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Cormac took none of his usual guards 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 leave the animal tied to a low branch and make his way on foot.
Unlike the thick heat of Dunnhawke Castle, a thick, cold mist was ettled on the forest, giving a damp chill to the air.
Out of the fog, Cormac began to make out looming shapes. Weathered gray stones, more than twice the height of a man, formed a rough circle in the small forest meadow.
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 nothing but a pile of 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.
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 shudder, 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 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.
A king does not beg.
Nevertheless, Cormac dropped to his knees before the stone tablet, burying his head in his hands.
“Please. Accept my offering.”
“And do you think it a worthy offering, King Cormac, for the mighty gift that you ask?”
A silky voice sounded, and Cormac’s pulse jumped as he spun around.
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.
He looks so human.
“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 ear 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.”
He clucked under his tongue, as if in disappointment. “I think that this is not enough. Not for all that you ask.”
“But you can do it!” Cormac insisted.
The Fae scoffed. “Of course I can. I can save them both, and bring prosperity to this land.”
Run. While you can.
“What do you ask?” Cormac’s voice shook when he asked.
“The rains will be restored to your kingdom, and your wife restored to health,” the fairy said.
“What of the child?”
The Fae lips curled ever so slightly. “She would be given to us.”
Hot, violent rage washed away Cormac’s fear and despair. “Get back to hell you demon. You will not harm my child!”
“We have no intention of harming the girl, the Fae said, his smile growing.
“A girl,” Cormac shuddered. “You know this for certain?”
Not a son, but a daughter.
Useless when it comes to inheriting the throne.
Perhaps if Bronnagh could live–we could try again.
As if reading his churning thoughts, the Fae quirked a dark brow. “Your wife is of fertile stock, Setterwind. If she lives, the child will be the first of twelve born to you.”
“Twelve?” Cormac felt weak in the knees at this prediction from the future.
The Fae nodded. “Seven of them boys.”
A dynasty to carry on my name.
Cormac felt sick. His stomach clenched and roiled.
“What would happen to the girl?” he asked, hating himself for asking.
The male picked idly at a fingernail, seemingly bored with the proceedings.
“She would no longer be of your concern.”
“She is my blood!”
“Setterwind blood.” the Fae’s eyes gleamed with sudden hunger. “Yes, King Cormac I know. It is an ancient and noble bloodline. I assure you, your daughter would be treated with all the respect due her rank.”
Cormac’s heart wrenched with guilt. How could he ever know that were true?
“If you agree,” the Fae continued, “once the girl was ready she would be escorted to Erilea, to live out the rest of her days in the realm of the Fae.”
~Erilea.~ Cormac’s skin crawled at the word. The land beyond the winds. A place of desolation and death from which no mortal had ever returned.
It was spoken of only in children’s stories, meant to frighten young ones into bed on a cold winter’s night.
The Fae stepped forward. “The time has come to make your choice, Cormac Setterwind. Your young 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? The people of the winds have long lives, and long memories. Perhaps it will be a year. Maybe twenty? Perhaps she live out her entire life without anyone in Erilea even remembering she exists. Immortals have such a poor concept of human lives, after all.”
“Why my daughter? Why are the Fae be interested in my child?” Cormac, asked, still unable to resign himself to what he was about to do.
“That is not your concern,” the Fae said. His eyes narrowed. “And your time is up. What is your answer, Cormac Setterwind?”
Cormac closed his eyes, begged his unborn daughter for forgiveness, then opened them again. “Yes,” he said, feeling his soul shrink with the small, cowardly word.
The Fae’s mocking smile slid away. From within his tunic he drew out a shining silver dagger and used it to cut a line down his palm.
Ancient blood dripped onto ancient stones.
His face inscrutable, the Fae held the blade towards King Cormac. He held a shaking hand out, and the Fae ran the blade along his palm, cutting a thin ribbon.
Blood welled from the cut and fell to the ground.
It gleamed crimson on the weathered stones of the fairy circle.
“I sweat it,” Cormac said again.
“So be it, Cormac Setterwind,” the Fae said, his eyes gleaming triumphantly.
END OF CHAPTER TWO
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