The land was dying.
From the narrow windows of Dunnhawke Castle, King Cormac could see the fields of wheat that seemed to wither before his eyes in their dry and dusty fields.
The crashing waves of the nearby sea mocked him with their constant pounding. So much water at his fingertips and yet it would not save him.
You’d never think we’d be so desperate for rain, not here.
The usual misty showers of spring had never come, nor had the heavy summer storms, so necessary to ripen the crops before harvest.
Now, weeks into August, the late afternoon sun still shone a merciless blue, with not a cloud in the sky.
A distant scream echoed down the stone corridor, and Cormac turned suddenly, his stomach wrenched with fear.
His wife, Queen Bronnagh, was in labor with their first child.
It had been a hard pregnancy, and the delivery was taking longer than expected.
The royal midwives were in attendance. He had seen them exiting Bronnagh’s bedchamber with bowl filled with bloody cloth.
The screams persisted all day, until Cormac thought he would tear his own heart from his chest to make it cease.
He had fought many battles in the war to reclaim his kingdom. The cries of dying men still echoed through his dreams. But none would haunt him like the cries of his beautiful new wife. Never before had he felt so utterly helpless.
Cormac took a deep, wavering breath and deliberately turned back towards the unpaned window. His kingdom, so newly won, was crumbling to pieces around him. How could he expect the people to support his rule when their livelihood stood dying in the fields? In the one hundred days since his official coronation, it had not rained a drop. All over the peasants were whispering.
They were displeased.
The hidden ones.
The people of the hills.
Whatever name people chose to call them, they did so in hushed undertones and subtle gestures.
Cormac shook his head. He had ridden himself of such foolish fancies the moment he had been exiled at twelve-years of age to a crumbling manor home on the isle of Soorninoor.
The brutal coup that had usurped his father, Ronan, had resulted in the death of the King had ended with the rule of Ronan’s younger brother, Odhran.
Then followed year after long, lonely year. Soorninoor was a desolate rock in the middle of the sea, constantly on the verge of being swept into oblivion by a severe winter storm. During this time young Cormac had shed no tears for his murdered father, nor did his mother who had escaped into exile with him.
Instead he had begun training with sword and shield and bow. Over time, he had grown broad and tall, a bear of a man with a barrel chest and a gingery-red beard. Support for his cause grew, as did his armies waiting on the mainland.
When he’d come of age at sixteen, Cormac had begun his war. Carrying an enormous two-sided axe, he led his forces against those of his Uncle Odhran. The violence had raged on both sides for more than four years. His armies depleted, his support waning, Cormac had thought his cause lost.
Deliverance had come to him in the strangest of places. A gleaming wooden carriage had arrived at his war camp on one afternoon more than a year ago. Out of this magnificent vessel had climbed a young woman with laughing blue eyes.
Princess Bronnagh captured his heart the moment Cormac had laid eyes on her. Tiny, bird-like in proportion, her chestnut-brown head barely reached his shoulder and yet he found himself utterly within her power.
She had been sent as an emissary, her father the King of Peralorne being unusual in giving important royal positions to his daughters as well as his son. At seventeen years old, Bronnagh was the youngest of eleven children. Her elder siblings had ensured that she was fluent in four languages as well as science and mathematics.
But above all of that, Bronnagh’s royal lineage stretched back more than five generations, offering a second layer of legitimacy to his claim to the throne of Dunnhawke.
His armies joined together with the legions of Peralorne to crush Odhran’s forces in a great battle near the River Nuile. It’s generally muddy brown waters had flown crimson with blood as men died along the banks. More on battle, wading through shit and mud, he found him on the field, the pike boys stopped to watch their kings fight.
Finally, with one sure stroke of his axe, Cormac had severed the head from his Uncle Odhran’s shoulders and reclaimed the throne of Dunnhawke after eight years in exile.
In the year they had been married, Cormac had come to love his wife deeply, though his stoic reserve made it difficult for him to demonstrate his affection.
Another wrenching scream came from the open door of Queen Bronnagh’s bedchamber, making Cormac feel half-mad with worry and grief.
A few short months ago, everything he ever wanted had been in the palm of his hand.
Now, his kingdom was plagued by drought, there were rumors of plague in the nearby villages, and it seemed likely that his hard-won alliance with the kingdom of Peralorne would die alongside his wife and newborn child.
Maybe he was cursed.
Perhaps one of the Fae had put an evil curse upon his reign.
He had never paid much mind to the old-wives tales before, but desperation was high and tight in his chest.
A voice from behind caused King Cormac to start, and he turned to see the midwife, her face bone white in the failing light of the sun.
She looks like an omen of death. Cormac thought as a shudder ran up his back.
The plump older woman shook her hand, “I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done, sire. The babe is turned in the womb, and the cord is wrapped about its wee little neck.”
Cormac Setterwind had not cried since the death of his father eight years ago, but now he felt a sob rising to his throat.
“And…and the Queen?” he choked, dreading the answer.
Again the midwife shook her head, and now Cormac’s knees threatened to buckle. He raised one hand to steady himself against the stone wall of the castle.
“I understand,” was all he was able to reply.
His beautiful, young wife.
The babe in her womb.
His long fight to reclaim his rightful throne.
All of it lost.
The peasants were already on the brink of revolt given the lack of food in the region. The whispers of curses reached his ears even here in the castle.
I have to do something!
Cormac slammed a futile fist against the wall, resting his head for a moment against the cool stones.
“My son, something must be done,” his mother said from his shoulder, having crept up in that silent way that she had. She echoed his own thoughts, as she so often did.
Grainne Setterwind was a tiny, wizened woman with a face full of sagging wrinkles, but her posture was kept rigidly erect by the sturdy oaken cane she carried.
She had been old since Cormac could remember, having borne him late in life after the deaths of her two elder sons, both of whom had died in battle before he was ever born.
“Mother, what else can we do? The Queen is near death, and the child with her,” Cormac said grimly, fighting to maintain control over his emotions.
I am frightened. He wanted to say, but a king must never betray any faintness of heart.
Even when he stood on the brink of ruin.
“There is always something to be done, if one knows who to ask,” his mother replied. Her blue woolen gown was closed high at the throat, but it did not hide the tremor that shook her frail bones.
Cormac’s own blood chilled at the thought. “We cannot go to them. They are not trustworthy. Mother you know this.”
“I know that if you do not ask for help from the Fae, you will lose your kingdom within the fortnight, and all your long years of struggle will have been for naught,” Grainne said in her measured voice.
Bronnagh cried out in pain, and Cormac could tell from the increased weakness in her voice that they were both running out of time.
“Be wary, my son. Make no bargain that you are unable to keep.”
Cormac didn’t respond. He knew the risk of what he meant to do this night.
But he had no choice.
He must go to the Fae.
The barrier separating the mortal realm from the world of the Fae was simultaneously as vast as an ocean and as close as a lover’s breath.
On one side of this distance, King Cormac saddled his mighty black stallion and galloped into the woods.
On the other, Prince Cillian of the Fae observed all of this with bated breath. His military bearing was straight and erect, his slim shoulders belied not a shred of emotion.
Likewise, his youthful face was utterly impassive, every muscle schooled carefully into place.
But nothing could disguise the hungry gleam in the Fae Prince’s eyes.
Their plan was finally coming to fruition.
The prophecy would be fulfilled.
The wartorn king was on his way.
His is the blood we need.
The blood of the Setterwind.
For years, Prince Cillian had watched.
For the opportune moment, when the Setterwind king was at his most desperate.
Cillian gazed into the waters of the Looking Pool.
The king had entered the thickest part of the forest. He’d been forced to bring his horse to a walk, and was now slowly picking his way through the tangled trees.
The trees that had been planted as a warning to the mortal realm.
Go back. Stay away.
Beyond lies the realm of the Fae.
Cillian waved his hand over the floating image in the water, and the image vanished.
His reflection stared back, his skin silvery white.
The pointed, predatory teeth.
Summoning his magic to the surface, Cillian enveloped himself in his usual glamour.
The only thing left unchanged were his eyes.
His new, full mouth parted in a triumphant smile.
Tonight, he would strike a bargain with the Setterwind king.
For the future of the Fae.