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The Hidden Fortress
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It took a while to get everyone fed. The Fae had set aside a number of tables for human use, which reduced the chance of arguments; I wasn't sure what message it sent but it solved my immediate concern.

The troops fed well, and were sent off to get some rest. Both Fae and humans dispersed quietly, and I was thinking of doing the same, when Irwin slumped down beside me with a groan.

'We have to talk, Mogg,' he scrubbed his face wearily with both hands. 'This whole set up is lunacy. We're gonna get slaughtered.'

I glanced round, hoping none of his forces had heard him.

'Great way for the commander to be talking, Johnny. Maybe not here, eh?' I stood up, poked him on the shoulder to get his full attention, and led the way back to my tent.

There was a light on, and shadows flickered on the taut fabric. I paused, held up a hand to warn Irwin, and went cautiously forward.

'It's only me.' Lugh's voice from within.

I let out a breath, and we went inside. He had the map spread out on my table again, a large tankard of ale, and a face that could have curdled skimmed milk.

'Got any more of that?' Irwin pulled up another couple of chairs and sat across the table from the Fae. Lugh produced two more tankards and a large flagon, slopped a generous amount into the mugs and passed them over. I swallowed a mouthful, and my head nearly exploded.

'Whaathfff..?'

A sour smile. 'Uisge beatha. Enjoy it while you can, for you'll need your wits about you.'

'We'll need more than wits to get through this, I'd say.' Irwin took a measured sip and grinned, though his eyes watered. 'Any suggestions, big man?'

Lugh sighed, and stood up, pacing around the small tent. 'How would you tackle it?'

Irwin glanced at me. 'Go on, John. You were always better at this bit.'

He studied the map for a while.

'Ground.... uneven. No good for horses or wheels in the area of the pits. Outwith that, the forest prevents free movement, although it's cut with firebreaks along which all forces could move fairly rapidly. This could work both for or against us, depending on where the enemy forces are deployed. Which brings us to those forces. What are we facing? Nobody has much idea of numbers, weaponry or how their command and control operates. Any suggestions welcome.'

'Assume we are vastly outnumbered. Assume they are armed – for the most part – as are the Fae. They do not use horses – for some reason, horses don't like them,' Lugh chuckled dryly, 'but they have been known to use beasts of their own breeding. Big, ugly, nasty. But not intelligent. No chariots.'

'And then there's Balor himself.' I ventured. 'Think high powered laser.'

'How the hell do you get such extremes of technology?' Irwin shook his head.

'Too complicated to go into right now. Think of it as a relic of a previous civilization, and you'll not go far wrong,' I suggested, 'and remember we have similar on our side.'

He rolled his eyes in exasperation, but went on.

'Okay then. Outnumbered, but the majority of their forces are hand-to-hand fighters. Dispersed on a broad front across the centre of the area?'

'Pretty much what the scryers hinted.'

'Situation. Pretty desperate, I'd say. They will be there, we will be there, and the advantage goes to whoever gets in position first. I'd recommend getting set up and dug in overnight.' He paused. 'But then there's the business about “we don't fight in the dark”...why not? Will they? I'd take that as a weakness and use it, if I were them.'

'Unlikely. How do you fight in the dark if you can't see? We use torches or glows, and we give away our position – as would they.'

'Nobody with decent night vision? What do we have, John?'

'NVGs, about a dozen pairs. Covered torches. Half a dozen night scopes.'

I explained night-vision goggles to Lugh.

'May I see an example?' he seemed suddenly enthusiastic.

'Sure, I'll fetch them in a moment... where was I?'

'Mission, I think...'

'Oh yeah. Mission... kill the bastards?'

'Sounds about right. Oh, and prevent survivors recovering any fallen.'

'Hmm. Right. Execution. As laid out by my fellow force commander, naïve in the extreme. Assumes too much. If we can even begin to drive the enemy into, and through, the trees – and send them where we want them – it's be a fucking miracle. Surround and inflict attrition, maybe. As long as the arrows and bullets hold out; but then we have the death-and-glory-from-above squad... they come flying down on the enemy and the rest of us will have to hold fire or risk hitting them. We're not talking fighter-bombers here.'

'Surround, hit hard and fast, and then fall back along the way we want them to go? Letting the flyboys drive them?' I took another cautious sip from my tankard. The heat burned all the way down to my gut.

He considered it. 'Maybe. Might be the only way to make his plan work. As long as we don't over-expose along the rides and hand them the advantage. Maybe if we can do some groundwork before the appointed time...'

'Risks them scrying you out and knowing what your plans are.' Lugh said pointedly.

'Shit. Instant intelligence reporting. Why can't our lot do that?'

'They probably could – if the others tried the same thing. Which they won't, for the same reason.'

'So.. stalemate on that, then. Though it could work to our advantage. They don't think we will because... so we do. Could work, once at least.' His mouth twisted in something approximating a grin. 'And then of course there is the matter of no training to work together. Best I can think of is for our troops to hold one flank with the bulk of our infantry, and use the mobile squads on the rides, quick reaction force to control any breakouts.'

Lugh nodded slowly.

'Supporting forces...well, I guess we can consider this base as a support unit – I'm assuming we withdraw here after any major encounter?'

'Aye. And they will go to...wherever Balor has arranged...and regroup. Use the Cauldron. Seek the next battleground.'

'And we will need to refuel, re-arm. Medical support?'

'Such as the Fae require. Do you have your own?'

'Basic field unit. We lost a lot at Stirling Bridge.'

'What's coming from Inverness, John?'

'Not entirely sure, Mogg. Comms have been intermittent since they got into the mountains. Fuel, certainly, and troops.'

'Are all the Fae here that are expected, Lugh?'

'Some of the more distant tribes have yet to arrive. And there is a little uncertainty over how many of the UnSeelie will join the battle. Most are solitary, and have gone into hiding even Under the Hill.'

'Comms and Control. We've got a limited radio set up, which is spread amongst the humans. How do the Fae direct their forces? And is there any way we can link up the two?'

'Cairbre will lead the cavalry force, and direct things from there, as he sees fit.'

'But that's only any good for Fae troops – how are we going to co-ordinate?' I could feel this wasn't going to work.

Lugh shrugged. 'He expects you will do as planned, and keep out of his way.'

'I should bloody keep my guys right out of his way!' Irwin snapped. 'Right out, like back where we came from!'

'Not an option, Johnny.'

'I can make it an option.'

'Not if you want to live much beyond next week.'

'Doesn't look like we have much chance of that anyway!' he spat, knocking back another gulp of liquor.

 

We kicked it around for a while more, going nowhere. I guess we were clearer in our minds where the problems lay, but with no means of solving them that we could see. Irwin finished his tankard, and staggered off to bed, muttering about needing to brief his forces when they were all on site.

Lugh and I sat, staring at the map, for a while longer.

'What about those night glasses?' Lugh said suddenly.

'Can it wait until morning? I'd rather not go raiding our own stuff without John; might cause trouble.'

'I suppose so. But first thing, Malin. First thing.'

 

***

Sleep was brief, disturbed and I woke up sometime near daybreak feeling as if I'd eaten a blanket. My mind was spinning.

 

Night vision goggles to Lugh. Collect Winterthorn and take her through to Ryan, without attracting Cairbre's attention. Brief Ryan. Check things were okay at home, and with Rob and the reinforcements. Make sure Rob stayed in Rubha; Irwin seemed to assume he would come over with the others. Find a decent excuse.

 

But first, the latrine tent, and ablutions. Cold water on the back of my neck shocked me to wakefulness, and I jogged off to grab something for breakfast and pick up the goggles.

Lugh took them with an expression as close to wonder as I'd ever seen on his face.

'Marvellous! Show me how they work!'

Explaining took me to the depths of my technical know-how, and I wondered aloud why he needed the information.

'So I can make more, of course,' he looked at me as if I was an idiot.

'Of course.' I stared at him blankly. 'You can do that?'

'Of course.'

I left him to it, and headed for the horse lines.

 

Conn looked as if he hadn't slept at all, but there was a sense of calm and efficiency amongst the picketed rows of horses. Cloud whickered in greeting as I made my way to her, and gave her a morning brush down. The Stablesman brought the grey mare to me saddled and bridled.

'Looks like you're going to pick someone up, that way,' he said quietly, handing me the reins and stroking Cloud's nose in passing.

There was an air of deep sadness about him.

'You okay, Conn?'

'I am... but they won't be.' he looked down the long line of horses, and I had a sudden sick feeling as I realised what he meant.

I could make no promises; I gripped his shoulder hard, and swung up into Cloud's saddle.

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The gateway was chaos, thronging with trucks and motorbikes and quads, as the reinforcements started to come through. Irwin and his aides were mustering the incoming forces, directing them to parking and accommodation, listing assets and checking off names and numbers.

 

I grabbed a break in the traffic and rode through quickly. Cloud shied at the huge tanker truck waiting on the other side; when I looked I could see at least another two behind it. Beyond that, there was a line of trucks, some towing fuel bowsers. Vehicles were parked up in orderly ranks in the field to landward of the kirkyard, and were moving into line one by one. Troops in a motley array of khaki and green clambered out of some of the new arrivals, stretching their legs. I guided the horses clear, and looked for Rob amongst the hurrying figures, finally locating him at the side of the field where everything had mustered.

He grinned as I rode up. 'They started arriving just before daybreak, so I figured we'd start sending them over as soon as we could. Half so far, and the best gear yet to come!' Then his face fell, and he came closer, lowering his voice.

'John wants me over there once this is done. Any suggestions?'

'Give me time to think. I have to go up to the lighthouse first, get the mare settled, and brief Ryan on signals. Must be some reason you have to stay here.'

'I could break a leg,' his grin was only half joking.

'Don't even think about it. We haven't got the facilities here if you really hurt yourself, so you'd have to come through to where the medics are.'

He shrugged. 'Just an idea.'

I shook my head, and rode for the leyline.

 

Ryan was in the yard when I got home, cleaning out Raven's stable. Rosie bounced around as he half chased her with the broom, the dog barking happily and trying to savage the end of it. My pony whinnied in greeting; Cloud replied, and Winterthorn's ears pricked up, scenting hay and pony nuts.

'Malin! How's things going?' he pushed the gate wide to let us into the yard.

'As well as can be expected. I can't stop long, but there's a lot I need to tell you... first off, introductions.'

His eyes went wide as I slid a stock cube into his hand and let him become acquainted with the grey mare.

'Tack's pretty much what you're used to with Cloud, except it's a standard bridle. Keep her exercised, fed and groomed... ' I paused to find a cube for my mare, who was trying to shove her nose into my pocket. Then, of course, I had to find a mint for Raven, and make a fuss of Rosie.

'No problem... go see Hodge while I stable her.' he was almost breathless with excitement.

I left him to it and went inside.

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There was coffee in the pot, and a plate of cookies on the table. I sat down and helped myself, and found Hodge watching me from the back of the sofa.

'Everything alright, lass?'

'Not really.' I sighed, resting my head in my hands. 'We're outnumbered, and under-prepared, and Cairbre's turned into an asshole. But there's damn all I can do about it.'

'When does it start?'

'As soon as it gets dark, we'll be on our way, I guess – the scryers said dawnlight tomorrow... what the hell are those things, Hodge?'

His face wrinkled up even more than usual.

'I dinnae ken fer sure, but... I heard them once called Halflives... trapped betwixt moments in time, a'ways slightly out o' step. So they see into other times. It didnae make much sense tae me, but...'

'It's as good an explanation as any. Creepy fuckers.'

'Aye, they are that.'

Ryan and the dog burst into the kitchen, breaking the mood. He grabbed a mug off the rack and helped himself to coffee, sitting down across the table.

I waited for him to calm down and finish describing the new horse to Hodge, who bore it with amused tolerance.

'Right. Things you need to know. Time is likely going to come when I'll need you send a message through the stones. Why you?' I pre-empted his question. 'Because I won't be able to, for one reason or another. I'm pretty certain I can get a message to Rob down in Rubha. He'll signal to you – if the radio doesn't work, there'll be the red signal flag on the end of Ishbel's house, or a two-phase flashing light at night, so keep a look out. You need to go down there, pick up the message, and follow the instructions. It may be written, it may just be verbal, it doesn't matter. We need a codeword so you know it's really from me.'

He thought for a moment. 'Best it looks as if it's part of the message, in case it's intercepted.'

'If that happens we're sunk anyway.'

'Do you know what the message is going to be?'

'Pretty much but – no – I won't tell you in advance, in case someone tries to winkle it out of you.'

'I wouldn't tell.' Mulish defiance in the line of his jaw.

'Easier not to if you don't know. But you're right about the word needing to be part of the message.'

'Use “Quarrywood” instead of the stones.' then.'

I raised an enquiring eyebrow.

'Place they used to take us for geology field trips. Sounds like it could be something local here, could send anyone dashing about looking for a relevant place while I go in the opposite direction.' he looked pleased with himself. I figured he had the right and told him so. From the corner of my eye, I saw Hodge grinning in approval.

'When you see the signal, wait until dark. Go and pick up the message from Rob, and go straight to the stones. There are leylines running from here to Rubha kirkyard, and from the kirkyard to the stones. And from there back here. Send the message out at midnight, as before, - say it three times, loud and clear, then get your arse back here. Don't wait for a reply, don't hang about. Winterthorn will do as you ask; you just need to point her head at the target and hang on. And I really, really mean, hang on. But don't go trying her out on the run before you need to – I don't want you attracting any more attention than you have to. If you need to go down to Rubha for anything in the normal run of things, take the quad, or ride Raven. Got all that?'

'Yes.'

'Then tell it back to me.'

 

When I was sure he had it right (and give him credit, it didn't take long) it was time to return to the Rubha gate and sort out things with Rob. I took a last turn round the yard, making a fuss of the animals, made my brief farewells, and set off again.

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The crossing was going pretty smoothly, and the flow of vehicles seemed to be dwindling; a last half dozen four-ton trucks, a couple of Land Rovers, which I regarded with a degree of covetousness, and a small squad of trail bikes which had been unloaded from the larger trucks.

I was still racking my brains for a reason for Rob to stay behind.

He was keeping a good face on it, but I could see the tension in his neck and shoulders, and in the way hope briefly flared in his eyes when I arrived. My wry shrug put paid to that.

'Looks like it'll have to be the leg, then.'

'That'll only bring John back over to haul you to the medics.'

He turned to issue movement orders to another couple of vehicles, and in a weird side-line of my mind, I could feel the glamour he was exerting to keep them all calm and accepting of the weirdness. Keeping hold of Cloud's reins, I perched on the kirkyard wall to watch them go; I thought I may as well wait for the last of them before I followed.

 

From my vantage point I had a pretty good view of my surroundings. Snow covered the tops of the hills, and lingered in the shadows of the walls and fence lines. Lower ground was wet, churned earth where the vehicles had bogged down in the field margins, standing water in the inland fields. Curlews drifted down the grey sky, whistling mournfully over the sound of revving engines. The marram grass along the dunes that fringed the machair flattened in the chilly gusts, and I could feel rain on the wind from the sea. Ishbel's Toyota rattled down the track, swerving crazily to avoid the tail end of the convoy, and slid to an abrupt halt beside Rob. I slid off the wall and went to see what the panic was.

 

Ishbel tumbled out of the cab, her hair every which way; her eyes were red, and she could barely speak for sobs.

'Rob, lad – ye have tae come up to the house. It's Cait... she's.. she's not right.'

'What's up, Ish?' I slung an arm around her shoulder, propping her up before she fell down. 'Deep breath, now. Take it steady. What's happened?'

'She...she realised Rob had ...gone, and she saw the trucks...' she gulped, 'and .. she lost it. Started screaming he was going to die...going to leave her with... it.. the baby...'

Rob's face had gone white.

'She started raving, threatening to kill herself...to cut the baby out.. '

I dug in my pocket for tissues, waited while she blew her nose and mopped her face.

'What's she doing now, Ishbel?' Rob gripped her shoulders, faced her squarely.

'She...she's in the kitchen. She says if you go off to die... she'll kill them both...she's got a knife... Mhairi's trying to calm her, but...'

I shook her, pulled her up straight. 'Ish – get in the truck, and go back. Rob, with me.'

I swung in to the saddle and gave him a hand up behind me, heading up towards the house at full gallop while Ishbel turned the truck.

I could feel him shaking.

'I let the glamour drop, Malin, turned it all on the new troops... I left her alone.'

'Get a grip, Rob. The troops are almost through, you can relax a bit. Start sending it Caitlin's way. Calm the silly bitch down, put her unconscious if you have to.'

I felt his arms tighten around my waist as we took the wall at full stretch and clattered up into Ishbel's yard.

He slid down, almost at a run before he hit the ground.

'You have your excuse, Rob. Don't waste it.'

A white-eyed nod over his shoulder, and he was in through the door. I could hear Caitlin screaming, heard Rob's calm voice, heard the girl subside to sobs.

Ishbel screeched up in the truck.

'Malin?'

'Think he's got a handle on it, Ish...I'll let his boss know he'll have to stay here. I'd better not hang about, or it might start her off again.'

'How does he do it – how can he calm her down when the rest of us can't?'

'Natural talent, Ish.' I wasn't going to explain.

Mhairi backed out into the yard, her face strained and pale, and Ishbel went to help her friend.

'Look after them, Ish. I'll drop back if I can.'

She nodded wordlessly over her shoulder, and concentrated on the job in hand. I hadn't had a chance to brief Rob about sending messages, but figured I'd wing it when I had to. I rode back to the gate, wondering exactly what I was going to tell Irwin.

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fifty-eight

 

John swore and argued for a good fifteen minutes, but eventually bought it. He still wasn't happy.

'What makes her more important than the mission, Mogg?'

'Well, in a sense, she's what the mission is about.'

'Ahh, fuck it Mogg! Don't you start getting all deep and meaningful on me!' he spat on the ground, ' I prefer it when you're nasty.'

'Good. So do I.'

'Seriously, though – I could use him here.'

'And I can use him right where he is. We're going to need someone reliable on that side of things, and with Caitlin the way she is, I can't rely on Ishbel to handle it.'

'You're expecting trouble.'

'I always expect trouble.'

'But you've got a good handle on what it's likely to be.'

'Let's just say, it's insurance.'

He grunted, then shrugged, and went off to organise something or other.

 

I checked in on Lugh, but he was intent on a bench full of small pieces of metal and glass, so I took myself off back to my tent to go over my equipment. That kept me busy until lunchtime; I spotted Thom at a corner table of the mess tent and took the bowl of stew and thick slice of bread that was my meal over to where he sat.

'Busy?'

'Still writing things up. What have you been doing?'

I filled him in on the last couple of days.

'You saw the scryers?' he looked aghast.

'Yes. Not something I'd like to make a habit of.' I poked at my stew, not really hungry, but feeling I should eat something.

'So...what are you going to do now?'

'Wait for nightfall. Maybe try and get some sleep. Not much more I can do.' I dunked my bread, and bit off a large chunk, chewing slowly.

'How do you think it will go?'

'Truthfully? I haven't a clue. This isn't my sort of warfare, I have no real idea of what we're facing, the two parts of our force are not practised at working with each other, and the commanders are at each others throats. What do you think?'

He pulled a wry face. 'Doesn't sound promising.'

'Understatement.'

We ate in silence for a while, the steady ebb and flow of people around us filling the mess tent with a constant clatter and hum.

He finally broached the one topic we hadn't mentioned.

'So...did Hal get away all right?'

'Yes. Did you know Daere was going to go with him?'

He hesitated.

'Thom?'

'Yes.'

'She said it was Lugh's idea. Is that right?'

'You doubt it?'

'You're being evasive.'

He looked down into the empty bowl in front of him, scraped his spoon around it, and sighed.

'I did suggest that it would be better if he wasn't on his own...'

'So it was your idea.'

'It was just a suggestion. He didn't have to tell her to go.'

'Huh. Bet she jumped at the chance.'

'Funnily enough, no. She asked if there weren't any selkies willing to do it.'

'And the answer, obviously, being no...?'

'She just shrugged, and said she would.'

I finished my lunch.

'Well, Thom, I reckon it may actually have been a good idea.' I stood up and gathered the crockery to take it back to the servery, grinning at the surprise on his face. 'I'll see you later, all being well.'

'Take care, Malin.'

 

It was relatively quiet in my tent, and I stretched out on the bed to see if I could catch up on some of my missed sleep. I reckoned there would be enough noise as the troops assembled to wake me in time for the off. Better asleep than sitting about waiting, I told myself, and closed my eyes.

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Wind stripped the foam from the tops of the waves which rose, grey and leaden, in every direction. I took a deep breath and dived back below, powering my way through the calmer water beneath the surface. I was conscious of another presence, turned my head to peer through the churned-up murk; a slim dark shape following in my wake blew bubbles at me. She would need to rest on land sometime soon, I thought. The water swirled around us, churning and bubbling, the light fading, turning to smoke and darkness. The stench of boiling offal hit my nostrils and I half-choked, pulling my head back from the glutinous mess in the cauldron. Hissing voices in the smoke, telling me to look again, look again...I ran for the door of the tent, into a long white-tiled hallway, arched doorways leading off into a hissing maze of pipework and bathrooms and steam rooms and no toilets...stumbling into fading daylight in a stone courtyard. Put my hands out to catch myself as I sprawled full-length, cold flagstones on bare flesh, saw dried blood and filth on my fingers, arms...walked out naked in front of the whole combined army with nothing but the Spear to cover my embarrassment...onto a foggy carpark, desperately searching for the Land Rover, only it wasn't the Landy I was looking for, it was Cloud, and she was nowhere to be found...look again, look again...panic building in my chest, I felt a spider-soft tickling in the back of my mind, a whispering voice offering things I didn't want to think about...saw a lash of red light strike my chest and fell into foetid mud, where cold wet hands sought to drag me down... a hard hand grabbed me under the arm and hauled me to my feet. A voice in my ear, an urgent whisper, 'Told yer there was black days tae come, girlie, told yer. Ye'll lose most everything, and hae tae make some hard choices, but yer must nae lose yer mind! Lose that and a'thing will be lost.' There was a faint smell of peat and woodsmoke, and everything went black and I was falling again...

 

I jerked awake, shaken and sweating.

Bloody anxiety dreams. So much for getting some rest. I swung my legs off the bed, and went to freshen up.

 

Things were starting to move. There was an increase in activity down at the horse-lines, and away towards the vehicle park I could hear Irwin's voice raised as he cursed someone out. I stripped down and put on my silk underwear, then began to assemble the armour around me, piece by piece. It occurred to me that I'd never had to do it by myself and I wondered quite how I would get the straps fastened; fortunately, I didn't have to find out, as there was a rattle of my tent flap, and Lugh stick his head through.

'You're supposed to wait until I say come in,' I grunted, twisting round to try to fasten a strap at the back of my waist.

'Boy's not here, what could you be doing that could embarrass me?' He grinned blithely and took over the fitting of the gear.

'Aren't you wearing any sort of armour?'

'Got a few pieces, I'll get them once you're done. This isn't really protection against them, you know.'

'No, it's against this,' I hauled the Spear out and unwrapped it, 'but I'm not running around half-naked like someone I could mention. And you're an awfully big target'

'Why thank you, lass! Didn't think you'd noticed.'

'Oh for... bloody men!'

As we left for the horse-lines, he ducked into his tent and brought out a hard leather cuirass, and what looked suspiciously like a set of skateboard kneepads.

'Is that it?'

'It'll do. Don't like being all wrapped up in that stuff – makes me feel like a lobster.'

Not wanting to damage my gauntlets, I didn't hit him.

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I barely recognised my horse.

Mane and tail had been tightly braided and bound up out of the way, and most of her body, head and neck was covered in thick leather armour, jointed and brass studded, and covered in minute runic symbols. Her eyes regarded me calmly from behind a moulded chamfron plate.

'You didn't think we'd leave them unprotected?' Lugh checked Aonbharr, who was similarly accoutred to Cloud.

'They didn't have armour when they came for me...'

'That was hunting, not war. Although if they'd known you, they might have thought about it,' he tightened a girth strap. 'And the cavalry have belly plates too, protection from stuff fired upwards. Doesn't protect their legs, of course, but most of them are pretty good at getting them out of the way.'

I saw Conn wince, and wasn't reassured.

Lugh caught my shoulders and stooped slightly, forcing me to meet his eyes. 'Just do your job, let the horse do hers, and we'll all get back safely. Now, let's mount up.'

Feeling like a totally green trooper, I did what I was told, hung my helmet over the pommel, and we rode for the gate.

 

The whole motley force assembled in something approximating organised ranks at the edge of the Battle Field. As well as our human element, there was a division of chariots, with archers, and Fae foot soldiers, both archers and pikemen. A mixed group of UnSeelie – shifting features, odd angles and shapes, and very evidently uncomfortable in present company. No sign of Cairbre or the Fae cavalry.

'Making a grand entrance, no doubt.' Lugh muttered out of the corner of his mouth, as we reined to a halt in front of the ranks.

 

It took another ten minutes for the cavalry to make an appearance, and – as predicted – it was an appearance. They spun down out of the sky like a glowing whirlwind, touching down in perfect formation on the open field.

'Show-off.'

'Seen it before.' I replied. 'Pretty, but they lost.'

'Show-off.' He grinned from ear to ear, and I choked back a snort of laughter.

Cairbre rode up and down in front of the troops, exhorting them to great deeds and high valour, his gorgeous silver-grey Fae stallion curvetting beautifully as he did so.

I tuned him out; he was no Theoden. Besides which, he was deliberately ignoring the humans. From the corner of my eye, I could see Irwin quietly fuming.

I broke ranks and rode over.

Muttering died down in the ranks, and I could feel them giving me the once-over.

'Stylish, Mogg.'

'Sadly necessary. You guys ready?'

'As we can be. That guy's an arsehole, you know that?'

'Old news.' I raised my voice. 'Just stick to the plan, keep your heads down, and try not to hit our allies, however much they annoy you. Anything else, kill on sight. Hit them fast, hit them hard and make sure they stay down.' I patted the Spear, slung over my shoulder. 'This, and the Sword, will do the rest.'

Irwin grinned wolfishly, and gave me an insolent salute.

'See you on the other side.'

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We filtered in an orderly fashion through the gate that Cairbre opened, dispersing to our pre-determined positions. Which tells you nothing about anything.

 

A wan starlight through high cloud delineated the hollows of the old flint mines, a pattern of grey and darker grey across the open space before us. Beyond, the trees rose, black and straight, and Irwin's forces melted into them, grabbing ferns and grass to add to their camouflage as they went.

The Fae cavalry vanished over the trees, and the charioteers hastened away down a forest ride, making for the open ground beyond. The archers slid away into the trees with the scattered human patrols, settling in amongst the deep shadows. Motorbike and quad squads waited silently along the firebreaks and rides.

Which left Lugh and I, sitting on our horses, conspicuously, in the middle of the open ground.

'Suggestions?'

'Trees.'

We went.

 

After half an hour we figured we were in for a long wait, so we dismounted and eased the horses' saddles, taking up position at the edge of the western tree belt.

Around us, I could hear our troops digging in, low curses and the sound of spades.

'What are they doing?' Lugh seemed baffled.

'Trenches. Gives them some protection against enemy fire.'

He cocked his head, evidently thinking. 'Makes sense, if you're not moving around all the time. Hard work though. Excess use of energy.'

'Worked for the Romans.'

'Ahuh. True.'

We settled down to wait.

A light rain began to fall.

 

'Put your helmet on.'

I could sense the tension in him. The faintest hint of light showed in the sky above the trees, and a chilly wind sprang up from the east, shredding the drizzle that seemed to hang over the hollows. I eased myself carefully to my feet and gathered Cloud's reins up; tightened the girth, slid the helmet off the pommel and scrunched it down over my head, pushing back the visor.

Lugh swung up into Aonbharr's saddle, settled himself and took the Sword in his hands.

I ignored the sick feeling in my stomach, and mounted up. The Spear fitted neatly into the groove in my armoured shoulder.

A low, bird-like whistle from Irwin's command group.

Something coming.

 

The hollows filled with blackness, as if tar was bubbling up from below.

'Take 'em!' Lugh's voice grated loudly.

'What? Shouldn't we wait for Cairbre?'

'Not you! Hold fire, Malin.'

I calmed my dancing horse, and was suddenly aware of a hissing noise; arrows in flight. They angled down into the hollows, and the subsequent screams said they'd found their target.

I saw the pale crescent of Lugh's grin. 'Gave those see-in-the-dark glasses to the archers,' he remarked, 'seems to have worked.'

Another hiss as another volley slammed into the hollows.

A glow over the trees.

'Ach, shit. ARCHERS, HOLD FIRE!'

At which point, and a barked command, Irwin's machine gunners opened fire. Low to the ground and right across the hollows, the stream of lead cut through the gathering darkness on the field, hammering into the enemy until the glowing host of the cavalry swooped down on them from above.

'Hold fire!'

They ripped in with spears and swords and razor-edged hooves.

They didn't stand a chance.

 

A brilliant red beam swept across the field, felling trees and scrub, slicing through weapons and bodies with equal ease, sending half of Cairbre's cavalry falling in a screaming mess of blood and bone and chunks of horseflesh into the midst of the boiling mass of blackness.

 

I threw up, only just avoiding filling my helmet.

 

Lugh cursed under his breath, and, taking the Sword in both hands, aimed it at the source of the red beam.

It was a howling wind, a controlled tornado, a channelled, deadly force of air that cut through the blackness, shattering flesh and sending pieces of Fomorian tumbling aside as it struck at their commander. The red lance swung to meet the hurricane, each cancelling the other out in a blistering contact point.

'MALIN! Clear the decks!'

I swept the Spear across the battlefield, balls of fire slamming into anything that moved, burning....burning. The pressure built in my head, released in almost orgasmic bursts as I struck again and again, until my sight was filled with red fire.

 

Damned if I know what happened from then on, apart from that nothing went to plan. It was nothing like any battle I'd ever fought before. I was dimly aware of the chaos; the noise - screams, shrieks, the hammering of the guns, hiss of arrows, shouted commands; the stench of blood, shit and something rotting; Cloud slipping and sliding in the blood and mud churned beneath her hooves; blinding light and roiling black smoke. And always the glorious burning...

The machine gunners continued piling fire into the flanks of the enemy, until the guns jammed or the red beam cut through them, rendering them useless. The gunners took cover in their trenches until the Fomorian horde overran them and the fighting became hand-to-hand.

Lugh's stallion lashed out as we were surrounded by the enemy; there was a satisfying crunch as his hoof smashed something organic. Darkness coagulated into razor-edges as they swarmed around us; pebble-hide and something sharp and nasty, like Lochaber axes, glimmered in the intermittent light. Cloud kicked back hard and I clung on, my knees clamped round her flanks. I swept the Spear across the battlefield again and again, another burning series of explosions that fuelled my growing fury at the futility of it all.

'Malin! Malin, stop, stop now!' A hard thump across the back of my helmet distracted me, broke the hold the Spear exerted.

'Hold your fire, woman!'

The archers retreated, firing until they ran out of arrows and then drew their swords.

'Breathe, Malin.' Lugh swept the howling Sword across the hollows, which still boiled with dark forms. 'Pick your targets, keep control of the bloody thing!'

The pitiful remnants of the cavalry regrouped. I grant them this – they were brave (or stupid) – they made another futile attack and were scattered to the winds.

Our mobile troops got no chance to outflank, let alone drive the Fomorians, who came in vast numbers from the old flint mines and from the surrounding woodlands; it became a run-for-your-life flight along the forestry rides, the motorbikes barely outpacing the dark hunched shapes chasing them.

The charioteers, out of sight of the main battlefield, knew nothing until they were surrounded, then it was a hand-to-hand desperate struggle to escape.

 

Eventually, as daybreak finally started to brighten the sky above the field, someone sounded retreat.

I sat astride my bucking, kicking mare, concentrating on hitting the right targets; Lugh reined Aonbharr back, trampled another dark form and raised the Sword again, sweeping a clear path through the still-growing enemy lines.

The silvery trumpet call rang out again, and our shattered forces fled down the open way to the RV point.

'Cover them!'

'Doing what I can!'

'And head for the gate!'

Lugh swept the Sword across the field, trying to engage the red beam; I burned any body that dropped, stifling the notion that some of them could still be alive. If they were, too late.

We flung ourselves into the Fomorians, splattering blood and guts across the battlefield as we went, slamming armoured foot into ugly, grimacing face, spiked elbow into fanged, wide-mouthed head, ducking razor-edges at almost point-blank range, hammering into the overwhelming enemy with the Spear, which burned hotter and hotter, a false dawn rising as we fought our way to the gate, covering the retreat as best we could for the remains of our forces.

 

'Clear! Get gone, girl!'

'Together, old man.'

 

The gate slammed shut as we kicked our horses through, almost taking Cloud's heels as we landed.

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***

'Well, that was a fucking disaster.'

Irwin, his face blackened and bloody, could barely contain his fury as we tried to take stock of the situation.

The wreckage of our army surrounded the closed gateway. Fae servants hurried back and forth, tending to the wounded, carrying stretchers, leading away limping horses. The air smelled of smoke and sweat, and the stench of defeat.

'What's the tally?'

'From what I can tell so far, we lost about a third overall. Guess that's not bad, considering. But we lost half the machine guns, had to leave a couple of the quads...'

'What about Fae losses?'

'Cavalry's shot to ribbons. But - admit it, given the tactics - we expected that. Archers took a hammering...we got most of the chariots back – tough buggers, that lot. They had a hell of a run to get home.'

I winced. Conn would not be happy.

'Seen Cairbre?'

'That bastard was the first back though the gate.'

'He did have to open it.'

'Didn't have to dive through like a bloody rabbit.'

'True.' I scrubbed my grubby face with both hands, tried to shake off the crowding images, stir myself to action. 'Fuck it, John. I need to go down to the horse lines and sometime I need to get out of this damn armour. Find out the bottom line, then meet up at Lugh's tent, let me know details.'

 

Lugh was already there, plastering a thick salve into a slash on Aonbharr's stifle. I hitched Cloud, and hauled off her thick leather armour and my own gauntlets, ran my hands over her, checking for damage. A few small nicks and cuts; I held out my hand for the pot of salve.

'Lucky.'

'Much more than some,' I looked down the lines, seeing the gaps, the bowed heads of injured, patient horses, the drawn faces of the grooms tending to them. Horses don't tend to make much noise when seriously hurt; there was a worrying quiet hanging over the area. I shook out some food for my mare, checked her water bucket was full, and went to look for Conn.

I found him stitching up a long, ugly slash on the flank of one of the cavalry horses. He didn't look up.

I stroked the horse's nose, and it rested its face against my breastplate, making small shuddering noises deep in its throat. The Stablesman finished up, smeared salve onto the wound, and finally looked at me.

'This one will be fine.' The pain in his voice hit me harder than any of the various enemy weapons had. 'Many won't be. We'll be fortunate if we save half of the badly injured, and most of the walking wounded won't be fit for weeks. We have probably ten cavalry mounts capable of action, and three quarters of the chariot horses. '

I couldn't find words that would comfort him. Shook my head, gently tugged at the horse's ears.

'Need help? I'm an extra pair of hands, at least.'

He nodded, and I followed him to the next stall.

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Mid-afternoon, after a cursory clean-up and change of clothes, I made my way to Lugh's tent. Irwin was already there, and by the looks on their faces they were of one mind. And already halfway down a jug of ale.

I slumped down in one of the folding camp chairs, and gratefully accepted a mugful.

'Could that have gone any worse?'

'Maybe, but we would probably not be here to talk about it.' Lugh contemplated the bottom of his tankard.

Irwin folded his arms on the table, and rested his chin on them.

'Now I know what they were talking about, y'know, at Stirling Bridge.' He shook his head. 'They just kept coming...no end to them...'

'More than we thought, definitely. Certainly more than at Cairn Dubh – must have been thousands.'

'And they're bloody quick – fuck me, I've never seen anything like it.'

'So what do we have left?' I wanted to get a handle on the situation before we had to speak to Cairbre or the Lady.

'In terms of gear, pretty much as I thought – half the machine guns totally U/S, we're down two quads and a couple of the bikes need repair. Ammo stocks still okay, though the Fae are probably short of arrows..'

'Fletchers are already onto it.' Lugh grunted.

'Half a dozen chariots lost or damaged beyond immediate repair, and they didn't even get into most of the trouble...'

'It was getting back that did for them, some of them had to ditch and ride the horses. Speaking of which, did you get an assessment from Conn, Malin?'

'Not good.' I told them what he'd said. 'Means the cavalry are mostly out of action.'

'So there is a bright spot to be found in all this,' Irwin observed acidly.

'If you'd been where I've been for the past few hours, you wouldn't joke,' I snapped.

He looked away, took a deep breath, and continued.

'Manpower. Down by forty percent overall, either dead or out of action. More Fae lost than human but that's just a factor of the numbers.'

'Specialists?'

'Archers took a hammering, as did the gun crews. Lost Pete's crew, Martin and Davey...gods, those lads...rest of the outriders managed to run clear, but only just. Cavalry...is a mess, but no doubt his lordship will have the stats. Of the general grunts, a lot managed to get out of the way as the – whatever the hell they were – chased after the Fae. No sign of the UnSeelie – reckon they did a runner.'

I felt a serious headache coming on.

'So – where did it all go wrong?' I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

'As predicted – we had to hold fire when the flyboys came down. Until that point, I think we were holding our own.'

Which was no time at all.

Lugh raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

Irwin continued, 'And then they just kept coming. And that damn laser beam...have to say, if it hadn't been for you two with those whacko weapons, it would have been game over.'

'We assumed we'd be outnumbered, but the scale of it was more than we could have imagined. There has to be some way of dealing with that. Lugh?'

'If we didn't have Balor to contend with, Sword and Spear could hold them, and the rest of the forces could pick off the stragglers...tie the Sword up dealing with the Eye, and that leaves everything else to the Spear...and the extent to which you'd have to use it would be... let's say - unhealthy. You were getting close today, far too bloody close.'

'Better than everyone dying.'

'If you'd seen it, you wouldn't say that, Malin.'

We sat in glum silence for a while. I tried to get thoughts of the horses out of my head.

'So, what's the plan for next time?' Irwin tipped the last of the ale into his mug.

'Depends on where, when... at the moment I don't see how we can do things any different, except for maybe using what's left of Cairbre's forces for reconnaissance and for heading off breakaway groups. And he's not going to like that.'

'Bugger what he likes. He hasn't the troops to do anything else.'

 

There was a tap on the canvas of the tent, and at Lugh's reply, Briac stuck his head through the doorway. There was a bandage round his brow, covering one eye.

'Milord Lámhfhada, the scryers have spoken. You are summoned to Council.'

We all got to our feet.

Briac looked embarrassed. 'I'm sorry my lady, Sir Irwin... you are not included in the summons...'

Lugh forestalled Irwin's outburst, 'I think I can put our opinion over, John. And if I'm going to tell some home truths, best it's me to them, without human witnesses...'

He grinned wickedly, and produced another flagon of ale from beneath a cloth-covered table, handed it to Irwin, then followed the guard out.

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'This isn't our sort of war, Mogg,' Irwin said, quietly.

'I know. Too late now though. We're in.'

'I mean – swords and arrows and chariots. Them nasty axe things. What are we doing?'

'Saving mankind.' I forced a grin.

'You know what I mean. We should be making them come to us, exploiting their weaknesses, hitting them when they least expect it... not this RSVP sort of warfare. Where's the bloody intelligence?'

He had a point.

'So what ARE their weaknesses, Johnny? Any ideas on that?'

He poured us some ale.

'Maybe we should find us an expert on Fomorians.'

'He just walked out the door.'

'How about the old bloke you mentioned?'

I had to think for a moment to figure out who he meant.

'Thom? He'd know the legends, certainly, but he's no expert. Lugh was actually there...'

'Legends gotta be better than nothing. Maybe some truth in them.'

Given Thom's geas, maybe there was something in that.

'Wonder where he is?'

'Got anything else to do this evening?'

 

Without a lot of detective work, we located Thom's tent.

When we knocked, he had a load of scrolls and books scattered around, ink on his fingers and a pen stuck behind his ear.

'Oh, hello Malin – come in, come in, sit down...' he cleared a space on the bed, '...what happened? I'm hearing all sorts of disaster.'

'That just about sums it up, Thom. Let me introduce an old acquaintance of mine.'

 

'What do you have on Fomorians, Thom?'

His eyebrows went up. 'Specifically, rather than just as part of our history?'

'Any little detail. Might be important, might not – but we need to know everything we can.'

'And Lugh can't tell you?'

'He's a bit tied up at the moment, explaining to Cairbre what an idiot he is. So – what do you know?'

He scratched his head, gathering his thoughts.

'They were the early inhabitants of these islands, displaced by the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan – Malin, you know all this!'

'Yes, but it's their personal habits I'm interested in, rather than politics.'

'They lived in an undersea kingdom, known as Lochlann, under their king Tethra.'

'Wasn't he the guy the Sword was originally made for?'

'Aye, but he was killed in one of the battles with the Tuatha de Danaan, and it passed to them. Nae matter. Where was I? Oh yes, Lochlann...' he rummaged amongst the scrolls, muttering to himself, 'something here, I think... ah, yes...'

I sat on my hands, resisting the urge to prod him.

He unrolled it, and read:

'A kingdom deep under the sea, inhabited by the Old Ones...a people cold and batrachian, who revile the warm and the living...'

I had a shivery Lovecraftian moment.

'What came after us was kind of clammy, I have to agree.' Irwin lounged against the tentpole, his hands in his pockets.

'I thought that was just the rain...but wouldn't they need some sort of heat to get them going, if they're froggy?' I tried to recall details, 'They felt pretty warm-blooded, from the splatter.'

'Warm but not hot. Believe me, I was nearer than you. And they buggered off as soon as the daylight started to show.'

'So maybe they need it cool and dark and damp...what more, Thom? Any more detailed physical description? It was bloody hard to make any sense of them in the dark and the smoke.'

He suppressed a shudder.

'Not a lot on record...dark, long fingers and toes, big eyes that see in the dark. Come in a range of sizes, from the nasty little brutes to thugs the size of Lugh...teeth and claws, according to some.'

'That I'll vouch for!' Irwin brushed a hand across a bandage on his forearm.

Thom brushed a few scrolls aside, knocking several onto the floor, bent to pick one up. It looked particularly old and fragile, pieces flaking off as he unrolled it on his desk.

'Ah. Think this is the right one... Semion of the Fir Bolg had something to say, though it's hard to make out...something about scaled and warty hides...shunning the eye of day...' he ran his finger along the line of script.

I peered over his shoulder, but it was in no language I knew. No alphabet I knew, either.

'Most of it is about how much better the Fir Bolg were than their ancestors. Umm...how they had cast off the ancient tie to the deep waters...' he shook his head, 'then it just goes on to boasting about the Fir Bolg achievements in metalcraft. Not much more help.'

'Better than nothing. Sounds like they have a need for the water, and don't like daylight. Something to go on at least.'

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fifty-nine

 

Lugh didn't come back to his tent until almost midnight, his mouth set in a tight line and the muscles twitching visibly in his jaw.

Irwin filled a tankard and handed it to him without a word. He drank it down in one, and passed it back for a refill.

 

'Three days. Just after midnight. Avalon.'

'What the hell?' Irwin exploded. 'How the hell are we supposed to find that? It's a bloody imaginary place!'

'Not quite, John. I'm guessing we're talking Somerset Levels, Glastonbury Tor, that sort of thing?' I rubbed my aching temples.

Lugh nodded. 'The Isle of Apples.'

'So it's wet, and in the dark again.' Damnation!

'I'll find the map in a minute. How'd the meeting go?'

'What do you think?'

'Not well, from your expression.'

'You could say that,' he grimaced. 'What happens to them when they get to be the Lady's Consort? Do they lose all common sense? Why do they think they have to prove something?'

'What did he want to do?'

'Take overall command of the forces. Leaving me, as he so kindly put it, “to concentrate on keeping Balor under control.” What's left of the cavalry would become his sub-commanders, directing everyone else as he sees fit.'

'And my forces?' Irwin ground his teeth.

'Would also come under his control.'

'Bollocks to that!'

'And what did you say?' I tried to drag it back to the point.

'Pretty much what John's just said!'

'So it degenerated into a slanging match.'

He had the grace to look rueful.

'For a while, I admit. The Lady – of course – took his side; she has to back him up. Until I said that spreading his concentration that thinly would probably mean him ending up dead, which made her think. We have – in the end – a compromise.'

'Not my bloody troops!'

'No, John. You keep command – but there will be a couple of cavalry riders with you, for communication with the rest of the forces.'

I could feel Irwin's resistance to any interference.

'You could use one of them as overhead recce, Johnny, letting the other know what he sees. Might work quite well like that.' I let the suggestion hang there. It was, after all, pretty much how we'd thought to use the remaining riders.

'And Cairbre himself?'

'Ah now, there's the thing. He'll be with us.'

'Ach, shit. Go get the maps, Johnny.'

 

Three days to get as much repaired as possible, to work out new tactics, to tend wounds, to go crazy with the waiting. I briefly contemplated going home, but that would have been wrong. Spent a lot of time helping Conn tend the wounded horses. Cried into my pillow over the ones that didn't make it. Argued over maps and tactics with Irwin and Lugh, and eventually, and reluctantly, Cairbre.

 

The reluctance wasn't all his. Irwin sulked like a thwarted schoolboy; I began to feel like a primary school teacher faced with unreasonable six-year-olds. Lugh got exasperated and stormed out, and Thom very sensibly stayed well clear, checking over the maps to see if he could pinpoint the most likely site for the Fomorians to open a gate.

 

I decided in the end that the best thing was to ignore the pair of them, and carry on as normal. I outlined what I thought was the simplest way to deploy the riders as communications units embedded in the various forces, and how an airborne scout might be usefully employed, running rough parallels with how we had used comms and recce drones or spotter planes in previous operations. Cairbre became interested despite himself, and made a few useful suggestions. Which led to Irwin chipping in, making mock of parts of my strategy, and suggestions of his own. Which was no new thing, but for once I wasn't going to make an issue of it. When they sent out for beer, I left them to it and went to find Lugh.

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He and Thom were intent on a couple of maps.

'Well, you cracked it yet?' I flopped down in a chair.

Lugh looked startled.

'You haven't left them alone? How long before they kill each other?'

'Naah. They were both picking my strategy to bits when I left, it'll take them ages to get onto something more contentious. And they'll come up with useful stuff in the process.'

Lugh eyed me, grinned.

'You're very devious, you know.'

I made an innocent face, then stuck my tongue out at him.

'Come on, then! What news on the battlefield?'

Thom slid an OS map across the table, stuck his finger on it.

'If they're going to try the same thing as before, the peatbogs here, north-west of the Tor, are probably the most likely. And they link..' he dropped an older map on the top, '...with the old channels that ran to the foot of the hill. A nice link to a more ancient system of waterways, which gives them a good conduit to open multiple gates.'

'Multiple...'

'They came up from every damn hollow on that field, Malin. You said yourself that they were mostly filled in; no series of tunnels underneath – so no way he could have brought them all over through the one gateway. Bastard's using multiple gateways.' Lugh scowled.

'Which means more of them can come at us at once?'

'From different directions.'

'Ahh, shitting hell.'

'Yeah, that's about right.'

'Hang on a minute...can we do that?'

They looked at me.

'Not as easily as they can, but...maybe two or three. What are you thinking, girl?'

'Of not being sitting ducks. Let's go talk to the boys.'

 

***

Cloud always seemed happy to see me; her injuries were healing rapidly, making me wonder if Fae horses had the same faster recovery as the Fae themselves. I took her for a little light exercise, before helping Conn out for a couple of hours. The horse with the slashed flank – a gentle, pale cream mare – was recovering well, and I spent a little time with her. Her rider hadn't been so lucky.

Others would take longer to recover. On each visit, I worried that there were fewer horses there, and eventually voiced my fear to Conn. He patted my shoulder.

'We have taken some of the most hurt back to the stables, that they will heal better there. We have slings to hold up those with damaged legs, and there are padded cradles. They will be quiet, and safe.'

'I'm trying, Conn... I'm doing my best to keep them out of it...'

'Malin, my lady, I am not blaming you.'

'That's not the point...' I sat down on a hay-bale. 'Oh gods, Conn, I am so sorry...'

'My lady, this is the way the Fae have gone to war, how they have always done so. I have seen this before. I don't doubt I will see it again. We have to make the most of the quiet times between the wars.'

'It doesn't make it all right. Where I come from, this isn't the way we do it.'

'So no animals are hurt in the making of war?'

I closed my eyes. Thought of the gun-horses dying on the fields of Flanders, the Household Cavalry horses blasted across the Mall by the IRA, IED-search dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq...

'They shouldn't be involved. People make war, not animals. They're just innocents.' Cloud nuzzled my ear and I wiped tears off against her soft nose.

 

Somewhere in the middle of it all, I slept.

Ate.

Washed and changed.

Cleaned my gear, and Cloud's leather armour, carefully checking for damage.

Fixed what I found.

Spent too much time wondering where Hal was.

Missed him more than I could measure, and wondered about that, too.

 

***

'Dark, wet, cold as a witch's tit, and lousy for movement.' Irwin spat. 'Anyone would think they're choosing the ground for their own advantage!'

We stood in a lane, looking across Glastonbury Heath. Starlight on open water, low-lying ground, treacherous channels and sudden drop-offs into the peat cuttings. A few patches of trees, willow and elder. Flat, damp fields. Low-hanging mist along the drains, and a trace of frost in the air. Behind us, the mass of Glastonbury Tor loomed, a darker shape against the dark sky.

'It's all foreseen, supposedly. True, it would be nice if it would show us something to our advantage,' I swung up into Cloud's saddle, 'but I'm told it doesn't work that way.'

'Fucking fairies,' he checked his rifle, for the fifteenth time.

A clatter of hooves on the tarmac; Lugh pulled up beside us.

'Not long to midnight.' He looked up, to where one of Cairbre's riders circled high above the peat-cuttings, wearing dark gear and almost invisible against the sky.

In the reedbeds, a duck quacked sleepily.

A red light flashed on the radio on Irwin's webbing belt; he pressed the headset tighter to his ear.

'Breaking through at co-ordinates Alpha-24 and Golf-15.'

I checked the rough gridded map in red torchlight.

'Here and here,' I showed it to Lugh.

'Got it.'

He whirled Aonbharr, and gave rapid instructions to another of the riders, who quickly vanished through the gate a short way down the road.

On the other side, Cairbre would be opening more gates. I kept my fingers crossed that he could find enough power.

'More coming through, Charlie-12, Foxtrot-7!'

In the distance, I could hear the guns open up as our troops arrived.

 

'Time for us to do our bit,' Lugh slapped my shoulder. 'You alright with that, John?'

'Go!' He gave a series of orders over the radio. 'Go on! And keep that red-eyed bastard off our backs!'

We raced off down the rough track into the heart of the marshland.

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Mud and water splattered up from the horses' hooves as we rattled through the reedbeds, passing the looming shapes of cutting machines, leaping the shining ribbons of open drains and marsh pools. A spring of teal shot out from almost underfoot, whistling wildly and spooking the horses; the massed heaps of peat rose like miniature mountains around us as we slowed, and climbed to a decent vantage position.

 

Which isn't saying much.

Flatland isn't great for seeing what's going on, especially in the dark. We could make out very little in terms of who and where, and if we hadn't had the radio we'd have been completely stuffed. Fortunately, Irwin was keeping a damn good commentary going, and following that, we were able to pick out targets and start making an impact.

I heard the eerie shivering rush of a flight of arrows coming over our heads; the screams of the Fomorians as the arrows hit; swept the Spear across the reedbed where they were, seeing the fire catch, burning the reeds, blazing into the night sky. The glow of the flames lit up the dark shapes of the enemy as they emerged from the water, glistening on crocodilian hides and sparking in yellow eyes. Lugh slammed the Sword's force onto them; the unearthly screams as they were ripped into nothingness set my teeth on edge.

 

Of course, as soon as we opened fire, we became a target, so we made the first strike count before shifting position, splashing through the shallow meres to a new vantage point where we could hit them again.

Somewhere out to my left, I saw the glimmer of red.

'Bastard's here!'

'Got it. Do your job, leave him to me.'

The howl of the Sword changed as it met the light of Balor's Eye, shifting up through the scales to a whine like claws on a blackboard. It seemed that neither could overcome the other, an impasse that left the rest of us floundering in the marsh, and killing everything we could.

 

I don't know how long it went on, lost in a welter of mud and water and blood and fire, until it happened.

 

It started like the sensation you get when you stand too close to the speakers at a rock concert – a gut-deep vibration, growing and shaking my bones, rattling my teeth. There followed a ringing sound, a bell a long way off and a long way down, which rippled across the battlefield like a wave, shaking everything as if there was an earthquake, like the earth itself was ringing.

There was an unearthly howl from Balor, a shriek that built in volume until I thought my eardrums would burst, and a sudden, utter silence that followed.

 

'What the fuck was that?' Irwin's voice crackled across the radio. 'And where did the bastards go?'

 

My hands were still shaking with the reverberation of the bell as I turned to look at Lugh.

'Damn good question, old man.'

He raised himself in the stirrups, listening.

'Gone.'

'Why?'

I saw a slight smile crook the corner of his mouth in the light of the flames.

'I think your boy has done what he set out to do, lass. If I read that right, Cauldron's broken.'

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We regrouped, and – there being no enemy to deal with – made our way to the gate by the light of burning reedbeds. As we crossed over, I could smell the peat starting to catch fire, and made mental apologies to the local wildlife.

As we dismounted at the campsite, a runner came to summon us to the command tent, where Cairbre was keen to find out what was going on.

I, for one, wasn't so keen to let him know exactly what had happened. We'd sent Hal off to find the Cauldron, as far as the Fae Lord was concerned, and we knew Cairbre was keen to have it under his own control.

If Lugh was right, it was beyond anyone's control now.

 

'Stay out of this, Malin. You and Irwin both. Get out now, keep your heads down, clean up, work with the horses, whatever, just stay out of it.'

'Lugh, you can't take all the responsibility, damnit! It was a group decision!'

'Aye lass, but I'm the one he isn't going to try to kill over it!'

 

***

There was a greyish cast to Irwin's face when I met him back at the tents, and something in his eyes told me he needed more than just a couple of hours' sleep.

'Beer, Johnny?'

'I think it'll take more than beer, Mogg.'

'What gives, John?' I steered him towards a quiet corner of the mess tent, and set down a mug before him.

He drank half of it in one swallow, set it down, then finished it off.

I ordered up another.

When it arrived, he downed it in one.

The lad behind the bar brought another at my slight gesture.

'What happened, John?'

His mouth moved as if he was about to be sick, and his hands clenched into fists.

'If I didn't know better I'd think I was going mad, Mogg...you remember Pete?'

'Yes.'

'Mogg... he died last battle. I saw him die! Saw his guts on the ground...'

'Aye.' I knew what was coming.

'I saw him tonight, Mogg – he was there, right in front of me. On the other side! He had this fucking great axe thing, damn near killed me! I put ten rounds through him – my own damn friend...'

I took a long swallow of my own beer.

'John – I did tell you this would happen, you know. If the Cauldron wasn't destroyed, remember? Pete's body must have been gathered up by the Fomorians.'

He put his head in his hands, fingers running up into his hair, as if he was trying to hold his skull together.

'I never thought … that was what it meant... oh fuck, Moggy. How many of our guys...?'

'No idea. They're gone, Johnny. If you see them again, it isn't them, just ...it's zombies. You hate zombies.'

'I've never had my friends made into them before.'

'They're not your friends. Not any more. And it isn't going to happen again, if Lugh's right.'

'Ah...oh fuck it, Mogg. They were still my guys.'

'Yeah.'

 

Despite his pain, my heart sang.

Hal had done it – broken the Cauldron! And now he was on his way back. I tried not to be too cheerful about it, but I couldn't prevent the occasional upwelling of happiness that came upon me. Coming home. To me. Cauldron destroyed – Balor annoyed! I suppressed a skip in my step as I made my way down the horse lines.

Conn grinned as I joined him.

'Only scrapes and scratches, my lady!'

'Conn, when will you stop calling me that?'

He looked at me across the lowered neck of the injured chestnut he was treating.

'When you don't deserve it, of course.'

I didn't have an answer to that.

 

Heading back to my tent, I wondered how Lugh had got on with Cairbre and the Lady. I was finding the Lady's – what can I call them – mood swings? - confusing. I figured the changes in her attitude were related to whoever she was hooked up with, but – heck - wasn't Cairbre on our side? Why were they being so awkward about everything?

I changed direction, headed for Thom's tent. Someone around here had to have an answer, and if it wasn't him...

 

'I don't really know.'

'Helpful, Thom. Very helpful.'

'Come on, Malin, how am I supposed to know how the power works?'

'You've been there, haven't you?'

He blinked, and a flicker of old memories flashed across his face,

'Not exactly. I was never the war-leader, for goodness sake!. Just a ...distraction.'

'But there must have been some – transference?'

He shivered.

'The Lady – if she takes you to her – and that depends on her alone – accepts your values, your ambitions, your dreams... and bends her power to make them come true. She may not even be conscious of doing it. All I wanted was to be the best of the bards... she ensured that for me, but beyond it, I didn't want anything and I believe she got...bored.'

'So she's working to make Cairbre's dreams come true now? Like she tried to make Lankin's?'

'I think so.'

'Shit. Be useful to know what he wants.'

'That I don't know.'

 

Lugh was sprawled out on his camp bed when I finally made my way there, happily plumbing the depths of a large flagon.

'Hey, how'd it go?'

'Ducked the issue, lass,' he grinned wryly, '...just said the Cauldron wasn't in Balor's control any more. I don't have to tell the truth, unlike some of our friends!'

'And what happens when they find out?'

'With any luck the whole thing will be over by then...'

'You believe in luck?'

He grinned, shifted sideways on his bed, gestured an invitation.

'If there's luck, maybe you'll see sense and join me?'

'Daft bugger.'

'Thought as much. Ah well. Doesn't hurt to ask.'

I tried to look serious.

'But they aren't going to be pleased...'

'Hell, Malin, I may be dead by the time they ask! Why call in grief to myself?'

'You're as incorrigible as Irwin, you know?'

'I can live with that. And you could always change your mind...'

'With Hal on his way home? Dream on, old man!' I slapped his knee and headed for my own tent, and some sleep.

 

***

I found myself constantly trying to work out how long it would take for Hal to get back. Had to be around five days...as long as everything was alright. I clamped down on my imagination; no point in unnecessary worry. Kept myself busy.

Time dragged. The scryers still hadn't pinned down the next battleground. Irwin drilled his remaining troops relentlessly. Lugh and Cairbre continued to wrangle over tactics. The Lady seemed to be favouring Lugh's plans, which made me a little uneasy; although it was better for our aims, it marked a shift in the relationship between her and Cairbre, which clouded the planning meetings. There was a tight look to the Fae Lord's face, a grimmer set to his jaw, that I didn't like.

'Watch your back, old man.'

Lugh grinned, polishing his armour. 'Take more than that pup to worry me, lass. I'm watching him, don't fret. He won't try anything until the war's over, anyway.'

'I hope you're right.'

'Go and do something useful, woman! Gods, how long until the boy's back? You're becoming a worry wart!'

I ducked the cleaning rag he threw at me, and went to help Conn.

 

I'd just cleaned up and was wondering how to spend the next hour or so until supper when there was a tapping at the door of my tent.

'Yes?'

Briac, no longer bandaged, ducked his head through and nodded deferentially.

'Milady, the scryers have requested your presence.'

Oh bugger.

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