pointing a small finger in the other’s face. ‘Ye double-crossin’ wee pluke! Playin’ off both sides! I dinnae ken how ye’ve got the face tae be here!’

‘Now wait a minute!’ face flushed, the target of Hodge’s indignation sat up, raised both hands in defence.

No effect – Hodge had worked himself up into a fine frenzy. ‘Ye were always a sneaky wee sod! First ye’d be traipsin’ after Himself, then ye’d be dancin’ attendance on the Lady, then ye’d be makin’ mischief wherever ye could, even between themselves – ye expect me tae think ye’re nae up tae yer old tricks? Did he chuck ye out then? Finally had enough o’ yer twistin’ and prankin’? What’re ye doin’ wi’ the human folk, pretendin’ tae be one o’ them?’

Thom grabbed the urisk by the scruff of the neck and prevented him attacking Rob with fists and feet, ‘If you’d shut up for half a second, maybe we’ll all get to know!’

The urisk squirmed, but was securely held, cursing.

‘Hodge, give it a break or I’ll stick you in my rucksack and hang you up on a peg.’

I won’t repeat what he said.

Eventually, he had to take a breath, and we got the chance to hear Rob’s side of the story.

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‘I went with him when he left, over the water to Ireland. She wouldn’t have let me stay anyway, not after everything…’ Rob shook his head, rueful memories playing across his face.

I poured a glass of water, set it in front of him, and leaned my back against the sink. Ryan perched on the arm of the sofa, arms crossed.

‘It was fine for a while, before the famine, and the troubles. Then they went away, following the people, to the lands beyond the sunset.’ He sighed, took a drink. ‘And my Lord said we should follow…and I .. I cannot do that. I am bound to this land, as sure as if my heart was pinned fast to its rocks, its trees…to oak, ash and thorn… so he let me go, and he went away, over the sea.’

Hodge had subsided, and now sat on the table watching Rob’s face closely. ‘And ye didnae think tae come back here, tae the Lady?’

‘I didn’t think she would let me stay. No – I knew she wouldn’t. I stayed, wandered for a while, then came back to Albion, kept well to the southlands.’ He grinned briefly. ‘Started living amongst the humans, now and then. Told stories, made a living making charcoal, or wooden chairs, spoons, that sort of thing. Lived in the woods, until most of the woods were gone.’

He continued, explaining how he had survived, but I was distracted by Ryan.

‘Who is he, anyway? You know, don’t you?’ he hissed.

I glanced at the others, engrossed in Rob’s words, then indicated we should go into the hall.

Sat on the stairs, I sorted my thoughts, took a deep breath.

‘How’s your Shakespeare?’

‘Huh? Y’what?’

‘You know – England’s most famous playwright, Stratford on Avon, all that stuff? Do you still do that in school these days?’

‘Naah. Not unless you do ‘A’ level English – which I wasn’t planning… oh, we did a bit for a term or two early on, like, but – duuh - it’s not really relevant is it, these days?’

Bloody hell. What were they teaching? I shook my head, but let it pass.

‘Pity. You’d have a much better grip on what’s going on if you’d done it… seriously? Never been to see a play?’

‘My mum dragged me to the theatre once, when I was thirteen. She liked that sort of stuff, thought I should try it. Improve my mind, like. Did go, didn’t like it. Didn’t do it again. Bloody daft – all nancing about dressed as donkeys and stuff.’

I raised a small internal cheer for improbable coincidence. ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Well, my lad, what you have to remember is that a lot of stories have a grounding in the real thing, and even Shakespeare had his sources. What do you remember of the story?’

He scowled. ‘A load of poncy gits talking weird, one or two girls with not a lot on pretending to be fairies…’ he stopped and I watched the realisation dawn. ‘Are you telling me it was a true story?’

‘Some of it. Fairy King and Fairy Queen argue, King decides to play a trick on Queen as revenge, humans get more-or-less humorously involved on the way. Mischief mostly done by King’s chief helper… known as Puck, or Robin Goodfellow… now are you with me?’

‘You’re joking.’

‘Do I look as if I’m joking? This really is about as funny as most of Shakespeare’s comedies get.’

‘But he was in a Kipling book! I read that!’

‘Puck of Pook’s Hill. Yep. And others. I don’t think there’s a story that doesn’t have a germ of truth somewhere in it, if it wants to be a good story.’

‘But… he was little – more like Hodge!’

I shook my head sadly, looked at him in disbelief. ‘That was how he was written. Doesn’t have to be right. And anyway - what does he look like to you?’

He described a human version of what I saw.

‘So you can’t see the pointy ears?’

‘No,’ a whisper. ‘He has pointy ears? You can see that?’

‘I think most people see exactly what he wants them to see, big, small, ears or not. Dunno why I see him different.’

I could see him thinking, trying to make sense of it.

‘Are you serious, Malin?’

‘Serious as a serious thing, being very, very serious.’

‘Bloody hell!’

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We went back into the kitchen.

Hal glanced up at me, a question forming in his eyes. I half-grinned, shook my head.

‘Rob was just saying, he hadn’t realised O’Brion had come back.’ Thom filled in the gap while we’d been out.

‘He never let me know.’ There was a look of disbelief, of betrayal in his face. ‘He could have sent out word… I’d have gone there – wherever…all he had to do was ask…’

I slid into the seat across from him, took his hands in mine.

‘Rob… if he’d known you were still here…but he couldn’t – nobody over there could – have reached you. The Lady forbade it. No contact between Albion and Ierne. Because they’d taken his part. He couldn't have let you know. Nobody would have listened, or passed a message on.’

His eyes filled. I passed him a tissue and tried to change the mood.

‘Come on Rob, you haven’t said where you were when it all happened, or how you ended up with Irwin’s army! Where did you meet up with that reprobate?’ I elbowed Thom, ‘Stick the kettle on, I think I need coffee, even if nobody else does.’

 

He wrapped his hands round the mug like a lifeline.

‘I was working. Character information guide in Sherwood.’

‘Oh, aye? Who were you?’

‘Alan-a-Dale, if you must know.’ He had the grace to look ashamed.

‘Oh I could tell you tales about that lot!’ Thom chuckled as he sat down again.

Rob raised a half-smile and went on. ‘Anyway, it had been a long week and I’d been in the pub all night…’

‘You were pissed.’

‘Totally shitfaced, if you want to put it that way,’ he grimaced, ‘but anyway… I don’t remember how I got back to my caravan, but when I woke up – I just knew something had happened. Went out and tried to find out what… couldn’t find any humans, but the Fae were coming out of the woodwork. I tried to stay out of the way – didn’t want to meet Her, or attract her attention. Hid out in the town, where they didn’t come so much.’

Another gulp of coffee.

‘Fortnight or so later, people started appearing again. Not as many as there had been, and they were in a pretty bad state – shock, some thinking they’d been taken by aliens, some gone mad… I knew it was something the Fae had done, thought I didn’t know what. Then I met John.’

He held up his mug for a refill, gathering his thoughts.

‘He was…angry. Hurt. Physically and in his head. But he remembered everything clearly.’

‘He would.’

‘Wanted to get his own back.’

‘Understandable.’

‘We didn’t know what had actually happened until you told us, y’know? The bigger picture, I mean. All I knew was – the Lady and her people had done this. So I wasn’t against taking some sort of action in return. After what she’d done to my Lord.’

‘What exactly did she do?’

‘She blamed him. When their son went missing. Blamed him for not stopping the boy, for letting him ride the horse when Cairbre said not to, blamed him for making the boy feel he needed to prove something…’

‘What was the other side of the story? There must have been one.’

‘Abartach’s best friend… he was always niggling at the boy – he was just a bit older, just a bit more daring. Always wanted to make a name for himself. Resented being born too late to be a great hero, I think. He was the one put it into Abartach’s head to find glory charting the darkways. And the one that let him go alone, in the end.’ His mouth twisted as if the coffee had turned bitter. ‘And she wouldn’t hear the truth of it. Wouldn’t hear a word against the older boy.’

‘Spoiled rotten, just as you said, Thom. Rotten to the core.’ I pinched the bridge of my nose, sighed. ‘And so you and Johnny started looking for ways to fight back?’

‘Yes. Which is how we came to meet up with the General. And John was so good at the practical stuff, and I could persuade people to follow orders…’

‘Glamour. Am I right?’

He nodded. ‘Always been strong in that. And I didn’t think anyone would really notice if I was careful.’ His eyes slid to Ryan. ‘Seems I was wrong.’

‘You had to be looking for it.’ Ryan shrugged, ‘it was just that I’d already figured you weren’t quite right.’

‘Not sure how I should take that…anyway, that was how we got to be here. Which brings me to the thing I wanted to discuss with you.What happens now? You’re talking about dealing with the Fae – they’ll have me sussed in a second… what happens when John finds out?’

‘I’d be more worried about Caitlin, myself.’

His face turned pale.

‘Forgotten about her so soon?’ I smiled nastily.

‘She was a mistake. I mean – I never meant to get involved. She was so angry… and so damn scared. She came to me, not the other way round, she was frightened, needed a friend. I was only trying to make her feel better. Things just - happened.’

‘So you and she… and you didn’t tell John, of course. And suddenly you’re up to your neck in deep shit whichever way you turn.’

‘And getting deeper all the time, thank you very much.’

‘Don’t land this at my door, Robin. It’s only going to get worse. Anybody any suggestions?’

Unfortunately, my friends failed to come up with a brilliant idea.

‘I won’t grass you up, if that’s what you’re worried about.’

‘Ryan, I think you may be the least of my problems. It can be kept quiet for now but what happens when we meet the Fae?’

‘Which is going to be sooner than you think, I’ m afraid.’ I explained what had been agreed. ‘I need you to tell John the plan. Let him know the where and when and how of it. Meantime, I’ll try – we’ll all try – to come up with some reason why you should stay this side of the Hill. If you’re doing something important here, you’ll be less likely to be noticed. Deal?’

‘Have I a choice?’

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