Isobel knew that whether with guns or bow he was considered a crack shot. Her brother would not miss, despite the swiftness of the stag.
“No!” she cried, racing ahead. Her horse huffed with the burst of speed, and the thunder of her mare’s hooves on the soft ground momentarily disturbed Ewan’s concentration.
“For God’s sake, Isobel,” Ewan thundered. “Would you for once act like a lady?”
“I’ll not let you kill it just so you can mount its head on a plaque,” she yelled, circling her horse around them, then pulling up short before her brother. The arrow was now pointed straight at her heart. “I’ll not sit at the table and have it staring at me as I eat.”
“The point is moot, as you’ll soon be wed to the Earl of St. Clair and dining at
Her stomach fell to her toes as her head snapped in the direction of the earl. He was seated atop his huge horse, his gloved hands resting on his thigh. Their gazes collided across the distance where the infuriating man held it, watching her reaction.
When had such a thing been decided? And why was it Ewan had learned of her betrothal before she had?
Because Father knew she would fight it with every ounce of her being. Father had more than likely sought to coerce her twin into forcing her to come to her senses in regards to the earl. Yet here he was, looking at her, challenging her to deny him to his face. She didn’t like the earl, and she didn’t like the way he looked at her, either.
The straining sound of wood drew her gaze. Shaking off the thought of the marriage she would not agree to, Isobel turned once more to her stag.
“Ewan, please,” she begged as she glanced over her shoulder, checking the position of the hart, who was still running towards them. “For me. For Christmas. Please don’t kill it.”
But it was too late. She saw Ewan’s leather-clad finger lift from the string, watched helplessly as the arrow left the bow and soared over her shoulder.
Turning in her saddle, she saw the arrow pierce the white hide, saw the black eyes go round, turn wild, as the beast continued to charge, its enormous rack poised for fight.
“Get out of here, Isobel,” Ewan commanded as he took her mare’s bridle in hand and forced her mount forward. “For the love of—” He stopped short, stunned as the stag ran past her and straight at the earl. St. Clair’s mount bucked, startled, tossing him hard onto the ground. The stag, now in a murderous rage, charged the fallen man. But it suddenly stopped and looked at her. For the barest of seconds, their gazes collided. She saw something in those black eyes. A plea? But for what?
And then it was gone, running into the woods, and she and Ewan were on the ground, helping St. Clair.
“Come along, miss,” Alistair said impatiently as he gave her his hand. “It’s time to hie back to the hall.”
The retainer was nervous. She saw the trembling in his hand, the way his gaze continually strayed to the forest where the hart had disappeared.
“Come,” he barked irritably. “ ’Tis not wise to tarry. They will be out for sure now, now that their king has been wounded. You dona want to be here when they do.”
“Who?” she asked, accepting Alistair’s help in regaining her mount.
“The Sidhe,” he murmured in a voice that trembled. “Now let us be off before they discover us.”
With the slap of a glove against its flank, Alistair sent her mount cantering off toward the large Jacobean-style country house that loomed ahead. But she stopped halfway and glanced back over her shoulder at the woods that were outlined through the snow. Alistair tugged the reins from her hands, forcing her mare to follow in the wake of his gelding.
“Be warned, miss: Those who go into the woods at night don’t come out.”
The change from stag to man was swift but painful, stealing the air from his lungs as his body twisted into limbs and torso. Breathing heavily, Daegan stumbled over the exposed roots of an oak tree. The falling snow made the mossy, damp earth slippery and he fell to his knees, clutching his ribs as the iron tip of the arrow spread its poison into his blood.
“You were foolish this day to allow the mortals to taunt you into attacking.”
In agonizing pain, he looked up through the long strands of black hair that hung in wet tendrils over his eyes. Not that he needed sight to know who stood before him: Cailleach, the supreme goddess, and she was madder than a chained hellhound who had been starved for days.
Falling onto his backside, Daegan used the old, weathered tree trunk for support. Fighting for what was left of his honor, he schooled his breathing and buried the pain. He did not want the goddess to know how much he suffered. Pride. It was all he had left.
“I thought you more intelligent than this,” she snapped, dropping to her knees. Her emerald green cloak, edged in white rabbit fur, flared out around them, narrowly missing the small patch of blood that streamed from his wound. “You are Prince of the Sidhe, the male ruler of Annwyn,
,” she hissed as her pale fingers pulled at his hand, revealing the arrow shaft, which had broken in two. “You would unbalance our world, would allow chaos to enter, and for what? A girl? A
“She is no longer a girl, but a woman,” he hissed, as the arrow tip tore free of his flesh. Cailleach seared him with a look of disgust as she tossed the metal tip onto the snow-covered ground.
“Why did you do it? I saw you standing on the hilltop, challenging that human male to a hunt.”
Daegan closed his eyes, refusing to think of the reasons. But they came nonetheless. There were only two reasons why mortals were able to see him in his altered form. The first was a sign that the Celtic Otherworld was near and that the humans were venturing too close to Annwyn’s sacred lands. His appearance was a warning to superstitious mortals to keep away from the woods that led to his world. The other was a sign that a great trespass had occurred. This had been the reason why he had appeared to the hunters, to show them that he took the betrothal of Isobel to another man as a grave insult, and a mistake, one he would soon rectify. Those humans had taken something that was his and given her to another. Mine, he had wanted to shout from the hillside.
“Must I remind you yet again that she is not one of us? She cannot be yours.”
“So you have told me,” he panted as he slumped lower to the ground, the pain once more an agony he was afraid he could not endure. “Leave it,” he groaned as she tore at his clothes, exposing the ragged flesh to the cold and snow.
“Quiet. You are not the sole ruler in this wood, my prince. You will submit to me now and do my bidding.”
Her fingers, remarkably warm considering the weather, probed and prodded the skin around the gaping hole in his side. With every pump of his heart he could feel the poison from the iron mixing in his blood, burning in his veins. His magic, though considerable, was no match for the iron poisoning that would claim him. To be brought so low, and by a mortal arrow at that.
“We haven’t much time,” she muttered, shoving aside the silk of his waistcoat. Bending forward, she murmured an incantation, words he would have known save for the poison spreading to his mind. Then there was a flash of white before his eyes, and he felt the blazing heat of Cailleach’s mouth against his skin, sucking the poison from his body.
His mind fractured, and he slumped to the ground, eyes closed as the white swirled around him. Her lips and mouth worked swiftly, yet gently, and he felt his nipple harden as her fingertip grazed it. Pain gave way to euphoria, the kind that opium or alcohol gave to mortals. The deeper she sucked, the greater the exhilaration that heated his blood. Soon he did not see Cailleach’s silvery blond hair, but Isobel’s red curls. He saw her head moving against him, her body curling over his as she hungrily moved her lips and tongue over his skin. He was no longer aware of his wound, just the enticing feel of her tongue circling his nipple. In his mind, he saw her mouth on him not as a necessity to heal, but as a prelude to lovemaking. He saw Isobel, not as healer, but lover.
With a hiss, Cailleach straightened away from him, her green eyes filled with contempt. “It is her you envision and not I?”
It was true he was Cailleach’s consort, but in name only. Together, they ruled Annwyn, as had each Sidhe king and each goddess for thousands of years. They were together, their lives intertwined, but not as a male and female. That physical, mystical bond was not there. It had never been. It never would be. They were not lovers, but partners.
He did not look away in shame for thinking of a mortal while Cailleach sucked the poison from his blood. There was nothing to be ashamed of, this desire he had for Isobel MacDonald. In the beginning he had tried to resist, but after years of failing he now allowed himself visions of marking her for his own.
“You will not do something so foolish ever again. You once saved her life, and she has saved yours today. There is no further debt to be paid. No reason to ever see her again.”
Cailleach stood, her cloak looking just as unrumpled and majestic as it had when she first appeared. She was immaculate, stunningly beautiful, and utterly untouchable.
“Your eyes betray the Unseelie in you,” she said, watching him with her clear gaze that saw to the depths of his soul. “I have always known it lurked there, but never have I seen it more than I do now.”
He saw aversion in Cailleach’s eyes. His grandmother, the eldest of the Seelie king’s three daughters, had scandalized the court by marrying an Unseelie warrior more mercenary than knight. That was, until it became apparent that the king was dying and there was no one to take his throne, for their sons were the only male issue amongst the king’s grandchildren. Only then was the mixed blood of Daegan’s father and uncles acceptable at court.
“You knew when the time came that I would be next in line to rule, despite my grandfather’s Unseelie blood,” he reminded her.
“You are not king yet, Daegan,” she reminded him.
He laughed, despite the fatigue and pain that lingered in his body. The Seelie Court of the Sidhe were not warriors; they were thinkers and poets who lived in light and beauty. But the Unseelie, the Unholy ones of their race, were mighty warriors who lived in darkness and violence. Their powers were cunning and brute strength. They were dangerous enemies, but as Cailleach had discovered during her centuries as his consort, they could make for loyal and trustworthy allies.
Was it the Seelie blood, or the mysterious and dangerous Unseelie blood that lured Cailleach to his side? And which side was it, he wondered, that made him lust after his beautiful mortal?
“When my father dies, I will be king. In fact I have been king for many centuries now, acting in my father’s stead as he wastes away from grief over my mother’s death. You need me, Cailleach. Regardless of my mixed Seelie blood, I am a pure Sidhe. And a full-blooded Sidhe is what Annwyn needs. Who else has the pedigree of a full Sidhe? The strength to protect Annwyn from the mortals?”
“There is another.”
A raven hovered over the tops of the trees, dipping and lifting, and Daegan laughed, his eyes closing once more. “You think
Unseelie blood is difficult to control? I dare you to try issuing orders to
. His blood is full Unseelie. You will have no consort in Bran.”
Cailleach lifted her delicate chin in defiance. “This day you have brought danger not only to Annwyn but to yourself. It will be the last, Daegan. Leave the mortal to her kind, or I shall see to the matter myself. I doubt you will care for my methods.”
“Touch her, Cailleach, and you will know the wrath of my black blood.”
They sat that way, his violet eyes holding her green ones as each of them searched for the other’s weakness.
“Do not make the mistake of thinking you are the only one who feels, who wants,” she said, her resolve softening. “But our path is fated, not chosen. We cannot change who we are. There is no room in your life, or in Annwyn, for a mortal.”
She faded into the snow and mist that was spreading through the forest, yet he still felt her presence hovering like a shroud above him. It smothered him, suffocating him until he felt he could not breathe.
An image of Isobel, walking in the forest—in Annwyn—suddenly came to him, calming him, slowing his hurried breaths. She looked at home in his world, walking among the towering oaks and pines. As she strolled through the woods, her hood slipped back, revealing her auburn hair and pale, unmarred skin. Her lips were red, parted in wonder as she strolled deeper into the enchanted woods. He knew he would never see anything lovelier than Isobel smiling, carrying a wreath of holly and ivy in her hands. Did she know the meaning of what she held in her hands? Did she realize how sacred they were to his people?
No, how could she? This was his vision. His dream of transformation and pleasure. She was not here, nor would she ever be. Mortals did not venture into the woods at twilight. He would be safe here, to rest upon the snow-covered ground and indulge his fantasy of Isobel lying naked upon a stone altar. It was a fitting dream for the Sidhe who would be king, to take his queen atop the altar where his people worshipped.
His dreams were still his own. Even if his life was not.
It had not taken much to escape the festivities. For the first time ever, Isobel had feigned a headache. Believing her overwrought by the afternoon’s events, her family had excused her from tea. Climbing the stairs to her chambers, she had disappeared out of her father and brother’s sight. Instead of turning to walk down the wing of her family apartments, she turned right and down the servants’ staircase. When she found herself outside, she ran to the stable, relieved that the stable boy was at the back brushing one of the horses.
She’d saddled her mare quickly, retrieved the bag she kept hidden for her secret moonlit rides, and threw on a cloak and scarf, which she secured with her clan pin. Then she charged the short distance to the woods where she tethered her mare to a tree.