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They found her on the mountain. It wasn't uncommon for Orla to visit it. After all, it was the burial site of her ancestress, the first Mab, greatest queen in the history of faerie. Here that lady's cairn rose fifty feet off the bald rock summit at the edge of the sea. Here the world she had ruled lay spread out before her like a vast emerald-and-sapphire blanket.
Orla loved the view. Ireland's curious patchwork green stretched across the gentle valleys, and mountains crowned with the cairns of other ancestors rose to claim much of the horizon. The ocean commanded the rest.
The sun was setting, raining silver upon the roiling pewter waves. A band of thick, dark clouds had begun to climb the distant mountains, and the wind was rising. Another storm was coming, and Orla would greet it from this place of greatest power and danger. She wished to challenge it at its most primal. She yearned to wash herself in it and cleanse away the sins that had brought her here.
Nothing could do that, though. The funeral pyres had been lit the night before. She would never be able to reclaim the voices silenced because of her impatience.
"Lady," a voice said from behind her.
She ignored it as long as she could. The wind had risen, and it battered at her face and clothing, cold fingers of accusation flaying her. Thunder rumbled and cracked, and lightning forked among the thunderheads that writhed over the northern horizon. She was so taken up in it that she'd failed to hear anyone approach.
"Your pardon, my princess," the voice spoke again, a voice she knew well, "but it is the queen."
Orla turned to see her personal guard, Declan, standing behind her. A tall, proud elvenprince, Declan had been sworn to the queen's service and acquitted himself well in the recent battle with the Dubhlainn Sidhe. If Orla had been the fairy she'd been only days ago, she would have liked nothing better than to pull him down onto this bare, rocky earth and wear him out with a bit of gymnastic sex. Nothing scratched the itch of moral discomfort like the blank surprise in a man's eyes as she gifted him with his climax.
But nothing was the same as it had been only days ago.
"Ah, Declan," she said, looking back to where the last of the blue sky was being swallowed by the storm. "I don't suppose herself would be in a mood to wait, would she? I'm thinking this is going to be a storm worthy of tale-telling."
For a great, braw elf, Declan had an amusing reticence around lightning. "She didn't have the sound of a patient woman about her, lady," he said with a wary eye northward. "She sent the seer along with me. He waits below."
Orla nodded and pulled a strand of wind-whipped hair from her mouth. She wouldn't even have enough time for the rain. Ah, well, so be it. She owed her mother her attention.
"Have the pyres been cleared, then?" she asked, as if it made no difference.
"Aye, lady. The ashes of the honored dead have been collected for interment at Imbolc."
Burial in the earth in the dead of winter. It made Orla shiver. Given her druthers, sure wouldn't she rather be put down just as the new sun rose to promise the spring? Even if she weren't there with the ashes, but in the land of the west, as promised. The earth was just too cold and dark a place for any bit of a person to inhabit for long.
"Grand, Declan. Just grand." Finally despairing of the rain she'd so hoped for, Orla turned her feet down the mountain. "Well, then, we wouldn't want to keep the queen waiting now, would we?"
"Nay, lady." Even Declan knew better than to cause the queen any disturbance at all. "We wouldn't that."
Odd, Orla thought when she stepped into the imperial meadow that held the queen's throne, a great, gnarled oak that had bent itself to its primary purpose. Her mother didn't look impatient at all. She looked smug.
Orla's steps faltered a bit at the realization. She stopped several feet from where Mab sat her oak throne in icy dignity, the throngs of faerie gathered around her. Fairies of all kinds populated the glen: trooping fairies in their somber gray; sprites tucked up in the leaves of the trees; brownies and flower fairies and gnomes, clustered like stands of wild iris in the soft grass.
Orla considered their number and found her steps slowing even further. It was time, then. Her mother was about to deliver her sentence. In all her fairy years, Orla had never known real fear. Not until recently, anyway. Not until she'd let her heart rule her head.
She felt fear now, sure. She trembled with it. If Mab thought she'd found a punishment greater than the taking of Orla's gifts from her, then it must be dire. It must be everything Orla deserved.
"Ah, then, you've been found, little girl," Mab greeted her in a fearsomely mild tone.
All among the ranks of faerie turned their faces toward Orla, and each face reflected her own fear. All knew the meaning when Mab's voice grew quiet.
Suddenly Orla missed her sisters, and who would have thought it? But if she had to have the truth on her, she had to admit that no matter her indiscretions, her sisters had always stood at her side. And it was her fault they didn't this day. Goddess, she hadn't even said a proper goodbye to them, either Nuala or Sorcha. And here she stood, alone for the first time in her life.
"I have, my queen," she said, and forced herself to walk closer. As surreptitiously as possiblefor it never served to betray weakness to the queenOrla drew a shaky breath and went down on a knee before the great queen of the Tuatha de Dannan, mightiest clan of the world of faerie. "I await your pleasure."
"My pleasure, Orla?" the queen echoed, tilting her elegant head to the side. "Do you indeed?"
Orla raised her head to face her mother. Groveling earned nothing but disdain from the great Mab, and Orla wouldn't abide her mother's disdain, even if it was all she had left of her. "I do, my queen."
"I have already taken from you your position as leannan sidhe, now, isn't that correct? You no longer hold the power to ensorcel mortal men. Is that punishment enough, do you think, for the crime of treason?"
It was obvious her mother didn't think so. A mistake, she wanted to cry and bury her face in her mother's lap. It was a stupid mistake. She should have known, though, that even for a good cause, a bad idea came back to haunt you. The good idea had been to make her mother see that the heir she'd picked was unsuitable. The bad act had been inviting the enemy into her world to help demonstrate that fact. Instead, he'd stolen the Coilin Stone.
Orla tried to stem her panic at the thought of how much she missed her power rings, for hadn't her mother already stripped her of them? Citrine and smoky quartz, the colors of mystery, of primal urge, of the magic that made mortal men her sexual slaves. The stones of the leannan sidhe.
Now her fingers were bare, and it shamed her. Now she looked to a man and no longer remembered how to bring him to his knees. It frightened her, for what else was there for her?
"It is not my opinion that matters, lady," she said. "I will pay whatever price you ask. It is my fault, and my punishment to bear."
The storm clouds fingered the near mountains and sent a wash of wind before them to lift the banner of Mab's moon-hued hair. Her pale, ivory skin seemed to glow from within, and her spring-green eyes smiled at her daughter without humor. Raising a languid hand, she motioned Orla to her feet.
"Sure, we're all glad you know that, little girl. I'm sure it would have made your sisters' exiles easier to have heard it before they left. It would have sent the dead more peacefully to their graves, now, wouldn't it?"
Orla refused to look away, even as she writhed inside at her mother's denunciation. "I imagine it would, lady. I'm afraid I was never given the chance to say so till now."
Orla thought for sure that Mab would punish her for her words. Capricious Mab did nothing more than smile. "Indeed. But we've all had a battle to clean up after, then, haven't we? And your sister Sorcha to be sent on her quest."
Orla nodded as regally as her mother. "Indeed."
"Seer," the queen called without breaking eye contact with her daughter. "Will you tell this daughter of mine what is at stake because of her small rebellion?"
Orla almost groaned. Sure, no one could twist the knife like her lady mother.
The boy Kieran stepped forward, an odd, grave frown on his bright face. "I caution you, lady"
The queen swung on him. "Is it a new seer you're wishin' me to get, young Kieran?"
The boy gave her a resigned smile. "You cannot, my queen. It is our dual lot to share this time."
"Then I'd be obliged if you'd make it as easy as possible."
Orla watched the two of them share some private communication. In the end, though, the boy shrugged. She thought sure he muttered something under his breath about being glad to get back home. Leave it to her mother, then, to be given a seer who was as human as he was fairy. No other seer Orla knew of had to get back across the veil so he didn't miss basketball practice.
"There are three great stones," he intoned, his eyes closed, his copper hair gleaming like burnished metal in the watery light. "Donelle, ruler of them all, who lives in the Land of the West. Coilin the Virile, who balances the matriarchal Tuatha clan with his presence in their crown. And Dearann the Fruitful, she who gentles the patriarchal Dubhlainn Sidhe."
And what happened to the Lady Dearann? Orla intoned in her head, too tired of the story to give it the reverence it was due.
"But grievous to the heart of faerie," the little boy went on, as if answering, "Dearann was lost these many years past to the world of mortals."
"And who goes to find it?" the queen asked, as if Orla didn't know or feel guilty enough about it.
"The Royal Princess Sorcha."
"And what of the great Coilin Stone, seer?"
Kieran shot Orla a look, and she swore he looked as if he pitied her. She pulled herself to attention. She loathed pity.
"The Tuatha grew powerful with their Coilin Stone, leaving the Dubhlainn Sidhe resentful and dark for want of power or a female influence. In desperation, the Dubhlainn Sidhe have stolen the Coilin Stone."
"Ah," the queen said, as if hearing the story for the first time. "And what will happen if this great stone stays with the Faerie of the Dark Sword?"
Another look, another blast of pity. "All life will fail."
The queen said nothing. She simply lifted her hand to the great ancient oak in whose lowest branch she was poised. And as Orla knew they would, every eye followed to see what Orla hadn't yet. She gasped.
The leaves were falling.
The tree was dying.
Orla had never been one to wallow in the old lore. That had been her sister Sorcha's role. But Orla recognized this sign of disaster and, as her mother had wanted, was stricken by the sharp edge of grief.
"All life will fail," Mab repeated, in case anyone in the glen had missed the seer's meaning. "What must we do, seer?"
"What has the queen declared?"
"The Dearann Stone must be recovered and given to the Dubhlainn Sidhe. The Coilin Stone must be returned to the Tuatha to restore balance."
"And in the meantime? To keep the Dubhlainn quiet?"
Kieran looked as if he were suffering actual physical pain. Orla held her breath. The only sound in the glen was the rumble of distant thunder over Maeve's Cairn.
"A gift, your majesty."
"A gift, is it?" she echoed. "And what kind of gift are you thinking?"
Kieran gave Orla such a look of pain that she knew, even before he said it. She braced herself all the same. "A daughter," he said, his voice hushed.
The glen erupted in noise. Wings battered the unsettled air. Voices tangled, inchoate cries of distress. Orla might not be the favorite of Mab's daughters, but she was a royal princess. To send her to the enemy !
Orla met her mother's gaze. She trembled, and wondered if her mother knew. She hoped not. She refused to quail before this edict. Before the end of her world as she knew it.
The Dubhlainn Sidhe were monsters, destroyers of dreams and dealers in darkness. They stole souls and ate hope. And her mother was delivering her up to them.
For just a moment Orla remembered the only Dubhlainn Sidhe she'd ever met. The one she'd let inside her mother's realm without anticipating his perfidy. He'd ridden a fire-eyed horse, black as death, galloping over the waves on the darkest of nights, his horse black, his attire black, his hair black, his eyes bottomless pools of night. A shiver ran through her at the memory.
He'd terrified her. He'd mesmerized her.
He'd betrayed her.
She wanted nothing to do with him or his people.
"What will you, my lady?" she asked her mother.
When her mother told her, she reeled back as if she'd been struck. "You want me to what?"
They found him on the mountain. Liam had gone there, as had been his custom since the day of the great battle, to pay honor to the valiant dead, to the memory of his friends, to the ghost of lost possibilities.
He went to assuage his guilt.
And now they had come for him, and they had a way for him to do just that.
"I am honored by your concern for me, my king," he said with a low bow to his uncle, Cathal, the king of the Dubhlainn Sidhe, when he reached him in the fairy glen. "How may I best serve you?"
His uncle was an austere man, for all that he was the lord of the Dubhlainn Sidhe. Tall and dignified, he wore colors that were muted, and a crown that was a simple circle of bronze. He had not worn the high crown since its great stone, the female force Dearann, had been lost years upon years before Liam's birth.