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Every culture has legends about underwater beings - merrow, mermaids, Merfolk, and rusalka to name a few. They like in lakes, rivers, and the sea.
I love using them in my stories because of the new world that opens up.
#thatplacethursday - A place I use in my stories from our world, mythology, or my imagination. Fae is a location I love because anything is possible. People eating trees and The Hunt are possible dangers, as is getting lost forever. Despite the dangers, I imagine it as beautiful.
Jakub watched the fiery redhead walk through the door to the back offices. He’d have followed to make sure she got a proper tour, but he needed a moment to collect his thoughts, and his powers.
Magic trickled through him, wanting free, wanting to sink into Riley, wanting to cradle her against him. His cock was on board with this idea.
He’d fucked plenty of women. More than he could remember in seven centuries, but couldn’t recall a time his dick had been this eager. He wanted Riley Doyle something fierce. His magic seemed to be making a play for her as well.
As an immortal, he'd had time to learn exacting control over his magic. He was known for his control and strength. Until Riley walked in, unable to even speak her name, and his magic had strained like a hound ready to hunt trapped on a leash.
When the magical wards around his shop had danced in excitement, he'd nearly cut his finger off. His magic had never reacted like that to anything or anyone before. He'd expected to find a powerful or unfamiliar Other Worlder had entered his store. Instead. He found a befuddled human.
The wards hadn’t shaken as they would to indicate a threat, but rather stroked tantalizing feathery touches against his power, alerting him to something he definitely wanted to see.
He didn’t think he could be surprised anymore but Riley proved him wrong. When he’d thrown open the door to find her green gaze eating him like her favorite dessert, he'd been so turned on he nearly burst into flames.
He’d wanted to grab her, kiss her, and devour her as equally as she was him. He had the strangest urge to call Aiden like there was news to share that couldn’t wait. Like they were gossipy girls.
But what news? Did he dare call Aiden and confess his magic, and his cock, had lost their minds? His cousin would never let him hear the end of it.
The front door of the shop opened.
Jakub blinked. Maybe Aiden had become part Djinn and could be summoned.
His cousin grinned, his black hair down and free from a tie today. They looked so much alike they were often mistaken for brothers. It was the same with all his brothers and cousins — broad shoulders, towering height, black hair of varying lengths, and grey eyes.
He knew a sign when he saw one. Jakub glanced where Riley had gone to make sure she wouldn't overhear, then rushed to grab his cousin’s arm and drag him to the front corner of the showroom.
“There's a woman here,” he murmured, low and urgent.
Aiden craned his head in exaggerated gestures, then eyed Jakub, a questioning expression on his face. “Is she invisible?”
“Shut it,” Jakub warned, in no mood for unwitty banter. He thought of lying but decided against it. If this was a sign, Aiden needed the truth. “She caused my wards to… waver.”
“The invisible woman rocked your wards?” Aiden smirked. "Men don't normally worry when a woman does that for him."
Jakub growled. “She’s not invisible, dolt! She’s in the back.”
The amused look upon Aiden’s face vanished, replaced by astonishment. “Truly?”
“Tá,” Jakub rolled his eyes. "I don't need to make up stories about women."
Aiden finally looked serious. “Is she magic?”
“No." Jakub sighed, his next words bitter. "I sensed no magic on her. She's as human as a human gets.” A heavy loneliness weighed his spirit down. If she were Other World, she could be his Maité.
But never a human.
Maybe he'd just been over excited because he'd been wallowing in wishes for the future when Riley came into the shop. If he could truly summon someone to appear with a thought, it would be the woman he'd been waiting seven hundred years to find.
His cousin looked him over for a long moment. “What are you not telling me, Jakub?”
Jakub bent his head, ashamed at his loss of control around the young woman. “I couldn't find words to speak when I first saw her, and my magic was all over her. It was hard to think of anything other than siring sons upon her.”
Aiden was silent for a moment, then burst into laughter. “You are joking. Nice one. I believed you right up until the sons part. That was too much for you.”
Jakub’s jaw dropped. He wasn't that bad, and certainly no worse than the other Finnegan boys.
Aiden thumped Jakub's arm. “You're as randy as they come, and do your best to get into any woman’s britches. Nice try on this one bein’ different. You're not the monogamous, settling down type.”
There was never a reason before, but he wanted to be.
A soft gasp caught Jakub’s attention. Turning, he found Riley there, just inside the door.
Shit. Had she heard them? She stared at him with a hurt expression. She'd definitely heard something she didn't like. He wasn’t sure why that bothered him, but it did.
“I, uh —” she stammered. “It looks like you were taking inventory. I could work on that if you want. Or I could go. I mean…”
“No. Stay!” Jakub practically shouted.
Aiden touched his arm. “Hello. Jakub is a rude lummox. I'm Aiden, his handsomer cousin. And you are?”
“Riley.” She smiled at Aiden.
Jakub's fist itched to smash Aiden's nose.
Aiden crossed the showroom in a deceptively casual lope. “Riley, what do you say you and I head to the back and I can help you with that inventory? I think Jakub has a few things to finish up here.” He glanced back at Jakub. “Plus, I think he may need to find a shirt.”
A shirt? One hand smacked his bare chest. He rarely wore shirts in his woodshop, and then Riley's eyes had been all over him. "Right. A shirt."
Aiden nodded and ushered Riley into the back of the store.
Jakub headed into the rainy darkness. He needed to think, to clear his head, and double-check his wards. The cold shower helped a bit.
Something was off. He’d never been this out of sorts. He headed around to the back of the building where his truck was parked.
There was no shirt inside. He conjured a shirt from the apartment rather than one of the extras he kept in his office. It would do no good to blink away a shirt if Riley was standing near it, and saw it disappear.
One did not show magic to humans. It simply wasn’t done, although most of them were so blind they couldn't see magic anyway.
While Riley had made his wards tremble, she wasn't magic or an Other Worlder. He’d never met a magic user who didn’t have at least a residual amount of power on them.
It occurred from usage and just being around it all the time. As far as he could tell, she was stunning — but very, and only, human.
He’d search through his books, to look for a way to make her immortal and supernatural, as he was.
Riley bit back an appreciative moan as a shirtless Jakub lifted the painting he was trying to hang higher. His back and arms bulged in so many interesting ways. If she had some ice cream or popcorn, she'd happily stream the Jakub show all. Day. Long.
The man made the mundane seem extraordinary, especially when his shirts found somewhere else to be, as they often did. It was like Jakub had an allergy to being fully clothed.
Not that she minded.
In the weeks she’d known him, he surprised and captivated her. Case in point, Riley couldn’t tear her gaze from his performance with the painting. Who needed cable TV and late night premium channels?
And he did love to show off what the gods had given him, always teasing and taunting her with it. She stared at his backside and did her best to remain silent. The man should not still have this much sway and power over her, but he did.
It was difficult to look away. Considering the amount of intentional flexing going on, Jakub didn't want her attention anywhere else. It would be rude not to stare appreciatively, and her mother had done her best to teach Riley to be polite.
With each sway of the painting, another bunch of muscles flexed under all that tawny, tattooed skin. She might have to sit on her hands to behave.
His biceps flexed, and she heard herself moan. Hopefully, Jakub was too busy to have heard her.
Cringing, she pushed the thought away. She most certainly could, and did, moan, drool, pant, and trip over her own two feet around him — her body loved to embarrass her.
The man twisted her into an uncoordinated, stammering, unintelligent schoolgirl by offering her nothing more than a smile.
She’d tried to make herself immune to his charms after hearing he was a man whore. That had become easier when she'd stayed late a few times and encountered some of the women.
He didn't seem to have a type. Tall and short. Lanky and curvy. Redhead, brunette, and blonde. Young to middle aged.
Jakub was an equal opportunity womanizer. After the shop closed, a parade of them went in and out of rooms he kept locked to her.
It shouldn't matter. He wasn't hers. The only relationship they had was employee and employer, so anything more would be inappropriate anyway. That didn't stop her heart aching. A little stab each time a new woman smiled at her as they came and went.
Came and went!
Jakub peered over his shoulder, catching her in his hypnotic grey eyes. "Did you say something?"
Busted. She tried to recover pitiful scraps of her self-esteem. "I think you're slightly left of center."
"Really?" He hoisted the painting again.
Riley only half watched the show now. It was almost time for her to go home, and there were ominous signs that Shawn had found her. For days, she’d been receiving hang-up calls from a blocked number on her new burner phone.
A bouquet of orange flowers had been left on her doorstep — the same flowers Shawn bought her as an apology after one of his violent streaks.
More disturbing were the signs that someone had been in her apartment. It was a tiny studio and she took particular care about everything having a place and keeping it there. When she’d returned home late last night, things had been moved. Only slightly, but not how she'd left the few things she owned.
The last thing she wanted was to put Jakub or the others she’d come to know in danger, yet she couldn’t muster the will to go. The idea of never seeing Jakub again hurt worse than the pain of watching the parade of women in and out of his rooms.
Everything in her screamed to trust Jakub, but she hadn't told her secrets to him. How could she now, when the danger had found her?
Hi, I know you think I'm human, but I'm actually a banshee on the run from a mage. By the way, I'm also in exile because the Comhairle let me keep my life in exchange for not using my magic. Oh, you think I need a room with padded walls? No surprise there. Now I've been found, so I have to leave. Thanks for everything.
It would only paint a target on him. Humans who knew the truth of magic often met with unfortunate endings — courtesy of the Comhairle. She’d heard of too many incidents to risk Jakub's life.
She shuddered at the thought of anything happening to him, or his cousin, or Niamh. Maybe it was because loneliness had become a constant companion, but they'd become a sort of family to her.
Niamh and Riley were close, or as close as she could allow anyone with her past and lack of future to get. Niamh suspected Riley had deep feelings for Jakub and teased her like a sister.
If she was honest with herself, she had to admit she was head over heels for her boss. She had been from the moment she met him, and her feelings grew stronger with each day. Maybe he was the human she could settle down with one day.
But she kept her feelings to herself. It was clear Jakub had no time for, or interest in her. Just in every other woman he met.
Jakub moved to reposition the painting again. It was a little too far to the right. Every muscle on his upper body flexed, causing Riley’s sex to flood with slickness.
“What about now?” The bulging muscles in his arms looked ready to pop, while the ones in his abs made ripples that taunted her.
"A bit to the left."
She considered using her power to help him, but thought better of it. Somehow, Riley didn’t think a floating painting would go over well.
Especially when Jakub was human. Other than that initial flash of magic on that first day, she hadn't felt anything else magical around him, or his cousin, or Niamh. The wards could very well have been placed by the protectors of Bandrui's Grove and had nothing to do with Jakub at all.
Riley hadn't met any of the guardians, but she was glad about that. She didn't want to draw attention to herself, especially the attention of anyone so powerful.
“Damn thing,” Jakub muttered, drawing her attention back to his tempting body. He shifted his weight, drawing her gaze to his ass. She licked her lips.
Today was giving her plenty to visualize for when she inevitably resorted to pleasuring herself. Each flick of her nub, each clench in her pussy would be a direct result of her imagining Jakub being the one bringing her pleasure.
It would be his dick she imagined in place of her vibrator. His fingers tweaking her nipples. If her dreams remained the same, and goddess, Riley hoped they did, Jakub would play the starring role.
If only dreams could come true.
Jakub set the painting down and cast a questioning look at her. Pulling on her all-business persona, she held out a file.
Riley tried to focus on anything other than his body coming toward her.
She’d taken over the bookkeeping. It was for the best. Jakub wasn’t great about his accounting. He didn’t seem to mind where his money went or how it was spent. He had so much that she wasn’t surprised.
“Here are your taxes. I thought you’d want to take a peek at them.”
It might be the last thing she could do for him. If she found her apartment violated again, she had to leave. Staying even this long was pushing her luck.
He glanced at the folder. “You did my taxes? Did I not tell you that you didn't have to worry about those things?”
She winced. “You did, but they needed to be done and I’d already gathered everything needed. The forms aren’t filed, just filled out. Look them over or throw them away. I was only trying to help.”
Jakub gave her his lady killer smile, “Thank you, lass. If I didn't already think you were perfect, the taxes would put you there.”
He thought she was perfect? Shame flushed her cheeks. She’d been lying to him from the moment they'd met.
“I’m not perfect, Jakub. Far from it.”
“I do not recall giving you a say in the matter.” He winked.
A huge bolt of lightning lit up the sky outside, quickly followed by thunder so loud she nearly launched herself at Jakub. Nervous and embarrassed by her fear of storms, Riley babbled.
“Did you want to look over everything tonight, or you probably have people for that. I’m sorry.”
Jakub arched a dark brow and narrowed grey eyes. He was gorgeous. “Is this really that important right now, Riley? Am I in danger of going broke?”
Not unless someone swooped in and sucked your millions dry.
The man made no sense. He was loaded beyond belief but only operated the antiques shop. His cousin had mentioned a time or two that Jakub had once owned quite a few businesses, but had decided to give them all up and go with a quieter life. He didn’t look old enough to have amassed a fortune, but who was she to question someone else's life choices?
“So…” His gaze was slightly mocking. “Am I out of money?”
Not bothering to answer, Riley dropped her gaze to the swirling shield-knot tattoo on his upper arm and bit her lip. It was one of his many markings, and he took great pride in explaining each one to her.
Riley didn't let on that she knew what the majority of them represented. Another sort of lie. There was a lot she held back from Jakub, but he had secrets too. Probably not as big as hers, though.
Another flash of lightning sent thunder rolling across the sky.
She closed her eyes. Nothing good happened during thunderstorms.
Shawn's laughter accompanied the thunder in her mind. He'd always made fun of her fear. Okay, so it was irrational, but she had no control over it. It was irrational! All the signs meant he was in Bandrui's Grove. She’d gone so far as to pack her bags for a speedy escape..
“Riley?” Jakub's deep voice brought her back from the edge of panic. “Are you well?”
She pasted a fake smile on. “Peachy.”
He didn’t look as though he believed her. She couldn’t blame him. Thankfully, he returned to his task at hand — hanging the painting.
The man looked like he should be in a gym, or, with his long hair and braids, on some ancient battlefield wielding a sword. Not hanging a painting on the wall of an antiques shop.
Riley sighed and wished again that she could call her sisters. She wanted to hear her sisters’ voices, share her feelings for Jakub with them, and even sit through their lectures about bad-boy men who would break her heart in the end.
“Lass, you feeling okay?” Jamub asked, his lilt shining through.
Growing up, Riley had been taught that the greatest heroes came from Ireland. Her father had only been allowed to marry her mother because of her ties to the motherland, and keeping with traditions was expected of Riley and her siblings would have to do the same.
Though, her older sister liked French men, which made their father crazy. Finding a man worthy enough, according to her family’s standards, was next to impossible.
Unless the man was a living, breathing Celtic warrior with unearthly powers, the chances of him passing the Doyle family tests were slim to none. She wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find her father had a checklist of prerequisites.
Not that it mattered in her case. She’d shamed her family. And her last boyfriend was a real winner. She shuddered thinking about him. She’d known he’d find her if she stayed in one spot too long, and she’d been in Bandrui's Grove weeks, and had hoped to have longer. Maybe she hadn't been a resident long enough for the protections to apply to her.
Her magic bristled, ready to defend Jakub should the need arise. She would do whatever it took to keep him safe. Even if it meant exposing herself and magic — though she wished with all her might it would never come to that.
Countless nights she’d begged any goddess who would listen for the chance to spend the rest of her days by Jakub's side, be the one who caught his fancy, won his hand.
An equal number of days, she’d awakened to heartache, finding that she was nothing more to him than a friend, someone who helped run his shop.
Jakub propped the painting against the wall and turned to face her. “Riley, have you eaten today? You're paler than normal, and that is saying something.”
“I’m fine. Totally fine,” she said, even as the room swayed. She'd planned to eat lunch, but gotten sidetracked by the books, then she’d worked straight through.
Worry over Shawn being in town made her stomach too upset for her to think of adding anything to it. The storm outside seemed to grow in intensity and she wasn't looking forward to walking home. She glanced out the nearest window.
Gasping, Riley jerked back as she thought she saw Shawn standing on the other side of the glass pane, glaring in at her, white eyes glowing.
Terror took over. A scream burst out of her as her magic thrashed to break free of its prison. Her scream went on and on as fragments of her magic successfully escaped to power her voice.
Oh no. Oh no! She yanked her magic back and stuffed it into the box, but it was too late.
Someone was going to die.
Jakub's voice came to her from a distance. The vision of Shawn disappeared.
She whirled and bumped into Jakub, bounced off him and turned so fast her vision darkened around the edges, then closed in around her
Bandrui's Grove was the first place that popped into Riley's head when she needed a place to hide. It could be her new home, or so she hoped. It had a reputation as a sanctuary, which meant protection. She hoped it was enough.
Shawn's spies would make living in a major city too hard. He had contacts everywhere and had threatened to use all of them to find her.
A new beginning was required for her survival and sanity. No one could know the truth — that she was a banshee, descended from a long line of witches that could be traced back hundreds of years.
She would just be Riley. It saddened her that she had to abandon her Doyle surname. It was too well known among Other Worlders, espevislly in Ireland. She’d considered changing her first name too, but her father had given her a name passed down through the generations. She'd had to abandon her family. Her name wasn't uncommon. She could at least keep that part of her past.
Riley needed to think of a suitable surname fast if she wanted a job. A sharp wave of loneliness swept over her, bringing sudden, stinging heat to her eyes. She longed to call one of her siblings. They’d help her think of a name and cover story, Her twin brothers had a particular talent for skullduggery. Not that her sisters were slouches in that department.
But she couldn’t. No contact with anyone from her past. That was one of the many hated rules she had to live by now. She also hated the men who made the rules. The Comhairle. She didn’t want anything to do with that antiquated bunch of old men who thought they ruled the world, but Shawn had made that impossible.
She wished she was powerful enough to handle them. Well, powerful enough to handle them without killing them. Riley shuddered. That was an experience she didn't ever want to repeat.
Maybe send the misogynistic old men of the Comhairle to the middle of nowhere and see how they liked being exiled.
If she used her magic, or made a single misstep, they had her dead to rights. She'd taken a mortal life — nevermind that she'd acted in self defense.
Of course, everyone claimed innocence, so the Comhairle didn't believe her. She was only guilty of falling for a mage who had everyone convinced he was on the side of right.
Shawn lied as easily as he breathed. He had a way about him that made others hang on his every word. His magic was so potent, he'd even bamboozled a banshee. No mean feat.
She hadn't known he drew his power from darkness and preyed upon witches. Mages started off looking normal, and as they grew more corrupted, the telltale white drained their color and soul. She’d been the latest obsession in Shawn's quest for power. His charisma made turning him down impossible when they met. She’d eventually come to her senses and escaped him. He'd not taken the rejection well.
Riley had been lucky to get away, and that the Comhairle only exiled her and banned her from using her magic. They could have locked her away for life, or demanded her execution.
The only reason they gave her another chance — so long as she started over and gave up everything she knew — was because of her father’s influence.
She had to make a clean break or she’d spend the rest of her life in some prison with a bunch of supernatural lawbreakers.
Riley sighed. Starting over was a bitch, but she had to begin anew or else. So she'd fled Ireland, crossed the Atlantic and most of North America, to arrive in Bandrui's Grove — a village in high, forested mountains, nestled in the shadow of a volcano.
Love was for idiots. She’d never make that mistake again. No. She wouldn't put her heart on the line or trust a man.
Especially not an Other World male.
She’d settle down with some clueless human once she figured out what she was going to do. Until then, she’d work whatever jobs she could find and do her best to stay below Shawn’s radar. If she could hide from him, the Comhairle wouldn't be able to find her, either.
She had been in Bandrui's Grove for three days, and so far, the antiques shop was the only place hiring. The locals claimed the owner needed help with running the shop, along with managing the books.
Since she was qualified for such a job, Riley was hoping she’d be able to land it. She couldn’t exactly hand over references or announce her qualifications. Well, she could, but the minute anyone checked, Shawn would be all over her. That wasn’t an option, and funds were running low.
Riley stood outside the store, eyeing the grey sky. It rained a lot in Bandrui's Grove, just like at home.
The antiques shop, like the rest of the village, had an old-world Irish charm to it. Bandrui's Grove had become a human tourist attraction after being featured on some television shows and magazine articles about haunted and picturesque villages. A film crew left only yesterday.
Riley had always been fascinated with Bandrui's Grove. Her family had visited a few times when she was a child, and it had felt perfect. A piece of Ireland across the world from where anyone expected to find it, located in a pocket of its own. Immune to goings-on around it. Far from problems. Far from what was normal. Safe.
And she needed to feel safe — or, at least the illusion of it, more than ever.
She peered into the window of the shop. There were no signs indicating the owner was looking to hire someone.
The air smelled of pending rain and she glanced into the distance, her gaze skimming over the mountains. It certainly looked like rain was on the horizon. Great. Just what the area needed. More rain. Seemed like all it had done was rain since her arrival.
Bandrui's Grove was losing some of its attraction. She sighed, running her hands through her long, unruly, deep red hair.
Riley would look like something the cat dragged in if she waited much longer. Her available wardrobe wasn't appropriate for cool weather. There'd been less than an hour to abandon her home. Not much time to pack discerningly.
She’d hoped her father would defend her before the Comhairle. He hadn’t. He’d agreed to exile her for ten years. She’d never believed he would allow any of his daughters to move away, let alone stand over her, looking hurt, then turning his back on her.
Her father’s disappointed expression haunted her. Shame. The last thing she'd seen on his face was shame. Of her, for violating the rules. Even he hadn't believed she’d used her power against another in self defense. But her word, against the men on the Comhairle, who swallowed every lie Shawn spouted, meant little.
Riley raised her head and squared her shoulders. She would not cry again. No. She was a stronger woman than that.
She had to be.
Jakub Finnegan bent over his woodworking bench and turned a piece of oak in his hands. He'd been toying with it for the last few days, but it had nothing to say to him yet. Oak was special to his people — the druids.
Especially his bloodline. There were many Finnegans, and each clan of the family was attuned to a particular tree. Jakub's branch was Oak.
He was a Druid, given magic and immortality, and charged to protect humans. Ironic, since they held little regard for nature. They didn't care for much, other than themselves and their personal comforts and conveniences. He was not a fan, but almost eight billion of them weren't going anywhere.
Jakub sighed. While he would never say the goddess had made a mistake, he often thought she might have chosen a bit hastily when sending him to be birthed to a family of immortal Druids, then tasked them with overseeing humans’ safety as well as the training of other magic users.
He didn’t mind the Other Worlders as much. Though, more and more, they also held less respect for the craft and its roots. They sought power for the sake of it. Those types almost always ended up going bad — becoming something Jakub, his brothers, and his cousins hunted.
It had been a month since the last threat had surfaced and he felt restless. He had ended the mage and harnessed his white magic to keep it from reentering the ether. The man had more attitude than power. He should have waited to go completely white before he tried to be a badass.
Bandrui's Grove attracted more than its fair share of danger. Most threats were simple to deal with, but every now and then, one took some effort. Aiden, his cousin and best friend, had just returned from a hunt for a mage like that — one who took a toll on the hunters.
Aiden had acquired some bruises, but was fine. The same couldn’t be said for their cousin Blake. He’d already suffered at the hands of demons and paid the price every day.
All the Finnegan men held guilt over Blake. They'd failed him. He’d been savagely attacked, held prisoner, and tortured for months by a mage who had turned to the ways of the Abhartach — blood drinkers.
They'd extricated Blake, and he'd survived, but he'd not come out of the ordeal unchanged. As a result, he was considered an Abhartach, though none of the Finnegans would hunt him.
The damn idiot thought himself a danger to mankind and was doing a damn fine job of trying to end himself. The fool had no idea that the kind-hearted man he’d once been still remained. That the blood drinker side of him did not rule him. Couldn’t get it through Blake’s thick skull, though.
Stubbornness was a Finnegan family trait every one of them inherited.
Should he try to call Blake? It would be Christmas soon. The man typically refused to answer his cell, and even magical contact yielded no results. If Blake didn’t respond soon, Jakub would bring in the big guns.
Their grandmother would straighten Blake out, or pull him by his nose to the rest of the boys so they could. Jakub had found himself on the receiving end of her disappointment and correction often enough.
For a woman who didn’t even come to his shoulder, she was terrifying when she wanted to be, but entirely loving and nurturing all other times.
Yes. If Blake didn’t respond soon, Jakub would leave the matter in Maimeó's more than capable hands.
He smiled, his focus returning to the piece of oak in his hands. This time, a form revealed itself, and his knife moved to free the Oak King.
So much of his time had been poured into carving toys, figures, and furniture over the centuries. He needed the outlet, or he’d dwell on the past, and all the things he couldn't change. That way led to insanity.
A few of them had gone that way. Their family lived such long lives, not even being born to it guaranteed immortality suited them.
Worse than the regrets of the past were the diminishing hopes of the future. The last generation of the Finnegan boys hadn't found their Maité — the other halves of their immortal souls.
What had his family done to piss off the goddess? They respected her and feared her. Did her bidding to protect humans.
Yet, they were all single. Some liked that. Others, such as himself, were more than ready to start families and have something more in life. He sighed. It hadn’t happened in seven hundred years and didn’t look as if it ever would.
For now, he’d do what he always did with his spare time — stay busy and alert for the next threat. He carved the mouth and beard of the Oak King.
The soft sounds of music from the motherland played on his speakers as he lost himself in his work. His building was large enough that he the antiques shop out front, a workshop in the back, and an apartment above it.
It was almost time to open the store, but he could carve a little longer.
Any of the Finnegans could live like kings, but they chose to lead simple lives. Others did not need to know he was worth millions, perhaps billions.
He easily recalled when he and his clan hunted for food, living off the land. Modern conveniences meant so many took so much for granted. Not Jakub. He held great respect for the land, and for the magic.
That same magic ran through his veins, often wanting to be free. With his age and position came high titles within the Other World magic community.
He, his brothers and his cousins, each held positions on the Comhairle. There were so many Finnegans that the other members joked the vote always went whichever way the Finnegans wanted.
The truth was, he avoided as many of those meetings as possible. He had no interest in politics. The threats he dealt with required swift action, not drawn out proceedings. And no jail sentence would rehabilitate a mage, once they went bad.
The old men could have their Comhairle.
Jakub had a pair of magic-eating swords.
Riley took a deep breath to summon courage, and studied the carved oak door. The thing was huge and wouldn't have been out of place in a castle. A third of the panel depicted a hunting scene of an archer aiming at a boar. Below that, fairies cavorted with humans. The bottom third was a forest of trees with a river wending through it.
She put her hand on the doorknob. At the contact, energy blasted up her arm, zipped through her blood, and ended with a warm swirl in her chest.
The magic hummed a melody she'd never heard before, but knew in her heart. It was from the old world and beckoned to her magic, trying to coax it from the box she'd locked it away in.
No, no, no! It couldn't get out! Shawn or the Comhairle would find her. She gasped and remained rooted where she was as she used every ounce of her will to shut her magic back into the prison.
It went, but not willingly. Riley blew out a breath and blinked water out of her eyes. Great. She'd been standing around long enough for the rain to start.
Hoping that brief flare of power went unnoticed, she tried to gather her wits. It would do no good showing up to ask for a job dripping magic everywhere when she probably resembled a drowned rat.
She could use her magic to dry herself and to tidy up her appearance, but after the near disaster just now, there was no way she dared risk it.
Even the slightest mistake could get her killed. That was what Shawn was counting on. Then he would swoop in to save her so she owed him her life. That… That mage had probably planned this all along.
Riley curled her hands into fists. She wanted to turn him into a worm and step on him.
Stop it before you get yourself in more trouble.
She’d never actually met a member of the Comhairle. They'd worn hooded robes during her sham of a trial, but the stories told to young Other Worlders were enough to keep a kid up at night.
They were probably decrepit-looking old men who had bald patches on their heads, and giant noses full of bristly hair.
Focus on why you're here. You need a job!
Riley turned the knob and entered the shop.
Calming scents of lavender and vanilla filled the air. The store was as pleasing to the eye on the inside as it had been on the outside. Carved furniture stood everywhere amid tables displaying statues, vases, and bric-a-brac.
Tiny carvings of wood to life-sized statues were everywhere. One wall held an elaborately hand-crafted bookcase holding tomes and decorative boxes. Someone had spent a fortune having a woodsmith custom design each piece. It was beautiful.
Riley may not be able to live among her family anymore, but this place felt like home. She’d accept anything at the moment.
“Hello?” Riley took a few steps inside, the heavy carved oak door shutting behind her. She expected an ominous thud from the heavy door, but it swung closed soundlessly.
The sound of drums and faint chants filled the air. Some sort of Celtic music playing from the back of the shop. She walked in the direction it came from, calling out two more times in hopes someone would hear her.
She ended up next to a door she assumed led to the back, where patrons weren’t welcomed. This one was also beautifully carved, depicting a scene of fairies having a party. She touched one of the figures, half expecting the winged creature to take flight.
“Anyone here?” she shouted, straining to be heard over the music.
The music shut off and the door swung open. Riley blinked, at a loss for words as she stared at a bare, very muscular chest, displaying every Celtic marking she could think of inked permanently on tawny skin.
Touching each one seemed like the best idea she’d had in… maybe forever Her gaze slid lower, to the V framing a series of intriguing ridges down the center.
Oh yeah. She wanted to touch every one of those, too.
All she could think about was the sight of the man before her. Her sisters had mentioned muscles on a man making a woman stupid, which Riley had laughed at.
As she stared at the expanse of male so magnificently displayed, her level of intelligence plummeted like a free falling elevator.
“Tá,” the man said, his voice deep, his Irish lilt evident, making her sigh softly. “Who wants to know?”
Her intelligence was still lost in the plummeting elevator car. Who? What the hell was her name? Why had she come here? She forced her gaze from his chiseled chest to his equally square, stubbled jaw line.
Her throat felt dry as she raked her gaze farther up, spotting full, kissable lips, then penetrating slate-grey eyes. Eyes that were looking at her with a strange expression. Long black hair with several braids fell to the tops of his broad shoulders.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Hot men clearly made her stupid. “Um.” Riley wasn’t sure how long they stood there, neither saying a word, but the silence ticked by, growing awkward.
“Wh — ” she croaked. Yep. She was now one of those women who couldn’t think straight around a half-naked, muscled man.
He blinked, his black brows meeting for a moment before he nodded. “Come this way, lass.”
She followed, unsure what else to do since she’d been struck stupid at the very sight of him. Of course, now her view was of his muscled back, all the tattoos there, and his ass in low hanging jeans.
Was that sawdust? He'd carved all the things in the shop? He entered a break room with a few roundtables and plastic chairs. A microwave stood atop a counter next to a fridge, which he opened, to pull out a bottle of water.
Riley stood back, still surprised by her response to a perfect stranger. He twisted the cap off and extended the water. The moment her fingers slid over his, a rush of magic surged between them.
That song her heart recognized trilled in her mind. She gasped, eyes widening as she fought to contain her magic. Her throat went drier.
Riley was about to sip the water when Mr. Muscles pulled it back, his eyes were on her chest as he gulped the water down. There wasn’t a drop left when he was done.
Laughter escaped her lips. At least she wasn't alone having issues.
Mr. Muscles looked from the empty bottle to her and smiled abashedly. “Sorry.” He went to the fridge again and got her a new bottle that he set on a table as if he didn’t want to chance getting closer to her.
That was fine. She wasn’t sure she could handle him any closer either. Smiling, Riley took the water. “Thank you.” She sipped it as he continued to watch her.
“We don't open for another thirty minutes.” His voice made her want to melt into a puddle at his feet.
She'd only sworn off love, not lust.
Best decision ever.
Riley took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m here about the job. I was told you’re hiring.”
He shook his head. “What?”
“Hiring." It appeared his intelligence had left the building, too. "Are you hiring?”
Putting his palms on the table top, he leaned toward her.. “Tá. You're hired.”
She took a step back. “You didn’t ask if I was qualified. You don’t even know my name.”
He squeezed his hands into fists, watching her with a strange expression. “I seem to recall asking, but you didn't answer.”
“What is your name, lass?” he asked for the third time, his lips quirking.
Shit. Why did I give him my real name?
Riley tried to think of another name, but it was too late. She’d already told him the truth. All she could do was hope he didn’t run a background check on her.
“Good enough for me. You're hired.”
Riley balked. “You didn’t ask for my resume or if I’ve done bookkeeping.”
Why was she trying to talk him out of the exact decision she'd wanted him to make?. Him not wanting any of those things was a godsend. Her intelligence hadn't taken the elevator back up yet.
“I don't care. You're hired, lass. Stop trying to talk me out of it. The girl I have working for me threatened to quit if I didn’t get some help in here. She’s naught but a slip of a thing, but can scare the hide off a bear. So, you're hired. Niamh will be happy." He held out his arms. "I keep my skin in one piece.”
This man definitely needed to keep all that skin exactly how it was.
He motioned to the door he’d come through. “Look around and get to know the place. You start now.”
Riley stood rooted in place again. “Um, Mister? I don’t know your name.” She doubted he’d like it if she went around calling him Mr. Muscles.
“Jakub Finnegan,” he responded. “Owner of the shop, and your new boss.”
Book 1: Druid of Oaks cover reveal inside.
While I was writing Angharad and Fetu's story, I needed some Druids, naturally, since that is what Angharad studied to be.
As usual, I couldn't write just one story, and ended up with a series outlined. Druid of Oaks is the first story and will be available in September.
Azar, his beautiful bride, was resplendent in green.
As their hands were bound together with the handfasting ribbon, a sense of tranquility and destiny settled over him. Soon, their child would be born, and he would come into his full power as king.
Courtiers, from Seelie and Unseelie Courts, wished them well. After dancing, Fechin led a breathless Azar to the head table and held out her chair.
"Are you happy, maité anam?" He couldn't help asking. There was a bit more sparkle to her, slightly less sadness.
Azar sighed. For an eternal moment, he didn't breathe as she hesitated.
Her beautiful green eyes studied him, then she finally spoke. "Yes. You win. I am happy, and I love you, Fechin."
His joyous smile lit his black eyes, and he leaned toward her upturned face intent on kissing her lips swollen.
Thunderous booms roared across the sky. Fechin jerked his head up. Overhead, beyond the blue sky, a layer of grey fog hovered.
Fechin swore. The fog parted, revealing a second layer of blue sky.
"What's happening, Fechin?" Azar's voice trembled. Her fear-filled eyes darted between the sky and his face.
The protective shields around Inisfail, and the fog that shrouded them from the world at large, were being targeted. "The wards, maité anam. We are under attack."
She screamed and doubled over as she collapsed to the ground. The child!
"Maité anam!" Fechin dropped to his knees beside her. For the first time, conflict over where his primary duty lay made him hesitate. He owed everyone living in Inisfail his protection, but to fulfill that obligation, he'd have to leave Azar.
Didn't he have a greater duty to her, and the babe? Azar carried the future of Inisfail within her.
Hundreds of lightning bolts struck the fog between layers of blue skies, tearing it to shreds. Each felt like a whip lashing him. Red lines and cuts formed on his skin.
A few strikes came through, hitting the ground and forest, setting trees aflame, but giving him the flavor of the magic attacking.
Her magic had a familiar, repugnant taint. The banished were always a threat. No Fae wanted to leave their home, where their power was strongest. She'd never tried to return, though.
Fae screamed while others stared, dumbfounded. Azar trembled in his arms. Anguish and indecision tore at him.
"Go," Azar managed to get out through her clenched teeth. "Protect Inisfail."
She was right. If Inisfail's protections fell, Azar was at greater risk. She was strong.
Why was the Queen of Winter attacking? Had Beira discovered he'd set Shisti aside? There would be a reckoning for that one day, but he hadn't expected it so soon, or from this quarter.
Fechin changed to his raven form and flew toward the storm. He rose into the sky, waves of power emanating from him as the wards pulled magic through him to renew.
Almost casually, a streak of lightning broke away from the fog and struck him like swatting a gnat. The blow hit like a hammer, sending him reeling, but he flapped furiously and recovered.
He intercepted the next bolt, letting the lightning hit him and taking the damage. Again and again, he took the assault, but he was only one against the hundreds of strikes. The ones he missed hurt more than the physical torment of the ones shredding his magic.
More bolts followed the first, one after another, breaking through his protections one layer at a time. The Queen of Winter had never been this strong before. How had she channeled so much power? Rather than weakening, her magic battered him, seeming to feed on itself and grow instead of diminishing.
Fechin screamed his defiance and pushed back. He had to strengthen the protections. Protect Azar. Thwart Beira's attack.
The witch's magic felt limitless while his was finite. Until he was king, he could act as a conduit, but the magic of Inisfail wasn't his to wield as he pleased.
A lightning bolt shattered his final protection. The broken spell ate into him like shards of glass ground into his soul. Agony paralyzed him. Another strike set fire to him. The acrid scent of burning flesh and feathers filled his nose.
Body limp, Fechin turned human. The flames extinguished, but he fell.
His ravens burst from the tower and forest, coming to his aid as they soared into the sky. Each of them caught part of him or his ragged clothing in their talons and beaks. Flapping their wings in unison, the flock slowed his fall.
The birds deposited him in front of Azar. His skin burned and forks of red lightning tattooed him. Blood flowed from his eyes, ears, and nose, obscured his vision, left a bitter, metallic taste on his tongue, and dripped onto the grass. Azar's calming presence acted like a balm as his body shook uncontrollably.
Fechin reached for his maité anam as she collapsed. She cradled her middle in her arms. Their child. He groaned and tried to marshall his energy.
Magic diminished, his body jerked in reaction as bolts of lightning continued to strike the protective magic around Inisfail.
Azar screamed again.
He pushed himself to his feet using the last of his will and staggered toward Azar.
Everywhere wards weakened, splintered, and shattered, each breaking a part of him. The protective fog vanished. Huge slashes opened into his magic. Bleeding wounds that would not heal.
Tears appeared in the sky — long narrow slits that widened into gaps. More holes opened. In the forest. In the mountains. In the swamp. On the plains.
Not just holes in the protective magic. Portals. Gateways to other places.
Inisfail wasn't protected from anything now.
Another tear opened. This one was close. So close!
It opened right behind Azar. Fechin fought to get to her, losing his balance. He forced himself to his hands and knees and crawled.
She reached for him. Fechin struggled to lift his arm. Scrambled desperately to rally his magic. The ragged scraps sliced and burned him. Fragmented, his magic wouldn't flow. It pooled in smaller eddies, cut off from itself.
His fingertips brushed Azar's, and for a fraction of a second, his magic and strength surged to fullness. The yawning portal expanded and reached for Azar. The edges were already touching her.
New magic wrapped around her. It coiled like serpents, slithering and writhing, forming a cocoon that cut her off from him. Her terrified green eyed pleaded for help. Tears tracked down her face, staining her cheeks with sorrow. She lay curled on her side, arms wrapped around her middle.
A burst of energy slid Azar backward, breaking the tenuous connection between his fingertips and hers. Like the maw of a colossal beast, the abyss slammed closed, swallowing his maité anam.
The portal vanished, taking his wife and child.
"Azar!" Fechin bellowed in impotent rage.
Pain seared his already raw throat.
Small hands prodded and pulled at him, dragging him over the ground. The brownies. They were taking him away from where Azar had disappeared. Fechin thrashed, but so weakened, all he could do was twitch. He couldn't leave the last place Azar had been. It was his only hope of following her. Of bringing her back.
"You need to get inside!"
"You'll die if you stay here."
"Inisfail needs you!."
"We need you to be king now more than ever!"
The brownies' voices tumbled into his mind.
Fechin couldn't make himself protest. The energy required to form words was beyond him. He couldn't even blink as he stared at the place where Azar had vanished, taking their child with her.
The brownies were stronger than their spindly, child-like bodies suggested. In no time, they dragged him through the door of Raven Castle.
The moment he crossed the threshold, strength trickled into him. Not enough to continue the battle, but he wouldn't die.
Fechin braced himself and rolled to his hands and knees. Blood dripped from his nose and splashed to the stone floor. Vision wavering, unconsciousness closing in at the edges, he stood, aimed himself at the door, and lumbered toward it.
"No!" a brownie yelled. "You musn't —"
At the threshold, Fechin slammed into a barrier that threw him across the chamber. He slammed into a wall. Bones in his already battered body snapped, and he slid to the stone floor in a heap.
The brownies were on him again, straightening his limbs and shoving a cushion under his head.
"You need to rest. Regain your strength."
"Inisfail is wounded."
"Until the magic recovers, you can't leave."
Couldn't leave? But Azar needed him!
The smooth edge of a cup pressed against his lips. Something blessedly cool and liquid filled his mouth. He swallowed without thought, soothing his aching throat.
A heaviness stole over him. Sleeping elixir. No! He didn't have time to sleep! But the potent magic had him within its hold and darkness closed in on him.
He'd worked so hard to keep Azar in. Now he was the prisoner and Azar was… somewhere. With so many portals opened, she could have been taken anywhere.
I will always bring you home, maité anam.
He hadn't thought he'd have to do it so soon. And trapped as he was, he had no idea how he could find her.
Magic in Shisti's blood heated and raced through her, making her miss a step and catch her balance with her hands braced on a table.
It was active and buzzed through her magic.
With my blood, I curse yours to know only short lives filled with pain. Joy will turn bitter, and to know love means death.
But it shouldn't have done anything like this. For the curse to work, Azar must have felt genuine happiness, not the resigned acceptance she'd exhibited so far. Had the stupid girl actually fallen in love with Fechin? She'd been so determined not to!
Moments ago, Shisti had been watching the farcical wedding reception playing out in the meadow. Now the world trembled, shaken to its very foundations.
Inisfail itself was being torn asunder. The protections shattered one by one. The whole realm would be revealed and vulnerable to attack.
Her heart leapt. She could get out. There wasn't much time. Everything except for her magic related possessions could be left behind to burn.
She rushed around her suite to gather her knife and bowl. The vials of Azar's blood. Those were important. She raced toward the cabinet, the spell to unlock it on her lips.
To know love means death.
Shisti stopped short.
The idea of killing Azar, or leaving her to die, held no appeal. For the first time in decades, fear for someone other than herself made Shisti's heart pound. Azar didn't deserve death for being foolish. It was hardly the first time a woman had loved the wrong man.
But the magic in a curse, once uttered, had to run its course.
Or the magic had to go somewhere else.
Shisti closed her eyes to better visualize the tendrils of energy, and pulled as much of the curse back into herself as she could. For a time, her own happiness would turn bitter, but when was the last time she'd truly been happy?
A thousand spikes of agony stabbed into her, and her vision greyed. Splinters dug into the flesh under her fingernails as she clawed at the rough, wooden tabletop to remain on her feet.
Her magic was too potent. She'd never be able to take the whole curse back without endangering her babies.
The door opened with enough force to slam into the wall, and the rescued Fae women rushed into the room.
'Shisti, are you all right?"
Their chattering cut into her concentration. She could only shake her head, afraid if she unclenched her jaw, a scream would emerge.
Focus. She had to focus.
The wards around Inisfail shattered one by one. That wasn't her magic! Hers should have only worked from the inside to let Azar out.
Lightning struck. Huge, heavy bolts that tore the protective fog apart. That was her mother's magic. Why would the Queen of Winter attack Inisfail?
More of the curse returned, filling Shisti energy with a nauseating sludge as it pushed against her magic. She swallowed hard, attempting to slow the curse.
A siphoning on her daughter shot pain through her womb. Shocked, Shisti let go of the table, clutching her stomach as she slid toward the floor.
Beira. Her mother was using Shisti's daughter to power the spell attacking Inisfail.
Hands caught Shisti as her legs folded beneath her. She threw a shield around her babies, nearly draining herself as she put all her power into it.
The Queen of Winter's magic increased, turning icier in her fury at Shisti's resistance. The curse's toxicity built, eating away at her defenses like acid.
A war on two magical fronts was too much. With a mental apology to Azar, Shisti released her grip on the curse to reinforce the shield.
She couldn't help it. The scream she'd been holding in poured out.
"Let us help, Shisti. What can we do?"
Tears blurred her vision. From pain or the offer to help, she didn't know. "Too… much… magic."
"Take what you need from us."
They had no idea what they were offering. The old Shisti wouldn't have hesitated to put the polluted curse magic into the unsuspecting women so carelessly offering themselves to her. The old Shisti would never have taken her curse back into herself in the first place.
The new Shisti, the one with friends, and a newly awakened conscience, couldn't do it.
Beira pulled on them again, drawing magic toward the forest. Portals ripped through the ruined protections of Inisfail.
Shisti screamed. Every second the gateways remained open drained her magic. What was her mother doing?
Her daughter was fading. All of Shisti's determination to protect her children was for naught. She felt herself fading too, blackness creeping in at the edges of her mind.
Love burst from her son in a bright, starburst explosion, along with innate magic, retrieving Shisti and her daughter from the brink.
Shisti grasped the lifeline.
With love and magic given, accepted, and returned, energy and life returned. Her son had saved them all. Her magic began to build from nearly empty levels.
Taking the Fae women up on their offer, Shisti reached for their energy and took in as much as each of them could live without. The women gasped and dropped to their knees.
Bolstered, Shisti shoved her mother away, renewed the shield around her babies, and leveled out the sludge-ish curse magic.
Absorbing her own curse left her weakened, but with the wards broken, there was still hope of escape.
Shisti used the connection Beira had forced to let her magic ride the drifting currents of her mother's, briefly touching each of the rips into Inisfail.
One led to yawning darkness. Another somewhere icy. The third to a forest full of the ancient magic of a wrathful goddess.
There. A portal to a desert of pale, golden sands with hot winds. Shisti sent a fragment of magic through and recognized the familiar taste of Djinn energy.
Shisti seized control of the portal and dragged it through Inisfail to Azar. Fechin was there, diminished but still interfering. What was left of his magic blocked hers. The portal couldn't get to Azar.
There was no time to waste. Inisfail wasn't going to be safe for anyone anymore. Too many doors had been opened. Fechin couldn't even protect himself now.
Growling, Shisti wrapped Azar in as much of a cushion as she could, and shoved her backward, into the gateway, safely outside the broken shelter of Inisfail.
The portal tried to snap closed, but Shisti didn't let it go. It was fragile. Caution was needed. She coaxed and guided the door to freedom toward her rooms.
Azar was gone.
She'd been a warm presence. Her sudden absence left a cold emptiness Shisti didn't like.
With the target of the curse no longer nearby, the potency of the magic Shisti had to reabsorb slackened, and she sagged in grateful relief. She propped her back against the wall as she tried to level out her power.
Where could she go? Not her father's court. The Queen of Winter wouldn't be welcoming after the fight.
Azar. Shisti couldn't go to her friend because of the curse, but the Fae could all go with Azar.
The portal floated through Shisti's balcony door — a glimmering little more than the size of her fist. With patience in contrast to the thundering of her heart and a sense of foreboding presaging some unknown doom, Shisti teased the portal bigger, an inch at a time.
It felt too delicate and wanted to close. It wouldn't be stable for much longer.
"Go," Shisti ordered her companions. "None of us will be safe here after today. Hurry."
"Come with us." A Nixie crouched beside her. "We don't want to go without you."
Shisti shook her head. "I can't. The curse magic won't let Azar and I be in the same place. Find Azar on the other side. I'll come to you when I can break the curse completely."
It should be possible, but she needed time.
The Fae women kissed Shisti's cheek and hugged her.
"Thank you for saving us. We'll never forget the debt we owe you."
They rushed through the portal before Shisti could argue they'd already repaid their imagined debt.
Shisti shoved magic at the gateway to redirect the destination as far away from Arabi as she could make it. The view remained full of sand. Despair filled her. Maybe she lacked the energy to go very far. She couldn't remain in such close proximity to Azar or the curse would never relent.
She'd have to stay in Inisfail. Her head felt too heavy to lift anymore and sagged.
A breeze chilled her skin. Shisti jerked her head back up and peered closer. This sand was more white than gold. A jungle of green vegetation and trees loomed. Waves surged onto the beach.
Shisti sent tendrils of magic through. Everything felt unfamiliar. This was nowhere near Arabi. Relief and happiness filled her. No one would look for her here.
The portal was already closing and almost too small for her to get through. Leaving everything behind, Shisti crawled forward, reaching for her freedom.
A giant, rough hand closed around her ankle and dragged her away. "No!" She kicked backward, desperate to escape the iron grip. "Release me!"
"Going somewhere?" Vilkos' voice sent a shudder through her. "I don't think so, mate."
Her concentration ruined, the spell broke, and the portal closed with a pop.
Shisti let her forehead fall to the floor, holding her breath to keep a sob inside her.
Happiness turned bitter.
Lachlan stood on the lake shore, taking a moment to gather his identity around himself. Pretending to be someone else for so long, and so often, made it confusing to figure out who he, himself, was.
Son of the sea god Lyr and the Lady of the Lake.
Able to slip seamlessly into another man’s life — take on his personality and memories to live as him for as long as necessary.
What were his memories? It was more and more difficult to sort out which ones belonged only to him.
He stripped to his breeches, left his clothes in a pile on the sand, and waded into the cool, clear water. One deep breath. A second, and he dove, swimming down toward the domain of his mother. The portal at the bottom of the lake would take him to his mother's realm.
Her magic flowed over his skin in a warm tingle despite the chilly temperature of the lake, and left him standing dry and clothed in light blue pants and shirt. The hallways in the main part of the palace were all translucent, allowing him to see through the walls to the surrounding lake.
He wandered the watery corridors and walked onto a balcony encased in a bubble of air to watch otters, selkies, merfolk, and undines dive and twist through the Lady of the Lake's magic. His mother knew this was his favorite place and would find him here when she was ready. It was bittersweet spending time in his home, knowing he’d have to leave again. The Lady of the Lake always had some errand for him in the human world.
She joined him a few moments later. A long blue gown swished around her ankles as she approached and embraced him, laying her silvery head on his shoulder. “Hello, my son.”
“Hello, Mother.” He returned her hug, and the two of them stood companionably as water fae frolicked above them. The peace didn’t last long.
His mother pulled away and looked up at him, blue eyes concerned. “I know you’ve only just returned, but I need you to take this message to Ellada.” She held up a scroll. “Will you go?”
Disappointment and exhaustion weighed on him. Sometimes it felt like his mother didn’t want him around. As soon as he arrived, she sent him away again. “At once, Mother.” Lachlan nodded. “Who shall I be this time?”
Whoever he took the place of came to live in his mother's domain for the duration. His mother saw the future, so the man was probably already here in order for Lachlan to blend into that life.
The Lady of the Lake gave him a sad smile. “I’ll need you to be many people for me, but for this, be yourself, Lachlan.”
Be himself? He blinked. She’d never sent him out to be himself before.
“And I have some gifts for you.” She handed him the message and slipped a silver ring onto his finger. “This will protect you from magic of ill intent.”
She pressed a bundle of cloth into his hands. “A tent to keep you warm and comfortable at night.”
A sheathed blade appeared in her hand and she pushed it toward him. “A sword for the greatest swordsman. Your journey will be a long one this time. I cannot use the pond inside the grove I need you to find. The nymphs and gods of Ellada don't trust outsiders, especially anyone related to the Fae. I don't want to destroy any possible peace negotiations with something they could interpret as an invasion.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
“Take one of the pwcas and go east.”
He straightened involuntarily at her words. The shapeshifters could take many forms and were the Lady of the Lake’s beloved tricksters. Pwcas loved to cause trouble for humans and weren’t above taking one for a ride. The mission must be urgent if his mother was sending a pwca along.
“A ship will take you to Ellada.” The Lady of the Lake turned and led Lachlan down a watery hallway toward the exit. “There, you will have to search for the forest the nymphs live in. They block my magic. Once you locate them, ask to see their leaders. I'm not sure if Maeve and her Krait will still be in charge. If they are not, you must seek them out. No peace will be possible so long as the Krait is not agreeable.”
There was a tremor in her voice as she spoke about the Krait. Lachlan tried not to gape. Who was this man who so frightened his mother?
They reached the exit — a portal that would deposit him on shore, dry, and she turned to him, placing one hand on his cheek. “Be careful, my son. The Krait can be... volatile, and he is dangerous. The most dangerous man you will likely ever meet. Do not cross him. Give him no reason to think on you.”
“I understand.” Part of him was curious to meet this Krait, but a small part dreaded it. He'd never heard of his mother being wary of anyone, and he wanted to meet such a powerful man.
Lachlan loved the sea. That was only natural, considering his father was a sea god, but he rarely traveled so far from home this way. Using her magic, the Lady of the Lake could send him from her Hall of Waterfalls to almost any body of freshwater, no matter how far. He stood on deck gripping the rough wood railing, and breathing in the salty tang of the ocean breeze filling the sails as the ship plowed through the ocean.
He was on strange waters, but the surge, current, and cycle of waves lifting and sending the ship down their backs were all familiar motions that put him at ease over the last few weeks.
Unlike his island home, full of shady green forests and cool blue lakes, the landscapes they passed on this voyage through the human world were parched, brown, and hot. Even if the nymphs trusted outsiders, there didn’t seem to be fresh bodies of water anywhere. How many forests could there be in this thirsty land of scraggly trees?
The ship docked, and Lachlan led his pwca, in horse form, down the gangway into the land of Ellada. Dust swirled around his boots and the scorching sun beat down on him.
He rubbed the ring on his finger and patted his pocket to make sure the message was still there — an attempt to negotiate a peace between the Fae and the nymphs, who'd been at war for five hundred years with neither side willing to back down.
The eighth expanse of trees came into view as the sun set on his fourth day of searching. Lachlan brought the pwca to a stop. This forest wasn’t like the sparse gatherings of trees he’d come across so far. Thick trunks lined the edges, and a dense green canopy soared overhead.
It also felt different — older and darker, giving him hope. For this many huge trees, there had to be water in there, meaning this could be the place the Lady of the Lake couldn’t get into. Even with the sun high in the sky, this forest probably stayed in shadow.
A breeze stirred the air. Or maybe it was whispering. He’d been told rumors of a forest where the trees could talk and speak prophecy. That seemed a likely place for nymphs to live. The air smelled of soil and magic. It wasn’t like the forests at home — this magic was ancient, yes, but heavier and earthbound rather than airy.
Entering an unfamiliar forest full of magic at night seemed unwise, especially if this was home to the Krait. Lachlan kicked free of his stirrups and dismounted. He removed the cloth bundle from a saddlebag and unfurled it, watching the tent erect itself. After tending to pwca and letting him wander, Lachlan entered his home away from home.
Inside, a hot bath in a wooden tub awaited. The Lady of the Lake believed in the power of hot baths, and while he’d hated them as a boy, he had to admit, he didn't mind that luxury now. Especially in this dry, dusty place.
A comfortable bed with blankets and pillows, and a pot that conjured food. So far, it only made porridge, and he hadn't figured out how to make anything else. But it meant Lachlan didn’t have to take time to hunt. Plus, the pwca liked porridge well enough and could shift into a dog to eat it when there wasn't enough fodder for a horse.
Lachlan stripped and soaked in the bath, letting hot water ease his travel weary body. Water always soothed his pains — physical and spiritual, rejuvenating him. Given his parentage, that wasn’t exactly shocking.
As he relaxed, his thoughts drifted toward that looming forest outside. What would be the best approach? Given the Krait's reputation, it wouldn't do to have the man thinking Lachlan was here as some sort of spy or up to no good. Probably better to be open about his presence and walk right in during the day.
Rising from the tub, he dried off, dressed, and rubbed the towel over his hair, leaving it loose on his shoulders. The climate was warm enough. He'd sleep outside to let anyone watching him see he had nothing to hide.
Nymphs raced through the forest, each breaking off to find a hiding place until Echo ran alone. Playing hide and seek with the giants was fun, but sometimes they forgot the count, and started seeking before the nymphs were done hiding. Having fifty heads thinking different things must be tricky. Nymphs didn’t like to think of even one thing for very long.
It was hard to find a good place to hide from giants with a hundred eyes. Especially if the trees talked. In Dodona, the trees could speak prophecy, but they were also terrible gossips.
To the left, a stream burbled. There were a lot of rocks to hide behind, but she'd have to get wet, and the water sprites had flowing allegiances. They couldn't be relied on to keep a hiding nymph secret. Echo turned right and headed toward an older part of the grove. In between there and here, it was dangerous, and she had to be careful. The satyrs and fauns liked to lie in wait for unwary nymphs. As long as she didn’t stop, she would be okay.
That was Pan! Her blood went cold like she'd hidden in that icy stream, and she stumbled a step. The satyrs rarely bothered her because her mother was Gaia, mother of Nature, and her father Ouranos, the sky-god. And the hundred-handed giants were her brothers. The furies her sisters. But Pan was the worst, and didn't fear anyone.
Pipe music lilted through the trees.
He was trying to catch her! The music told her to stop running. Made her feel like dancing as she turned around and followed the melody. Then… then she would disappear. Nymphs didn’t come back after Pan caught them. She staggered to one knee.
“Eeeecho.” The music played faster, confusing her feet. Hooves clip-clopped on hard-packed earth. A musty, earthy smell wafted through the air, and a big, horned silhouette loomed in front of her. He was so close!
Desperation pushed her up. She whirled, clapped her hands to her ears and sang a song to herself, voice loud in her head. Echo ran faster as she entered the ancient grove. “Kahliste!” she whispered, light steps rushing her over soft, shady ground and around the pond where the oldest forest god lived. The trees rustled, carrying her voice. “Let me up!” Her dryad friend would let her hide in the big oak.
Kahliste's tree unfurled some branches and the dryad's head popped into sight from the top of the trunk. “What are you doing here, Echo?”
“I need to hide. Can I come up?”
A branch swept low and scooped Echo into the air, depositing her next to Kahliste. Her long orange and yellow hair matched the leaves on her tree, and her skin was a barky brown. The longer a dryad stayed in her tree, the more she resembled her home. They wrapped their arms around one another in a hug.
Pan’s music kept playing. Maybe he wouldn’t go away until he caught her this time! The satyr came closer. His music grew louder.
Echo trembled so hard she was afraid she’d shake the tree and reveal their hiding place. She and Kahliste clung to one another, arms holding one another tight.
“Don’t listen. Don’t listen. Don’t listen,” they chanted in small whispers.
Hooves clip-clopped in an unhurried rhythm.
“Pan, you may as well go. You’ll never have Echo,” one of the trees prophesied.
Hearing those words gave Echo hope, because prophecy always came true, but Pan’s music took on a strident note.
She wanted to close her eyes, but couldn’t look away as the satyr emerged from the shadows.
The trees stopped whispering as Pan circled several trunks. He’d never tried to catch her for so long before. His towering, dark form clip-clopped to the edge of the pond.
Shouts from the giants broke through the stillness and music. Her brothers had finished counting and were looking for the nymphs!
The pipe music faded. “I’ll find you, Echo. One day, you will be mine.” Pan’s oppressive presence oozed away until the air lightened. Echo and Kahliste trembled, and the trees remained silent.
Kahliste broke the quiet, laughing as she plucked several twigs and leaves from Echo's tangle of auburn hair. “Your hair always looks like you fell down and rolled in the dirt.”
“I almost did fall down.” Pan had nearly caught her! Echo clung to her friend, heart pounding wildly.
“Why does he chase you?”
“I tell him no. He doesn’t like that.”
“Well, Pan’s gone.” Kahliste shifted to point in another direction. “We have to watch this one now.”
Echo squirmed around to look. Trees whispered and lifted their branches to clear the view to a small meadow outside the forest. She stared at the man. All she could see were his head and shoulders sticking out of his blankets where he lay on his side facing the woods, but he was big. His black hair covered most of his face. He looked human, but he had magic. A light brown horse stood dozing nearby, one leg crooked, head hanging low.
“Who is he?”
Kahliste shrugged. “He came here yesterday and slept outside the forest. No one knows what to make of him.”
“I’m going to talk to him.” Echo's heart beat fast. Not like when Pan chased her. This rhythm felt like it was leading her to the man, and she wanted to go.
Kahliste scrunched her face. “What if he's one of those nasty humans? You should stay here with me until the giants come find you. Gyges should be here soon. He’s good at remembering a lot of things and will look for you.”
But Echo couldn’t wait. She had to talk to the stranger.
Women’s voices whispered above him, but Lachlan stayed motionless, not wanting to frighten them before he figured out if they were nymphs. Or, if not, maybe they could tell him where to find the elusive females.
The pwca, not as concerned with what anyone thought, ambled over and blew hot, horsey, morning breath into Lachlan’s face.
He couldn’t pretend to sleep after that, and shoved the big head away. “That’s disgusting.”
Muffled giggles came from the treeline. Maybe the pwca had helped after all. Moving slowly and obviously, Lachlan pulled on a shirt, climbed to his feet, and stretched.
One woman approached, exiting the dark forest into bright sunshine. Twigs and leaves littered her waist-length auburn hair, and her wide eyes held him in a trance. They changed color from purple to blue to grey, lightened and darkened. A green dress draped over her body from a strap on one shoulder. The material clung to her round breasts, and ended high on her thighs, revealing long, bare legs and feet stained with dirt and grass.
Growing up with the Fae, and among gods and goddesses, there had never been a shortage of beautiful women, but none made him so aware, or captivated him so he couldn't look away.
Who was she?
The woman stopped a step away and watched him. She looked skittish, like she might flee at any moment.
“Hello.” He smiled in what he hoped was a friendly gesture.
She smiled back. “Hello.”
“I’m Lachlan. What’s your name?”
“Echo, do you live in this forest?”
She glanced over her shoulder, then turned back to study him for a few seconds before nodding. “What is that?” She pointed to the tent behind him.
“It’s a tent. I take it with me when I travel. Would you like to see?” He pushed a flap aside and went in, holding the way open for Echo. “It's a portable house.” Did nymphs live in houses?
She slid between the flaps cautiously, letting out a delighted cry as she saw the tub. She pulled her dress over her head and dropped it on the floor, leaving herself bare.
Lachlan felt like he’d swallowed his tongue and went hard at the sight of her nakedness.
She lifted one leg to step into the bath and looked over her shoulder, pausing as she caught his expression. “I'm sorry.” Echo pulled her foot from the tub and turned to face him.
His lungs and brain seized like he'd been struck by lightning.
“Should I not do that?”
He remembered to blink and found his voice. “Please. Help yourself.”
Echo flashed him a brilliant smile, climbed all the way into the water and submerged to her neck. She made a low sound in her throat that hardened him more. “Do you want to take a bath with me?”
Did he want to take a bath with her?
He couldn't remember ever wanting to take a bath more.
Cover reveal inside!
Echo and Lachlan's story can be read as standalone, but if you follow the Vampires & Strygoi Witches series, it ties in with Viktoria's Shadow, Bijou's Cure, and Shadowy.