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The Fae were already setting out the campground for our forces, along one side of the field, long lines of accommodation tents, bigger mess-tents and meeting places. Servants hurried back and forth with gear, and I noticed humans amongst them.

‘Hang on – how come there are still human servants? I thought the Lady agreed they’d all be released?’

‘Not everyone wanted to leave, and not everyone had anywhere to go – some of them have been here all their lives. Changelings, half-Fae, what you see are the ones who chose to stay. Stop looking for affront where there is none.’ Lugh gave my shoulder a sharp nudge. ‘Now get your mind back on the job, if you’re so determined to blast things.’ He lifted the armour and lowered it onto my shoulders. It fit better with the change of garments underneath, which was some relief.

‘By the way, are you proposing to carry that damn gun with you all the time?’

‘Why not? I need some form of close range weapon – can’t go firing this thing,’ I hefted the Spear onto my shoulder, ‘into a melee. Or at anything close – we’d get caught in the blast.’

‘Have you checked you can get your finger on the trigger in those gauntlets?’

I swore. ‘Bloody fine day when a sword-wielding antique thinks of a thing like that before me.’

He smirked.

It wasn’t impossible, fortunately, but I’d need to be careful. And practice with the gauntlet on. One more damn thing.

 

The targets this time were moving – how I didn’t find out – but the Spear did the job in the same excessive way as before. It was multiple targets all the time now, and the visor down. We called a halt after a couple of hours, probably as we’d run out of targets, and as I extracted myself from the armour I could see a group of Fae riding towards us from the campsite.

Lugh bent to mutter in my ear, as he helped me off with the breastplate, ‘One thing, Malin – you might not want to mention destroying the Cauldron… Cairbre has some idea of recovering it and using it ourselves.’

‘But…how would he get it here – we’ve already figured it can’t be shifted! What does he think Hal’s going out there to do?’

‘Might be worth keeping quiet about that as well.’

‘What – just say we know where it is? If he’s going to send some sort of force to get it, why am I letting Hal go off into danger?’

‘The lad needs a good head start, is all I’m saying. Cairbre’s idea of using it is as bad as Balor’s. Same result, only…’ he broke off as the riders drew near.

‘Good day, Lord Cairbre!’

‘And to you, Lord Samildánach. And good day to you, Malin Gregory.’ I swear he was gritting his teeth.

I nodded, still unclipping armour. ‘Hello yourself.’

‘Accommodations are almost ready. I understand your human force will be arriving in the morning?’

‘Most of them, though I thought the plan was only to billet them here once the fighting begins?’

‘I have changed the plan.’ He was dismissive, and I felt my hackles start to rise. ‘The scryers have read change in the wind, and it seems prudent to have everyone at hand.’

I didn’t like the sound of that, and said so. ‘And what about the other part of the force, if it hasn’t arrived? And all your concerns about live ammunition?’

‘We all have to make compromise.’ His face was so studiedly neutral I thought it might choke him. ‘Your additional forces will need to be sent through the Rubha gateway as soon as they arrive.’

That was going to be good, I thought, considering they hadn’t been told exactly what was happening. Still, it gave me a damn good excuse for keeping Rob on the other side of the gate.

The Fae went on, ‘I fear we are not going to have the luxury of time to work on our force co-ordination, if the scryers’ fears are proven.’

‘What have they said?’ Lugh’s frown deepened, his hand automatically checking the hilt of the shortsword on the belt around his plaid.

‘Nothing certain, but the signs are that our meeting is to be sooner than we thought.’

‘Where are they? Do we know yet?’

‘Does it matter?’ Cairbre’s blue eyes darkened, ‘we will meet them where we are due to meet them, at the assigned time.’

‘Well, whoopee doo. I for one would like a chance to hit them before they know we’re there.’

‘But such an act would be utterly dishonourable!’ the shock on his face was almost amusing.

‘Isn’t that one of the reasons you’re working with us – because we don’t play nice? I don’t see any evidence of Balor’s lot sending out a ‘you are invited to a battle, RSVP’ notes so far! And this is why we need to work together, so you know how far our tactics differ from yours.’

‘I did not know you would step so far from civilized warfare!’

‘Civilized warfare? No such animal in my experience. War is a dirty, bloody, nasty business, and you take whatever advantage you can, whenever and however you can get it. Gods! Next thing you’ll be saying you don’t fight in the dark!’ I laughed harshly, and stopped when I saw his face. ‘You are kidding me?’

‘But Malin, how can you fight when you cannot see?’ Even Lugh was baffled.

‘Man, you have no idea! I don’t know what gear the troops have picked up along the way, but I’d like to bet there’s a night scope or two. You are going to love those, believe me!’

 

I left before Cairbre asked about the Cauldron, trusting Lugh to say as much – or as little – as necessary.

Next stop Rubha, and to see what Irwin had cooking. I truly hoped he wasn’t feeling humorous. Some things would be asking too much of me right now.

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‘Tomorrow? And full deployment? I thought we were only going to train?’

We were in the front room of the house at Upper Camrie, and Johnny was not a happy boy.

‘Yeah. Seems the pace is hotting up. We’re going to be up against it to get any training done – mind you, the way Cairbre was going on, I think we’d be better running our own operation and letting them do theirs, and just keeping out of each other’s way.’ I filled him in.

‘Honourable! And they don’t fight at night… You have to be joking, Mogg. From what we heard, the other side doesn’t fight fair either – your fairies are going to be swatted, plain and simple.’ Irwin put his feet up on the coffee table. ‘Plus – you might like to know – I broached the subject of coming with us to the civvies. Might as well have suggested going to the moon.’

‘Hmph. Figured as much. Still, it didn’t hurt to try.’

‘The lad wants to come along, to fight, of course. You could have predicted that.’

‘Ryan? Yeah, right. No way.’ I flopped into one of Claire’s overstuffed armchairs. ‘Any news on the other unit?’

‘Day after tomorrow, as I see it.’

‘They’ll need briefing. You going to stay and do that, or would you consider leaving Rob behind to do it?’

‘I need to go through – start working out how we’re going to operate alongside these jokers. Suppose it makes sense letting Rob set them up. He’s good at it, I’ll grant him that.’ He scowled into the cooling coffee in his mug. ‘I don’t like this, Mogg. Not one little bit. Too many unknown variables.’

‘I’m none too happy myself. But – we’ve worked with worse.’

‘Yeah, and remember what happened?’

I did. It hadn’t been fun. We’d lost some good people in that one.

‘More coffee? This is cold.’

I held out my mug. ‘Ever know me refuse?’

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I rode down to Ishbel’s croft, mentally bracing myself for a run-in with Caitlin. According to Irwin, she was much quieter since taking up with Rob. I could guess why, wondered how long it could last before someone let the truth come out. Irwin was putting on a good show of not caring, but I wondered what his reaction would be once Rob’s identity was known.

‘Nobody’s gets to stay happy, do they?’ I sighed, and patted Cloud’s neck.

I could hear Skye barking as I rode up the track; his warning brought Ishbel out of the house, closely followed by Ryan. The lad was about bursting with news.

‘Hey! Malin! We’ve got puppies!’

Ishbel rolled her eyes in tolerant amusement.

‘Jess must have been further along than I thought – sorry about that!’ I slid down, looped the reins over my arm.

‘Oh it’s no great hardship, there’s only four. But it’s another reason I’m not leaving this place, if that’s why you’re here, Malin.’ Her mouth set in a straight line.

‘No. I figured you wouldn’t. But…’ I took a deep breath, ‘I’m going to need Ryan.’

Both pairs of eyes widened, his in anticipation, hers in horror.

‘You’ll not be taking the boy to war!’

‘I can really come with you?’

‘No, and no. I don’t think the fighting’s going to come near here,’ I was keeping my fingers crossed in my pocket, ‘but I’m going to have to go away. Which means I need to leave someone I can trust in charge at the lighthouse.’

Ish closed her eyes in relief. Ryan’s face fell.

‘Malin – why can’t I come? I’m not a kid. I can help!’

‘Ryan – look, can I talk to you in private for a moment?’ Ish grinned slightly, and went back inside. Ryan’s face wore a look of deep truculence.

I leaned on the wall, looking across the fields of the in-bye towards the coast.

‘Ryan, I have to go. Hal’s going away too, on another mission – no,don’t ask. The less you know the better. Thom won’t be around. I don’t want to leave Hodge on his own to deal with everything; I need someone I can rely on to be sensible, and to help Rob defend this place if it comes to it.’

‘Rob’s staying? But he’s…’

‘Yes, and that’s one of the reasons why he’s staying. He’s going to need someone who knows what he is, and won’t tell, to back him up if people ask awkward questions, to help him out – there are more troops arriving in a couple of days, and we aren’t going to be here to deal with them. I’d like you to stay here until we get them over Under the Hill, and then head up to the lighthouse. Keep in contact with Rob – take one of the radios, and then if we need messages sent through the stones – and we probably will – you’re the nearest. With you guys here, I can stop worrying about everyone here, and get on with the nastier, messier side of things.’

He sighed, still reluctant to let go of his ideas of glory. ‘But couldn’t I be just as helpful over there?’

‘Who else can help Rob? The last thing we want is his identity getting out; you know why, for goodness sake!’

‘I guess so… ‘

I had a sudden idea. ‘What if I could see about borrowing a Fae horse for you?’

The light in his eyes told me I had him hooked.

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I rubbed Cloud down and let her into the field with Raven, and took her tack in to clean. Job done, and no sign of anyone around, I hauled the gear and armour inside and stowed it away, apart from the gauntlets. Those, and my Glock, I took into the kitchen, with my cleaning kit. I put on the kettle for coffee, greeted Rosie, who was stretched out in front of the range, and sat down at the table to strip down the weapon. I reloaded the clips, checking the loads sat properly, and practised drawing and dry-firing with the gauntlets on, both hands. The dog watched me, her head on her paws, eyes following every move.

Where the hell was everyone?

Everything seemed normal, there were fresh breadrolls set out on the rack to cool, and the book Thom had been reading lay on the side table. The washing up had been done.

I went upstairs, checked the bedroom. No sign of Hal.

In the study, the maps and books were tidied away, or stacked neatly on the desk.

Nobody upstairs, though I checked anyway. Went out onto the balcony. Below me, the sea moved slowly, and the fulmars rode the breeze stiff-winged. The light was beginning to fade behind the hills, and the brightness in the clouds that marked the sun slid slowly down to dissolve in the pewter sea on the horizon.

Oh gods, had he gone already?

Surely he wouldn’t… I bit my lip hard, and went back downstairs to bring the horses in. Gave them an extra-good grooming. Lingered over Raven, feeling guilty for leaving him again. Felt equally guilty for taking Cloud to war.

‘I’ll bring her back, I promise…I’ll bring them both back.’ I tugged his ears, and finally closed the doors.

Feeling appallingly sweaty and dusty, I went for a long shower. When I went back into the bedroom to find some old clean jogging bottoms and a t-shirt, I found a pale absinthe-green silk nightdress and robe laid out on the bed.

‘What on earth?’ it was nothing I owned, of that I was certain. I felt my heartbeat quicken. Fight, flight or anticipation? I wasn’t sure. Didn’t hurt to put it on, I figured. The cool silk slithered down my skin like the kiss of the breeze or the faintest caress of a hand. I tucked my gun, in its canvas holster, in the pocket of the robe, and made my way downstairs.

Warm light spilled under the kitchen door into the hall. One hand felt in my pocket, reassured by the weight of the gun, as the other turned the door knob.

The golden glow of candlelight filled the room, glinting off taps and the rails of the range, raised a soft sheen on the dog’s coat. Glinted on the crystal glasses on the table, on silverware and fine china I didn’t possess. Softened the face of the man standing by the table, setting out what appeared to be a supper of trout and potatoes, and fresh green vegetables. Dark trousers and a white t-shirt. Drop-dead gorgeous. My heart flipped slowly in my chest.

‘Thought we’d have dinner with just the two of us tonight,’ he said, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth. ‘You look beautiful in that.’

‘I was wondering where you’d got to.’ It seemed a banal sort of observation, but the best I could manage.

‘Cairndubh. Now the troops have moved, it was easy enough. Thom helped, before he headed for the Rath. Says he’ll see you tomorrow.’

I took my hand out of my pocket, ran it over the silk. ‘Is that where you found this?’

‘Saw it and thought of you.’ There was a gleam in his eye. ‘Thought of you in it, and then out of it…though the lump in the pocket sort of spoils the effect a bit.’

I shook my head, half in exasperation. ‘I come home to find everybody vanished, and you don’t expect me to be a bit cautious?’

He laughed. ‘No, I expected you to be you, of course. But you can take it out now.’

I set the gun on the draining board, and joined him at the table.

‘Where’s Hodge?’

Hal gestured at the dinner before us. ‘Here in spirit – you don’t think I did the cooking, do you? He’s wherever he goes when he’s not here. Tact personified.’

‘So…just you and me?’

‘Just you and me.’

There was a deep sigh, and a loud, trumpeting fart from the vicinity of the hearth rug.

‘And the dog of course.’ He fought to keep a straight face, and failed hopelessly.

‘Of course.’ I couldn’t help but join him in helpless laughter.

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When we got over our hysteria, the trout was delicious.

‘Fresh caught at Cairndubh?’

‘Thought I’d have a look in that wee loch of theirs. Found these fellows just asking to be supper.’

There was pudding too, small squidgy chocolate sponges with a melting centre. And cream!

‘I don’t know how he does it…’

‘I wouldn’t ask too many questions, I suspect there’s some serious “borrowing” involved. I know the cream’s from Ishbel’s cow, though how he came by it...’ he grinned, pouring the last of the wine into my glass.

‘Coffee?’

 

We curled up on the sofa while the coffee cooled enough to drink, arms around each other. By tacit consent, we didn’t talk about the morning.

He wound his fingers in with mine. ‘You know, I was looking at the hall way, and it strikes me if you turn the cupboard end-on to the wall, there’d be enough room to make a small bedroom behind it. It would even have a window. Just need one wall and a door.’

‘For Ryan, you mean?’

‘Hm.’

I thought about it. ‘Reckon it might work. Better than converting the pantry, which was my notion.’

‘We’ll need the pantry, feeding more mouths.’

‘Going to need more stable space as well. More of a problem. There’s only the hay and tack room left, and that’s needed. Not enough space for another horse – eventually – and a ruddy goat.’

‘And chickens.’

‘I wish you hadn’t mentioned the chickens.’

‘Forget the chickens for now, then.’ He bent his head and kissed me, and I almost forgot the goat as well.

‘Mmm. Nice.’

‘I suppose you’ll still need the workshop. And the garage?’

‘Yes to both. And there’s too much iron in there – filings and stuff that’s got ingrained – for even a part-Fae horse. I think we’re going to have to build new.’

‘In the field, or up the track?’

I snuggled into him, drawing the shape of the yard on his thigh to illustrate my thinking.

‘I’d rather keep all the main entrances facing into the yard – we could back-door into the field though, for shelter. Goats aren’t as hardy as folks think. The answer may be to shift the midden to the side of the track, take down the wall along the far side of the garden here..’ a line just above his knee, ‘and build low-ish for the main part – high enough to stand in, and for the damn chickens to perch up higher. Only need full height for a horse, maybe at the eastern end... We can’t afford to build too high, or it’ll cut the sun into the garden, especially in spring. Done that way, we don’t lose much field space.’

‘We could add a new wood store as well, doing that,’ he nodded.

‘Could do with another field one day, too. Which isn’t that easy a prospect on this ground. And the midden will need a wall on three sides, or we’ll lose it to the first gale that comes along.’

‘Seems a good plan.’

‘Think it works. Just have to see.’

‘Mm. Meanwhile, I have a idea as well.’ I felt him smile.

‘What’s that?’

‘You got the layout of the yard right, you know. Even down to the light house.’

‘I didn’t… oh. Hmm. Yes.’

‘You go on upstairs while I let Rosie out.’

I unwound myself from his arms and the sofa, and blew out the majority of the candles, before going up to the bedroom with one of the storm lanterns. And the gun went back in my pocket.

 

There was rain in the wind, and hail, its sharp rattle on the window making me shiver. I pulled the silk robe tighter around me, clutched it closed under my chin.

Outside I could make out the clouds, scudding fast across the sky, hiding the stars and what little moonlight there was.

Warm arms slid around my waist and the heat of his breath on my neck sent more pleasurable shivers running through me.

I turned round and wrapped my arms around him, hands slipping inside his shirt.

He tilted my face up to his, looked at me for a long time,as if trying to fix my face in his memory, then kissed me, long and deep.

He peeled the robe off me and dropped it carelessly on the chair, slid the straps of the nightgown off my shoulders, followed the neckline with his mouth as the silk slid slowly down to puddle around my feet. Somewhere along the way his own clothes ended up on the floor, too, and he half carried me over to the bed.

I stretched out a hand.

‘I’ll turn out the light.’

‘Not yet. I want to see you.’

He leaned over me, his mouth a fraction away from mine, the weight of his body warm and firm on mine.

‘Malin, my love, my wife, cruit mo chruidh, you’ll always be my landfall and my haven and my home.’

 

Sometimes in life, you get something that lasts for always, something you can carry in your heart and your memory and hang on to when everything else seems beyond bearing.

That night was one of those somethings. You’ll forgive me for not sharing it.

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fifty-six

 

 

 

Daylight always comes too soon when you want the night to last forever.

‘Weather’s pretty rough.’ I peered out of the window, squinting through the greyness beyond. Rain spattered on the glass.

A warm kiss filled the hollow of my shoulder, and a hand patted my backside. ‘No matter to a northern selkie. Best get your gear packed, love. I can smell breakfast.’

Disconsolately, I stuffed what clothes I needed into a carrysack, trying to ignore the heaviness in my stomach and the ache in my throat. Be damned if I was going to cry.

‘Five days to get there, you reckoned?’

‘At least. I’m not as fast as yon plastic boat we had last time, and there’s always the chance of trouble on the way.’

‘Your folks?’

‘No – I think they’ll hold by the treaty, if they are around at all. There are always whales to consider, and then I’ll need to sight out the place, figure a route in, see what guards they have if any… did you manage to get any timers from Irwin?’

I wanted to say no, but that would have been lying.

‘I’ll show you how to rig the charge before you go. What he’s given me should allow you fifteen minutes to get clear. Don’t cut it fine.’

‘I know. Jellyfish impressions.’

‘Not a joke, love. And if you’re underwater, you need to get out if you can. Get as far away as possible, whatever.’

‘Understood, my lady. I’ll take no chances.’

I pulled on a thick sweater, hooked my pistol on the back of my belt, hefted my bag, and we went down to breakfast.

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Hodge grinned meaningfully at us as we sat down and poured the coffee. Hal raised his mug in salute.

I buttered the toast, treated myself to the final scrapings of last year’s raspberry jam.

‘I’ve persuaded Ryan to come up and help out with the place while I’m gone. Apart from anything else, it’s a damn good way of keeping him from the fighting.’

‘The lad’ll be welcome, saves me floggin’ myself to death wi’ yon pony, and he’s grand wi’ that dog.’ The urisk hopped up on the draining board. ‘Malin – speakin’ o’ the pony – he’s out!’

‘What? How the hell…’ I shot out of the back door. Came to an abrupt halt when I realised the stable door was still shut, and the lanky black horse nodding her head over the gate was not my Highlander.

What now?

‘You’d better come in, I suppose.’

She vanished behind the wall, and then appeared in her human form, climbed the gate and made her way across the yard.

‘Daere? What are you doing here?’ Hal didn’t sound too pleased, which cheered me up.

‘Lámhfhada sent me. Said I could be useful in the selkie’s quest. And my Lord of Annwn desires to see the Cauldron destroyed as much as you do, so I felt help would be appropriate.’

What was Lugh thinking, I steamed inwardly. Although, I thought, perhaps it would mean I didn’t have to give Hal any explosives…

Hodge looked faintly outraged at having a kelpie in the kitchen, but vanished into the pantry and came back with some peppermint teabags I didn’t remember having.

Her smile seemed almost genuine.

Hal outlined what his plans were, not going into too much detail. Daere listened, and made a few pertinent observations on route and tides.

Maybe she would be useful, I thought. ‘So you don’t need the other stuff, now, do you?’ I said hopefully.

‘Still best to be sure. Two of us to carry it now, makes it easier.’

‘I wasn’t going to give you half a ton of the stuff!’ I went into the hall and opened the arms locker. Found the small block of plastic explosive and took it through to the kitchen.

Everyone jumped when I put it down on the table.

‘You think I’d even contemplate sending you off with something that went off that easily?’ I sat down, and broke off a piece about the size of my fist. ‘Look, I’ll show you what it should look like, so you can re-work it if it gets bent out of shape. It won’t do anything without the timer fuse.’ I set a couple down beside the grey lump. Showed them how to set them. Where to place the charge on a thing shaped like a Cauldron (Hodge’s best cooking pot sufficed; he looked nervous). Put them in a separate sealed bag, and put everything into a watertight bag.

‘Water won’t hurt any of it, but it’ll float if you drop it, and it keeps it all together. Do NOT be there when it goes off.’

‘Malin…’

‘Just don’t, that’s all.’

 

I could feel the clock ticking.

‘Tide’s at the top.’ Daere said quietly, and thoughtfully went out into the yard as Hal picked up the bag and adjusted the strap. ‘Long enough to stick my head through,’ he looked at it critically, then put his hands on my shoulders, turned me to face him.

‘A couple of weeks at most. I’ve got the easy job, when you look at it, love. Try to stay alive for when I get back, will you?’

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak, put my fingers to his lips to forestall any rash promises. Pulled his face down to mine, my hands tangled in his hair, kissed him, hard.

‘See you.’

‘Aye, love. See you.’

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‘Ryan’ll probably be up sometime tomorrow or the day after, depends how they get on briefing the new troops.’

‘Ye using Robin tae glamour them?’

‘How else? It’d take weeks to talk them round, if then! Just hope it holds when they’re Under the Hill and he’s still on this side.’

‘Ye’re leaving him here?’

‘I think I need someone I can trust – and I think I can trust him – down in the village. And it means I have a link to here – he’ll keep Ryan informed what’s going on, and I’m going to try and get loan of a Fae-horse for the boy. Don’t ask me why, but I want an independent way of getting messages out…’

‘Ye dinnae trust the Lady?’

‘No... yes…I’m not sure. Call it gut instinct, if you will, but I’ve learned not to ignore it.’

 

The rain had dwindled to drizzle as I saddled Cloud and fixed all the gear. I slapped Rosie’s flanks, told her to be good, and fed Raven a wrinkled winter-stored apple and a peppermint, before I gave his long soft nose a last kiss and mounted up.

‘Stay safe, lass.’

I blew him a kiss, and headed for Rubha and the gateway.

 

 

***

 

 

When I pulled Cloud to a halt, Irwin was standing by the kirkyard, looking edgy.

‘So what are we supposed to do, Mogg?’

‘ “We” being?’ He was the only one there.

‘They’ll be here soon. I just want to know what happens.’

‘The gateway opens… it’s normally open, in fact…’ I walked towards the place that had been designated, marked with a couple of inconspicuous pebbles. Nothing happened. No tingle. Nothing. The gate was closed.

‘Got twitchy, I’m guessing.’ I stuck my hand back and forth through the air over the pebbles – still nothing.

‘Being awkward. C’mon, Cairbre.’ I swore under my breath.

‘Okay. So explain, anyway.’

‘You just hit the spot and from being here, you’re there. Easy as that. Nothing to get het up about. Guess they’re being cautious, with Balor out there, though I’ve had no problems with the leylines so far.’

Which led to me explaining what I knew about leylines.

 

‘So you’re saying, they can open holes in spacetime and just walk through?’

‘Not sure about time, but space, yes. Which is how we get to wherever the war is happening. We walk through the holes they open.’

‘You’re laying a heap of trust in them, Mogg.’

‘Not a lot of choice. We run with this crew and maybe survive, or die fighting the others.’

‘Oh joy. Sure the other side wouldn’t need a decent group of fighters?’

‘Absolutely sure. Wants to see the end of both Fae and humans, send things back to the way they were before any of us got here.’

‘Oh. You know, I’m sure I saw this on the TV sometime. These Fomorians, are they some sort of reptile people?’

‘Grow up, Johnny. No, they’re not. They look more froggish, if anything. And they aren’t fans of Dr Who.’

‘Bugger. There I was thinking it was all laid out for me.’

I snorted, laughing. Whatever fallings-out we’d had, he’d always been able to make me laugh.

‘Daft sod, John.’

‘Had to try.’

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***

 

 

Midmorning, when Irwin’s ragbag troops were assembled by the kirkyard, the air shimmered.

Not entirely sure what was coming through, I slipped the safety off my pistol and waited to see just what emerged.

In the end, it was Lugh, riding Aonbharr bareback. Both of them. Clean, his hair tied back with a leather thong, his vambraces burnished, muscles pumped and gleaming.

Drama queen, I thought.

I heard Irwin sigh longingly.

‘Malin! Everyone ready?’ the Fae hero glanced round at the assembled crew, taking in the mix of vehicles and weaponry. I wasn’t sure what his expression revealed.

‘Reckon so. What took you so long?’

He pulled a face. ‘In-fighting. Know what I mean?’

I could guess.

‘Right. Shall we?’

He reined in the stallion, who curvetted showily, turned to address the motley gathering of humans, raised his voice. ‘The lords of the Fae thank you for your friendship, and your partnership in this endeavour to defeat our common enemy!’ I heard distant trumpets, felt the call to arms.

‘If you will follow me, we can begin!’

Glamoured as they were, they followed him, of course. Actually, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t have. Except maybe me. But then, I’m awkward like that.

 

It was an odd thing to watch, that convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles and motorbikes vanishing one by one into nothingness. As the last pick-up truck rumbled through, exhaust fumes lingering briefly before being dispersed by the wind from the sea, I looked over my shoulder, back up the track.

She was standing at the end of the last fence, leaning against the big strainer post. I walked over, leading the mare, stopping just out of range. She kept her arms folded across her chest, above the growing swell of her belly.

‘Are you happy now?’ No less venom in her voice than last time we’d met, Rob’s influence notwithstanding.

‘Happy? Why should I be happy?’

‘They’re all going to die. And the others. You’re taking them all away to die, all to save your bloody fairies. I hope you think it’s worth it.’

‘Is your life not worth it? Yours, Ishbel’s, Mhairi’s and Iain Donald’s? All the people like you that are left? The people that have just left, and – yes - the bloody fairies – we’re all trying to do something to keep the rest of you alive. Haven’t you got that into your head yet?’

‘What I understand is this – they took us and they hurt us, and still you’re trying to help them. John and Rob would have got rid of them, but no – you talked them into helping as well. What I don’t understand is how you can help them. You were on our side! Why couldn’t you just make them leave us alone?’ It came out as the wail of a lost child.

‘Caitlin…I wish this could all have ended when I made them let you go. If we could have drawn a line under it then, maybe none of this would have happened. But humans taking revenge, that just kept it alive. I tried to stop the fighting then, to let everyone go back to living as normal a life as they could, but…’ I shuddered, and wondered again at what part I had played in the disaster, ‘…we found we had a new enemy. A new enemy that won’t stop until every human is wiped off the land. And any Fae that doesn’t stay hidden, they’d be killed as well. So… if we ever want a normal life – if you ever want a normal life – we have to fight. And the only way to stand a chance of succeeding is to stand together.’ I wondered if any of this was getting through.

Her left hand slipped lower, settled on her belly.

‘A normal life… what about this? Can you make this go away? Because I’ve tried, Malin, and I can’t make it go…’ her face was wet.

I shook my head.

‘Don’t talk to me about a normal life, Malin. My life will never be normal again. And getting everyone killed won’t change a minute of it.’

The Land Cruiser bumped down the track, slowed and stopped beside her. Rob got out, his face a mix of concern and relief, and said something to her that I couldn’t hear. She nodded, and he produced a handkerchief, wiped her face, and helped her up into the passenger seat, before coming to talk to me.

‘The rest will be here tomorrow, ready to go with you.’

‘Going to be okay with that? Getting them in the right frame of mind, I mean.’

His mouth twisted ruefully, ‘Not got much choice, so I’ll have to get it right. Good thing this place has strong resonances. Keeps me afloat, so to speak.’

‘I’ll see you tomorrow, then. A few loose ends to tie up. Take care - and take care of her.’

I swung up into the saddle, and crossed over to the Land Under the Hill.

***

The encampment had spread; more lines of tents, with still more being raised, the mass of vehicles still parking up, figures hurrying between the two as the newcomers transferred their gear. Irwin was directing his crew, assisted by a bloke I'd last seen tied up in the back of the Range Rover. A couple of grey-clad Fae stood close by, one apparently taking notes of things that needed extra attention. They looked hassled; I wasn't in the least surprised, remembering how picky John was about logistics.

 

No need to get tied up in that particular can of worms, and I wasn't in a hurry to interrupt. I looked around for Lugh, and saw him down the far end of the camp, where the tents and horse lines for the incoming Fae forces were being set up. As I turned to ride that way, I was stopped by a peremptory shout from behind me.

 

'Malin Gregory! Is it essential that your forces spread the stink of their vehicles in this place?'

I wrangled my face into some sort of composure and turned to meet him.

'Ah, Lord Cairbre. Good day to you, too.'

'Well? The air has never been so fouled!' He looked as if he would blow a fuse, face reddened and mouth twisted in elegant disgust.

''Unfortunately we haven't found a way to make them move without using fuel. As soon as they're in position, I'm sure they'll switch off the engines.'

I did refrain from reminding him that is had been his decision to bring the whole crew over ahead of our original plan. I thought that was good of me.

'Make sure they do.' he wrenched his horse's head around and kicked away in the direction of the Rath.

'Nice to see you, too.'

I didn't bother passing on the message. Irwin wouldn't waste fuel, anyway.

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Lugh was deep in conversation with Conn, down at the horse lines. As I rode up, I could hear them discussing fodder and water supplies. Conn looked on the edge of tearing his hair out.

'And then there'll be all the mucking out! Milord Samhildánach, I am going to need more help and there is none to spare!'

'The reinforcements will bring their own stable hands, Conn Stablesman. I'm sure you'll have no problem sorting it all out when they get here.'

A faint look of panic slid across Conn's face; he tried to paste on a smile as he took Cloud's reins and I swung down.

'Need to talk to you,' I grinned, watching the smile slide away. 'Oh don't worry! I'm not planning to add to your problems. In fact I'd like to reduce them...'

Most of the horses would be tied side by side along a series of ropes and stakes. Lugh led Aonbharr into a makeshift stall.

'The stallions still need keeping separate,' he slapped his mount's proudly curved neck, 'or there's sure to be trouble!'

'And nobody can tell me how many there will be...' Conn's worry lines deepened.

'How many do you have here?' I hitched Cloud to the stake-line, and poured a small measure of feed onto the ground in front of her. 'I'm only guessing, but there's probably the same proportion in other Fae stables – if you know how many reinforcements are on the way, you can just do the maths.'

He frowned. 'Maybe...'

'While we're at it, could I possibly borrow Winterthorn?'

'What for, my lady?'

'Planning something, Malin?' Lugh raised a knowing eyebrow.

'Actually, yes,' I explained about Ryan, although I didn't mention my plan about messages, '...and she seemed the best candidate – calm and steady and kind. He isn't an experienced rider, and she looked after Hal...' I stopped, my throat tightening.

'I suppose it would be alright...if Lord Cairbre approves.'

'I don't think Lord Cairbre needs bothering with such small matters,' Lugh slapped the smaller man on the back, although there was a question in his eyes and I knew I'd have to explain in more detail.

'I'll pick her up when we go over to collect the rest of the humans.' Conn nodded, and headed off to sort out more straw; I gave Cloud's nose a rub and muttered under my breath to Lugh, '...should be so much chaos then that no-one should notice.'

'Expecting trouble?'

'Not sure. Don't want to be caught out, though.' I took a deep breath. 'So – what's the plan for the rest of today then, teacher?'

'No more lessons for now, other things to do. First - let's go and stow your gear.'

He led the way through the maze of the camp to a row of smaller tents. Halfway down the row he stopped and gestured, '...your accommodation, milady.'

It was neatly laid out; a wooden cot, table and folding chair reminding me of pictures I'd seen of officers' tents in the Napoleonic campaigns. I dumped my bag on the bed, and hung the armour carefully on a stand. The Spear, in its wrappings, I stashed under the bed, checking that it was reasonably concealed.

'If you've brought your usual weapons, it would be prudent to leave them here.'

I put my Glock under the pillow and straightened the bed. The ceramic knife I left hidden and strapped to my arm. No way was I going completely unarmed, and it didn't affect the Fae.

'So. Why all the mystery?'

Lugh looked serious for once.

'We've been summoned to see the scryers.'

'Is that good?'

'Unlikely.'

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***

 

 

I'd expected the scryers to be in the heart of the Rath, or in a forest grove, somewhere secluded and maybe mystical. As it turned out, they were in a dark green tent, in the midst of the camp.

'No point having to send runners whenever they find out something,' Lugh led the way through the busy lanes between the tent lines, 'and this way everything is all where we can keep an eye on it, in case of problems.'

'Expecting problems?' I echoed his earlier question.

'Doesn't hurt to be prepared,' he grinned over his shoulder, and stopped in front of the green tent. It was more a pavilion than a regular tent, I thought, the dark green silk of the canopy richly embroidered with thick, entwined and stylised vines. The entrance was guarded by a half-armoured Fae; breastplate, gauntlets and greaves, and an open-faced helmet with nose guard worn over heavy silks, and covered with a deep blue cloak.

'Only one guard? On a tent? What's to stop anyone slipping in the back?'

'The guards on the other sides, Malin. And the rest of the camp.'

I shut up.

The guard swung a spear out to block our way.

'At ease, Briac. We've been summoned.'

'One moment, my Lord.' The guard reached out a mailed hand and rang a small bell attached to the overhanging roof of the pavilion. After a brief wait, the door folded back a little, the guard stood aside, and we were permitted to enter.

 

I caught a glimpse of deep crimson hangings as the door panel swung closed behind us; we were enveloped in a hot, smoky darkness. Lugh stopped suddenly, and I ran into his shoulder, unable to see anything. The smoke thickened, getting into my lungs and making me want to cough; strong scents of vanilla, cinnamon and mint, with an undercurrent of something less pleasant – a gangrenous reek, a hint of blood and shit that recalled a place I had tried to forget.

Something moved in the darkness. A dry, slithery-scratchy sound, somewhere off to my right. And another, ahead and to the left, like dried leaves rustling.

 

Three voices, soft like falls of dust, whispery as bats' calls, raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

 

 

'At lassst....'

'The Hero and the Gore Crow.'

'as was foretold.'

 

 

 

More damn prophecies. Just what I needed; I felt my teeth begin to grind.

 

 

'She is here...but we do not see her..'

'She is in darknessss.'

 

 

 

'Turn a bloody light on then,' I said flatly.

Lugh gave a snort, which he quickly turned into a cough and, gathering his composure, spoke, 'What do you wish from us?'

 

 

'To seee...'

'To know...'

'to foretell...'

 

 

 

Enough. 'Oh for fuck's sake! Cut the mystic crap, and get to the point.'

'Malin...' I felt Lugh's hand on my arm, a warning in his voice.

There was a sudden flare, a candle quickly shrouded under a pierced metal cover. Tiny rays of light probed the cloudy darkness of the tent, but failed to reveal much. Lugh was a dark shape; the scryers were harder to make out, small, undefined greyish figures, like coagulated smoke.

 

 

'You wish for that which we cannot give.'

 

 

 

'You can't give a straight answer?'

 

 

'For an answer, there musst be a quessstion.'

 

 

 

'I'll take that as a yes. Why have you summoned us?'

 

 

'to see for ourselves.'

 

 

 

'See what?'

 

 

'What you are, that we cannot see you.'

'You are not in our mirrors.'

'we would know why this is.'

 

 

 

'You can't see us in your predictions? From what I've heard, you don't seem to see much anyway.'

'Malin!' Lugh's hold on me tightened.

 

 

'The Hero, we see...'

'for a while, anyway...'

'It is the Crow we cannot see.'

 

 

 

I didn't like the sound of that. 'The Crow? I am not the Morrigan. I wear the armour, but I am not her.'

 

 

'so you say...'

 

 

 

A pale oval drifted through the billowing smoke, almost hovering before me. I squinted,trying to make out detail.

The scryer, whatever it was, was about my height, clad in tattered grey rags that made me think uncomfortably of shrouds. The pale face was a thin oval, with unmoving slits for eyes and mouth; I caught a glint of yellow from deep within an eye and it occurred to me that it was a mask. I wasn't sure I wanted to see what was behind it. It came closer, and the smell of corruption grew stronger.

 

 

'Why are you invisible to us?'

 

 

 

'How the hell should I know? The Cailleach had no problems seeing me in her damn prophecies.' Though her last lot had been even more obtuse than ever, I thought.

 

 

'The Old One...is this her doing?'

 

 

 

'You tell me. Isn't that your job?'

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The figure drifted back into the smoky haze, where it was joined by the others. They bent over what appeared to be a large bowl, wide and shallow, muttering.

'Malin, what do you think you're doing?' Lugh hissed under his breath. 'You shouldn't talk to them like that!'

'What, you're not scared of them, surely?'

He shook his head, 'They need calm, and quiet... no confrontations. Their foreseeings come best when there is no disturbance.'

'That's going to be a fat lot of help in a war then, isn't it?' I was getting fed up of this. 'And they started the confrontation, anyway. How the hell would I know why I don't show up?'

I had a sudden nasty thought.

'Unless the Cailleach was right when she foresaw me dead, and I changed the story by surviving...nah! That's too stupid.'

'They can't see Balor either, remember.'

'But isn't that through something he's doing? Hiding himself wherever?'

'They can't see him at all. Even though they can get glimpses of his forces, they never see him.'

'So what have I got in common with Balor?'

'Apart from a lousy temper? Nothing I can tell. And I should know.'

I remembered he was Balor's grandson.

'Be more likely they wouldn't see you then. But they can...or so they said. Damn it, it'd be more use if they'd tell us what they do see, rather than what they don't or can't...'

'Thought you didn't want any more predictions?'

'I don't. Not personally. But if it can give us any kind of edge, I'll take what I can get.'

 

 

'Come here, Malin Gregory.'

 

 

 

The three were still gathered round the bowl. I walked cautiously over, wary of things hidden in the smoke, and stopped about a yard from them.

 

 

'Closer. Look into the mirror.'

'tell us what you see.'

 

 

I moved a little nearer, leaning forward to peer into the bowl. Some dark liquid moved within; oil or ink I thought, until I caught a whiff. The familiar, almost sweet, scent of blood. It swirled sluggishly, glistening.

 

 

'What do you see?'

 

 

 

'The makings of black pudding. You need more oatmeal.'

 

 

'Do not make light of the mirror.'

 

 

 

The first touch of annoyance in the voice, and a tension in the thick air, the same feeling of power rising that I'd felt from the Lady. A little voice in my head told me not to push it any further.

I looked at the slowly churning surface.

 

'I don't see anything. Just swirls and a few clots.'

 

 

'try again. breathe deep of the smoke.'

 

 

 

Hallucinogenics? I inhaled reluctantly, and almost coughed my guts up. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I looked into the bowl again.

 

'Swirls and eddies. Reminds me of the Corryvreckan. Lumps and bumps, like landscapes. Sort of...pockmarks? Holes in the ground?'

 

 

'let me sseee....'

 

 

 

I was unceremoniously shoved aside as the scryers crowded round the bowl.

'What did you see?' Lugh sidled over.

'What I said – nothing much – it could be anything. Or nothing. Whatever your imagination wants to see.' I shrugged. 'I'm no mystic.'

'Something you can't do?' he grinned, white amidst the gloom and smoke.

I humphf'd, which turned into another coughing fit. The smell was starting to make me feel sick, though I couldn't feel any sense of dislocation, which I'd have expected with drugs.

'I need a breath of fresh air,' I grumbled, 'can we go yet?'

They ignored me, and continued their mutterings. Something had excited them, though I couldn't have said what.

'We can't just walk out, Malin. And it looks like you may have set something off. Patience, lass.'

'Then can we find a less smoky spot?'

We eased our way back towards the door, where the air was a little thinner, and settled down to wait.

It felt like hours; I was so bored I was in danger of nodding off to sleep and jerked to full wakefulness as the voices spoke from the darkness.

 

 

'We have seen.'

'we see the place.'

'We see the time.'

 

 

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fifty-seven

 

 

 

Irwin was waiting, fuming, when we got back to my tent.

 

'Mogg! For fuck's sake, woman – how the hell are we supposed to work a co-ordinated attack when they're using bloody cavalry and chariots?'

'Don't forget archers and pikemen, Johnny. And forget that for now – do you still have your big bag of maps?'

'Forget... are you out of your tiny mind?'

'Maps, John. Specifically, Stanford training area.'

'Why the hell d'you want… yes, of course I have.' He half-turned and yelled to his aide, who vanished briefly before reappearing with a huge rucksack.

'Thanks, Pete.'

The aide did a splendid double-take when he saw me, before shutting his mouth and going back to whatever he'd been doing.

'Well trained,' I observed.

'And no better for your efforts,' he grumbled, rummaging through the pack. 'There – Thetford Forest....that's got Stanford on it. Damn place.'

I had to agree with him. We'd done quite a bit of field training there, and a colder, windier place when the easterlies blew in from Russia I had yet to find. Except maybe Peterborough railway station.

I grabbed the map and unfolded it on the table.

'OK... here we are... not STANTA itself, but close enough.' I stabbed my finger down on the co-ordinates.

'Middle of the bloody forest. What's it say there? “Grimes Graves”?'

'Yup. Ancient flint mines. Load of hummocks and dips – bloody awful for horses and chariots, you'll be pleased to know. Not good for motors either. Smallish open area in – as you say - the middle of a bloody forest.'

'And this is...?'

'Battlefield number one.'

He stared at the map.

'Shit. That's horrible.'

There was a disturbance outside; after a minute, Cairbre shouldered his way into the tent.

'The scryers have spoken?'

'Aye. And it's not particularly good news. It seems we are fated to meet Balor's forces here.' I showed him the map, briefly explaining the various key features.

His frown deepened.

'Any notion which force gets there first?'

'Not from them. But I would suggest it should be us. And as apparently we meet them the day after tomorrow, we need to get some sort of a plan together.'

 

We decamped to a bigger tent, and set up a plotting table using sand.

'The old fashioned way.' Irwin sighed dolorously.

'Does your GPS system work? Have we satellite photos, or airborne recce capability?'

'No. You know we bloody don't.'

'Well then, shut up moaning and make the best of what we have.'

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It didn't look promising. Fairly level ground, a few open fields of rough grass or arable crops, surrounded by thick Forestry plantations. Not a big area, and not one that allowed any freedom of movement for the mounted troops, whether mechanical or horsed.

'Archers among the trees?'

'Mm. If we hold the cavalry back here...' Cairbre pointed to a clear area a little distance away towards Weeting village, 'then we can come down on them once their attention is held by the ground troops.'

Damn. How had I forgotten that small fact. John looked utterly blank.

'They fly, John. The riders fly.'

'Stuff a stoat!' he shook his head, taking it in. 'What, even the chariots?'

'No. Only the riders.' Cairbre scratched a slightly stubbled chin. 'And the chariots are better on open ground. If we can drive them through the trees, we can push them towards this area here... then the full force can strike.'

'And what are my troops doing while all this is going on?' I sensed a touch of annoyance from Irwin.

'Those two-wheeled things are quick – harry them from the sides – the riders will strike from above after the archers and spearmen send their first few volleys. We drive them into the trees, your troops hit them while we cannot get them from above, and we drive them, like deer to the killing ground, here.'

I looked at Lugh, who seemed far from happy with the plan. He indicated he wanted a word, the slightest nod of his head, and I slid back from the plotting table to join him.

'So what are we supposed to be doing while all this is going on?'

'Keeping Balor busy, I would guess,' his brow furrowed.

'Why would Balor bring his troops to such an out of the way place? He seems to have struck at settlements, anywhere there are people – there's nobody here except for a few sheep and cattle. And even they're scattered by now.'

'The mines, maybe?'

'Old and mostly filled in now... there are some underground bits opened up for tourists, at least there were when I went. Which was ages ago. But not many... it makes no sense.'

'There has to be something there he wants.'

'Us, maybe?'

He looked at me, startled.

'We meet him there. Our scryers say so. Has he scryers of his own that say the same thing to him? It makes my brain ache, but... what if we didn't turn up?'

'They have seen it. The vision holds true, even if the interpretation is shaky.'

I thought about that, in the light of my own experience. The Cailleach had seen me in the snow, had believed me to be dead. I shivered at the memory.

'All in the interpretation... I don't like it at all. And I don't think he's going to let his army be driven so easily.'

'Nor do I. But this battle is Lord Cairbre's to direct.' Lugh's mouth settled into a thin line and I wondered just what arguments had gone on prior to our arrival.

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The light was fading as the Fae Commander put the finishing touches to his outline plan, and attendants brought softly glowing lamps to the tent. I stretched, and went outside for a breath of air, still headachy from the smokes. The camp had grown, and now stretched away in all directions as more Fae had arrived to swell the ranks. A long tent, glowing with many lamps, seemed to be a gathering place, and I could smell roasting meat from somewhere in that direction.

'Mess tent?' I asked Lugh.

'Aye. And welcome, too.'

'Is everyone welcome?'

'You mean, your humans?'

I raised an eyebrow.

He grinned.

'Yes. In this time and place, they are welcome to share.'

'I just hope they stay out of trouble.' I turned as Irwin joined us.

'That bloody plan has more holes than a pair of knickers after a month in the jungle!' he grouched, rolling a cigarette. 'Nobody has a clue what size force we're facing. They don't seem to care! It's all 'this is the way we have always fought' and 'it's how we fought him last time' and 'tradition' and all that cack,' he lit up, and spat out a stray piece of tobacco.

'They're the main force, John. They're the ones who are trained to work together – we're the add-ons. So we see how it works, try to stay alive, and take it from there.'

' “How we fought him last time...” ' Lugh muttered. 'Bloody cheek from one who was barely off his wet nurse!'

'So was it? How you fought?'

He tilted his head back to look up at the sky, battered profile outlined by the glow of the lamps. 'It was dirty, ugly, and most of us died. Aye, we fought him with sword and spear and arrow, with horse and chariot, and he fought the same, with greater numbers and with the power of the Eye. In the end, only the Sword of the Fae was enough, and that but barely.'

'If the Sword's the thing, what am I supposed to do with the Spear?'

'Your job, my lass, is to kill as many as you can. And to make sure there are no bodies left on the field.'

'Why's that?' Irwin was little more than a shadow at my shoulder.

'Because any body left unburned will be fed to the Cauldron. And thus we will face them again, at the next encounter. And you will find yourself fighting one who was once your friend, who does not know you and only wishes your death.'

'Is he saying what I think he's saying, Mogg?'

'Yup.'

'Fuck. I always hated zombie movies.'

 

 

***

 

 

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