We leave first thing in the morning, pausing only for Drust to set Orna's remains aflame, so she can't return to life as one of the undead. Often demons take the bodies of their victims with them. I think Lord Loss made the children leave Orna so her bones and last few scraps of flesh could further unnerve us.
We march in silence, all thoughts on Orna and how she went willingly to her monstrous death. Is her spirit with her children now in the Otherworld or is it doomed to wander this land for all time, lost and damned?
Even Drust is sombre, leaving the lessons for later, proof that in spite of his stern appearance, he too is human, with the same emotions as the rest of us.
The ground has been getting rockier the further west we proceed. Fewer trees, no fields of crops, not many animals, no raths or crannogs. But people live here, or did at one time, since there are remains of many dolmens and wedge tombs. Most of the dolmens have been knocked over, the stones scattered, the bones they housed burnt to ash. And the seals of the wedge tombs have been broken, either by demons or humans. If we were to go into the tombs, we'd find charred ash or the sleeping undead. I don't think any of the dead in this land lie whole and in peace any more.
In the afternoon we come to a small village of beehive-shaped stone huts. It's an old settlement, with only a crumbling short wall surrounding the perimeter. The huts are in poor condition, some fallen in on themselves. At first I think it's a ghost village, all the people dead or fled. But then I spot smoke coming from a few of the huts and hear a woman shouting at a child. We look around at each other, surprised to find life in such a hostile, vulnerable environment.
"Humans or demons?" Fiachna asks.
"I'm not sure." Drust sniffs the air. "There's a scent of something inhuman, but..." He smells the air again, eyes narrow slits. "There are humans too. Peculiar."
"Should we avoid it?" Goll asks.
Drust thinks a while, then shakes his head. "We need to rest. We've had little sleep recently. We must seek shelter."
"But if there are demons..." Goll mutters.
Drust glances up at the sky. "It's a long time until sunset. We should be safe. And I'm curious. I want to know what these people are doing here-and how they've avoided being butchered by the Demonata."
There's a narrow gateway into the village but we climb over the wall in case the entrance is set with traps. There are animals within, scraggly sheep and goats. They scatter when they see us, bleating loudly.
A boy sticks his head out of a hut, a sling in one hand. He starts to shout-he thinks some animal has entered the village and scared the sheep and goats. Then he sees us and his shout changes from one of anger to one of alarm. "Strangers!"
Within seconds two men, three women and three children-two girls and the boy-are in front of the huts, spears and crude swords to hand, facing us. We hold our ground, weapons raised defensively. Then Goll gives the order for us to lower our arms. He steps forward, right hand held palm up, and shouts a greeting.
One of the men meets Goll halfway, face creased with suspicion, eyeing us beadily. The pair have a quick, hushed conversation. At the end, Goll turns and nods us forward, while the man returns to his place among the others.
When we're all together, Goll makes our introductions. The man who met him then tells us they're the MacGrigor. His name is Torin. The other man's Ert. The women are Aideen, Dara and Fand. We aren't told the names of the children.
"They're on a quest," Torin says. He's a short, muscular man, dark skinned. "They want to stop the demons."
One of the women-Fand-laughs. "Just the eight of them?"
"One is all it takes," Drust responds.
"We don't have much respect for druids here," Ert says, spitting into the dirt at Drust's feet. "Your kind aren't as powerful as you pretend to be. We had dealings with your lot before and they failed us."
"Failed you in what way?" Drust asks with cold politeness.
"We'll talk of that later," Torin says, frowning at Ert. "For now you're welcome. We won't turn you away. However, we can't feed you, so if you want to eat, you'll have to hunt." He squints at the sun. "I wouldn't wait too long."
The woman called Aideen points to a pair of huts near the wall, both in poor condition. "You can stay there," she says. "You'll be safe if you don't wander."
"We'll call for you later," the third woman-Dara-adds.
"Thank you," I mutter when the men don't respond.
"Our pleasure," Aideen replies. She starts to turn away, then stops and stares at me. "Girl," she commands, "come here."
I step forward cautiously. Aideen reaches for me sharply and I draw back from her cracked nails, readying myself to bark a spell. She spreads her fingers to show she means no harm, then smiles crookedly. I stand still while she cups my chin and tilts my head back.
"What is it?" Torin asks.
"Her face..." Aideen murmurs, turning my chin towards Torin.
The man frowns. "She looks like... but she can't... Girl! What's your name? Where are you from?"
"Bec," I tell him. "I'm from the rath of the MacConn."
"Are you of them?" Torin asks. "Is your mother of the clan?"
"My mother's dead," I answer softly. "Nobody knows who she was or where she came from. She died not long after I was born."
"Aednat's child!" Aideen gasps, her fingers tightening on my chin. "She must be!" I tingle with shock when she says that. The face of my mother forms quickly in my mind and for the first time ever I have a name to go with it.
"You knew my mother!" I cry.
"She was my sister," Aideen croaks.
"Then this is where I'm from? This was where my mother lived?" When Aideen nods wonderingly my head spins and my heart leaps. "Why did she leave?" I yell. "What happened? Who was my father? Is he still alive? Do you-"
"Enough!" Torin interrupts. He's glaring at me-the news that I'm of his people hasn't pleased him. "We must think on this. We'll talk about it tonight."
Then he heads back inside the large stone hut, waving at the others to follow, leaving us to stare at one another uncertainly and make our way to the smaller huts to set up camp for the night.
My head's still spinning. I'd almost forgotten about the spirit of my mother beckoning me west, and the notion that maybe she wanted to help me unlock the secrets of my past. Inside I never really believed I'd discover the truth about my family-it was a childish dream. Yet here I am, in the most unlikely of places, suddenly confronted with her name and the promise of my history.
Aednat. As soon as Aideen said it I knew it was my mother. Maybe it's the magic that makes me sure, but I think I would have known even if it had happened before my new power blossomed. But her name is all I know. Who was she? Why did she live in this wilderness with the others? And why leave her family to bear me in loneliness and die so far from home?
I want to ask the questions now, find out the answers immediately. I want to rush to the large hut and demand the truth from Aideen and Torin. But this is their home, meagre as it is, and it would be disrespectful to speak out of turn. If their wish is for me to wait, then wait I must-no matter how frustrating that is.
Ronan and Lorcan hunt for food in the hours before sunset. Game is scarce in this rocky wilderness but the twins return with two hares, a crow and a cub fox. Fiachna, Bran and I pick berries and wild roots while they're gone. It makes for a fine meal. There's even some left over, which we offer to Fand when she comes to fetch us shortly after sunset.
"We have our own food," she says curtly.
As we're walking to the largest building, there's a ferocious howl from one of the huts in poor repair. The warriors in our group draw their weapons immediately but Fand waves away their concerns. "It's nothing," she says.
"That was a demon," Goll growls, not lowering his sword.
"No," Fand says. "It was my brother."
We stare at her with disbelief. She sighs, then strides towards the hut where the howl came from. We follow cautiously. At the entrance, Fand crouches and points within. We bend down beside her. Dim evening light shines through holes in the roof. In the weak glow we see an animal tied by a short length of rope to a rock in the middle of the hut. It's human-shaped but covered in long thick hair, with claws and dark yellow eyes. It snarls when it sees us and tries to attack, but is held back by the rope."That's your brother?" Goll asks suspiciously."His name is-was-Fintan," Fand says."What happened to him?" I ask, staring uncomfortably at the yellow eyes. Disfigured as they are, they look disturbingly similar to mine. "Is he undead?""No." Fand stands. "We'll tell you in the main hut. Come." When we hesitate, she manages a thin smile. "Don't worry. You're safe here. Fintan and the others are tied up tight.""There are more like this?" Ronan says."Four." Fand pauses and her expression darkens. "For now." She goes to the largest hut and ducks inside. One last glance at the creature chained to the rock-it looks like a cross between a wolf and a man-then we follow, gripping our weapons tight, watching the shadows for any sign of other, unchained beasts.It's crowded inside the hut, with all five adults, the three children we saw earlier, two younger kids-one just a babe-and us. The MacGrigor are poorly dressed-most of the children are naked-and scrawny. Dirty hair, rough tattoos, cracked nails, bloodshot eyes."They've seen Fintan," Fand says when we're seated, after a few seconds of uneasy silence."Good," Torin grunts. "That saves some time." He collects his thoughts, glances at me, then tells us their sorry tale-my tale.Several generations ago their ancestors bred with the Fomorii. They thought the semi-demons were going to conquer this land and threw in their lot with them. When the Fomorii were defeated, the MacGrigor were hunted down and executed as traitors. But some survived and went into hiding."Though if they'd known what was to come next, I think they'd have stayed and accepted death," Torin says bitterly.Some of the children of the human-Fomorii couplings were born deformed and demonic, and were immediately put to death. But most were human in appearance. These lived and grew, and for many years all was well."Then the changes began," Torin sighs. "When children came of a certain age-usually on the cusp of adulthood-some transformed. It always happened around the time of a full moon. Their bodies twisted. Hair sprouted. Their teeth lengthened into fangs, their nails into claws. The change developed and worsened over three or four moons. By the end, they were wild, inhuman beasts, incapable of speech or recognition. Killers if left to wander free."The affected children were slain, while the others grew and had children of their own. They thought they were safe, that they'd survived the curse-but they were wrong. Some of the children of the survivors changed too, and their grandchildren, and those who came after."It strikes at random," Torin says. "Sometimes four of five children of any generation will change, sometimes only two. But always a few. There's never been a generation where none of the children turned."The family sought the help of priestesses and druids in later years, when their treachery had been forgotten and they were free to live among normal folk again. But no magician could lift the curse. So they struggled on, moving from one place to another whenever their dark secret was discovered, living as far away from other clans as possible, sometimes killing their beastly young, other times- as here-allowing them to live, in the hope they might one day change back or be cured by a powerful druid."It's no sort of life," Torin mutters, eyes distant, "waiting for our children to turn. Having to feed those who've fallen foul of the curse and look upon them as they are, remembering them as they were. I'd rather kill the poor beasts, but..." He glances at Fand, who glowers at him."And Bec?" Fiachna asks, sensing my impatience, speaking on my behalf. "Her mother was of your clan?""If her mother was Aednat, aye," Torin says. He looks at me and again his face is dark. "Aednat had six children. All turned. When she fell pregnant for the seventh time, years after she and her husband, Struan, had agreed not to try again, Struan was furious. He couldn't bear the thought of bringing another child into the world and rearing it, only to have to kill it when it fell prey to the ravages of the moon."Aednat argued to keep the child. She thought she might be lucky this time, that the gods would never curse her seven times in a row. She was old, at an age when most women can no longer conceive. She thought it was a sign that this child was blessed, that it would be safe. Struan didn't agree. Neither did the rest of us.""Some did!" Aideen interrupts bitterly, but says no more when Torin glares at her warningly."We decided to kill the child in the womb," Torin continues gruffly. "That was Struan's wish and we believed it was the right thing to do. Struan took Aednat off into the wilds, to do the deed in private. But none of us knew how much Aednat wanted the baby. She fought with Struan when they were alone. Stabbed him. I don't think she meant to kill him, but-""My mother killed my father?" I almost scream."Aye," Torin says, burning me with his stare. "She probably only intended to wound him, but she cut too deeply. He died and she fled. By the time we discovered his body, she was far away. We followed for a time, to avenge Struan's murder, but lost her trail after a couple of days. We prayed for her death when we returned. I'm pleased to hear our prayers were answered."I rear myself back to curse him for saying such a mean thing, but Fiachna grabs my left arm and squeezes hard, warning me to be silent."Of course the girl's not our business now," Torin says heavily. "She's of your clan, not ours, so we can't tell you what to do with her. But she's a cursed child, from a line of cursed children, and the spawn of a killer. She's at the age when the moon usually works its wicked charms. If you let her live, the chances are strong that she'll change into a beast like Fintan. If you want my advice-""We don't," Goll snaps."As you wish," Torin concedes. "But when the moon is full, be wary of her."He falls silent. I'm panting hard, as if I'd been running, thinking of the kind, weary face of my mother, trying to picture her killing my father. Then I recall the boy-beast in the hut and imagine myself in his position. I wish now that the past had remained a secret!"What about the demons?" Drust asks, maybe to change the subject to stop me brooding, or maybe because he has no interest in my history or Torin's grim prediction. "Don't they ever attack?""No," Torin says."Even though you're poorly defended and they could butcher you any time they pleased?"Torin shrugs. "There were other families living near here. They'd been forced out of their tuatha for various reasons and settled in this wasteland. The demons killed them last year. We've seen the monsters pass from time to time and they've seen us. But they leave us alone."Drust nods. "Then it wasn't a Fomorii your ancestors bred with. It was a true demon. Some of the Demonata fought alongside the Fomorii. Many demons don't attack their own, especially if there are pure humans to kill. You're kin to them, so they spare you-for now at least.""We've heard talk of the Demonata before," Torin says. "Other druids-those we went to for help-spoke of them. They told us the curse was demonic and that was why they couldn't help." He leans forward. "I don't suppose you know any way to...?" He leaves the question hanging.Drust thinks about it a while, then says, "A demon master might be able to lift the curse. But I know of no human-druid, priestess or any other-who has the power to remove such a blood stain.""You mean the demons could cure us?" Fand says sharply."One of the more powerful masters, perhaps," Drust says."Do you know where we can find one?"Drust starts to respond, to tell them about Lord Loss. Then he stops and shakes his head. "The demon masters have not broken through to this world yet. When and if they do, they will be easy to locate. But I doubt if you will be able to convince them to help-by nature they are not inclined to be merciful."We stay talking a while longer. I ask questions about my mother and father, what they were like, how they spoke and lived. But Torin ignores my queries and speaks sharply whenever Aideen or Fand tries to answer, changing the conversation. I consider using magic on him, to make him tell me what I want to know, but Drust reads my thoughts and growls in my ear, "This is neither the time nor place for magic. Control yourself."When the MacGrigor have told us some more of their sad history and how they eke out a living here, Drust speaks of our quest, of the tunnel which has opened between the demon world and this, and his plan to close it. But he says nothing of how he hopes to pinpoint its location or why he's leading us to the western coast-the end of the world.When it's time to sleep, we return to the two stone huts set aside for us and make ourselves comfortable. It's been both a revealing and frustrating night for me-I've learnt some of my history but not all. There's so much more Torin and the others could tell me, but Torin hates my mother for betraying the clan, killing her husband and deserting them. And, since she's no longer here for him to hate, he hates me in her place. He'll never tell me about her or allow the others to.Before I lie down, I remember the conversation after the revelations about my past and ask Drust why he didn't tell Torin about Lord Loss. "If they could find him, they might be able to persuade him to help," I note-figuring, if I could play a part in curing them of their curse, they'd surely tell me more about my parents."Aye," Drust says archly. "But all we know about Lord Loss is that he likes to follow us around. If we told them that, they might try to hold us here, to use as bait.""But there are more of us than them," I point out. "We're stronger and better armed. You and I have magical powers. They couldn't force us to stay.""Probably not," Drust says. "But it's safer not to take the risk. This way, they have no need to delay us and no conflict can come of it. The MacGrigor-or their descendants-will have to track down and petition a demon master another time."So saying, he rolls over and falls asleep, not even bothering to cast any masking spells, certain of our safety here in this bitterly charmed village of the damned.