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The green tent was still full of smoke, which oozed from the doorway and under the rim of the roof, and I took a good lungful of fresh air before I entered. Not that I thought it'd do any good.

The door-flap swung closed, and the background noise of the camp faded, a thick silence wrapping round me.

To hell with deference.

'Okay, I'm here. What do you want?'

There was a dry rustling, like an old snakeskin, and the faint glow of candlelight.

 

'We seek your aid'

'...aid for the ssseeing...'

'for all is darkness and confusion'

'You want my help?'

'You aided before. We would have you look into the mirror once more. It responds to you.'

I suppressed a shudder. A dark shape flitted in the corner of my vision, vanishing as I turned my head. A hand, frail and dry as that of a mummy, wrapped around my wrist with the relentless squeeze of a python, and drew me across the room to the waiting cauldron.

The smell of it caught in the back of my throat.

 

'what do you sssee?'

'Nothing. It's as still as the proverbial millpond.'

'That cannot be...'

'Sorry. But it is.'

The thick, viscous liquid looked to be on the verge of congealing.

'it mussst be... refressshed...'

What the hell?

'So, get on with it. Whatever you have to do to...refresh it.'

My stomach churned a little at the thought.

 

'it musst be you that givesss...'

'It responds to you. You mussst give it life.'

My breakfast threatened to make an unwelcome reappearance.

'What..you mean I have to give my blood? How much? There's at least a couple of pints in there!'

I had an image of knives, and leeches.

'...a few dropsss...just to waken the visions..'

'That all?' I tried not to take a deep breath. The noisome smoke curled around my lungs, and I could feel the narcotics starting to take effect; my vision swam and my head started to thump.

Okay, Malin. A couple of drops. I rummaged in my back pocket, searching for my penknife.

 

'you will need thhissss...'

It was as long as my forearm, more a spear point than a dagger. Black metal, corroded with age and long use, crusty with what I could only think was old blood, the haft wound round with scabby bandages. I backed off quickly as it was thrust under my nose.

 

'I stick that thing in me and I'll be dead of blood-poisoning before we even get to the next battle!'

 

'you mussst use the Black Knife...'

'only thisss will bring the true visions'

Dry rustling as the three drew closer, their presence enough to force me back towards the basin and its glutinous contents.

Looked like I didn't have a choice. I wondered where a nick from the blade would cause the least damage. As if the actual cut was the thing I should worry about.

'Can I at least clean it up?'

'Use it! We wassste time....'

The scabrous thing was shoved into my right hand. A bony claw grabbed my left and held it above the viscous surface of the mirror.

My mind raced - okay, it was gibbering slightly – I gritted my teeth and drew the blade in a short, shallow cut across the back of my forearm, where my gauntlets wouldn't rub.

Dark beads welled up from the cut, a warm trickle over my skin, running round to gather on the underside of my arm before splattering into the bowl beneath.

 

I swear the surface rose, hungry to meet the falling drops.

 

There was a sighing from the scryers, a desert wind soughing through old ruins, the stale air from ancient tombs.

 

They released my wrist, snatching the knife from me, and clustered round the bowl. I stepped back, moving towards the doorway. Rummaged in my pocket, searching for a handkerchief, squeezed my arm hard to force more bleeding in the faint hope of washing out any contaminants, and wrapped the reasonably clean cloth round the wound. I was tightening the knot with my teeth and hoping to make my escape when I was suddenly aware of a presence behind me.

 

'you mussst still look and tell usss what you ssee...'

How did they do that? I forced myself to walk back towards the bowl and look down into it.

The liquid flowed again, sloshing back and forth in a familiar rhythm, drawing away to one side to leave the stained metal of the bowl exposed.

'Weird. Looks like the tide going out...'

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***

'And that was that. I was shoved aside and they went into that huddle thing they do. I made my escape.'

Lugh scowled.

'You shouldn't have gone alone, lass. Not there.'

'Didn't exactly have much choice in the matter, as I saw it.'

'Stop waving your hands around, Malin.' Thom grabbed my wrist in exasperation and smeared an evil looking brown paste across the cut on my forearm. 'That should be good against most things, but if you get any swelling around it, let me know immediately.' He proceeded to wrap a clean linen bandage around my arm. 'And don't get it wet – if you do, see me and I'll change the dressing.'

'Thanks, Thom.' I flexed my fingers and felt nothing more than a slight ache. Maybe I'd get away with it.

'So...we should know where the next ground is before long.' Lugh ran a whetstone along the edge of his dagger, squinted down the blade.

'Dark and wet again, I don't doubt,' Irwin grumped from the corner of the tent where he was cleaning and reloading ammunition into various magazines.

'Tide going out. Could be anywhere. Risk of mud, quicksand and soft sand. Bloody hopeless for chariots. In fact, bloody horrible for pretty much anything.' Lugh finished the dagger off with a light wipe of oil, and slid it back into its sheath.

'Two ways it could go.' I figured, 'either they come out of the sea, or they try to drive us into it. Any bets?'

'If it was me, I'd take the second option.'

'Aye, but Balor isn't you, John, and the Fomorians aren't the Fae.'

'And that means?'

'All bets are off, is what he means,' Irwin started stripping down an automatic rifle, 'but I, for one, am not sending my guys into quicksand and mud.' A muscle ticked in his jaw, then he nodded to himself. 'Hard sand we can do, maybe softish too, with the bikes and quads. But we need to control the field, stop ourselves being driven.'

'Figure we can do that, Johnny?'

'Once we know where it is. Thing about sand and mud – get there early and the sea washes your tracks away.'

'Yeah.'

***

'Well, it could be worse!' Lugh seemed almost cheerful when he came back from meeting with Cairbre and the Lady.

'And?'

'Farthest north, moonrise, day after tomorrow. Between the salt water and the sea strand,' he sang tunelessly.

'Farthest north?'

'Maps, John.'

'On it.'

Had to be mainland, given the problems crossing to the outer islands. I racked my brains, picturing the northern coast in my mind. Grinned.

'Could be a lot worse! I was thinking the Wash, or Morecambe Bay, or the Solway... '

'Weston-on-the-mud came to my mind,' Irwin muttered, rummaging through his maps.

'Thank the gods it's not that. Kyle of Tongue, or Durness. Has to be. Only major, seriously sandy, long tidal outflows along that coast. Rocky hill either side, and when the tide goes down there's the river running through a lot of sand. Which is...' an image came into my head, '...solid enough to drive sheep across at low tide, at least at Durness.' I'd once spent an idle hour or so watching as it happened, lambs breaking out to right and left, panting collies dashing out and back, shepherds on quad bikes making the crossing with the flock.

'Looking at this, Durness is the most northerly...fractionally...can we discount Smoo Cave, or Sandwick?'

'I think so.'

'Question is, what's the state of the tide at moonrise on Wednesday?'

'Why don't we go take a look?'

'What? What about the scryers, and foretelling and...'

'To hell with all that crap, Mogg. If we go tonight, we'll get a good idea of the lie of the land, where we stand in terms of tides... I might take a few of the lads along with some surprise packages...'

I could almost see the cogs whirring.

'Don't want to rain on your parade, Johnny, but you'll need to get Cairbre to make a gate.'

'Maybe we can make him think it's his idea,' Lugh had a devious look on his face, '...if we set out the problem, pull a few of his strings...'

'What are we waiting for?'

 

To my surprise, Cairbre was reasonably easy to convince. His only caveat was that I was not to go.

'Why the hell not?'

'Because you are too connected to the scryers' foretellings. We cannot tell if your being there will not set up ripples in the aether; your going before the battle could have adverse consequences.'

'Do you know this?'

'Not for certain, but the possibility is enough.' The Fae Lord's mouth snapped shut and the look on his face told me not to push it.

'It's no big deal, Mogg.' Irwin shrugged carelessly,as we made to leave.

I growled under my breath, but allowed Lugh to steer me out and back to my tent.

 

'So what am I supposed to do while you're all off having fun?' I almost kept the whine out of my voice.

'Oh I don't know, maybe you and the Lady could do some girlie shit – y'know, bubble baths, paint your nails, talk about guys...' Irwin gave a shit-eating grin, and dodged out of the tent as he tried to avoid the fully-loaded magazine I threw at him.

I had the satisfaction of hearing a yelp as he failed to duck far enough.

'Get out, you assholes. Go and play sandcastles.'

Lugh ruffled my hair as he left, 'Don't worry, Malin, we'll tell you all about it. '

As they sauntered off, I heard Lugh's voice rumble, 'Hope that boy gets back soon!'

Irwin's chuckle followed, 'Anything to improve her temper...'

'Bastards!'

He spun round, chucked something back at me, 'And make sure you clean and reload that bloody magazine, woman!'

 

I may have mentioned I don't do waiting well. I had to find something to occupy my mind.

After a few hours at the horse-lines helping Conn, I took Cloud out for some exercise.

We rode round the outskirts of the camp, which sprawled along the edge of the Battle Field. Out on the field itself, a small group of chariots were practising manoeuvres, the patches on the frames testament to recent repairs. Archers and spearmen took aim at straw targets. I made a rough headcount. Which set me to wondering exactly how our forces stood. Which made me wonder if any of the UnSeelie had actually stood by their promise to help. There was certainly no sign of them in the camp, but perhaps that was their choice; after all it might be quite awkward for them sharing space with the Seelie Fae.

How could I find out?

I sighed. Looked like I might have to talk to the Lady after all.

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sixty

 

I'd been surprised that the Lady had actually come to the camp; I guess I'd figured she'd stay in the Rath, but her silk pavilion was set up in the heart of the gathering, in the midst of the Fae tents. I was more surprised that there were no guards, merely Eithne waiting by the doorway.

'She's been expecting you,' the slight Fae woman dropped me a curtsey and ushered me inside.

Green-gold hangings, silks and voiles, moving gently in a scented breeze that brushed my cheek like a passing owl feather. Wondering where the hell that had come from, I followed Eithne through the many layers to the heart of the tent.

'Bigger on the inside,' I muttered under my breath.

 

'It is whatever I wish it to be, Malin Gregory.'

 

I raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Safest not to, until I gauged her mood.

'I was just about to have supper. Will you join me?' she gestured to a well-upholstered couch, and seated herself in a high backed armchair with definite overtones of 'throne' about it.

I sat down cautiously and looked at my hostess.

I hadn't seen her since our rather explosive meeting when we'd forged the first plans to bring Irwin's troops Under the Hill; a lot of things had changed since that meeting, and I wasn't exactly keen to go into detail on many of them.

She was immaculate in green and gold brocade, her hair hanging straight and fair over her shoulders and halfway down her back. Today, her eyes were also green, glittering like grass after a heavy dewfall. Interesting, a remote part of my mind noted, she's not wearing Cairbre's colours.

Eithne brought a tray with fruit and a flagon of pale, chilled wine, which she poured into two crystal goblets. The Lady took a careful sip, and nodded to the other woman, who dipped another careful curtsey and left us alone.

'So. Much has happened, and not all of it good. Perhaps you can explain what has become of the Cauldron of the Dagda? For my mind tells me that one of the Treasures of the Fae no longer dwells in this realm.'

Oh shit.

I stalled, taking a mouthful of the wine. It tasted like springtime, like May blossom and the first wan sunshine on the celandines.

'I suggest you tell me the unadorned truth, Malin. Lámhfhada can obfuscate sufficiently to appease my Lord Cairbre, but I am not so easily deceived.'

I put down my glass, and thought about it for a wee while longer.

'He will not hear it from me, if your reasoning is sound,' she added, 'but I would know what befell it.'

Nothing for it, I figured, but to give her what she wanted.

'Well...you know we went to Annwn, to get the Sword fixed?'

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***

'So your Selkie has succeeded in his task?'

'It would appear so, or so Lugh reckons.'

She frowned delicately, and refilled our glasses.

'I would have had it otherwise, but it appears that there was no alternative. And if the Lord of Annwn said it should be so, there is little can be gainsaid.' Slender fingers drummed on the arm of her chair. 'And what of this unpleasant war we find ourselves embroiled in? How goes that?'

'That was the reason I came to see you.'

'My Fae have suffered some significant losses. Can you explain that?'

'You really want my opinion?'

'I would not have asked otherwise.'

'Oh dear. Let's just say that our commanders don't see eye to eye, and our strategies don't naturally work well together.'

'Lugh was very plain-spoken about our cavalry losses.'

'It was a massacre, to be blunt.'

'So I gathered. But my Lord Cairbre is not used to the...grubbiness of this warfare, and clings to our old ways of honourable conflict.'

'And got over half of his forces slaughtered in the first five minutes of the first engagement.' I could feel my jaw tightening up.

She bowed her head.

'Our young fighters have not experienced the kind of war that Balor brought to our land. You might forgive them for their youthful ignorance and enthusiasm.'

'Not when their wilfulness costs so much.'

Her frown deepened.

'But, I have to say – they seem to be working together better at the moment,' I added, 'so maybe we're through the worst of the testosterone stand-off.'

 

Then I had to explain what I meant.

 

When she stopped laughing, I asked the key questions.

'How do your forces stand, my Lady? How many remain? And what has become of the UnSeelie?'

Her face darkened.

'The UnSeelie...I granted haven to those who would come here, and would stand with us. The lesser ones, such as trows, shellycoats, the small fliers, they are of little help, and cower in the groves. The spriggans are our guardians and as such will not leave their posts. Selkies took to the waters, to defend their own holdings, as did the most of the kelpies. Many of the rest take their chances, that they can hide from Balor during his war. Do not look for help from the UnSeelie, Malin. Those of power may even have aligned with what they see to be the most likely winner.'

'Shit. I was hoping we'd get some teeth-and-claw-type muscle there. How about the Seelie folk? I can't get real idea of the numbers from either Lugh or Cairbre. Are there reinforcements to come from the south, from the other Raths?'

The Lady sighed deeply, and the green of her eyes darkened.

'You must understand, Malin. We are not what we were. Which is why I took back my Land, to give us time, a chance to become even a shadow of our former puissance. What we have here is all the mustering of the Fae. Humans and Cold Iron have brought us to this.'

And with this, we'd taken on an army that seemed infinite.

'You didn't mention this when we last spoke.'

A slight rose-petal flush coloured her cheekbones.

'We did not truly believe that to would come to this...we saw the force Balor had at Cairndubh...my Lord Cairbre assured me we could defeat it.'

'Tip of the iceberg. Bottom line is, my Lady, we need help.'

'There are none that will give it.'

'Begging your pardon, but there is one who...'

'No! I absolutely forbid it. He and his people will not set foot on my Land again.'

'And for that, we'll all go down into the dark?'

Her face closed up, ice forming in her words.

'Enough, Malin Gregory. This audience is at an end.'

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***

Thom shook his head as he listened to my rant.

'What did you expect, Malin? You knew how she feels about him!'

'But can't she understand what it means? Is pride worth the end of the Land, of everything as she knows it?'

'It's not the end of the Land – Balor can't come here. It's the end of life above... and she's not really bothered about what happens to humans, when it comes down to it.'

'But surely Balor ..up above...is worse than us?'

'Who knows? She doesn't know what he plans – who does? Fair enough, the Fomorians don't have the problem with iron that the Fae have, and that could prove difficult, but they're – how to put this – closer to the Fae than humans are. More ...understandable.'

'The old enemy over the new friend? Dumb, Thom, really dumb. He gets that, he'll be after this, however she thinks he can't get here. She's over-confident about keeping him out.' I thought for a moment. 'Thom, can't you tell her how it is? I mean – tell her the truth – truth she can't ignore?'

'Only if she will see me. And she won't. I haven't been able to see her since I fired your gun.'

'Ach. Shit.'

'That was essentially my reaction.'

I scratched idly at the bandage on my arm, until he swatted my hand away.

'Stop that!'

 

From outside, the sounds of the camp going about its business drifted into the tent; low murmurs of conversation, the clatter of weapons and armour, an occasional burst of laughter, a strange seeming of normality.

 

'So we're going to have to be devious...'

'If you are, please don't tell me! That way I can't be asked awkward questions!'

Fair point.

 

The recce party hadn't returned by the time supper had been served. I decided I'd had enough aggravation for one day, and went to bed in a huff.

 

***

False dawn and a stirring in the camp woke me after a night of uneasy dreams that evaporated each time I woke, leaving me with a sense of knowing something I didn't want to know.

The weird light - not quite sunlight – of morning Under the Hill shifted me into gear, and I went to see if Lugh and Irwin were back.

They weren't.

What the hell were they up to?

Knowing John's predilection for hidden explosives, I guessed they were laying a line of defences, but I couldn't figure out how he was planning for the battle to go – put the damn things in the wrong place and we'd be driving ourselves back into the water, let alone the Fomorians...and we didn't want to drive them into the water at all.

I stared at the map for a while and then gave up. Irwin would have a good plan, and it wasn't my specialisation, after all. I'm good at the fluid changes within the battle, not the long view. Which is why, despite our differences, John and I worked well as a team. Which our boss had exploited for years, until I wanted out.

I shook my head, bringing myself back to the moment. By my reckoning, it was Tuesday morning. Something like thirty-six hours or so until the next critical moment. What the hell was I going to do for that long?

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'How can I track down the UnSeelie, Thom? The bastards made an agreement they're not sticking to, and I want to remind them of it.'

Thom started up from his paperwork with a look of alarm.

'Do you want to die, Malin?'

'No, I want to remind the bastards that they said they'd help!'

'And who do you think you'll talk to?' he shook his head, 'there isn't exactly any individual who would speak for them all.'

'So where are they hiding? I'll start with one lot and move on.'

'So where do you want to start? Kelpies? Selkies? Spriggans?'

'All of which have been pretty much accounted for by Herself, or their own accounting. It's the rest of them...'

'Individuals.'

'They gave their word, at Cairndubh. Is there no central figure that they follow?'

'Time was, they used to follow Balor.'

'Well that's a non-starter!'

My nails were horrible. I used my knife to clean the muck out from under them. Skimmed off the ragged bits.

'Thom...is there anyone at all, any of them, that they'd listen to?'

'Apart from the Serpent, or the Cailleach, you mean?'

I mentally kicked myself, having forgotten their UnSeelieness. Tried to imagine what the old witch would say.

'I don't think they'll be helping.'

Gods, I needed coffee.

'Is there no sort of central authority amongst them?'

Thom shook his head again, greying hair falling around his face.

'That's the nature of the UnSeelie, Malin, they don't have anything like that. Only their own leaders. When they even have those. Most are solitary.'

Damn.

'Thom – we are going to need reinforcements. Where the hell can I get them if the UnSeelie won't help, and the Lady forbids the only other ally we have?' I could have beat my head against the wall, if we hadn't been in a tent. I contented myself with knocking my forehead against the tentpole.

 

An increase in the noise outside heralded the return of the away team; I went to the command tent to see what had kept them so long.

Irwin was issuing orders to several of his squad, who quickly vanished in the direction of the ammo wagons. Lugh was working on the sand tray, lumping up the shapes of hills and a wide inlet. He gave me a quick grin in greeting, and went back to his sand sculpture.

'Sand castles.' I sat down in a convenient chair.

'Bored, were you?'

'What do you think?'

'Get anywhere with Herself?'

'Again, what do you think?'

'Grumpy, too.'

I bit my tongue and glared at him.

He ignored me, looking up again as Irwin shoved the canvas aside with an elbow and came in backwards, his arms full of cable reels and suspicious-looking packages wrapped in greasy paper. He dumped the plastic explosive on the bed, extracted a pair of pliers from his back pocket, and sat down in the middle of a small bomb factory.

'The lads are getting the gear together,' he muttered round a piece of cable held between his teeth. 'Here, Mogg, wire these up in parallel will you?' he passed me a handful of detonators.

'I take it we have a plan.'

'Several, actually. Get these – and the rest - put together,' he deftly snipped the end off a protruding wire, 'and in position, and we should be able to fry some damp froggy arse, whichever way they try to go.'

'So...are you going to let me in on it?'

'Wait 'til the others get here, and we'll run it through all together.'

I contained myself, and concentrated on my wiring.

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***

Darkness was falling by the time they'd gone over everything in detail, and Irwin and his squad were heading out again to lay their traps and mines.

Again, I wasn't allowed to go to help them.

I ran over the plan and its several permutations in my mind; it made a deal of sense, allowed for the ebb and flow of battle, and probably gave us the best chance we had. I wondered if it would work in reality; as our old boss had reminded us on numerous occasions, 'No plan survives first contact with the enemy.'

No point in worrying about it. Bugger all I could do about it anyway, save for carrying out my part of it to my best ability, and being ready to change it at the slightest setback.

Bloody major battles. Give me recce, infiltration or assassination any time.

 

Thom and I lingered over supper, still trying to figure out the question of the UnSeelie. So many had made promises, and I didn't figure them for oathbreakers. So where the hell were they?

No further on, I said my good-nights, and made my way back to my tent. I lay back on my campbed, staring at the ridge pole. My armour hung from it, swaying gently. It had an oily gleam in the lamplight, the organic - almost alien - lines of it leading my eyes over the dark surface in a hypnotic rhythm.

 

>>Morrigan...<<

 

No, I told the whisper in my mind. I will not go there.

 

I woke while it was still dark, wondering what had disturbed me. Flickering lights outside, a growing hubbub of anxious voices, a sense of something awry; I hauled my clothes on quickly and opened the door-flap to find Lugh directly outside.

The look on his face told me something was very wrong.

My first thought was that Irwin had managed to blow himself up; on seeing John's sombre face over Thom's shoulder, I wondered if something had gone wrong back at home.

The crowd of mingled Fae and humans outside the tent parted. A familiar dark head appeared over the shorter humans, and a lean and lanky body pushed its way between the onlookers.

 

My heart lurched, and my mouth went dry.

 

'Daere? You're back early...' I began, before I noticed Sulian Shipmaster close behind the kelpie. I felt my pulse speed up, my eyes searching the crowd for Hal. A tall, dark shape, broad bare shoulders; I opened my mouth to welcome my selkie home, and the words froze on my tongue as I recognised Hal's older brother, Hrus.

 

'Malin....' Lugh's arm went round my shoulders, 'let's go inside, shall we?'

I dug my heels in, resisting the pressure to back up.

'Come on, lass. Out here isn't the place.'

I dug my thumb into the vulnerable point on his wrist and twisted out from his grip, swung to face the kelpie. 'Daere! Why are you here – and where's Hal?'

Her eyes couldn't meet mine. Shaking her head, she held something out to me. 'He..he said to give you this. I'm s-sorry, Malin...'

My hands went out automatically, closed on the proffered item. Soft, sleek fur over sueded hide.

A sealskin.

 

Hal's sealskin.

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***

Time stopped.

 

My heart stopped.

 

Breathing stopped.

 

I was vaguely aware of Lugh's arm around my shoulders again, of being half-carried back into my tent, of people crowding in behind us, of the edge of the bed behind my knees.

Knees folded numbly; I sat down heavily, the sealskin on my lap.

 

There was a dull roaring in my ears, like sounds heard underwater; people were talking at me but I couldn't hear them, could barely make out shapes and colours beyond the black, brown and fawn dappled pattern on the rolled-up skin. An icy numbness descended over my whole body, my tongue feeling too thick and dry to speak. I was vaguely aware of my head shaking from side to side in denial; of Lugh sitting beside me, propping me up, comforting; of Irwin's face swimming at the edges of my vision. Of a sudden stinging pain in my cheek and jaw that rattled my brain.

 

'Mogg! Get a fucking grip! Keep it for later!'

 

One deep, shuddering breath to inflate my empty lungs.

One sudden shaking, running through my whole body, to start my stopped heart.

Somewhere the ticking of the clock at the heart of the universe began again.

Ticking down the time until someone paid for this.

 

Focus, Malin.

 

Drag my gaze away from the sealskin.

Raise my head, working my mouth to relieve the dryness. Chunky plastic flask shoved into my hand; Irwin's water container. Mouthful. Swallow. Repeat.

Daere, her head bowed over clasped hands. Sulian and Hrus standing over her. Tom beside me.

Lugh and Irwin, face-off. Shouting at each other.

Deep breath.

Voice like the croaking of ravens.

'Shut up and sit down, the pair of you!'

Two faces turn to me in shock.

'SIT!'

Wait for them to comply.

 

'Now. Somebody tell me what happened.'

 

Daere slumped to her knees on the rush mat floor of the tent, her head bowed.

'Oh Malin, my lady...'

I leaned forward, clipped her across the ear with the back of my hand.

'Stop it with the sorry. I want facts.'

Shock on her face.

'Well?'

Watched, cold and calm, as she composed herself.

'We...we made good time outward, though the weather wasn't that kind. Had to rest up a few times - my fault – the otter can't keep up with the seal in deep waters...'

I said nothing.

'Took us four days, I think, to reach the Black Rock. We had to be cautious, see if there were guards. There were – a few. He said it seemed like they were just there for the look of it, like they weren't expecting any real threat.'

I waited for her to go on.

'When it was dawn, they went away. So we dived deep, searching for the entrance. Dived and dived...Found it, way down, hidden between the rocks. Almost too deep for me. Small cavern – it was almost too tight for Hal to get in. Lucky there was a small pocket of air. Easier while the tide was out – but it took us all day to find it, and we had to hide when the night came, and the guards came back...luckily they didn't come up to the surface so we could rest on the rocks at the foot of the lighthouse.'

She shivered, remembering. Thom passed her a cup of something warming and she cradled it to her chest.

'They went away again with the coming of daylight. We went back down...it was so small a space, and the entrance so narrow – we stood no chance of getting it out of there. I don't even know how they got it in there! Hal had to change to human shape to work the chilling magic...taking it down and down, with the ice forming on the surface of the water, but still not cold enough...he fixed the explosive charges on the inside of the Cauldron, stuck the – what did you call them?'

'Detonators.'

'Them...into the stuff. It was so cold...and the air was getting thin...it was taking so long for it to work, the tide was coming in and the pocket of air in the chamber was getting smaller and smaller...'

My throat tightened.

'He said – it doesn't need to take both of us. There's not enough air, anyway. Wrapped up the sealskin and gave it to me...I could see in his eyes he knew what it meant. He said – give this to Malin, tell her I love her, tell her I'm sorry I couldn't do it any other way. Told me to get up to the surface, get home. I could feel the ice forming behind me as I swam up, the sea getting thick and sluggish...there wasn't enough air in there, Malin...he knew what he was doing but there wasn't enough air,' her voice was almost a wail.

My nails dug into my palms. I felt almost as cold as the frozen sea around Dubh Artach.

Daere shivered, remembering. 'He finished it. I heard the explosion as I broke surface – lucky I didn't lose my hearing. Then the world seemed to ring...'

I remembered that moment on the battlefield, my feeling of triumph and happiness. Should have known it would have cost me.

'I waited...I hoped...' she shook her head, distraught, 'but there was no sign of him. I dived down, to see if I could find out what had happened. Couldn't get into the wee cave, the water was solid ice... but there was no air pocket I could see. I tried, oh I tried, Malin, but I couldn't find him...'

I looked at her bleakly.

Hrus put his hand on Daere's shoulder. 'We found her on the Artach rocks, half dead, and just before sunset. With the Fomorians likely to appear, and the world half-iced over, my people dived deep, to see what we could find. And we found nothing, save for thawing ice, and shattered shards of metal.'

Success, of a sort, I supposed numbly.

Hrus continued, 'It was a hard-fought route home, with the enemy at our backs and few haul-outs, until we met with your allies here.'

'And we picked them up and brought them straight here,' Sulian Shipmaster concluded.

'For which, much thanks,' the selkie responded, heartfelt.

 

For a long moment, there was silence.

 

'He broke the Cauldron?'

Cairbre's outraged voice rose above the low murmur of comment that followed.

'Broke it, shattered it, and most of all, rendered it useless to our enemy!' Lugh grated. 'What else could he do? It couldn't be recovered.'

'But the Cauldron of the Dagda!'

'I'm sure he'd understand.'

It all flowed over me like white noise.

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I was aware of Irwin watching me closely.

'Mogg?'

I drew in a long breath.

'I think I'd like everyone to go away, please.'

'Is that wise?'

'I'm not going to fall apart, John. You, of all people, should know that. I've had my wobbly moment...now I just want some time alone.'

He frowned, but stood up, squeezing my shoulder as he did so, and turned to the gathered crowd.

'Outside, everybody. Now! That includes you..' the latter to Lugh, who began to object, '...and you too, Thom.'

'But...'

'OUT!'

 

In the relative quiet that accompanied their departure, I picked up the sealskin again, and held it on my lap.

Well, I thought, that's that. What do we do now, love?

I waited numbly for the tears to come, but my eyes remained resolutely dry.

After a while – I don't know how long – I patted the rolled-up skin gently, and put it under my bed. Stood up and went to the wash basin on the side table. Splashed cold water on my face, and looked at myself in the mirror.

Pale, angular, almost lipless. Eyes like grey stones in dark hollows.

When had I lost so much weight?

I slid my knife from its sheath, and began to cut.

 

Just before sundown I saddled up Cloud, and joined the force massing at the Durness gate. I could feel Lugh's startled glance like a wash of heat over my frozen skin.

'Malin?'

'I'm fine, Lugh.'

'You are not.'

'I'm not getting into an argument, old man.' I reined in my horse beside him, the Spear over my shoulder. A shiver twitched over Cloud's golden hide, and I patted her neck in reassurance.

'What have you done to yourself?'

'Cut my hair.' I settled the helmet down on my shorn scalp. 'Makes this fit better. Less sweat.'

'Malin, I don't think you should come along tonight.'

'Rubbish. You need the Spear.'

Cairbre forestalled further discussion by signalling us to move out.

 

***

They came up from the sea, a wave of glistening darkness, trying to break us on the rocks of the shore. I slung the Spear onto my shoulder, aimed at the heart of the wave and let fly. The ensuing stream of fireballs pushed the front ranks wide, into the waiting minefields.

The night lit up with a satisfying glow, dimming the moonlight.

I heard the song of the Sword as Lugh brought it down, shattering the second echelons. Heard the staccato spit of the guns as Irwin's troops opened fire from the cover of the hillside, making every shot count to save ammo, and the hissing of the arrows as the Fae let loose.

The falling tide swirled around Cloud's legs, leaving hard-packed sand under-hoof. The chariots and cavalry swung round the point from Balnakeil, hammering into the Fomorian flank. Pushed them onto the rocky shore, and another waiting minefield.

Sand and water and shreds of flesh rained down on the battlefield.

I grinned inside my helmet, wiped something wet, red and stringy off the Spear, and laid a stream of fire into the main mass of the oncoming enemy.

Steam started to rise from the cauldron formed by the inlet and the surrounding hills.

A second wave of enemy forces swept in from seaward, sending the horse-troops scurrying for cover. Cloud shifted uneasily beneath me, throwing her head back, snorting. I tightened my legs round her, and focussed on the dark mass out on the sandbanks.

In the back of my mind, something nagged. Something was missing.

The fire took on a greenish tinge.

'Where the hell is he?' Lugh coughed, waving the smoke of the burning aside.

'Where's who?'

'Balor, for Dagda's sake...' he grabbed my wrist, forced the Spear down to the sand, 'Malin, you need to stop. Now.'

'Why? More of the bastards that die the better, isn't it?' I wrenched my hand away, and re-aimed my weapon.

The fire was a nasty shade of acid green, which matched my mood.

'Stop before you can't stop!'

'Why should I stop? Don't we want them dead?'

Before he could reply, a slash of brilliant red light cut across the sandbanks, ploughing a trench in the wet ground and setting off the final batch of mines.

'Shit. He's here.'

The Sword swung to meet the light of the Eye, and the world howled around us.

 

I don't remember anything else about that night.

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sixty-one

 

My head hurt.

I mean, really hurt. Not just my brain, like in a hangover, but my whole head. For a while I couldn’t figure out where I was, but the flapping of canvas and familiar noises of the camp brought me back to my own tent; I risked opening an eye, which was strangely difficult, and saw my armour hanging in its accustomed place from the ridge pole.

'Ah. You're awake then.'

Lugh lounged in my chair, slouched down with long legs extended across the small floor space.

'Whatthhfuuuh..'

I felt full of cotton wool, foggy and clagged, and my nose didn't work. I tentatively felt it, wincing at the pain that the prodding produced.

'Umm... we're sorry about that.'

'Whaaayuudun?'

'I think it may be broken.'

Oh, not again.

'It wasn't me, I have to say.' He sounded altogether too sheepish.

'Huuu? Whaa?'

'Well, you got altogether too involved with the Spear, my lass. You wouldn't stop, Balor was cutting us to bits, and we had to get out of there. It took more than me to hold you and get your helmet off, and...'

'Urwwn?'

'Hmm? Ah... Mister Irwin?'

'Mmphf.'

'Ah. Yes. Took it upon himself to knock you out.'

I growled in response. Of course it was John. He would have enjoyed it. Bastard.

I tried sitting up. Not my best move, as my head went woozy and the pain around my eyes and nose threatened to put me out again. I gritted my teeth against the desire to be sick.

'Thom left you this,' Lugh put an arm under my shoulders and helped me sit up, and offered a cup of some green sludgy stuff.

I fought down the urge to vomit, and drank it down. Vaguely minty. The world stabilised gradually.

I felt my face again, very gingerly. Nose definitely broken. Wouldn't mind betting on black eyes as well, given how my vision wouldn't work properly. Sod it.

'Nddd t'fks m'nuz.'

Arctic blue eyes studied my face for a short while. A long finger traced the wonky line of my nose, making me flinch slightly.

'I suppose it's for the best,' he sighed, and tweaked it hard.

I yelped, tasting blood.

'Looks a bit better.'

I scowled at him from eyes that felt like clams glowering from their shells, but accepted the cold, wet cloth he offered, and clamped it to my face.

'Sunuvubcch.'

'Ah. You're awake then!'

Irwin breezed into the tent, a broad grin on his face.

'Oooh. Not pretty, Moggy! Sorry about that!' Insincerity rang in every word.

I wanted to pulverise him, to wipe the shit-eating grin off his bloody face and break every bone in his lousy body. Unfortunately I had about the strength of a wet kitten.

I took a careful breath through my rearranged nose, and composed myself. My lip felt swollen, I noted idly, and vowed to rearrange Irwin's face at the next opportunity. Even Rob wouldn't recognise him.

'Apologies for the inflicted ugly, Mogg, but you wouldn't listen to any one and Milord here wouldn't do the obvious to stop you,' he plopped himself down on the end of my bed.

'Whaa happn'd?'

'You got drawn in by the Spear. Malin. And although it was – useful, I suppose – that you killed so many Fomorians...it was getting to the point that you wouldn't have noticed who you were hitting. And there aren't enough of our side that we can risk that.'

'Kill-crazy, Mogg.'

That, I understood. I'd seen it a couple of times. Okay...not so good. What about the battle?

'How'd we do?'

'We were winning, damn it, until that bastard showed up.'

'We were?'

Lugh grimaced. 'We were doing fine until Balor showed up, but then he brought in reinforcements, and we lost all the ground we'd gained. We just don't seem to be able to get that one step ahead...'

'Wh're the hell are they comin' from? N'ver endin' supply of h'nch-creeps?'

'Creeps-R-Us! That would be a great on-line resource!'

'Assh'le.' I searched for something to throw at Irwin but found nothing that would do any serious damage.

'Seriously, we can't meet the numbers he seems to be able to conjure. We can deal with his tactics, but we just haven't enough manpower to keep up the pressure.' Lugh scrubbed his fingers through lank hair.

'So we n'd reinf'rcem'nts?'

'They would buy us time. But what we really need is a way to destroy the Eye. That's the problem – we're doing fine and then he turns that damn thing loose and then everything goes to worms.' Irwin shrugged, scratched his head, and fished a small silver flask from his pocket.

'Thinking juice, anyone?'

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Left alone with my thoughts and any number of aches, I reviewed the situation. Boiled it down.

If we discard Balor, we do have the more efficient forces.

Ditto, we have better strategy.

However, Balor himself trumps any number of forces.

Or strategy.

We could win – force to force – if we had more troops – except for Balor - see above.

We need to find his weakness – bastard must have one.

We don't have enough forces to give us the chance to find said weakness.

We need reinforcements.

Where can we find them?

Only one promise remained.

To hell with the Lady's finer feelings.

 

***

I guess I'd always thought this time would come. Why else would I have prepped Ryan and Rob?

I just had to wait until there was a good time to cross back to Rubha. Luckily, Cairbre had taken so much offence to some of Irwin's more volatile and unstable ordnance, the stuff had to be stored back on the human side of things; as a result, the gate was open 24/7. Wards had been set that would trigger if anyone human or Fomorian tried to come through, and guards kept watch over the Fae side. Easy enough to find an excuse to slip over there.

Waiting.

Damn.

Too much thinking time.

Sleep, I thought, Heal.

My face ached.

I didn't want to talk to anyone anyway.

 

Around supper time, Thom turned up with a tray; soup and a meltingly tender meat and potato pie.

'You need to eat. And this won't hurt, as far as I can guess.'

'Ta.'

My jaw wasn't that bad, so dinner went down just fine.

'Why the hair?'

'Hmmphff?' through a mouthful of pie.

'It's not awfully fetching, I have to confess.'

'Not meant to be. S'just practical.'

'But..'

'Don't talk 'bout it, Thom. I don't want to talk 'bout it. Not now, when we have bigger stuff to worry 'bout. Time later for regrets.'

If there was a later.

Which was what I needed to ensure.

Go away, Thom!

'I have a poultice for your nose...'

'Thanks.'

I finished my dinner, and conversation stuttered to a halt. Thom gathered the pots up, and, with an awkward pat on my shoulder, left.

 

I clammed the poultice on my nose, and lay back on my bed, waiting for tedium to wear away the hours, and for my face to fix.

Tried to compose a message that wouldn't be too obvious to anyone not expecting it. Not easy. Wondered how bright Ryan really was, how cryptic I had to be.

Outside, the usual to-ings and fro-ings of the camp.

Inside, my mind went hamster-wheel. What-ifs, regrets, anger and moments of pure sadness, and the nagging need for a clear message.

Still my eyes stayed dry.

Too much left to do to give way to grief.

An old poem came to mind.

'..but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep...'

One day, I would sleep.

But not just yet.

 

***

Around two hours short of dawn, I swung my legs over the edge of my bed, and scrubbed my fingers over my unfamiliar shaved hair.

Time to go.

Best not scare Rob too much; I pulled on a woolly hat, and my thick jacket, slid my feet into my boots, and quietly slipped out of my tent.

 

Two guards minded the Rubha gate. One I recognised from the horse lines; his mount was one of the lucky ones.

'Morning, Galan. Need to check on the explosives.'

The Fae nodded briskly. 'No problem, my lady. All quiet, as far as we know. You're the only one we've seen.'

'Thanks. Won't be long – don't let the wards wake the entire camp when I come back through!'

I stepped through the gate, felt rain on my face. The call of a curlew rang hauntingly through the clammy darkness, and I felt a tug of homesickness.

 

The track up to Ishbel's house was churned up by the vehicles, slippery and very muddy, and I landed on my arse a couple of times before I reached the back door.

One of the dogs barked.

A light was on in the kitchen, so I hoped I wouldn't wake too many people up. Taking a deep breath, I knocked gently.

Prayed Caitlin wasn't awake.

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***

 

A hazel-green eye peered at me round the edge of the door.

'Malin? Is that you?'

'Aye, Rob.'

'You look..different.'

' A bit battered, that's all. Need to give you a message for Ryan.'

'Things not going well?'

'A bit trying, I have to admit. How're things here?'

He opened the door, and the warmth of the kitchen wrapped around me like a hug.

'Coffee? Everyone else is asleep...'

'Oh yes. Yes please!'

 

My hands wrapped around the coffee cup, and my nose an inch above its fragrant surface, I let the normality of the house sink into my aching bones. It was almost too comforting.

'What's happening over there?'

'It's all a bit messy. Which is why I'm here. Need to get a message out.'

'How messy?'

'You don't need to know.'

'How's John?'

I looked at him over the rim of the mug.

'See these black eyes? He's a happy man at the moment.'

'He didn't..'

'He did. Had reason, but I think he took too much delight in it!'

His face was a picture of confusion, which cheered me up a bit.

I wanted to ask how things were with my friends, but there wasn't the time. Figured he'd have told me if not, anyway.

'Need Ryan to do what I set him up to do, Rob.'

'Can't I do it?'

'And if someone from over the way asks you, could you lie convincingly?'

'Malin, I've made a career of it!'

'I prefer to keep things at arm's reach. What you don't know, you can't be forced to tell.'

'You think that's a possibility?'

'Not sure. Not risking it. Give the message to Ryan.'

'And if whoever comes after us gets it off me, and goes after him?'

'They shouldn't be able to make much sense of it. And he has a Fae horse. Reckon he can get clear, if he doesn't see the regular signals. You are sending them, aren't you?'

'Of course!'

'Best we can do, then.'

 

'So what do you want me to tell him, then?'

'Need this to be exact, Rob. I'll write it and seal it up. No mistakes that way.'

'I can be reliable, sometimes,' he looked offended.

'Deniability, Rob, remember? Pen and paper?'

He grumped a bit more, but found some in the top drawer of the dresser.

One one sheet, I wrote out the keyword QUARRYWOOD, missing off the duplicate letters, and after that the rest of the alphabet, backwards. Underneath all that, the alphabet in clear.

On another sheet, wrote out my message, using the code.

 

Send word South, to light the beacons of Dalriada, and from Galloway to Kintyre, remind Silverhand of his promise to Malin Gregory. Now is the time. Quarrywood.”

 

Below that, I put “the keyword is the safety word” in plain English, signed my name, folded the page in half and stuck it in an envelope. Sealed it down. Just had to hope Ryan would figure it out. No way did I want this getting out to anyone else, friend or foe, before it was sent through the stones.

 

'That's it?'

'Aye.'

 

I went to the stove, and fed the encoding sheet into the flames.

 

'Malin?'

'Yes?'

'Is John really okay?'

'Yes. Busy blowing stuff up and planning havoc. I didn't pay him back for the face-ache, if that's what you're worried about.'

'Ah. Good.'

I let the awkward moment slide. Finished my coffee, and stood up, picking up my coat.

Behind me, a door opened.

'What are you doing here?'

Oh fuck.

'Courtesy call, Cait. Malin's just making sure we're all okay.'

'Why should she care? She's checking we're not messing up her bloody fairies.' She looked at me closely and a nasty smile spread across her face. 'I hope that really hurts!'

No way I could cope with her at this moment without inflicting violence. I went to the door, turned back briefly, 'I'm out of here. Take care of yourselves.'

'What do you care? Bitch!!'

I shut the door very carefully, pulled on my coat, and walked back toward the Rubha gate. My hands deep in my pockets, and my head down against the rain, I thought how easy it would be to stay this side, to just go home and let everything go on without me.

But if I did that, what would be the point of it all, of everything we'd done, of everything we'd lost?

No. Just have to carry on and see it through.

 

As I reached the kirkyard, something moved in the darkness by the wall. A scuffle, like a struggle or something - someone after the explosives wagon? I took my hands out of my pockets and reached for my knife; realised it was still on my table in front of the mirror. Bent to pick up a stone.

Hammering pain in the back of my head, and blackness.

 

***

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If I didn't move, I wouldn't be sick.

It felt like someone was inside my skull, trying to escape with a road drill. I knew this feeling; had been hit on the head enough times before, not that it made it any better, just I could understand what had happened.

Had never been this cold before, though.

I lay still, trying to figure out where I was. Not the kirkyard, unless I was lying on a graveslab; the texture under my cheek was cold stone. Smooth, damp. The cold was sort of soothing. I risked moving my head, which sent the world spinning again, and I lost most of Thom's meat and potato pie in a fraction of the time it had taken to eat it.

So damn cold.

Opened an eye; blackness. Had the blow to my head made me blind? Cautiously moved a hand. Stone under my fingers. If I didn't move anything but that, I could hold my head together. Slow inspection of my surroundings. Inch by inch, it was nonetheless informative.

Edges.

Slight furrows between.

Right angles.

I tried to focus, make sense of what my fingers told me.

Flagstones.

Okay. I wasn't in the kirkyard.

I was also naked.

That couldn't be good, but explained why I was so cold.

Couldn't see anything. I risked opening my other eye. They weren't at their best anyway, and revealed nothing but the pressing dark.

I didn't think I was blind, though.

Sight and touch. Ok so far. What could I hear?

The sound of my own breathing. Blood and pain pounding in my head, thumping in my ears. I tried to calm myself, slow my racing heart. A trickling, the sound of running water.

Where the hell was I?

Piece it together, Malin.

I'd walked back down to the gateway, heard a disturbance.

Must have interrupted something.

Got clobbered.

Gods, I wish people would stop hitting me!

So why had they – whoever they were – brought me here - wherever here was, and not just killed me on the spot?

Why would I have done that?

Had to be because they couldn't leave me where I was.

So something needed covering up.

Whatever they were doing, they didn't want to leave witnesses.

Ah. Not good.

So why was I still alive?

And what had they been doing?

Damn, I was cold.

I had to move soon, or die of hypothermia.

I tried to shift my head again, and lost the rest of my dinner.

 

I surfaced again, reluctantly, the acid taste of vomit in my mouth and nostrils, and my face stuck to the floor.

Where was that water trickle that I could hear?

I rolled slowly onto my side, my cheek peeling stickily from the crusted mess underneath, and listened again.

Behind me, from what I could tell. At least I didn't feel so sick when I moved. Minimal concussion, then, hopefully.

I carefully settled onto my back, and stretched out my arms, feeling for the water source.

Fingertips scuffed over flagstones. Under the furthest stretch of my right hand, the stonework dipped away. A trough? I shuffled slightly in that direction; the trough continued downwards, and I felt icy wetness.

Getting my legs moving, I shoved myself towards the runnel. Definitely water, cold and, from the smell of it as I brought my hand back to my face, clean.

I rolled again, dizzyingly, clamped down on my stomach's revolt, and came to rest half an arm's length from the water. Scooped up a palmful and sucked it up gratefully. The cold made my teeth hurt, and set my face throbbing again.

Fuck this.

I got my elbows under me, and pushed up, shuffled on elbows and knees to the water, and stuck my face in it.

The shock left me gasping, but I washed my face clean, and rid my mouth of the vile taste.

Slowly, I got into a sitting position, reducing the area of skin in contact with the cold stone. Rubbed my hands hard over my body, trying to regain some warmth, gritting my teeth against the pins and needles that followed.

 

Still as black as the pit, but I was still sure I wasn't blind. Damned if I know why I was so certain, but I was.

When I was sure my head was still fixed to my shoulders, and not about to spin off into the darkness again, I stood up slowly, checking out the actions of bones and muscles as I did so. Everything still worked, at least as much as it had before I had ended up here, though I didn't risk shaking my brain too much with get-warm exercises.

Instead, I explored my space.

 

Square.

Five paces each side.

A trough of water running down one edge of the floor, entering from a small spout a few inches above the floor, exiting down through a larger hole at the other corner. I could guess the various functions it served.

The hole wasn't large enough for escape, of course.

In the opposite corner to the spout, there was a definite line in the stonework, that made the shape of a doorway. A doorway that had been bricked up, as far as I could tell.

I couldn't feel as high as the ceiling, and the smooth stonework offered little in the way of hand-or-footholds. I tried jumping, but the side effects on my head and digestive system were discouraging.

Stone cell.

No entrance.

No exit.

Water, and sort-of sanitation.

Okay. Analyse that, expert.

 

Why would they keep me, if they wanted me dead?

If they gave me water, it suggested they wanted me kept alive.

Which probably meant food, somewhere down the line.

Oubliette?

Hole in the ceiling for feeding?

Possible, as I hadn't been able to check.

Why keep me?

It suggested they knew who I was, or that I had some value...which made for uneasy thinking.

What else did I know?

Previous experience told me that keeping someone naked and in the dark was probably an initial assault on what said 'someone' had in her head, designed to reduce said victim to confession; that didn't ring true here. Some of the other things that had happened to said victim while naked...from what I could tell, hadn't happened.

Small relief. For now.

I hunkered down on my heels in a corner, trying to keep as little contact with the cold stone as I could.

There had to be a way out, if there was a way in.

 

A loud, grating noise woke me from a half-sleep.

I was in the corner where the water flowed away, out of the cell; this put me in the shadow of the opening door, when what had seemed a bricked-up space slowly swung wide.

Light flooded in from outside, making me squint, a pale, acid lemon that revealed what I had already figured about the cell; square, stone, flag-floor. Nothing helpful.

Movement.

Sound.

I stayed as small as I could, and waited.

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'See how a few days in the dark suits his spirit.' The voice was low and menacing, and rang a 'heard it before' bell in my head.

Scuffling noises, and squat figures in the light, what looked like a body being dragged into the cell.

Tall, naked, streaked with blood; they dumped whoever in the far corner.

'What of the female?'

I held my breath. This voice sounded... congealed, thick and damp, like something extracted reluctantly from a swamp.

The next voice was deep, smooth, and again, somehow familiar.

'An unexpected nuisance, but she may prove of some use...yes, I can see something she can do for us. She is yours to play with, if that is what you wish, as long as she remains in this cell. But don't break her completely. Understand? She must be able to walk, a little way. And carry something.'

Unpleasant snickering.

I hate clichés.

Particularly when they involve me.

 

The doorway closed, leaving complete darkness.

I waited a while, to see if my cellmate reacted, and to check if our gaolers had any ideas about following up their instructions.

So far, so quiet.

I pictured in my head where my companion was. Made my way over on knuckles and knees, ape-like, waiting for something to attack.

All quiet.

Reached out to touch...

 

Smooth skin.

The bit of it I could feel felt like a shoulder, or a back.

I explored further.

Followed the spine downwards. Encountered muscular buttocks, and made a hasty retreat.

Felt male, definitely.

Go the other way.

Wide shoulders, and long, tangled hair.

I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach.

Oh hell, no.

Knelt alongside, made sure he was in the recovery position.

Further cautious groping – I can't call it anything else – confirmed my fears.

Lugh.

Still breathing, heart still pumping.

Knowing who I was dealing with, I checked him over properly.

Something wrong with the shape of his ribcage – I guessed cracked or broken, hoped there was no internal bleeding. His breathing seemed reasonably regular, so lungs still intact.

Running my hand carefully down the back of his thigh, I felt wetness. Slowed my investigation. Felt the edge of a deep cut into his flesh. Wide, right across his leg at the back of his knee.

Ah, fuck.

Checked his other leg, with the same result.

Wanted to throw up again.

Some bastard had hamstrung him.

 

Over the next couple of hours – I guess – I washed his wounds as best I could and kept checking he was able to breathe. Hoped like hell his part-Fae ancestry would allow him to recover fast.

Shut down all thought of what might be coming for me.

You may think this is weird. Facing a “fate worse than death”, or whatever, why wasn't I freaking out? Truth is, I'd already got the t-shirt on that one, which incident I wasn't keen to re-live, but it had happened – hazard of the job - and I had found that the anticipation was frequently the worst part of it; for the moment, all I truly thought was, oh hell, get it over with.

I learned long ago that being inanimate soon led to boredom.

I truly hoped that still worked.

 

***

 

A deep groan and a string of curses announced Lugh's return to consciousness, and I moved back a short way. No telling what his reaction would be.

'Lugh? Can you hear me? '

'Shut up, woman.' Harsh and brusque.

I rocked back on my heels, stung.

He breathed heavily for a while, then it sounded like he tried to move. The subsequent bitten-back cry of pain told its own story.

Another muttered stream of profanity.

'Where are you?'

'Here.' I reached out and touched his shoulder carefully. His hand lashed out and gripped my wrist, pulled me down beside him. Groped up until he caught the back of my neck and hauled me closer until I could feel his breath on my cheek.

'Do not – NOT – speak your true name,' it was less than a whisper, 'they don't know who you are. Let's keep it that way.'

I nodded mutely.

He let me go, with an awkward pat on the cheek.

'What happened? Where are we?' I decided to play the confused innocent abroad.

'One of Master Irwin's crew, is it?'

'Aye. Sir. Geraghty.'

'MaryAnn? Is that you?'

I bit back an unexpected laugh at his remembering the name, 'Yeah. What is this place?'

His hand wrapped around mine, large and warm.

'I'm sorry, lass. We appear to be in Balor's stronghold.'

And there was I thinking things couldn't get much worse. The half-familiar voice I'd heard made sense now.

'How did you...what happened?'

He sighed. Coughed painfully.

'Can I hear water? I could do with a drink.'

'It's a trough,' I gave him a quick description of our cell, and scooped a double handful of water for him, not particularly successfully; half of it leaked out before I reached him.

Repeated the operation several times.

'So?'

'Someone brought word that Lady Malin needed me at Rubha. When I got to the gate, the guard said y-she'd gone through a while before, so I followed. They took me completely by surprise, sliced my damn legs from under me. Kicked me unconscious. And how did you come to fall into their hands?'

'Wrong place at the wrong time. I went to ...check on the explosives, then call on a friend...I was heading back to the gate, heard a ruckus - I must have come across them just after they overpowered you. Bang. Knocked me out and when I came round, I was here.'

'I woke in another part of the fortress, in company I would rather not keep,' I felt his fingers tighten round mine, 'and received what he called “a taste of my last days”.'

'He's planning to kill you.'

'He's planning to kill me. He's wanted to do it for years.'

'Why? Isn't he your grandfather?'

'Nothing so bad as a family feud, lass. Payback for sending him to hell the last time.' And now...

'Guess our side made too much trouble after all.'

'Success brings its own reward.'

'And with you out of action, he doesn't have to face the Sword.'

Nor the Spear, without me.

It could be a massacre, unless Irwin could come up with some serious hit-and-run tactics.

'We have to get out of here.'

'You have to get out of here.'

'Not without you, old man.'

'I'm not exactly up to sprinting.'

'I'll think of something.'

 

I checked his wounds again.

The bleeding seemed to have stopped, at least.

Helped him into a more comfortable position.

We sat side by side, sharing what little warmth we had.

Might even have slept, a little.

 

'Would you mind giving me a hand to get to the ...er..outflow?'

'As long as that's all you need a hand with.'

He chuckled, and I half hauled him to the required spot.

 

They did feed us, after a fashion. Cold slabs of porridge were lobbed into the cell in the wake of 'visits'; we ate every scrap regardless of the fact it had been on the floor.

 

They came for him eventually, rough, dark figures against the sudden light. Hauled him out unceremoniously, his legs dragging uselessly.

 

Then two of them came back.

 

 

***

 

I'm not going to recall what happened to me, the times they came to play; they in twos and threes, and if you can imagine it, they probably did it. I don't suppose they got much pleasure from it – I didn't fight, didn't actively participate in any way, and although they knocked me about, Balor's edict prevented really serious damage. As for me, in my mind I wasn't there at all.

 

I was right. After the first over-excited explorations, boredom led to one or maybe two participants, and a bit of a battering. My fingers and the bones of my face quickly learned reassembly, and the rest of their 'business' seemed relatively perfunctory. Eventually, they gave up.

 

Lugh, however, bore the full force of his grandfather's malice.

 

 

***

 

 

They didn't let Lugh's legs heal, renewing the savage cuts in the backs of his knees as soon as they showed signs of healing. Burns and scars covered the rest of his body, slices of meat taken from thighs or biceps, scabbing over as time went on.

I wondered how he stood it.

 

In between, I tried to think of ways out.

If I could get out of the cell, maybe I could get hold of something useful. Find a way to fight back.

 

We lost track of time.

Trapped before, I'd had at least the changing light to give some idea of the time; in this utter dark, the only thing that marked its passage was the arrival of the Fomorian guards.

And we had very little means to record those occurrences; I tried scratching the inside of my forearm, but my accelerated healing made that useless. I took to putting a small piece of porridge aside each time we were fed, in the hope that I could build some kind of timeline, but the rats – or their Fomorian equivalent – that came up from the drain every so often soon put paid to that.

We were fed so little that using shitmarks wasn't a practical answer. Guess the rat-things would have done for that too.

 

'We need to get out of this damn cell. Think I could wedge the door next time they open it? I've a loose tooth that might work.'

Lugh gave a rattling sigh; they'd stove his ribs in again that time.

'You can't, lass.'

'What d'you mean, can't?'

'It's not possible for you to go out of that door.'

'Why not? Will it explode?'

'No... it's cursed...the door is keyed to my life force. As long as I'm alive, you can't go out of it. He likes the irony of it.'

 

I shut up for a while, trying to get my head around the implications. Didn't like what I came up with.

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sixty-two

Between the grimmer interludes, we pieced together what had happened.

Whoever had brought the message to Lugh had to be on the encampment side of the Rubha gate; as far as the guards I spoke to had known, nobody had come through.

Unless they'd done it
after
I'd gone.

But that was rubbish - the whole thing was a lie – they didn't know that I'd actually gone through.

No – Galan had told Lugh the truth - that I'd passed by, and surely he'd have mentioned someone coming back suddenly. And if that
had
been the case, it would have to have been one of the Fae, as the wards hadn't tripped.

Would he have thought it worth mentioning one of the Fae?

And if it was, were they working with someone on the village side? My mind immediately skipped to Caitlin; she'd been awake and dressed. Why hadn't that occurred to me at the time? But then...would Caitlin work with anyone from the Fae, even for spite? And if it had been her, the target would more likely have been me.

So, someone on the side Under the Hill... made it human or Fae. I wondered briefly if Irwin had a hand in it; dismissed the thought – there was nothing in it for him, and I didn't think he'd be quite so deceitful. I hoped.

Still, we had a traitor amongst us. Which wasn't a comforting thought. Lugh tried to recall who had brought the message; it had come from one of the servants, at least second-hand.

'So why did you cross over without letting anyone know?'

'Because I had the feeling that Lady Malin was not keen on anyone know why she'd gone to the village.' There was an edge to his voice that told me I hadn't been quite as clever as I thought I'd been.

And they'd been waiting for him on the kirkyard side. Which suggested collusion between persons on both sides.

I wondered how long it would have taken Irwin and Cairbre to realise we were gone. And what they'd make of it.

 

What made our situation all the more maddening was that Balor was the sort of villain who liked to gloat. You know … the sort that turns up in Bond movies. If I was one of them, I'd just kill the hero, not spin out the story of how clever I'd been. The hero always uses the information or the time to escape, otherwise...

As a consequence, Lugh picked up scraps of useful information along with the broken bones and burns and bruises.

On the plus side, although we remained cautious in the way we discussed things, nobody seemed to be listening in. At least, so far, nobody had twigged who I really was.

 

The war continued, and from Balor's glee, not in our favour.

'He was pleased to tell me that someone had tried to use the Sword, and failed,' he spat out a tooth, which rattled away into a corner.

'Cairbre, I'd bet.' Got to give him credit for trying. But it meant that reinforcements hadn't arrived yet. Gods, I hoped Ryan had got the message through.

'And he believes Lady Malin to be too overcome with grief to use the Spear, after that last time.'

I ignored the underlying question in his words, could imagine the cocked eyebrow and level gaze.

'Why would he think that?'

'Somebody's evidently told him.'

'That somebody is the traitor in the camp. Which would suggest that “s
omebody”
believes that Malin is closeted in her tent... so someone
else
is being cautious.'

'That's something, then.'

 

Lugh was infinitely stoic and made little fuss over his injuries, but I could feel the effort it was taking in every word and every movement of his body. After a while it was all he could do not to flinch when the door grated open, and they took him away.

Each time the damage was a little more, a little more savage, took a little more time to start healing. I tried not to imagine what was happening to him when he was in Balor's hands, tried to put my mind to finding a way around the curse on the door.

Went round and round in circles, raging against the sheer impossibility of it all, until they dragged him back into the cell and I could try to tend his wounds. Held him as he had nightmares that neither of us spoke about.

 

There had been another skirmish, this time out in the Flow Country, the vast, lochan-studded bog in the far north.

I wondered how many of our troops were left, if any.

Lugh wheezed, coughing up something that went splat on the floor. '...and you know how we were wondering how the land always favoured his side? Always wet and useless for horses and vehicles?'

'Yeah.'

'His scryers
make
it happen that way.'

'Whaaat?'

'Aye. Where we believed that both sides
saw
the vision of where it was to happen? Not the case. He chose the place and his damned lot were sending the visions to ours... didn't know they could do that...' he hacked up another lump, and I propped him up against my shoulder.

 

'Is this what I have to do to get closer to you, then?' He cuddled his head into the angle of my neck and shoulder, leant back against me.

'Dumb ass!'

He chuckled through broken teeth.

 

'How are you doing, lass? Really?'

The tone of his voice told me he wasn't talking about our current situation.

'Can't afford to think about it.'

He sighed, and pulled me onto his lap, warm against the cold of the stone floor. I curled up tight, drawing warmth from him, taking some small measure of comfort from not being alone in the darkness. Dreading the next time they took him away.

His next words shocked me, though.

'Tell me, lass. Did you ever wrap yourself in that sealskin on a lonely night, eh?'

I felt a shudder run through me, outrage vying with a weird sort of guilt that I
hadn't
thought to do it.

'What the hell are you suggesting?'

'Just wondering...if you'd tried it.'

'That's ...a bit disgusting. And seriously creepy. No, of course I haven't!'

He turned, wrapping his arms around me.

'Don't knock it, lass. Worth a try.' He sagged into unconsciousness, leaving me holding him in an intimate embrace, and my mind chasing things that hurt too much to contemplate.

I did not need this. Not now. Possibly not ever.

The imperative right now was to get out, let our side know what we'd found. Anything else was irrelevant.

***

'You have to hang in there, Lugh. I'm going to get you out of here – there has to be a way. Whatever that bastard says, there has to be a loophole.'

I could feel his blood running over me, warm and thick. Held him closer, trying to pass warmth into his body.

This time, they'd taken a hand.

Cauterised the stump, for what that was worth

 

'Irony, again, lass,' he hissed between his teeth. 'I made a silver hand for O'Brion, so that he wasn't imperfect, and could again be King. And thus we defeated our foe. And Balor takes mine in payment for all.'

I tried to wrap myself around him, to keep him warm. Stay with me, I begged in the recesses of my mind, don't leave me to do ...whatever they want me to do.

 

***

'Thing is, lass.... you're going to have to kill me.'

'Are you out of your gods' damned mind?'

He drew a long, shuddering breath.

'Not joking, lass. Only way you'll get out of here.'

'For that, I'll stick it out.'

'No. Come on, girl, I know you - you must have thought this through already. It's your only way out.'

'I am not doing that, not for the world.'

I felt him shudder slightly.

'It
is
for the world, my love. That's what this is all about.'

I wanted to hit him.

I think he could feel it in my body, as I held him.

Shivered.

'I know I'm not getting out of here alive, girl. If you think about it, - that was never going to happen and - to be honest - I'm not sure I can hold out much longer.'

I hugged him, hard.

'You're not doing that, old man. No way. We are going to get out of here. You and me.'

His face canted up, and he kissed my cheek.

'No, lass. I wished for that with all my heart, but it isn't going to happen.'

***

I refused to discuss it.

The next time they came for him, I tried to jam the door with my tooth; well, they'd knocked it loose, seemed fair to use it against them.

It didn't work.

There was a nasty crunch as the door wedged open, stone sliding over enamel; I slipped my fingers into the gap, pulled hard, and it swung wide.

When I stepped into the gap, I found myself flipped back into the cell, flat on my back on the flagstone floor.

Three or four tries made no difference to the end result, and I had to concede to reality.

Okay. So what else could I do?

Grieve?

There was no way I was ready to do that, in any shape or form. Before I did
that
, some bastard was going to pay.

 

Next time, they took his left foot.

 

'One piece at a time..' Lugh's voice was little more than a broken whisper.

'You weren't walking anywhere, anyway,' I joked roughly, 'I was planning to find you some wheels.'

He chuckled weakly; it turned into a clotted cough.

'Need to ...think this through, girl. Need to get you ...out before Balor finishes me off his way. Which means you'll have problems getting home.'

'Will you stop talking like it's a done deal?'

His remaining hand gripped the back of my neck. 'Time to stop pretending things are going to be all right, lass. You
need
to get home, with what we know. Our side needs to be able to fight back, to pick our own ground.'

I shook my head, though I knew he couldn't see me.

'You need to get out of this place, and then you need to get back to the Land Under the Hill. For that you need a gateway. He opens one when he takes his forces into battle...if you follow them through, you'll be able to link up with Irwin and get home that way.'

'I am
not
killing you, Lugh. There has to be another way.'

I felt him take a long, slow breath.

When they came, his words sounded as if they were forced through gravel.

'Yes. You can wait for me to be taken to pieces, bit by bit, until finally I die of it, then he gives you a chunk of me to take back when he sends you through a gate... and don't expect him to send
you
back whole. You just need to be able to stagger a few yards, in whatever direction they shove you,' he hacked another cough, 'he's been very ...graphic, planning it. I think he enjoys letting me think about what he'll do to you as much as he enjoys what he does to me.'

'You never mentioned it.'

'Didn't think you really needed to know, lass. Wouldn't have been constructive to let your imagination run on those lines.'

Gods, Lugh.

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