Click here for Chapter One
Cormac 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.
After half a mile, the stately trunks gave way to a thick tangle of scrub pine and briar bushes.
Cormac was forced to walk his horse, and eventually, when the thorny bushes coated the ground like a carpet, to hobble the animal and make his way on foot.
Unlike the thick heat of Dunnhawke Castle, a thick, cold mist had settled on the forest, giving a damp chill to the air.
He sighed loudly, and his breath frosted in front of him.
Out of the fog, Cormac began to make out looming shapes in the darkness. Weathered gray stones more than twice the height of a man, forming a rough circle.
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.
The stones were arranged in three concentric rings, each smaller than the other.
An icy trickle shivered down Cormac’s spine. The faith of the priests had no power in this place.
These stones had stood for aeons before the gods of the outsiders came to this land.
Before the Fae, his crown meant nothing. He was just another mortal to them.
Flesh and bone that decayed in a blink of their ageless eyes. He had no authority between those rings of stone. The immortals had inhabited this land long before the rise of man.
It was an uneasy truce that had lasted for more than ten generations. He must do nothing to alter the balance of that peace tonight.
The power of the ancient stones held them within their shadow realm. If a man wanted to converse with the Fae, he must enter their circle.
And he must do it unarmed. To do otherwise was to court death.
With a shiver of misgiving, Cormac loosened the scabbard across his back that held his axe in place.
The two-sided blade fell with a dull thud onto the dry grass.
I am a king. I cower before no one.
Cormac kept his shoulders straight, his chin held high, as he passed within the outermost ring.
A tingle, electric as lightning, ran all the way down his spine. It passed as quickly as it had come, but it still left him shaking.
From the pocket of his cloak, he withdrew a hammered-silver bracelet of such superb craftsmanship that its worth could have fed a peasant family for a year.
Cormac’s heart thundered within the chest.
He crossed the threshold of the innermost stones.
Make no bargain you cannot bear to keep.
His mother’s parting words, said as he mounted his war horse and charged off into Hawkthorne Forest.
The atmosphere around him quivered with magic.
Before his courage could fail him, Cormac said the words, the ancient words tripping on an unfamiliar tongue.
“Hear my name and answer my plea.”
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.”
His words came slowly, haltingly. He’d learned the old language at his mother’s knee, but hadn’t spoken it aloud since long before his father’s death.
Cormac swallowed hard, then continued. “I beg of thee, O’ Mighty Ones, end the drought that has plagued my kingdom. Spare my–” here he stopped, swallowing back his desperation.
“Spare them. Spare my wife and unborn child from certain death.” A tear drifted down his cheek.
He slipped back into the modern tongue, but he was far too consumed in his panic to notice.
Cormac dropped to his knees before the stone tablet, burying his head in his sandy-blonde hair.
“Please. Accept my offering.”
“And do you think it a worthy offering, my good King Cormac, for the mighty gift that you ask?”
A silky voice sounded, and Cormac’s pulse jumped as he spun around.
For the first time in his life, he behed a member of the Fae.
He looks so human.
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 moon.
“We were wondering when you would come, King Cormac,” the young man said.
He was dressed in simple hunting garb, a green leather tunic and brown pants.
Like the king, he appeared to be unarmed.
To the casual observer, the Fae could have passed as a rather beautiful young man.
But there was nothing human whatsoever in the Fae male’s eyes.
They gleamed in the moonlight, an unnatural, emotionless violet that froze the blood in Cormac’s veins.
The Fae knelt down and picked up the silver bracelet, examining it carefully from all sides.
“Its value is great, I assure you. It was part of my wife’s dowry.”
“Ah yes. The little queen from Peralorne. Tell me, Cormac Settermind, do you think if we listen hard enough, we will hear her dying scream?”
The Fae put a hand to his eye mockingly, as if trying to make out a distant sound.
Even though the creature’s words were meant to be taunting, they gave Cormac a fierce burst of hope.
His queen yet lived. At least for now.
“Will you accept the offering?” Cormac asked. The words were nearly squeezed out by the fear in his throat.
“You ask much, King of Dunnhawke. Life and life and life again.”
The Fae’s face barely moved as he spoke. It was as if his immortal features had been carved from marble.
“And yet you offer only metal. Pretty, to be sure. And yet dull. Lifeless.”
The youth’s pouting lips curved in a smile, the first sign of emotion that Cormac had seen of him.
“I think that this is not enough. Not for all that you ask.”
Cormac swallowed hard. “But can you do it?”
The Fae’s grin widened. “Of course. I can save them both, and bring prosperity to this land.”
While you can.
But Cormac’s heart could bear no more. For him to have finally realized his life’s great dream, only for it to be snatched from his fingers…
“What do you ask?” His eyes were dry. He’d chosen this path when he entered the forest.
“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?
He nodded. “Your wife is of fertile stock. If she lives, the child will be the first of thirteen born to you and your wife. Eight of them boys.”
Cormac’s mouth went dry. Thirteen 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.
“Does it matter? She would no longer be of your concern.”
“But she is still of my blood!”
The Fae’s head shot up, a feral gleam in his purple eyes. “Yes. Yes, she is of Setterwind blood.”
There was a half-feral gleam in his purple eyes, but it quickly faded. “Which means she is of noble birth, and would be treated according to her station.”
Cormac warred with himself. Had the Fae indicated that the baby in Bronnagh’s belly was a son, he never would have considered the prospect.
But a daughter…
“What do you want with my child?”
“I neither want nor care about mortal scum,” the Fae’s lip curled. “But yours is an old bloodline. There are those among us who are…interested in the House of Setterwind.
“If you agree, once the girl is ready, we would come to escort her across the barrier. To live out the rest of her days in the realm of the Fae.”
Cormac’s jaw dropped. Such a thing had only ever occurred in the oldest of the ancient songs.
The ones that were sung to frighten children on a cold winters’ night.
“Of course, if you do not agree, that is your right. But I advise you that your lovely young bride has but minutes to live, and the bairn will die inside of her.”
Bile rose in Cormac’s throat.
Make no bargain you cannot bear to keep.
What fate would await her in the fairy lands?”
“I neither know nor care. All I can promise is that she will live out her days unharmed in the kingdom of Erilea.”
The Fae stepped forward, his hands stuffed casually into the pockets of his tunic. “The time has come to make your choice, mortal. Your wife will not last much longer.
“When will you come for the child?” 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. Maybe twenty? Perhaps she will be allowed to live out her entire life without anyone in Erilea even remembering our bargain. Immortals have such a poor concept of human lives, after all.”
His smile looked more like a sneer. “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. Now, do you we have a deal?”
The Fae spit into the palm of his silvery-white hand and extended it towards the king.
END OF CHAPTER TWO