The land was dying.
From the narrow windows of Dunnhawke Castle, King Cormac could see the fields of wheat that were withering before his eyes on their usually fertile fields.
You’d never think we’d be so desperate for rain, not here.
Not in Ireland.
The usual misty showers of spring had never come, nor had the heavy summer storms that were so necessary to ripen the crops before harvest.
Now, weeks later, 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 were still echoed through his dreams.
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 people of the mounds.
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 the lonely isle of Innismoor.
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.
He had only just managed to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke, having solidified his claim to the throne with a marriage to the youngest daughter of _____.
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 ____ 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 a 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 it’s poor little neck.”
Cormac Setterwind had not cried since the death of his father eighteen 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.
Everything. His beautiful, young wife.
His long fight to reclaim his rightful throne.
All of it gone.
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.
Odhran, who had escaped across the narrow channel to the Britannic Isles, would be ready and waiting to see upon any weakness.
Something had to be done.
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 his shoulder 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.
“There is nothing to be done, Mother. The Queen is near death, and the child with her,” Cormac said grimly, fighting to maintain control over his emotions.
“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 again in pain, and Cormac could tell from the increased panic in her voice that they were both running out of time.
He had no choice. He would go to the Fae.
The winter sun had already set as King Cormac made his careful way out of the castle and through the grounds.
He took none of his usual guards and personal servants with him.
No one must know of this night.
He entered a copse of birch trees and continued, certain of his route due to his mother’s constant folk tales and his own youthful wanderings.
The stone circles of Dunnhawke were well known to everyone in the area as a place to be generally avoided for fear of disrespecting them.
The Fae did not take kindly to any perceived slight.
Even as he approached, Cormac could see thick gray clouds gathering on the darkened horizon.
An example of nature finally taking its course, or a portent that his steps led towards his destiny?
The dark, rough-hewn stones of the fairy circle loomed through the withered leaves of the forest. What was usually a lush undergrowth crackled drily beneath his leather boots.
The stones were arranged in three concentric rings, each smaller than the other. Despite the dry heat of the evening, an icy trickle shivered down Cormac’s spine.
He had no authority between those rings of stone.
This was the dominion of the Sidhe. The immortal Fae would had inhabited this land long before the rise of Man.
Now, controlled by the ancient power of the stones, the Sidhe were held within their ancient realm, only able to enter the human world through specific sites of offering and worship.
It was a peace that had lasted for more than ten generations. He must do nothing to alter the balance of that truce tonight.
With a shiver of misgiving, Cormac loosened the leather belt that held his sword in place, and let the steel blade fall with a dull thud onto the dry grass.
He hated to enter this place unarmed, but to bring a weapon was to court death.
As Cormac passed within the outermost ring he withdrew a hammered-silver bracelet from a pocket of his cloak.
As he crossed the threshold of the furthermost stone, the King felt his heart began to thunder within his chest.
Make no bargain you cannot bear to keep.
His mother’s parting words, said just as he mounted his black war horse and charged off into Dunnhawke Forest.
The Fae delighted in making contracts and agreements with mortals, then standing back and watching their hapless victims fall prey to one unforeseen problem or another.
It was their speciality.
Cormac felt the air grow still around him as he entered the innermost circle of stones. All the late night hooting of owls and chirping of cicadas had died off, leaving an almost palpable silence in their place.
The very atmosphere around him quivered with magic.
Before his courage could fail him, Cormac went to the center of the fairy circle, where a low stone table sat, its surface worn smooth from the weight of centuries of offerings.
He laid the silver bracelet upon it, then turned to face the silently watching eyes of the forest.
“I am Cormac Setterwind, King of DunnHawke. I offer precious goods in exchange for the peaceful continuation of my reign.”
He swallowed hard, then continued. “I beg of thee, O’ Mighty Sidhe, end the drought that has plagued my kingdom. Spare my–” here he stopped, swallowing back his desperation, “spare my wife and unborn child from certain death.”
Cormac dropped to his knees before the stone tablet, burying his head in his sandy-blonde hair.
“Please. Accept my valuable offering.”
“A far more priceless offering is required, my good King Cormac.”
A silky voice sounded, making Cormac startle.
“At least, if you seek to achieve all that you desire.” the voice continued. The king looked up to see a figure silhouetted by the light of a torch that had not been there a moment ago.
Cormac’s pulse jumped as he beheld a member of the Fae for the first time in his life.
It was a youthful male with jet-black hair that glinted softly under the rising moonlight.
“We were wondering when you would come, King Cormac,” the young man said. He was dressed in hunting clothes, a green leather tunic and brown pants. Like the king, he was unarmed.
The laws had to be obeyed if the uneasy peace was to continue.
“I — I have come with an offering,” the King stammered, gesturing towards the valuable bracelet that still lay upon the stone table. “Please accept it in exchange for sparing the life of my Queen, and for bringing the rains back to the Kingdom of Dunnhawke.
“You ask for much, King Cormac, but bring little with which to bargain,” the Fae male said, raising a quizzical brow. His voice was light, almost comical given the dire circumstances.
Despite his youthful appearance, the Fae’s amethyst eyes were filled with a centuries-old cynicism.
“What more could you ask for? I have already lost my wife…my child…” The heaviness his grief began to sink upon Cormac, and he felt his back bend beneath its weight.
“Your wife yet lives, as does your child. They are still between the world of the living and the dead.”
Cormac raised his head at the Fae’s words.
“I can save them both, and bring prosperity to this land.”
The flesh on the king’s arms raised as he anticipated the man’s next words.
“For a price.”
Cormac’s shoulders sagged. A deep weariness settled over him. “What is your price?” he asked.
“The rains will be restored to your kingdom, and your wife restored to health,” the fairy said. “But the baby–”
“Damn you to hell! You will not harm my child!” Cormac’s rage washed away his former despair.
The Fae quirked a dark eyebrow. “We have no intention of harming the girl.”
Cormac went weak at the knees. “A girl? You know this? I am to have a daughter?
The man nodded. “She will be the first of twelve children born to you and your wife. Eight of them boys.”
Cormac’s mouth went dry. Twelve children. Eight sons. A dynasty to carry on his name. An iron vise clamped around his heart and twisted violently. “What would happen to the girl?” he asked, casting a glance towards the Fae.
The male picked idly at a fingernail, seemingly bored with the proceedings. “She would spend her youth in the mortal world, until we came for her. Then, we would come to spend her days with us in the lands beyond the mist.”
~There is no other choice left to me.~ “What fate would await her in the fairy lands?” Cormac said, his heart pounding dully in his skull.
“ I neither know nor care. All I can promise is that she will live out her days unharmed in the realm of King Ronan. The king has expressed a certain…interest in her destiny. Now, mortal, the time comes to make your choice. I fear your wife will not last much longer.” the man stepped forward, his unnatural purple eyes gleaming in the moonlight.
“How long will she be permitted to stay with her family?” Cormac said, knowing his decision had already been made.
The Fae knew it as well. A wide grin came to his lips. “Who can say, King Cormac? We fairy folk have long lives, and long memories. Perhaps we will come for her in a year. Perhaps twenty. Perhaps she will be allowed to live out her entire life without anyone even remembering our bargain.”
His shark-like smile broadened. “Though, that is unlikely.”
“Why my daughter? Why would a ruler of the Fae be interested in my child?” Cormac, asked, still unwilling to resign himself to what he was about to do.
“That is not your concern, mortal. Now, do you we have a deal?”
The Fae male spit into the palm of his silvery-white hand and extended it towards the king.
No. Tell this demon to crawl back into his hole.
Instead, King Cormac of Dunnhawke spat into his calloused palm, and shook hands with the Fae.