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Page 5

"You care for them," Alanna said, sounding surprised. "But you’re Shifter."

"If you lived in the human world before, you might have noticed that Shifters are not all that thick on the ground. We might be stronger and more cunning than humans, we might be able to change into ferocious beasts when we wish to, but we need humans in order to survive."

"Do the humans in this village know you’re Shifter?"

Niall shrugged. "They know I’m different, but as I said, they don’t much believe in the other anymore. But they know I’m a good smith and that the villages round about get left in peace now that I live here."

"You’re good to them."

"It’s survival, love. We each have what the other needs. ’Tis the only way Shifters are going to last."

"The Fae chose to retreat." Alanna said it almost to herself, as though she didn’t expect an answer. "We sought the mists of Faerie."

"Aye, that you did."

She fell silent, but Alanna was difficult to ignore as he continued work, and not just because of the distinct Fae smell, which didn’t seem so terrible now. Perhaps he was growing used to it.

Niall sensed her presence like a bright light--her beauty, her sorrow, her courage in coming here when she knew she’d likely lose her life. Fae princes could be mean bastards, and the fact that she’d defied this Kieran about the human slave spoke much of her.

Once Niall had the metal thin enough, he heated it again, ready to shape it. As he set the blade on the anvil and took up his hammer, he felt her breath on his shoulder.

"Wait."

"Metal’s hot, lass. It won’t wait."

"I need to layer in some spells."

His eyes narrowed. "What is this sword for? For ceremony, I know, not fighting, but what sort of ceremony, exactly?"

"I’m not certain myself."

Niall’s grip tightened on his hammer. "Don’t lie to me, lass. If you’re putting in the spells, you know what they do."

"I cannot tell you. Please, if you know, then your sons will die."

"I think they’ll die anyway, and I think you know that too. Tell me this much--is the sword meant to hurt Shifters?"

Alanna said nothing, but the look in her eyes spoke volumes. He read guilt there, anguish, grief, anger.

Niall shoved the bar from the anvil with a clatter. He sat down on the floor, his hammer falling to his side. "You’re asking me to save my sons by forging a weapon against Shifters? What kind of monster are you?"

Alanna sank to her knees beside him, her silks whispering across his skin. "Niall of Baile Icin, I ask you to please trust me. Make the sword. All will be well."

Niall growled. "Your bastard brother will slaughter my boys the minute he gets this piece of metal in his hands. He knows I’ll kill you in retaliation, and then he’ll kill me, and laugh about it. That is how things will play out."

Alanna shook her head, her braids touching his bare shoulders. "Not if you trust me. I cannot tell you everything, but you must make the sword the way I have instructed." She put her hand on his shoulder--Fae, who didn’t like to touch. "Please, Niall."

"And why should I trust you? Because you once bedded a human? Should I believe you have compassion for the whole world then?"

"Because of a vow I once made. I will never let your children come to harm. I promise."

Fae had a way of enchanting, of charming. Niall knew that, had experienced it firsthand. But Alanna’s pleading look was different somehow from the Fae who’d once spelled Shifters to be slaves to them. Fae charmed by being too brightly beautiful, too desirable, stirring a person into a frenzy before they knew what happened. Alanna didn’t make Niall feel frenzied or dazzled. He was angry and sick, tired and sad.

When Shifters lost loved ones, they retreated from the rest of the pride or pack to be alone with their grief. A survival instinct, he supposed, because in that gut-ripping sorrow, they had no desire to fight or hunt or even eat. A wildcat or wolf or bear might weaken the pack by refusing to fight, and so the Shifter took himself away until the worst passed. Or he died.

Alanna’s hand on Niall’s shoulder was cool, cutting through his instinct to seek solace. Her fingers were soothing to his roasting skin, and her fragrance no longer seemed cloying, but fresh like mint.

"Please," she said again.

Niall got to his feet and pulled her up with him. "You ask much of me, lass."

"I know."

Alanna’s eyes weren’t black, as he’d thought, but deep brown with black flecks, her wide pupils making them seem darker. Her hair was like fine threads of white gold, metal so delicate that the merest touch could break it.

Niall stepped away from her, fetched the half-formed blade, and thrust it back into the fire. "And you wager your life on me trusting you?"

"Yes," she said again. "Will you?"

Niall shrugged again, his insides knotting. "Looks as though I’ll have to, doesn’t it lass?"

She gave him a smile of pure relief. "Thank you, Niall."

Niall turned back to work, wishing her damned smile didn’t warm him so.

Chapter Four

Alanna let her hand hover over the red-hot blade Niall laid on the anvil, the metal’s heat touching her skin. She murmured the spell, watching the curled Fae runes sear into the metal and disappear.

Niall did not trust her, and she couldn’t force him to, but she was relieved he’d at least let her do the spells. Alanna couldn’t ask more of him, not without fear that Kieran would discover what she was doing.

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