RIDE THE WILD WINDS
Story by Mandi Ohlin
Written by Mandi Ohlin & Ed Reynolds
Art by Lain.
* * * * *
Previously on Pendragon...
Leba: "She pulled you into it?"
Rory: "It was all a game to her, and I enjoyed it from time to time ... but I wasn't really happy that way. Stealing, running from the police, for what? A coat? It never felt right. And yet it felt perfect at the same time."
Leba: "Rory, you're not a thief."
Rory: "That's just it. I know why we have to do this, but I'm just sick of the running. It feels like I'm back to being a thief again, back when Da was disappointed in me. Da had a rough life, and he wanted the best for me. I think, when I failed that, I failed him."
Leba: "Rory, the good thing about your past is, that's where it stays. It's no good slapping yourself up over old things. Relationships are one of the few unbreakable things in this world."
~~The Reluctant Thief~~
* * * * *
Rory: "I'd forgotten all about those berserker fits. It seems that I shouldn't have done so."
Leba: "Well, the Morrigan's been taken away to Avalon, according to what Merlin's told us. She won't be able to manoeuvre you into that madness again."
Rory: "But it happened to me back in Conchobar's day, and without her being present. Those fits don't need her to bring them out. They can find a different avenue."
Arthur: "Not if you prevent them from so doing. It only takes a certain amount of self-control and discipline. It will not be easy, but you will be able to prevail, with hard work enough."
* * * * *
"What happened, anyway?" asked the young Irishman. "Where's Surtur? And -" He paused, as the realization suddenly hit home. "Oh, no," he groaned. "It happened again, didn't it?"
"I'm afraid so," said Arthur.
"Did - did I do any damage to your friends, Arthur?" Rory asked.
Arthur nodded. "Dulcinea was injured," he said. "She cracked a few ribs, but she should mend. She's still alive."
Rory gasped in horror, and ran up the hill. Arthur picked up his staff, which he had left lying by the rock, and followed after him with Griff.
Leba was tending to Dulcinea when they reached the hill-top. Rory rushed over to them at once, staring down at them in mute shock.
"She's not dead," said Leba, looking up at him. "It was a bit nasty, but she'll recover."
"I know," said Rory. "But she might have died. And because of me."
* * * * *
County Limerick, Republic of Ireland
18 November 1999
It was an unusually clear night, and the moonlight bathed the hills with an almost unnatural brilliance. Its silvery reflection shimmered in the waters of the Lough. A cool wind stirred the surface of the lake, its cold fingers catching and tossing Deirdre's brown hair every which way. She idly brushed it out of her face with her free hand, tucking the book she was carrying beneath her arm to pull the loose strands of hair back into her ponytail. The wind really didn't bother her otherwise - it was chilly, but not quite as chilly as it usually was. And she doubted that even with the intense boredom and whining, she would have been able to convince the gang to do anything had there been a drop of rain.
Her shoes squished in the mud, but she paid that little heed as she led the fairly large and surprisingly silent group past the lake shore, staying to what little shadows they could find as they trudged ahead. It occurred to Deirdre that she was an odd choice to be leading the gang. Anyone who looked at her would simply see a short, mousy girl in baggy clothes who looked more likely to be holed up in a library than to be sneaking into and vandalizing historic sites in the middle of the night with a gang of bikers.
But that was only what she looked like. No one tended to waste a second glance at the quiet, bookish young lady who couldn't possibly be capable of petty theft or vandalism. The senile old hag in the rare bookshop hadn't even spared her a backward glance when she slipped out of the store with the leather-bound book of spells beneath her coat. True, the image didn't exactly turn heads, but it had served her well on trips like this. While girls who favoured piercings and bizarrely coloured hair were stopped by every cop, she walked right past them with the stolen loot in her coat. Only those who truly knew her understood what she really was.
"Are we there yet?"
Deirdre gritted her teeth as the petulant voice shattered the cool tranquility of the evening. She knew without turning who had spoken. No one could ruin a moment quite like Connor. She glared at him over her shoulder, not bothering to stop to deal with him. It was easy to pick out his face even in the darkness; while she was easily the shortest of the group, he towered over everyone else. "It's right over there, you twit," she snapped, pointing to where the standing stones could be seen in the moonlight several meters away. "Don't you even bother to look where you're headed?"
He snorted. "I still say we should've taken the bikes. Then we wouldn't have to leg it all the way around the lake."
"Then everyone'd know we were coming," another young man pointed out. "Kind of defeats the purpose of sneaking in."
The voice of reason was met by murmurs of approval, and Connor scowled. "Still don't know why we're following the witch around again."
"Well, if you have something better to do, you can leave," Deirdre said. "Oh, wait - you've been kicked out of every pub in the county by now. Silly me." Connor muttered something under his breath, but the rest of the group ignored it. Not a day went by when Connor and Deirdre weren't at odds.
Besides, the prospect of doing a ritual at midnight in a supposedly magic circle had sparked everyone's interest when Deirdre first brought it up. It was a thin excuse to find a party location that was out of the way and yet irreverent. For Deirdre however, there was something more. She smiled and brought the beaten volume out of her rucksack. The binding was frayed, but the contents were intact. She flicked through the pages as they walked.
"Well this is it," she said, indicating the end of the path ahead. "The Grange Stone circle! Isn’t it magnificent? The largest stone circle in Ireland. Built four thousand years ago it—"
"Spare us the history lesson, Deirdre," said a gruff, disinterested individual called Conk – a hulking and murderous individual that, unlike Deirdre, certainly did look the type to lead a biker gang. But Conk, who had by some miracle never been kept in prison for longer than a couple of months, had tagged along with the group partly because he really had nothing better to do. Connor was not the only one that his local publicans shunned.
"Magic spells!" scoffed Connor. "I suppose next we’ll be kidnapped by the leprechauns. And this is the Grange Stone circle?"
The group filtered through a gully and into the centre of the circle, passing by two thick rocks. They shone their torches around. A few bare trees shivered in the breeze. The air smelt of turf. A few of the company seemed curious. Connor wasn’t one of them.
"Some of these rocks are tiny!" Connor said, his eye diverted from Ronnach Croim Duibh which he well knew stood thirteen feet high. "Hardly seems like we’ve stumbled across some kind of portal to the unknown."
"Well, thank goodness the expert has given us his opinion," Deirdre replied tartly, passing up the opportunity to catch him out on his facts. There was bickering enough in the ranks without her exacerbating it. "Let’s set up the ritual."
"It's not going to do anything," one of the followers voiced quietly as he received some chalk markers.
"Don't be saying that, Sean," Connor butted in with an air of shock. "It's the spirit of the hunt you're talking about! We're going to see magic and leprechauns and it's going to be like Disneyland—"
"Shut your trap, Connor," said Deirdre and she threw him a candle.
Connor rolled his eyes and fumbled in his pockets for a lighter. "Are we ready then?"
Deirdre looked around the circle. Her homemade charms had been hung on the stones specified in the diagram of her book, and powder had been liberally applied to the ground. She could hear the sounds of sheep bleating on the distance; the bikers had fallen rather quiet. It was not that any of them took the hoopla over the magic spell particularly seriously, but the Grange Stone circle was fairly intimidating after dark and a couple of the less jaded in their company looked as though they expected a ghoul or a pixie to leap out from behind a rock at any minute.
"Fine, let's get this over with."
Deirdre cleared her throat and fixed the torch on the book before her. The spell was in Gaelic and lasted most of the page. She cursed to herself that she had not paid more attention to her studies at school, but sounded the words out anyway. She had barely started when Connor opened his mouth to complain, but he never got the chance.
Beams of light blasted out of the stones into the centre of the circle, engulfing the bikers. The group drew a collective breath – shock, awe and fear was in their responses. But Deirdre continued the spell, an odd kind of surety growing in her. Her voice lost its squeakiness and false bravado. It became deeper and more resonant, and she felt some kind of power course through her body.
Energy was flowing into the centre of the circle like the wind blowing sand across a beach. But the ripples of blue energy crackled right into them, through their feet and fingers and into their eyes and mouth. Their eyes glowed with energy but they could see out.
At the edge of the circle, the shadows cast by the rocks seemed to bring out strange shapes – the shapes of hounds baying at the edges to be let into the focal point of the energy. Deirdre finished her spell and slammed the book shut climactically.
The light faded. The world went dark – almost entirely dark, in fact, as their eyes accustomed to the gloom once more. Deirdre chuckled to herself. The other riders were staggering around.
"Well…" said one, his voice weak with exhaustion but clearly ecstatic at his experience. "That was quite something. What do we do now?"
Only Deirdre thought she noticed a change in Connor's demeanour as a green light briefly flickered in his eyes. She did not have time to process it as he shouted in a commanding tone: "We go for a ride."
Connor led the group out of the circle boldly, an enigmatic smile on his face.
* * * * *
"For the last time," Dulcinea snapped, shifting uncomfortably in her makeshift cot, "I'm going to be fine - ah!" She couldn't help but let out a gasp as she put too much weight on her injured side. "As long as I don't lie on that side, that is."
Mary sighed and shook her head as she finished checking over Dulcinea's bandages. "And here I thought Merlin was a poor patient."
"I heard that," Merlin murmured. The sleepy yet offended look on his face caused both Dulcinea and Mary to chuckle in spite of themselves. Dulcinea stopped a second later, wincing in pain.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Mary asked her, concerned.
Dulcinea nodded. "I'll just make a point not to laugh." As Mary wavered uncertainly, the Spanish woman sighed. "Oh, go tend to him already. I can manage just fine here."
"Thank you," Mary said quietly, squeezing her hand. Dulcinea smiled and gently shoved her towards Merlin before easing herself back down on the pillows.
She leaned back and studied the tired party assembled in the clearing. They were camped out not far from Dinas Bran, having decided to rest for the day before heading back to London. The sun was not about to rise for a few hours, but it was still too close to dawn for them to make any significant progress. Griff, Arthur and Leba were checking a map of the area, ostensibly trying to determine the least difficult route. Mary had taken it upon herself to tend to the wounded, partly out of concern for Merlin and partly out of guilt for what had happened to Dulcinea. She tried to hide it, but Dulci could see it in her worried glances. Of course, if she had not come between Cuchulain and Mary, Dulcinea shuddered to think what might have happened. Further adventuring was out for the moment, but she could make it for the day.
"Is there room for one more?"
Dulcinea looked up from her musings to see Rory sitting down beside her, a steaming cup in each hand. "Is that what I think it is?"
He nodded, passing her one of the cups of hot cocoa. "Found the mix in the saddlebag. Almost lost my fingers to Rosie trying to get it." She took a sip and smiled contentedly. "Only the essentials?"
"Of course." She looked up from her drink, noticing the faraway look on his face. If she thought Mary had been wallowing in guilt earlier, Rory was practically drowning himself in it. "What's wrong?"
He glanced down at her side, at the bandages wrapped around her midsection. "Do you really have to ask?"
"It's just a scratch," Dulcinea assured him. "Believe me, Rory, I've been through much worse."
"It might not be 'just a scratch' next time. I could have killed you." His gaze traveled briefly to where Mary was sitting beside Merlin.
Dulcinea rolled her eyes. "Rory, she doesn't blame you, and neither do I. It couldn't be helped."
Rory took a swig of his cocoa and made a face, not at the taste of the drink but at the bad taste he was trying to wash away. "That's just it. Even when I've known about it, even when I've tried so hard to control it - it doesn't mean anything, in the end. None of it." He set the cup down. "I was almost more of a danger than Surtur was."
Dulcinea cast around for something suitable to smack him upside the head with. Since the cup was still half-full, she used her free hand instead. "Ow! What was that for?"
"Trying to knock some sense into you, for all the good it'll do," she replied, taking a sip. Seeing this, Leba looked up from the map. "You can't honestly believe that this whole mess was your fault."
"Nay, but -" He raked his fingers through his red hair. "It's hard enough trying to watch out for the enemy. You shouldn't have to watch out for one o' me fits as well."
Dulci sniffed. "We watch out for one another, Rory. You know that." She glanced at his discarded cup. "Don't let that get cold; I didn't bring very much."
He picked up the cup, eying her warily before taking another sip; it had cooled somewhat, but it was still warm. "'Tis just that... I don't think I should be here at all."
"Dulci, hit him again. I don't think you knocked enough sense into him the last time."
Startled, Rory spun, nearly dropping the cocoa as he did so. Some of it splashed on his hand and sleeve, but it had cooled enough that it didn't scald. Leba was standing there, hands on hips, looking thoroughly frustrated. "Rory Dugan, if you're planning on leaving us -"
"What? No!" Rory gave up on the cocoa and put it aside, shaking his hand dry. "'Tis not like that!"
"What is it, then?" Leba demanded.
"I..." He trailed off, unsure what to say. Both Arthur and Griff had realised what was going on, and had abandoned the map. Rory suddenly found himself surrounded, and his shoulders sagged in defeat. "I can't do this anymore. I thought I could control me fits, I've tried, but... well, you see what happened."
Arthur frowned thoughtfully. "Controlling your rage is no easy task, Rory. We're all aware of that. The fact that you held it at bay as long as you did is an accomplishment in itself."
Rory didn't look convinced. "He's right, you know," Griff pointed out. "And we couldn't have held off Surtur half as long without you there."
"You don't honestly think we're not going to help you deal with this, do you?" Leba asked.
He scowled. "What are you going to do? Conjure up a rainstorm every time I go off?" He regretted his tone instantly, and groaned. "I'm sorry, I... this isn't working." Luin was propped up beside him, and the staff hummed faintly, so soft that only Rory could hear it. He took the staff in his hands, its vibration almost reassuring. But it wasn't enough. "I'm no help here. Might be dangerous to keep me along with you, even. I don't want to run out on anyone, but I can't go on like this. Not now."
There was a brief silence before Mary, who had been listening in, spoke up. "Where would you go?" The others looked at her, surprised. "You're not going to disappear into the woods and become a hermit, are you?" That comment earned a derisive snort from Merlin. "It didn't work for him."
Rory smiled slightly at that. "Home, I think." He stared at the dying fire. "Back where it all began. I just need to work some things out, that's all."
"Don't we all," Merlin said, so softly that only Mary could hear him.
Arthur was silent. "I understand, but perhaps this is not a journey to be taken alone."
Rory shook his head, getting to his feet. "I can't ask you to come along. 'Tis too much to be done here."
"I'll come," Leba said, cutting off any further protests from Rory with a gesture. "No, don't even start, Rory. No more arguments. I'm going with you, and that's final."
Griff was trying not to chuckle. "You'd better listen to her, Rory."
Rory was silent, looking from Leba's determined glare to Griff's knowing smirk. "I don't have much of a choice, now, do I?"
He didn't really need to hear the answer.
* * * * *
County Louth, Northern Ireland
Seamus Burke surveyed the now-empty pub and sighed.
While a busy night at his pub was always good for his pocket, the resulting cleanup was rarely good for his mood. Oh, it wasn't as though there were brawls of any sort, but he didn't have the means to hire more help - which meant that at close of business, he had to handle everything himself. Seamus was a big man, in good shape for his years and capable of stopping any fight or trouble before it began, but he enjoyed that sort of thing. Cleaning up the mess his customers left behind was by no means his idea of fun. But it was all in a day's work, and things could be worse.
As if to prove his point, the sound of motorbike engines could be heard in the distance, becoming louder by the second. Seamus looked up to see lights shining outside as the roaring engines, almost like howling beasts, were accompanied by raucous shouting and cursing. Someone jiggled the handle of the front door, to no avail. "Can't ye read?" Seamus growled, although they couldn't hear him. "We're closed!"
The shouting outside became tinged with anger, and Seamus picked up his broom, hefting it like a club. "Daft kids," he muttered. "Where's the police when ye need them?"
Glass shattered above him, and he ducked in time to avoid being struck by the rock flung through the window. Seamus stood up again, his eyes blazing as he glared at the shattered windowpane. "That tears it!" he bellowed, storming towards the door and undoing the lock. He flung the door open, bristling with rage. "Get out of here, ye fools, or I'll -"
Seamus' fury withered away as he beheld just who - or what - was standing before him. His eyes widened, and he tightened his grip on the broom. "What in the name of..." He trailed off, as the visitor turned and looked him full in the eyes.
For the first time in his life, Seamus Burke was utterly paralyzed by fear.
* * *
The police cars pulled up to the scene in time to see a group of figures on motorcycles speeding away from the pub. The front windows of the pub were smashed in and the door stood wide open; it didn't take a genius to realize what had happened.
The police car gave chase but the roads in that part of Northern Ireland were not designed for car chases. The motorbikes outmanoeuvred and soon were outrunning the law. The police cars could only barely keep to the narrow roads without falling into the wire-fenced farming areas to the left, or worse into the bog on the right. After entering the open country heading south, the police – sirens now blaring uselessly into the silent night – managed to manoeuvre themselves within metres of the bikers.
But then something extraordinary happened. They turned around a sharp bend in the road having seen the bikers momentarily disappear from sight behind a house on the corner. They turned at the end of the road, but the bikers were nowhere to be seen on the long stretch of road before them. There was no sound of their engines.
They had vanished into thin air.
"That's impossible!" one of the officers cried in amazement as he hit the brake as quickly as he dared without risking a pile-up. He turned to his partner as he turned into a ditch on the side of the road.
"They must have parked up while we weren't looking."
But none of the policemen were fooled, or surprised when they found no such trace. Even the tire marks on the dusty road disappeared.
* * * * *
After half an hour or so, the police prepared to leave the area, confused and somewhat intimidated by the disappearance of the bikers under such strange circumstances. None of them saw the shadowy figure watching from behind the cottage nearby, peering out at the commotion with luminous green eyes.
* * * * *
Dun Laoghaire, Dublin
The ferry from Holyhead to Dublin seemed to take forever, and when they finally disembarked, Rory all but tried to leapfrog over other passengers in his haste to get off the boat. Leba caught up with him a few minutes later, chuckling. "What's so funny?" Rory wanted to know.
"If I didn't know better, Rory, I'd think someone was chasing you off the boat the way you scrambled to get off it. What, the great Irish hero can't handle a ferry ride? It only took a couple of hours!"
"Laugh all ye want." Rory stretched. "'Tis good to be on dry land again. I thought they were going to hold us back in there forever while all the cars and buses disembarked."
"Well here’s Dublin… we should be able to cross the border tonight if we make good time."
Leba's smile faded as a nagging question came to the forefront of her mind. She hated to play devil's advocate, but she had to ask. "Do you think this trip home will help at all? You seemed to be doing well before."
"Doing well?" Rory sighed. "I've been trying to control me fits for months now, and in one moment I forgot everything. That's not what I'd call 'doing well' at all." He squirmed under her gaze. "Honestly, Leba, I don't know. A week, two weeks - who's to say if it'll do me any good?"
"You thought it would."
"Aye, but... I just can't shake this feeling. I have to go home, just for a short while. 'Tis like I'm being called back again, just as I was drawn to London in the first place. Only this time I don't have t' be told."
Leba didn't understand that last comment, but she let it slide. "Well, perhaps you're needed at home now."
Rory shouldered his pack and clutched Luin tighter, feeling the disguised spear grow warm in his grasp. "I'm not so sure that's a good thing."
* * * * *
Outside Rory's village
Deirdre and Connor stepped away from their motorbikes near the camp that the group had set up. They grinned and whooped as they stumbled around. The mists lapped around their feet and the revellers seemed oblivious to the black shadowy figures that strode through their midst – like enormous ethereal hounds. They had been travelling all day pursued by this misty unreality.
One of the bikers grabbed a large radio from the back of his bike and started playing a grunge song at high volume. The bikers puffed on cigarettes and unloaded crates of drink and began to dance clumsily to the music. Their voices echoed on the breeze in a distorted fashion but still none of them seemed to find the situation the least off-putting.
Deirdre stalked around the outside of the group, coming to rest by the shadowy outline of a large oak tree. She glanced up at it, and then turned to look down to the hounds. Recognition flickered in her face, and she saw the world with clarity. She strode through them as the music blared and the bikers staggered around the camp lighting fires. A small smile played on her lips. She cracked her fingers and felt the bottom of her leather top pressed against her lower back. She grinned as she looked down at her new attire – a revealing costume that principally consisted of leather and metal studs. She did not feel cold however. She felt right.
"So where're we going next, Dei?" one of the bikers uttered, drunkenly.
"Go? We're not going anywhere. Not just yet."
"You scared, Deirdre?" asked Connor, standing from the midst of the crowd.
There was a loud chortling sound from the crowd. Deirdre knew instantly who it was and her cast her eyes wearily over to Connor.
"You scared, Deirdre?" he asked. His tone was still cheeky and boisterous but there was a cold edge to his voice that had not been there before and his eyes, used to regarding Deirdre with doubt and exasperation, now fixed upon her with an intent kind of loathing.
The sounds of laughter turned to murmurs of discontent, although the grunge tune still throbbed in the background.
"Not at all. All we've done going out so far is pick on fat old publicans and cause a fright. Good craic, I’ll grant ye. But we can do so much better than that."
"You're cracked. The police are a joke and this village is practically offering itself up to have its tummy tickled. I say, let's tickle."
Deirdre stared him down. For a moment, despite the cries from the music, it seemed as though everything was going quiet. The mists stopped moving as if on tenterhooks, and the world seemed to shrink until there was just the two figures of Deirdre and Connor standing off on the empty moor.
"No," she said firmly, and turned slowly away, keeping eye contact for a little longer.
But the bikers were not pleased. Conk stood up quickly. He was a thickly-built individual and was head and shoulders taller than Deirdre when he had shuffled towards her so that she was forced to turn and look up at him.
"I say we go loot," grunted Conk, and then with a sneer said: "So we go loot. And if you've got a problem with that, I suggest you take—"
He did not get a chance to complete his sentence. Deirdre’s arm shot out and grabbed him by the front of his neck. Even at arm’s length, she could only raise him a few inches off the ground and such was the thickness of his neck that she had great difficulty gripping it. But she knew she was not about to lose what grip she had. She felt the power surging through her. And she was gripping hard.
Conk choked, and with a flick of her wrist she threw him to the ground. She lowered her hand and clicked her wrist. She felt no pain or discomfort. Conk staggered to his feet again, but she crossed to kick him sharply so he collapsed to the ground again.
"My way," she hissed, "is the way you'll want to be going."
She spun around, adrenaline coursing through her. Her eyes were narrowed, glancing like a predator around the features of the bikers. "Anyone else planning on leaving?" she hissed.
Not one of them said a word.
* * * * *
They reached Patrick Dugan’s house at a quarter to five but it was already dark. The small garden seemed slightly raggedy, with the rhododendron bushes having become quite overgrown. The door had gained a lick of paint however, and everything seemed strangely small and comforting to Rory; it reminded him of rainy days long ago and he suddenly realised that he was now a long way from the London mansion or the hillsides of Wales. It was a pleasant feeling as he momentarily forgot the concern he had been feeling over his rages and turned to a more immediate problem. The windows were dark. The door was bolted. Rory received no answer as he knocked.
"Where can he be?"
Rory peered into the darkened windows of the small house as Leba knocked again. "Forget it, Leba, 'tis no one here."
Leba frowned. "We probably should have sent word first."
"Aye, but I can't think where he could be." Rory squinted at the late afternoon sun. "He's usually home at this hour." He straightened up with a sigh, picking Luin up and getting ready to go.
He started slightly as he saw the figure appearing by the gate at the end of the pathway.
"Well, if this is the last thing I expected to see on the doorstep…"
Surprised, Rory turned to see a familiar figure coming up the path. "Da!"
Patrick Dugan greeted his son with a tired smile and a pat on the back. "Not that I'm complaining, but I'd have liked to know I was getting visitors." Leba smirked at Rory, the silent "I-told-you-so" written all over her face. "Are ye going to introduce me to your friend?"
"Of course," Rory said. "This is Leba. And Leba, my da."
"Pleasure to meet you," said Leba politely.
Patrick waved them into the house and closed the door behind him. He went through to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
"Oh, it's my pleasure, Leba," said Patrick. "How long have you two been waitin’ around here now?"
"Not long," said Rory, before Leba could say anything to the contrary. "Where have you been at this time of the day?"
"Same as most decent people, lad. I've got a job as a Transportation Engineer."
Rory looked stunned. "Wow, da," he said, bursting out into a laugh. "That sounds…"
"It's a glorified repairman," Patrick explained with a slight grin. "But it pays the bills and keeps me out of trouble."
"How long has this been going on? I didn't hear from you via letters… well, mind the Pendragon Investigations address I gave you won't be much good now."
Patrick shrugged. "I only got this job by being at the right place at the right time. There wasn’t much to say. But I wouldn’t have minded some news from you before you wander up out of the blue. What’s been going on, Rory? Why the sudden visit? I’m pleased to see you, of course, don’t get me wrong. You too, Leba."
Rory looks fairly uncomfortable, but after a moment or two – with a bit of prodding from Leba along the way – he began to tell his story.
* * *
"…And so I thought it was about time I headed home," Rory concluded, now sipping on a mug of tea. "Maybe find some answers. Or at least…"
He trailed off. The room was silent again. Patrick had been listening quietly, but his expression was now of surprise. "Well now, there’s quite a tale. I must admit, Rory, I hadn’t pinned your return as being to do with anythin’ so… dark as that. Mind, I always said you did give up too easy, and maybe you’ll find you can resolve your problems without my help. I certainly don’t know what to say about this sort of thing, though I’d help you if I could."
He gave Rory a look of something resembling curiosity but then looked down at his mug of tea, which was empty, and seemed to hesitate awkwardly. His tone was conversational when he spoke up again however. "To tell the truth I thought you were here for a different reason. In fact, I figured you’d heard about the… the rash of thefts and property damage around here, and had come to lend a hand."
Rory was surprised and a little uncomfortable. It was not so many years ago that he was the one responsible for a good deal of the thievery in the local area, after all. "Oh?" he inquired.
"It's some gang of bikers. Odd sort they are. They come blasting into town cool as anything mind you, and start smashing the place up. Never seem to come out during the day, and the police haven't been able to catch them. They've been putting around some story that they disappeared like ghosts. Don't know whether that's true or not, but those that have come across them have been right scared out of their wits. Take Seamus Burke over at The Crossroads Inn."
"Seamus Burke?" exclaimed Rory. "These people must be brave… or dangerous. Even Moll and I didn't mess with him and back in our bad old days we got into more than our share of trouble."
Patrick nodded. "Well, you're not here for that of course."
But Rory and Leba had already caught each others' eyes.
"Well, perhaps you're needed at home now," Rory recalled Leba saying earlier.
And he remembered the doubt in his voice as he had replied, "I'm not so sure that's a good thing."
* * * * *
The pair did finally decide to stay at Patrick's house and amused themselves for several days. The bikers that he had spoken of did not make an appearance while Rory and Leba were around and some in the locality that had not seen them first hand began to rationalise them as nothing more than a bunch of nasty thugs that had given the police the slip.
Still, nights were lengthening and when the town was cast into shadow, it became somewhat less difficult to believe the stories of ghostly riders. A gloomily-lit town populated only by an occasional traffic of jumpy pedestrians invites suspicion. It hardly helped that the locals had taken to adding extra security to their doors and windows, and taking careful, ashen-faced glances down the road before they crossed the cattle grids in front of their gates.
Leba became increasingly concerned for Rory, who sank deeper into his depression. His eyes would glaze as he sat on the lawn outside his home and he’d tell stories of what he and Molly used to get up to. Leba mostly gave these stories short shrift but she could not easily turn a blind eye to her fellow knight’s increasingly apathetic attitude.
So, towards the end of their first week back in Ulster, Leba and Rory made a short pilgrimage of sorts to Cairn na Chullain.
* * *
"First Arthur’s tomb in Glastonbury, now my tomb," Rory said discordantly as he stared into the cavern. He had not returned to it since the night he had learnt his true nature – and Molly's as well. There were still faint signs of the battle to anyone who cared to look – such as the massive hole in the ground where the Banshee had attacked.
"Seemed like the thing to visit," suggested Leba. "Anyway, what are you talking about, you never even saw Arthur's tomb."
"I'm just saying. Kind of morbid if you ask me."
"I'll try and find some all-singing all-dancing tombs for you next time."
There was a pause as Leba regretted the retort. Rory hardly seemed to have noticed her snapping as he peered around the ruin, his distress evidently growing. She broke his thoughts matter-of-factly. "I just don’t get it. I mean… time was, you were the great hero of Ulster, dying on the battlefield like a champion. So how is it now that you’re running and hiding, Rory?"
Rory shot her a pained look. "Why are you asking me that? You know why. The rages…"
"Hardly new though, are they? You had them before. There must be somethin’ we’re not considering that’s different from your old time."
"Maybe it’s that I’m a different person in this time," Rory said uncomfortably. "Back then, Cuchulain saw no wrong in the rages. They were critical in battle and helped his reputation immensely helping to avoid unnecessary conflict. It wasn’t a worry in the same way. Now things are different. I’m not just Cuchulain now but I’m also Rory. I… I can’t control my anger in the same way, keep my fears in check. I want to, but when I feel the bloodlust of the hero of Ulster inside of me, my instinct is… bestial. I feel more like my hound than a hero… small wonder people used to get confused on that front.
"I hate going off like that, Leb, but I also like that feeling of power in a way. Like nothing in the world can stop me. When I grab Luin and just know I’m going to win or die. Or both, thinking about it. It’s so different from the old days with Moll where I was just larking about and playing pranks and stealing things, but it had that same kind of upliftin’ feeling. Makes me feel powerful. But it isn’t like when I’m normally fightin’ as a knight. There’s no responsibility or worry, there’s just…"
He said nothing more for the moment. He could hear the sounds of the river lapping at the shores nearby. Leba waited patiently for him to gather his thoughts and continue speaking, which he did after a few moments had passed, now continuing dreamily as if watching a memory play out before his eyes
"But then," he said, "maybe I’m not so different from my past self after all. My rages didn’t always turn out for the best."
Leba gave him a quizzical look, but Rory did not meet it.
"Let me tell you a story from just over two thousand years ago…it’s all about a foolish young man."
* * * * *
Over Two Thousand Years Ago
Cuchulain took a deep breath and opened his eyes. The scent of heather and the sound of the sea battering the rocks on the distance soothed him.
"This vista at Muirthemne is glorious indeed," the hero said to Laeg, the scrawny charioteer that had accompanied him.
"Y-yes it i-is," stuttered Laeg nervously, glancing sideways at his master with an awestruck impression. "M-master Cu-cu-Cuchulain, do you s-see that s-sh-sh-ship out to s-sea?"
Cuchulain followed his quivering hand. "I do it see it, little one," he replied thoughtfully. "I wonder indeed where it may have voyage from. I propose we wait and watch."
They did wait and watch. They waited and watched until an hour while the wind blew their hair and the gulls passed by noisily overhead. When the ship had drawn in at the cove, Cuchulain waved a hand to Laeg and rose gracefully to his feet. As it had come closer they could make out the man sitting inside it. His features were massive, more like a large tree than a man, with thick arms and broad legs that stretched clean across the deck he was sprawled on.
"Wh-what's that?" asked Laeg.
"I do not know, friend," Cuchulain said. "But we shall go and greet him with good cheer and learn what we may of his nature and errand."
They walked down to the shore to greet the strange newcomer. They noticed as they came close that in each hand he was waving an oar of what appeared to be iron, and laughing at the misfortune of his few shipmates, all of whom were tiny by comparison. He seemed monstrous – a giant. And as he saw Cuchulain, he drew a sword.
"Greetings," said Cuchulain. "Your ship is fine indeed and you grace us with our presence. From whence have you come?"
The giant looked staggered – as if it was saying "what is the meaning of this upstart's address to me?" He said nothing aloud however.
"I say again," said Cuchulain. "Where have you come from? From what distant shore have you wended your way to Ulster?"
"I," said the giant in a slow, rumbling bellow that made the unusually calm waters of the beach ripple. "I am Goll mac Carbada, son of the king of northern Germany. I have come to take this puny isle while my brothers, may their feet wither and their bunions pop, went to storm the islands of Denmark and Britain. This is the destination I drew and I have travelled far. Now speak, he who would dare address me, and tell me your business, lest I pluck you from where you stand and use your spine as a tooth-pick."
"My name is Cuchulain."
Goll's eyes suggested a brief flicker of recognition but he said nothing, simply furrowing his greasy brow.
"I am the Hero of Ulster and if you intend this land harm, I shall not let you pass."
Cuchulain waited as the giant let out a snort of derision but then a long, deep breath as it appeared to consider the situation. "I have heard of you, little man hero. I have an offer to make you. Come and join me and I shall leave you to command the remnants when I grow weary and leave here. If you do not join me, you can flee or I shall boil you for a pie and feed you to my dogs."
Goll leered as he said this, and ended with a climactic gurgle in the back of his throat. His face was not quite humanoid but blotchy, with thick leathery skin of a pale colour. Thick, greasy strands of black hair topped his head. Cuchulain maintained eye contact, allowing a pause for effect after the rumbling of Goll’s demands that made him appear quite unflappable before the giant.
"I shall not allow you to pass," said Cuchulain.
"You would reject my offer, little fool?"
"I do not only reject it utterly," snapped Cuchulain, "but if you feel you would test your might against mine then I shall thwart you and send you on your way if I have the grace not to kill you for your barbarism."
"Brave words!" cried Goll, leaping from his boat and splashing down before Cuchulain in a single bound. Sand and seawater blasted every which way across the beach and the men on Goll's boat shouted with panic as the boat was suddenly thrown about in the waves. Goll's eyes gleamed and his teeth were bared – brown and yellow, but sharp and quite ready for tearing flesh.
"Come then, little one, and if you’re lucky I shall be content merely to swallow you whole."
"It is your grave," said Cuchulain, clutching Luin.
White energy began to crackle and charge through his body. He leapt forward as Laeg ran up towards the dunes to watch. The battle was not evenly matched. Goll was lumbering but faster with his limbs than his great height and oafish voice might indicate. He was able to stomp the sand and cause small sandstorms that were nearly blinding, while simply lashing out became a tremendously effective weapon as his enormous strength and size made it difficult for Cuchulain to get close.
Cuchulain meanwhile found himself running from the giant, and ducking to avoid his blows. He spun on his feet to toss the Gae Bolga. It spun through the air and skewered Goll through the arm, where it hovered. Goll screamed but brushed the spear away without looking significantly put out. His eyes widened so that the red veins in them could be seen. He threw himself at the ground, and it was as he laid himself low in his anger that Cuchulain was able to dash across the beach to reclaim his spear.
Without missing a moment he threw it again, this time catching the giant at the kneecap. He remained on the floor, bent double with pain. But Cuchulain did not move quietly to finish his foe. He snarled and leapt into battle again, as if enchanted. Pure rage blinded him and again and again he hailed blows against the giant, which groaned on the ground, defeated.
It was only after several minutes of this struggle, now one-sided in a completely different way from before, that Cuchulain leapt onto Goll's shoulder and raised his spear above the creature's neck. He gave a bellow as he prepared to lower the spear and deal with the creature.
* * *
The head of Goll was loaded onto the back of the chariot and Laeg was staring at it intently between stuttered exclamations of Cuchulain's bravery in battle. Cuchulain did not reply except to instruct him to start moving.
"Let us return to Emain Macha," he said quietly. "This head shall serve as a trophy against all those that would threaten this land."
"Y-y-yes, Cuchulain," said Laeg, nodding furiously, as he prepared to spur the horse on.
As Cuchulain cast his eye back over the horizon, he could see the boat that Goll had arrived on disappearing over the distance of the ocean. He knew from how high it was in the water that they had not taken the body of Goll with them.
His thoughts were interrupted by Laeg: "M-m-may I a-ask why y-you aren't g-g-going b-back t-to Dundalk to stay with your wife?"
"Why?" boomed Cuchulain, glaring at his servant.
"I-I just wondered…"
"Conchobar this morning bad me return swiftly, telling me that when I was away, even the good things in life lose their sweetness."
"C-c-c-Conchobar is a h-honey-t-t-tongued rogue!"
"You lie, insolent servant! But punishment is not yet for you as I shall see when I return to the village. If it is true that Conchobar's friendly disposition towards me is a front for a more sinister intent however…"
"H-he j-j-just w-wants you to f-f-f-fight."
"That is not a surprise. My skills are legendary even to the likes of this sorry creature, Goll. But that he would take advantage of me in this manner, using my skill and goodwill for his own sinister aims is unthinkable. Nay, banish me, drive me to the ends of the earth, kill me, but I would not believe that of him. But remember, my charioteer; what I would fear as punishment for being incorrect in my trust is the same as what you will learn to fear as punishment for being incorrect in your brazen cynicism."
Laeg nodded but said nothing, keeping at any cost from making eye contact with Cuchulain.
* * *
But meanwhile Conchobar, the local king, was entertaining the newcomer Conall in Emain Macha and the things that were said would have made Cuchulain's blood boil. The hero was being derided amongst Conchobar's caravan for his manner and actions.
Conall's people dismounted, and men and women of all shapes and sizes and ages and careers disembarked and entered the city to cook, dance, make music and simply to enjoy the evening.
As the night progressed and the fires burned down low the jokes became meaner and more raucous. The clowns ended up sprawled on the turf in a daze, while the criers were crying nonsense and the maids were dancing across the town.
"The fool Cuchulain believed me as I promised him his worth in this camp," Conchobar laughed as he related Conall the story. Conall had little sympathy.
A greasy man with long hair who was named Suanan glanced up at the joke but said nothing, walking away to tend – as was his job – to Conchobar's larder.
Eventually Conchobar came to discuss with Conall a new feast he was planning.
"We shall not sit idle here while rare times of plenty pass us by," said Conall with cheer. "I shall host a feast that is more than the equal of this fine fare, and all of Ulster shall be invited, for it is within my capacity to feed that many."
Conchobar laughed again. "Fine friend, I believe you in your – hic – claims, and shall indeed be honoured to join your merry gathering."
He pronounced the last word with some difficulty. Conall, who was somewhat more sober, nodded and pulled out a parchment. He rolled it out with care for it was the only such parchment he had in his possession, and Conchobar realised that it was a map.
"You must indeed come, but take care in choosing your routes. There are two routes I recommend. One is the long route here." He indicated the map. "That will take some days' journey but your horses will be thankful for the easier route."
"Pah!" said Conchobar, kicking back and spilling a large quantity of his drink on the cat that had decided to sleep underneath his chair. "I desire no long and easy route if there is another path to be taken. What need do I have to watch my life pass me by as I waste it across the bland countryside? Where else?"
"Here," said Conall, pointing again. "This is the shorter route, but you must take care for it will not be easy at all."
Conchobar once again gave a start, but there was little drink left to spill and no cat to spill it on, the creature having thought better of his first resting place. "The path you seek is no harder than the other. The land is fertile enough and should provide a direct route."
"That is true," said Conall slowly. "But there is the matter of Garb."
"Garb? Garb of Glenn Rige? Surely you jest!"
"He is after all a giant, Conchobar. A giant with two heads no less. He will not be easy to pass."
Conchobar sneered. "We shall see. I fear that fool Cuchulain has left us on some hare-brained errand and may return too late for us. No matter, we can survive without his brawn for my men are more than enough for any giant."
"Let us drink to it," said Conall.
Once their tankards were refilled they did, but this final draft of ale was a bit much for Conchobar and after emptying their tankards, he collapsed over the side of the chair and onto the ground.
The celebrations continued, just the same.
* * *
Garb, the two-headed giant, had been having a bad day when he saw the convoy from Ulster blaze past, quite to his dismay. He had already let a rather tasty-looking maiden get away and had discovered that his malignant pustules were actually getting better, not worse, with age, thus completely destroying his fearsome image. Add in that his two heads were spending even more time than usual bickering and it was not a good day.
Conchobar's plan for evading Garb was fairly simple: run fast enough that Garb could not catch him. This had the advantage that Conchobar, at the front of the train, was able to pass through before Garb noticed. It had the disadvantage that Conchobar's servants and household that brought up the rear were liable to be torn to shreds by the wrathful giant.
Garb did indeed tear into the folk, frightening horses and upturning the carriages in the convoy. Some managed to get away. Many did not.
* * *
Conchobar arrived triumphantly at Conall’s home and instantly ordered celebrations: he had his musicians, except of course for those that he knew had probably been torn limb from limb by the giant, to strike up a cheery tune and instantly his bards set about chronicling his great victory, escaping Garb. They knew it was a great victory because any attempts to suggest that it wasn’t a great victory caused Conchobar to insinuate, without a great deal of subtlety, that painful deaths might follow for those that disagreed with him.
"Your journey has indeed been a great one," said Conall, handing Conchobar a tankard nearly overflowing with liquor. "I shall now release my hound Conbel to protect my lands against any enemies that might follow in my wake. I hope there are none in your company that were left behind?"
Conchobar muttered something not very audible about "a few stragglers maybe, nothing much to worry about" before downing the rest of his drink and calling loudly for more.
* * *
Indeed, there were very few left in Emain Macha when Cuchulain and Laeg returned there. He looked around to see the signs of the festivities and shouted out: "Who tarries here?"
"S-S-Suanan S-S-Solcenn m-most li-li-likey will b-be here," Laeg said.
"Yes," Cuchulain mused. "His responsibility for Conchobar's larder would indeed keep him here."
He bellowed for Suanan and found him without a great deal of extra searching. It appeared that the people that had remained behind had hid themselves away from the revelry of the previous night, but Suanan was still clearing up, muttering darkly to himself, when Cuchulain arrived.
"My good man, speak," the hero of Ulster said. "Where have the denizens of Emain Macha gone?"
Suanan looked up with a smirk. "Big feast hosted by Conall," he said stiffly. "They thought they'd take the path by Garb, the fools."
Cuchulain's eyes widened slightly, but he nodded without saying anything further. He glanced sideways at Laeg but for a moment felt somewhat foolish at the prospect of asking what Conchobar had to say about him, like a hound begging for a treat. In the end, he did not have to.
"I wouldn't bother going to help them if I were you," said Suanan. "Not like Conchobar cares what happens to you, is it?"
Cuchulain's eyes narrowed. "Explain," he said menacingly.
"Well, from what he was saying last night he hardly sounds like he has great respect for anything you bring his household except muscle. And even then, he set off without you to get past that giant. Drunken old…" Suanan's voice lowered into inaudible mutterings.
"I see," said Cuchulain quietly. "It seems that you were right indeed, Laeg. The king believes he can use me as his plaything, helping in his revelry and self-indulgence. But he shall face my fury."
Laeg stood back, somewhat disconcerted at the change that had come over Cuchulain – a change that he had often seen in combat but did not often see off the field. Now Cuchuain's face was red with rage, and he clutched the Gae Bolga menacingly. "That worm shall pay for his insolence. I shall surround Emain Macha with a ring of fire and slaughter everybody!"
"No, Laeg, my mind is made up! And then I shall head to Cooley and visit Conall's house."
Suanan did not look at all comfortable as the hero of Ulster rose to his greatest height and seemed all the more intimidating as his eyes were bloodshot and his spear held aloft.
Then, something quite unexpected happened. A voice carried over the village with a beautiful melody. Cuchulain's rage was momentarily abated as he listened to the Gaelic praises of Cuchulain's past victories. He scowled and said nothing as he stormed out of the city, mounted the chariot and had Laeg drive along the tracks that were left behind.
In mere hours he had reached Glenn Rige, the bottom of a valley. Garb was still clumping around the valley as Cuchulain arrived, the night having set in.
Cuchulain was more than ready for battle, his shoulders arched and his face dark with the sting of betrayal from Conchobar's words. As Garb lunged forward, he threw himself into battle.
"Stand aside, giant creature, else I shall smite you down. Already this week I have felled one giant."
"We are not scared by you, little creature," replied the left head.
"We shall crush your puny bones and use your ribcage as a candleholder."
But Cuchulain had already thrown his spear at the creature, and Garb was ponderous with the food that he had managed to pick off Conchobar's group. He was unable to move quickly enough as the Gae Bolga sailed through the air, straight towards one of his heads…
* * *
"Many fell by Garb," said Cuchulain as he looked back at the second and third head mounted onto the back of his chariot. "Thus do I show my bravery and strength, such as none will dare challenge. I have rid the world of a terrible evil. But now is not the time for revelry. I must catch Conchobar."
Laeg looked uncomfortable, but he did not get a chance to reply as a terrible barking was heard.
"C-c-Conbel," the servant said. "I h-heard C-Conall s-s-sets his g-guard d-d-dog f-free to w-waylay a-attackers."
Cuchulain's eyes were cold however, and he let out a bellow of fury and purpose that quite startled Conbel. Conbel fell silent and Cuchulain passed straight by until he came to the locked gates of Conall's home. They had expected his coming and Cuchulain was not surprised when the gatekeepers fastened the door and from the fortress there issued hundreds of slaves brandishing weapons.
Cuchulain leapt into the fray and it seemed as though the world moved in a dream. Blow upon blow and scream upon scream formed a melody for Cuchulain, balanced by anger – his fury waxed as he ploughed on through the scattering slaves until at last he was able. The rain began to fall and as the storm clouds grew and lightning cracked the sky, still the battle raged – one man against hundreds.
After the fighting had continued for some time, he managed to break the defences and finally deal with Conchobar.
* * * * *
"Well?" asked Leba, expectantly. "What happened then?"
"He… I… didn't kill Conchobar. They had shaken the branch of peace and it wouldn't have been right to go rolling on like a great steam train after that."
"You let him alone?"
"I conked him over the head with the biggest rod I could find."
Leba paused. "I see. But that doesn't really show you anything about your rages other than that they're a part of you."
"But don't you see? The rages weren't the problem before. Cuchulain was the problem. He was so caught up in his own pride that he was willing to let all those die on the battlefield, even willing at one point to burn a village of innocents to assuage his hero's angst."
"It's a good point, but Conchobar let all those people in his household be picked off by Garb. He wasn't a good guy and you used the battle rages to kill the giant. Two giants, in fact. Plus, something else you're forgetting: you're a different person from Cuchulain. You said so yourself earlier."
"But he lives in me. He was reincarnated in me. And it's his rage that comes out in me at my worst times… his rage that injured Dulci."
"And his rage that dealt with the Minions and helped keep Surtur at bay. Power comes with a price, it's a double-edged sword."
"Which is great until someone I know gets on the wrong edge."
"It's bad, I know, but the situations your… 'beserker' self if you will… the times that side of yourself has emerged has been fighting the bad guy, not just on some arbitrary power craze."
"So you're telling me that I might be dangerous but at least I'm not quite as dangerous as I was?"
"I'm telling you that you, Rory Dugan, might be a bigger influence on Cuchulain than I'm giving yourself credit for. And ask yourself this – of all the people that the hero of Ulster could have been reincarnated as, he didn't end up as some rugby star and bully, or someone prone to violence. He turned up in you – Rory. As laid back a man as you're ever likely to find. Why is that?"
"I don't know!" said Rory in a pained tone of voice.
"It was a rhetorical question, you lummox. I'd say the reason for it is that you aren't quite the same person as Cuchulain and more importantly he isn't quite the same person when he's you. You can change him if you try."
"And that means not giving up. I mean, there's always the other option of going to the mountains and becoming a hermit."
"Just because I haven't hurt people yet doesn't mean that I can't, or that I won't. I don't know what I do when I'm like that, it's like the world is stripped away from me and there's nothing left but that rage and…"
"Do you like that feeling?"
"Well then. You're not the same person as Cuchulain even though he lives on in you. But perhaps you can affect him. At any rate, I'd say it's worth a shot, don't you?"
Rory smiled. "Yeah," he said dully.
"So… I'm feeling peckish."
"Wait. I'm feeling something… some kind of vibe from Luin."
"What is it?"
"Danger in the village," said Rory, his face turning pale.
The two knights turned on instinct and sprinted down the dirt track shortcut towards the village.
* * * * *
Minnie Watkins traced the titles along the bookshelf with her finger. Containing as it did a haphazard mix of new and second-hand books, the shop she was standing in contained an assortment of books that presumably nobody else had thought to take off the shelves in the last several years. Moreover the shop layout had the impression of falling in on itself with the outside walls covered in overstuffed bookshelves and a fitting in the centre of the room making sure that only one person could reasonably stand between the shelves at one time. It was more like a cupboard than a shop, she reflected grimly.
The limited lighting only aggravated the problem of reading the book spines. The cashier, an old woman with a glass eye that constantly stared at visitors, had taken her usual position behind a battered desk under a grimy window. When Minnie realised her attention had been diverted to looking back at this curious woman, she averted her eyes and turned her attention back to what she was looking for.
"Donna," came a cry from the doorway.
The man that walked (more like staggered) in wore a grey jacket and trousers and an abundance of green cardigans on that insufficiently covered his girth.
"What do you want?" replied the shopkeeper, not diverting her gaze from Minnie.
"It's awful is what it is. No Seamus opening the pub. No drink. No nothing."
"You seem to be getting by all right."
"Got the home brew Mrs. O'Reilly made last spring but that's not going to last forever. If I ever find those bikers that got to Seamus I'll… I'll…" He trailed off into an elegant but hopelessly uncoordinated mime display indicating a fight. This caused him to trip into the bookshelf in the centre of the tiny shop, nearly causing it to fall down.
Minnie by now was waiting with the book she wished to purchase. Donna continued to stare at her as she worked the till and addressed the man. "Now, Tom, what have I told you! You mess up my shop and you'll pay, so help me."
Tom grunted as he slid to the floor and set about studying the mould that was developing on one of the walls with a mesmerised expression.
"Anyway, Seamus will be fine. Seems those bikers just frightened him, though what could scare Seamus is another thing—"
She paused as the sound of revving motorbike engines reached her ear before turning from Minnie for the first time (much to the tourist's relief) and staring out of the grubby window behind.
"You had to say it," said Tom, before his head rolled forward and he began to snore.
"What do they want?" asked Minnie.
"No good," said Donna flatly.
The bikers tore down the fog-strewn streets, whooping and cheering. Where they went, shadows in canine form followed, negatives in the dust and fog that surrounded them.
Donna and Minnie watched as the bikes ground to a halt outside the convenience store opposite. The bikers entered the store, flanked by the shadowy hounds. There were screams from inside the store. Minnie shuddered involuntarily.
Donna got to her feet. "I'm locking the door. You in or out?" She addressed Minnie.
"My car is just down there," Minnie said with a nervous glance through the window at the convenience store opposite as she passed around the central stack to avoid bumping into Donna. "I can make a dash for it while they're distracted." She slipped out of the door.
In the store, the electric lights could be seen flickering on and off. Minnie looked down the road and saw her rental car pulling up. Her book under her arm, she broke into a dash.
But then the window of the convenience store was smashed open as the bikers hitched up. With shouts they pointed towards Minnie. Minnie broke into a sprint, nearing her car as those chasing her revved their engines up.
She was barely a metre away when the ringleader woman pulled to a stop right in front, blocking her off. Minnie looked around, quivering. She was surrounded. Her eyes turned nervously to the woman and her breath was cut short as she realised that her eyes were glowing green in the dark. The woman had smashed through a glass window showing far more skin than might be expected on a cold December night in Northern Ireland – but as she stepped forward so that a streetlight illuminated her, there was not a trace of an injury to be seen.
"Don't hurt me," Minnie whispered.
"You forgot the magic word," grinned the assailant as she grabbed a necklace from her cruelly and pocketed it.
The reply came from outside the circle the bikers had gathered in: "Magic words actually: get stuffed."
When Minnie and the bikers turned to see who had spoken, they saw a red-haired male holding what appeared to be a glowing staff, and a blonde woman. She scrambled towards her car as she became aware of a fight starting. Battle cries and noises filled the air, but that was not all that was filled on the air. The fog seemed to thicken to the point where even when she managed to feel her way into her car and let herself in, the fog was so thick outside that she could see nothing save a few flashing lights.
* * *
"This fog can't be natural!" shouted Leba as she swung her quarterstaff into a biker that leapt out of the gloom.
"I don't know so much," said Rory. "Seen some right pea-soupers in my time. This would be up there with the worst of them, I'll admit though."
The battle was starting to move at a frenzied pace. Leba and Rory had the advantage in the fog simply because there were only two of them and most of the bikers ended up either attacking or falling over each other. Having fought alongside each other before, the two knights found it easier to co-ordinate their efforts and managed to remain roughly with their backs against each other even when they could not entirely see each other. Not all the bikers were as clumsy however; the ones they assumed (from the barking of instructions and names across the biker ranks) were called Deirdre and Connor seemed particularly adept at commanding the battle, moving in the fog. Only Luin and the dim streetlight above penetrated it, and even then the mist seemed to thicken still further during the battle meaning that Luin alone was at all effective as a light source.
Movement in the fog was not like movement outside. The noises of the battle became hushed, the shouts blurring into one another. It was almost dreamlike, with Leba putting all her concentration into listening to movement rather than to words. Her eyes darted around but the fog was shapeless. Or at least, it was at first.
For a moment it seemed to Leba that they were in a forest area, with the air around them moulding into shapes – bushes and in particular one large tree, in what she felt was the centre. The fog snaked its way in rivulets through the sparse patches of open air, twisting around the base and making apparent a nearly perfect oak – more solid than anything else. So solid, in fact, that moonlight peeked out from the cloud and filtered through the foggy branches onto her face.
She rolled on the floor instinctively as a chain whistled over her head. She returned to the battle, glancing over at Rory only inches away, his back to her, duelling with what could be – if she could be sure in the weather conditions – the biker called Connor. He seemed to be getting the upper hand as Rory hesitated, ceasing the severity of his attack. Leba could guess why.
A low hunting horn sounded, muffled in the mists but distinct enough to surprise Leba and – apparently – the other bikers. They vanished, and Deirdre's voice rang clear: "Time to go."
Police sirens were heard in the distance as the fog began to dissipate, but by the time they had arrived it was only Rory and Leba that stood on the pavement, bruised and tired.
"I think we've landed ourselves a working holiday, Rory," said Leba quietly.
Rory nodded grimly.
* * * * *
The tone was celebratory in the bikers' den, an area of mountainside strewn liberally with large rocks. The fog seemed to form objects now – not just a large tree in the centre of proceedings, but thick tables leading out from it. There was music to be heard on the breeze but it was not the grunge of before. It was an older, hunting song with a Gaelic flavour. The partying was real enough; it was loud, raucous and unrestrained. None of them thought the least of the shadowy hounds that filtered among them and many now found themselves in mediaeval garb.
Only two figures held back.
"I can't believe we bailed so quickly," said Connor sullenly.
Deirdre sneered. "I suppose you would rather stay and wait for the police to catch us."
"The cops couldn't catch us. We're untouchable! Anyway, I wouldn't mind squaring up against the cops. Figure I could teach them a few things after that spell, teach them to mess with me."
Deirdre did not give him the satisfaction of acknowledging his bravado so he eventually looked away, scowling.
"This is raiding, but it isn't hunting," he said. "Not the true hunt. Didn't even get anything for our troubles apart from a few tins of soup and some firelighters. I say we should—"
"Since when," Deirdre snarled, "was this about your plans?"
Connor snarled and with a terrific growl thrust his arm forward revealing a sword that he had hidden in it. Deirdre caught the sword in her hand, the blade barely cutting her skin. With her spare hand, she threw a punch that connected with his face. He stayed upright however and shoulder charged her against one of the large rocks that was lying around.
"I think I've got a taste for prey," he hissed in her ear nastily, wrenching his sword from her and once more turning to use it.
Deirdre kneed him hard and with her spare arm punched him in the mid-section. As he stumbled, she shot out a foot and tripped him up. Connor looked up at her as she glared back acidly.
"Don't try it," she said levelly before walking off into the party.
Connor watched her go, thinking. His furious expression melted into one of deep consideration and a smile flickered across his face.
* * * * *
By the time the sun had risen in the village the following day, Rory and Leba had managed to help the convenience store owner clean up and, hearing that the bookshop owner had a rather good view of proceedings, went to visit. Donna was putting boards across the windows to reinforce them, while a locksmith had already been round to install thick silver bolts at four points along the door. Rory felt it was not particularly worth the bother since none of the windows were particularly large and the whole bookshop was hardly likely to attract the attention of the thug element they had encountered before. Nonetheless, he offered to help anyway.
"Your dad tells me you've gone straight, Rory," Donna said, not taking her eyes off Leba, who she treated as she treated her customers.
"Gone straight?" said Rory innocently.
"Don't give me that, boy. You and that Molly were famous criminals round here – everyone knew what you were up to."
Rory blushed slightly. He was busted and he knew it. "We weren't really big criminals. Just… well, we never meant any harm by it."
"Harm or not, you got lucky. You think nobody twigged? Well any number of people could have turned you in round here had they half a mind. But they knew you weren't all that bad really and as a favour to your da, who had more on his plate than dealing with your moody teenage rebellious phase, they didn't."
Rory looked down at the ground feeling quite humbled. But Donna continued almost without missing a beat.
"You two needed a good caning if you ask me, think I even caned you myself back that summer when you worked for me and took your eye off that Allen twin and he got away with an armful of books. Never trust an Allen. Their youngest is around these parts, got your game down to a finer art than you had it, stealing and the like. But that Molly girl I was never so sure about with her hair and ways. I remember when I was a girl, the nuns used to—"
"Erm, you mentioned," Rory said quickly, avoiding Leba's eye. And then, changing the subject, "I hear you saw the… er… disturbance last night."
"Yes," she said shortly.
"Now Rory, you aren't going to go messing with bikers now aren't you? Isn't this what got you into trouble last time? You mark me and leave well enough alone."
The rest of the conversation was fairly fruitless but Rory stayed a while to make sure the boards were totally secure. He was not quite sure why he felt the need to do this but he did feel his stomach sink when Leba turned to him as soon as they left:
"You used to work there?" asked Leba.
"A few summers. It was good work."
A pause. "What happened?"
Leba opened her mouth to say more when three things happened in quick succession. First a boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen years of age, at shoulder height to Leba, bumped past with muttered apology. Secondly Rory shot out his hand before the boy had even passed them very far and with a smooth but sudden movement spun him around. The third thing was that the boy shouted – instinctively – "I didn't do it!" as Rory wrested a purse from his hand.
"My purse!" cried Leba.
The boy looked shifty. "I mean… I found it on the ground, you must have dropped it earlier."
"This sort of behaviour could get you into trouble. I bet the police would—"
"No, mister! Please don't call the police! I didn't mean to, I mean, I did but…"
"Rory, I—" Leba began.
"Rory?" shouted the boy with surprise and delight. "Rory Dugan? My mom always said you were a help to her, Mr. Dugan, and it would break her heart if she saw me with the police. Don't turn me in, Mr. Dugan, please!"
"Your mom? Is that Marjorie Allen?"
"Yeah. I'm Aidan Allen, her youngest but one. You remember us, don't you, Mr. Dugan?"
"Yeah. I doubt anyone would forget your brothers, the twins. Look, Aidan, you really need to be reconsidering your options here. Trust me: thieving doesn't end well. Just brings you misery. There's plenty you could be doing else, I dare say you're a… er, talented lad."
Aidan mumbled something inaudible in what appeared to be a tone of humility, although his unkempt hair, scruffy clothing and dirty face made it quite difficult to judge. Rory played on the side of caution.
"And don't try your Sunday church face with me. Now be off with you, but if I ever see or hear of you thieving again, don't expect me to be so easy on you."
Aidan did not look back as he disappeared.
Leba shook her head, a bemused smile on her face. "What's the saying? It takes a thief to catch a thief?"
"Ex-thief," Rory corrected her, sighing. "And his da has a steady job too now. No need for that boy to be stealing."
"Reason not the need, I guess," said Leba sadly. "Of course, you had every reason, didn't you now?"
"I wasn't stealing that young. Besides, it's not like he's got someone egging him on like Moll… uh… that is…"
He trailed off at Leba's steely glare. Her eyes had narrowed at the name 'Moll'.
"Well, yes," Rory admitted quickly. "Molly made mistakes and I made mistakes too. And Molly was probably the one that got me into it, so you don't need to bring up your views on her."
"I wasn't going to say anything," said Leba, blatantly lying.
"Look, even without Molly I probably would have got into crime anyway. Just the way it was in those days. Me da didn't have work, and I was left… well, it was hard. Not as though I enjoyed it exactly, but with the chase it gave me something to do, something to run from, run for. And the police couldn't catch a jellybean trying to escape up a mountain."
"That's only going to make it easier for these people," Leba commented sadly. "The criminals, I mean, and the disaffected youths."
"Yeah. I wasn't a bad lad. Neither's Aidan, I'd wager. But it's just… Well, it's the same everywhere, I suppose. Not enough to do, or not enough interest in what there is to do. Young minds don't get anything to focus on and they drift into anything. Kind of the opposite of my problem now really. I mean, now I want to be able to take a step back from Cuchulain. Anyway, we've seen plenty of it around London."
"True enough. Like the vampyres."
The conversation went quiet, Leba staring at the ground dejectedly after the mention of the vampyres, the humans genetically altered by the geneticist Sevarius for the Unseelie Court.
"The Unseelies," Rory said aloud.
"Well, those guys last night… glowing green eyes, supernatural mist. Sort of people with power like that tend towards being the Third Race, but all Oberon's Children are on Avalon. The Unseelies on the other hand…"
"Right up their street," said Leba bitterly. "The vampyres, the Minions… recruit the weak in society that can't find their way on their own and turn them to their own sinister purpose."
"And they were more than just human. I'd say we haven't seen the last of them at any rate."
"Sure. They say nature abhors a vacuum. Guess that's why people are drawn into the dark and the criminal when they've got it in them to be… well, the hero of Ulster if they so desired."
Rory's voice was quiet as he held Luin and said uncertainly, "Aye, drawn to the darkness. Or maybe to the light."
* * * * *
Connor held aloft an axe, swinging it experimentally around his head. The fog had lessened during the day and the camp was quiet. His face contorted into a sneer. Deirdre had them all licked. They were idle while he had ambition and burning restlessness. He spat at the foot of the ghostly oak that still towered over the sleeping bikers in the daylight.
"What a sorry excuse for a 'hunt' this is," he growled, his voice lowering. "No hunting. No killing."
A demonic smile flickered across his lips. He lowered the axe he was carrying and traced his hands along the ground until he found an axe that was even larger still.
"The kill," he whispered hoarsely. "Tonight I'll get blood, Deirdre or no. I can feel their life slip away at my tingling hands, oh yes. I'll bathe in their warm, wonderful bl—"
For a brief second he caught himself and felt strangely normal, if shocked at the scenario he was describing. But then a new wave of hatred and seething anger came over him. He could feel his eyes burning, and his face creasing into a grin of anticipation.
The hounds watched from the shadows, the indistinct shape of their tails wagging furiously.
* * * * *
"We're back at the home of the London clan now," came Arthur's voice from the telephone receiver. "With you and Rory having left us, Dulcinea injured and no immediate leads to follow up in the vicinity, we thought it as well to return and use the sources at hand in London."
"That's a good idea," said Leba. "Bet Griff's pleased too."
"Yes, I think he was beginning to fear an extended quest that would mean he would see very little of Brianna. Of course, we may have one yet so he probably oughtn't get too comfortable."
"What about you, Arthur? You should talk to Jennifer while you have the chance."
"I would very much like to, Leba, but I also want to be ready to move at any moment at present; we have a number of promising leads still to investigate that may help us on our quest. Perhaps over Christmas I shall get a chance to catch up with her."
"At least after this summer you've got something to occupy your mind."
"Yes… it may be grim, but I rather wonder that this quest has given me a degree of focus I might not have had otherwise. I am glad of it for that reason alone, although it does not solve my ongoing struggle to find a place in this world."
"I'm sure. I sometimes wonder if purposelessness can be as destructive to the world as the evil of people like the Unseelie Court and Morgana. It's not that it inflicts harm on the world, but it stops good people from fulfilling their potential." She sighed. "Well, I hope to be able to help you further when I return. I still don't know if Rory plans to stay."
"No progress on the question of his rages, I take it?"
"None yet, but it's early days and we've been a little preoccupied with a case here. It seems a group of hoodlums have managed to channel some kind of supernatural power that is helping them escape the local law and cause all kinds of trouble. Rory is out there now on guard as a matter of fact."
"That sounds worrying. I take it that was why you had us fax you all those old Irish songs and legends earlier today?"
"Yes, I've been memorising them. They may come in useful… or they may not. But it doesn't hurt to be prepared, and I've just got a feeling that the legends of Lough Gur will have some bearing on the situation."
"You seem to have the situation under control but for safety, perhaps we should have accompanied you?"
"I think this we may be able to manage. I can't help thinking the bigger problem is keeping Rory from brooding about his problems. And the fact that all this is happening in his home village makes him feel responsible, but then he's afraid to turn into Cuchulain so he doesn't want to act out. Seems like it's a tough balance to strike."
"Very well. I will have to say goodbye now, I fear, Leba. Michael will not be pleased to see the bill for an international telephone call."
"Bye, Arthur," said Leba, and hung up the phone.
She looked up to see Patrick standing there.
"I didn't mean to eavesdrop," Patrick explained quickly.
"Not to worry," said Leba. "You look worried?"
Patrick nodded vaguely. "This business about Rory… er, Cuchulain. His rages. Is it really that serious? I can hardly believe my Rory would need to be isolated from his friends, a menace to them. He's usually such an even-tempered lad."
Leba took a seat on the sofa, while Patrick rested on his favourite chair.
"I understand what you mean, Mr. Dugan," said Leba. "But he really isn't in control when he goes into those rages. I just wish he'd come to terms with the fact that it isn't his fault. Cuchulain is a powerful warrior and we need his skills; the fact that his rage is sometimes uncontrollable might just be the price of power. I wish we could find a way to bring him under better control, but I also wish he wouldn't hide from himself because of fear of these rages."
"Yes, he did always blame himself for that sort of thing," said Patrick quietly. "I remember even after he found out about Molly…"
Patrick paused only momentarily before clarifying, "Molly being into thievery and suchlike." Leba felt a pang of suspicion that he was going to say something different but she could not imagine what.
She nodded and glanced down at one of the sheets of paper she had printed out of Arthur's fax. "Wait a minute!" she said excitedly. "The Lough Gur Hunt. That sounds rather like that gang… seems they have some kind of connection to the Grange Stone Circle. It says here that local legends suggest it has a connection to the world of the faeries."
Her eyes narrowed in thought, and then she reached for her mobile telephone and pressed the button for the directory.
* * * * *
Rory heard his mobile telephone ringing in his back pocket but was unable to answer it as he thrust Luin right and left in quick succession, ducking chains and attacks. The bikers were back, but this time they were different. They were stronger and more agile, their fighting skills more accurate. They had also arrived earlier in the afternoon, although still after dark, and they had managed to ride down the street so quickly that some innocent bystanders were snatched up. Rory was panicking.
As the bikers mounted again, he took the spear in his hand and threw it like a javelin at one of the bikers. It hit him in the shoulder and knocked him clean off his motorbike, pinning him to the nearby wall. The biker was screaming as Rory grabbed his spear, but he could see no signs of any serious injury. In fact, he was already healing.
Rory stepped onto the motorbike.
"Never did work out how to ride these things," he muttered as he pressed down on a pedal.
After a few moments of swerving along the road in a drunken fashion he managed to increase his speed until he was catching up with the bikers, all of whom had now mounted and were leaving – hostages and loot intact. Luin glittered in his hands and Rory gave a whoop as he felt the wind and the rain blast into his hair.
But as they neared the edge of the mountain pass, it was almost as though he was watching the bikers being swallowed by a portal. They disappeared through at incredible speed. Rory lowered himself against his bike and prepared for—
Something slammed him from the side and knocked him off the bike. Instinctively, he felt his body growing and his thought processes changing. When he hit the ground he was engulfed in light, feeling the power of Cuchulain course through him. He was grazed but not badly injured. Shadowy hounds circled around him, snarling.
He grabbed Luin from nearby and held it aloft to see who was standing over him.
Deirdre. "Idiot," she snarled, her comment not directed at Rory, but at the portal nearby.
But she did not stay to continue the fight. Instead she clapped her hands and the portal promptly vanished. She gave one last wistful look to the place where it had been, held her quarterstaff angrily as if to strike, and then moved to rush off.
"When I find Connor, I'll kill him," Rory heard her say.
Rory got slowly to his feet as the shadowy hounds followed Deirdre away. "Dissension in the ranks," Rory concluded thoughtfully. "I'll have to bear that in mind for a time when I didn't just get beaten up by a woman that comes up to my shoulder in height…"
* * * * *
As Rory departed, he did not notice the small figure in the shadows raising its head from behind a white sack of turf on the scabby mountainside.
* * * * *
"Artless whelp!" sneered Deirdre. "Your raid was rash and foolhardy; can you even conceive what the hunt is? What it involves?"
"It involves actually hunting," said Connor coolly, keeping his tone even to provoke her further.
"It involves finesse, care! The hunt is not just charging into town and smashing until the cops come down. It’s a dedicated act, a purposeful act. You need to develop a relationship with the prey – taunting it, scaring it, whittling its defences down. If we anger our prey and it retaliates, we become the prey instead – chased by the law, by any wandering hero or do-gooder that decides to stumble along and do a modicum of detective work."
"You might. But I could never be prey," said Connor proudly. "We have power… power beyond ordinary human comprehension. Why should we be afraid to use it?"
He lowered his voice into a sing-song taunt. "I know the others agree."
And it was quite clear from the expressions on their faces, and the way the bikers stood close to Connor while giving Deirdre a wide berth, that they did agree. Deirdre was fuming, but there was nothing she could do.
"I see," she said quietly. "Well, play your little games, but do well to remember that I made you with this spell. I can break you, too, Connor."
Connor gave a laugh – a nasty, cruel sound. Then he turned sharply on his heels, turning his back to Deirdre, and approached the prisoners, who had been placed into makeshift wooden cages.
"You prisoners," said Connor. "I offer you a choice. You too can be like us. If you consent, I shall give you power beyond your dreams – the power we have. The pure focus and drive of the hunt. All you have to do is say so."
None of the prisoners, whether through fear or miscomprehension, did say so. Connor waited for a moment but then shrugged. "The magics will only work with your agreement. But I'm sure Deirdre will be happy to escort you back home… if we let you go, of course. I'm sure they'll give her a hero's welcome."
He was of course not really talking to the prisoners, but strutting up to Deirdre and staring down at her, his green eyes burning defiantly and his fists clenched into a tight ball.
Deirdre held his gaze for a minute before turning away, spitting on the ground as she strode out of the camp. "Remember!" she shouted back, "only I know where the book containing the spell is hidden. Only I know the counterspell. I'll make you crawl if you cross me again!"
But she did not sound entirely convinced as she left the others far behind her, their sniggering muffled by the mists and the return to the hunting music.
* * * * *
Behind the white sack of turf, the scruffy figure of Aidan looked out in awe.
He could not see the campsite, although a vague mist seemed to hang around the mountainside. The voices carried plainly enough however. He shivered as he listened.
"These guys are barking," he muttered to himself, more to cheer himself up than because he felt it was safe to do so. "I'd best get some help though… don't much fancy them catching me out here…"
But as he scrambled to his feet to move towards the road, he heard a growl. Thick shadows glided across the ground, like black vacuums in the fog shaped like hounds. Each had two specks of tiny red light that glowed where their eyes would be. Aidan gulped.
Aidan had evaded the chase of men, dogs and even a car once but never before had he been so earnest not to avoid being caught. But never before had he had pursuers so sinister. He saw the bridge in the distance, but the shadowy creatures were already bounding behind him. The sweat was cold on his forehead as the moon disappeared behind a cloud and the world went black.
* * * * *
It was still dark when Rory staggered back into the village. His joints were aching from the walk; the bike had been broken in the encounter with Deirdre and he had been forced to carry it back with him most of the way.
"What happened to you?" came Leba's voice as torchlight fell on him. "You look awful."
"Well I imagine you'd look a bit bruised and dishevelled too if you'd had a run-in with one of their chief bikers."
Accompanying Leba back to Patrick's house, the two knights quickly filled each other in on their respective discoveries.
"…And the Grange Stone Circle is a known portal to the faerie world," Leba said before concluding darkly, "which means Unseelie magic's at work here."
"These weren't Unseelie, mind you," Rory said fairly.
"Doesn't mean there wasn't one involved."
"Maybe. What's the damage to the village?"
"Bad. Donna Doony's bookshop was almost utterly demolished. Several of the young men that had opened the pub in Seamus' absence tried to fight it but were taken, maybe a dozen in all. And one of the ones missing is a kid."
"Aidan Allan. Isn't he—?"
"Yeah," said Rory through gritted teeth. "He's the one that tried to steal your purse earlier… Look, we've got to go back and search."
"Search a mountainside in the fog, are you mad? Apart from the fact that you look like you've been through the ringer already, the odds of us finding them even knowing where to look…"
"But they might need our help! What if the hunt moves on and we miss our only opportunity to nail them?"
Leba sighed. "Look, there's a couple of hours to go before it will get light. You'll search better and fight better with light and rest, and we'll have less likelihood of falling down potholes and breaking our legs in several places."
"Oh, I suppose you're right," he said. "As long as we do start looking at first light. Goodness knows what those people are going through…"
* * * * *
The sun had not risen when Rory and Leba stepped out of Patrick's house. Rory did not really believe that he would sleep but he fell asleep almost instantly and it was only when Leba roused him when there was the first hint of light that he started and toppled out of bed. Now they walked in the twilight hour before dawn. It was an overcast day and they soon realised they could not expect much in the way of help from the weather.
"Suppose I should be glad it isn't raining yet," Rory said bitterly, after a few specks of water had fallen on him – he didn't want to lose the window for irony since it was the only thing that was currently lifting his spirits.
But the rain did hold off for the most part and by the time the clouds on the eastern horizon became coloured red with the sunlight, Rory and Leba had made a mercifully dry way to the bridge.
"Look!" shouted Leba. "It's somebody's shoe!"
She was pointing to the bushes by the corner of the river. Rory leapt over the stone side of the bridge and scrambled down the bank to collect the shoe.
"It's a small size – might be Aidan's. It was certainly left recently. Why would only a shoe be left?" Rory mused.
"That would be because of me," came a voice from under the bridge.
Rory spun around in shock to see, standing unsteadily on an upturned crate that had become stuck to the reeds under the bridge, Aidan Allen. He was covered in mud and shivering with cold; but he was also alive and grinning with pure relief at the sight of Rory.
"What happened, Aidan?" asked Leba as Rory managed to pull him onto the bank.
"It… it was the bikers. Mom sent me to get turf for the range earlier but… well, I spent the day trying to pick pockets as you know, so I didn't get there until dark. Well, I hid when they came and I saw you, Mr. Dugan, getting attacked. Or heard you, at any rate. It was a bit foggy to make out anything. I didn't want them to see me so I waited when they disappeared. But I couldn't help but be curious so I went a little further into the mists. I heard them talking… arguing. Seemed like they had a small revolt against the woman that was leading them. And then those shadow hounds spotted me…"
He shuddered and Leba took a flash of tea she had prepared from her pack and made Aidan drink some. He winced as his hands stung with the heat, but he also was happy to sip it while Rory took off his coat and placed it over the teenager's shoulders.
"I know the hounds you mean," said Rory. "They seem to follow the bikers – or perhaps I should say, the hunt – around. They seem like negatives… not fog, not air, just… blackness."
Aidan nodded, his eyes watering. He blinked and spoke again in a brittle voice. "Well, the hounds saw me and chased me. I got the bridge and took off my shoe to put them off the scent, dropped it into the path and then leapt down the side and crossed the bank and hid. The shoe was tossed down a while later but they didn't come for me, even though I saw them sniffing the other side and I was sure they'd caught sight of me."
"They… they gave up?" said Rory.
"Maybe they can't cross water," said Leba quietly. "That would fit with what we know about them, at any rate."
Aidan nodded. "Sounds like a good enough explanation as any I could think of. I figure they'd need the, er, hunters to help them cross."
"Okay, then," said Rory slowly. "So we know that the bikers are actually channelling the spirit of an ancient hunt, they're led by a pair called Deirdre and Connor but the two are at odds."
"I think Connor was taking captives and Deirdre wasn't too pleased," Aidan chipped in.
"Right. And their beasts can't cross water although apparently they can do things to shoes."
"Oh!" said Aidan. "And Deirdre said something like 'I made you, I can break you.' And at the end she shouted… oh, what was it… 'Remember only I know where the spellbook is hidden' and… something about the counter spell. Or maybe it wasn't spellbook, but the book with the spell… and then she said something threatening."
"That sounds like a clue," said Leba. "Might be significant if we're looking for a way to beat these 'hunters'."
"Right, but where was she headed?" said Rory.
"Well, I did hear one of the coppers saying that a woman fitting Deirdre's description was riding south alone when I was being questioned earlier. I thought at first it might be her, but then I suggested that she was unlikely to be travelling alone given what I knew about the hunt. This explains it though."
"South? Odd place to go if she wanted to flee. North would take her to the decent roads. South there's just foothills and a few caves."
"Sounds like that's where we want to be," said Rory.
"I'll help!" Aidan cried, rising eagerly – if unsteadily – to his feet.
"No! Best thing you can do for yourself is go home and put your feet up by the fire. Although with no turf I bet your parents won't be too pleased."
Aidan sulked but seemed unwilling to argue – or perhaps he just felt that it would be unproductive to do so.
"If Deirdre is against the bikers that might play in our favour," said Leba. "She might even be willing to help us bring her down."
An alarmed expression crossed Rory's face. "Leba, I hope that's not your 'I've got a hare-brained plan' expression I'm seeing?"
"Don't be daft, Rory," Leba said, almost convincingly. "My plans are never hare-brained."
"Look, I fought a biker last night… I fought Deirdre. They're all incredibly dangerous but there's something about her… something more powerful than the rest. She gave them their powers and that makes her one of the mightiest. It's way too risky to go up against her."
Leba did not appear convinced, but rolled her eyes slightly and nodded. "Very well. What's your suggestion?"
"My suggestion is," Rory said slowly, playing for time, "that if these… hunters… leave any kind of tracks, I might be able to trace them using Luin's light. And if they don't, then Luin might be able to guide me anyway."
"Luin?" said Aidan in a small voice, his mouth ajar as the significance of the name registered with him.
"Sounds like a plan," said Leba. "I'll head back to the village to do some more investigating I suppose."
"You'd best take him along," said Rory, indicating Aidan.
"Yeah," said Leba reluctantly. "Good luck, Rory."
"Thanks," he said, as he hopped off the road and crossed along the mountainside.
Leba sighed and took a deep breath of the morning air. It was heavy and moist after the London air, but it also felt wholesome. She turned back and for a while she walked along the road with Aidan in silence, deep in thought.
Eventually Aidan said, more as a statement than a question, "You're not going back to the village, are you?"
"No," Leba replied simply.
"You need someone to guide you to the caves to the south, don't you?"
Leba slowly turned her head to look at Aidan. He was grinning broadly. "I know a short-cut," he said. "Might get there by the evening."
Leba gave him a long, piercing stare and then nodded. "All right. If you feel up to it, lead on…"
Aidan grinned, and bounded down over the fields and across a mountainous area, the stiffness from his night spent under the bridge quite forgotten in the morning air.
* * * * *
Deirdre sat at the mouth of a small cave, looking out at the view of the quiet fields and hills. In the distance, she could make out Rory's village. She had calmed somewhat since her unceremonious expulsion from the group, having ceased kicking rocks in frustration, but she was still seething. The shadowy hounds that had followed her were playing at a distance; she had shooed them away so that she could brood in peace.
She heard a crack of leaves. She reached for her sword. Spinning around on the spot she found herself face to face with—
"Hi, I'm Leba," the newcomer said tentatively.
"We met," Deirdre snarled. "I remember you from the fight."
She lowered her sword all the same, and sat down. With her hounds at her call, a lone blonde woman that happened to be rather handy in a fight hardly impressed her very much.
"I didn't expect to find a Hunter so far outside the realm of the Hunt," she said in a hurried fashion that might have suggested frequent rehearsal.
"Get away! I'm in no mood to talk. I want my privacy."
"Well, I'm just surprised your master lets you stray too far, that's all."
Deirdre growled low in her throat, and momentarily lunged at Leba. But she stopped half way through the movement and her growl turned into a hoarse laugh.
"Very good," Deirdre said. "Trying to wound my pride and get me to lower my defences. Think you'll get poor slighted Deirdre to make a mistake?" She scowled. "I'm not in the mood for games. Get on with you; this isn't your affair."
But Leba did not move. "You started this, didn't you? You invoked the Hunt."
"This is not what I started," Deirdre said scornfully.
"What did you mean to start?"
She gave Leba another long look. The blonde was strong and could perhaps put up a good fight. Deirdre knew she was weaker in the daytime and her hounds were a fair distance away by now. She felt suddenly aware as she had not been since before she cast the spell that her slight figure and unassuming choices in clothes were odd for the company she kept.
A faint rustle outside caught her attention, and it occurred to Deirdre that this Leba must have brought back-up of some sort. She would not be so foolish as to approach her alone. Her eyes darted out of the cave mouth expectantly. True, she could fight Leba off, but Deirdre wasn't certain about the company she'd brought along.
Reluctantly, she started to explain. "The truth is, I did invoke the spirit of the Hunt and I brought my gang together to do it. But the results were not what I intended… something interfered."
"And you just noticed this now."
"Well, I didn't realise it at first," Deirdre added. "Because I was the spell caster, I appear to have been immune. But everyone else is following the Hunt not by the true rules but by their own, more vicious version."
Leba stared at her. "Since when does the Wild Hunt follow rules?"
"You know nothing," Deirdre snapped. She was on her feet now, agitated but less reluctant to speak as her frustrations came to the fore. "The Hunt is supposed to move around, not stay put. It is not supposed to seek out the same prey, again and again. It is not supposed to snatch people randomly, it is not supposed to force them to join against their will, and it should not even consider some of the undeserving scum they want brought in to join."
She paused to take a breath and let her temper calm slightly, but her fingers were clutching the sword handle again.
"So you're going to stop it," Leba said, slowly.
"Why should I?" Deirdre sneered. "Out of the goodness of my heart?"
Leba made an exasperated sound. "So you're a hunter and you're just going to let yourself be pushed out to go and sulk?"
"Guess so," she hissed, turning away.
"You… are… pathetic." Deirdre spun around in shock as Leba continued to speak. "I've seen predators before. Some truly vicious, some just parasites preying on the weak. But none of them would turn tail and hide in a cave if things didn't go their way."
Deirdre's eyes flared green, and she drew her sword, stepping towards the intruder. Leba continued to stand her ground. "What makes you think I won't kill you right here?"
"No challenge in it. And I think, right now, we want the same thing. Will you help me or not?"
After a moment, Deirdre lowered - but did not sheathe - her sword, looking at Leba thoughtfully. "Depends on what you have in mind."
* * * * *
Patrick looked up from reading his newspaper. He glanced out of the window. It sounded as though there was some kind of crash. Carefully, he got up out of his seat and unfastened the window. He looked out. It was beginning to drizzle, but he could not see anything out of the ordinary. He noticed the neighbours' cat licking itself above one of the bins. He supposed that was what had caused the commotion.
"Shoo, cat!" Patrick said, but before he could repeat himself he found himself yanked by the back of the neck clean out of the window.
He dropped onto the ground hard and found himself at the feet of an athletic young man dressed like a biker but with a mediaeval twist. His clothing looked slightly too formal and his eyes seemed hollow and ancient in the twilight.
"Make any noise that might attract attention," said the man shortly, "and I'll kill you. Do you understand?"
Patrick felt the blood draining from his face as he nodded. He felt himself dragged up and his hands bound behind his back. He scowled: men and women that were younger and stronger than he was outnumbered him.
"What's the meaning of this?" he whispered, as forcefully as he dared.
"Don't worry, Mr. Dugan. My name is Connor. I hear your son is something of a local superstar. We ran into him the other night ourselves. They seem to have got some fanciful notion that he went away to England and came back a hero."
Patrick said nothing.
"Well I'd very much like to meet your boy, Mr. Dugan," Connor said, drawing a knife from his pocket. "So we're going to leave him a message."
Patrick gasped as he saw the knife, but Connor cut into his own thumb and then, drawing down the window Patrick was looking out of, wrote a message on the glass. When he was done he held up his thumb. The cut had gone.
Connor then took what appeared to be a necklace out of a pocket and placed it on the window sill.
"See you later, da," the youth sneered.
Patrick coughed as he staggered up from the ground in time to see the motorbikes careering off into the distance.
* * * * *
The Hunters request your attendance at midnight.
Rory stared numbly at the message. Leba had arrived back by this time, thanks to Deirdre's willingness to give her and Aidan a lift. She was perplexed as to quite how Aidan had managed to squeeze on as well but he had. Now that was pushed from her mind however, as her eyes passed from the message to Rory.
"Rory, it's a trap."
"Of course it is," he replied, taking the necklace. It appeared to be principally made out of small wooden beads, with one central strip of wood down the middle. "I guess this must have something to do with it."
And indeed when Rory put it around his neck, the piece of wood down the middle of the necklace twitched and tugged east – the direction the tire-tracks were heading. Rory's face hardened.
"Are you coming then?" he said curtly.
"Rory, we should wait, come up with a plan…"
"For what? More prisoners to be taken?"
Patrick stood quietly at the window, his face pale but with a grim intensity. Rory caught his eye and they exchanged a long look.
"What about your battle rage… you should be careful that you don't…"
"…Kill the prisoners while I'm at it? I know, Leba, but I can't think about that now, can I? This has to end. Da, you know I'm right, don't you? We can't sit here and wait for Arthur and company to rush in as back-up now can we?"
Patrick slowly nodded. "You're a good lad, Rory. I have faith in you."
Leba sighed. "But Deirdre, their leader, agreed to help."
She cast her eye over to the end of the garden path where Deirdre and Aidan were standing, the latter shooting frequent 'casual' glances at Deirdre, who had made no effort to make her apparel any more modest since leaving the Hunt. She turned to glare at him, but Aidan had already turned his gaze away, the picture of innocence.
"I don't trust her, and nor should you," said Rory in hushed tones. "I just hope she isn't going to betray us or something daft."
He strode down the path, clutching Luin. As he passed out of the gate he said to the boy standing there, "Aidan, go home."
Aidan simply stood still as Rory, Leba and Deirdre strode past him at a march. His face creased in a frown.
* * * * *
As midnight approached, Deirdre, Leba and Rory found themselves drawn by the enchanted necklace Rory was wearing towards an open field, when the indicator on the necklace stopped where an old, weathered stone was standing.
"Perhaps it's broken?" Leba suggested.
"No," said Rory quietly. "This stone is Clochafarmore, or Stone of the Big Man. Which means that this… this is the field where I died."
"You died?" asked Deirdre dubiously.
"As Cuchulain. Not too surprising though."
"I do have a sense for irony," said Connor as he strode out of the mists, clutching a huge axe tightly. "Why should Clochafarmore not see you die not once but twice? Oh, and I have a sense for clichés. Did you like the 'kidnap family member' routine?"
Rory drew Luin. "You seem different from before."
"The size, the strength, the sheer power? The way my eyes ripple with energy or the bestial energy that flows through me? Yes, although it seems that when I latched onto this body I acquired some of its… more odious aspects. Its brashness, for example."
"Latched?" started Rory. "You mean… you're…"
"Haven't you already guessed?" said Connor, before reaching into a pack behind him to draw out a feathery mask. He placed it over his head and then turned to face Rory, his face illuminated by Luin's light.
"Herne," Rory breathed incredulously.
Connor stepped forward silently, ready for the kill. Rory looked around to see other Hunters gathered, watching. But none of them acting. He raised Luin and made ready to do battle.
* * * * *
Leba and Deirdre meanwhile had managed to sneak away from the confrontation. Connor had not even noticed their presence, his attention fixed solely on Rory. Deirdre noted the arrival of several shadowy hounds but cast a talisman to the ground which burst into a magenta flame briefly before fading.
"That will scare off members of the Hunt for a brief period," she said. "Long enough to do our spell, I hope."
"If you try and pull the wool over our eyes or plan on turning us over to your dodgy mates," Leba warned.
"I won't. Or not if you don't stop asking me that anyway," came the snarling reply.
They continued to busy themselves with the preparation.
* * * * *
Little did Leba and Deirdre realise that from nearby, a shadowy figure was watching them. It paused as it saw them spreading powder and beginning a magic spell. Then it turned and looked towards the circle of hunters that surrounded the battling Rory and Connor. The shadow slipped quietly away.
* * * * *
Rory collapsed onto the floor, a small drop of blood falling from his cut lip. He rolled away and using Luin as a prop, leapt to his feet. He dodged a blow, and another, and another.
"Is that your best, Cuchulain?" Connor taunted. "Or should I say, Rory Dugan? You're not playing properly. Scared?"
"I'm not scared of you."
He blocked another blow, and thrust forward with Luin. It was a clumsy aim and he was lucky to dodge the swing of the axe towards his midsection that followed straight after.
"I never said you were scared of me. You should be, but oh no. The great Cuchulain is more scared of himself. More scared of what he can do. Run wild… hurt his friends… kill them one of these days, no doubt…"
Rory didn't listen, but instead he shouted in his head like a mantra: Blot it out… concentrate on the fight…
But he was losing the fight. The heavy axe came down on Luin and although the spear did not break, it forced Rory back a long distance. He fell to the ground and Connor approached triumphantly, the eyes beneath the mask burning green and an intense and delighted manic laugh infusing the air.
"Ahem," came a voice from behind the battling pair.
Connor turned around and Rory looked up, both seeing Deirdre there. She was holding in front of her a woman, whose hands appeared to be bound behind her back. Most of the prisoner's face was obscured by her blonde locks but a desperate and infuriated look in the eyes was evident even in the gloom.
"You betrayed us!" shouted Rory, rising, but Connor delivered a quick kick that sent him to the ground again.
"Thank you, Deirdre," Connor started. "The addition of another prisoner will make my prey so much easier – and more fun – to kill."
"Connor!" The shout came from one of the bikers.
Connor turned his head swiftly to see the commotion. "What?" he snapped, his eyes suddenly flaring with green energy once more.
The biker was pale and stuttered out his message; since Connor had donned Herne's mask it seemed that the members of the Hunt were growing increasingly respectful for him. "Someone's freed the prisoners! It… it was a teenage kid with some kind of magic charm that lets him free the prisoners at a touch."
"A child?" bellowed Herne, the arrogance of his Connor form washing away as he increasingly began to resemble in his imposing manner and terse speech, the figure of Herne the Hunter. "Deal with it."
But Leba suddenly rolled forward, withdrawing her quarterstaff from her back and easily shaking off the ropes. Deirdre held up the hardback book from earlier and began to chant. Herne, seeing what was going on, pointed at Deirdre and gave a high, almost inaudible whistle. The shadow hounds leapt towards the spellcaster, but as they reached Deirdre, whose arms were now glowing with a brilliant white light, they seemed unable to get any further.
Within moments, the fog that surrounded the field seemed to disperse, and along with them the shadow hounds, which melted into the night. The members of the hunt began to stagger and fall to the ground, as if going into a deep and long-awaited sleep.
Only Herne stood unperturbed by the surroundings. "It does not matter. I have the boy's soul and my strength is restored."
"How did you survive?" asked Leba incredulously. "We heard you were killed in the attack on Manhattan."
"The energy weapon used against me was powerful, but it was not iron. You forget that our race is almost pure in its magical energy and energy cannot be destroyed – it simply changes its form. As did I."
"You possessed Connor when I cast the spell," said Deirdre slowly.
"Of course. There is still some of him in me; the urge to talk, the urge to reason with you. Something I would never have dreamt of doing before. But that will pass as his form fades and I become myself once more."
"Well now you're outnumbered, so I suggest that—"
She didn't finish her sentence as Herne sent a bolt of cyan energy from his hands that blasted Deirdre clear across the battlefield, where she collapsed in a heap. Leba stepped forward with her staff but Herne took a couple of strides, grabbed the staff so that Leba found her feet taken off the ground, and prepared to deliver a powerful blow to the minstrel with his axe.
A luminous spear smashed into Herne's mask, making the Hunter stagger briefly, and drop Leba. Standing in the moonlight on the clear evening was Cuchulain, his eyes wide with fury and Luin raised threateningly.
"Unseelie demon, your time on this earth withers. I shall destroy you and your kind."
But Herne had already managed to right himself and swung his axe with a cry towards Cuchulain, who parried and with tremendous speed delivered further blows to Herne.
Leba crawled away across the mud, only turning back once she had managed to move a fair distance away, to see the two figures fighting. Cuchulain's blows were fast and furious, and reminded Leba of the display he had shown at Dinas Bran. The furied, almost subhuman cries, the speed of the blows with Luin and the ruthlessness of the action was all similar. But Herne was no Surtur: he was smaller, more wiry and whenever his axe was brought down onto Luin, a tremendous crackle of energy forced both fighters back. The fight was evenly matched, but Cuchulain was just warming up.
"If you use your true strength, you jeopardise your friends," said Herne simply as he dodged one of the Ulsterman's blows.
Leba cast her eye over the landscape for help and noticed something: the last thing that the fog was clinging to – the oak that had been formed out of the mists earlier. She gasped in recognition.
"Rory! It's Herne's Oak! It must be his anchor to the world! Rory!"
Cuchulain offered no response but redoubled his attack on Herne, now forcing him backwards until with a tremendous and frenzied cry, he threw the Gae Bolga.
But not at Herne.
Leba watched it cross to the oak. As it penetrated, a terrific explosion began. The oak burst briefly into flames and then disintegrated. At the same time, Herne's mask ignited and after a moment of thrashing around engulfed in terrible flames, a cleansing white light spread up the figure of Herne. It also separately engulfed the remnants of the tree.
When the light faded from Herne's shape, all that remained was Connor, who collapsed unconscious to the ground. Sprawled on the ground, his face was covered by soot but otherwise he was unscathed.
Cuchulain turned to face Leba, his eyes alight with fury once more. Leba stood her ground and did not move. Cuchulain's features softened and silently he began to shrink and turned again into Rory, who staggered to take a seat on Clochafarmore as the dissipating mists blew past his feet.
For a moment, there was barely a sound to be heard except the whistling wind and the heavy breathing of the two conscious knights. The possessed bikers slumbered peacefully, while Connor also remained unconscious. Deirdre was nowhere to be seen.
* * * * *
The Following Day
Patrick walked slowly along the street, flanked by Rory, Leba and Aidan. Police cars were crowding the street. It appeared that most of the bikers were being questioned and released. Connor, however, was being pushed into the back of a vehicle, as he screamed: "It's a frame-up! That witch, she did it! It wasn't me I tell you!"
The police largely ignored him.
"Looks like it's all over for Connor," said Leba happily.
"Yes," said Patrick. "I'm glad of it too… all this worry about possessed bikers and suchlike is a bit much for me. But all's well that ends well."
"Well, it won't end well until we clear up this mess," said Aidan determinedly.
"Turning over a new leaf, eh?" said Rory.
"You know, maybe I am at that. I think I do prefer being a hero to being a thief."
Rory clapped him on the back. "I give you a day before you run into more trouble, lad. But maybe in the future it'll be the right sort of trouble."
As Rory and Aidan continued to bicker however, Leba was more concerned with Donna's book store. She noticed on one of the shelves of the central stack a flicker of green light. The shop was empty when she went in – presumably Donna was away while the clear-up was going on. She looked at the stack and discovered an old book that looked fairly familiar. As she opened it a note slipped out.
A brief concerned frown crossed Leba's face but then it melted. That would have to be a worry for another day.
Leba examined the book more closely. It was certainly too dangerous to be left without a keeper. "I think I'd better keep hold of this," she muttered to herself as she walked outside to where Rory, Aidan and Patrick were still continuing to discuss the recent events.
"I don't get it," Rory was saying. "My memories are foggy, it's true, but I don't understand how I managed to keep a clear head in battle. Or a fairly cool head. No battle-rage."
"Perhaps you're starting to accept the rages as part of Cuchulain but not a part of you. You can moderate them that way rather than fear them and letting them control you," suggested Leba.
Rory said nothing, his brow furrowing.
Leba added with a grin and in a voice that was something akin to Una's high-pitched awe when during her most intense tarot card readings she stumbled across a particularly intriguing insight, "You're not allowing yourself to become the hunted."
Rory rolled his eyes at the sentiment, but was grinning all the same. "Well I'm just glad it didn't afflict me that time, although I still wish I'd more time to work it out. Seems like it's still a big puzzle to me."
"Well, why shouldn't you?" said Patrick. "I've got room enough to house you all for Christmas. You can spend the holidays at home and head back right after to help the others in this quest of yours. What do you say?"
Rory paused and glanced at Leba. She shrugged. After a few moments of deliberation, a broad grin broke out on Rory's face. "Thanks, Da. I'm game."
"That settles it," said Patrick. "I'm going to go make some lunch… all this adventuring puts me in an eating frame of mind. Coming?"
"Not just yet, thanks," said Rory. "There's one thing I want to do first."
"Oh?" asked Leba.
"It's just a personal matter. You can come along if you like, though."
Leba shrugged, trying to appear casual, and followed Rory as he left the village behind.
* * * * *
It was not long before they arrived at a bridge. The evening air was blowing fallen leaves across the road. Rory and Leba's hair both blew wildly across their faces, but neither minded as they paused.
"Here it is," said Rory quietly.
"The bridge Moll and I hid under. We used to spend so much time running from the law that… well."
Leba was silent for a moment. Rory took a deep breath and spoke next.
"I was trapped here for so long, not knowing how to get out, out of being a thief and a local villain. Molly betrayed me, but she also freed me."
Leba frowned, puzzled.
"I guess perhaps I needed to come back here not to work out who Cuchulain was and is but who I am. I… I think I've finally worked it out."
There was a pregnant pause as they let the moment sink in, but finally they turned away down the path towards Patrick's house.
"You haven't told me everything about Molly, have you?"
"No." He caught her eye and grinned. "Not that I had a chance to, what with you going off on a tirade whenever I mentioned her name."
She shrugged, conceding the point. "If you're ready to tell me, I'm ready to listen."
Rory smiled. "Well then… let me tell you a story of a foolish young man just over three years ago…"
* * * * *
As Rory told Leba everything about Molly's identity as the Banshee, a faint howling was audible in the distance. A shadowy figure watched the pair for a moment, then disappeared into the trees.