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Page 8

Niall raised the blade, finding the balance perfect, the edge sharp. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear he held a sword of the best, strongest Damascus steel. He made a few sweeps, amazed at what he’d wrought.

No, what they’d wrought.

"We make a good sword, you and me," he said. "Now, do you mind telling me what it’s for?"

Alanna hugged her chest. "Ceremonial purposes. For my brother."

"Aye, I guessed that. What kind of ceremonies will he be conducting?"

"I do not want to tell you that."

Niall brought the sword around until the tip was an inch from her throat. Alanna didn’t flinch, didn’t move, though he saw her draw a breath. "You had better tell me, love."

"If I do, you’ll try to kill Kieran, and he’ll destroy you, and your sons. Probably very slowly so that you will beg for their death. And yours. Please, do not make me watch that."

The anguish in her eyes was real, but Niall shook his head. "Sweeting, he will kill me anyway. I’d rather go out trying to take him with me."

"Niall." Alanna took one step closer, letting the tip of the sword nick her skin. A drop of Fae-blood, so dark red it was almost black, welled up from the cut and trickled across her throat. Niall quickly withdrew the sword and wiped the blood from her skin with his thumb.

"I pledged myself as hostage to you," Alanna said. "I made a promise that I would get your sons released. I will fulfill that promise. But to do it, I must again ask you to trust me. Let me take the sword to my brother, let me finish my part of the bargain. Your sons will come home to you today. Please."

"You’re daft, woman, do you know that? Are you planning to take this blade and stick it into your brother? Tell me you’re not going to try something so stupid."

Alanna shook her head. "It’s tempting, but no. He would expect me to do something like that. I imagine his bowmen would shoot me dead the moment I raised the sword."

"Good." Niall set the weapon down and pulled her close. "I’ll not have you throwing yourself away on vengeance. 'Tis not worth it."

"You were ready to kill me when I first came in here."

"That was instinct. You’re Fae, I’m Shifter."

"And now?"

Niall smoothed her hair, loving the satin feel of it. Even sleep-tousled and sooty, Alanna was beautiful. "Now I’m thinking you’ve made me feel something I’ve not felt in a very long time. Can a Shifter love a Fae?"

"I don’t know. This Fae once loved a human. It might be possible for her to love a Shifter."

He cupped her cheek. "So what do we do about it?"

"Let me finish my task. Then if I am still alive, I will return to you, and we shall find out what happens between us."

Niall saw it then, her certainty she wouldn’t live through whatever her brother had in mind. She knew she might have to sacrifice her life to save his children, and she was prepared to do it.

Niall drew her close. He vowed to himself, then and there, to protect her. He’d make himself trust her, whatever she was planning, because Alanna knew how to get his cubs free and he didn’t. But he wouldn’t let her pay with her life. Niall would protect her as a Shifter would his mate.

If they survived this, Niall would seek another clan leader and ask that leader to bless him and Alanna under the sun and the full moon, in the eyes of the God and the Goddess. Niall's own clan leader was long dead, which meant that Niall was, in fact, a clan leader--of the very small clan of himself and his sons, he thought with a grin. But he couldn’t do the mating ceremony himself.

One thing at a time.

"I’m not letting you go, yet, Alanna, love," Niall said softly. He kissed her lips. "Not quiet yet."

Alanna pulled him into a deeper kiss. Niall took the sword with him as he led her to the cottage and made love to her again in the light of the rising sun.

#

When Niall awoke in the bed later, Alanna was gone. Entirely gone--he didn’t catch her scent in the cottage at all. Her silken robes were no longer hanging on the peg next to his tunic, and the sword he’d laid next to the bed had vanished.

Niall rose, naked, and shifted into his Fae-cat form.

Several thousand years before, the Fae had taken the best of every wildcat in existence and bred the Fae-cat, larger and stronger than any natural beast. Fae-cats had the strength of lions, the ferocity of tigers, the speed of cheetahs, the stealth of panthers. Each Shifter clan tended more toward one wildcat species than others, and Niall's family had always had much lion in it.

As that lion-like Fae-cat, Niall bounded down from the loft and out into dense fog that had rolled in from the sea.

Alanna wasn’t in the forge. He picked up her scent on the path that led to the gently sloping mountain above the village, toward the circle of standing stones that even the most unbelieving of the villagers liked to avoid.

Mists rolled between the stones when Niall reached them, smelling all wrong. Instead of the salt and fish scent carried by the heavy fog over the village, these mists exuded an acrid smell, overlaid with the sharp scent of mint.

An entrance to Faerie. Niall regarded it with foreboding before he realized that Alanna’s scent was quickly fading. His sons were in there, and now Alanna.

Without further thought, Niall leapt into the mists between two of the stones and heard something snick closed behind him.

Chapter Six

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