Even through his pain, his grief, and his gut-wrenching fear, Niall couldn’t deny that the Fae woman had courage. He could kill her right now, and she knew it. She offered her life in exchange for his sons with a steady voice, even though she obviously knew that a Shifter whose cubs were threatened was more dangerous than an erupting volcano. And even though she’d said she’d been given a protective spell against iron, Niall knew the cold bar hurt her. Slowly he lifted it from her throat. Alanna rubbed her neck, though the bar had left no mark. Niall stopped himself having any sympathy. She and her brother had taken his boys, Marcus and Piers, who were ten and twelve as humans counted years. He looked past her to the darkening night, to the mists gathering on the cliff path, to the Great Island silhouetted by the blood-red sky. "My youngest, Marcus, he likes to fish," he said. "The human way with a pole and hook. Will he be able to fish where he is?" Alanna shook her head. "The game and the fish in the rivers are for Kieran only." "My mate died of bringing him in, poor love. She was a beautiful woman, was Caitlin, so tall and strong." Niall looked Alanna up and down. "Nothing like you." "No, I don’t suppose she was." Shifter women tended to be as tall as the males. They were fast runners, wild in bed, and laughed a lot. Caitlin had laughed all the time. "Piers, now. He likes to craft things. He’ll be a smith like me. He likes to watch the iron get red hot and bend into whatever shape he tells it. He’d love to have watched me make this sword." Alanna said nothing, only looked at him. Niall knew why he was saying these things. He was letting himself start to grieve. Deep in his heart, he didn’t believe Prince Kieran would agree to release his sons. Fae didn’t play fair. Niall might be allowed to take Alanna’s life in vengeance for his sons’ death, but it would be an empty vengeance. He would have no one left. No mate, no cubs, no one left in his pride. Niall lived here on the edge of this human village called Baile Icin, because the other members of his pride and clan had died out. Shifters married into other clans, but there weren’t as many females as males anymore, and other clans were few and far between. The Shifter race was diminishing. "You’ll make the sword then?" Alanna asked, breaking his thoughts. She didn’t have to sound so eager. "I don’t have much bloody choice, do I?" Her eyes softened. "I am sorry." Sympathy, from a Fae? Had the world gone mad today? "You will be, lass. If my cubs are hurt in any way, you’ll be the first to be very, very sorry. Your brother, now, he’ll be even sorrier still. So show me this damned silver and let’s be getting on with it." Chapter Three Forging a sword was a different thing entirely from the usual practical ironworks Niall produced for the humans of the village. Niall never asked Alanna why he’d been chosen for this task, because he already knew. Once upon a time, Niall O’Connell had been a master sword maker, before Ciarrai had been made an Earldom by the bloody English. He’d created beautiful weapons used for deadly purpose in the last Fae-Shifter war. The Shifters had won that war, though Niall knew much of their victory had been due to luck--the Fae had already been losing power in the mortal world, and the Shifters had only made their retreat into the Faerie realms inevitable. It wasn’t often that Shifters from different clans and species worked together, but at that point, Lupine, Feline, and Bear had fought side by side. The Fae had conceded defeat and vanished into their realm behind the mists. Well, conceded defeat was too strong a phrase. The Fae had gone, killing, burning, and pillaging behind them. Fae didn’t care whether their victims were children, breeding mothers, or humans who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Niall still had his sword-making tools kept safely in a chest at the back of the forge. He hadn’t touched them in years. He shook his head to himself as he laid out his tongs and hammer, grinding stone and chisel. This sword wouldn’t be good, strong steel, but soft silver, which was daft, even if she claimed it was spelled to work like steel. He could craft such a thing, but it would only be good as a trinket. He briefly considered mixing a bit of iron into the hilt to debilitate any Fae who touched it, but he knew such a trick would make his sons’ deaths even more certain. Not that he believed the Fae prince would let Niall live either, in any case. But Niall would take out the Fae bitch when they came for him. Prince Kieran would watch his sister die before he killed Niall. Niall glanced at Alanna as he pounded out the bar of metal she’d brought him. She’d found a stool and seated herself on it near the fire. She did look cold, the silly woman, probably not used to the harsh clime of the Irish west coast. The Faerie realms, he’d heard, were misty and soft all the time, which was why she wore flimsy silk robes and let her braids flow. Fae women didn’t have to bundle their hair out of the wind. After a few quick looks at her, he realized that Alanna wasn’t staring sightlessly at the forge, or watching him beat the blade. She was studying him. Her gaze roved his bare back and the muscles of his arms, as though she’d never seen a half-clothed man before. She probably hadn’t. Fae were cold people, not liking to be touched, preferring robes, jewels, and other fussy things to bare skin. They rarely did anything as crude as coupling, bodily seduction being almost as distasteful to them as iron. Shifters, on the other hand, loved breeding and loved children, children being all that more precious because so few survived.