"Are you a virgin, then, lass?" Niall asked her. Alanna jumped. "What?" "A virgin. If it doesn’t hurt your pristine ears for me to ask it. Are you?" "No." Interesting. Fae women didn’t lie with males unless they absolutely had to. "You have a lover then? A husband?" "No." The word was more angry now. "It is none of your affair." "You like to say that, lass. Did you have a gasun?" "A child? No." Again, the chill anger. "I’m sorry, love." "Why?" "That must have hurt you." When a Shifter woman was childless it was an impossible sorrow to her. As dangerous as breeding was for Shifters, females were happy to risk it to bring in cubs. "I imagine ’tis different for a Fae woman." The Fae were so long-lived they didn’t bear many children. Fae women who did like children often stole them from humans, rather than bearing their own, raising them to be their doting little slaves. "It did hurt me," she said. Niall saw the pain in her eyes. She looked so out of place, sitting in his forge, her strange, elegant robes already soiled from the dust and soot. He never thought he’d feel sorry for a Fae, but the sadness on her face was real. "Did your lover not want a child?" Niall asked gently. "My lover, as you call him, died." Alanna’s jaw was fixed, rigid. "We tried to have a child, but I don’t know whether it was even possible." "Fae do breed. I’ve seen your wee ones." Even crueler than the adults, unfortunately. "My lover was human." Surprise stilled Niall’s hands. "A human man? Let me guess. A slave?" He couldn’t keep the disgust out of his voice. "He had been captured, yes." She met his look defiantly. "But not by me." "Oh, that makes it all right then. Whose slave was he? You’re royal brother’s?" "Yes. It was a long time ago." One of her brother’s slaves, made into her lover. A typical story of Fae cruelty except for the grief in her eyes. He wasn’t imagining that. He bent over his task again. "How long ago?" he asked. "One hundred years." "And you loved this man? Or pretended to?" Her silence was so flint-hard that Niall raised his head again. She was glaring at him. "Did you love your mate?" she asked in a sharp voice. "I won’t apologize for my question, love. You are the one coercing me into helping the bastard who stole my children. I’ll answer yours--yes, I loved her more than my own life." "My answer is the same." She met his gaze without flinching. The pain in her dark eyes wasn’t false and neither was the loneliness, and Alanna didn’t look ashamed of either. Niall went back to pounding. After a time he asked, "So what happened to this human male so worthy of the love of a Fae woman?" "My brother killed him." Niall stopped. "The very brother who sent you here? Why?" "Because Dubhan dared to touch me." "The man was your slave, love. He wouldn’t have had a choice." Alanna’s face grew cold again. "You see everything through Shifter eyes. Dubhan was my brother’s slave, so of course you believe I forced him to service me. I told you, I loved him. I freed him, I fled with him to the human world, and we became lovers. Until my brother found us." "You sneaked out of the Faerie realms to become lover to a human?" Niall’s astonishment and respect for her rose. "You are an amazing and brave lass." "I was foolish, as it turned out. I should have sent him off and not tried to stay with him. Kieran would have forgotten about one slave in time, but he never forgave me for letting a lesser being touch me." "Which is why he sent you here to become hostage to a Shifter." "I am my brother’s prisoner and in disgrace. I am forced to do his bidding." "Does he not fear that while you’re in the human world you’ll break away and flee him?" Alanna shrugged. "I have nowhere to go, and unlike Shifters, I cannot pass for a human. The spell that lets me resist iron will wear off." She shivered. "And it is so cold here." Niall rose, fetched the woolen cloak he’d thrown aside when he’d started to work, and draped it over her shoulders. She looked up in surprise, jerking her hand away when his brushed hers. He’d thought her overly slender when she first walked in, but now he saw that this was a trick of the loose-flowing garments. Her bosom was round and full, her waist nipped in above strong hips. Her face was delicate, a little too pointed for Niall’s taste, but her dark eyes drew him in. Her braids outlined her pointed ears, but the ears didn’t look as strange and unnatural close up. She was flesh, not cold marble, her skin flushing as she warmed from the fire and the cloak. "You could pass for human," Niall said as he went back to the forge. "Unlikely. Look at me." "I just did." Niall took up the heated bar with his tongs and tapped the rapidly cooling metal. "If you wore your hair loose to hide your ears and dressed in human clothes instead of fancy frippery, no one would look twice." He considered as he flipped the bar. "No, they’d look twice, because you’re a beautiful woman, but unless you shouted it, I don’t believe they’d realize you were Fae. Most humans don’t believe in the Fae any longer, anyway. They pretend to--they avoid the stone circles at night and put out milk to appease the sprites, but deep down, they believe only in hard work, exhaustion, and God. Bless them."