We make slow progress in the afternoon, hampered by bad weather, having to climb lots of hills and Drust's injuries. I hurt him with the blast of magic. He got out of my head just in time, but even so he took a hammering. He casts healing spells when he's able, but movement is still painful.
There have been no more lessons. Drust has kept clear of me, walking close to Goll and Fiachna, bringing up the rear of the group. I don't blame him. I'm suspicious of myself too. There's no telling what Lord Loss got up to inside my skull and heart. Maybe he planted spells of destruction and I'm doomed to betray my friends and kill them all.
They should be told of the threat I pose but Drust has said nothing and I lack the courage to tell them. I don't think they'd kill me but trust would be impossible. They'd cut me off. I'd be their friend no longer-merely a possible enemy.
So I walk in silence and keep my fears to myself, wondering if and when the animal within me will burst forth-either the magical animal of Lord Loss's making or the beast of my MacGrigor heritage.
It's late afternoon when we sight the sea. Dark blue, with white, choppy waves smashing against the rocks of the shore, roaring like a monster. It stretches as far as the eye can see. I hoped I might glimpse the shores of Tir na n'Og from here, the legendary land which lies somewhere between this place and the Otherworld. But if it's out there, as the legends claim, it lies beyond the sight of normal folk-and magical folk too.
We stop atop a hill and marvel at the vision of the sea. Even Drust wipes a hand across his brow, then stares at the horizon with wide, childlike eyes, as though he can hardly believe it's there.
"A thing of wild beauty," Goll murmurs, smiling as the wind whips at his beard and hair. He strokes the flesh of his blind eye. "I saw it as a young man. I had perfect sight then. But it's just as wondrous seen with a single eye."
"Where does it end?" Lorcan asks, looking left and right, then straight ahead.
"Nobody knows," Drust says, his first words of the afternoon. "Some say it goes on forever. Others that it comes to the edge of the world and drops away into nothingness. A few even claim that by some form of magic it leads to the other side of the world, that if you were to sail all the way across, you'd wash up at the lands to the east. But nobody really knows."
"And Tir na n'Og?" Fiachna asks. "Is it out there?"
Drust shrugs. "Perhaps. There are..." He pauses, sniffs the air, looks west. "We will soon find some who believe they know where Tir na n'Og lies. You can ask them. They might be able to provide clearer answers than me."
On that curious note, Drust starts down the hill, angling gently southwest, to a point further along the coastline. The rest of us cherish one last long look at the sea. Then we follow, reluctantly abandoning sight of the great expanse of water, eagerly awaiting the moment when we come within view of it again.
Night is close when we spot them. We've been walking along the edge of the coast for an hour, stumbling often on the strange, flat, cracked layers of rock underfoot. The strength of the sea can be felt first-hand here. The wind, the spray, the tremors in the ground from the pounding of the waves. I'm amazed the land has stood up to the battering for so long I always knew there was power in the earth, but it must be much stronger than I imagined to resist such a relentless foe, day after day, night after night, year after year. We're all focused on the sea, watching the waves rise and crash, no two alike. In some places, where they strike, they rise up in huge plumes like smoke, spreading their drops far in a fine mist. It's like a moving painting of never-ending designs. Because of this extraordinary show, we're almost upon the travellers before Lorcan-at the front of the group-glances up and realises we're not alone.
"People!" he shouts, halting abruptly and pointing ahead. Squinting-because of the spray-I spot a procession of twenty or thirty figures, heading to a large boat bobbing up and down in a relatively calm cove.
"Demons?" Connla asks, standing on his toes, as if that will help him see better.
"No," Drust says, passing Lorcan without slowing.
"Humans?" Goll calls after him.
"Not as such," is Drust's response.
We look at each other uncertainly, then shuffle along after the druid.
The travellers are creatures of legend. Impossibly towering giants, the height of three or four men. Tiny, stick-thin people who might be the meddlesome leprechauns of myth. Slender, graceful, pointy-eared fairies. Weeping, pale-faced, dark-eyed, terrifying banshees. Others who look more like demons than humans. Druids and priestesses too. All are part of the procession, winding their way to the boat, where others like them are patiently waiting, seated or standing, all looking west.
"Morrigan's milk!" Goll gasps, making a sign to ward off evil. Then he stops, confused, since although these are obviously beings of magic, they don't have the look or feel of wickedness.
The walkers have their eyes set on the path or boat. One of the druids happens to look up and spot us. He breaks off from the others and comes towards us. As he draws close, Ronan nudges over to Drust and whispers, "Is he a threat?"
"No," Drust says. He has stopped and is waiting calmly for his fellow druid, arms folded across his chest.
"Who are they?" Fiachna asks, studying one of the burly, brutal-looking giants. We've heard stories of these fierce warriors of the past, part god, part human. But ancient stories are sometimes hard to believe. They grow in the telling over the generations. Things get exaggerated. I always assumed the giants of lore were simply large but otherwise normal warriors. Fiachna and the others thought that too. We were wrong.
"They are beings of lessening magic," Drust says in answer to Fiachna's query. "They came after the Old Creatures and flourished for a time on the magic of the past. They're leaving now. The magic of the Old Creatures has almost faded from this earth. Those it nurtured can't survive without it. Their time here is finished. They go west in search of Tir na n'Og or death." His eyes are sad but also filled with longing. He wants to go with them.
"Do they flee from the Demonata?" I ask quietly.
"Not necessarily," Drust says. "Most have come from distant lands, some from the other side of the world. They leave to escape the Christians and other new religious groups. The world has changed and will change more in the centuries to come. Old magic is no longer dominant. Those who practise it have no place here. They leave before the magic disappears completely, to avoid an undignified end."
"Why don't they fight?" Goll asks.
"They did. But only a fool continues to fight when it's clear the battle is lost. Everything has an end. This is the end of great magic and those who belong to it."
The other druid reaches us and stops. He nods to Drust, who nods back. Then he casts a curious eye over the rest of us. "Do you seek a place on board our boat, brother?" the druid asks.
"Nay," Drust replies. "I am here on other business.""There won't be many more boats this year," the druid says. "This might be the last before spring. If you miss this one...""I have work here," Drust says."This is a dangerous land," the druid notes. "Several of our kind have fallen on their way to this point. If you wait and the Demonata triumph within the next few months, there might never be a boat again.""My work involves the Demonata," Drust says. "If I am successful the boats will continue to sail."The druid raises an eyebrow. "You have set yourself against the demons?""Aye," Drust says steadily."A perilous undertaking. You do it to keep the path to the west clear for those who will follow?""No," Drust smiles. "We should all be so self-sacrificing, but most are not and I am no exception. I do this for personal reasons."The druid returns Drust's smile. "Whatever they are, I wish you luck. If you can close the tunnel between this world and the Demonata's, boatloads to come will praise your name in the lands west of here... or in the lands of the dead."Both druids look at the boat and those boarding it. Only a couple remain on the shore now, untying the ropes which hold the boat in place. It's unlike any boat I've ever seen, long and narrow, tall poles sprouting from the middle to hold large sails. It's hard to see how it stays afloat."What of your companions?" the druid asks, looking around, his gaze coming to rest on me. "Do they seek sanctuary with us? There are a few places left. If they wish to take their chances, we can give them berth."Drust glances at me, then speaks to the others. "If you want to go, I won't stop you. But I might have need of you in the days and nights to come. Remember-if I fail, your people will pay the price.""Tir na n'Og," Goll whispers, his good eye sparkling as he studies the boat. "To go there now... to live forever, having come this close to death...""It would be a just reward for an honest life," Fiachna says softly. "You should go, old friend."Goll's lips part. He breathes out the word, "Aye." But then his face hardens and he barks a laugh. "No. Tir na n'Og's for the beautiful and magical-not an ugly old warhorse like me! Anyway, what would I do there for all eternity? Play hurling with giants?" He turns and winks. "Ten years ago, maybe. But I'd feel like a fool if I went now. And what if they find nothing but sea? I've been on those waves before-and never as sick in all my life!""Anybody else?" the druid asks politely. He's still looking at me, a small frown creasing his forehead."I would give much to hunt in the fabled forests of Tir na n'Og," Lorcan sighs dreamily. "But I can't abandon my clan, not until the demons have been defeated or I lie dead. Next year, if we succeed, I'll return and ask for passage then."Goll nudges Connla playfully. "How about you, young king? We know how vain you are. In Tir na n'Og you'd keep your looks and never grow old."Connla sneers. "Give up a kingship here to be a peasant there? I think not!""You sound very certain of your kingship," Goll murmurs. "Do you know something we don't?"Connla flushes. "Of course not. I was just... I mean..." He coughs and glares at Goll. "I don't have to explain myself to the likes of you!""Peace," the druid says before the pair start to argue in earnest. "If you do not wish to travel with us, I must take my leave. Night is almost upon us and we mean to depart before the demons attack-they come here often, the braver monsters, in search of rich pickings.""We have delayed you too long already, brother," Drust says, bowing. "Go, and may the grace of the gods go with you.""Our thanks-and may the gods bless you in your honourable quest," the druid says. He returns the bow, nods at the rest of us, then makes his way to the boat. The creatures holding the ropes untie the last of them as he approaches. By the time he reaches the shoreline the ropes have been cast off and the boat is drifting away from the land. The druid increases his pace and jumps to the deck of the boat, propelling himself through the air with magic. He waves to us before settling down and facing the bow, which points like an arrow straight at the setting sun.We watch as the boat moves off, sails rising smoothly, catching a magical wind. The boat shoots ahead at an incredible speed, leaving hardly any wake, a speck on the horizon within minutes, then-to my eyes at least-gone.There's a long, thoughtful silence. All eyes are on the dimming sun, scanning the point where sea meets sky, straining for one final glimpse of the boat and its cargo of giants and fairies.Then Goll shatters the mood by clapping Drust on the back. "So, druid," he drawls, "where shall we cast for tonight? Your friends are safe from the demons and undead at sea, but we're somewhat exposed out here, aye?"Drust looks around, blank-eyed for a second. Then he focuses. "Aye. It would not do if we were caught in the open. We will be safe further down the coast-there is a place protected by rare Old Magic-but we must move fast if we are to get there before night.""Can't we stop and cast a masking spell?" I ask."No," Drust says, starting forward, faster than he'd been walking earlier. "You heard the warning-demons come here.""Demons are everywhere," Fiachna says."Aye," Drust agrees. "But only the brave go where beings of magic congregate. And a brave demon is usually a powerful demon. I wouldn't trust our spells to hide us from their gaze. Now march and save your breath-if we fail to make our destination in time, you might need to fight tonight, and the monsters you lock arms with will be fiercer and harder to kill than any you've faced before."