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"Your Highness, the time has come."
He knew it. Heard the wails for what seemed like days now, the resonance ringing in his ears. Not even here, in his private solar, was he free from the cries that seemed to haunt his court. Another howl, worse than the keening of a banshee, echoed through the castle, whispering through his blood and settling deep within his black soul.
The curse was upon them.
Niall, king of the Unseelie Court, son of Duir and the most powerful of the Dark Fey, stood before the enormous hearth with legs braced wide and hands clasped behind his back. Unblinking, he watched the orange flames engulf a blackened oak log, sending sparks sizzling up the flue and into the chamber. Another female scream rent the air; its chilling sound found its way once more inside him as he fought to show no outward emotion.
"Who is the maid who struggles to bring her child into the world?"
"Gertrude, female of Irian."
Niall shut his eyes against the pain of knowing his cousin would suffer this night. Irian, despite his Elvish blood, or perhaps because of it, was his best warrior at court. It did not matter to Niall that his cousin was a Halfling Fey. Irian was loyal and trustworthy, and like a brother to him. More than the blood brother whom Niall had shared a womb with. Irian's mixed blood had never been of consequence to Niall, until now.
"It was a mistake to allow him within the inner sanctum," the seer of the fey growled. "He has incurred the Mother Creator's wrath, and now we shall all suffer."
Niall held himself still, breathing deep, willing his anger to tether. "It is not the Mother Creator who has cursed us, Gwynad, but my mother."
He heard the seer growl behind him. The tip of the old man's yew staff slammed against the gold tiles, but Niall ignored Gwynad's theatricsno one cowed him, especially this wizened old mage.
"How did the female come to be at our court?" he asked, grasping at anything at all that might tell him she and her babe would be spared from his mother's hatred and the curse that shrouded his court.
Gwynad sighed and rustled forward, his velvet robe whispering against the floor. "The girl was a servant. Irian purchased her from a mortal. Thirty pieces of silver, and a blessing on the mortal's child."
"It seems an even transaction," he grumbled, despite the growing unease in his belly. The womanGertrudehad not cried out in the last few minutes.
Gwynad pressed closer, his voice a hushed whisper. "She did not want to come to the Unseelie Court despite Irian's assurance she would be treated like a princess. She tried to persuade the mortal to take her back, but then Irian and his crazed Elvish blood took over and he stole her, carrying her here as though he were god of the underworld and her an innocent maid.
"She was not willing, nor has she softened," Gwynad hissed, reminding Niall, not so subtly, of the curse his mother had placed on his court.
Irian loved the mortal. Niall knew that. But he also knew that Gertrude had never grown to love Irian. They were doomed, as was their babe. As was the Unseelie Court.
Suddenly the door to the solar was thrown wide, the thick oak ratcheting off the wall. Behind him, Niall heard the enraged breathing, smelled the scent of sorrow mixed with the sweet smell of death.
Two words filled with gut-wrenching agony. Niall closed his eyes against it, steeling himself in opposition to the pain he heard in Irian's voice.
"Damn you, she's gone!"
Slowly Niall turned, bracing himself for what he would face. Draped over Irian's arms was Gertrude, limp and palelifeless. She was dressed in a white gown, from the waist down the snowy fabric was coated red. His lover's lifeblood dripped onto Irian's boots and puddled between his feet.
"She will be afforded a fey burial as though she were your wife, Irian. As you are a prince of the Dark Fey, she would have been your princess. She will be buried as such."
Niall looked up into the anguished face of his brother of the heart, willing Irian to look at him, but the warrior was consumed now, and the only thing Irian saw was his dead mate lying in his arms.
"What of the babe?" demanded Gwynad.
Irian growled, took a menacing step toward the seer, but caught Niall's eyes and steadied his raging blood.
"It is a boy. He's alive. I do not know for how much longer. The mortal midwife says he has been born too early."
"Gwynad," Niall commanded, "fetch a woman to feed the child."
The old man looked at him as though he were mad. "We have not had a child born to this court in years, Your Highness. There is no milk to be had from our women."
"Then you have my permission to steal a wet nurse from the mortal realm."
"And bring more disaster down upon us?" the seer thundered. "Your Highness, I beg you. There can be no more stealing from the mortals. Our court is dying! We must find a way to break your mother's spell"
"And what do you think I have been doing since I claimed the throne?" Niall roared in frustration. "Sitting on my arse, having a merry party? Is that what you think I do in here all damn day?"
The seer bowed and took a step back. "I know you have been searching for a way"
"Enough!" Niall barked. "Gwynad, you will order two servants to take milk from the cow Farmer Douglas leaves out in the pasture for us to avail ourselves. I gifted him and his wife with a child through my magic. The cow is a tithe. Go now." He turned his gaze to Irian. "Let us bury her in our way, my friend."
A sob escaped Irian as he looked down into his dead lover's face. "She didn't want that, to stay here with me and our court. She begged me, Niall, as she saw her impending death, to free her. I promised her I would."
Swallowing hard, Niall watched Irian sink to his knees, weeping over Gertrude's lifeless body. Not for the first time, Niall cursed his mother, the queen of the Seelie Court, for the spell she had cast. He cursed his father for allowing decades to go by without bothering to search for a way to lift the spell. But most of all, he cursed the day his mother had taken his twin and left him at this court to watch his people dwindle and die.
"Irian," he murmured, resting his hand atop his cousin's shoulder. "We will avenge her death. I promise you that. I will find a way to break this curse. You will find another woman, Irianyou will. And she will want you and desire you as fiercely as you desire her."
Irian looked up at him, his black eyes glowing like onyx through a veil of anguish. "We are all cursed, Niall. The court is dying. Despite the riches we have and the bounty of food in our trenchers and the comforts of our chambers, we are cursed. We have every material thing a fey could desire except the love of a woman and children to see to the survival of our race."
"I will break this damnable curse, Irian. I will do whatever it takes. I vow that."
Irian's face twisted from sorrow to anger. "Who will want us, Niall," he sneered, "when we are condemned by sin?"
Standing in his father's bedchamber, Niall pushed aside the cobwebs that had grown in the years since Duir's death. Inside this room, the secret to lifting the curse was hidden, Niall felt sure of it.
A shiver of abhorrence slithered along his spine as he looked around the untouched chamber. The room was cold and oppressive, like the man who had once occupied it. Despite its warm jewel-colored bed hangings and lavish pillows in velvets and silk, the bed, indeed, the entire room, felt like a tomb. This room had also born witness to the rape of the Seelie queen, as well as the conception of him and his brother and their subsequent births. These walls had witnessed the night his mother had fled the Unseelie Court, taking with her his twin who was the image of her Seelie self, leaving him, the image of his father, to grow up in the care of a man who became nothing short of a raving madman.
In this room was the tainted past, and hidden amongst its dark secrets was the way to end the curse.
He glanced at the massive bed, its ivory sheets twisted and trailing to the floor, and saw the image of the king, dying. Leaving Niall to rule over a court that had no hope. A court tainted by the sins of his father.
As if whispered through the threadbare bed curtains, he heard the curse murmuring around him, a reminder of what he already knewthe legacy of his mother's wrath. They might as well have been inked onto his skin, for those words and her spell were embedded into every facet of his being.
His mother. He looked to the portrait that hung above his father's bed. Aine was silver haired and violet eyed he had her eyes. She was from the court of sunlight and gaiety, and his father, from the court of night and carnal sin. Duir's was a world of dark beauty and erotic sensuality, and his mother had been repulsed by it. His father hadn't cared. His lust was too strong, so he had stolen her from her bed while she slept and forced her to accept him. His father, in his misguided Unseelie ignorance believed that he could make her love him through sex.
But his mother had never softened. Just as Gertrude had never softened with Irian.
Aine's hatred and vengeance was complete against the dark court. No mortal or immortal could be brought to the court against their will and made to love a fey. They had to come of their own volition. They had to give their body and soul willingly. And it was for certain that no female would want him, or the other Dark Fey, once they discovered who they really were. Beyond their faery beauty lay the sins of the world. Lust, vanity, envy, gluttony all seven consumed in each fey prince. Wrath was Niall's sin, and tonight it was simmering beneath his flesh. He wanted revengebloody and mercilessagainst his mother, his twin and the entire Seelie Court.
"Tell me how," he whispered hoarsely. "How do I make this right?" He hoped the spirits, either malicious or benign, who haunted this chamber would hear him. "Tell me how to lift this bloody curse and save my court from this black spot."
A whisper, barely audible, brushed past him. Movement near the bookshelf caught his attention. The fluttering of vellum edged in gold leaf flittered to the floor, making him press closer. By magic, the image of words in the ancient fey tongue appeared before his eyes, giving him hope for the first time since he had assumed the throne of the Unseelie.
Some by sin rise, and some by virtue fall
Glastonbury, Somerset, England 1789, the Eve of Beltane
The tor rose above the village like a megalithic warrior, glinting in the sunlight. Atop the mysterious mound, like a stone needle penetrating the clouds, towered the remnants of St. Michael's Church. For centuries the villagers had said that Arthur and Guinevere were buried there. But others believed most steadfastly that the faery folk dwelt deep beneath the rippling green grass that resembled layers of plush velvet. It was said that underneath the grass, beneath the tor itself, lay a labyrinth of winding cryptsthe magical path to the Faery.
On certain nights of the year, like tonight, the Eve of Beltane, the veil between the immortal and the mortal realm was thinned and the fey and all their beauty and magic walked unknowingly amongst man. But Beltane was not until twilight. Hours away, yet. They were free from the faeries. At least for now.
Casting an admiring glance at the mysterious and striking tor, Chastity, of all people, knew to believe in the tales of the Daoine Side. The Faery People.
Drawn to the tor as she was, Chastity gripped the handle of her wicker basket tighter in her gloved hands, as if grounding herself against the luring beauty that tried to bewitch her. The tor, it was believed, was the site of the Unseelie Courtthe unholy court of the fey. Dark faeries, the Unseelie were. Enigmatically erotic, haunting, beautiful fey that corrupted a soul with all the unearthly, sinful pleasures that any human could ever desire. The Dark Fey and their wicked enchantments were everything that Chastity stood against. The deep-seated virtue within her balked at everything they were: lustful, tempting creatures who stole virgins away from their beds and ravished them.
She should not be intrigued by the tor, or the tempting idea of a magical netherworld that was the Unseelie Court. She should be repulsed. Terrified for her mortal soul. Yet the only time she ever felt the slightest bit of tingling in her woman's body occurred when her gaze lingered upon the sacred mound. Even now, as she strolled down the high street of Glastonbury with her sisters, her gaze was fixed on the tor. There was the faintest tingling in her body. She felt a touch warm, her thighs quivered slightly. Only the tor and the thought of the Dark Fey made her feel this way. Perhaps she felt the prickling awareness because they represented danger.