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They left around mid-afternoon; Rob with a plan to explain to Irwin, and Ryan with an answer to his question, and a promise not to tell anyone what it was.

‘What now, folks?’

‘Keep on trying to find the damned Cauldron, I suppose,’ Thom sighed.

He headed up to the study. Hal lingered in the kitchen, and I could feel he had something to say.

‘Malin… the boy. I think he’d be better off here than in the village.’

‘Why?’

‘He fits in here. And there’s what you said about him not knowing things that he should.’

I’d had to explain why we’d vanished into the hallway earlier.

‘And?’

‘Wouldn’t he learn more from you than from them?’

‘Hal – Iain Donald was a teacher – who’s better than him to teach Ryan what he needs to know?’

‘What he might have needed to know in the world back then, maybe – but now? I think there is a whole new set of things any kid is going to need to know. And who better to teach survival than you?’

‘You’re assuming we’re all going to survive.’ I was feeling bleak.

‘I have to, love. We have to have hope.’

‘Is this about children, Hal? We can’t have any, so we adopt one?’

He had the decency to blush.

‘He’s a good kid. What’s there to lose?’

‘He might not want to.’

‘Come on, Malin – he thinks the sun shines out of you.’

‘Hardly a good starting point. It can only go downhill from there. And where would we put him? There’s only so much space here.’

‘We’re going to need to build extra space anyway – we’ll need more stables for a start, and a new wood store, and if Hodge gets his chickens – and the goat..’

‘What goat?’

‘Ah. He hasn’t mentioned the goat, then?’

‘No.’

‘Ah.’

‘Goat.’

‘For milk.’

I closed my eyes. Took a deep breath.

‘Which in turn means a billy goat, and lots of little goats. Hal – am I running an animal reserve here?’

‘It was just an idea…’

‘Can it stay that way?’

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I made another pot of coffee, and sat on the sofa to think while they went to work in the study.

‘Biscuit?’

‘Why not?’ I selected a stem-ginger cookie from the tin.

‘What’s up?’

‘What’s not? You heard the stuff earlier. How do I stop them taking Rob apart when they find out he’s not human?’

‘Simple. He’s Fae.’

‘Not really. He’s mostly Fir Bolg and Fomorian, or so he says.’

‘Aye – but how many o’ yer humans know the difference? If ye puts him forrard as Fae – o’ whatever persuasion – and he’s done a good enough job o’ glamourin’ them – he’ll get by.’

‘Do you really believe that?’

‘I think they’ll believe it, which is a whole different thing.’

‘Maybe. Just maybe.’ I drank my coffee, slid down in the seat, resting my head on the back, closed my eyes. ‘What’s this about a goat?’

‘Ah. He mentioned that, then.’

‘Goat. Chickens. A boy. How much more are you guys planning to add to this menagerie?’

‘That’s about it.’

I opened an eye. His face was the picture of innocence. As if I believed that.

‘Hodge…’

‘It’s just a suggestion.’ He scuffed his feet on the table. ‘And the lad’s useful around the place.’

I sat up with a jerk. ‘You’re in favour of that? Of having Ryan here permanently?’

‘He understands us. He’s accepted what we are. What more do ye want?’

‘Who said I wanted anything?’

‘Ye like the boy, don’t ye?’

‘Yes. Oddly enough.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘Is this something we can come back to when the bloody war’s over? When I can think about a future, rather than just surviving?’

Exasperated, I got to my feet, put my mug down a little harder than I intended. ‘Hodge – these days I don’t even know if I’ll be alive tomorrow, let alone making plans for whenever. I want to stay positive, I really do, but it’s getting harder all the time. Don’t ask me long term stuff… get your bloody chickens if that’s what you want, but if a fox or an otter gets into the henhouse, don’t complain to me. And don’t expect me to clean the bloody thing out!’

I grabbed my jacket and went out to the stables.

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I didn’t know what to think. Everything was moving too fast – I could cope with the serious battle stuff, but all this domestic hoo-hah? I sat on a haybale in the store and tried to get my head around everything. My mind just went round and round, and eventually I stopped thinking and started polishing tack. It’s a nicely brain-dead activity, just cleaning off mud and working in the saddle soap and the neatsfoot oil, and I find it’s a soothing thing if my head hurts.

I let myself get absorbed in the simple rhythm of rubbing in the soap, small circles, round and round, like shining boots. Outside, the wind had dropped and I heard the skylark declaring his rights over the meadow, the calls of the seabirds beginning to arrive on the cliffs below the lighthouse, and eventually, footsteps from the house.

Thom rested his elbows on the half-door, and watched me for a moment.

‘So. What’s the latest on the Cauldron?’ I didn’t look up from my task.

‘Under sea. Far from land. Humans can’t get there.’

‘Nothing new, then.’

‘Malin – that’s unfair.’

‘It’s just corroboration of what we already thought, though.’

‘So come and help us ask new questions! Make those weird jumps in logic we don’t seem to be able to do!’

I gave Raven’s bridle a last few wipes of the cloth, and hung it up on the peg.

'Thom…it’s not logic. If anything, it’s the farthest thing from it. I just free wheel…’

‘Whatever it is, it works. We need you.’

I packed up my cleaning kit, and closed the door. It was getting colder and I could almost smell snow on the breeze; I sighed, and followed Thom indoors, through the gathering blue of twilight.

 

‘Right. So – thus far, we know it’s under the sea, where humans won’t – or can’t – find it. A long way away. I can’t see it being sat on the sea bed, out in the open...’ I raised an eyebrow at Thom. He shook his head, and I went on. ‘So it’s hidden – either in a deep cave or under the seabed? Maybe a wreck? One too deep for divers to reach. Promise me it’s not on the Titanic, boys!’

‘That’s beyond the bubble, Malin – it’s not going to be there.’

‘Check anyway – do we know if Balor can go beyond the bubble?’

Thom passed me the post-it notes, and I started scribbling.

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Under the sea, more than five fathoms deep, in a hidden cave or cavern, closed off from the outside. Within the bubble, and not in Balor’s realm or Under the Hill. Somewhere off our west coast, well offshore.

‘And it can’t be moved from where it is except by Balor. Just great.’ Thom sighed, rubbed his eyes wearily.

‘Which means we’re looking for isolated rocks, whether they break surface or not, or seamounts, or reefs.’

‘Small islands?’

‘Unlikely – chance of human interference. But check anyway.’ The list of possible places was shrinking, but oh, so slowly. And we didn’t have a proper chart of the waters.

‘Are ye comin’ down fer supper, or stayin’ up here all the night?’

Looking at Thom, I could tell he needed a break. We all needed a break. ‘Coming down, Hodge. And I’m sorry I was snarky earlier.’

He nodded, a hint of satisfaction in his eyes.

‘I’m still not keen on the goat though.’

‘Hmph.’

 

‘We find the Cauldron – what then? We still have to deal with it. It doesn’t sound like we’ll be able to steal it from them.’

‘Ye said that Gofannon reckoned ye’d hae tae break it, if ye couldnae take it.’

‘Aye. But he didn’t know how, except that it couldn’t be by fire.’

‘If fire and heat willnae do, water doesnae touch it, and all earth can do is bury it…’ Hodge mused, staring out of the window. A few flakes of snow were sticking to the glass. ‘What about cold? I’ve known winters so cold that the iron bolts on the gates o’ the farm shattered at a touch; could be a touch o’ the deep freeze would do the trick?’

I felt my stomach lurch. He had a damn good point.

‘Thom?’

He was silent for a moment, his lips moving soundlessly, then spoke, in a deep voice barely his own. It had the ring of prophecy.

 

‘Cold beyond the cold of winter, colder than the deepest ocean, only the cold between worlds will shatter the Dagda’s cauldron beyond repair.’

 

Hal’s lips twisted in a bitter smile.

‘We hadn’t thought of cold…but what other elemental force is there?’ he looked slightly sick. ‘The Cailleach said to save my strength…maybe this is what she meant by it being needed.’

‘But can you do it – get it that cold, I mean? ‘Between worlds’ – sounds like space, maybe close to absolute zero!’

‘Is there an alternative? I don’t doubt your science could have done it, but we no longer have that option. If it’s cold, it’s me or nothing.’

‘And we cannot bring it to land. It’s under water - you would be the obvious choice to seek it out. But you can’t go alone.’ Thom’s voice was full of concern.

‘What other choice is there? Who else – excepting the old baggage herself, and she can’t go – could make it cold enough? And that puts a time limit on it, too.’

‘A time limit?’ I could feel my heart sinking further.

‘Yes, love. It has to be before Beltane, when the power of the balance passes from Winter to Summer. After that, I won’t be able to do it.’

He shoved his plate away and stood up. ‘Sorry, Hodge. Think I’ve lost my appetite. I need some air.’ He went out of the door into the yard; I started to follow, but Thom caught my wrist.

‘Let him go, lass. He has to work it out, come to terms with it, and you’d best let him do that alone.’

‘I’m not going to be able to go with him, am I?’

‘You have your own part to play, Malin. And no, your place is not under the sea.’

 

He would have to leave me. Once we figured out where the damned Cauldron was, he would have to go.

And I would let him.

A brief, hard laugh escaped me, more a bark than anything. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about him on the battlefield.

He’d be far beyond any help I could give.

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fifty-four

 

 

 

Hal hadn’t returned by the time I’d finished the evening chores, and I was starting to get a little worried. We checked, and found he’d taken his sealskin from its usual lodging on the shelf over the coat pegs by the back door.

I fidgeted, picking over the pile of post-it notes and the list of what we knew that I’d brought down from the study. My old road map spread out across the table. Looking at it, it came to me with a sense of weary revelation that I knew how to find out where the Cauldron was.

I kept my mouth shut.

‘He’s in his own element, lass. Nae point in frettin’ – he’ll be back once he’s got his head straight.’

‘Aye, and some of us wouldn’t mind getting some sleep!’ Thom added pointedly, arranging his bedding on the sofa.

I took Rosie out for a last turn around the yard. A light covering of snow lay on the garden, melting swiftly as my fingers brushed it from the top of the gate. The dog snuffled at the field gate where Hal’s footprints had left dark marks in the whiteness. She whined, looked up at me.

‘Yeah. That’s pretty much how I feel, too. C’mon, dog. Bedtime.’

 

Going to bed didn’t mean going to sleep.

I read for a while, waiting for my eyes to get heavy, but I couldn’t concentrate, waiting for the sound of a footstep on the stairs. I think I must have read one page eight times or more without any meaning or sense getting through to my brain. By two in the morning I’d had enough, put down my book and glasses, and got up again.

Thick sweater, fleece lined trousers. Wind up torch. Woolly hat and gloves.

I went downstairs, avoiding the creaking stair treads. Thick jacket and warm boots. Dense foam fold-up mat from the hall cupboard. Let myself out of the front door in silence. Crossed the yard, my feet crunching slightly in the snow – colder now, and a frost forming. The solar light by the back door flickered on, noticing my presence. I opened the field gate, and went out into the darkness beyond.

I climbed cautiously over the fence, glad that the wind had dropped, and found the track to the rocky beach below. The light from the wind-up danced wildly, and I briefly wished I’d brought my head torch; too wasteful of batteries, I chided myself, and headed downwards.

The waves shrusshhed onto the shingle, back and forth, calmer now, and I found a convenient rock, placed the foam mat carefully and sat down to wait.

 

Three o’clock. The sky cleared. A million, billion stars looked down impassively. A satellite carved a glittering path across the sky, oblivious of us here below.

 

Four o’clock. Rime formed on the upturned collar of my jacket, where my breath crystallised.

 

Frost glittered on the weed on the strandline. I tucked my hands up into my armpits, set the torch on the top of the rock. Drew my knees up. Come home, Hal, I thought, or I’m going to freeze here.

Waves broke on the shore, the sound almost hypnotic. I figured I was more likely to fall asleep here than in my bed. A change in the sounds of the sea. Something in the shallows.

 

Shingle crunched.

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‘Oh, in the name of gods and fishes!’

‘And hello to you, too.’

‘Malin, what the hell are you doing here?’

‘Oh, just stargazing… For fuck’s sake, Hal, what do you think I’m doing? I’m waiting to see if you come back okay, you ass! You bugger off in a mood, who knows where, and you expect me to just bumble off to bed and sleep?’

‘This is ridiculous!’

‘Quite probably. But it’s better than just lying there, waiting.’

He sat down beside me, pulled me close. ‘Damn. I was looking forward to that. You, bed, warm…waiting.’

I tipped my head back, trying to see his face in the waning torchlight. He seemed in oddly good humour, for some reason.

‘Come on, let’s go home and get you warmed up. Daft bloody woman.’

We stumbled up the rocky track, and back to the house.

 

‘By the tides, your feet are like ice!’

‘What do you expect?’

‘Whooah.’ He snuggled closer. ‘I take that back. All of you is like ice, woman!’

‘If you will vanish…’ I stopped. ‘You seem… I dunno…happier? No not that… damn it, Hal… what gives?’

He hauled me against him, skin pressed hot against cold.

‘You’re right. I was bloody furious, with the Cailleach, Gofannon, all of them; it feels as if we’ve been manoeuvred into this. Guess I went mindless for a bit, ‘til I blew off enough steam to think properly. Thought it was best to be where I couldn’t do any damage, except to a few cod and an annoying conger.’

The image made me smile despite myself.

‘And I came to a decision, love, …though it means I have to break my promise, which I said I wouldn’t do. Though I think you’ll understand.’

‘S’okay.. I guess I know what’s coming.’

He sighed. ‘I don’t want to leave you. But given the circumstances, we both know I’m going to have to. If we want any sort of a future, there are things we have to do, and life… life isn’t going to let us do them together. Not yet.’ There was a catch in his voice. ‘So the best thing I can think is to stop fighting fate, stop screaming and shouting, and just get on and do it, get it over with. End this bloody war, and then we can get on with our lives.’

I felt a kind of knot in my chest. ‘You’re probably right. Though don’t expect me to give in without a bit more kicking and screaming.’

‘I guess not. Wouldn’t be you without some sort of argument.’

I pressed closer. Tasted salt in the hollow of his throat. His hand moved down to my backside.

‘Is there any bit of you that isn’t frozen?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Where?’

‘Guess.’

‘Hmm…’

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The daylight had that peculiar quality given when it reflects off snow. I stretched, warm and reluctant to leave the haven of the bed, listening to the distant calling of the seabirds seeking out their spring residences on the cliffs below the lighthouse. Hal was sprawled out face down, most of the duvet cast off. The morning light revealed the tracery of scars on his back; the results of my uneven handiwork a mesh of pink lines. I studied them, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.

How the hell had they faded that much in three weeks? I knew the Fae healed fast, but this seemed to indicate it was much, much quicker than I’d thought. I had scars that only looked that faded after a year. Lucky Fae, I thought, before heading for the bathroom.

A quick shower later, I was drying off and, still thinking of scars, paused to check the state of the stab wound in my leg.

‘What the fuck?’

A small, silvery-white mark, just below my right knee. A smaller, matching mark on the inside of my leg. It looked like it had happened years ago.

I pulled the towel off my head, and wiped down the small bathroom mirror, twisted and turned my head around trying to see the scars on the sides of my neck. They were the same, faded almost to invisibility. I pulled my lip down, stared hard at the point where I’d bitten through it. Nothing. The faintest of lumps remained, deep inside the lip when I bit at it, less than the one that remained in my upper lip where a flying rugby ball had smacked a beer mug into my face at college…no, don’t ask.

I couldn’t see much more in the mirror. I should have scars along my ribs, in my shoulder. I was too short to see; I tried standing on the edge of the shower, leaning back. Too far to put one foot on the toilet. I wobbled, and nearly fell.

‘What on earth are you doing?’

‘I’m not sure. Look – here, .. and here – what can you see?’

‘Scars. Where Lankin hit you.’

‘Yes, but what are they like?’

‘Healed. Barely there.’

‘That’s what I thought. Now… here, this one.’ A point on my lower back, where a bullet had made a bit of a mess, but hadn’t hit anything vital. I bent over, looking at the entry point at the front, an old, still pink-ish lump of scar tissue below my ribcage.

‘What can you see?’

‘A scar.’

‘Yes, but … what I mean is, that’s one I’ve had for about fifteen years. These newer ones, they seem to have healed much quicker – I mean, it could be years more before that old one gets to this stage, if ever. What’s going on?’

‘With a Fae lifespan, perhaps you inherited a little Fae healing?’

‘Huh? I got that from Lankin too? Why hasn’t it done anything about the old scars, then?’

‘You already had them. They’d had time to heal of their own accord.’ He yawned, ran his fingers through tousled hair. It crossed my mind to drag him back to bed right then.

‘Are you getting dressed or what? I could do with a shower.’

I left the bathroom to him, and went to find some clothes.

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‘He’s back then.’

Thom held out a coffee mug as I sat down.

‘Saw the sealskin in the hall. Is he alright?’

‘Oddly enough, I think so.’ I changed the subject. ‘Thom, when the Lady granted you a long life, did it come with extras?’

‘Extras?’

‘Like accelerated healing.’

‘Only of cuts and bruises. Coughs and colds still run their course.’

‘Ah.’

He looked at me quizzically, but I didn’t elaborate further.

Hodge was looking out of the window into the yard. ‘Were ye expecting guests, lass?’

‘Huh? No. Why?’

I peered out across the snow-dusted yard. Just outside the main gate, Lugh sat astride Winterthorn, waiting to be invited in.

 

He seemed taller and wider than ever, and more heroic, somehow. Whatever it was, he made the kitchen seem very small.

Rosie greeted him with suspicion that quickly gave way to adoration, and sat with her head on his knee, her eyes tracking every piece of toast that he stuffed in his mouth.

Hal, hair still wet from the shower, gave a grunt of surprise at the new arrival, before stealing the last slice from the rack; Hodge glowered and put some more on to brown.

‘What brings you down to these lowly surroundings, then?’

‘Your wife needs to get some training with the Spear, boy. I’ve come to take her to a safe place where she can’t blow us all to bits while she learns.’

Hal didn’t look best pleased. I moved the topic away from me.

‘Is that why you’re not riding Aonbharr?’

‘Aye, and my lad did not approve, but I needed a ley-runner,’ he slurped his coffee, ‘and Cairbre’s taking the opportunity to set him to work on the next generation.’ He gave a dirty laugh. ‘Should mean he’s in a better mood when we get there.’

‘Who? Aonbharr or Cairbre?’

‘Both, I hope. Our new Fae Lord isn’t contented to be down the command chain.’

‘Nothing much seems to please him these days…You know, when I first met him, I thought he was okay. He was chatty, even friendly. He seems to have gone strange since he was – what shall I say – promoted?’

‘It has that effect on some of them. It’s an odd position to be in, if you think about it, the Lady’s Consort. You have the power, but it all comes because of her. You don’t have any authority of your own – but you wield all of hers.’

‘Could make you twitchy, I guess. And this all stems from the bust up between herself and O’Brion?’

‘Aye. Technically, he’s still King, whatever she calls herself, and whoever she takes to her bed.’

I looked at him, remembering that at one time he’d been King.

‘So when you were…’

‘No. I didn’t. O’Brion’s my friend, for one thing. And I was only in that position because he’d lost his hand, and because we were at war.’

‘And they hadnae fallen out, either,’ Hodge slotted more toast into the rack, ‘and that’s yer lot fer the now, mind – I need tae make more bread.’

Lugh finished his coffee, and stood up, giving the last piece of crust to the dog. ‘Come on Malin, gather your things and let’s get on the way. Your horse can feed in the Rath stables.’

I barely got chance to say a quick goodbye, let alone tell Thom and Hal what I’d figured out about finding the Cauldron.

Well, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

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‘This is the Battle Field.’

It stretched out, flat and green almost as far as I could see.

Lugh slid down from Winterthorn and handed her over to one of Conn’s stablehands, before taking the Spear and armour carefully from me, allowing me to join him standing on the springy turf.

‘Look after her, she hasn’t had breakfast yet!’ I handed Cloud’s reins over.

The horses were led away, and I felt rather self conscious stood in the middle of the field.

Lugh unwrapped the Spear, and it lay on the ground, a slightly sinister sheen on its black surface.

‘You’ll need to put on the armour before we start.’

‘Oh joy.’

Piece by piece, he built it around me, greaves and vambraces, cuisses and tassets, the pieces of mail that covered the backs of joints, breastplate, plackart and pauldron lowered over my head and settled onto my shoulders. It was fairly lightweight, and fit reasonably, though I figured I’d be better wearing my silk t-shirt and longjohns than sweater and jeans in future.

‘I feel like a crustacean.’ I shuffled around to get the best fit, to prevent sore spots where my clothes wrinkled, and peered over the gorget. ‘It’s up around my ears!’

‘Needs a bit of adjustment back here.’ Lugh fiddled with clips and straps somewhere at the back, and the whole suit shifted, settled again, and this time it fit much better.

‘She had a narrower waist and bigger hips than you,’ he remarked, making a couple more adjustments. I could hear the grin in his voice. ‘Bigger round the top too, but your shoulders are broader. Only by a bit, in each case, but enough to need the changes.’

‘It’ll fit okay, though?’

‘Oh aye.’

‘She – the last one to wear this – you knew her?’

He straightened up, his face serious.

‘Yes.’

I waited.

He seemed to have gone a long way away, reflecting on a point long past.

‘She was a lovely girl, to begin with. Good fighter, more than a good friend. But she was careless, and She took her, made her into something terrible. Until all that was left was death and war and blood.’ He shook himself back to the present, gazed fiercely into my eyes. ‘Which is why you will wear the damn armour if you are going to use yon infernal weapon. I’ll not lose another to Her.’

‘Her? The Spear?’

‘The Morrigan.’

‘I don’t want to be that! I told you, I turned Corchen down!’

‘But She’ll still be there, waiting for you to make a mistake, still looking for a way in. All you’d need to do is accept Her.’

‘Won’t happen.’

‘No. No, it won’t.’

His eyes were full of shadows for a moment, and I remembered the part the Morrigan had played in Cúchulainn’s death.

‘Lugh. I’ll wear the armour. I won’t let either the Spear, or Her, get me. Trust me.’

‘Malin, I trust you. I just don’t trust Her.’ His eyes met mine for a long moment, grave and dark, before the sun came out again and he smiled, ‘Come on, let’s get the rest of it on.’

Sabotins over my feet.

Gauntlets.

I flexed my fingers, trying to gauge how much dexterity I’d have. To my surprise, they felt no more constricting than normal gloves. Not that I’d ever been keen on wearing gloves when operating a weapon.

‘Last pieces. Head up!’

It went dark for a moment as he lowered the helmet over my head, dark and strangely silent. I could hear the blood in my ears, and the sounds of my breathing, slightly faster than normal. A slight high humming that could be a touch of tinnitus.

Sight and sound flooded back as the visor flipped up. The problems were immediately evident.

‘Don’t like the way it cuts my peripheral vision. How am I supposed to aim the Spear with this on?’

‘It doesn’t work like that. You target with your eye and mind; the Spear does the rest.’ He lifted the thing onto my right shoulder. It fitted snugly into a groove in the pauldron, the coiled nautilus shape behind my shoulder. One hand on the grip, the other where I could touch the jewelled buttons. It sat comfortably, as it had in Corchen’s chamber.

One thing bugged me.

‘But it has a rangefinder, Lugh – it’s meant to be looked through – and I can’t do that with this damned helmet on!’

He sighed, and folded his arms.

‘Malin – these things were never meant to be used by humans – and even the Fae are affected by them. A Fae using the Spear unprotected,’ he shuddered, ‘is drawn to keep using it, until the rage and the anger that fuel it turn back on to the user.’

‘A feedback loop?’

‘I’m not familiar with the term, but the words seem likely. A human – or part human – such as my son…’ he took a deep breath, ‘Cúchulainn used it unprotected, and the result was …have you heard of the battle rage, the ríastrad, that changes the form of the one it possesses?’

‘I’ve heard it called ‘warp spasm’, I think.’

‘Then you will know the danger you would face, to use the Spear without the armour.’

I had to concede.

‘I still feel like a lobster,’ I muttered, grumpily.

‘Then you are annoyed, which you can use to feed the Spear.’

He pointed to a series of stuffed straw figures set out across the Battle Field.

‘There are your targets. The first thing is to engage with the weapon – hold your finger on the green jewel.’

I didn’t see how this was going to work, but followed instructions. There was a low hum, a buzzing that seemed to run through the weapon into the armour, and raised the hair on the back of my neck.

‘Now select a target. Look at it, think about it, and press the topaz. Keep holding the green down. You can point the Spear in the general direction, if it makes things simpler.’

‘You mean I don’t even have to be aiming?’

‘Not really, but it cuts down on accidental casualties.’

On that thought, I looked down the firing range and picked one of the targets. Third from the left, I thought.

‘Hold it in your mind. Finger on the red gem. For now, we’ll keep the visor up – it doesn’t interfere with the protection given by the armour, but it protects you against things like arrows, spears, other projectiles. In battle, you’ll be wearing it down.’

I liked the sound of that even less.

‘Now – you have your target, and your weapon. You are annoyed. Take your anger, and send it at the target. Press the red button.’

There was a noise like a pine knot exploding in the heart of a fire, a sensation in my mind that I can only liken to the moment when something in your neck goes crack, and something eye-wateringly brilliant and glowing left the barrel of the weapon, streaking across the field to hit the target I’d picked, blasting it into oblivion.

As the smoldering fragments rained down, I lowered the Spear.

‘By the Good God! Malin, if that is the power of your minor irritation, remind me never to make you angry with me…’

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‘I’m getting bloody hot in here.’

‘One more shot and we’ll call it a day.’

‘Lugh, how many shots does this thing hold?’

‘As many as your anger can generate.’

Corchen had said it made its own bolts, but I hadn’t truly realised how or where they drew their power until now. I didn’t want to stay angry, but more and more things seemed to be irritating me. Feedback loop, something whispered in my mind.

‘One more and that’s it, then.’

‘Yes. There are three targets still out there. I want you to take all of them at once.’

‘Can I do that?’

‘Try it and see.’

I gritted my teeth, settled the Spear again on my shoulder and stared out at the tiny forms, holding them in my mind.

Lugh reached over and slid down the visor; my vision went down to the smallest of slits. I bit back my curse, focussed and let go.

 

It looked like a small mushroom cloud rising.

 

Lugh carefully took the weapon from me, laid it back down on its wrapper, and started undoing clips on the armour.

The helmet came off first. My hair was plastered to my head, moisture dripping off the ends and off the tip of my nose. The breeze across the Battle Field turned the sweat cold, icy fingers running down between my shoulder blades.

The rest of the armour followed, leaving me in my sodden clothes, slowly chilling.

‘Will you leave the Spear here, or take it back?’ Lugh seemed strangely subdued, even cautious.

‘I’ll take it. Don’t fancy it getting into the wrong hands, now I know what it does.’

‘Fair enough.’ He looked up, waved a signal to someone. ‘They’ll bring your mare now. When… when can we expect the humans to be able to join us for training?’

‘I’ll speak to John, see what he thinks. I guess we’d better not wait for the others to arrive. How soon can you deal with them?’

‘Soon as possible would be best, I think. The scryers have seen …atrocities, where Balor’s army has been. And each death increases his force. Has there been any progress with the matter of the Cauldron?’

‘I think we know how to deal with it – at least I hope we do. And as to finding it…’ I hoped my guilt wouldn’t show, ‘…that will come very soon.’

Whether I liked it or not, I’d have to tell them. And let Hal go.

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I rode out of the Rubha gate onto the machair beside the kirkyard. Although the snow had pretty much gone, it was still cold, and I shivered in my damp clothes. The sooner I got home the better. But, I thought, going home only brings the moment of parting closer. Torn, I slid down off Cloud’s back, and wandered over to Cam MacLeod’s graveside.

Never thought it’d lead to this, did we, Cam?’ I thought. ‘Figured it’d all be done when we buried Lankin’s head.’ The iron stake still poked out of the ground at the foot of the grave. I leaned against Cloud’s warm shoulder, ran my fingers through her mane, long and silky now. She tossed her head, lifting it to look up the track.

Irwin ambled down the sandy roadway, hands in his jacket pockets.

‘Thought it looked like you, Mogg.’ He frowned, taking in my state of dishevelment. ‘What happened to you? Look like you were hard ridden and put away wet! Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, thinking of your man…’

‘Oh, can it, John. I’m not feeling like being amused at the moment.’

‘You’ve been… over there?’

‘Yes. How long before your troops are ready to roll? We can’t wait for the others to get here, unless they’re just about to come over the hill.’

‘I’ve recalled the blokes that were down at the hotel – though if your fairy pals had stuck a gate down there it’d be more convenient – we’re all doubling up on accommodation here. Should be settled and prepped by – oh, morning after tomorrow? The others might have made it by then. Seem to be making good time, and they’ve got fuel with them so they’re keeping on the move.’

‘I doubt there’ll be too much time to worry about where we all sleep here anyway. Once we go for real, everyone’ll be billeted in tent lines Under the Hill. First aid, catering, tech support will run through there, all the ancillary stuff. Where the enemy can’t get at us.’

‘What about the civilians?’

‘If I can persuade them to come, I will, but I don’t have much hope. Livestock, for a start. And then there’s Caitlin. Nothing – not even Rob – will persuade her to go there again, if I’m any judge.’

‘Ah yes. That brings me to a somewhat delicate question… Rob.’

‘What about him?’

‘There’s something he’s not telling me. And I think you know what it is.’

‘Not my place to say if I do or I don’t, and none of my business anyway. You want to know, you ask him. But John, if he’s got a secret – be very, very sure you want to know. You might want to leave him here, to take care of the ones who stay…’

He scowled.

I swung back up into the saddle, carefully negotiating the various bits of equipment strung around it.

‘You look like shit, Mogg. Better sort yourself out before it all kicks off.’

‘Yeah. I’ll see you.’

I pointed Cloud up the ley, and gave her her head. To hell with secrecy. It was too late for that now.

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Raven was out in the field when I got home, and I turned Cloud out to join him. Lugging the armour and Spear into the hall, I stowed it all in the cupboard under the stairs, and went to see what was happening.

Hodge was baking and, after one look at me, told me to go and have a shower and change.

‘Hot drinks and food in the study once yer done. They’re up there, still at it.’

If I went straight up, I could tell them, I thought, and they may even have it pinned down by the time I’ve changed clothes.

I went for a shower.

 

I hung up the towel, ran a comb through my damp – but now clean - hair, and went upstairs to the study.

Hal unfolded himself from his place on the rug and gave me a hug.

‘Do I look that bad?’

He pushed a few strands of hair from my forehead and regarded me steadily.

‘Not bad – never that,’ a quirk of the corner of his mouth, ‘but tired. And sad.’

‘Oh Hal.’ I let myself be held for a while, then stepped back.

‘I know how to find it.’ I said.

 

It was ridiculously simple, when you thought about it. And I should certainly have thought about it earlier. Earlier than I had.

‘See how the map is broken up into squares?’

‘Yes..’

‘So we do it on a grid pattern. Each square on the grid can be quickly eliminated – if we ask the right questions. We start with big squares – like these – until we get the right one. Then we break that square down into smaller squares, and so on. What we have to remember to put in the question is the area under the lines that make up the grid themselves, otherwise some gets missed.’

Thom groaned.

‘So simple. So sensible. So why didn’t we see it before?’

I didn’t say anything.

 

‘We have to remember that the map is a representation of the area, and put that in…’ Hal pointed out.

‘So, what do we have?’ I squinted at my notepad.

 

'“The Cauldron is located in the area of land and sea represented by this square on the map, including the area that lies under the lines that mark the boundaries.”

 

How’s that sound?’

‘Give it a try, Thom.’

He started at the top left, and systematically worked his way across and down.

Three rows down and he had yet to be able to say anything. Hodge appeared, bearing a tray of coffee and fresh-baked cookies, and watched with interest as the Rhymer continued with his task.

Hal held my hand, his fingers tightening slightly as the steady process continued.

Suddenly, Thom spoke, the words as I had written them tumbling from his lips.

I realised I’d been holding my breath for a while, let it out in a whoosh, and gripped the arm of the chair with my free hand.

‘Now we draw another grid on that square.’

Thom took ruler and pencil and swiftly made the marks. ‘Better use rectangle rather than square this time,’ he looked critically at his work.

The process began again.

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This time he struck paydirt halfway down the square.

Pencil and ruler went to work again.

‘Getting difficult to see the detail.’ Thom scrubbed his face with his hands and settled himself again.

Hal had gone very quiet for the last ten minutes or so.

‘I think I know where it is,’ he said suddenly, in a strange, subdued voice. ‘Try that square there.’

I followed where he pointed to a small icon on the map.

 

Dubh Artach.

 

Thom placed his finger on the square, and recited the search mantra in a clear, quiet voice.

‘We should make another grid…’ I suggested, weakly.

‘No need. Thom, is it there? Under the rocks?’

‘The cauldron lies beneath Dubh Artach.’

Hal slumped back against the arm of the chair, his fingers still entwined with mine.

‘I should have known. The bloody Serpent good as told me, when I met him there.'

‘What, last year? When you went into his service?’

‘Yes. Oh, not in so many words, but he was full of “Mark this place” and “See how the current runs around and through the rocks” and “Deep secrets lie in the heart of this place”. Oh, by the tides! How did I not remember? The old witch even said it – I already knew what I needed to know…’

I could feel a fury building within me. We had been used, manoeuvred, manipulated all the way, from the moment we’d set out to find the Cailleach, if not before.

‘Did you know about any of this?’ I grabbed Thom by the shoulder.

‘I swear to you, Malin, I knew nothing of it. Truly. The Old Ones do not speak to me, and if there has been talk between the Lady and them, I have not been privy to it. There would be no sense in the Lady’s being involved – she supported Lankin!’

‘Not in everything. But she didn’t know about Balor – and I think the Cailleach knew he was going to return. She practically admitted it! And she’s been leading us by the bloody nose to this, all the damn way!’

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fifty-five

 

 

 

They let me rant for a good, long while, before Hal hauled me on to his lap and made me sit down again. Thom’s face was an unhealthy shade of grey, and both of them looked pinched and uneasy.

‘I think I need to lie down for a while.’

Thom got up unsteadily, and headed downstairs; Hal’s arm around my chest stopped me following to make sure he made it.

‘We need to sort things out, love.’

‘What’s to sort? It’s all been decided.’ There was a hard lump, like a stone, in my chest that wouldn’t move, and when I held my hands out, they shook as if I had a palsy. ‘Damned if I ever let that old bitch even speak to me again…’

‘Malin, oh love…’ he buried his face in the side of my neck, ‘don’t start. Please.’

The shattered note in his voice shook me. It sounded like he felt his future was already written, and to no good end; I twisted round in his lap and set my hands to either side of his head, twisting his face up to mine.

‘Nothing’s carved in stone, Hal. She’s already got it wrong for me – don’t go assuming she has it any more right now. You’ll be okay…’ I wasn’t sure even I believed it.

We sat for a while, not speaking, just hanging onto each other.

After a while, I felt more myself, and shifted my mouth from ‘unemployed’ to ‘engaged’.

 

Surfacing for air, I put my forehead to Hal’s.

‘You’ll be okay.’

‘I know. I’m not going to do anything daft.’ He tried a wan smile, the corner of his mouth lifting a fraction.

I drew a deep breath. Something else had been bugging me.

‘I think it’s going to take more than just cold. Remember, Hodge said the bolts “shattered at a touch”? Strikes me – if you’ll forgive the pun - that something’s going to have to actually hit the Cauldron to make it crack. Now me, I’d choose a sledgehammer, but that’s not an option for you.’

‘No, thanks very much!’

‘So how do we do it – a big rock?’

I felt him considering it.

‘Don’t think that will work. I think – only think, mind you, - that to get it down to that temperature, I may have to be holding onto it to the last minute. I wish I could practice more… but I daren’t use it up, in case there’s not enough when it’s needed.’

‘So what can we do? Damn it! If I could come along, I could hit it while you froze it!’

‘Oh, my love, if I could turn you Selkie, I would, but that’s not an option. If it had been, believe me, I would have.’

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but kept my thoughts to myself.

‘Have you anything that will blast it?’

My stomach sank.

‘Explosives, you mean?’

‘Yeah. Something from that hole in the floor of yours.’

I shivered, forced myself to think about it.

‘Nothing that would do the job.’

‘Sure?’

Oh no, I thought. Please don’t do this.

‘Absolutely. I have a small amount of explosive which could feasibly be made into a shaped charge, but there’s the matter of the timer, which I don’t have.’

‘And the problem with that is?’

Don’t even consider it, I said, in my head. Bit my lip. Went on.

‘The matter is to ensure it doesn’t go off while you’re there. Otherwise you’re jelly. At best. At worst, a smear on the wall. You have to have time to get out. Which doesn’t fit with what you’re saying.’

‘What would it take?’

‘Hal, please, love, don’t even think about it.’ I was shaking, could feel him holding me closer to stop it.

‘Malin…’

‘No, Hal. I’m not even going to consider it. And that’s final.’

I felt him take a deep breath.

‘So you’re willing to risk it not breaking?’

‘I think I’d rather take the consequences than lose you. Deal with Balor head on. Damnit, surely we can kill the bastard?’

His arms tightened even more around me, but his voice was soft and clear.

‘Gofannon said we’d have to destroy it. I think, given everything, that it’s my destiny to do that, and, given the alternatives, I’d rather not fail. Come on, Malin! This is more important than us, however much we’d want it otherwise. Now just say to hell with it, and come to bed. There’s nothing else we can do.’

 

I didn’t know if I wanted to hit him or kiss him, or just cry at the injustice of it.

In the end, I did them all. It made no difference.

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I faced the morning with a reluctance I hadn’t felt for a long time.. and with a deep guilt for leaving all last night’s chores to Thom and Hodge.

 

Over coffee, Hal put the question again.

‘So, is there any sort of explosive you could rig?’

I bit the inside of my cheek, hard.

‘Not with the gear I’ve got.’ Abrupt.

‘How about Irwin? Has he anything that would do?’

I gripped my coffee mug in my hands; I swear I saw the china flex under the pressure. Forced myself to answer truthfully.

‘Maybe. Maybe not. He could have found something up at the base. Or there is a chance the guys coming from Inverness have something.’

‘Then we wait until you find out. If there isn’t anything, I’ll have to go without, but if there is, I’d prefer to be sure.’ His face was calm, almost peaceful. I wondered just what he was resigned to.

Kicking and screaming, I thought savagely, I will not go down peacefully. And I will not let anyone I love go, either.

‘How soon can you ask Irwin?’ his voice was calmly implacable.

I avoided slamming my fists down on the kitchen table, twisted my fingers together, buried my fists between my knees.

‘I can call by Rubha today, see what he has. Otherwise we’ll have to wait until the others get here. But Lugh wants me back for training, and all of us – John’s forces - over to the training ground by tomorrow morning, latest.’

‘So I’ll aim to head off by then. It’s going to take me a while to get to Dubh Artach, so I need to get going while I can, before Balor gets wind of it.’

I felt sick.

‘Look, you don’t have to go yet. We aren’t ready to go to war – we need to get all the troops used to working together before we dare take the enemy on…’

‘But all the time we wait, he’s killing more people, using the Cauldron, filling his ranks with the dead. Making his army bigger, giving your troops a bigger problem. We haven’t the luxury of time, love.’

‘But you can’t go until you’re sure what you have to do.’ I was clutching at straws, I knew.

‘Malin, mo chridh, I know where I have to go and what I have to do – it’s just the fine detail that’s a bit iffy. With or without explosives, I need to go soon. Or else your task becomes ever harder.’

Every way I twisted it, he brought it back to the same point.

 

By the end of breakfast I was more than ready to blow something up, and saddled up my mare to meet Lugh on the Battle Field.

 

 

***

 

 

As soon as I arrived, sliding off Cloud’s back to land with a thud on the turf, I saw the concern in Lugh’s eyes.

‘What?’ I snapped, stripping off my outer clothes down to my silk longjohns, and starting to put on the armour.

‘This is wrong. It won’t be safe. You are in no mood for it.’

‘On the contrary. I want to blast the hell out of some stupid fucking target.’

‘What’s gone wrong?’ he grabbed me by the elbows and swung me round to face him.

I hung there in mid-air, face to face, unable to retaliate.

Sighed.

‘Hal’s decided he’s the one to go find and destroy the Cauldron – now we know where it is – yes, we found where it is – and there’s nothing I can do to change his damn mind, and he wants me to give him explosives, for crying out loud! Hal? With explosives? I can’t help but think he’s going to kill his stupid self and…’ I couldn’t go on.

Lugh set me down carefully, and put an arm around my shoulders.

‘Oh girl.’

‘I know he’s right, and I hate it, and I have no choice…’

‘And you’ve never been in this position before?’

‘No. I’ve always been…in control.’

His arm tightened around me. ‘Oh my darlin’ girl, I wish I could make it easier.’ A hard kiss on the top of my head. ‘But life doesn’t work that way.’

‘I know that.’

‘Knowing isn’t feeling, is it?’

‘No.’ Almost a wail. ‘Oh shit! I mean, I know what he means, like - why can’t we just do this? For fuck’s sake, people are dying every day we wait, every minute we waste preparing, every day we delay, there are more people dying that we could have saved…’

‘No you couldn’t.’

‘Huh?’

‘You couldn’t have saved them. Everyone that dies today, dies today. And tomorrow. We aren’t ready. If we aren’t ready, if we haven’t the forces, we can save no-one. All you can hope to do is stop people in the future dying, once we start our campaign.’

‘That sucks.’ Though I could see his point.

‘So we get going as soon as we can. That’s the best we can do.’

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