The Old Creatures fall silent and I get the sense that they won't talk to us again. Drust senses it too and prepares to leave in a hurry without asking any further questions. Once we've recast the breathing and warming spells, he takes my hand-without looking me in the eye-and we jump into the pool, sink, then return through the tunnel. I thought we'd move slower this time, because the force of the water is against us, but it's exactly the same as before.
Shooting out of the tunnel, we rise to the surface, where we hang, bobbing up and down with the swell of the waves. I don't break my breathing spell-the water is still foaming over my head. With his free hand, Drust points at the cliff face. I think he's mad-there's no way we can make the cliff safely or climb it even if we could-but I don't argue as he guides us towards it, opposing the pull and cut of the waves.
We move on the surface of the sea as we moved below, propelled by magic, not swimming, but gliding like seabirds across the surf. The wind and waves lash us angrily, as though enraged by our ability to defy them.
Closer to the lethal screen of the cliff... closer... almost upon it. One more sweep of a wave and I'll be able to reach out and touch it.
We come to a stop and hang calmly in the water, rising and falling with the swell of the waves, but not moving towards or away from the cliff. Drust puts his free hand on mine and moves it forward until I make contact with the rock. He then nudges my other hand up beside it and releases both at the same time. As soon as he lets go, the wind and waves bite at me, trying to rip me loose. I cling to the cliff by my fingertips and scream, shattering the breathing spell.
Then Drust's arm is around me and he's shouting in my ear, "Climb! Keep going! Don't look down!"
"I'll fall!" I shriek. "I'll drown!"
"You will if you don't climb!" he bellows, digging his chin hard into my neck.
Since I've no choice but to climb and risk death or stay and die for certain, I push my left hand up, searching for a handhold. After a second or two I find one and rest a moment, face turned away from the spray of the waves. Then I move my right hand up. My feet follow automatically, scrabbling for toeholds.
Drust keeps his hand on me, steadying me by placing pressure on my shoulder, then my back, my bottom, my legs, finally my feet. When I move out of reach, he shouts at me to stop, then climbs up after me until we're level. Then it's my turn to lead again.
That's how we progress, a small stretch of cliff at a time, dragging our way up, defying the angry howls of the sea, disturbing seagulls in their slumber. Drust only uses magic when I slip, to keep me hanging in the air momentarily, so that I can grab hold of a piece of rock again.
I look down once and immediately wish I hadn't.
"We'll never make it," I sob, feeling my strength ebb away, certain I'll collapse soon, not even able to keep myself going with magic.
"We will," Drust replies stubbornly, then pinches me to get me moving again.
Finally, when I've started to think this is a nightmare from which I'll never awake, we make it to the top and friendly hands pull us over the edge of the cliff, then carry us to our clothes. Fiachna has to help me slip into mine-my fingers are too numb to grasp and manipulate the material.
They ask what happened, where we've been, how we survived, what we saw. They were sure we'd drowned. Their excitement at finding us alive makes them babble like children.
Drust ignores the questions and pulls on his robes. I ignore them as well, too exhausted to provide answers. When we're fully dressed, the clothes deliriously warm on my cold-blue skin, Drust tells the others we need some time on our own. He marches me along the cliff to where a jutting rock shelters us from the wind. Settling behind it, Drust starts a fire using magic, makes it expand so the flames are three times their normal size, then sits staring into the heart of the blaze, saying nothing.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I say eventually when I'm warm enough to speak.
"I couldn't," he replies. "You wouldn't have come with me.
"No. You wouldn't have trusted me. Nor would the others."
"So you were going to keep it secret?" I snort. "Not tell me until we got to the tunnel, then kill me without asking?"
"Aye." He looks at me sideways, torn between arrogance and shame. "That's part of the reason I was so hard on you to begin with. Yes, I needed to bring your magic out-you weren't powerful enough the way you were. But I also didn't want to get close to you because I knew I'd have to..."
He stops and looks at the fire again.
"Was there another magician with you when you first set off?" I ask.
He nods. "An apprentice. No grown druid would accompany me. As I told you before, they have no love for Christians and will be quite pleased if the Demonata take over this land. But I found an apprentice who was born here, whose family still live on these shores. He was happy to lay down his life if necessary."
"If?" I sneer. "You told him it might not be?"
Drust blushes. "I said there might be other ways. It wasn't a total lie. Until I asked the Old Creatures, I still hoped..." He trails off into silence.
"Is it truly the only way?" I murmur after a while.
"So the Old Creatures said," he sighs.
"They couldn't be wrong?" He shakes his head. "Then we must go there and you must kill me," I mutter, and his neck practically snaps as his head lifts sharply.
"What?" he gasps.
"If that's the only way to close the tunnel, we must do it."
"You mean you'll let me..." He stops and scratches his head. "Why? Now that you know, you don't have to come. You can flee, sail for safe lands to the east. With your power, you could become a priestess of high standing or even a druid. There's never been a female druid, but you can control male magic, so perhaps you'd be the first. You don't have to stay-or die."
I stare at him as if he's insane. "But the tunnel would remain open," I say slowly. "The demon masters would cross. They'd kill everyone, then make them walk around as undead slaves. I can't let that happen."
"Even if it means your own death?" Drust asks.
"Of course." I frown. "Why do you ask me this? You feel the same way. Otherwise why come on this quest and risk your life?"
He shifts uncomfortably. "My reasons are not the same as yours. These aren't my people, so I don't really care whether they live or die. And I never planned to perish. The risks were high but I hoped-still hope-to get out of here alive. But if you go on, it's to certain death, one way or the other. How can you do that?"
"How can I not?" I reply simply. "One life is nothing when measured against thousands. I'd give it a dozen times over to save the lives of those I care about."
"And those you don't know, who mean nothing to you?"
Drust chuckles darkly. "A teacher of mine once said we druids knew nothing of ordinary people, that we'd been apart from them so long, we couldn't understand them anymore. I didn't agree, but I see now that he was wiser than me. Your way of thinking is opposite to ours. No druid would throw away his life to save others. Some let themselves be sacrificed when they believe it will lead to greater power in the Otherworld. But I know none who'd offer themselves as you have."
"Then they're fools," I tell him. "A single person is nothing. Only the clan matters."
Drust shakes his head again. "So different," he mumbles, then looks at me with fresh respect. "Very well, Bec. Our quest continues, even though I believe it's doomed and we won't make the tunnel in time. But if we do, you know what must be done?"
"You'll accept my guidance, follow my orders, let me kill you?"
A short pause. Then, softly but firmly, "Aye."
"You are a true hero." He smiles wanly. "Now get some sleep, little girl. We must leave as soon as possible, but we're in no condition to march tonight. We'll wait for morning, then make our way east as quickly as we can."
"Is it all right if I sleep with the others?" I ask.
"You're tired of my company?" Before I can answer, he grunts, "Of course. They're your people. Spend as much time with them as you wish."
"Thank you." I rise and make my way around the rock, bowing my head against the wind. As I round the rock there's a noise, like hooves skittering over grass. I glance up but the wind and rain are in my eyes and it's a few seconds before I can see clearly. When I look, there's nothing nearby. I don't worry about it as I tramp back to camp-nothing can harm us here-but I wonder. Because if it wasn't my imagination, it was probably just a rabbit or fox. But it might have been a human-one who could move very, very fast...
When I'm back with the group, I ask Bran if he was listening to what Drust and I were saying. The boy smiles foolishly, as he normally does, and gabbles a few meaningless words. I feel uneasy about it as I settle down to sleep. Then Bran snuggles up beside me for warmth and murmurs, "Flower," under his breath as he folds his arms around me.
I laugh at myself, misgivings vanishing. It probably wasn't Bran I heard when I was coming back, only a wild animal.
And even if it was him, what of it? We've nothing to fear from Bran. What harm could a poor, innocent, muddled boy like him do?
Drust addresses us early in the morning. He says the location of the tunnel has been revealed to him but doesn't mention the fact that I have to be sacrificed to close it. Then he outlines our main problem.
"The tunnel lies to the east of your village," he says. "A march of at least a week, probably longer. But we only have two days and nights. Then the demon masters will break through and we're finished. It will be too late to repair the damage."
"Then we've lost," Goll says softly. "We came too late."
"Probably," Drust agrees. "But we have to try. We'll push on as quickly as we can. Run in bursts. Use boats or rafts on rivers and streams where possible. And pray to the gods that the demons encounter some unexpected delay."
"What about magic?" Fiachna asks. "Can't you use that to make us go quicker?" He's had a hard night. The demon poison from the bite has spread and the whole of his upper body is an ugly purple colour. He has the shakes and is sweating badly. I tried to cure him, without success. I asked Drust if he could help but he said this wasn't something he had any knowledge of.
"There are spells which would allow us to run much faster," Drust says. "But they're incredibly tiring. They'd let us push our bodies to their limits, but we could easily pass those limits without knowing and drop dead. If it was a matter of a day or two's march, I'd risk it. But the distance is too great. When we're closer, we'll gamble. But not now."
"What if you cast the spell on only a few of us?" Lorcan asks. "We could provide rides for the rest of you."
Drust blinks. "Use you as horses?" he says, astonished.
"Why not?" the teenager shrugs. "We'll die anyway if the demons break through. Bec and Bran are too small, and Fiachna's in no shape to carry anyone, but the rest of us could-"
"Not me!" Connla barks. "I'm not running myself dead for that damn druid!"
"You'd rather perish at the hands of demons?" Goll asks coolly."I won't-" Connla starts to shout, then stops and growls. "I mean, I'd rather take my chances with the monsters. I trust them more than this one. You know where you stand with demons.""You're a fool," Goll says bluntly, then faces Drust. "Even without our young king, Lorcan and I could carry you and Bec. And Bran could keep up, the speed he runs at. It means leaving Fiachna behind, but he'll probably die soon anyway." He grins bleakly at Fiachna. "Sorry for being so blunt.""Don't worry about it," Fiachna wheezes, grinning back."Maybe Lorcan doesn't want to carry me," I say quietly, recalling his outburst the night before.Lorcan grumbles something, then raises his voice but keeps his eyes lowered. "I was upset about losing Ronan. I reacted savagely and said things I didn't mean. I beg your pardon.""You don't need to," I smile.Lorcan looks up, returns my smile, then squints at Drust. "Well? Will it work?""I'm not sure," Drust says and does some quick calculations. "We could cover maybe half the distance in a day if we did it your way-but only if you ran non-stop, which would certainly mean your deaths.""Never mind that," Goll snorts. "If we get you halfway, it leaves you with a three- or four-day march. If you walk by night as well as day...""We still won't be quick enough," Drust mutters. "Bec and I could use magic to run faster after you died, but we'd have to rest often, to arrive fit enough to cast our spells. It would take at least two days, making three in total. The demon masters will have crossed by then.""But we've more hope this way," Lorcan notes. "So we'll have to chance it. Aye?""If you're willing to make that sacrifice," Drust says slowly, "then... aye.""You're mad," Connla sneers. "You'll kill yourselves for nothing instead of doing the wise thing.""And what's that?" Goll enquires with all the sweetness of a bat's bite.Connla points west. "We're on the coast, fools! Find a boat. Set sail. Get out of here before the demons slaughter you all."Goll shakes his head. "I never had a high opinion of you but I wouldn't have expected this. Flee when there's a chance to save those we left behind? Run when there's a war to be fought? I don't believe you're of our people. I think Conn reared a changeling.""Is that so?" Connla growls, drawing his sword. "Well, watch closely, old man, while this changeling rips your guts out and-""Run fast!"The shout jolts us all. Bran roared it at the top of his voice, which is louder than anyone expected. Lorcan, who was closest to him, has covered his ears with his hands and is grimacing.The strange boy from the crannog is glaring at us, hands on hips. "Run fast," he repeats, stiffly this time, looking from one of us to the other like a brehon passing judgement on a pack of bickering complainants. Then he points at the scraggly pony in the distance-it survived the night-and says, in a tone which brooks no argument, "Bubbly!"Then he takes off, running as swiftly as he can, becoming a fast-moving speck within seconds. We stare after Bran, bewildered, then at each other. The heat of the moment has dwindled away and those who were arguing look embarrassed."Where do you think he's going?" Fiachna asks of no one in particular."That boy's a mystery even to himself," Drust answers, then sighs and looks at Lorcan and Goll. "But we can't wait here to wonder about him. If we're to set off as agreed, it's best we start now. If both of you are still sure..."Goll and Lorcan nod. Drust beckons them forward. I see his lips move as he begins to cast a spell."Wait." I step between the warriors and Drust, my eyes on the far-off form of Bran. "I think we should leave it a while.""Bec, I know you care about us..." Goll begins but I shake my head."It's not that. I think Bran has a plan. He can help us.""How?" Drust frowns. "By being bubbly?""I don't know. But my instinct tells me we should wait. We can march but we shouldn't cast any spells. Not until we see what Bran's up to.""And if he's up to nothing?" Drust asks. "If he's simply running around for the sake of it, or because we upset him? If he never returns?""I can't answer that. I don't know. I just think it would be a mistake to use our magic now."Drust studies me in silence, troubled. The others are staring at me too, but it's clear from their expressions that they'll leave this decision to the druid."So be it," Drust huffs, then laughs. "I must be as mad as the boy, but I'll go with your instinct. We'll leave the magic for a while. I'm not setting a time limit but if I start to feel he's a lost cause, that's that. Agreed?"I nod reluctantly and mutter a quick prayer under my breath that I'm not wrong about the brain-addled Bran.We make good early progress, me riding piggyback on Lorcan. But Fiachna finds it hard to keep the pace. It's clear we'll have to leave him behind soon, to die alone in the wilderness. My heart weeps at the thought, as I remember my childish dreams of putting magic behind me and becoming his wife. But dreams are dreams and reality's reality. Few, if any, of us are going to survive the next few days. We can't be foolish about this. If Fiachna can't keep up, he must be abandoned.As I'm thinking that, Fiachna stumbles-Goll has been half-supporting him-then slumps to the ground and rests, massaging his neck, which is pure purple. "I'm finished," he says quietly. "Leave me.""We could... if you want..." Goll mumbles, touching the hilt of his sword."No." Fiachna smiles weakly. "I'd rather lie here, watch the clouds drift across the sky and die in my own, natural time. It's peaceful.""But the pain?" Goll enquires."Not so bad," Fiachna says. "It was worse in the night. The fire's turned to ice. It still hurts but I can bear it.""Very well." Goll salutes the blacksmith. Lorcan salutes too and so does Connla, though his salute is quick and disinterested.Drust spreads his hands over Fiachna. "I will pray for your spirit. And, if we succeed, I'll tell people of your bravery and the debt they owe you.""Thank you." Fiachna coughs, then shudders.I kneel beside him. A few weeks ago I would have fought not to cry. But now I let tears flow freely. I don't care how I'm supposed to behave. I'll miss Fiachna dreadfully and I want him to know that."I could... if there's anything... I wish..." I can't find suitable words. In the end I abandon speech, throw my arms around Fiachna and kiss him fully, a kiss between a woman and a man. It's the first time I've ever kissed someone this way. It will also probably be the last.Fiachna smiles when I break the embrace. "I had my eye on you for a few years, Little One. If you hadn't been a priestess..." He touches my left cheek with cold, trembling fingers. "Perhaps in the Otherworld?""I'll pray for it," I sob, then rise and stumble away, wiping tears from my cheeks, not looking back for fear I'd crumble completely and beg to stay with him. There's no time for that. He must die by himself on this miserable day if we are to press on and prevent many more from dying soon after.I hear Lorcan ask, "Do you need a weapon?"Fiachna replies, "No. I have my knife. If I'm not dead by nightfall, and the demons come, that will take care of the job."Then I'm gone. The others soon come after me-Connla among them, although I half-expected him to part from us here-our ranks lessened by the fall of yet one more much-loved friend.An hour later. Jogging steadily. Silent, thoughts heavy, wondering if Fiachna has succumbed to the disease yet or is still clinging on. Then noises from the far side of a hill. Like the growing sound of thunder, only coming from the ground, not the sky. We look around, puzzled. Then Connla gasps, "Horses!"Moments later they appear, galloping over the hill, seven of them. Six are bareback. On the seventh, a rider-Bran! He laughs as the horses surge around us and come to a stop. He hops off and beams, pointing to the steeds. "Bubbly," he says proudly. "Run fast!""I don't believe it!" Goll howls with delight."Will the spells work on them?" I ask Drust quickly."Aye." He smiles softly with wonder. "And they can run much quicker than we could. We'll be able to rest them every few hours and still make great time.""Enough?" I ask. "Will we get to the tunnel before...?""Possibly," Drust says. "But let's not waste precious minutes talking about it. Mount up!"As Goll puts me atop one of the smaller horses-I've never been on one before, so I'm nervous-and the other men mount theirs, Bran looks for Fiachna."Drust," I call, then nod backwards. "Could we...?""There's no point," Drust says as kindly as he can. "Whether he dies on the ground or on horseback, he'll surely die, if he hasn't already."I think about that and how hard it would be to bid Fiachna farewell a second time. I nod sadly, shedding a few-fresh tears."Do you want a horse?" Goll grunts at Connla.The arrogant warrior stares back haughtily. "Why wouldn't I?""I thought, from what you said earlier, you might have other plans. You don't need a horse to get to the coast or hunt for a boat."Connla sneers. "I never said I was leaving. I simply said it would be the wise thing for the rest of you to do. I'm not one for running away from a challenge." And, with Goll staring at him in disbelief, he leaps up on one of the horse's backs and sits there regally, looking calmer and more relaxed than any of us.Drust works his spell-I help, once he's demonstrated on the first horse-and moments later we're off. The seventh, riderless horse runs along behind us, but we're going too fast for it, sped along by magic. It soon gives up and turns aside to head back wherever it came from, leaving us to charge across the land ahead of even the jealous wind.