Niall beat the sword after the runes faded, as she instructed, then put it back into the fire. Again and again they repeated the pattern--Niall hammering the blade, Alanna chanting her spells. They worked side-by-side, shoulders brushing, both sweating from the fire, both breathing hard from exertion. Spell casting, especially spells as powerful and far-reaching as these, took stamina. Alanna soon set aside the cloak and pushed up her long sleeves. The stench of sweating Shifter didn’t seem as bad now. Niall had, well, an honest smell, one that came of hard work and caring. He protected the people of this village the same way he protected his children, a fact that Alanna wouldn’t relate to Kieran. If her brother thought the villagers important to Niall, Kieran would find some way to use that against him. When Niall said the sword needed to rest, he shoved it into a barrel of ash, wiped the sweat from his face, and led her from the forge. The dirt track outside hugged the cliffs above the sea, Niall’s shop being at the very end of the high street--if the muddy track between the houses could be termed a high street. The western ocean pounded away below them, the moon glowing on the black bulk of the nearby island. At first Alanna worried that Niall had brought her to the cliffs for some nefarious purpose--perhaps tossing her over and ridding himself of a troubling Fae--but he simply stood looking out over the dark ocean, breathing in the bracing air. "You know we’ll never finish on time," he said. "Blades have to be heated and rested a number of times to make the metal strong, and then I still have to grind the blade and make the hilt." "You’ll finish." "You sound certain." "The spells I’m using will temper the blade faster than your process by hand," she said. "When we go back, you’ll be ready to grind it." "I’m not ready to go back yet, lass." He had to be freezing out here without a shirt, the icy wind from the sea whipping his short braid. His eyes were green even in the faint moonlight, hard green, not Shifter white-green. Alanna didn’t flinch when he cupped her neck with his big, rough hand. The touch of others had always sickened her, until she’d met Dubhan. She wondered what sort of strange Fae woman she was that she’d fallen in love with a human man and now didn’t mind that a Shifter pulled her into his embrace. Niall’s face was lined with dirt and soot, but by now hers couldn’t be much better. His hard body cut the wind, and she melded into him as he scooped her against him and kissed her. His kiss was harder even than Dubhan’s, firm mouth opening hers, his whiskers burning her lips. He tasted raw, of this wild land of Eire, of a bite of ale and of himself. Niall eased back, and Alanna shivered, not willing to let go his warmth. The wind cut through her, but she scarcely noticed it. "This might be our last night, you and I," he said. "The last night of our lives." "Yes." Niall kissed her lips, her cheeks, her neck. "Maybe 'tis Fae enchantment that you're pouring over me, but I suddenly want you with me in my bed for this last night." She nodded, breathless. "Yes." "You agree that it’s our last night? Or are you saying you’ll share my bed?" "Both." He cupped her face in his hands. "Be certain, Alanna." "I am. Very certain." Niall took her hand. The night gusted cold, but Alanna suddenly felt very warm with her hand swallowed by his. Her heart beat faster. She knew she was foolish for going with him, but she no longer cared. If this didn't work she, Niall, and his children would die. Let them comfort each other for one last night. Niall led her behind the forge and to a neat cottage with a garden in front. She saw signs of his family--small boots, scattered tools, half-whittled pieces of wood--animals the boys had been carving when they’d been snatched by Kieran’s men. Niall avoided looking at the carvings as he led Alanna inside and up to the loft, where neat pallets had been made up for the night. Niall stripped without word, revealing a body of solid muscle, male beauty sculpted by nature and the ancient Fae. Shifters had been bred to be superior in strength, speed, and stamina, and they’d also been made to be beautiful. He put his hands on his hips, unashamed that his wanting was plain to see. "Are you not getting undressed?" Alanna untied the complicated tapes that held her gown to her body and let it fall in one piece. She liked the appreciative way Niall looked at her nakedness instead of with the loathing or indifference she’d have expected of a Shifter. His gaze lingered on her br**sts, his eyes dark and soft. Alanna went to him. He raked his hands through her braids and tilted her head back to kiss her deeply. His hardness pressed her belly, his arousal long and thick. She’d always heard that Shifters were more endowed than humans or even Fae, and she decided that this rumor was true. Niall’s huge, work-worn hand cupped her breast, thumb brushing the tip. He kissed her neck, nipping her a little before he kissed her mouth again. Alanna had loved Dubhan, and she always would. The fact that loving him had caused his death had haunted her for a century. But this Shifter would never go easily to her brother’s men, never would give up without a fight. Niall could have killed her outright when she’d announced that Kieran had kidnapped his cubs, but he was giving her the gift of his trust--well, perhaps not his full trust, but at least his hope. Niall lifted her and set her gently on the pallet. He came down with her, stretching his warm body on top of hers.