We march at the same pace as before, but anxiously now, aware of the demon's warning that death would strike today. We're tense, prone to snap at the slightest irritation. When Connla passes a simple insult about Goll's blind eye late in the morning, Goll responds by criticising Connla for falling asleep while on watch. The pair almost come to blows and have to be separated by the rest of us.
Ronan and Lorcan are the calmest. The brothers have little fear of death. This is just part of the big adventure for them. I think they're half-hoping we are attacked, so they can kill more demons.
My lessons continue throughout the day. I was afraid the magic would desert me when the sun rose, that I wouldn't be able to draw upon the power of the stars. But Drust teaches me to ignore the state of the sky and draw from it regardless of whether it's day or night.
"The stars hide but are always there," he says. "We're weaker in the day but not as weak as demons. Most of them can't draw from the stars at all while the sun shines, but we can."
Since I made the breakthrough, I've come on like a child who's taken her first step and is now toddling everywhere at high speed. I find it easy to move objects-stones, branches, even Bran. I make him rise while we're resting, move him a few strides across in the air and set him down without him even noticing. That tires me but it doesn't exhaust me and I recover quickly.
Drust says I'm one of the strongest at doing this that he's ever seen. I ask if there's a limit to what I can lift and move. He says there are always limits but he has no idea what mine might be. I suggest trying to uproot a tree but he says it's too soon for so ambitious a test.
I'm not as accomplished in other areas. I learn how to create fire and hold it in my hands, either as a torch or to use as a weapon. But my flames are pitiful flickerings, nothing like Drust's solid columns, and they singe my fingers.
I develop protective spells, like the one we use to mask ourselves at night. But these are more complicated, designed to shield me from physical assault. If they work correctly, a demon won't be able to harm me with its claws or teeth, only with magic.
There are spells to protect me from magic too, but they're even harder to learn. I make a small amount of headway with both sets of spells. Drust is pleased with my progress, but it's tough work and leaves me feeling drained and grumpy.
"What about spells of attack?" I ask in the afternoon, thinking of the night ahead, worrying about the dangers we'll face.
"Survival is our only concern right now," Drust says, then looks around. We're not close to any of the others, except Bran, who walks behind me like a faithful hound. Drust lowers his voice. "You must think only of your own well being if we're attacked. Don't put yourself in danger, even to save another. I need you, Bec. Your people need you too. Don't waste your life trying to save someone who isn't important."
"You don't want me to fight?" I ask archly. "You want me to stand by and let my friends die?"
"If you have to," he says.
"I can't. I won't. Not unless you tell me what you want me for."
Drust shrugs. "I'm offering you good advice. Ignore it if you wish. Now, let's work on a different type of spell. This one gives you the appearance of a giant. It will frighten off certain demons."
And he says no more about why I'm so important to him or why he wants to keep me alive when he's happy to stand by and accept the slaughter of everybody else.
Lessons cease a couple of hours before sunset, to give myself and Drust time to recharge and prepare for any battles we might find ourselves involved in. I spend the time until dark wondering what Lord Loss will throw at us.
Hordes of demons? An army of the undead? Maybe they'll burrow at us from beneath the earth or drop on us from the sky. How powerful is the demon master? Drust doesn't know. There's no way of telling, not until we've studied the heartless beast in action.
The others are nervous too, even Ronan and Lorcan now that night is almost upon us. They're not afraid of death but of being taken by surprise and dying in disgrace. Oddly enough, Connla seems the most assured. He was edgy earlier but now walks cockily, urging us on, telling us not to worry. He's acting like a king, which isn't unusual, but he's doing it in the face of danger, which is strange. Maybe he's finally growing into the leader his father always wanted him to be.
Half an hour before sunset, Drust halts on top of a hill and says, "Here."
Goll looks around. "Are you sure? We can be seen from all directions."
"If Lord Loss plans to guide demons to us, he'll find us no matter where we are," Drust responds. "At least up here we can see them coming. And the exposure is good for Bec and me. We can draw strength from the stars easier at this height."
As the others make camp I ask Drust if that was true or if he was just saying it to give Goll confidence. "It's true," he says. "High places, with no trees, are ideal for magicians who absorb power from the heavens."
"But won't this place favour the demons too?" I ask.
Drust shrugs. "Best not to think about that."
When everyone's ready, Drust and I cast masking spells. The spells won't count for much if Lord Loss reveals our position to other demons, but they'll protect us if strays wander by.
Time passes. It rains heavily, then eases, though the sky remains clogged with clouds. Nobody speaks. I realise after a few hours how hungry I am. We were so concerned with finding a good spot for the night that we never thought to hunt or pick berries. Oh well, too late now. I'll just have to wait for morning-and hope I'm not eaten before then.
Midnight. You can always tell, even when the moon and stars are blocked out. I want nothing more than to curl up and sleep. It's been a long day, coming on the back of a sleepless night. Hunger adds to my tiredness. But I dare not shut my eyes. There's no telling how swift the demons will be if-when-they attack. Seconds of grogginess could spell the difference between life and death.
Later. A few hours shy of dawn. I've been dozing, despite my desire to remain awake. Halfway between the worlds of dreams and flesh. A dangerous state, open to the threat of both realms. Banba always told me to sleep or stay awake, never hover betwixt the two.
A cry in the darkness jolts me out of my half-sleep. It sounds like a child but it can't be-we passed no villages earlier, and no child would dare wander the world by night, not in these troubled times.
I look around. Everyone's awake. All eyes are focused on the spot from where the sound came. Ronan's bow is aimed, an arrow ready to fly at its target the moment he sights one.
"Don't move," Drust whispers, just loud enough for all to hear. "The spells are still intact. This might be nothing to do with-"
"Motherrrrrr..." comes a cry, clearer this time. A girl's voice. Full of pain and grief.
"Help us... motherrrr..." A different voice, this time a boy.
"So cold... motherrrr..." A third child, also a boy. He sounds younger than the other two.
"What is that?" Lorcan asks, nervously tugging at his earrings.
"I'm not sure," Drust answers. "Only demon masters can mimic human voices. And the undead don't retain the power of speech. Perhaps Lord Loss is manipulating a lesser demon."
"Motherrrr... hold ussssssss..." The girl again. Her voice sends shivers down the back of my neck. I want to run to her and wrap my arms around her, even knowing she can't be human. She sounds young, scared, lost.
"I don't like this," Goll mutters, his eye darting left and right, trying to pick out figures in the darkness.
"They might be real children," Fiachna says. "The demon could be using them to trap us."
"No," Orna says, and there's a tremble to her voice. "They... I..."
"Motherrrr!" the elder boy cries, as if in response to Orna's voice.Orna stands. "No!" Drust barks, but she ignores him and takes a step forward, hands clasped over her breasts, face torn between terror and delight.Something moves in the shadows. Three shapes advance. Drust curses, then creates a ball of fire and sends it floating down the hill, to illuminate the creatures. Three children are revealed, stumbling forward. Undead. Their bodies are in good condition, most of the limbs are attached, the flesh isn't ripped to pieces, heads on necks. But they're definitely not living children. They move sluggishly and one boy's missing an eye, the other both its ears, the girl some fingers."My children," Orna croaks, and although I was cold with fear already, now I turn to ice.Orna takes a second step down the hill."Orna!" Goll hisses. "Stop! They're not your children! It's a trick!""But they are," Orna says. Tears are flowing down her cheeks, a warrior no longer, all woman now-all mother."It's a glamour," Drust says softly. "They're probably the bodies of other children disguised to look like yours.""No," Orna says. "I'd know my young loves anywhere.""Cold... motherrrr..." the youngest boy moans."Lonely... motherrrr..." the girl wails.Orna takes a third step."They'll kill you," Fiachna says. He gets up, breaking his masking spell. Moves towards her, hands outspread. "If you go to them, they'll slaughter you, like the demons slaughtered them. It doesn't matter if they were your children. They're the Demonata's now. They're Lord Loss's." He shouts, scaring us all, "You're out there, aren't you, demon lord? Watching this and grinning, aye?"No answer, except more cries from the undead children.Fiachna closes on Orna and reaches for her, to lead her back to safety. Before his fingers touch her, she leaps away from him and draws a knife. "Stay back!" she snarls. Fiachna blinks and lowers his hands. Orna looks at the smith pitifully. "They're my children," she whimpers. "I can't leave them. They're calling me.""Motherrrr!" all three wail at the same time."This is madness," Goll says, stepping up beside Fiachna. Orna points her knife at him. Goll glares at her with disgust-but with sympathy too. "Put your weapon away and come to us. You'll see the folly of this in the morning.""But they're my-""No!" Goll shouts. "They're nothing except walking lumps of rotting flesh! Look at them, woman! Look with your eyes and brain, not your heart. Your children are dead. Accept that. Let this vision pass.""But what if... maybe they could..." Orna's shoulders slump. Tears fall more freely. Fiachna moves towards her again. Goll stops him and shakes his head-wait."Can we lift the spell?" I ask Drust. "Remove the glamour so she can see them as they really are?""No," Drust says shortly. "She's seeing with her heart now, not her eyes. No magic I know can combat a self-powered spell like that.""I could shoot one of them with an arrow," Ronan says, squinting as he takes careful aim.Orna growls like a wild animal. "You'll die on that spot if you do!""Let her go," Connla laughs cruelly. "If she's so desperate to mother demons, who are we to stop her?""Bricriu!" Goll roars, the foul curse for a meddler. Connla only smiles."Please, Orna," I mutter, trying another approach. "I need you. You're like a mother to me. Let me be your daughter. I couldn't bear it if you left."Orna's eyes soften and she smiles. "You're a good girl, Bec. And I love you, almost as much as I loved... love my little lost ones." She shakes her head ever so slightly. "But you're not mine. They are. And they're calling me.""But-"I get no further. In an instant, taking us all by surprise, she leaps away and is racing down the hill towards the three undead children, who raise their arms and croon with delight.Fiachna starts after her but Goll trips him. As he rises angrily, turning on Goll, the old warrior sticks his hands out, palms upwards, the sign for peace, then says softly, "Macha help her."The fury fades from Fiachna and he turns to watch, along with the rest of us. "You should have let me go," he murmurs. "I might have caught her.""No," Goll replies. "She was too far ahead and too desperate."Orna reaches the children and stops. I expect them to attack but they just stand there, staring at her, arms outstretched, waiting for her to hug them. For a moment I wonder if we were mistaken, if these are her children and mean her no harm. But then Drust nudges me and points to the right, further down the hill. I spot the outline of Lord Loss, inhuman eyes fixed on the woman and children, wicked smile visible even from here.Ronan fires an arrow at the demon master, then another, but both stop short of their target, as though they've struck an invisible wall. Lord Loss doesn't even glance in our direction.Orna kneels, extends her arms and draws the children in close. I see their faces, alight with evil glee. The eldest boy gently, lovingly brushes the soft flesh of her neck-then sinks his teeth into it. Orna stiffens but doesn't cry out. The girl latches on to the warrior's upper arm, chewing at it like a dog with a bone. The youngest boy's head sinks beneath Orna's shoulders. He rips her tunic open. I can't see from here, but I know he's suckling, drawing blood instead of milk.Orna's arms tighten around the children, hugging them closer. She hums a tune women sing to send their young to sleep. I gasp with horror when I hear that and turn away from the awful sight of the undead boys and girl feasting on the living flesh of their mother.Fiachna squats beside me and grabs me tight, letting me bury my face in his chest. "There there, Little One," he coos. "She's happy. She thinks she's back with her children. We should all be lucky to die so willingly.""But they're not!" I cry. "They're not her-""I know," he whispers, stroking the back of my head. "But she thinks they are. That's all that matters."Although I've turned my back on the carnage, I can't block out the sounds of ripping flesh and the occasional painful hiss from Orna or moan of satisfaction from the undead beasts. Even when I cover my ears with my hands, I hear them, or imagine I do.After a while the others turn away from the sickening sight, one by one, ashen-faced, eyes filled with regret, stomachs turning. Even cruel Connla, who gave up on her before anybody else.The only one who doesn't turn away is Bran. The boy remains sitting where he awoke, watching silently, head tilted to one side, frowning curiously, as if he's not entirely sure what's happening and is waiting to see if this is a game with an unexpected, amusing finale.Eventually, since I can't bear it, I walk over, turn him around and sit beside him. I lean against the simple boy and keep him faced away from Orna, allowing her the humble dignity of dying in private.